Climbers, when viewing a mountain for the first time, are naturally drawn to the habit of figuring out the most aesthetic route to the summit. Whether it be via an obvious couloir, ridge line or buttress, the aesthetics of the line taken to the summit is often more important than gaining the summit itself. The route is the voyage, while the summit is the destination. The climber’s first cousins, the skiers, share in the same mentality. There are ski lines that almost feel like they are talking to you when you view them. It’s as if they are saying “Come- ski me if you can” Examples being the Skillet Glacier of the Teton’s Mt Moran, the South Face of Mt Superior as viewed from Alta, and in the Heber Valley- looking at the massive sky line of Mt Timpanogos, the East ridge that drops nearly 5,000 vertical feet off of the South Summit into Sundance. Viewing Timpanogos from anywhere along the Wasatch back, the ski line off the South Summit down the East ridge looks as though, Ullr the god of snow, cut this line himself for his own spring time corn skiing pleasures.
4:00 AM May 16th Aspen Grove Trailhead above the Sundance Resort.
The Deer Valley ski mountaineering team is deployed. Ski patrol supervisor Darrell Finlayson, ski instructors, James Dumas, Jean Roush, myself and, at 60 years young- Carol Agle, are heading up Primrose Cirque as the peach colored alpenglow starts to illuminate our surroundings. The beautiful colors of the sunrise on the hanging valleys above us help lessen the suffering when we’re trying not to think about another four to five hours of uphill effort.
After surmounting the final headwall of Primrose Cirque we take a brief break to refuel and take in the grandeur of our setting beneath the North Summit of Timpanogos and the summit of Robert’s Horn. From here, the task at hand lessens in intensity as we’re now able to enjoy some low angle skinning past the Emerald Lake shelter towards the snowfield route used by summertime peak baggers. While heading for the saddle that separates the North and South ridge lines of the sleeping maiden that is Timpanogos, she starts to speak to us as she awakens.
The sounds of falling rock and snow coming of the East Face remind us all that we’d better hurry before things get too warm.
500 vertical feet below the saddle we face a common question. Can we make it skinning, or is it time to transition to crampons? Dumas, with his ski crampons that look as though Batman made them, leads the charge and makes it with no problem. Finlayson makes it as well. Above me, Agle is about 50 vertical feet below the headwall that is guarding the saddle, when she loses her edge and takes a ride. 400 vertical feet later she figures out how to use her new best friend, a Black Diamond self arrest ski pole “Whippet”. Fearing that she may be a little banged up and not want to continue, I’m comforted when she looks over and exclaims “Awesome!!! I wasn’t getting enough of a workout, and am looking forward to climbing back up that again!!! “It was after seeing this that Roush and I make the quick decision to put our crampons on.
Gaining the saddle, we’re now back in the sun with an awesome view of Provo and Utah Lake. After a short break for some food, water, and a refresher course on self arrest techniques we begin climbing the West face to gain the South Summit ridge line. Due to the loose talus and interspersed sections of frozen snow fields, we transition to skis on packs and self arrest tools in hands.
Once upon the summit ridge we are treated with views into both the Provo & Heber Valleys with just a slight turn of our heads. With no wind and direct solar gain, the snow is starting to heat rapidly. The chiseled ridge line heading south to our destination is covered with overhanging cornices that have large moats from creep and glide action and extend all the way back to where they join with the talus covered ridge line. The easy decision to stay on the talus for the remainder of the climb was made, as it was obvious that riding a falling cornice over the cliff bands of the East face into Cascade Cirque would result in a closed casket gathering.
We arrive at the end of the ridge line, and the cairn that marks the South Summit, with the snow starting to soften quickly. After the morning’s effort, I need to get some anti-oxidants into my system to help combat the lactic acid in my body. I reach into my pack and pull out a bottle of summit Sangiovese red wine and two lexan wine glasses. After opening the bottle and pouring the glasses full for a summit toast, I discover that Dumas and I are the only drinkers on this ski team. I think to myself “what perfect new ski partners I’ve found!!! More for me!!! “
The mid morning buffet will have to wait as the corn is now ripe, it’s time to go. A few steps down the East Ridge places us in position to put our skis on for the descent.
What exactly is corn snow? And why the hurry?
