Coalpit Headwall, 1975

It was hard NOT to notice it. Every time we would look to
the west, out of the window in the patrol shack on Hidden Peak,
it was there, arguably one of the most impressive features in Little Cottonwood
Canyon, the Coalpit Headwall.

 

We didn’t know if it had ever been skied, or even how to get
there. But since no one we knew had ever claimed to have skied it, we assumed
that it probably hadn’t. But that really didn’t matter that much. Staring out
the window, day after day, month after month, it looked big, and remote, and
above all, inviting.

 

We all worked at Snowbird back then, Peter Schory and I in
Snow Safety, and Joe Royer on the Patrol, and it seemed like all there was to
winter-life was doing avalanche control work, and skiing powder. So in general,
things were pretty good. This was in a time when backcountry skiing in the
Wasatch was a “fringe” sport, with most people waiting until the spring to
venture very far-a-field from the resorts. It was unusual to see tracks laid
down in steep terrain immediately following a storm, and those who did spend
their time skiing in the backcountry, very rarely had to compete for the best
lines.

 

The winter of 1974-75 in Little Cottonwood Canyon was epic.
An unusually dry November, giving us a very weak snow pack, led to dangerous
and unpredictable avalanches during the month of December. In the brief lifespan
of Snowbird, it was by far the most difficult early season we had yet seen. But
by January 1975, things were beginning to settle down, and it was turning into
a banner year. Between December 1st, and the end of April that season,
there had been 580” of snow recorded at the Guard Station in Alta, and on the 29th
of April, there was still 171” of snow on the Master Snow Stake, a record that
still stands for the most total snow on the ground at the Guard Station Study
Plot, ever. The month of May was a
continuation of the previous several months, with about 7’ of additional
snowfall. So by June, when it finally and rather suddenly turned into summer,
there was still ample snow cover, everywhere.

 

After going our separate ways for brief springtime travels once
the resort had closed, we all returned to the Canyon and found ourselves
together, with time on our hands, and adventure in our hearts. A few nights of
cavorting in the veritable ghost town of Alta/Snowbird
in late May, allowed us to decide on a plan. In the next day or so, now that we
were enjoying splendid weather, we would travel to Hogum Fork, set up camp and
figure out how to get to the Coalpit Headwall.

 

Equipment back then was pretty different from what is
commonly used nowadays. Peter (“Mongo” as he is affectionately known to most
people) and I were on Rossignol Haute Route skis (somewhat iconic equipment, at
least at Snowbird, at that time), with Marker “Trucker” bindings, that allowed
for about 2” of heel lift. With this set-up, coupled with Army surplus climbing
skins, one could make reasonably good time in the backcountry. Joe on the other
hand, not to be a follower of fashion, used a pair of stiff, alpine racing skis
with regular alpine bindings, and no lift whatsoever! With skins, and wearing
his alpine ski boots, he shuffled and side stepped his way from the White Pine parking
lot to Hogum Fork!

 

Joe, somewhat legendary for his skiing prowess, was also renowned
for being very strong going uphill. With that in mind, it was with some
surprise that Peter and I noted that Joe was lagging well behind us on the
uphill grind. It was unusual, but we chalked it up to him possibly being “hung-over”,
something which in those days would not have been all that unusual. At our
first rest stop, when Joe finally caught up with us, we noticed that most
everything needed for a multi-day, ski tour/alpine ascent, i.e., sleeping bag,
pad, ice-ax, some extra clothes, were all strapped to the outside of his pack.
When asked about this, Joe responded by showing us what he had inside his pack. The contents included,
a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, eggs, bacon, potatoes, 3 steaks, fresh
salad fixin’s, a bottle of gin, lemonade mix, and no doubt a bunch of other
things I’ve since forgotten. This was going to be a great trip.

 

After a long day of walking, we ended up making camp in the
east side of Hogum Fork by the late afternoon. Tired, sunburned, sweaty, and
with some incredible blisters on our feet, due to the unfriendly and
masochistic ski boots everyone was required to use back then. It was a glorious
night, a beautiful sunset, mild temps, full stomachs, a good campsite, and a
good buzz. As the full moon rose over the Maybird-Hogum ridge, illuminating the
granite face near “Angel Wings”, to our great surprise, we heard an avalanche
break loose and rumble down onto the lower slope. It hadn’t snowed for over a
week, it had been warm during the day, and it was a completely calm night. Was
this some sort of omen? Not to worry, like most people our age back then, we
still thought we were invincible.

