The Bear Mountain couloir above Mirror Lake is the most improbable skiing near town. It slices through what is otherwise an alder-choked hillside, in a part of the Western Chugach that undulates gently compared with other vertiginous parts of the range. Finally, with nearly 3,000 feet of vertical, this is one of the longest couloirs one can ski within a half-hour drive from town, without any significant approach. It should absolutely be on the short list for after work and short day skis for local backcountry travelers.
Access to the couloir is fairly simple. From Anchorage, take the Mirror Lake exit, then turn left onto the Old Glenn Highway. Take the first right turn at the sign for Gorsuch Boy Scout Camp (Camp Gorsuch Road). Take your next left onto another camp road, drive a couple more minutes, and park at the first (small) trailhead on the left. This trailhead is located where the Raven’s Way trail crosses the road.
From the trailhead, cross the road, following Raven’s Way trail away from Edmonds Lake, generally west and back towards town. The trail is quite flat, and an easy skin. After about five minutes, you will see a picnic area that’s part of the camp, and you can probably see the couloir towering above you, through the trees, on your left. At this point, head uphill, aiming for the couloir. The mountainside gradually steepens toward the chute, and you’ll have fifteen to twenty minutes of mildly unpleasant navigation through devil’s club stalks and trees. Enter the chute at or slightly below the point it becomes incised, where brush dissipates. From here, it’s approximately 2,500 feet of bootpacking up the chute to the Bear Mountain ridgeline.
Since the couloir is fairly incised and faces northwest, it is not sun-affected until quite late in the year, and may harbor powder longer than other slopes nearby, even when winds have ripped across the mountains. The couloir is not particularly steep at 35-40 degrees, so it is a fairly easy climb as long as the snow is neither deep nor icy. The narrowest, deepest portion of the couloir is about halfway up the mountain, and as you approach the top the walls taper off and the chute broadens to a rocky bowl and then a small tundra bowl at the top. This small bowl at the top seems like the only area where triggering an avalanche could be likely, and would result in likely death if the slide carried anyone pinballing down through the couloir walls below. If you’re concerned about the upper bowl’s stability, there is a small fork in the couloir at the top of the incised portion where you could transition to skis rather than climb the top 300 feet or so to the ridge. The chute tops out on the pancake-like Bear Mountain, which is really just a shoulder of nearby Eklutna Peak. Regardless--in the absence of wind, Bear Mountain is a delightful place to contemplate 360 degree views of mountains, from the Alaska Range to Talkeetnas to the Chugach.
Despite the couloir’s narrow width--little more than 200 cm in places--its relatively gentle angle means most experienced skiers can make turns the whole way down, with side-slipping only being necessary at a couple choke points. Since this particular chute slices through a relatively low-elevation mountainside, unlike most other couloirs it is surrounded by trees and alders, and even has an occasional bush growing in it. Think of it as a warm and fuzzy alternative to more distant alpine descents.
With a roughly half hour approach, nearly 3,000 feet of climbing, and relatively slow, tight, skiing, plan on taking about four hours to ski the Bear Mountain chute. With the exception of a couple chutes that drop down to Turnagain Arm, it is the longest easily accessible couloir that is near Anchorage and has minimal approach. Chuck it out this spring or put it on the list for next year.