The 1,400-foot broken granite wall that forms the northeast face of Utah’s Lone Peak, just one drainage south of the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, looms large by Wasatch standards. Hard to access, steep, exposed, and prone to avalanches, the twin couloirs plunging from Lone Peak’s twin summits see little traffic despite their five-star reputation.
So when my friend Scott told me about a top-secret–and most likely illegal–hut only an hour’s hike from Lone Peak’s summit and well within the wilderness boundary, I kept at him until he promised to take me there. Not only did Scott come through on the promise, he even hauled up a 40-pound load of food and fuel before the winter so our packs would be light for the approach.
Opportunities to ride big lines on the high peaks of the Wasatch in winter conditions–with good pow–are few. With La Niña (a.k.a. “The Howling Bitch”) relentlessly hammering Utah with high winds, not only did the snow suck with un-Wasatch-like regularity, but the persistent wind slabs kept the avalanche danger high for weeks on end.
At last, one day in March we got a window of safety, albeit a small one, to make our approach; another storm was predicted for that evening. Four of us met in the half-light of a spooky upscale suburban Salt Lake City neighborhood at 4:30 a.m. Traveling on foot across bulldozed vacant lots, it felt bizarre going from flat suburbia into the Wasatch’s sudden rise in the space of about 100 yards.
Five-thousand feet of vertical climbing and five hours later, we arrived at a small, crude log cabin, replete with a thoroughly beat and rusted wood stove, squirrel-infested rope-slung cots, and a dirt floor. Not the plushest backcountry hut ever, but as promised, within reasonable striking distance of Lone Peak’s elusive summit.
After some housekeeping–cleaning out all the rodent debris, mainly–my photographer friend Mike and I decided to maximize our small good-weather window and continue on for the summit. I figured if I were going to die at the hands of the hanta virus because of all the rodent feces, I was damn well going to bag my line before the coming storm shut things down again. Scott and my brother Grant decided to rest up for what we all hoped would be bluebird conditions following the storm.
Mike and I were looking to add another 2,000 vertical feet to the five-grand we’d already logged, and because he was lugging 45 pounds of camera gear, trail-breaking duties were all mine. I was only sinking in shin deep, so we made good time. Until Mike started having to lay down in the snow for rest breaks, that is. Fortunately, Mike likes a good battle; he was clearly suffering, but expressed no inclination to call it a day. Since he was moving more slowly, and because I was heading to the top while he accessed a lower-elevation pass in order to shoot from the other side, we turned on our radios and split up.
The top of Lone Peak is a granite knife edge with a pair of summit pinnacles. To the southwest it drops dead vertical over 500 feet into the famed Lone Peak Cirque. To the northeast, 1,000 feet of fractured Wasatch mank-rock drops away at around 50 degrees before slacking off into a 400-foot bowl.
I sat in a notch between the two summits, my butt eighteen inches from the yawning space of the western wall, my heelside edge securely buried in a hanging snow field above Lone Peak’s twin couloirs. The guidebook indicated that the couloir on the rider’s left was the route. It also stated that in low snow years, it ended in a 100-foot cliff. It was a low snow year.
I tried to get Mike on the radio. No luck. I was receiving him, but he couldn’t hear my transmissions. I had a rope, so I could rappel down the cliff if necessary, but stopping for a rap meant I wouldn’t be outrunning my slough. That meant slow, nnoncontinuous turns, which I hate.
Since the slope rolled over pretty dramatically, I was totally blind on the finish. I was depending solely on Mike for information, but my radio still wouldn’t transmit. After about 45 minutes of frustration, I raised the radio above my head and tried keying it from there. Finally, it worked.
As it turns out, the guidebook’s line did indeed end in a cliff, while the one on boarder’s right was ridable to the bottom–just barely. I threaded my way down what turned out to be wind-hammered crap and out a bony maze of an exit; there would be no direct speed lines today.
Mike and I both felt fairly punished on the 800-foot climb back to the other side, but with dark clouds racing in from the northwest and lots of epic terrain near the hut, we were optimistic about our chances for quality riding after the storm passed.
The temperature was dropping rapidly and it was snowing lightly when we returned to the hut a couple of hours later. Scott and Grant had a Duraflame smoking in the barrel stove, and ducking into the cramped cabin felt like entering a Native American sweat lodge–warm and smoky. We’d each packed in a six-pound artificial log to provide some heat in lieu of wood, and as the log started raging the chimney pipe amazingly drew the smoke out of the cabin well enough to keep the air breathable, despite its perforated, rusted-out condition. We ate like kings thanks to Scott’s cached food and slept in relative comfort that night as the snow piled up outside.
Storm runs through the trees kept us occupied as the front delivered a total of 24 inches the following day. We called the avalanche report via cell phone and got a favorable forecast, along with the good news that a clearing trend was on its way. Sure enough, by 9:00 p.m. the stars were shimmering through clear, cold, and perfectly calm mountain air.
Scott arose in the predawn subzero darkness and fumbled with our last half of a Duraflame. Soon we were all bumping heads, trying to wrestle on cold boots and gulp down scalding hot oatmeal–all to the double-time rhythm of a bluebird morning. Miraculously, La Niña’s trademark winds were still sleeping, or off harassing somebody else’s mountains, and we were left with two feet of super-fluff under deep blue skies.
You could see the feathery crystals of surface hoar and hear their whisper as we broke trail at a fast pace that both provided warmth and ensured a maximum harvest–one worthy of such epic conditions. Grant clearly felt the call, blasting his way up steep and deep ascents like a fully stoked steam engine–hissing and puffing–a man possessed. He dropped line after smooth line through cliffy chutes, arcing his way down the surfy terrain with speed and power, somehow finding the time to also fire his camera.
I kept pace as best I could, and we each scored a bunch of lines before the sky milked over and the light went flat. By then it was mid afternoon and we were beat and satisfied anyway. Since our faithful guide Scott was having knee pain that wouldn’t respond to mega-doses of Advil, and since we were also clean out of artificial logs, we packed up and descended to the cars.
As we left the Lone Peak Wilderness boundary and reentered suburbia, the presence of kites flying in the sky heralded the return of La Niña’s oppressive winds. Our little window had closed.