Skiing Utah’s Biggest Lines
What is the point of pushing oneself aerobically? Why do that extra lap or pedal another hill on a training day? For many it’s to pass another athlete in the late stages of a race, for others it’s the satisfaction of establishing a new personal best. For me- it’s the possibility of skiing and climbing long routes in a single “push” so that I don’t have to carry an overnight backpack. This can also reduce hazards. For example, last fall on Ama Dablam in Nepal, my friend Andrew was fit enough to skip camps one and two, where ice avalanches had been causing fatalities, and climb all 5,000’ from base camp to summit in one 20-hour round-trip.
Closer to home, there are plenty of sweet runs in the Wasatch that are accessible in a reasonable-length day for a person of average fitness, but I’ve been to most of these in my first 25 seasons in the backcountry. To experience the unusual and bigger lines often requires a longer approach and then a big climb. One needs the reserves to get there, and still have the energy to ski it well, even if the snow isn’t perfect. This is where training and efficiency pay off.
TIMPANOGOS, SOUTHWEST FACE
Mt. Timpanogos, the Sleeping Maiden, is more like a range than a mountain. Its 5 miles of ridgeline above 11,000’ tower above the “Happy Valley” providing numerous options for 3-5,000 foot backcountry ski runs on all aspects.
However, the only fall-line that I know of in Utah that’s skiable for 6,000’ is Timp’s Southwest Face. From the South Summit at 11,722, an impressive headwall, rolling bowls, and low-angle gullies drop eventually to Dry Canyon trailhead in Lindon. In Feb. of‘95, I counted 475 consecutive turns as I carved perfect corn snow for 4,000’ on this line before running out of snow. On Jan. 22, 2006, I followed a pair of skiers to the south summit, and saw their tracks disappear to the southwest. Knowing how “phat” the snowpack was, I’m sure they nailed the full mega-run, as others did in ‘08 and ‘09.
That day we experienced a rare phenomenon: deep powder on the SW face. Evidently a clearing wind from the northeast had blown in the wake of the previous low. It made Primrose Cirque, the approach route, a bit wind-pressed, but the SW had 2’ of super-fluff, virtually untouched by wind! Although we were tempted to ski the whole line, we made two runs down to about 9,000’ where the clouds got thick, and then climbed back to the saddle above the “permanent snowfield”. Grinning from ear-to-ear, we skied northeast by twilight past Emerald Lake, and down Primrose to Aspen Grove.
The Owl Bar in Sundance provided a perfect setting for hoppy beverages and tales of the day’s epic adventures. The best story was of one of our party “leading” 3 of the others down Primrose Cirque. He traversed right half-way down and found himself cliffed out. Tim and the others had wisely stuck to the up-track and were now below him. “How does it look,” he shouted. “You’re completely buggered” Tim replied, quite correctly, seeing Sven was perched atop a 100-200’ band of sheer limestone. After a bit of grumbling, the usurped leader then side-stepped up and out of his “Big Air” variation with his tail between his legs. “It was a worth a try,” he said later. It looked good from above.”
“That was Nebo-dacious,” Matthias declared, as he skidded to a stop below 3,000’ of incredible corn skiing on the giant east face of the tallest and southernmost peak in the Wasatch. It was May 14, and I was equally stoked to have carved near-perfect corn on one huge, remote, and inaccessible run. It drops from a point just 100 yards south of the main summit at 40-degrees, and rolls on through breakovers and pinball alleys as it wraps from Southeast to Northeast before finally falling into the terrain trap of Salt Creek after 5,000 feet. As impressive as the line itself is the acreage of trees mowed down by avalanches that obviously rake the wind-loaded bowl.
Knowing the elusive East Face was our goal for the day, we met in SLC at 2 am, the earliest start I ever for a ski tour in the Wasatch! Yet, this still wouldn’t have been early enough had we not cut 2,000’ off the usual approach by four-wheeling up the gnarly Mona Pole Road. This windfall, coupled with a maniacal sense of urgency as we bushwhacked, skinned, and cramponed up the northwest aspect of the 11,900’ peak, placed us on the summit before 9 am.
