I look up at this wall often, especially in winter. Even from I 15 you can see the cirque with your butt comfortably warm in your car. But I know only too well just how bloody alpine it is up there, despite being too close to a too-big city. When we climbed the Open Book Route on Lone Peak one winter, we were on our own. If anything nasty happened, we simply had to deal with it. It was a different world then. There were no whiny ass cell phone rescues. And just try to imagine winter climbing without Gore-Tex. With primitive gear and nasty weather, we still did it, and though that climb was a long time ago, all I have to do is look up at that winter wall and I’m still tied into a cold belay up there.
Earlier that winter we did a first winter ascent of the NW Coulior of the Middle Teton, so while on a roll, a winter classic closer to home sounded good. No one we knew of had climbed the Open Book Route in winter, so why not. We got our typical noon o’clock start, figuring we would break the nasty skin approach into two more manageable humps. Getting to Lone Peak is arduous enough in summer, and it’s even worse with a pigpack of winter crap. We started by cutting across a fence and pasture toward an old dirt road in Alpine, Utah. This area is just another subdivision these days, but that road still leads up to two bumps on the southern side of Lone Peak, called hamongogs. I didn’t know then and still don’t have a clue of what “hamongog” really means, so I just googled it. Don’t bother. Its an obscure biblical reference, and unless you’re fluent in Hebrew it won’t mean much. The Utah Place Names book is equally worthless. Stick with “bumps on the side of a mountain.” Anyway, the first night we camped near the lower one.
The Hamongog Route winds up toward the top of Pete’s Staircase (named after O’Dell “Pete” Peterson who used to resole boots for members of the Wasatch Mountain Club) the top of which is the sharp saddle between the Question Mark Wall and Tom’s Thumb and the main summit of Lone Peak. But we wanted to ski directly into the Cirque, so we traversed several steep and very icy slopes leading around the western side of The Q Wall. Two of our party slid off the last traverse, (they know who they are) both loosing edges and rocketing downhill into the trees. (they caught up with us later) So there we were, in a heavily-winterized Lone Peak Cirque, tents up and igloo under construction, at midday, with a nasty storm moving in. What to do… why, start up the route, of course.
While we kicked up steep snow toward vertical rock, the upper half of the cirque wall hid in swirling clouds. We’d all done the route several times in the summer, and all knew the first pitch often feels much more difficult, and more run out, than its easy rating would suggest. Several people have taken bad falls here, including a friend of mine who lost her sense of smell for several years afterward; she was never the same climber she’d been before. With many evil memories circulating in our brain matter, neither Dean nor I wanted that first pitch. We both cheered up when Peter Gibbs grabbed the rack and said simply, “Don’t worry. I can aid anything.” He climbed into the horizontal snowstorm while Dean Hanniball and I just wondered if we had struggled all the way up here only to fail. Again. Peter did a fine job of aiding past the nastiest bit at the top and tied off the ropes. We could always, well almost always, come back up for the ropes if the weather didn’t improve. Only when we bailed toward our tent and igloo village did the weather clear out. Naturellement!
With us on this trip were three other misfits, Ken Gronseth, Tom Birdsong and Mike Bogart, all acquainted through an old climbing and backcountry skiing store, which, sadly, isn’t around anymore. (If you’re old enough you know what it was) All of us crammed into one three-man tent (for warmth and comaraderie) and brewed up enough Oxtail soup and tea to make certain we had to go out and pee, always noting wind direction.
A perfect dawn brooked no excuses. Dean, Peter and I went off toward the Book, Bogart and Birdsong were to attack the NW Ridge and Ken, well, he puttered around and took pictures of us. We jugged up to our high point, and for some reason Dean said the next lead was mine. I think he was working some game theory math: if I led the second pitch, I would also get the fourth. Crafty guy. There was no fifth. The Open Book is steep enough that snow really doesn’t stick to it much, except in the cracks. Unfortunately, cracks are what you climb up there, and although even a little slippery in summer, they are definitely much more fun with ice-coated interiors. I found bridging between cracks worked pretty well, and when one crack got too icy, I just tried another, which meant I usually had to go back to the first one, which by then didn’t look half so bad. Wool mittens climb big cracks surprisingly well, and seem to grip even better when damp. Maybe they just freeze in place while you’re trying to figure out what to do next, but regardless, we had to climb with them on most of the time, so getting used to them wasn’t just an option. We carried pitons, which was fortunate as ice-coated cracks would not have accepted cams and chocks very well. (I hate to tell you this, but cams were not to become commercially available for another three years…) Pitons bite through ice to solid rock with that familiar, comforting, rising, ringing pitch. These cracks are a little wide for summer rock shoes, so big mountain boots were actually an advantage. Mostly. With gaiters and packs sporting ice axes, god, we all felt like we were in Chamonix, testing ourselves on the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. In summer, the cracks are the hard part, and then there’s a really nice ledge and a wonderful belay with a view; not so in winter, when the cracks are nasty, but the ledges present the real problem, one Dean would become intimately acquainted with on the next pitch.
