Slow and Heavy- Ski Touring the Length of the Wasatch
It was getting late, and I was behind schedule, still high on Mt. Nebo as the sun set over the horizon. As it turns out, traversing the ridge past Nebo’s three summits is quite difficult going; it’s deceptively long, serrated by rock and generally not very conducive to travel with a 60 lb. pack, during winter, solo. Seven thousand feet below, one car after the next sped past on I-15, headlights gleaming through the fading light, their destinations certain amid my doubts. The weather was good, fortunately, apart from an incessant breeze that chilled my hands and slowly picked at my sanity.
To be tested right out of the gate was fitting; reality seemed distant all through my planning process. Over the years I’d spent significant time ski touring and ski mountaineering but had never travelled for longer than a few days on skis, at least at any one time. I had a very long way to go; if things went well, I felt I could ski the length of the Wasatch Range in a little over three weeks. Drawing a single line across the length of several maps, linking together one ski run to the next was romantic to say the least, but to actually execute such an objective was a completely different story. I found it all too easy to think about how cool of an idea the trip was and not think about the reality of the situation, over two hundred miles of ski touring and sure agony. How I would handle the physical and mental toll, I really had no idea. I started the trip with a sore knee, a sore back; beat up toes and no partner. The lure of it all was too much; I had to try.
From an early age the lure of skiing was all consuming, and I shaped my small world around it. The more time I spent skiing the more convinced I was to surround my future with it. I moved west for school and began working in the ski industry at a young age. A couple years into the game I started to flip-flop between hemispheres, making skiing year round work. Life was exciting, moving every three or four months, following the snow, guiding, patrolling and forecasting. From Utah in the winter I travelled to Alaska come spring, New Zealand by summer and back to Utah come winter again; it was an exhausting but rewarding existence. Five years in a row I lived out of duffle bags, storage units and errant beds. Life was good, yet, too often, I found it hard to step away from my commitments and ski for myself. Even when I did have the time to spare, the persistent physical nature of my work often left me needing time to recover. I was so close to the mountains, yet time after time, many of my goals seemed frustratingly distant. I knew the life I was leading wasn’t sustainable long term, and I started to want change.
The climb up Nebo’s Andrews Ridge was long and difficult. It was hard to be efficient with a lack of snow low down and the sheer amount of weight I was carrying. Hour upon hour passed as I plodded up the mountain and then along its high ridge, trying to get up and over its northern-most summit before dark. By late afternoon I knew I was behind schedule but I wanted to keep moving; being alone, I didn’t have to think about how to sell my plan (or lack thereof) to a partner, and besides, I only had myself to blame if things turned sour. I was prepared; I’d figure it out, I thought. Travelling on the ridge, however, only got more difficult and exposed the farther I went, and eventually I had to drop down below ridge level onto the adjacent slopes to make any progress. With the steep sheltered side of the ridge freshly loaded with snow of questionable stability, I chose to test my luck on the wind exposed, snow-and-patience eroding side.
The last and consequently flattest light of the day made it hard to tell if the terrain below me actually ‘went,’ but there seemed to be some hanging ramps of snow on which I could scoot along bypassing the least forgiving section of the ridge. Carefully, I traversed, trying to stay as high as I could on the slope, a tactic which proved fairly ineffective as exposed rock bands forced me to descend lower and lower. What snow remained on this wind blasted face was capped by a stout breakable crust. It was perfect slide for life conditions really, especially if foolishly attached to a large load similar to the gorilla-like pack that was choking the life out of me. In fact, should I have fallen and landed on my back, I may have executed one of the more memorable luge runs in history as I had an orange kiddie sled (for towing) strapped to my backpack like a turtle shell; a setup poised for speed.
Once on a portion of the slope where I thought I could make it back to a more benign part of the ridge, I cautiously and rather skeptically donned skins and ski crampons for the ascent, well knowing it was unlikely to work but far better than the soul-crushing alternative of shouldering everything like I had low down. Slipping and sliding, looking for any sort of purchase with my skis I promptly deemed skinning impossible; booting was unavoidable. I made the proper adjustments as quickly as I could and got moving again. Each step I took for the next 45 minutes was an absolute struggle. My feet broke through the surface crust and penetrated two to three feet through faceted sugar snow, and all the while, my pack, the angry gorilla, was trying to bring me down. A little after sunset, I reached the ridge, utterly exhausted. The rest of the ridge unfolded into view, the summit guarded by a yet more difficult ridge and impending darkness.
Evident that I had to bivouac, I started looking, quite intently, for snow deep enough to dig out shelter for the night. The problem was that most of the remaining snow was hanging off the ridge in the form of cornices, and I really didn’t want to try to sleep inside of a cornice (for obvious reasons). After a few minutes of further ridge combing, perforating any possible nightly accommodation with my avalanche probe, a snow spine descending down-slope to a rock outcropping came into view. Being on my favorite, wind-swept side of the ridge, the spine was really just a large wind carved snow striation created by raging upslope winds. Regardless, the snow looked deep on the uphill side of the rocks. Nearly dark, with probe in hand I skied a couple hundred feet down the 40+ degree spine, stabbed the fattest looking spot and declared it my precipitous home for the night.