Our return climb to the summit was grueling in the direct late morning sun, but the gnarly home run enabled us to quickly forget. It was a wild line above cliffs between the two prominent north-facing couloirs visible from Little Cottonwood. Not only did it push 50-degrees, it was al-dente corn (i.e. no sun yet!) Perfect training for the Ford-Stettner on the Grand Teton! Guarded hop-turns kept us securely on our edges until we reached moderate terrain in the Mona Pole Basin. We reached the Toyota by 1, and I was back in the city in time to pick my son up from school by 3. Kind of crazy how my definition of a great day has evolved!
When scoped from Heber City, White Limbo is an irresistible ski line. When you trudge up Bunnells Fork from a trailhead at 5,400’ passing barns and pastures, you are wondering why you didn’t come by helicopter. In fact, very few people have skied the humongous northeast bowl of Cascade Mountain (10,900’) and fewer still have arrived there without a whirlybird. When I made my last kick-turn and stood on the summit in March of ‘08, I had been lusting after it for 24 years! Clouds, logistics, and the nearly ever-present specter of avalanche danger had thwarted my attempts on the fabled line during a dozen seasons with Wasatch Powderbird Guides. But now, under my own power, I had finally achieved a huge goal, and we had all day to enjoy it.
Dropping in we found “skiable” wind affects off the top, but the crust dissipated as we carved endless turns through chutes, past immense limestone cliffs, and over convex mounds of glacial-tilled talus. No one could deny it was a great line, and our 5 sets of tracks used about as much room as one pencil squiggle on an 8 x 10 page. Much canvas remained!
After a quick lunch at our cache spot, we skinned back up and sampled the next line north,” White Bimbo”, also named by WPG’s Greg Smith in the mid-eighties. Here the pow was more protected and very good. Returning to the summit for our third run, we discovered what White Limbo means. Visibility dropped to 50’ in a misty cloud, and we skied by braille next to tracks in the expansive upper bowl. At the bottom, Nelson announced that we’d need another 200’ to get 10,000 vertical feet for the day. His obsession with numbers (and our refusal to be outdone) forced us to climb once more, and ski excellent protected powder on a mid-altitude, true north, home run called Bunnell’s Funnel.
We hadn’t seen a soul all day, and we savored the hard-won prize. We felt like we had sneaked in a day of heli-skiing. Cascade Ridge is generally exclusive WPG domain. Few SLC ski tourers want to drive, let alone climb that far. Desire, weather and avalanche conditions, and team conditioning all have to come together. It had been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of tour.
Hardcore Snowbird and Alta shredders soon notice the South Face of Mt. Superior, and decide to go backcountry skiing. Having survived that 2600’ drop, they ask, “What is the BIGGEST line in this Little Canyon?” Inevitably, they are pointed to the morning sunrise on a Valdez-esque headwall down canyon cut by a half-dozen finger chutes. From the Avenues and downtown SLC, the upper 2,000’ is a white diamond in the sky, beckoning to skiers. When aspiring ski mountaineers find out it’s a 5,000’ run that comes out right on highway 210 at the“pumphouse,” many become fixated on the mythical Coalpit Headwall.
First by heli-assisted alpine tours, and more recently with Utah Mountain Adventures as a culmination of the Wasatch off-piste progression, I have been lucky enough to share the secret of the Coalpit with dozens of thankful newbies. But they don’t thank me on the way there…only at the bottom after a few beers have helped them forget the grueling approach.
Virtually no one climbs straight up the gulch, as it’s an avalanche path. Instead most start from White Pine parking lot and tour through White and Red Pine, Maybird, Hogum, and Thunder Bowl of Bells Canyon before finally reaching North Thunder Mountain, the 11,000’ summit of the mighty Coalpit. It’s also feasible to add a summit of the Pfeifferhorn to the itinerary- it’s right on the way! A descent of the Northwest Couloir, complete with 60’ rappel, or the Hogum Headwall, just west of the Pfeiff, provides a stellar” warm-up” run.
