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

November 16, 2009

Sundial's Global Warming Arete

Obviously pumped, but exuding his usual calm demeanor, Paul hoisted himself onto the spacious ledge below the final pitch of the Sundial’s spectacular Northwest (aka Global Warming) Arete. He’d just pulled through the slightly overhanging 5.8 “crux” and he looked relieved, stoked, and in need of a rest. The move involves a finger lock and a strong pull without much for the feet, to reach a hidden edge deep in a pod. However, to climb into the pod, you’d need to be 30” tall! Instead, one must stare down the exposure and look for holds above and outside the alcove. Not terribly hard, but a couple notches tougher than any other move on the mostly 5.6 route, also known as Eleventh Hour.

I call it the Global Warming Arete, because even when its 100 F in the city, this airy, shady, northerly climb between 9500-10,000’ stays way cool. I’ve never climbed it without having to put on a layer. Usually, I wear pants and a windshirt the whole way. Who says the Wasatch doesn’t have alpine rock? The Tetons have nothing on this!

Paul Oelerich and I met at the Broad’s Fork / Mill B South trailhead at 6 am and enjoyed the 3,000’, 3-mile approach. We were on the shady west side of the rugged canyon in the coolest part of the day. Sunrise on 11,107-foot Dromedary Peak’s northeast face glowed pink, then orange as we cruised up the well-established path to Lake Blanche.

Named for a pioneer Mormon woman, Blanche is nestled beneath the sharp, 500’ triangle of solid Quartzite that is the Sundial. Her sister lakes, Florence and Lillian, fill glacial-carved basins just to her west. All were “enhanced” by dams built in the depressed 1930s. Shortly thereafter, SLC engineers realized the threat of flood from one of these fragile dams bursting exceeded any value they had, and all such dams in the Wasatch were breached.

Regardless, it is a delightful camping area and, along with Red Pine lake in the Lone Peak Wilderness, it’s the most popular summer backpacking area in the Salt Lake mountains. That means on any hot day in the city you may see 3 parties escaping the heat here. But usually the only inhabitants are mule deer, trout, and non-indigenous mountain goats, ranging the maroon-colored rock slabs above.

Just east of the lake the trail disappeared in a meadow of brilliant yellow wildflowers soaking in the morning sun. Another 500’ of boulder-hopping brought us to the low-point of vertical rock. The first few moves typify the climb: steep and edgy with plenty of holds. Problem is, they are all sloping toward you. In-cut edges are rare. Spice it up with lichen, loose rocks, and tricky pro, and you get the picture. Its adventure climbing, not a well-traveled crag!

The first belay defines the word “ledge”. Its 2’ wide and 5’ long with 100’ of air below and a small roof above. As you sit to belay on the cool stone, your gaze wanders out over Lake Blanche, Big Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley to Antelope Island.

The second pitch starts “slopey,” and then gets easier before ending on a broad, loose terrace. The standard procedure from here is to move 50’ west and climb a wide corner. Instead, I go up and right on decent rock to a belay near the arete. The fourth pitch includes the exciting crux, and sets you up for the final, 100-foot lead.

Before you go up, you have to step slightly down onto a sloping edge with only a mono-digit pocket for hands. Fortunately, this heady move is well-protected, being just below the belay. Then the route climbs a steep, beautiful crack system with good holds. One must resist the temptation to continue up as it becomes 5.9 fingers. To keep it 5.6, follow a sidewalk back west to the arete. Now a small dihedral goes right up the crest for 70’ of quality moves on great rock.

Quartzite gives way to broken Slate / Shale just above the final belay, and the ridge goes horizontal. Its possible to scramble south for a mile and walk off to the west, but several rappel lines to the East are what most climbers employ. The cleanest option is to go south for 200’ and then zigzag down to a solid horn with slings. One rapp of 35 meters puts you on easy ground. A short scree slope leads back to the base.

There is no better way to enjoy the high Wasatch than on the Global Warming Arete. The down hike is in the afternoon sun, but who cares? You’re going with gravity! Now the trail is crowded with day-hikers, sweating their way up. As you step out of their way, you gloat with the satisfaction of having gotten up early, scaled a beautiful arete, and beaten the heat. When the trail crosses the creek just above the carpark, hopefully you’ve cached a few of your favorite beverages in the icy waters. A shady, creekside bench is the ideal place to toast a perfect summer day.

