Cold? No, that’s just sending temps. At least that’s what you tell yourself. Shade on the wall had come a week ago and its icy grip was here until spring. As far as I knew the Good Medicine Area had never known sun but I had also only recently come to know the crag. I had heard tales of lines of impatient climbers waiting in the sun to get on the classics like Black Elk or Peace Treaty. That was summer. We were now in the heart of autumn high in Utah’s Uinta National Forest, shivering and alone.
In this alpine wilderness cliffs of quartzite erupt from sprawled fields of talus. Horizontal seams cross vertical cracks to create long, steep and ideal routes. The climbs are well protected but they feel airy and exposed as the valley stretches to the horizon far below, its alpine meadows speckled with glacial lakes and conifer groves.
A two-lane road slaloms between the lakes, their shallow waters fed by thin snowmelt streams. We followed this band of pavement on our approach, eyes searching for the sign for Ruth Lake. A dusting of white high on the hills told us that winter had already sauntered through Utah’s higher elevations. The only other people on the road were in massive trucks stenciled with antlers and curvy women. Their confederate mud flaps waved beneath belching tailpipes. They didn’t seem like the climbing type.
We were now in the off-season; the time of year that lies between the grueling heat of summer and the blistering cold of winter. The only groups brave enough to face autumn’s chill were clans of boy scouts and diehard fishermen with their waders pulled high on their chests. They had more courage than I. They chose to wallow in the frigidity of the lakes rather than pull up high on the wall where I clung, my rope dangling down out of sight.
The wind blew in hard from the north. It had winter’s familiar chill on its breath and threatened to pull me off the wall. I was high above my last clip. My fingers were frozen; numb to the grainy fissures that streaked the route. I eyed the crux, shook out and pulled higher to the bolt. The sun was close to unmasking the veil of shadow that blanketed the wall, though I knew it would never come. I looked down. My belayer was bundled and shivering in the shade.
The Uinta National Forest was established in 1897 as the Uinta Forest Reserve under Grover Cleveland but was merged in 2007 with the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Spread over 1,300 square miles the land area covers parts of Wasatch, Juab, Utah, and Sanpete counties making it one of the most easily accessible wilderness zones in Utah. With towering peaks and steep featured cliffs, the Uinta wilderness has a reported 195 climbs including traditional, sport, alpine and boulder routes, though more exist and are waiting for first and second ascents. When the snow begins to fall skiers and snowboarders flock to the steep terrain along with snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers. In all over three million people visit the forest in a single year. Not a soul was around as I peered out over the land from my stance on the wall.
I pulled through the crux and clipped at a rest. I wondered what it was like when the sun poured down in summer’s bliss. I imagined a warm glow radiating across the peaks and down into camp, a sun-warmed breeze blowing on my back, stretched and bare on the cliff. I imagined lines of climbers mingling in the talus. They prodded and heckled. Impatiently they leer and jostle for a turn. They borrow draws and shout beta. I cringed at the thought.
After each climb we retreated to the sun far out in the field of scree. We jumped talus moguls until we crossed the line from cold to warm. Here we rested and scouted the next route before returning to the base of the cliff. I shivered walking back toward the wall and took my spot at the belay. I expected the wind not to drive so hard closer to the ground. I thought the earth would have residual summer warmth. I hoped I could stay warm enough to keep my grip on my ATC. I cursed my optimism and fed out rope. Maybe I could feed rope all the way out until I was back in the sun… I could lounge like a lizard on the rocks while my climber clipped in the shade. I’m sure he could climb clean to the chains. Then again, suffering together is better than suffering alone. I stuck it out, dreaming of summer’s warmth. My hands were numb again. “Ready to lower!” he shouted from the top. I could just make out his voice, so high up, over the wind.
Around the corner from the shaded lines we found a reprieve from the cold. The late afternoon sun had warmed a narrow, south-facing crag where three climbs stood in wait. Two bolted lines ran straight up the face while one followed the arête, half in the shade, and half in the sun. The climbs were shorter and easier than the classics on the shady side of the famed Good Medicine Area but the sun has a tempting power over a cold body. Morale in the shade had been low but with our group moved to the sun the mood lightened. It almost felt like summer. We reveled in our newfound warmth and commented on the solitude. If we chose to, we could climb every route at Ruth Lake without competition: a rare thing in an area with scores of classic climbs. Perhaps we had outsmarted the crowds in exchange for suffering in the cold. Perhaps we were too obsessed with climbing to heed winter’s obvious warnings.
Walking the base of the cliff you can see just how many great climbs there are at Ruth Lake. Bolts hang from the walls at regular intervals in the Good Medicine Area. I salivated at the thought of climbing them all. When I had looked over from high on the wall I eyed a steep face, its crux thin and airy to my left. Although the chalk had been washed clean by autumn rains, the edges of quartzite looked positive and inviting. That one will have to wait until tomorrow, I thought to myself later, gathering my rope and draws before heading back to camp. Hopping the sunny talus back to the lake I glanced back again and again, looking for lines up the black and tan streaked cliffs. My glance was met each time with a line of bolts drilled perfectly up each aesthetic climb.
