Avoid or try? Skiing the Terminal Cancer couloir, Nevada backcountry
Terminal Cancer is some freak-of-nature sort of couloir: perfectly straight, lined by tall rock walls and consistent in pitch.
I know that similar lines exist around the world, but their beauty and rarity amaze me. It’s as if mother earth decided to floss her teeth of mountains and accidentally cut her gums a little too deep.
Finding dreamy ski lines isn’t the easy part, regardless of what all of your friends drooling over Couloir X and Y Face and Mount Z tell you. But when you find the apple of your eye, approach it with a steady willingness to accept whatever it may offer. And make sure you bring partners who are on the same page.
My friend Alex [Taran] called and asked if I would ski Terminal Cancer with her the next day. I told her that was, strangely, already my plan. I met her and our friend Caroline [Gleich] at a Nevada trailhead at 10pm and christened my new-to-me car by laying down the backseat and plopping a sleeping bag in its place. Alex slept in her trunk and Caroline pitched a tent nearby. Asleep to stars, awake to five inches of new spring snow.
The approach is quite straightforward. You find the tiny slash in the mountain’s vast face, skin to its base, and put your skis on your back. The rest is a stair-stepper, constantly exposed to the objective hazards inherent in a snow couloir with walls of crumbly rock. Regardless of your attraction to its beauty, the faster you’re up, down, and away from the couloir, the safer you are.
The wind-scoured top featured gravel and a shallow dusting of snow—the stuff (my) dreams are made of. The rest of the couloir was boot-deep powder with a perfectly manageable slough. Early morning sunshine illuminated the right half and the blue sky kept spirits high during an outing that lasted only two hours, car-to-car.
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Under these conditions, Terminal Cancer is not a technically difficult nor scary line. The avalanche danger is very real, as is the popularity. It is not awesomely steep, it is awesomely narrow, and snow conditions don’t really dictate how you descend. Largely, there are only two speeds to ski it: slow and a little faster than slow. The width only allows for one other speed, and it really isn’t even an option for mortals.
You’re probably a ripping skier. Perhaps you’ve never skied in a narrow and sustained couloir—most people haven’t. They’re hard to find, never in resort boundaries, and always dangerous. This kind of line requires you to tone down the aggression, notch up the care, and maintain a level of awareness and humility found in conscious backcountry skiers. Instead of scoping double-stagers and slashing walls, you’re considering escape options and filtering through streaming snowpack information. It isn’t unreasonable to toss in a jump-turn or 70, and no one will hassle a side-stepper. Turning around before the top is as common as reaching it, and pride is delayed until you’re sitting at home talking about the reality of your outing.
Terminal Cancer’s reputation precedes it, yet somehow neither adds nor steals anything from the experience. Photos show the narrowness, numbers describe the pitch, and videos illustrate the descent. But stories don’t take you to dreamy lines. Your feet do. Your brain is what gets you home.