Have you ever wondered why they call the steep headwall left of Baldy Chutes at Alta, “Perla’s?” According to a story from Bengt Sandahl’s first day of avalanche control at Alta, then Forest Service snow ranger, Ron Perla, took a rather exciting ride there. Ray Lindquist and Perla were on belay setting explosives on a cornice that overhung some thirty feet over the Ballroom, 1,000 feet below when, Binx recounts, “All of a sudden the whole god damn cornice broke off. Ray jerked me out of my belay seat and I’m thinking, ‘Sweet Jesus, I’m going over the edge.’ But before that can happen both of Ray’s kids jump on me and stop their dad. So there Ray is, dangling on the end of this rope, watching the cornice fall into the snowfield below and start a massive avalanche…He looks over at Perla, but Perla isn’t there, his rope broke! Ray looks straight down and sees Perla flying through the air like Mary Poppins and then disappearing into that churning mass of snow. Perla rode twelve hundred feet in the avalanche, going eighty or ninety miles an hour over rock bands and through trees, he was buried a few minutes, but he wasn’t killed, it was like a miracle.”
Few would argue that Perla deserves a geographic feature in his name. It should have been the whole peak instead of just one headwall. In the absence of such hair-raising stories, creativity is severely lacking for place names in the Salt Lake Mountains. Twin Peaks is fine, but do we really need two pairs of Twins within sight of each other? Especially when they are the two highest massifs in the tri-canyon area? We know silver made 19th century miners’ hearts beat, but five out of eight lakes in the central Wasatch are designated for the same precious metal. “Meet me at Silver Lake” could easily result in friends missing one another by several canyons. The adjective “dry” whether it’s a fork, creek, or gulch recurs consistently. “Baldy” refers to several summits in the area and Bald Knoll and Bald Ridge add to the confusion.
Cutting and milling timber was an important reason for development of the canyons on the city’s eastern frontier, but besides Mill Creek, we also suffer from five branches of Big Cottonwood Canyon being lettered versions of Mill Canyon: Mill A through Mill F, most with both south and north forks. A dozen drainages go by essentially the same boring title!? This consistency of mundaneness compares to the British explorations in the Karakorum Range in modern-day Pakistan. Overwhelmed by the number of lofty summits, they dubbed them Karakorum 1 through?? Even today K2, K7 and others still carry these deplorable, mass-production monikers.
Yet the Wasatch forefathers choice of labels is confusing in other cases because of inconsistency. Why is Red Baldy in White Pine Gulch? Answer: because it has reddish sedimentary rock while White Baldy (located in neighboring Red Pine Gulch!) is composed of gray and white Granite. As if this wasn’t enough to get people lost, there are also Red and White Pine canyons on the eastern slope of the range, and each side has its own Flagstaff Mountain!?
The heritage of most place names can be traced to mining, pioneer, and Indian times. Hundreds of miners and wannabes came seeking mineral fortunes after Emma Mine, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, produced $ 2 million between 1869 and 1872. Mount Superior, Michigan City and Toledo Peak indicate the preponderance of Midwesterners in the mining crowd. Germania, Davenport, and Montreal were other mine claims. Also popular were names like Snowbird and Maybird. Someone saw a likeness to South America’s Andes in the Peruvian Gulch claim and to Europe’s Alps in Monte Cristo Mine.
The miners first lived in a place called Central City, but after it had been swept by avalanches and torched by fires, residents agreed a new location was needed in upper LCC. They decided to cluster around the Alta Hotel, so named because it was the highest (altitude) building in town. Soon the town itself was just plain “Alta.” The Albion Basin above town was referred to as “Never Sweat” for a time, but the name was deemed too frightening to visitors and it reverted back to the original label, according to long-time Alta Mayor Bill Levitt.
Mineral Fork and Basin, only a few miles apart in BCC and American Fork respectively, undoubtedly earned their titles on the basis of mining wealth, real or imagined. Coalpit Gulch, on the other hand, is devoid of that wonderful black rock, the combustion of which increases our carbon footprint. The drainage is actually composed of a rugged granitic headwall and gully. Coalpit probably got its name because coal for the narrow-gauge LCC railway, running up the lower canyon to the Tannersville Sawmill, was stored in pits, one of which must have been located near the mouth of the gnarly gulch.
Gobbler’s Knob on the Mill Creek/Big Cottonwood Canyon divide can be a super place to ski on Thanksgiving Day, but that’s only a modern interpretation of the name. It actually derives from the fact that poverty-stricken miners, looking to augment their meager earnings, raised turkeys on the broad, sloping meadows skiers now love to put signatures on. The birds grazed all across the hill and got water from Baker Spring on the eastern side, where a cabin remained until just recently. Greg Smith, of Wasatch Powderbird Guides, guesses the fertile Turkey droppings contributed to the broad spectrum of impressive wildflowers that now adorn the knob in summer. The farming venture, however, did not suit the miners for long.
