Alarm at 4 AM. More tired than I wish, but I swing my legs out of bed and begin my early morning express routine. Contacts in, pull on shorts, shirt, long wool socks and sturdy black mountaineering pants. I sit at the top of the stairs for a minute and rub the cat’s belly, then to the kitchen where I mix and gulp a powdered breakfast drink. I reach into the refrigerator and grabbed water and food that had been chilling overnight. I would need substantial food – real food, not the syrupy gel I had been used to taking on my running outings. It is late May in the Wasatch mountains of Northern Utah. While the season shifts to Summer and the lower trails blossom in foliage, up high the peaks and basins show off bright white consolidated snow. I was going up high.
I decided to traverse a particular rugged ridge above the Cottonwood canyons. I am familiar with the area and have done the traverse several times. As per my habit, I did not make up my mind until last minute about which approach to take. Should I go up Broads Fork to the notch between Dromedary and Sunrise Peaks, or should I hike up Tanner’s Gulch on the other side, in a different canyon, to reach the same notch? I had no partners with me, and therefore no shuttle car waiting at the end of whatever approached I decided to take. I drove through Salt Lake City as dawn appeared in the East in the form of a faint outline of mountains. At the exit to highway 215 Eastbound – and the Big Cottonwood/Broads approach, I vacillated, and almost took the turn. Tanners it would be. A few more miles of freeway, then I exited to 90th South, which would take me into Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Several miles up the canyon I pulled over at the curve in the road a hundred yards above the Tanners Flat Campground. There is an unmarked trail there, which leads into one of the longest, steepest, and most deadly slide paths in all of the Wasatch: Tanners Gulch. There is only one season I ever go in there, Spring. I will stay out of the gulch in Winter, for the obvious reason. In the Summer and Autumn months the snow is gone and loose, steep, rocky terrain is exposed. I still felt tired. Not just body tired, but head tired. It was 5:15 AM and I decided to hop into the back seat for a nap. A short time later I got up, changed into my boots, attached my mountaineering axe to my pack, and disappeared into the green alpine foliage.
I have been in Tanner’s gulch several times, and it never looks identical to the previous time. Sometimes snow is so low it reaches down to where the access trail connects to the creek. Usually the snow is receded farther up the narrow, granite-walled slide path. Always there is a creek of ice cold pure meltwater rushing down to join Cottonwood Creek in the canyon. I stepped onto the creek bed and began my ascent, hopping over myriad rounded stones of various size. I had to hop across the stream a few times to avoid getting my feet wet. The bed reminded me of a beach – without the sea odor and salt – with fine sand between scattered rocks. Up canyon I could see the toe of the snow pack. It looked quite literally like the dirty white head of a frozen flash flood. Above it was 4,000 feet of uninterrupted snow laying over millennia of rock fall talus and eroded granite slabs.
At the toe a cold stream of water rushed fiercely out of a dark, self-made tunnel. I stepped onto the snow and continued up at a quicker pace without any obstacles to slow me. The lower gulch, with its steep granite walls, has striking features – figuratively and literally. I was cautious of rock fall as I ascended higher, removing my earphones to listen for any sounds of rock on rock. The carcass of a large pine tree lay on top of the consolidated snow. I admired the dry, rich tree flesh, thinking it would be good to burn in a campfire. Other large pieces of its body lay nearby. Grey granite rocks the size of drink coolers and smaller dotted the path upward, like breadcrumbs leading me to the heights. I arrived at the first split in the gulch. I had to choose: Left over a waterfall, or right over trashy, lumpy and deeply cupped snow. I went left. Last year the waterfall was fully exposed and required a careful climb to the side to bypass. This time only its top could be seen draining into a deep, dark hole. It was very pleasant to look at, and the climb around it to the snow above was pleasantly simple and safe. It was at that place I sat and attached my crampons for the remainder of the climb. Up higher I transgress the line between the grey majestic granite slabs of the lower gulch and the broken red quartzite environment of the upper ridge massif. Fortunately I was able to ascent mostly on snow, having to hike short sections on dry rock. At the top third of Tanners Gulch I had the option of staying left in the main branch, or entering a narrow choke that leads more directly up the South face of my first intended peak. If I had an inexperienced partner with me I would have certainly chosen the left. Being alone, I favored the direct and therefore faster route to the summit, knowing of the small waterfalls I would have to work around or over, and the steepness of the slope. I entered the choke through a natural quartzite gate, then moved quickly up slope on all fours. I fatigued quickly after several steps, then continued up. I repeated this pattern all the way up. Above me I saw the waterfall that I had been able to climb up and over in past years was fully exposed and impassable. I looked to the right and left to find a work-around. I decided left. It was good and within a few minutes I was above the waterfall. A few words about the angle of the slope in this branch: It is steep and slick – steep enough that if a climber slipped and lost all grip on the consolidated snow, he would slide out of control and collide with several jagged quartzite humps lining and jutting into the drainage. After likely breaking several bones and fracturing the skull, as well as receiving deep lacerations, the limp body of the unconscious, dying or dead climber would continue to be pulled by gravity downslope, bounce once more off the left hand gate of the choke, then slip out and begin to tumble another several hundred feet into the wide upper gulch. The body would probably not stop there, but continue twisting downward until it got hung up in the trees growing on a hump of granite, or brought to a halt by friction on a less-steep section of ground.
