Nine Arctic Couloirs: A Chuting Gallery from 78° North

Last May, Ice Axe Expeditions traveled to the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, just 600 miles below the North Pole. There, in one of the most far-off places in the world to ski, I co-guided two groups under 24 hours of continuous daylight, accessing terrain by sailboat and Zodiac. Along with skiing a remote corner of the globe comes the opportunity to pioneer first ascents and descents, and the terrain in Svalbard is a global epicenter for couloir skiing. Here are nine couloirs that represent the uniqueness of getting walled in above the Arctic Circle.

With Rifle in Tow. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

With Rifle in Tow. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse.

As a co-guide for this Ice Axe Expeditions trip, I worked alongside world-class ski guide Andrew Eisenstark, seen here skiing with rifle in tow in case of a polar-bear encounter. Andrew took full advantage of the opportunity to lay first tracks down this line. One of us had to do it, and Andrew made it look easy.

First Up and First Down. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

First Up and First Down. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

During our first week in Svalbard, I had the chance to explore a few of the more technical lines available to our client group with Jon Arlien and Alex Do. On this line, the couloir pitched dramatically near the top, and the steepest section was visibly windloaded. So, to mitigate the hazard, Jon skied first while on belay and washed the slab downslope, leaving a powdery masterpiece for the rest of us to enjoy back to the ocean’s edge.

In The “Y.” [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

In The “Y.” [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

On the second leg of the expedition, Andrew and I were joined by an all-star crew of pros skiers and guides. Brain Warren was one such star. On this day of chasing first ascents and first descents, Brain and I had the fortune to ski as a duo while the rest of the crew ticked of other firsts in the vicinity. Temperatures were rising at an uncomfortable pace, but Brian kept his everyday cool in the “Y” couloir.

Climbing the Lonely Heart. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

Climbing the Lonely Heart. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

With the Arctica II sailing back and forth while our crews explored, pro skier and musician Matt Reardon took his time carefully setting his crampons and ice axe into the frozen walls of one of the most striking lines I’ve ever laid eyes on. Climbing this never-before-touched line was almost as fun as skiing it.

The Hop-Turn Technician. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

The Hop-Turn Technician. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

Brian Warren is a ski guide who can take you to the tops of the raddest peaks in the Tetons or the biggest Himalayan peaks. He’s an interesting guy, but his perfect jump-turn technique stands out most when he’s picking his way down a complex and technical first descent to the ocean like this one.

T.O. Sending. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

T.O. Sending. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

Another line with the Arctica II in sight, another first ascent, another first descent. Climber, skier, TV host, comedian, retired body builder (no, that’s not a typo), father and all-around badass, Todd Offenbacher lays into this couloir with immaculate precision.

A Silver Lining. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

A Silver Lining. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

The exploration that went on during our second leg of the Arctic ski journey last spring was almost too good to be true. This couloir was a thin, snaking line that appeared to choke out near the top. Thankfully, it didn’t, and I got to share the sweet descent with Todd Offenbacher, Matt Reardon and Sam Smoothy.

The OG Ocean Couloir . [Photo] Todd Offenbacher

The OG Ocean Couloir . [Photo] Todd Offenbacher

The area where we spent most of our time exploring during the expedition had a ceaselessly amazing aesthetic. Todd took this shot of me letting gravity do its thing, pulling me down an ever-narrowing couloir where the ocean got closer and closer with each turn. It’s a place and a line I’ll never forget.

The One. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

The One. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

If getting barreled is one of the best, most alive moments you feel as a surfer, getting walled in—especially in a previously unskied couloir like this one—is the equivalent for a ski mountaineer. Seeing this line for the first time, then climbing and skiing it, will forever be a standout moment for me. But on a trip like this one, it’s inevitable to experience more than one best moments of your life.

 

For more information on skiing in Svalbard and other adventures with Ice Axe Expeditions, visit iceaxe.tv.

Comments

  1. inspiring

  2. Nice stuff! It’s an exelent place, make sure you also se the clip from when jermy jones and terje håkonsen is rippin it,

  3. I know Alex well, he was suuuuper stoked talking about this trip when he came up to do adams with me this summer. sick trip!

  4. Me me me, it’s all about me! First First first, I got there first!
    How about we just enjoy the beauty and wildness of the place rather than counting firsts?
    Norway is awesome. The skiing spectacular. Do I care that you guys got x-number of first ascents/descents? (As if reporting the ascent was necessary…) No, in fact i thought it detracted from the article 100%. This kind of attitude and reporting then leads to silly specifics such as: first female descent, first canadian descent, youngest descent. so what? please, get out, ski, climb, explore but leave the boasting of firsts behind. The conquistador mentality is long out dated.
    happy trails,
    ifmga marc

    • Thank you Marc. Leave it to another IFMG-whatever to detract from something he didnt do himself. I would put my practice on the line to say that if you were the lead on this we would all know it was pioneering expedition. Signed, a client that’s completely over the arrogance of ifmga guides

  5. Glad people dig the shots, what a trip! Marc, bummer you detracted yourself from the piece, but I can assure you colonization was not in play during our trip:) MD, while not everyone is perfect, iFMGA’s cant all be pegged by a few bad apples. Cheers to welcoming a new year of safe, fun adventure in the mountains!

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