The Wildcat Traverse


wildcat

A rugged jumble of quartzite peaks and points stretching from Mt. Olympus east toward Mt. Raymond is collectively known as the Wildcat Ridge. To traverse it in spring or fall can be a delightful escape from humanity, heat, and hectic life in the city. Your focus narrows to a single spine of rock as you seek a line both aesthetic and efficient. The goal is to scramble along the very crest, absorbing big views and solving a long day’s worth of climbing problems along the way. All but the boldest will “cheat” off the ridge in places- some of us more often than others.

The first leg is simply a steep trail-hike to the 9,026’ south (main) summit of Mt. Olympus. This is a popular and strenuous route, where dawn-patrollers stay fit by dashing up and down 4400’ in impressively quick times. Last June summiteers were flabbergasted to find an American flag planted in cement right on the top. While many of us love our country, this was clearly an inappropriate display of patriotism, and was actually more akin to litter on a wilderness peak, since fierce winds would certainly blow it to shreds. Public pressure came to bear, and fortunately the stars and stripes were removed shortly thereafter by the misguided Boy Scout troop that originally erected the staff.

Hiking toward Fin

For the most part, the Wildcat Traverse is a fun route-finding puzzle for the intrepid scrambler. A faint trail is apparent in only a few places. Moving east is the general idea. But when a difficult impasse is encountered, one must drop off the ridge and possibly switchback before returning to it. For starters, immediately after parting ways with the masses on Olympus, I like to retrace my steps briefly. The friendliest route drops back west slightly and descends about 200 feet before contouring east to a saddle.

Fun class 3 and 4 rock-scrambling moves keep one close the crest as you climb east from this tiny col, where a skinny couloir drops NE into North’s Fork. Class 3 means three body parts are needed to climb in control: typically 2 feet and one hand. Class 4 is steeper; 4 body parts recommended. Many class 4 climbing moves stacked vertically means a dangerous fall could occur, and the rating jumps to class 5. A rope is warranted, especially when down-climbing such terrain.

 

A few tall “cockscomb” sections offer 100-feet + of exposure, and unobstructed views of Salt Lake Valley’s south end. These segments are interspersed with bits of easy ground and culminate in a horizontal, raised, sidewalk in-the-sky section. Here the ridge crest is flat, wide and smooth enough to dance a jig! The quartzite is very solid going east from here, but eventually there is an impasse, and I feel obliged to belay a section of class 4 down climbing to the south. It has great handholds, but is nearly vertical.

 

Triangle Peak is the next significant highpoint , sitting 0.8 miles east of Olympus, and a fine choice for lunch. It gets its name from the shape it presents when viewed from northeast SLC. Imposing from below, its actually mellow on top. Relatively easy boulder hopping just south of the ridge crest brings one to the spacious, scenic lunchroom on top, where a summit register is the only reminder you’re not the first one to tread there.

Ledge Traverse

Three sharp serrations dominate the ridge east of Triangle. A fun system of ramps and boulders enables ropeless passage of the first two “sisters.” Then a steep slot descends south, bypassing the overhanging third tower. A large block atop the chimney provides a belay anchor, if desired. A 100-foot descent and short contour left leads to shady woods with ferns and raspberries, a cool oasis after the sun-exposed rocky expanse of the open ridge top.

Meander back to a saddle on the divide and angle south toward Peak 9,587, aka Forest Peak, a rather innocuous evergreen treed summit. Just below it, a steep north-facing slope at the base of small cliffs often harbors a snowfield, where you can turn your Gatorade into a cold slushy and supplement your water supply for the remainder of the traverse. In late June we encountered a thick cloud of moths east of the summit. The quantity of adults can apparently be increased by a warm spring. The moths were so numerous we had to don parkas with hoods and wear shades to keep them off our skin and out of our eyes as they flapped around crazily in the woods.

The broad, summit soon gives way to a narrowing crest of smooth, unprotectable quartzite elevated well above the surrounding ground. Not wishing to risk a deadly fall, I like to drop off to the north here, even if it means stepping in snow. It’s perhaps preferable to the slippery mud near the melting edges, and only a couple hundred horizontal feet of mushy afternoon snow need be negotiated before the ridge spine becomes moderate again. A short, steep chimney leads to a saddle before the ascent to peak 9,773. Just west of it is a spectacular spine rising 100 feet above the ridge, that I call the Wildcat Fin.