I didn’t sleep much that first night out, the wind made sure of that. I got moving early that morning and fought the rest of my way to the top. It was 10am, I had left the car and started toward Andrew’s Ridge 25 hours before, I had covered about 7500’ vertical feet of gain, I was tired, hungry, about 17 hours behind schedule and I hadn’t really skied anything yet. On the peak the wind persisted like the constant buzz of a mosquito; mocking my efforts and whatever romance remained of my plan.
The idea of a full Wasatch Range traverse had come to me five years earlier at a time when, to put it lightly, I didn’t have much to keep myself busy. In November of 2010, while in the Tongan tropics absorbing a bit of summer before my return north from New Zealand, I fell extremely ill. It was the beginning of a several month long battle to find a diagnosis and half a year of wondering if I’d survive, let alone ski or work again. Ultimately, and simply stated, I had eaten the wrong piece of fish, one that disrupted my nervous system by poisoning me with Ciguatera.
In my convalescence, surrounded by the same walls I had dreamt behind as a child, I struggled for a sense of self-worth. Yes, I wanted my life back but I also wanted to fill the dreams I struggled to fill when I was healthy. I pined for the opportunity to challenge myself and progress my skills, so I started to plan a trip regardless of the fact that I had no idea when or if I would ever be able to do it. I wanted to see what I was capable of doing.
I had no knowledge if a traverse of the Wasatch had ever been attempted, but such a trip seemed logical based on geography alone (years later I found out a similar traverse had been done in 1998 by a group of three). Comprised of a long and narrow string of mountains, the Wasatch harbors a near seamless connection of optimal ski touring terrain. Several roads also cross the range, positioned perfectly to allow support for a long journey. The trick, it seemed, was to do the trip at a time when there was ample snow cover on a variety of aspects and elevations but also at a time when the snow was reasonably stable. Since the Wasatch is a skiers’ range, and I’m a skier, it was also important to me to ski as many aesthetically pleasing runs as possible along the way. I had no interest in doing a point-to-point traverse following the easiest path possible; if a trip was to happen it would be about skiing.
In the best of seasons, optimal conditions for a traverse of the range would be challenging to come by. Today, with warm and more erratic winter weather becoming the norm, the mountains seem downright mercurial. The 15-16 season started strong, and I began to have hope that conditions might allow me to depart later in the winter. I thought a lot about the trip, prepared for it and watched as the middle of the winter fell apart. Warm and dry weather dominated the area through February, melting out snow from the low elevations and up to mid elevation on solar aspects. Regardless of the weather’s effects, I remained mentally invested in the trip, partly out of frustration from missing out on other trips (because of my health over the years), and partly because I had something to prove to myself. Simply put, the trip was too good of an idea to easily dismiss, and I wanted to make it happen.
The lack of snow in places wasn’t ideal, and I knew significant additional effort would be required in places, but the upside was the warm weather that had melted out some areas also had a stabilizing effect on the snow that remained. To add to the dilemma, I also didn’t have anyone to join me on the trip. It was daunting knowing that everything would be harder physically and mentally going solo; I would need to carry more weight alone, I would have to break all the trail and I would have no one to laugh with about the sure misery. I would also have to be extremely cautious, as there would be no one to help me if I made a mistake or was injured. That all said, I felt that as long as I could travel safely, any other excuse to forgo the trip was unacceptable. I gave myself about 50-50 odds of completing the trip and thought failure would be the result of injury, gear failure, or fatigue. If it were to snow the entire trip I knew simply I would fail alone.
Day one was a hard introduction to the reality of what I was trying to do. I won’t say it made me think the mission was impossible, but I was discouraged, despite the fact that I started on the highest peak in the range with the biggest climb I’d face on the trip. I desperately wanted to get off Mt. Nebo and move on to my next objective; I was stressed about how long the climb took. Bald and Dry mountains lay ahead, and with an updated weather forecast, I felt pressure to hurry. I wanted to experience as much of the hallmark terrain in the range as I could but deep down I knew that my ideal route was irrelevant. Conditions would dictate the route, and I could only move so fast regardless of my efforts. After some deliberation, amid my exhaustion, I somewhat regretfully decided to skip Dry Mountain on day three. I knew I had to take or leave what conditions allowed me and move on if I were to complete the trip, a tough sell mentally after months of planning and knowledge of what was possible. As reality sunk in, I started to let myself look past my urge to race trying to keep pace and allowed myself to move away from preconceived expectations. Efficiency was all that mattered, and as soon as I let myself concentrate merely on that, the trip started to flow much more smoothly. Bald Mountain skied okay in what snow had avoided the wrath of the wind. As expected Dry Mountain was too warm for worthwhile skiing by the time I got to its flanks. I waived, changed course, and that was okay too.
