High Uintas Wilderness

My dad and I head out for a trip each year, just the two of us.  The past couple years we’ve planned to head into the Uintas but make last minute re-routes when the forecast inevitably begins projecting two feet of wet snow.  So, we’ve ended up walking desert canyons the past couple years, chewing carefully to keep the sand-crunching to a minimum.  If there’s a breeze in the Utah desert it’s pretty much impossible to keep sand out of whatever’s cooking.

This week the forecast called only for a little shot of cold-n-wet and so we decided to pack for 15-degree nights and finally go for a walk together in the Uintas.  Allison and her dog Rudy hiked with us for the weekend then headed back to the M-F grind while we trucked on.  With the exception of a couple snow/rain/hail squalls, the weather was awesome with sunny 50 degree days that gave to clear frosty nights.

The literal high point was a walk up snow-dusted King’s Peak.  At 13,528′ it’s the highest choss pile in the state.

As always, it was great to catch up with my dad and also to spend a week on the loose in the wilderness without passing even one other group.  As we drove away from the trailhead, dark clouds began to circle in from the west as the first big snowstorm of the season approached.  Perfect timing.

Map’s Edge

From Idaho, we motored north on Highway 93, into Montana and my old stomping grounds in the Bitterroot Valley.  I bored Allison reminiscing about ski adventures gone awry as we passed Trapper Peak, Como and El Cap, Sky Pilot and Gash Point, Saint Mary’s and Saint Joe and finally Lolo.  Looking back, it’s pretty incredible we made it through all those descents relatively uninjured given how uninformed we often were.

Pedaling around Missoula, I was impressed by the places that haven’t changed a bit, like Charlie B’s, Del’s, and the Oxford, and less so by the new developments that are totally different from what I remember.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to catch up with all the people I wanted to see but did manage to fit in a ride with some old pedaling buddies.

As our bike-laden Honda pulled into the trailhead lot an hour out of Missoula we attracted glares from the horse folk who were standing around campfires near their trucks while waiting for the morning sun.  After our bikes were unloaded in the grass one of the cowboys wondered aloud whether bikes were even allowed on these trails.  Isn’t this area Wilderness?  Well, Scott explained, not yet; not Wilderness just wilderness.  The area is one of many in Montana that’s being pushed towards Wilderness designation and when that W gets capitalized bikes will no longer be allowed.  For now though we’re free to explore the hundred-plus miles of trail that branch from the trailhead.

Still a little jelly-legged from our rides the previous days in Idaho, we talked Scott and Sean down from the mega-loop extravaganza they’d been eyeing.  We settled instead on a mellower sub-30 mi jaunt.  The trails in Missoula had dried completely from the week’s rain, but out here in one of the wettest parts of the state the air was still heavy with humidity and the low spots still mucky.

We pedaled up through Doug Fir forests then into stands Larch and Spruce. Next came dark Cedar forests with giant old-growth towers that dimmed the mid-day light into dusk.  My tires bumped over horse hoof prints until we passed the point where they’d turned back.  Here the trail was smoother and only the faint traces of horseshoes remained after days of rain.  Instead crisp prints in the sticky spots were from deer, elk, moose and wolves.  The wolf tracks were especially interesting because there were a lot of them and some of them looked very fresh.  Allison, who’d been bringing up the rear of the group, expressed her nervousness:

Do wolves ever bother people?

Not that I know of, but that was barbecue-flavored sunscreen I gave you, so you never know…

The wolves must be fans of dry rubs instead because we never saw them.

Eventually the old growth grew shorter and more spaced as we approached tree line, which is only about 6000′ here.  We crossed the state line into Idaho, refilled empty water bladders at a lake inlet and enjoyed the indian summer sun.  The ride back down was long and tacky.  The yellowing leaves whooshed against my handlebars and arms whenever I’d lean my bike around a turn.  Slick logs, twisting trail, and hidden pedal-height rocks kept our downhill pace in check.

Back at the car with our dirty bikes, canned microbrews in hand, an old timer wearing dark denim wranglers and western boots ambled over to congratulate us on our ride.  Scott’s mountain bike ambassadorship from earlier in the day had already began to pay off.

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Wasatch Perverse Traverse

“Ha! You’ve got to be kidding me!” was Noah’s email response to a note I’d sent asking if he wanted to link up Mt Olympus with Twin Peaks. He attached a map with a red line he’d just then been drawing that connected Olympus to Twin Peaks to Lone Peak. My first thought when I saw Noah’s map was “That’s huge!” my second thought was “…well maybe.”

Yesterday morning we left the car at 4:30am and started up Mt Olympus. It was a muggy warm night with a bright moon. I didn’t need my headlamp for light; rocks and trees were illuminated in colorless moonlight. I left the headlamp on my head however. The elastic band helped redirect the sweat that was already dripping down my forehead. It was going to be a long, hot day.

 

We were past Mt. Olympus when the sun first glinted on the peaks nearby. The ridgeline beyond Olympus is narrow and rocky and we ducked through bushes and scrambled along the ridgeline fins. Noah called out about a ground hornet nest I’d just passed, oblivious, when he was immediately stung. A rolling talus chunk bopped me on the knob of my ankle, leaving it feeling wooden and tender the rest of the day. As we ‘shwacked down towards Storm Mountain Amphitheater we heard a startling buzz.  Noah had stepped over a rattlesnake.