Sidewalk in Sky

If I ever bring a lead rope and a rack, it appears there would be a beautiful pitch of technical, belayed climbing on its crest. The fin juts skyward here and overhangs on the south and drops steeply for thousands of feet into Whipple Fork of Big Cottonwood Canyon. But without such gear, I’m not up for highly exposed, ~5.8 climbing deep in the Olympus Wilderness. Instead, the usual scramble route involves descending north into Thomas Fork about 100 feet and finding a dirt ramp rising steeply, but efficiently and easily to Point 9,773 and its broad, benign summit.

Great views south and east toward Gobbler’s Knob, Mt. Raymond, Monte Cristo and all of the Cottonwood Crest can be enjoyed from the open meadow near the summit, where a pair of ancient, dead Limber Pines stand. They probably fell prey to a lightning strike. After many hours of exposed scrambling, there is a longing to lie down on the alpine tundra and take an afternoon nap, yet we still have long miles to go. A bit of coaxing is required to get some folks to eat the umpteenth bar of the day, sip on their dwindling water supply, and push on to the east.

We enjoy easy down climbing for 300 feet to a saddle, before the ridge becomes challenging again, and a prominent yellow pillar blocks the way to Peak 9,795, the high point of the Wildcat Ridge. The left side of the ridge has friendly slopes to descend and re-climb around the Yellow Tower, but the right (south) side of the ridge also has an easy bypass route with even less descending, and at this point in the day, we get stingy with altitude!

A reddish hue to the last rugged section of the traverse gives the small high point its nickname, Red Knob. Just below it stands another huge, 1000 year old Limber Pine. As I admire it and talk about how many of its kin are succumbing to bark beetle kill in the Wasatch, I nearly step on a rattlesnake! His beige skin conceals him in the tan talus, but when he wiggles, I’m startled out of my wits, and jump back, landing on my elbow, and sustaining the first (minor) injury of the day. I’m more shocked and awed than hurt, but I’m reminded that danger is everywhere, and I better keep my focus.

Stan and Flag

 

Due to its minor prominence above the ridge, Red Knob holds little attraction. To stand on top, and appreciate views back toward Mt. Olympus and Triangle Peak, one must double back slightly to the west. We blow it off and trudge doggedly on. The ridge is still aesthetic here, and sharp enough to demand attention to route. When we can’t keep to the crest, we parallel it on the south, and practically in the middle of the developing climbers trail I see a tawny bird sitting on 2 white eggs! Another close encounter with nature, but this time she’s more scared than me, and flies quickly away. Concerned she’ll abandon the precious progeny, I take pains to drop down around her “nest” and have the others do the same. When I guide the route again a week later, I’m pleased to see her back on the nest, keeping junior warm!

The way continues to become more like a hike than a climb as we mosey over the aspen-covered top of point 9,631 and saunter down open meadows to a well-established trail coming up from Neffs Canyon and continuing on, ever more faintly, to Mt. Raymond. The final traverse to Raymond is in a limestone rock regime, and is much more eroded and gentle than the preceding miles of rugged quartzite scrambling. So after my first solo of the Wildcat Traverse, I’ve decided to forego the Porter Fork/Mt. Raymond section and the long, rocky trail descent of Mill B North, and bike or car shuttle back to Pete’s Rock.

Instead we pull out our trekking poles at the pass, slip on comfy running shoes, and trot down the soft dirt trail into Neffs. Although some lingering snow may be crossed, the going is pretty easy, and there is much shade. Best of all, there is an idyllic mountain spring 400 feet below the saddle, where you can drink your fill of naturally-filtered, chlorine-free, delicious, pure H2O! Early pioneers fashioned a watering trough here and filling a jug is easy. Animals love the lush location, including a male Western Tanager, who looks like an exotic tropical parakeet with his bright orange and yellow mating season plumage.

Western Tanager cropped

The views of impressive quartzite ramps and towers in upper Neffs are great as you drop down the mostly low-angle trail through ferns, aspen and tall spring greenery. Steeper sections in white fir forest lead to shady groves of Maple where a swing hangs from a branch. The closer you get to a city-side trailhead, like Neffs, the more people you see. When we meet a couple in street shoes, with no packs, water or raincoats, and smelling of perfume and aftershave lotion, we know our sore feet will soon get relief. The 10-hour loop covers a similar number of miles, and the vertical gain / loss is near 7,000 feet. As we drive back to the start point, we celebrate another great workout and backyard adventure in the remarkable Wasatch Mountains.

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