Kurtz Was Here

Visiting and re-visiting a 'Chuting Gallery' classic: Utah's Heart of Darkness couloir


By Jim Harris

Ben Sukow throws a rappel line into the HOD couloir. Photo: Jim Harris

Ben Sukow throws a rappel line into the HOD couloir. Photo: Jim Harris

When my friends Lara and Noah first met they immediately hit it off. Lara mentioned she’d skied the Heart of Darkness couloir, and that really had Noah’s attention. “Yeah, I didn’t turn once,” she says. “You straightlined it!?!” Noah replies. “What?! No! I sideslipped the whole thing.”

One of the more striking little lines in the Wasatch, the Heart of Darkness is a backcountry chute that’s just wide enough to ski. Sometimes. With tall, reddish walls that don’t see much sun, the HOD feels like desert canyoneering, except it’s at nearly 11,000 feet. “Fun in a weird sort of way!” ski mountaineer Andrew McLean writes in his book, The Chuting Gallery. Indeed.

The first time we skied HOD this year was just days into December. It wasn’t even remotely filled in, but the route promised adventure. A 40-foot rappel led to a long downclimb before the chute flared wide enough to put skis on. I volunteered to pull the rope, which promptly snagged around a shark fin-sized flake (and so I ended up soloing up and down to retrieve it). Even once we put skis on, there were ice bulges and protruding rocks to contend with. Whatever. Even when it’s not really rideable, it’s still pretty cool.

Heck, in the best of conditions it’s still barely skiable. Tyler, Micah and I found ourselves looking into the Heart of Darkness nearly four months later. Snow filled all but the last eight feet of the chute, so this time the downclimb was easy, no rope needed. I clicked in and made awkward little hop turns until it was wide enough to open it up. The snow was soft and the chute was about as smooth sailing as it gets. Looking up from the bottom, we could see our tiny radius turns on top open up as the tight chute gave way to wider chute leading to the apron fan.

Several storms and four weeks after that, we wandered back to the top again. The rocky downclimb at the top remained; it had been scoured snow-free by winds that funnel up the chute and then spit out the keyhole on top. It was disappointing to find a windlip spine running down the chute. If it had been in the dead center, I might’ve been able to smear some turns on it, but it was off to one side. Also, the whole snowy bottom of the chute, spine and all, ramped double fall-line into one wall. So instead of linking snappy little turns, I sideslipped and hop-turned erratically as first tips, then tails, snagged the windlip. Where the chute opened to meet apron, we cut loose a wind slab avalanche, another consequence of a recent windy storm. Counterintuitively, the chute had gotten harder as it continued to fill in.

As much as I like exploring new places on skis, there’s something rewarding about watching a favorite line metamorphosize over the season. And the thrilling uncertainty of skiing new places isn’t too different from the unpredictability of skiing a familiar place in strange conditions… you know, in a weird sort of way.