Dean began the third pitch with the usual routine: climb up until nervous, put a mitten in your mouth, fiddle through the entire rack for a suitable piton, set piton in place and hope it stays there, readjust the mitten you’re jamming in the crack to make sure its still going to hold, decide it won’t, jam your unmittened hand into the crack, marvel at how cold it is in there against the ice, take off the other mitten, jam it in the crack somewhere else, hoping it won’t fall out either, get both hands in the crack and ponder existential questions, take one hand back out, yank out the hammer, oh, the piton is still there, good, start hammering, readjust your exceedingly cold fist jam, hammer until you get tone, dangle the hammer, clip the pin, oh damn, rope is jammed between boot and the side of the crack, jump, pull, damn, still there, jump again, pull rope out finally, clip rope into pin and breathe, find mitten hopefully still in the crack, remember the other one is still in your mouth, get both on by using your teeth, holster the hammer, climb up a bit. Repeat when nervous. Just a few of the reasons why it takes much longer to climb in winter. But then Dean got to the hard part. Near the top of the crack, where there should be a nice ledge – was a near vertical unconsolidated wall of snow. He put in another piton (refer to above for routine) and told me to be ready. Peter just grinned. Funny how two people on a winter climb are always deadly serious, but with three, it’s a party. I took the pic of Peter when I should have been belaying, but I knew it would be a while before Dean finally fell off.
Anticipating air time, I stowed the camera, and immediately after, from above, there began much cursing, scratching and flailing, Dean now a flying red speck in a cloud of snow. It was a short fall, the pin held, but I am certain the flight time warped exponentially longer in Dean’s worldview. The flying white cloud flowed over the dangling Dean, hissed down past us like hot snakes on steroids. Dean shook himself off and was right back at it, this time armed with freshly -honed tunneling skills. He dug like a nylon badger, scored a crucial mitten jam and laughed. He was up and set up what he said was a good belay. We had to take him at his word. I climbed belayed on one line while Peter “gibbs up,” that is he used the Gibbs ascender he invented to jug the other one. Two people climbing at once saved us valuable time, a very precious commodity in winter. We had been giving Peter grief about his ascender, and how it would slide down the rope when it was not weighted, quite unlike a Jumar. Peter looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “At least it doesn’t slide down the rope when it IS weighted on an icy rope. (quite like a Jumar…) Peter took our comments seriously, because the next year he brought out the even newer Gibbs Ascender, with a spring-loaded cam which kept the device from sliding. Peter actually listened to us.
Back to the climb. Dean decided it was my turn to lead yet again. Did he think I hadn’t worked the game theory as well? Maybe it involved my taking pictures just before he took the leader fall? No matter, the final pitch was just my style: chimneys, bridging and wide cracks – perfect winter floundering. The rime-coated, snow-plastered rock near the summit offered no obvious protection, so I dug for pro only for the nastier moves, and once on top I couldn’t find much of an anchor up there either. So I tied off the entire summit block, untying from each rope so I would have enough line, and yelled at the other two to start jugging. Fast. That it was going to be dark soon. That it was the best anchor we’d had all day. All true.
Lone Peak’s summit is the most impressive place to stand in the Wasatch. In summer, I have often sat on the edge and ogled the gorgeous cirque view and wondered why it had taken so long to get my butt back up there, if only for this view. Right now it is plain madness to be here. My private summit is thousands of feet above a valley of back lit orange clouds. No city to be seen. The sun sinks into the Oquirrhs while two guys just stupid enough to be on the mountain with me jug the lines. I know they will be climbing buddies forever. I can’t walk over to the cornice and look down into the cirque. The anchor used every inch of rope, and I certainly won’t go wandering anywhere without being tied in. But from precisely where I am, I can stare through all compass bearings, and each holds an etherial view. It’s difficult to explain winter climbing, even to summer climbers; it’s quite the opposite of tight-fitting sticky shoes on warm granite with bolted pro. You have to really want to get up a winter route, which is why, perhaps, most summer routes pale in comparison. And make no mistake, winter climbing is serious: Jeff Lowe once said his winter route on the North Face of the Grand Teton was much harder than the Salathe on Yosemite’s El Cap. When you get up a route in winter you feel like you have really accomplished something. It is simply magic. But now that the sun has dropped behind the Oquirrhs, we have a dark descent ahead.
Just getting to Pete’s Staircase, although the shortest descent route, would be difficult and dangerous in the dark. Tough to find decent belay anchors, generally a nerve-wracking pain in the ass. So we elect for the longer descent off the northwest side of the mountain, something we haven’t done before, but hey, how bad can it be? Once we got off of the main summit the fear factor dropped significantly and we unroped. With only stars for headlamps, I remember constantly falling through crust to our chests. And each time the two still on the surface would yank out the stuck third partner by his pack straps, and then all three would stagger on through the dark. Climbing buddies forever. We laughed more than we should have, considering we didn’t know exactly where we were. Eventually, the glow of the tent told us we really had been on route.
We were a day late getting off the mountain. When we asked Court Richards, a long time climber and Alta patrolman, what his thoughts were when we hadn’t come down, and he said: “When a climbing party is only one day late, there is nothing to do. They are either already dead or still working their way down. When they’re two days late, that’s another matter.” As usual, he was right.