Mountain mahogany and gamble oak intertwine into an inflexible, woody understory and when we no longer found routes around the thickets we began plowing though. Despite temperatures that were climbing through the 80’s, I wished for a Carhartt one-piece. Even having long pants might’ve added some significant speed to our descent. Finally we reached the bottom of Big Cottonwood Canyon where we dunked our heads and soaked our feet before lacing up and beginning the next leg of the traverse.

That beard really helps him blend with the foliage

 

Climbing up Stairs gulch, a trail begins at the pavement but soon disappears among scree, slab, and briers. The sun was baking the dark rock under our feet and polished slab still thousands of feet above looked wet in the glimmering heat. High-stepping up divots in slab, I understood that Stairs Gulch was literally named.

Up up and away

 

On top of the ridge, Noah’s altimeter had recorded 10,000 feet of climbing and we were slowing down. The final 1300 feet  along the ridgeline to the summit of Twin Peaks took us a full hour, far slower than the pace we’d held earlier. But finally we were looking a vertical mile down into Little Cottonwood. Sandwiches and cold drinks were waiting for us at the bottom. We just had to navigate down Lisa Falls to get there.

 

For the record, I’d like to say that I knew Lisa Falls had waterfalls – it’s right there in the name – what I didn’t realize is that over the course of it’s 5000′ run there are hundreds of waterfalls. Noah and I discovered this as we slid and handjammed down the couloir. We also discovered that, despite facing due south, there were some pretty big snow patches hidden in the recesses of the chute. The meltwater ran down the white granite, leaving the center of the gully mossy slick and limiting where we could downclimb.

 

We moved steadily downhill, stopping only once during the four hour descent.  Earlier we’d handed hiking poles over 4th and 5th class ledges, but now we’d begun hucking poles before climbing down to retrieve them. Then repeat. Again. And again. And props to Black Diamond’s poles. Despite the abuse they’re still fully functional, though they gained a few scrapes.  When my poles landed neatly paired without bouncing too far or clattering too much Noah nodded approval. Even after 14 hours on the hoof, Noah’s sense of humor is still sharp.

 

Finally, as alpenglow faded on the Y-couloir across the valley, we’d dropped into the deep twilight of the forest below Lisa Falls. At Noah’s truck we inhaled sandwiches and decided to save the Lone Peak to Draper section for another day.  In hindsight, every part of the hike except the climb up Olympus was significantly more difficult than we had anticipated.  The micro routefinding was endless and our unfamiliarity with the terrain (at least without a thick snowy blanket) hindered our ability to move quickly.  If we repeated the route I’m sure we could shave off several hours. Still, the route Noah envisioned could be beyond my ability, at least if the goal is travel from Olympus to Twins to Lone Peak between sunrise and sundown. But then again… well, maybe.

Crestone Scramble

I first heard of the traverse between Crestone Peak and the Needle from Austin. He had just finished climbing the Needle’s Ellingwood Arrete and was enjoying the summit when a climber asked where the traverse began.  Austin pointed him towards the downclimbing that begins the route towards the Peak and was horrified when, seconds later, the soloist tumbled off the 2000′ face.

I decided to give the traverse a try in the opposite direction that the ill-fated climber took so that I’d be going up, not down, the hardest bits.  We’d been working on improving sections of the Broken Hand Pass trail with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute and Mark Hesse of RMFI, wrote out a succinct page of beta with just enough info for me to find the route.  An adventure was  guaranteed by the broad strokes with which he described the route.

It was Friday the 13th and I left camp just as a blood-red sunrise stained the summits. Fittingly, I hustled up the the trail labeled “Friday the 13th Pass” on the OB master maps then out a narrow ridge that leads towards the north couloir of Crestone Peak.  The gut of the couloir looked loose and gun-barrelish so I followed Mark’s directions and began climbing a face leading out of the gully. I moved quickly up the large cobblestone holds. Even though it was mid-August, it was below freezing in the shade of the summit and every once in a while I paused to rewarm stiff fingers.  Near the top of the N couloir I crossed the loose redrock chute, and moved up a rib into the sunshine and onto the summit of Crestone Peak.

I added a “Fri the 13th” salutation to the summit register then skittered down the south-facing Red Gully before spotting a carin marking the beginning the traverse towards the Needle. Linking grassy benches interspersed with 4th class conglomerate ridges led to the base of the Black Gendarme and the crux of the route.  The weakness in the NW face of the Needle consists of a steep funnel of a gully obstructed by fridge-sized chockstones. Instead of following that chimney, I soloed the 5.6 face of the couloir on steep cobblestones and thereby lessened potential for getting conked by round clasts falling from above.

A few hundred feet further up, the final pitch to the summit of Crestone Needle is 5.easy but with 2000′ of air beneath one’s sneakers. That kind of exposure is what understated climbing guides call “attention getting” and so I climbed methodically, checking carefully for loose cobbles before transferring weight to the clast. Back in the sunshine on top, the sky was cloudless and I ate a late-morning lunch and watched climbers grunt to the top of the Ellingwood Arrete.  Soon, other peak-baggers began reaching the summit and as I started down I made an effort to stay out of the gully that is the most popular route to the peak. The round clasts, remnants of an Ancestral Rocky Mountains riverbed, are easy to accidentally dislodge and loose upon climbers below.

Headed down Broken Hand Pass, I was glad to be back on a trail and out of the path of falling rocks.  The traverse’s exposure and big views had been exhilarating but also risky because a small mistake could have large consequences.  Back at camp I began my favorite backcountry celebration sequence: untied shoes, peeled socks, rinsed off grime, and sat in the sunshine making pizza dough.