For me, true corn snow, the kind you can only find in the backcountry, is a more of a rare delicacy than powder snow. A person can get powder at a resort during a storm and early the morning after a storm. But for quality corn to be produced, just the right amount of melt/freeze cycles in a undisturbed snow pack (i.e. no skiers or boarders have ridden over the surface) have to occur before slopes are ready to be harvested. Predicting the timing of when to ski a major corn descent is as much an art form as it is a science of snow.
Luck is needed as well.
You may be forced to ski bone rattling ice after climbing for hours to your selected run by a single band of clouds that is covering the sun from doing its work. Or worse yet, arrive an hour or less too late, and the slope you want to ski is now primed for wet snow avalanches. For this descent I had been religiously watching the conditions of when to go for it- for 3 weeks. A mixed bag of weather for the weeks prior was making the job difficult. Some nights it would not freeze, some days it would snow, other times it would rain, some days were way too warm. If too hot, would the slope develop roller balls that will just ruin the whole line or even wet slide the whole thing down to the talus? With a limited amount of freezing nights in the forecast, would we even get a shot at it this season? After 3 days of perfect high pressure conditions, with great refreezes in the evenings and not too high daytime temps, conditions were ripe, as all the local mountains were glistening in the evening sun as they do when the corn is ready for harvest.
Dumas leads the charge, and makes the first cut in the slope releasing that ever so sweet sound of millions of corn kernels, cascading down a glass-smooth surface groomed by god. In a few hundred vertical feet, we find that the slope has melted out enough from the previous day that a clean path through the upper most rock band does not seem available. After a little traversing, we decide upon an area where we can make it with a little down climbing on rock, with our skis on. From here we head skiers left out to the crest of the East Ridge. From scouting it out earlier in the week I know that out by the crest lies the correct link up of chutes that will take us through the massive cliff bands that guard our way from the comforts of the Big Provo Cirque.
We’ve just finished playing our last round of “Chutes and Cliff bands” and feel like winners as we are able to now fan out and enjoy making our own untracked lines all over the lower bowl and down into the tree line.
After a couple more thousand feet of fun gully and tree skiing, we arrive at our last exit chute in the drainage above Stewarts Falls. A tight chute with thin snow bridges covers the sound of the waterfalls behind them, and lets us know that there is still one more round to be played of the game. At the tightest point there is only a half a ski length wide area of snow 6 inches thick that keeps us from falling into the waterfall that runs behind the snow pack. As the last person in our group finally executes the required sidestep/ sideways jump over the thin snow bridge, I think to myself that today is the last day this season that this line will be viable. A few hundred vertical feet further we find ourselves running out of snow just above Stewarts Falls where we are now able to enjoy a leisurely lunch on flat dry ground.
A little bushwhacking to the north of the waterfall takes us to the summer trail to Sundance, and a pleasant walk back to Roush’s car for the shuttle back to Aspen Grove, where we had started our day.
Driving back to Park City, my thoughts now turn to seeing if I can catch a brown trout before the day is done. A stop by one of my favorite stretches of the Middle Provo is in order, and soon I have one on the line.
Brigham Young had it right, I think to myself, Utah, “This is the Place.”
Originally from Jackson, Cameron has been teaching at Deer Valley since 1987. He has guided clients in New Zealand, Alaska, Kashmir Himalaya and beyond. In addition to the Grand Teton, he has skied 5 of the 7 major Teton peaks, with the goal of skiing the other 2 this spring.
East Face of Timpanogos
Season– April to May, conditions permitting.
Wasatch Tours Volume 3 –The Southern Wasatch
Kelner and Hanscom authors. Check out the photos on pages 169, 171 & 173
Standard full day spring backcountry kit–beacon, shovel, probe, extra layer, sunscreen extra gloves, water, food, (wine?). As always, be prepared for changing weather.
Ski mountaineering ice axe and/or self arrest ski
Ski crampons (optional but recommended)
Crampons (optional but recommended)
If following the ascent route from Aspen Grove:
Photo and/or study the East Ridge prior to descent to figure out the line from the summit through the cliff bands. Also study the line from Big Provo Cirque down to the drainage above Stewarts Falls.
Be aware of thin snow bridges above waterfalls. Always cross snow bridges one at a time.
You can pick up the summer trail at the base of Stewarts Falls back to Aspen Grove or better yet leave a vehicle for shuttle purposes at Sundance and return to the resort via the Stewarts Falls trail.
It is approximately 4.8 miles and 4800 vertical feet of climbing to the South Summit from Aspen Grove.