I had my earphones out for this part of the climb, too, because there was a risk of rock fall in this narrow chute (although, there was not a tell-tale runnel in the length of the chute, indicating that rock fall was rare). As I approached a low barrier of rock that had planned to climb over, I suddenly felt myself falling as the snow beneath me collapsed. Instinctively I spread my arms and caught myself with my forearms resting on the surface. My legs dangled in dark space below me. Only my arms and head remained above the surface. I looked down and saw no bottom. I heard the water beneath me. Somehow in the collapse I had turned a full 180 degrees and was facing downslope. I kicked my feet in all directions but the only direction I felt anything solid was behind me on the rock. I hung there several moments, becoming aware of the absolute necessity for me to get out before I fell into the hole under the snow. I shifted my weight forward slightly in an attempt to heft myself up and out. The snow I clung to collapsed again and I scrambled to gain a new hold. I swung my legs back and rested my feet on the rock. Then I pushed off and got my chest above the hole. I still had my axe out so I swung it forward and caught a hold, and awkwardly pulled the rest of myself out of the hole, facing downslope. This scared me. I didn’t even want to look in the hole I had just escaped. I caught my breath, said a prayer of gratitude, turned and continued up.
The last few hundred feet up the South face of Dromedary are at the steepest angle. I would climb a couple dozen feet up, stop to breath hard, then repeat. Bright sunlight reflected off the orange-red quartzite above me. When I reached the ridge top I followed it right and scrambled to the summit. There was less snow up there than I had expected. Much of the rock was exposed, where in past years it was a climb over thick snow. I sat on the summit, hungry from the effort and excitement down below, and had a breakfast of smoked ham, spicy antelope salami, and Swiss cheese.
The view from atop Dromedary Peak is magnificent. I could see the entire Cottonwood Ridge running East from the peak. I could see virtually all of the 11,000 foot Central Wasatch peaks, all white and spotted with exposed rock. It reminded me of white chocolate chip mint ice cream. Retracing my steps I descended the West ridge of Dromedary, careful not to slip on the steep angle back down the face, from where I had just climbed up. There is a short section where I turned toward the snow to kick steps and downclimb. Just above where the ridge meets the notch between the peaks there is usually a wide, more gentle snow-covered ramp that runs down to the upper Broads Fork bowl. This time the snow was only half-covering the slabs, so I made careful steps down and around the corner to hike back up to the notch. Form the notch I climb steeply up over mixed rock and snow surfaces. Several times I climbed on the apex of snow atop the ridge, a true knife edge. The snow was good and firm, and held my boots in place. I kept my crampons on, even while climbing over dry rock. It was too time-consuming to remove them because I would need them again to descend to the saddle leading to Twin Peaks. I reached the summit of Sunrise Peak in about 3.5 hours. I sat down and enjoyed another short meal, this time with the view to the Southwest before me. I could see into Coalpit Gulch, Hogum, and had proud views of the Pfeifferhorn and Lone Peak. On a snowy December morning in 1936, a passenger plane from California carrying a half ton of US mail and seven individuals crashed in upper Hogum Gulch. Recovery of the bodies took up to six months and among the debris was found a love letter from a young man to the stewardess aboard the doomed airplane. Scraps of the aircraft remain high in the gulch. From across the canyon I scanned the area, speculating on where the crash site could be.
I descended Sunrise, then ascended the smaller bump known as Jeppsen’s Folly. There is a more direct way down from Jeppsen’s, the so-called West buttress, but it is nearly vertical and usually snow-filled. I opted to downclimb around to the left over more forgiving terrain. The traverse under the West buttress is where I really needed the crampons. An accidental slide there would be deadly, and would send my body tumbling to the depths below. At the South end of the saddle I made an easy walk to its North end, then found the familiar crack in the wall leading to the high bench a few hundred feet below the summit of East Twin. The hike up was easy, and within minutes I had reached the summit. Not stopping, traversed to the West Twin. Within 10 minutes I stood on the last peak of the “Triple Traverse”. I had to decide where I wanted to go from there. Do I call it good and descend through Broad’s Fork? Or, I could have continued on the ridge down from the West Twin into unfamiliar terrain into Deaf Smith Canyon. I seriously considered that option. There would be no trail. I would have to hitch-hike back to my car in Little Cottonwood Canyon for those two options. The third option was to retrace all of my steps to that point, going back over all the peaks, including back up to Dromedary, and drop back down Tanner’s. I would get a “Double Triple Traverse.” I decided I would do that. I wanted to get back to my car without having to beg for a ride.
The descent back to the saddle from the Twins was quick, and I downclimbed the crack in the wall with pleasure. As I walked up to the base of the West buttress I saw that it was nearly clear of snow. I decided to climb the 5.5 route up instead of traversing around as I had done on the way over. I had climbed this buttress several times, but my favorite alcove still held snow, so I climbed just to the left of it. I got a little out of my comfort zone, making a few committing moves, clinging to rock as my body hung over a significant vertical drop. In the case of a fall, if I somehow escaped bashing against jagged quartzite, I would bounce off a 45 degree snow slope and continue into that rocky abyss below. When I was back on comfortable rock with large hold and ledges, I sighed relief. I am not a rock climber.
Broad’s Fork Twin Peaks (Photo: Ammon Hatch, May 2009)