Skiing the Grand Daddy Couloir

The Grand Daddy Couloir on Bow Peak in Banff National Park is a line I’ve been staring at for as long as i’ve been driving up and down the Icefields Parkway. Dozens of ski trips have had me staring across the highway at this thing, and every time it has called me to come and ski it. It’s been partially the intimidation factor that has kept me from giving it an attempt, but also having the right partners to do it with. Over the past year or two, i’ve been spending quite a few days out with Shane H. & Brandon H. for climbing and shorter day ski trips, and they turned out to be the perfect duo to go make an attempt with.

The grand daddy couloir from Dolomite Shoulder on the icefields parkway
The Grand daddy from across the highway on top of Dolomite Shoulder
Starting up the fan on the Grand daddy Couloir
Ascending the fan below the Grand Daddy Couloir

The Grand daddy is a classic Rockies line. It is often a stepping stone to tick off before graduating to even bigger terrain. It is big, serious, steep and awe-inspiring. More than a few people have taken a ride to the bottom with serious consequences, so a dose of caution is absolutely critical. There is also often a very large cornice overhanging the top of the line that threatens the whole route. It’s good to start early on this one, and get down before things start to heat up, particularly in spring.

That said, with good conditions and a bit of luck, it certainly deserves it’s classic status, and it is definitely a worthy intro to bigger mountain terrain.

Access & Beta

Access to the Grand Daddy is via the Mosquito Creek Parking lot. Be aware the lot is often unplowed, so 4-wheel drive is typically a really good idea. Leave the parking lot heading straight west towards the couloir. There’s usually a nice skin track as the “mosquito trees” area below typically offers some great ski touring all on it’s own if you get turned back from the couloir proper.

Once you break out of the trees (~1 hour) You should be right at the base of the fan. Pick the safest line up to the central pillar of the couloir, which is typically where most people put the skis into the backpack and start boot packing.

Follow the safest and most sheltered line up the couloir, avoiding being directly in the fall line if possible in case of small sluffs or other debris falling in from above.

Be extremely wary of things “moving”, excessive wind-loading, or rapid warming. Start early on this one, get out early.

Most people will stop below the upper choke about ~50-75m from the cornice, as things start to get very real at that point. It gets very steep, narrow, and often shallow at this point, and isn’t recommended unless conditions are absolutely bomber, and you are confident in your abilities. Falling from any point is serious, but falling above the upper pillar would likely be fatal.

Detailed view of the Grand Daddy Couloir in Banff National Park
Detailed View of the Grand Dady Couloir. The choke clearly visible near the top of the Couloir.
Starting the bootpack at the tower on the Grand daddy Couloir
Starting the boot pack at the iconic lower tower of the Grand daddy Couloir

2019 Trip Report

Our first attempt was 3 weeks prior to our successful bid. The weather called for a big polar vortex storm front to move into the area over the course of the weekend. However, the storm moved in earlier than we all anticipated. Still optimistic, Shane, Brandon and I dragged ourselves up out of bed at 5:00am, drove 1.5 hours in the snow, and hoofed it up to near the top of the fan before constant sluffing, tons of snow, and high winds caused us to ditch our plans in favor of another day.

I didn’t think we would get another chance so soon, but sure enough on February 16, 2019 the stars aligned for another shot. A bit of patience ended up paying off big time. A long period of stable cold temps and low avalanche hazard set up probably our best chance at getting up there in good conditions before spring warming made the cornices too much of a threat.

Again we got up at 5:00am, drove 1.5 hours, but this time we were rewarded with a relatively mild -15C and almost zero wind. Despite the cold temps, the snow had some moisture, and things were shaping up to be nearly perfect. 45 minutes after leaving the car, we broke out of the trees and were greeted with a gentle skin track and near-perfect snow conditions on the fan.

Bootpacking the Grand daddy Couloir
Bootpacking the upper Grand daddy Couloir

Once in the couloir, we found the boot packing conditions to be mostly excellent. Just enough boot penetration to reduce the pucker factor while climbing, but not so soft that our steps collapsed. We made great time, and only an hour from the pillar (3 hours total from the car) we topped out. There was a fair bit of minor spindrift and a few small snow chunks tumbling down from the right wall, we had no issues otherwise.

Our high point ended up being most of the way up the choke/crux, but some exposed rocks and too-frustrating snow conditions caused us to dig in, click in, and take it to the bottom.

Scoping out the grand daddy couloir before dropping in
Digging in to the top of the Grand daddy Couloir to transition before the descent.
The doc ready to drop
Brandon ripping the mid section of the Grand daddy Couloir
Brandon Shredding the middle section where it starts to mellow out.

The skiing itself was awesome, super tiring, and a little intimidating getting start. A bit of sluffing helped it feel a bit real, but overall conditions were probably as good as it gets! The ski down the fan in particular was absolutely perfect.

We were all pretty stoked to tick this one off. The Grand daddy is an absolute beast of a line, one of the most inspiring things i’ve done in the Rockies. Without a doubt, it deserves it’s reputation as a quintessential Canadian Rockies Classic.

For more detailed information on this tour, and other nearby options, be sure to pick up Marcus Baranow’s Guidebook: “The Icefields Parkway: Lake Louise to Bow Summit” which features this line, as well as the nearby Gutentight couloir next door.

Grand Daddy Couloir Disclaimer

As with all big Canadian Rockies objectives, The Grand Daddy is a serious undertaking. The entire line is subject to a high level of objective hazard. There are large snowfields overhanging the route on all sides, which can sluff unexpectedly and sweep out the entire route (and anyone unlucky enough to be in it at the time. There is also constant rock fall hazard, sluff, and often huge cornices overhanging the route late into the season.

It is always important to check to get the latest avi forecast. However, an objective like this requires a much deeper understanding of the current snowpack and understanding how to minimize the unavoidable objective danger you will expose yourself to by attempting this line. Having a solid understanding of the general long term trends in the Rockies throughout the season will be a major asset.

Do not attempt this objective without the pre-requisite experience and skill. The upper section of this line would possibly result in death if you fall, or if it slid at any point.

This couloir is the location of multiple serious accidents every year. Don’t be one of them.

Brandon Shredding the Grand daddy Couloir
Dropping into the the Grand Daddy Couloir
Shane mid-run on the Grand Daddy Couloir
Shane partway down the first pitch
The bottom of the Grand daddy Couloir
The Bottom of the Grand daddy Couloir
Stoked team
Brandon skiing the fan on our failed attempt a few weeks prior
Skiing the fan of the Grand daddy Couloir
Skiing up the fan of the Grand daddy Couloir