My preparation for traversing the range was perhaps a bit unorthodox. I have skied for many seasons in the Wasatch and feel like I have seen a lot in that time. That said, in nearly all of my time skiing prior to this trip, I had not once skied or even hiked in the summer in the terrain south of Mount Timpanogos or north of Mt. Ogden. I made sure to do some homework, planning as best as I could from maps and Google Earth, but I didn’t want to research to a point that would take away the adventure of the trip. So, as foolish as it sounds, I didn’t do reconnaissance in areas I hadn’t been before, nor did I probe for input about my planned route. In hindsight, I am positive that I would have done a few things differently had I taken a different angle on the trip and gained more knowledge from the start, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have spent the night near the summit of Mt. Nebo. Without that night, however, I may not have persisted as long as I did; figuring out problems first hand drew my interest.
The days ahead didn’t get any easier. On Loafer Mountain I nearly vomited due to exhaustion. Then another (or same storm?) significant storm left me climbing through steep oak for hours to avoid avalanche danger on Spanish Fork Peak. Travel was a bit smoother for a couple days passing the Grindstone Ridge and Corral Mountain before it became evident that I would need to make another major route decision due to coming weather. I wanted badly to incorporate Mt. Timpanogos into my trip, but another storm was due to come in, and I didn’t want to get stuck somewhere for days on end. Painfully, I decided to avoid the gem; I needed to stay lower and make ground while I could. I hoped to reach my friend’s cabin in Alta before the brunt of the storm hit. There, I could have a comfortable place to rest while waiting the weather out.
As an alternate to Mt. Timpanogos on day 10, I chose to ski over high terrain on the more immediate Cascade Ridge, where tremendous turns led me to a long walk past Sundance and the more sheltered terrain around Mill Canyon Peak. I negotiated my way up and down into Upper American Fork Canyon before the snow really started to fall. I pressed hard as the forecast looked nasty for the following day. Warm and sticky snow stacked up by the minute, saturating everything exposed. Breaking trail, I struggled with every step as several inches of snow stuck to the bottom of my skins and tow sled with depressing repetition. I was soaked from both the warm snow melting on contact and from the inside out, sweating up a storm, working hard with saturated outer layers on. By the time I reached 10,000’ in upper Dry Fork, it was late, and I was in a total whiteout. Winds increased and temperatures plummeted, freezing everything exposed to the air within minutes. I was very cold but didn’t want to stop to put on more clothing; I desperately wanted to get to the ridge before I couldn’t see anything at all. I was confident of where I was, intermittently using GPS and following a familiar route, that is before I realized I wasn’t exactly where I thought I was. Over the course of a few minutes, I had starting walking 90 degrees west of my intended course, a significant mistake when surrounded by terrain with high avalanche propensity. After a bit of head shaking, I continued on a little more anxiously with a corrected course, and 15 minutes later, ducked under the rope-line into Alta Ski Area just as darkness took over. By braille, I made my way down to the cabin to spend the next two hours thawing my ice encased self.
As it turned out, the worst part of the storm came early and climaxed more or less right when I was coming over the ridge. The weather the following day, forecast to be apocalyptic, was fairly mellow in reality. I rested and had a shower even, while skiers tore 22 inches of new snow to pieces at the ski area surrounding me. Making it to Alta was significant to me because it was an approximate geographic halfway point of the trip, about a hundred miles in.
For the rest of the trip the weather was mostly warm and clear. The valleys turned from brown to green as spring took hold, and the snowpack shifted to a predictable cycle. Miles started to pass more quickly as most climbs were a bit shorter with fast snow (or dirt) under foot. From Alta I skied into Cardiff Fork, then off Gobblers Knob, Mt. Aire, Lookout Peak, Grandview Peak, Sessions Mountain, Bountiful Peak, Francis Peak, Thurston Peak, Mt Ogden, Lewis Peak, and Ben Lomond and Willard Peaks. I dipped in and out of the snowline with each major passing valley shifting my gear (ski boots included) on and off of my already heavy pack. Toward the end of the trip, in the northern end of the range, little cold powder snow remained leaving the timing of corn runs to be the main objective, a tough task when trying to move only in a generally northerly direction. A couple of the runs I took actually fed me in the opposite direction, which was okay; I found it important to continue to have rewards for my efforts and keep the trip focused on skiing.
It’s hard to describe what it is like to make critical decisions on the fly when operating under extreme exhaustion for days on end. Staying focused in the moment and seeing things only for what they were (and not what I wanted them to be) hour after hour, day after day and week after week was extremely challenging. The urge to find any possible way to ease travel made consequences seem distant. In hindsight, I think it was this dynamic nature of the trip that was its most rewarding attribute and was what kept me moving day after day, seeking out the next objective and what was around the corner.
On day 23, April 8th, after a stunning corn run in Cutler Basin off of Willard Peak, I walked out past Dock Flat above Mantua and came out of the snowline a final time. I passed many folks on the way down on all forms of ATV, eventually reaching the other side of a seasonal closure gate. No snow in sight, I put my skis down, took my pack off and sat down exhausted but elated. Ten pounds lighter than when I started, caked in a mixture of sweat, salt and energy goo, a woman walked up to me and asked what I was doing. Hard for words, I replied, “I was up skiing.”