With the rest of the group back at camp I could fantasize climbing each route. There were no lines. There was no chatter. There was only blank rock and we had enough time to climb it all. The wind blew in cold again, reminding me of our frigid quandary. I hoped to rise early and start ticking off routes systematically. Start with a 5.8 or .9 to warm up then climb the ultra-classic Black Elk (again), knock off a few mid-10’s and go on up from there. The ratings at Ruth Lake alone vary from 5.7 all the way up to 5.12b with every grade in between.
Climbing in the off-season beings new challenges to the die-hard climber however. While cold temps optimize climbing, numbness is a handicap when pasting toes and crimping. After ogling the each climb from below I devised a plan to stay warm between sessions. With this scheme of layers and a strategically placed fire, we would be able to climb through the day, checking off our goals and climbing despite winter’s rapid approach. I walked back to camp pleased with my strategy while the day’s climbs slid through my mind in euphoric ambient strands. In our scattered circle of tents I was greeted with a blazing fire and a toast of whiskey. Both warmed my chilled bones as I looked out across Ruth Lake, its placid face a mirror reflecting the rocky peaks of the Uinta, bringing our climbing goals into view, tempting us to come running with our headlamps.
Our fire burned tall that night and threatened to scorch our shelter of tarps. We cooked a hearty meal as cold winds blew in from the darkness, our fire the only light beneath a shower of stars. All other parties had abandoned in the cold. Even the boy scouts had left. Only our solitary clan remained. It was peaceful by the lake and our heater crackled open flame and drew us in. We laughed and drank while our songs carried into to the trees. Clouds began to drift in from the north and draw their silver curtain on the moon.
Red-eyed and hazy we awoke. I expected to be in my own room, safe and warm beneath the blankets. Instead I stared a hole in the ceiling of my tent. I tried to remember exactly how I had made it there. I recalled a fire blazing and glasses hoisted. I thought of the remaining climbs left untouched in yesterday’s shadow. I was excited to get back on the wall. Looking up however, I noticed that my tent was broken, collapsed under the blanket of fresh wet snow. The failing zipper had finally quit and refused to seal us from the cold. A mound of snow slowly melted at my feet. From the outside the tent buckled and camouflaged itself as a crooked pile of snow. I heaved the weight from the rain fly and looked up toward the cliffs only there were no cliffs, just a flurry of driven snowflakes and wind-bent trees. “I guess we’re not climbing today,” I said. Although a bit disappointed, I didn’t actually mind. My devised plan had many hidden variables and the falling snow created a peacefulness throughout camp that lulled me toward the fire. We still had a bed of coals, hot coffee and a communal shelter that flapped and sighed in the wind. This was why nobody else had stayed. This was why the climbers had remained home. Their beds were warm and the climbing in the city was not hindered by the forecast of winter. I remembered my summer fantasy and smiled. For now we had the wilderness to ourselves and once the clouds cleared and the sun melted the magic of snow away from the changing leaves, we would have the wall to ourselves again. At that moment I was grateful for the off-season. Grateful to have climbed one day and then wandered across our snowbound land the next. I smiled again and trudged to the fire to warm my hands in our friendly winter hut.
Getting There: From Salt Lake City take I-80 east to exit 148 for US-40 toward Vernal. Drive 3.8 miles and take exit 4 for UT-248. Take a left and drive for 11.4 miles until making a left on S. Main St. (US-32) in Kamas. Drive .2 miles and take a right onto Mirror Lake Scenic Byway (UT-150). Follow Mirror Lake Scenic Byway through the Uinta high alpine wilderness until you see signs for Ruth Lake just before mile marker 32. Park at the pullout, relieve yourself at the pit toilet, and hike east into the unknown. 100 yards after the “Haymakers and Hibernators” sign take a left on a thin climber’s trail. Hop the talus slope to the base of the cliffs and behold the fruits of the Uinta.
Classic Routes: Classic warm-ups include Crescent Moon 5.8, Peace Treaty 5.9, and the ultra-classic Black Elk 5.10a. Pick it up a notch with The Legend 5.10c, Moon Stone 5.11b, and Dream Catcher 5.11c. For the hard stuff check out Good Medicine 5.12a, Warrior Without a Cause 5.12b, and Ghost Dance 5.12b. It’s all good!
What to Pack: Layers! The Uintas have some unpredictable weather so dress for anything. One minute you could be in shorts and a tank top and the next you’ll wish for your down sleeping bag suit. Bring rain gear, fleeces, approach shoes and don’t forget your gear, it’s a long drive back to the city for an ATC. Whiskey helps on those cold nights too. Prepare to have your mind blown by the views and the simple beauty of the climbs.