Ski Links Extraordinaire in the Wasangeles Wilderness

 

More backcountry skiers per acre than any other national forest…tracks
everywhere…the Wasangeles Front is a (justifiably) popular ski touring
haven.  Yet just a few trailheads and a
tiny, user-friendly fraction of the available terrain sees the vast majority of
the ski tourer visits. Easy access and moderate slopes attract most tourers to
the multi-use forest land adjacent to ski resorts.

 

Longer
hikes, lower starts, and rockier, generally more avalanche-prone terrain
dissuade most from the three “pocket” wilderness areas that butt-up
against the urban Wasatch Front. Yet their terrain and scenery are incredible! So-called
because they are miniature compared to other wilderness areas in the Rocky
Mountain West, they boast the essential wilderness characteristics: few trails,
natural wildlife habitat, no human habitation, and minimal man-made
improvements. If you’re not a fan of chairlift and helicopter noise and skier
tracks; and you seek big lines and high adventure skiing, the Twin, Olympus and
Lone Peak Wilderness Areas offer world-class ski-mountaineering. Juxtaposed against
the ever-growing Salt Lake metropolitan area, they are the ultimate urban
wildernesses.

 

Remarkably, after just an hour’s ascent on skins or foot from any wilderness trailhead, one
is usually alone in huge, untracked ski terrain. If you select a less-popular
starting point, such as Wasatch Boulevard, Alpine, or Tanner’s Gulch, it may
take a little longer, but solitude will be even more complete. Rather than
driving for hours to a remote range, why not spend that time exercising in the backyard
mountains? The reward can be immense.

 

As backcountry ski touring boots, bindings, skis and snowboards get lighter, more
reliable and easier to ski on, both up and down hill, the standards of skier
achievement continue to skyrocket. In recent years, fit, motivated,
well-equipped tourheads have been raising the bar, linking up a series of
incredible climbs and runs in these three Urban Wilderness Areas. When I hear
the term Ski Link, this is what I think of. Gondolas, land-grabs by foreign
companies, and end-runs of established governmental prodedures by blatantly
corrupt politicians, are another type of Ski Link.

Mount Olympus Wilderness was designated in 1984, and its few, but rugged acres are
the backyard of skiers in Salt Lake Valley’s north-east neighborhoods. West
Porter, Thomas Fork and Neffs are popular storm-ski touring areas. Gobbler’s
Knob has the big, open lines with plenty of avalanche history. Mt. Raymond is
only 5 feet lower, and harbors an open cirque on the east and steep, but remote
trees on the north face.

 

The north aspects on these twin summits were already popular heli-ski runs in ’84,
as were many shots in the Twin Peak Wilderness (TPW.) To mitigate the loss of
terrain to heli-skiers, Congress excluded north-facing Raymond and Gobblers
from the Oly Wildy, along with Mineral Fork from the TPW. The former two are
part of the prime ski link-ups through the area, and are surrounded on all
sides by Wilderness, so I’ve included them here as such.

 

A truly epic 10,000+-foot powder tour in the Mt. Olympus Wilderness Area begins
with an ascent to Circle All Peak via the Butler Fork Trees. This stand of
well-spaced aspen trees is often worth a “shovel-run” before heading on to the
big terrain. That is, drop your pack at the pass, and ski a lap of up to 1500’
through the magnificent NE-facing quakies while encumbered only by a beacon,
shovel, and probe lashed on with a voile strap, like a ski patroller. Or if you
are a fan of an avalung or airbag pack, stash a duffel containing your extra
food, water and layers, and wear the pack to further mitigate avalanche risk.

 

Re-assemble your pack after skinning back up your existing trail to the ridge again and
point ‘em down the NW face of Circle All into Mill A Gulch for a short, but
often sweet poke. Grab a bite here before a long, beautiful skin through one of
the Central Wasatch’ biggest aspen groves. Such a aspen groves are all one living
thing, connected by the roots. This one could be the largest organism in the
central Wasatch (besides Sasquatch.)

Remember Steve Carruthers and stay clear of the long south-facing slide paths falling
from Gobblers Knob, and climb a few hundred feet to Porter Saddle, between the
two highest peaks on the BCC/Mill Creek Divide. From here, skin west along the
ridge crest to the shoulder or summit of Mt. Raymond. If the snow is still dry,
make a shovel run on the East Cirque. In 2011, deep, dense snow adhered to the
rock slabs near the summit, making it possible to ski some rare and
exhilarating, 50-degree starts to the East Cirque lines.

