The Wasatch Trifecta- Three Alpine Classics

Open Question: A Perfect Pair of Lone Climbs

Lone Peak Cirque is a little piece of heaven perched high above the heat, traffic, and noise of the Wasatch Front. It’s hard not to feel a “life elevated” when you sit on a belay ledge at 11,000′ watching 1.6 million people zooming around Provo and Salt Lake City. Seldom is such peace and solitude juxtaposed with billboards, pollution, and urban sprawl. Perhaps the Lone Peak Wilderness is even more appreciable because the anti-wilderness is so near.

Unlike in the urban world surrounding it, neither price of entry nor the success of the endeavor is measured in dollars. Sweat and drive will get you to the top, and the route you choose is more gratifying than the reaching the tippy-top. Alpine granite crack climbing enthusiasts become slack-jawed when they enter the quintessential, glacial-carved, 600-foot tall cirque. Literally a hundred dihedrals are lined up side-by side. The wall wraps from west-facing to north as it grows in stature from south to north. Then it abruptly becomes west again where Collins Highway cuts through, dividing the Question Mark Wall from the Summit Wall, and providing a shallow weakness to and from the summit.

Another score of parallel cracks face west between the south and true summits. Directly below the tiny apex of Lone Peak, where more lightning strikes than anywhere in Utah, rises the “benign line”. Although its just one of dozens of “open book” features, on these walls, the 5.7 uber-classic climbing route bears that name. Just north of it, the Triple Overhangs and Vertical Smile lines keep 5.10 climbers stoked on the area. Finally, going north toward Big Willow Cirque the walls shrink again as the aspect goes southwest. This rubbly NW ridge is the “hiker’s route,” well loved by hardy scramblers.

The Open Book is “only” 5.7 in difficulty on the Yosemite Decimal Scale, but it sports nary a positive hold for the first 500 feet! Many a 5.12 hardman has been scared witless trying to solo it. 5.7 leaders, unaccustomed to “old-school” granite techniques, like stemming, bear hugging, squeeze-chimneys and general floundering upward, find it arduous. It’s an airy and physical climb, but the reward is magnificent. An epic summit after a burly struggle. What could be better?! Perhaps another spectacular multi-pitch on the way down?!

Descending the Collins Highway, one can’t help but marvel at the dead vertical, smoothly cut Question Mark Wall. Hard routes abound, but one moderate classic, the Lowe Route, sets a high standard for quality. Start out by jamming up a “splitter” 5.8 hand crack. Then move up a weakness of ledges and chimneys to the final pitch. This is the namesake portion of the wall where a serpentine white stripe forms a question mark against the darker glacially deposited patina. This softer surface rock has been eroded over the centuries to leave small, in-cut edges. Basically, it’s a vertical “hike” up a ladder of perfect holds. Climb it as the setting sun glints across the immensity of perfectly solid granite. You will reach nirvana. Then you can walk off by headlamp.


Scaling the Zion Curtain


Bell’s Canyon in fall is a blaze of orange leaves, etched against fir needles and backed by a glacial carved “U” of pale granite. One steps out of suburbia and into Wyoming’s Titcomb Basin. One hour of steep hiking thins out the city crowds, and lands you at the base of Arm and Hammer, a classic alpine climb, complete with tension traverses and impeccable stone.

The first pitch deters those who abhor “off-width” cracks, but jam on and you’ll discover the hardest part can be “lie-backed” with relative ease. Stepping out of the cozy confines of this corner, pitch 2 requires a belayer as good as the leader. I ask for a little more slack as I tension out until I can grab a sling.  Then I immediately need slack. The next move involves the heady challenge of switching from “aid” climbing to “free,” and committing all my weight to a small “crimper” hold. Definitely a 5.10 move, but only one. Miss it and you’ll end up swinging back across into the belayer’s lap! Try it again, with more gusto, and, voila, you find another good hold above and pull on to a spacious “rest” ledge.

Above here the climbing gets easier, but not for long. The final moves of the “crux” pitch require delicate friction technique, but they are perfectly protected by bombproof bolts. Now the views down canyon are amazing, and you can preview the Zion Curtain. This wafer-thin flake provides 3-star climbing, again using the lieback technique, and a fortuitous “weakness” up an otherwise blank, vertical wall of flawless, white granite.

But how to reach this elusive flake? Again, belaying expertise counts! Clip a bolt, return to the belay ledge, and run off the ledge and pendulum for all your worth! Or, if you’re a wily veteran with amazing grace, do what Tom Kimbrough once did as he led behind me. He conjured up holds and smoothed his way across the void as slick as only a seasoned Yosemite pioneer could.

If you’re like most of us, you take several runs at it, then finally make the grab, and call for slack. Once your hands are on the 2-inch think, 50′ tall flake, you are in climber’s heaven. First you wonder aloud, “How can this feature be here? And how long before it flakes off?” Then you sink a .75 cam and scurry up, celebrating the ease of levitation in such a stunning setting.

