The Backcountry Scene

The First is the Best

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. When it comes to powder runs in the Little Cottonwood Canyon Front Country, I get it. 2018-19 was an epic backcountry season in the American West by nearly all accounts, and I had my share of the goods. But one early morning sojourn up to Little Superior Buttress on December 13, with 13 inches of blower fluff having fallen overnight, stands out. Glorious gravity pulls me downward. Skis angle across the fall-line, resisting it before unweighting and floating to another turn through virgin powder on perfectly pitched slopes. It’s pure indulgence. And seven months of abstinence sets these turns apart from the many more to come.

As a guide, I rarely get out for a dawn-patrol tour. So when Julie gave me the “hall pass” to shirk office duties and domestic ops for a morning of hedonism, I jumped on it. I would also update my avalanche data bank by checking out the current state of the snowpack. But I was hardly the only one who had called the Utah Avalanche Center dawn-patrol hotline that weekday morning and decided to play hooky. As I begin skinning above Our Lady of the Snows Church in Alta at 6 am, I’m already late to the party. I count close to 100 headlamps on the various skin trails heading to the Cottonwood Canyons divide.

Everyoneseems to know recent snows have built the base enough to get the goods on the solar aspects without tagging too many rocks. And with a fresh coat of dry snow over the sun crust, nobody feels compelled to risk venturing onto the shady aspects, except like myself, to dig a pit in a safe and representative spot. Shallow old snow on northerly aspects has been rotting for months due to a steep temperature gradient drawing vapor through it. I want to see how weak it is and if it’s reacting to today’s load of new snow.

By sunset every inch of the southerly-facing terrain from Superior to Grizzly Gulch get will get shredded with glee. Broad smiles and satisfied ski bums rule the day. These are the conditions that remind us to get behind the bill currently being drafted to protect the Central Wasatch. The land exchanges it enables could prevent development of this terrain, most of which is privately held dating back to the mining era of the late 1800’s. Fixing of current ski area boundaries permanently, another key provision of the proposal, would further enhance preservation.

The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance advocates for the ski touring community in supporting most language in this Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation Area Act. Conversely, on behalf of backcountry, they oppose the concept of building a base-to-base gondola from Alta over the Cottonwood Divide to Big Cottonwood Canyon. Alta Ski Lifts has kept this proposal in their plans. The resort covets access to the ridge for avalanche control work above the town. And Utah resorts have long sought a lift-served connection between Big and Little Cottonwood. This would lead to a loss of irreplaceable backcountry terrain on the eastern side of the “Alta Frontcountry.” The voices of those who frequent Grizzly Gulch, Emma Ridges and points west must be heard before it’s too late. The time is now!

On a bluebird powder day, these ridges and bowls offer perhaps the most accessible, safest and highest quality ski touring in the world. Today I’m just glad to be alive and here, leaving troubles and worries behind. As the darkness fades, I drop my headlamp to my neck, and continue skiing uphill. I have some fall weight to shed gained from weeks of brine shrimp fishing on the Great Salt Lake, and I don’t want to get dropped by too many more speed demons, like the ones who’ve already rando-raced past me. The WasangelesRange is full of fit athletes of all ages. And if you’re only out for “one and done,” why hold back? Put the hammer down, reach deep, and reap a very tangible reward of getting your line in fresh pow.

That I do as only one track precedes mine off the 10,600’ shoulder of Mt. Superior, known as the “Black Nob” or simply, “Li’l Sup.” Over the years, myself and thousands of others have dropped into this appealing line, well short of the true summit. But today it’s like a new sensation. It faces southeast, into the morning sun; generally loads up with plenty of pow each storm (feels like 15-20 inches this day;) and yields a high “turn to earn” ratio. That is, short hike for epic line! And you can be back in the office before you’re missed.

This wasn’t my first run of the season. I’d skied the low-angle pistes at Brighton 6 times since early October, on days off from my fall fishing job, to get my ski legs and enjoy the juxtaposition of (inland) sea to (world-class) mountains that I’ve always felt lucky to experience. But this was the first juicy kiss of a new winter. Real powder. Real backcountry terrain. True love! Time away has amplified the high.

As my friend Mike once said after a day of seven stellar (heli-assisted) powder runs, you grow jaded by over-indulging in the sweetness of big lines in soft snow. “It’s like having too many desserts lined up in front of you after a nice dinner, “ he lamented with a wry grin. “One is sweet. After that, you just can’t fully appreciate them all.”

Economic theory explains this concept with the term marginal value. The first dessert (or powder run) you consume has a relatively high value. The additional (marginal) value of eachsubsequent“widget” consumed, generally decreases dramatically compared to the first. It’s about time to maximize the marginal value of another ski descent. Let it snow; let us all work to preserve access; and let us get “pitted” in the first fluffy face-shots of a new decade!

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Storming the Castle

Tyson Bradley

Tyson Bradley

This winter I...


This winter I want meaningful incentives to carpool and use public transit, coupled with wildland preservations in Utah’s Wasangeles Range. Enough discussion! Let’s compromise and implement…for the next generation.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Nick J
    November 6, 2019 at 7:12 pm — Reply

    Thanks for speaking up! Alta was what it was, but ASL Corp. ain’t what it used to be now. Just greedy, and the heart of our quick backcountry access will be lost.

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