- Tyson Bradley

November 11, 2009

Pain and Suffering...Life at Europe's favorite American Crag

Fall in Utah is amazing (as are the other 3 seasons.) But autumn is especially stellar when the yellow leaves of Aspen and Cottonwoods are juxtaposed against a backdrop of red sandstone cliffs. This feast of color is easier to appreciate when you get your feet back on terra firma after jamming them sideways into 2" wide, 100' tall, vertical cracks. This is Indian Creek: a paradise on earth, assuming you like crack climbing; i.e. assuming you like to suffer. But that’s what climbing is when you push yourself out of the "comfort zone:" suffering. Your success is dependent on your ability to suffer. No one actually LIKES it, but some people suffer better than others. These are the climbers who succeed, and everyone gets stoked on that!

- Tyson Bradley

Veteran crack-climbers drop their knee away from the crack, insert their foot sideways, and rotate their knee back in-line with the splitter groove. This locks the foot securely in place, making it a solid hold. It also hurts like hell, until you get used to it. These are the folks who recognize suffering is going to happen, but they'd rather suffer early than suffer later.
Others prefer to shove their toe straight into the crack, or smear painlessly on smooth wall outside it. They concentrate on their hand-jams instead of their feet. These climbers avoid the excruciating pain of tarsal bones smashed against stone. However, they experience the pain later when their feet peel and they are left hanging on their killer hand jam. Now they are REALLY glad they used tape gloves! Usually they have the strength to hang on their arms for a certain number of moves. Maybe 20 feet worth. Maybe 50. Some powerful individuals can fly 110' feet up Generic or 3 Am Crack. But eventually, they gas out.
Most climbers recognize sooner or later, that the sport is all about the feet, and crack climbing in Indian Creek is no exception. No matter how strong you are, or how solid your hand jamming technique it, you will achieve more highly if you suck it up, and jam your feet. Once you figure this out, and you realize you can usually place a cam wherever you want one, climbing at the greatest crack crag in the universe gets fun.

Soon the jammable sections are the easy ones and the pumpy lie-back is the next technique to master. This is required when the crack size shrinks to fingers only. That means toes don't fit in and its easier to put your feet on the wall just below where your fingers are pulling on the edge of the crack, and boogie up with considerable exertion. The trick here is saving enough strength to place a piece of protection before you run out of steam.
Then there are the dreaded off-widths where a combination squirming, stemming, the above techniques and anything else you can think of, is the bag of tricks. But that’s another discussion...If you avoid towers and multi-pitch routes and read the guidebook carefully; you can dodge the cracks that are too wide for feet, hands, and reasonable-sized cams. Instead you can stay on the popular, friendly cracks, such as the "Incredible HAND Crack" and "Supercrack" and meet the international crowd that frequents these areas.
For Europeans, Aussies, etc., Indian Creek is the best-known American climbing area outside Yosemite. There is nothing else like it on earth (at least as far as the general climbing public knows.) Half the fun is hearing the accents and getting the diverse perspectives. They are bound to be friendly as they ask you, “Do you have any extra # 2 Camalots?” Everyone has a story of how they got half-way up their first I-Crk lead and ran out of the cam size they needed. They have to lower or down lead, and go begging, or shopping in Moab! Some cracks need up to 10 of the same size cams!! Sharing is a good way to make friends, increase good karma, and save a fortune.

So bring as many hand-size cams as you can gather, bring an open mind and gregarious personality, and go get pumped in Utah's fall (or spring) paradise. Or call UMA and have a guide put the rope up and belay for you so you can just concentrate on technique while climbing on a top-rope.

November 5, 2009

New Beginnings

We are just about to celebrate our new website's first anniversary!

Check it out and let us know what you think by reviewing it on our new facebook page:

Tell us what you like, what you would like to see more of, what you think of Utah Mountain Adventure, share your past experiences with Utah Mountain Adventures, talk about the guides, suggest us to friends, subscribe via SMS to make sure you don't miss out on our upcoming events!

We look forward to hearing from you and getting out with you in the mountains this winter!