 

The next logical run to ski-link up drops through the evergreen glades and open
meadows of Raymond’s north face to a confluence of drainages at 7,800’. At this
point in the day, a skin trail will probably be in up Gobblers’ northwest ridge.
Dig deep, and muster the stamina for a 2,400’ sprint to the summit. This scenic
effort earns you a massive shot, off either the east or the west summit, down
the mile-wide NW face, where there’s usually at least one clean line left
somewhere.

 

In your thirst to find that line, be careful not to tickle a “sweet spot” where
the Knob’s chronically shallower, weaker snowpack is extra thin. You could
easily trigger an avalanche on a buried weak layer that noone else has yet
disturbed! Many bright snow geeks have been schooled by deadly avalanches on
this irresistible face. It gets late afternoon and evening light, making it a
perfect home run, in the pink glow of late-afternoon, or even by moonlight
after a summit smooch with your favorite ski partner.

 

Mt. Olympus itself, can have some great ski-mountaineering, but its not for the
faint of heart. Alpine climbing skills, steep skiing prowess, and an appetite
for adventure (aka, suffering and risk) are required. Start on foot from the
Pete’s Rock/Tolcats Canyon Trailhead along Wasatch Boulevard, and climb to the
9,026-foot summit of Mt. Olympus. Descend about 50′ feet south from the peak,
and locate the southernmost Memorial Couloir. It falls steeply east into
North’s Fork, but is not as gnarly as the northern Memorials.

Or to ski a more benign warm-up run, leave the Olympus trail where it crosses
Tolcat Creek, and follow that water-course into and up Tolcats Couloir. This fleeting
ribbon of snow lies just north of Guert’s Ridge, a prominent fin of jagged quartzite
popular with rock climbers. This arête shades the meager accumulation of snow,
and keeps it firm late into the day for the home run.  From the saddle, the wide, friendly Mt.
Olympus Couloir goes east at 40-degrees and less into Norths Fork .

 

At the 7,300-foot level, after skiing either chute, contour and scramble skier’s
left to find one of the imposing, classic, rock-lined Memorial Couloirs. These
chutes are pretty extreme in hard snow, and have been the site of nasty slides
for life. Proceed with caution! There are rock outcrops that may add more spice
both on the up and the down. The northernmost one is the cleanest line. Skills,
stiff skis and sharp-edges are recommended. I’ve skied consistent corn and
avalanche bed-surfaces here during stable spring-like weather patterns in
February and March on phat snow years. There needs to be decent coverage at
lower altitudes and low avalanche hazard.

 

The best way home is to return to and ascend the Olympus Chute, most of which can
normally be done on skins. Maximize your efficiency by making a bonus shovel-run
on it, and then ski the west-facing Tolcat Chute. Finish with a sunny, dry
trail down hike of Pete’s Trail in the running shoes you cached

 

Also established in ‘84, the Twin Peak Wilderness (TPW) is as scenic and great for
skiers as it is compact. The namesake peaks soar to 11,330′ directly above the
Salt Lake Valley. Orson Pratt reached the summits immediately upon arrival in
1847, and gave Brigham Young a bird’s-eye view report on The Place he’d chosen
to settle his followers. One-hundred years later, the Danish descendants
finally blasted a road through the fault-block uplift geologic contact zone and
into Big Cottonwood Canyon.

 

Now one can drive, pedal or ride a bike for only a few miles from the 7-11 to the
S-Turns, where Twin ski adventures begin (and end). Go west into Broads Fork
and return from the east, or vice versa. The initial toll is about the same in
either direction, 2,000’ of slogging before big ski terrain comes into view.
But once it does, you are glad you came, so long as the clouds don’t join you.
Tree skiing is pretty nonexistent. This is the place for open terrain and good
visibility.

 

The ultimate TPW ski-link starts either from Tanners Gulch in Little Cottonwood
Canyon (LCC,) with a 3,500’, avalanche-prone ascent to Tanners Col and a fine
descent of O’Sullivan Peak’s immense north apron; or a 4,600’ skin from the
S-Turns to the saddle west of Ol’ Sully. From here, start with a 1,500’
shovel-run in the morning sun down the NE-facing goods in Upper Broads Fork.

 

For the second climb, skin back to the Cottonwood Crest at the saddle between Sully
and the East Twin, then lash the skis on your back and scramble another 500‘ vertical
along a spectacular, knife-edge divide to the Twin summits. In the rare case
that Lisa Falls has good snow, ski it to the LCC road, being prepared for
rappels and / or bushwhacking down low. Or just ski the epic couloir between
the summits until the snow gets funky, then boot back to the summit. If Lisa is
cooked, or low on snow as usual, find nirvana skiing the NW Face toward SLC.