 

The next day was spent skiing great corn in Hogum, and
scouting out our route to the ridge that separates Hogum Fork from Bell Canyon,
which we figured would give us access to the top of Coalpit Gulch. It had been
my intention to use the big couloir in the east face of Hogum to reach the
ridge top. Joe however, thought this route was a little risky, and wanted to
take the more traditional route near the head of Hogum Fork, that led to Bell Canyon.
Our disagreement resulted in lots of deliberation between Joe and me, with
Peter somewhat ambivalent about the whole deal. He seemed to be content to go
with the flow, just as long as we had a good time and no one got hurt. Joe
finally acquiesced, and the route was approved by all, so in the afternoon, we
broke camp, and traversed around the head of Hogum Fork to the bottom of the
couloir we planned to ascend the next morning. Our steak dinner that night was
great, complete with the nice bottle of wine Joe had brought back from Napa Valley.
The trip was going well, and we were definitely on a roll.

 

There was one spot at the bottom of the couloir that was relatively
flat, where Joe and I put down our pads and bags. Mongo however had to chop out
a suitable flat spot for his bivouac, in a somewhat exposed location a little
below us. He had a slick, plastic ground cloth, which was super slippery, and
suggested that it wouldn’t take much for him to end up barreling down the slope
during the night, in his sleeping bag, some four or five hundred vertical feet
to the bottom of the drainage. So, resourceful individual that he is, he made a
fence, using all our skis, poles, ice ax’s, etc. to keep him from taking the
unwanted drop.

 

The night had its usual restless tossing and turning, the
result of trying to sleep on a somewhat precarious perch, and when morning came
we were awakened by the unpleasant feeling of rain drops hitting our faces. A
moist, warm front had arrived during the early morning hours, preventing a
re-freeze, and sure to compromise what we had anticipated would be a great corn
snow descent of the Face. Grumbling, but undeterred, we packed up, and set
about climbing the couloir to the ridge top. The snow was soft and wet, and postholing
up the steep chute was a little scary (we were a long way from home, and cell
phones hadn’t been invented yet) but we pushed onward. We had a 150’ perlon
rope, and a couple of anchors for the ascent, and after shoveling a hole in the
cornice at the top with skis, we made it to the ridge. We hung out there enjoying
the view, until the sun began to make an appearance, but we knew the skiing was
going to be less than ideal. For some reason, I got a little behind Peter and
Joe on the final approach, and by the time I got to the end of the ridge, they
had already made it half-way down the Face. Skiing out onto the slope, with a
fully-loaded pack, and trying to make that first turn was somewhat daunting,
and it took me several minutes to build up my courage, but eventually, I
started the descent. It was not the quality of snow we had hoped for, but the
thrill of being there, finally achieving a goal we each had only imagined for
the past couple of years, was very rewarding. When we got to the bottom of the Headwall,
we probably celebrated in the fashion of the times, I really can’t remember,
but I know we were all stoked. The trip however was not over yet. Getting
through the “choke” of Coalpit Gulch in the month of June had its own unique
challenges. On each break over, we encountered a cascading waterfall, with a dark
and scary looking chasm in the snow below into which the water rushed. We had
to set up belays at each of these and toss all our gear down to the first
person to reach the lower slope. On one of these belays, Mongo lost his
sleeping bag into what could be described as somewhat of a “raging torrent”.
Since it was a brand new bag, and since money to buy another one was hard to
come by in those days, he took off his clothes, and we belayed him several
yards into the crevasse so he could cautiously retrieve it. Joe and I were very
impressed.

 

It ended up that we were able to ski all the way to Little
Cottonwood Creek, a descent of almost 5000’, and it was the first week of June!

 

Thirty-seven years later, things have changed some. Joe
Royer is the owner of Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski, Peter is the Winter Operations
Manager at Snowbird, and I work for UDOT. The same trip that took us two
and-a-half days back in 1975 is now routinely made in 5 or 6 hours. It’s also
probably more likely to encounter other touring parties headed in more or less
the same direction now than it was back then. But there is one thing that I
imagine hasn’t changed, and that is the thrill of skiing out onto that Face,
and making the first turn with all that vertical and open space below you.

2 Responses to “Coalpit Headwall, 1975”

  1. Great article, only wish I had been with you guys !!!!!!!! I was probably back East spraying apples on the farm at that time ??? Bud

  2. Wow, what a great adventure, I can completely picture the three of you doing this. Glad to have been around that winter and many others at the Bird, glad you’re all still around to reminisce and get in some good turns. Denny

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