A Mid-Summer Dream

The Lisa Cottonwood Traverse

Ten minutes after leaving the trailhead we start climbing. Water-polished granite
in a steep-sided gorge requires our full attention. Scanning for hand and
footholds with headlamps, our bodies and minds must wake up, although its only
4 am! Most big mountain scrambles require a long, boring slog up a trail before
the fun begins, but not Lisa Falls. It’s one of the many great attributes that
sets this Class 4 scramble route at the top of my Wasatch summer fun list.

It’s also cool and shady here, and
we’re wearing extra layers, in spite of a forecast high of 100 in SLC. An hour
into the odyssey the friction moves on smooth, white granite get even more
committing. To avoid the beautiful pour-offs along the watercourse, we must
climb up and right, away from the creek and stem up a flaring chimney feature.
Pulling out of it onto easier ground I traverse back left then up again,
catching a glimpse of the stream, now 100’ below.

I’d rather be up here than trying to
stay close to it where the sloping stone is more slippery from eons of water
flow. I once tried that line and found it was like a 5.6 friction traverse with
no positive holds, and no protection to be had. A slip into the creek would not
be deadly, but getting out again would be akin to scaling the walls of a giant
bathtub with wet soles. Not an easy task, regardless of how sticky your shoe
rubber is.

Instead we contour along a narrowing
ledge far above the flow, looking for a way down. Once I used a rope and
rappelled here, but this time I discover a weakness. By struggling between a
tiny evergreen tree and the steep wall above, I find the ledge descends and in
a few more feet I can downclimb a 10’ vertical step to the grassy gully bottom.

Minimizing the use of rope is key to
efficiency on long scrambles, just as using one to protect exposed moves is
essential to avoid a nasty fall. By keeping it in the pack here, we’ve saved
time, and we keep scrambling along the creek. Now our gully opens up and
tributaries come in from both east and west. It’s important to avoid making a
wrong turn. Staying left takes you on a line west of the West Salt Lake Twin

Veering right takes you toward
O’Sullivan (aka Sunrise Peak,) which I’ve also erroneously done. The west line
results in more difficult climbing moves, and the east line involves a long
traverse back west before entering the enclosure of upper Lisa Falls Couloir.
We ascend directly up, away from both gorges, following moderate, gravelly
friction that leads to grassy ledges. Moving up and right we’re soon in the
“heart” of the Lisa Falls drainage. The pink glow of sunrise sheds a
spectacular light on the rugged ramparts of the Lone Peak Wilderness across
Little Cottonwood Canyon to the south. The Pfeifferhorn, Maybird and Hogum
Gulches, the Y-Couloir and Coalpit are lit up. We applaud the dawn light on our
favorite ski terrain as we pause for a snack and rest.

Pushing on, we travel on wide-open
grassy slopes dodging thickets of scrubby spruce and clambering over small
cliff “steps.” Staying left of the main gully we avoid several deep shady
ravines where snow lingers long. In September of 2011 you could have skied 500’
of bulletproof summer “firn” snow here. A similar amount of snow remained in
June of 2012 after a dryer winter.

We can see the narrow slot couloir
above, and we move up into its cozy confines. Between the overhanging wall of
solid, reddish quartzite on our left and the smooth, whiter, lower-angle stone
on our right, there is an odd purple-ish strip of rock. It has a coarser
grained structure and is stickier to our soles than the quartzite. We follow
the “Purple Path” as it leads ever upward; a friendly weakness between two
immense walls of steep, technical stone.

This time we encounter slow going due
to the hard summer snow choking the gully in places. “Moats” have formed along
the snow’s edges where it has melted away from the rock. Mostly we can squeeze
our bodies through and we feel pretty secure pushing off the solid snow with
one hand and “stemming” off the rock wall with the other. Although it’s tricky
in spots, we save time by not transitioning to crampons our pulling out our ice
axes. Come to think of it, we haven’t all brought such sharpies, so it’s a good
thing we can get by without!

Route descriptions refer to a 5.7 crux
in this area, and indeed there is some difficult ground. The actual rating
depends on exactly what line you take. It’s essential to move away from some
dangerously loose rock on the left, and so we cross to the right. A few steeper
moves lead to a place we can traverse and descend slightly back into the
couloir proper. As usual on this route, the hardest moves are horizontal and
nearly impossible to protect with a rope. I spot the holds for my follower, and
soon we’re back on mellower climbing.

In fact it soon becomes a hands-free
hike, as the upper couloir widens out and easier lines present themselves on
the right. We take this option, and are relieved to be out of a now
rubble-filled gully bottom. The only challenge here, as the stone changes to
brown slate/shale, is staying clear of the dense, low evergreens. These
thickets make great dens for the non-indigenous mountain goats, but they’re
abrasive on exposed human skin.