Before long, however, another .75 cam is needed, then another. Get creative, and find a way to use a stopper and a 1-inch cam. All too soon, however, because you’ve flown up it in a euphoric stampede of energy, you climb above the Zion Curtain, and a few thinner, less protected, moves lead to the final belay ledge.

Although the classic pitch is done, bailing from here is poor form, and you’d miss a worthy finish. Boogie up a 5.8 jam crack sinking pro at will, and rest on a friendly foot ledge. Don’t contemplate the moves above for long, lest you chicken out and bail left into a big alcove. Instead, move right and back left under a small roof. Coming out of it seems dicey, until you grab the “TG (thank god)” super-hold, and scamper on up.

From the rappel anchor, high on the Middle Bell Tower, watch the eagles soar along the razor-backed Little Cottonwood / Bell’s Canyon ridge just above. A sense of awe at nature’s magnificence, and pride at your own perseverance, well up within as you slide down the ropes. This is a good as it gets for a 4-pitch climb in the Wasatch Range, or anywhere.


Global Warming Arete

Hikers and Photographers seek the Sundial in Big Cottonwood Canyon because it’s a striking, symmetrical rock tower in the heart of the Salt Lake Mountains.  The Wasatch Mountain Club uses it for their logo, and stunning photos of the quartzite pyramid adorn the waiting rooms and lobbies of Utah’s offices and hotels. Climbers, who once shunned its “chossy”, alpine rock, have been driven by global warming and local crowding to embrace the 500’ wilderness spire.



I call the classic line on it the Global Warming Arête, because even when it’s 100 F in the city, this airy, shady, northerly climb between 9500-10,000’ stays way cool. I’ve never climbed it without having to put on a layer. Usually, I wear pants and a windshirt the whole way. Who says the Wasatch doesn’t have alpine rock? The Tetons have nothing on this!


The 3-mile, 3300’ approach is on the shady east side of rugged Mill B. South, and a 6 am start places it in the coolest part of the day. Sunrise on 11,107-foot Dromedary Peak’s northeast face glows pink, then orange as we cruise up the well-established path to Lake Blanche.


Named for a pioneer Mormon woman, Blanche is deep in the shadow of the sharp, pointy triangle that is the Sundial. Her sister lakes, Florence and Lillian, fill glacial-carved basins just to her west. All were “enhanced” by dams built by Conservation Corps workers in the depressed 1930s. Shortly thereafter, SLC engineers realized the threat of flood from one of these fragile dams bursting exceeded any value they had, and all such dams in the Wasatch were breached.


Regardless, it is a delightful camping area and, along with Red Pine Lake in the Lone Peak Wilderness, it’s the most popular summer backpacking area in the Central Wasatch. That means on any hot day in the city you may see 3 parties escaping the heat here. But usually the only inhabitants are mule deer, trout, and non-indigenous mountain goats, ranging the maroon-colored rock slabs above.


Just east of the lake the trail disappears in a meadow of brilliant yellow wildflowers soaking in the morning sun. Another 500’ of boulder hopping leads to the low-point of vertical rock. The first few moves typify the climb: steep and edgy with plenty of holds. Problem is, they all slope toward you. In-cut edges are rare. Spice it up with lichen, loose rocks, and tricky pro, and you get the picture. Its adventure climbing, not a well-traveled crag!


The first belay defines the word “ledge”. Its 2’ wide and 5’ long with 100’ of air below and a small roof above. As you sit to belay on the cool stone, your gaze wanders out over Lake Blanche, Big Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley to Antelope Island.



The second pitch starts “slopey,” and then gets easier before ending on a broad terrace. The standard procedure from here is to move 50’ west and climb a wide corner. Instead, I go up and right on decent rock to a belay near the arête. The fourth pitch includes the exciting crux, and sets you up for the final, 100-foot lead.


The slightly overhanging 5.8 “crux” involves a finger lock and a strong pull without much for the feet, to reach a hidden edge deep in a pod. Stare down the exposure and look for holds above and outside the alcove.

On the last pitch, step down onto a sloping edge with only a mono-digit pocket for hands. Then the route climbs a steep, beautiful crack system with good holds. One must resist (or give in) to the temptation to continue up, as it becomes 5.9 fingers. To keep it 5.6, follow a sidewalk back west to the arête. Now a small dihedral goes right up the crest for 70’ of quality moves on great rock.


Quartzite gives way to broken slate / shale just above the final belay. The cleanest descent is to go south for 200’ and then zigzag down to a solid horn with slings. One rapp of 35 meters puts you on easy ground.


The down hike is in the afternoon sun, but who cares? You’re going with gravity! Now the trail is crowded with day-hikers, sweating their way up. When the trail crosses the creek just above the carpark, hopefully you’ve cached a few of your favorite beverages in the icy waters. A shady, creekside bench is the ideal place to toast a perfect summer day!


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