Adventures and Reflections on Decades in the Wasatch
Cardiac Bowl, Feb. 28, 1992
I came home to Snowbird and the Wasatch after a hut trip in British Columbia to a fat load of new snow in the mountains. Avalanche danger was up initially, but the snow quickly settled, then solid high pressure set in. My friends and I ski toured 4 days in a row, almost never seeing another soul: Silver Fork with Brian Aas and Bob Athey, Pink / Red Pine with Fred Henion. The two of us skied Red Pine / Maybird the next day and saw no tracks aside from ours from the previous day. Fred and I ramped up to Superior Peak and Cardiac Bowl on the 4th day of the high.
I was a busser at Snowbird’s Wildflower Restaurant and Fred was a cook at the Lodge Club. We were climbing and skiing buddies and roommates in Sandy. Fred mastered the craft of Wasatch ski touring under the mentorship of others. Now he was passing the knowledge to a willing young disciple.
We set out from Alta Central at 8:45 am, skinning and booting on our leather Asolo and Merrell telemark boots to the summit of Superior by 10:53. It was calm, and we basked in the late winter warmth. Then we kicked and prodded a cornice until a huge chunk of it fell and tumbled down the steep chute. It didn’t trigger an avalanche, and our confidence was bolstered.
I dropped in on my “norpines,” alpine skis with nordic (telemark) bindings. I hop-turned the chute, and made 125 parallel turns down Cardiac Bowl to the first moraine in beautiful, settled powder. Then Fred ripped jubilantly down and we high-fived. We had the place to ourselves and a lot of space to ski. Time to yo-yo the bowl!
The snow was dense and traction was great. We made the skin trail as steep as we could stick to and not a single switchback was required to reach the base of the summit chutes. We stripped shirts off on each of our 4 ascents to work on a “Pieps Tan.” Each run in the bowl yielded 90 turns. In those days I counted my turns and didn’t stop from top to bottom of runs unless there was a really good reason. It was a matter of pride.
While we were lapping and loving the prize bowl, Powderbird Guides were our only company. But they kept to the Ivory Flakes and Powerline Ridge areas. The heli ferried numerous loads over our heads, but left us alone to make art in our perfect, private powder bowl.
Finally the ideal day finished with a 200 turn, low-angle wiggle skier’s left toward Cardiac Ridge and on out the sticky, washboarded snowmobile trail to Reynold Flat in Big Cottonwood. It was an early one of countless days I would spend in Cardiff Fork, ski touring and heli-skiing; both guiding and personal. Cardiff was, and despite greatly increased traffic, still is a skier’s paradise.
On counting turns…and powder skiing on slalom skis
The backcountry ski runs described in my old journals were quite matter-of-factly quantified in terms of turns; mostly 100-200 turn shots. I joked that he (or she) who dies with the most turns, wins. My record was 650 continuous turns down the Southwest Chutes of Mt Adams, Washington: a 5,000 foot shot. Needless to say, my legs were burning! Utah tops was 475 uninterrupted arcs on Timpanogos in corn. In more strenuous powder, 425 contiguous carves on Bonkers, in Broads Fork, was my record.
I started guiding with Powderbird in 1997, and early on I skied “Room 272” in the Cascade Ridge area. I figured the number “272” must refer to how many turns you could get on this huge drop. Tom Carruthers took me there as his tailguide, and much to my delight, invited me to ski first. However there was a tricky crust that was really tiring out one of our 2 clients in the private group. So I had traded him my wide Rossi Bandits for his 205 cm, 60 mm wide slalom racing skis. This meant I had to hop-turn the crust. Yet I was determined, and still exceeded 272 straight turns before stopping. The client shredded down in 50 giant slalom arcs. Being wiling and able to trade my “fat” skis to this skier was absolutely the key to our great day. His buddy was on a snowboard and wanted to ski the big lines, regardless of the funky snow. He floated and never crossed his tips.
As beautiful as the vast Cascade Ridge terrain is, it doesn’t always harbor windless fluff or perfect corn. Given the prevailing exposures are “off” aspects: east and west, vs. north and south (like in the Cottonwood Canyons,) the snow is often variable. “Shmoo” is one descriptive term for such snow, coined by Spencer Wheatley. “Pressed powder” is another fine euphemism employed by ski guides. But at times there’s just no sugar-coating it. If a guide gets “tagged out” on a run, it means it was neither pow nor corn. It was tricky snow, and clients were not impressed. In such cases, presentation is important, as is your audience. There’s always “good snow for good skiers.”
My first day heli-skiing I went to Argenta with Tom for run 3 after skiing Cardiac Bowl for the second run! The snow on Kessler was pretty nice, but my skis were 200 cm K2 VO Slalom, a tremendously thick (not fat) pair of skis, and stiff as a 2×4. I liked a strong ski in those days, but I couldn’t really float and carve in the deep, low-angle powder of the slide path. I was hop-turning in soft powder.