The Mormon pioneers, who preceded them into the Salt Lake Valley, generally disdained the sinful gold-diggers seeking quick riches in favor of a pious, industrious life of agriculture and industry. Nonetheless, a few did establish mountain outposts among them. William Stewart Brighton arrived from Scotland with a wave of handcart pushing Mormons in 1857. Seeking initially to make a buck off the sourdoughs, he built the Brighton Hotel in 1874, to cater to the miners traveling between Park City and Alta.
One of the most popular and aesthetically pleasing of Wasatch peaks (and one of the best named) is the Pfiefferhorn, previously called Little Matterhorn. The name change was requested by the Wasatch Mountain Club to honor its former president, Chic Pfieffer, who promoted skiing in the canyons and died under strange circumstances in the late 1930s, according to Alexis Kelner. Just west of this triangular horn is Airplane Ridge, which links Thunder Mountain to the South Cirque of Hogum Fork. It was christened after a 1930s DC-3 crash that killed a dozen people there. Bits and pieces of the fuselage can still be found along the rugged divide. Hogum is a giant, inhospitable memento to glaciers receded, but its appellation remains a mystery. Did someone raise hogs in the boulder fields? It’s probably a pioneer name.
Cardiff Fork is the mining name for Mill D south fork. It holds some incredibly popular ski terrain including Cardiac Bowl and Ridge. Charles Chauncey Hall, a prominent Salt Lake orthopedist, suggested the “Cardiac” cognomen upon inspecting the area from Cardiff Pass on a Wasatch Mountain Club outing. “Someone could have a heart attack just by looking at the avalanche potential over there!” he cowered. Greg Smith, whose heli-ski clients loved the run, thought the name “Cardiac” derived from the fact that the undulating, knife-edge ridge between Mt. Superior and Ivory Flakes resembles an EKG line. In my experience at WPG, many flat-landers, upon trying to ski this awesome shot top-to-bottom like their guide, are on the verge of cardiac arrest.
Smith and his guides used to ski Broad’s Fork before it became part of Twin Peaks Wilderness in 1984. One awesome, 2,400-foot, northeast-facing powder run became a favorite, and its name endures. “It was late afternoon,” Smith recalls, when he entitled the shot. “Clouds were spilling over from Ferguson Canyon and being illuminated pink by the setting sun. The snow was incredible, and I was turning forever. I said to myself, ‘I’m going Bonkers.’”
Mill B south fork, located just east of Broad’s, never has achieved a unique popular name, but many people call it Lake Blanche Canyon. It’s one of many places named after women in the mining / pioneer era. Blanche, a lovely lake up high in the drainage, along with nearby tarns Lilian and Florence, are rumored to have been named by the early pioneers after three zealous ladies of the late nineteenth century who served law and order by moonlighting as police decoys in nearby mining camps. Patsy Marley was an entirely different type of woman from the same era. She was the madam at Alta’s brothel, located at the base of the ridge that now bears her name, according to Alta Ski School director and historian Alan Engen. Black Bess was apparently one of the most popular employees with the guests at the Alta Cat House. Coincidentally, a modern day “cathouse,” Alta’s snowcat shed, now stands on the same site. Emma had some important early stature. Was she Big? Or is it just that the grand ski boulevard of Snowbird’s Gad Valley is so wide?
Mary Ellen Gulch in American Fork was designated for a mining era woman, possibly a cook, who lost her life under bizarre circumstances in a nearby tunnel complex. Neighboring Miller Hill is appointed for Jacob and William Miller of Park City, who had the initial mining claim there. Subsequent owners did very well with gold, silver, copper, and lead on the peal in Mineral Basin. The last to strike it rich was George Tyng, who was killed in an avalanche and buried near the top of the knob.
Most of the giving of titles to geographical features was done long ago. The features left to name in modern times have become smaller. Individual couloirs have been given tags. Timpanogos’ Grunge Couloir, as you’ll know if you’ve been there in late spring, was not named for Pearl Jam. It has to do with the massive quantities of rocks, dirt and debris that turn the snow grey in there and dull your ski edges. Helmets recommended!
God’s Lawnmower is a pretty catchy handle for the monstrous, diabolical slide path (and ski run) on Kessler Peak’s North Face. Perhaps dubbed by Fred Henion, its one of several fine exhibits in the avalanche laboratory that is the Central Wasatch Range. As viewed from Big Cottonwood Canyon, it is the textbook avalanche path, having perfectly straight, symmetrical, fall line trim lines, where avalanches have mowed down the forest, on both sides. It broke naturally in 1946, and covered the BCC road, which was then on the south side of the creek, so deeply it didn’t re-open for 2 years! A similar slide ran in 1997, this time shot by Tom Carruthers, and Wasatch Powderbird Guides, under contract from Utah Department of Transportation to protect drivers on Highway 190.
For more on the subject of Wasatch place names and Utah skiing history, sit down with a few old-timers, as I was lucky enough to do with Greg Smith, Bill Levitt, Ted Wilson and others in researching this article. Or check out Skiing in Utah by Alexis Kelner and For the Love of Skiing, A Visual History by Alan K. Engen.