 

The NW Face is intimidating, impressive, and appealing. After 1200’ of ethereal
carving, carry on down the steep narrow funnel into Deaf Smith Canyon, or if
you don’t feel comfortable with having to climb back up the chute, traverse
right above it and skin back to Broads Fork. From around 10,800’ on the west
rim of Broads, an unforgettable run, Brad Makoff’s “High Blue Nowhere,” drops
NE to the canyon floor. Generally viewed as an avalanche slope just awaiting a
trigger, it merits a conservative evaluation of stability. The “cleanest” line
weaves past a series of crevasse-like “glide cracks” onto a long, wide hanging
snowfield above a curtain of ice cliffs. If you still feel lucky after this
epic section, trend skiers left above the ice and finish the epic, 3,000’
powder run on the moderate, but huge Diving Board Apron.

 

If you’re in good shape, don’t go home without the prize lines! To make it a solid
15,000-foot ski link, head on up Bonkers, the 2,000-foot powder shot
extraordinaire that rises from a point just north of the base of the NE face. Go
Bonkers, like WPG owner Greg Smith did, skiing a shovel lap on it, and then ski
Stairs Gulch as the home run. This 5,000’ drop is rarely stable and in good
conditions, but when it is, its actually a friendly line. I saw a 60-yo woman
and a 70-yo man ski it on a perfect February afternoon in 2008. I’ve also skied
it in fading light after a sick day and found it hard to explain to my wife why
I’m still skiing at 7 pm.

 

Back in the late 1970s, the Lone Peak Wilderness (LPW) was set aside by an Act of
Congress. It has been an increasingly popular recreation area ever since.
Helicopter skiing disappeared, except for occasional Alpine Tour lifts to the
White/Red Pine boundary ridge, and human-powered access became the only way. At
first it was the playground only of the hardcore. Trails are few and trailheads
are even more scarce. White Pine in LCC is the highest and the only one
commonly used. It is fully overrun with vehicles on nice winter and summer
days. Please be careful as you drive around this blind corner! With no
trailhead or congestion warging signs because in the absence, people and
randomly parked vehicles on the shoulder are an accident waiting to happen. Perhaps
the lack of parking and trails is a means of limiting the human use, and
keeping the wilderness wild. Personally, I feel taxpayers deserve access to
their wild lands. In any case, it certainly creates a parking problem on Utah
Highway 210!

 

Partly to avoid this cluster, my favorite ski-links start in Alpine and finish in
Sandy or lower LCC. Start in an upscale Utah County neighborhood, and hike an
old 4WD road to the snowline, usually around the first Hamongog. Pick up a
trail through the Gambel Oak that leads to the second meadow, at 8,200’, above
which is a straightforward skin to Lone Peak, 11,251’. If conditions are right,
ski a shovel- lap on the moderate south face of Lone, then regain the south
summit.

 

The East Face of Lone Peak is arguably the steepest sustained descent in the
central Wasatch. Ski it if you can! There are two parallel chutes, and both
have rocky narrows near the bottom, where the slope angle is around 50-degrees.
If these chutes are not your cup of tea, there is an easier entrance to the
head of Bells Canyon from Point 10,700, called the Bearstooth on some maps.
This line is 40-45 degrees and goes clean.

 

From upper Bells, there are many excellent ways to continue. To nail the elusive
Crows Feet Run, climb northwest to the gunsight notch south of point 10,561’,
that communicates into Big Willow Canyon. Ski a short west-facing couloir lined
by magnificent granite walls (including the 5.8 James Garrett classic climb,
Giggles), then climb and ski one or both of the north facing aprons on your
left. Finish the day by skiing a short, powdery bowl into Rocky Mouth Canyon
and gliding to the top of the Crows Feet, a 3,600’, NW-facing slide path that exits
onto Wasatch Blvd. The final section is easier if avalanche debris fills the
deep erosion gully, so that you don’t have to side-slip for hours through the
tight Gambel Oak. If you have early dinner reservations at La Caille, try to
visit after a big avalanche cycle.

The other incredible LPW super ski-link finish is to skin east to Thunder Mountain
and ski the short, but sweet, north-facing headwall of Thunder Bowl. When this
line flattens out, glide skier’s right, and skin up to North Thunder Mountain
for the “home run.” This ridge is the top of Hypodermic Needle, Dresden Face,
and the Sliver, all dropping precipitously east into Hogum Fork. Also falling
from here is the coveted Coalpit Headwall. It goes for 5,000’ directly to LCC.
Its first descent is a legendary story, also chronicled in the pages of this
issue.

Leave a Reply