November 18, 2009

Bonkers to Stairs, The Greatest Tour in the Wasatch

If you live or play in Utah and you aren’t backcountry skiing in late February and March, you are missing out! This is when it “goes off” in the Wasatch, if its ever going to. Granted, in some seasons, it’s just not wise to ski Bonkers and especially Stairs Gulch, but if the snowpack is going to get deep and strong enough, mid-to late-season is usually the time. March 8, 2009, was just such an occasion. To make it even harder to go to the office, and easier to skip out and go skiing, it was clear and calm, and there was a foot of fresh, windless powder icing the cake.

Given this textbook-perfect situation, it just made sense to head for the greatest ski tour in the Wasatch. Broads Fork and Stairs Gulch offer the best bang for the buck in terms of big classic lines. One skin trail, two epic runs! It's really ski mountaineering terrain, but thanks to a 100-inch snowpack, we did all the climbing with skins on. The enormity of these glacial-carved north-facing bowls and cirques, virtually deforested by avalanching, combined with their steep, rocky nature, makes it feel like bigger mountains.

Eric, Matthias and I skinned at a bristling pace from the S-turns in Big Cottonwood Canyon through fir, aspen, and on up the immense, northeast-facing slide path known as Bonkers. 4500 feet of ascent in three hours enabled lunch in unbelievable calm on the tippy-top of Stairs and Bonkers. On this tiny knob high in the sky, the awe-inspiring view of Salt Lake Twins and Lone Peak is unmatched.

Laughing all the way, we arced one by one down the wide, powdery avenue that is Bonkers. When Mother Nature designed a ski run, this was it. Lined by cliffs, but wide enough for 40 sets of tracks, its rolls and gullies and all of it faces NE, the magic aspect. It's 40-degrees at the top, gradually moderating, like a parabola, to 10-degrees as you milk the last turn to the beaver pond, 2500’ below!

One time in the early ‘90s, I counted 375 turns while skiing it continuously. Now I get around one hundred, and new-schoolers shred it in 10. Regardless of personal style, anyone who non-stops it is super fit!

Another form of fitness comes into play when you skin back up the trail for the Stairs. On one marathon tour, Tim and I lapped Bonkers 3 times before the home run! But this time Eric and Matthias actually wanted to save some energy for the Gulch and get home in time for dinner. One-and-a-half hours put us back on top where we dropped into superb pow.

As we navigated the dry reef and endless couloirs of the 5,000’ drop, our snow quality dropped with the altimeter. By the bottom, we were on a rain-smoothed tongue of old avalanche debris littered with tiny bits of shale. Saving some energy had been wise, but it was all part of the epic adventure, and no one had any regrets as we criss-crossed the creek and hiked down the last 300’ past the classic summer rock climbs of lower Stairs Gulch. Molson Canadian never tasted so good!

- Tyson Bradley

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