The quickest approach, however, goes through the Maybird-Hogum col, just north of the peak. From this notch, you ski a benign line to the base of the Hypodermic Needle or its Twin Chute to the south, the Sliver, and with only one more ascent you reach the ‘pit. My traditional preference is to stay north of the “Little Matterhorn” (as the Pfeiff used to be called,) and climb above the Maybird Aprons to the Obelisk, a 10’ tall granite finger that crowns point 10,600 along the “May-gum” divide. Ski the storied, west-facing “Hogum 200” and you’re at the base of the Needle. This is 2500’ of hellish ascent, but since the trail’s in,…might as well tick off the famous Hypo, a ski-width wide, 50-degree chute, before heading home down the headwall.
In recent years, I have seen skin tracks coming straight up Hogum, but this is rare, and it involves some serious bushwhacking and a 6300’start (vs. 7700 at White Pine.) This winter I discovered my new favorite approach…from Alpine in Utah County! Simply climb Lone Peak and ski the East Face (arguably the most serious run in the Wasatch.) Then skin out of West Bells, ski Thunder Bowl, do one more short ascent, and, voila, your there! One local hardman, Noah Howells, followed this tour up by climbing Tanners Gulch, skiing upper Broads Fork, then going up Bonkers and down Stairs Gulch. Now that’s a big day!!
No matter how you get there, standing atop the Coalpit, and dropping into a narrow, rocky, 50-degree entrance past the cornices, is unforgettable. Many a strong resort ripper has asked me for a “quick belay” for that first turn. It’s a doozy! Soon you feel edges catch in the chalky snow however, and instinct takes over.
After 1900 extra-Wasatchular feet on the headwall, the line spreads into three options, left, right and center. The avalanches of Jan. 2005 opened up the center nicely. This middle portion typically yields the best powder of the day. Below, skiers are forced into bushes or a tight gully and its “adventure” skiing down to the waterfall. Most years one must use a rope to pass a sketchy, 20’ long, “hole” in the creek. Only in “92-93 and ‘07-08 has it filled in enough to ski through this final crux and on to the Old Mill Trail.
When you step out onto LCC road and thumb a ride after a supertour like this, a certain smugness pervades. The driver says, “Where have you been? How was it?” You say, “Great!” and leave it at that, because what you’ve just experienced is simply beyond explanation.
Avalanche forecasting is the essential survival skill for big mountain skiers, especially in Stairs Gulch, the granddaddy of slide paths. Once you commit to the run, there is NO “island of safety” for 5000 feet! The lower you get, the more avalanche starting zones feed into the main gulch. One time as I descended through piles of avalanche debris low on the shot, I met a broken-legged deer struggling to get away from me. I couldn’t help thinking how hapless he was. I wished I had a gun to finish the poor bugger off, but I’m sure a cougar feasted on him before long.
I believe Stairs can be safely skied at some point in most seasons, but weak, depth hoar snowpack warrants abstinence. In ‘02-03 and ‘06-07, for example, this (and virtually all the big lines) remained unstable throughout the winter. Many (wise) individuals ski Stairs once in their lives, and count their blessings. Conversely, in 2008 the pack was solid. I found myself climbing up Broads Fork and skiing “down the Stairs” 6 times with 6 different groups of super-stoked clients!
It’s hard to believe you are in the” little old Wasatch,” when you carve endless turns under 4,000-foot Storm Mountain. Nearly vertical quartzite slabs, plastered with a veneer of snow and occasional rivulets of blue ice, beckon northwall alpinists homesick for the Eiger. For powder skiers, the approach run, Bonkers in Broads Fork, is much better than Stairs (and I try to make at least one lap there before heading to the home run.) But if adventure skiing is your bag, then you don’t mind breakable crust, jagged rocks, narrow chutes, tongues of avalanche debris, and funky low-altitude snow. Multiple creek crossings and downhiking past summer rock climbs are all part of the journey.