In these younger years skinny skis and funky snow was no bother. I felt invulnerable, psyched, and would welcome a challenge…the world was my oyster. Now I’m older and hopefully wiser, but also more tentative and uncertain. Challenges that were exciting and stimulating, now may seem daunting and deadly. Nothing like actually seeing a longtime friend die in an avalanche. Perhaps you didn’t know how much you cared about them until you’re giving them rescue breaths and pumping on their heart. You can’t believe the pursuit of powder has come to this. It shatters your confidence. The hurt is deep.
But it’s an amazing world we live in, these mountains. And it’s essential to remember, no matter how bad you feel after an accident, our time in the mountains gives more life than it takes.
You come full circle in life: from student to mentor and from child to adult, from vulnerable to invincible to vulnerable again. In the beginning we cling to life, in the end we do the same. In the middle, and especially when one is a young man, to urge to prove oneself is more important than life itself. You are willing to take risks; risks greater than you know you’re taking. You are not wise, but you possess confidence, you know you will solve any problem. If anyone can do it, you can. You relish difficult situations and issues that make you sweat, think and act quickly, decisively and effectively.
Then you crest the hill and go over it. Now you just wanna ski down the other side. But you have aches and pains and can’t sleep through the night. You can no longer pass your drivers license test without corrective lenses. You want to ski and climb with your kids forever, but the day after they finally catch up to you, they pass you! At first they were slow and had everything to learn. Parental patience was required with a capital P, now they must be patient with their embarrassing old dad.
Timpanogos Feb. 25, 1995
Late February saw a long period of stable weather after a 3-foot dump atop a deep snowpack. Corn developed and I had friends visiting from out-of-town. There is great energy in assembling a strong group and inspiring one another. I combined these guys with local Park City buddies, Dee Wallace and Dan McCann. Dan was on tele gear like most of us. Dee had short skis with skins riveted onto them. He carried his snowboard on his back.
We meet at Aspen Grove above Sundance and skin for 2600 feet up the impressive Primrose Cirque. We don’t see anyone else after leaving the trailhead. The excitement is high as we escape the steep, avalanche and rockfall-prone cirque and regroup for a rest at the flats of the hanging Emerald Lakes Basin.
Now we stretch our calves across low-angle terrain past the then functional, now dilapidated Quonset hut, and on up the “Hall of Timpanogos Mountain Kings.” The 11,750-foot true summit looms large over our heads as we turn south onto the permanent snowfield. In the ‘80s avid skiers would get their late summer turns by carrying skis to this remnant glacier. Now it doesn’t hold snow through most summers.
Just below the enormous cornice that guards the high saddle between the main and south summits, we trade skins for crampons. The remaining portion is wind-exposed and the snow is bulletproof. We’re glad of our decision to put on spikes. Soon we’re on the 11,722-foot South Summit, and bundling up to wait for the corn to soften and our amigos to catch up.
As we shiver in the cold wind, we lose patience and drop southwest on the crispy corn into the longest fall line in Utah. Like many classic lines, the corn is al dente at the top, perfectly cooked in the middle, and mushy at the bottom. I count to a new personal record of 475 continuous turns as we roll over one horizon after another. Finally after nearly 3,000 feet, the snow is getting thin.
Dee rocks us back to the saddle with his external speakers. I step to the beat as we skin, then boot back to the saddle. Three of us still want more exotic shredding. We drop the next line to the skier’s right this time, keeping north of the battleship cleaver that divides the two basins for another 2,000’ of superb, afternoon corn. The return run to Aspen Grove is a fine finish to a 10,000-foot day of skinning and skiing.
Lone Peak & Crows Feet Feb. 26, ’95
Lou, Peter, Dave and I rise ready for adventure again. I’m amped to ski Lone Peak’s sustained, steep East Face. I only knew of a few hardcore buddies, like Lorne Glick, who had skied it, and they deemed it ultra worthy. On the drive south from Sandy, we show Lou and Peter the old shed along Wasatch Boulevard where we’ll exit from Rocky Mouth Canyon after finishing our tour on the Crows Feet, and they agree to pick us up.
We then continue south to Alpine and climb 5,700 feet on boot and skins past the Hamangogs to the South Summit of Lone Peak. Here we split into pods of two. Peter and Lou harvest fine corn back down the broad South Face of Lone. Dave and I muster our courage and drop into Upper Bells Canyon on the wild East Face.
The corn is solid and carvable, having seen just the right amount of sun softening. We snap pictures and love the upper headwall. As we continue down the skier’s left barrel, it steepens, and we encounter a rocky section. To avoid mandatory air, you must traverse skier’s right to finish in the southern of the two couloirs.
We rest and celebrate on a moraine below the awesome face, then skin/boot to the gunsight notch north of it. After carving the west-facing “Giggles Chute” into Big Willow Canyon, we climb out to the north and do a short powder run before contouring to the ultimate home run, the Crows Feet. In these fine conditions we carve up 3600 feet of glorious corn in the afternoon light and meet our ride as planned, as the sun sets on an epic day on the Wasatch Front!