One of the biggest ways to stick out like a sore thumb in the ski community is to misuse ski language. A skier wouldn’t confuse bowls with groomers, they wouldn’t confuse powder with crust, and they wouldn’t confuse freestyle skiing with freeride skiing. Those all have pretty obvious differences, but there’s a good chance some new-to-the-slopes skier has confused them in the past, giving their friends more ammunition to roast them with. But what about the more narrow differences? What about the stuff that even experienced skiers might use interchangeably, despite having a difference? What about the difference between a chute and a couloir?
A couloir, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a steep mountain side gorge”. According to that same definition, in 1997, Chicago Tribune journalist Jim Kochevar stated that “couloir is French for ‘cold, narrow place to die”. In reality, couloir directly translated to “passage” when it started being used in the English language. Avalanche.org states that a couloir is a steep gully usually filled with snow in the winter months, bounded by rocks on either side.
On the other side of the discussion, a chute is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an inclined plane, sloping channel, or passage down or through which things may pass.” Based on these definitions, one could come to the conclusion that a couloir is a type of chute, but that still hasn’t really given us a major difference when it comes to the use of both words in the ski world.
Ski.com’s A-Z Ski Glossary presents us with definitions that may clear up the confusion just a bit more. According to them, chutes are “narrow sections of snow between two rock walls typically skied by expert or advanced skiers or snowboarders.” Alternatively, a couloir is “a narrow, long chute that is often the result of previous, glacial calving.” Sierra Descents, on the other hand, claims that a couloir is simply the “French term for chute (more or less),” while the Avalanche Center states that they are, in fact, the same thing.
So what’s the conclusion here? It would appear that couloir is a term specifically reserved for alpine chutes where snow tends to build in the winter months, usually fairly narrow and usually fairly long. Chute, however, in the alpine world, can be any sort of enclosed slope, snow or no snow, wide or narrow, long or short. It’s probably safe, though, to use the term chute to refer to anything that could be a chute or couloir, unless its name directly defines it (i.e. Corbet’s Couloir).
Featured Image Credit: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort via Instagram