And how truly brutal is it anyway? One perfect February day I saw a large party drop in behind us. As we celebrated with some liquid carbs at the bottom, Drew Hardesty of the Utah Avalanche Center came beaming out of the woods followed by a 60 year old woman and a 70 year old man. “Amazing up there today,” I said, as we exchanged grins. “Yeah,” he replied, “Pretty sweet!” And, referring to the green (low) hazard forecast by the center that day, he added” green means go!” When it comes to skiing big lines, Carpe Diem!
Efficiency in Backcountry Skiing
Now that Obama is in the White House, and education is back in vogue, I’m applying for a grant. I got an undergrad degree in Econ in ‘87, and since then I’ve been gathering evidence for my PhD Thesis, “Efficiency in the Mountains.” Basically, my premise is this: no one can achieve their personal best without maximizing efficiency. We want to make America more productive, right? So I need to continue my research and test my theory. Here are a few of my findings to date.
Rest Step: Lock your downhill leg at the knee on every uphill step, even if its just for an instant, and rest on skeletal structure, rather than muscular. Whenever you stop, always weight a straight downhill knee, a bit like a horse does. The bigger your pack, the higher the altitude, or the more runs you’ve already taken, the longer the “rest” is. This applies for hiking, cramponing, and skinning.
Pressure Breathing is simply forcing breaths out through pursed lips. What does your diaphragm have to do once you forcibly exhale? That’s right, re-inflate! The upshot: increased respirations and more Oxygen. O2 enhances muscle performance and aerobic capacity. Try to find a rhythm between pressure breathing and rest-stepping and pretty soon you’ll be standing on the summit of Everest!
Skinning: If you own wide skis with full coverage climbing skins, you have already made a quantum leap in efficiency over any other means of snow travel. Now here’s a well-kept secret: set skin trails that minimize slippage. I don’t care how strong you are, you will climb higher and further if you go at a low-enough angle to avoid loss of traction. Recovering from a slip takes energy. So does stomping to avoid a slip.
It’s also important to recognize that your first time up a trail you get better traction than on your second. So, if you are trying to “weed out” the riff-raff behind you by putting up a steep trail, think again. You’re shooting yourself in the foot for your subsequent ascents on that same track! And if you never reuse your trail, well…”Thanks,” we appreciate you! Maximizing fresheez is obviously NOT your priority.
Switchbacks are a necessary evil, and it pays to get fast and smooth. Learn the Euro snap turn, get a pair of Dynafit or flex-in-front-of the toe Tele bindings and keep that tip low, back, and out of the snow as you snap it around. But no matter how good you get, kickturns suck energy! Avoid them whenever possible and you will feel fresher. Work the terrain for the lowest angle “weakness” and never fret about laying a skin track across the ski run. Any backcountry skier who can avoid rocks, trees, and avalanches can “unweight” as they cross a skin trail and compress into the powder below it.
Whenever possible, do “walking turns” rather than full-blown kick turns. It’s OK to go steeper briefly as you make the corner if it avoids a hip-wrenching kick turn. Ideally, put the uptrack on a “railroad grade” where progress is straight up the fall-line. Never commit to a side-hill, where one foot is higher than the other, if you can avoid it. Keep both feet flat and push evenly on the snow. Your feet, ankles, hips, etc. will thank you.
Booting: When the snow is bulletproof, put your skis on the pack. If it’s a short section, strap both skis together “rando style” so that you minimize the transition time. If you must carry skis for thousands of feet, A-frame them. This puts the load closer to your torso, thus minimizing the apparent weight of the load. Consider crossing the tips past one another to make an “X” rather than pushing them together in an inverted “V.” The X forces the tails apart so they don’t hit the back of your legs, which is especially helpful on downhikes.
Flat-footing, or “French technique” is the key to efficient booting. Front-pointing on slopes less than 50-degrees burns-out the calf muscles. Duck footing or crossover stepping and switchbacking is the way to succeed, with or without crampons.
If you’d like more efficiency techniques, send me an email or come to a ski touring clinic at Utah Mountain Adventures. A day in the mountains is worth a thousand words!