The views across Little Cottonwood
Canyon open up again and the wind picks up as we take the final steps to the
East Summit of the SL Twin Peaks. Now we finally see signs of other humans.
There is a much easier line of ascent, even a trail in places, coming up Broads
Fork from Big Cottonwood Canyon. Most Cottonwood Crest scramblers, or Triple
Crown (Twins, Sully, and Dromedary) summit-baggers come this way. After
celebrating the summit and view of SL Valley, we hustle down the well-trodden
climbers trail toward O’Sullivan Peak.

A welcome strip of soft grass pads our
sore feet as we move horizontally east onto a knife-edge crest of slate/shale.
A 30’ long, 5.4-rated, fist-sized crack provides a down climbing crux, and I do
a quick hip-belay. Soon we’re scrambling quickly together again and we reach
the base of Sully’s steep western buttress. We link ledges and chimneys past
patches of brilliant yellow Cinquefoil flowers through terrain that can be
safely protected by means of a belay from above.

Passing one false summit, we carry on
to a wide sidewalk in the sky that leads to the top of O’Sully. Big views east
to Snowbird and beyond greet our eyes. A photo and snack, and we off again,
descending the easy, but wildly exposed east ridge. In places we look down the
slabby north face for a sheer thousand feet into upper Broads Fork. Snow
lingers on the lee side of aprons and at the base of the cliffs. Otherwise it’s
a massive glacial-carved cirque of dry talus cones.

Fractured rock on the south side of the
crest is the “weakness,” but we accidentally send a few rocks crashing down
into Tanners Gulch. We shout “rock!” and hope no one is unlucky enough to be
ascending that way this morning. Tanner’s Col itself requires a few more steep,
loose chimneys to get to. Like most mountain passes, it’s windy here, so we
continue toward the 3rd jewel of the Broads Fork Triple Crown, Dromedary Peak. It’s
one of 6 points over 11,000’ high we’ll set foot on today.

Cottonwood Crest’s steepest chimney pitch is just around the corner from the
col. Fortunately it belays securely with good anchoring. Sadly, it marks the
end of the Wasatchʼ incredibly fine quartzite until you get to the Monte Cristo
massif. Soft, friable slate/shale compose the rim rock all across the top of
Mill B. South, a massive drainage. It has 3 cirques, headed by the impressive
eleven-thousanders, Dromedary, Monte Cristo, and Superior.


Luckily, the slate is mostly solid if
you stick as much as possible to the crest. This class 4 scramble in the sky
has exposed down-climbing moves and spectacular gendarmes with incredible views
to SL Valley. The high airy ridge never gets too hot, even on the warmest days.
One triple-digit July day we encountered a huge rattlesnake lying right on the

Places you can bail off the divide in
this terrain are many, once you get east of the prominent cockscomb feature
that forms Dromʼs east ridge. But escape options disappear, and the mission
becomes committing again in the Monte Cristo Cirque.  The final crux is the hugely exposed
quartzite of Monte Cristoʼs intimidating SW Ridge. By working various chimney
features, with mostly poor anchors, the steepest continuous class 4 portion of
the route succumbs easily. Far more difficult, and even deadly, is the
alternative challenge of down climbing this portion; a feat required by the
popular east-to-west Cottonwood Traverse. It starts with an ascent of
Superior’s South Ridge, which our user-friendly, west-to-east route avoids.

Monte Cristo is soon attained and we
jump for joy. Our legs are rubbery and our nerves are shot from thousands of
climbing moves over the past 14 hours! We’re sick of bars, clif-shots, jerky
and gorp. But it’s OK, because we’re on the home stretch now: relatively easy,
downhill ground, and only 2400 feet of it, the latter portion on a trail!

The Lisa Cottonwood Traverse is a rare
gem: a quality scrambling line that gains far more altitude than it loses.
Using a low start trailhead at Lisa Falls (6300ʼ) and high finish in Alta
(8,600’) means you enjoy the art of climbing and/or the aerobic pleasure of
rising in the mountains for most of the day, and don’t crush your knees on the
descent. It’s also an excellent primer for the Cathedral and Grand Traverses in
the Tetons.

At the finish, we trot down as the
light fades, and I get a lesson in toe-striking, a Kenyan runners’ technique I’m
quickly convinced is the enlightened way. I’m equally certain I’ll be a
life-long heel-striker. I’ve simply been doing that too long, and it’s hard to
teach an old goat new tricks.


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