Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Month: July 2008

Wasatch Mountaineering Part Four: Lone Peak Alpine Style

Guess I’m a junkie — I couldn’t even make it ’til July without doing another long mountaineering route here in the Wasatch.

On June 29 Mark and I met up at the LCC park ‘n ride at 2am and car-pooled to the Bells Canyon trailhead. I had been excited for quite a while to do a climb with him since he has provided most of the route descriptions and photos for all the mountaineering I’ve done via SummitPost.

Not five minutes into the hike we walked by a residential area and were blasted by someone’s automatic sprinklers. Though the forecast called for 90+ in the valley that day it was still a cool desert evening; 12 hours later and it would’ve been real nice.

As it was we scurried up Bells Canyon with Mark setting a torrid pace. I’m in decent shape so it was nice climbing with someone at least as fast as myself — By 330 am we were well up the canyon with the stream roaring at our side.

Somewhere around here things turned sour. I considered Mark to be the crusty old veteran and trusted his routefinding decisions, but regrettably we got off the main trail and ran into some heinous bushwhacking. Two miles and much blood later we found ourselves traversing snow slopes on the west side of Bells Canyon as the sun peeked over the ridgeline.

Lone Peak’s NE Face in winter. My line was right below the leftmost summit.

The original goal was to start the climb at sunrise so as to catch the snow in ideal conditions. Though it was nearly July there was still a ton of snow in upper Bells, and a surprising lot on Lone Peak’s NE Face itself. By around seven we were at the base of the face scoping out potential lines. While Mark had his eyes on the couloir directly beneath the summit I was eyeing the adjacent South Summit Couloir.

After gearing up with crampons, ice tools, harnesses and some snow pickets we headed up to the climb. The idea was to simul-solo the rock sections and place pickets in the snow to protect the couloirs. After about 30 feet of class four scrambling (with crampons no less) Mark decided to cut right to attempt the direct couloir while I continued up where I was. We agreed to meet farther up the face where it looked like the two couloirs convened.

It was the best climbing I’ve experienced on a mountaineering route in Utah: surprisingly solid granite mixed with snow pitches just compact enough to hold your weight. The scrambling never got more difficult than 5.3 or so and except for a couple sections it didn’t feel too exposed. Mixed climbing is quite fun; though I only used my ice tools in the actual snow I was making rock moves with my hands and standing on my crampon points. I had had a taste of this on Timpanogos but this time the climbing continued for hundreds of feet.

By nine AM I was on the most spectacular summit of the Wasatch: a 10×10′ block of granite overlooking all of the Salt Lake and Provo Valleys as well as the four hundred foot cliffs directly below the peak in the Lone Peak Cirque. It was truly mesmerizing. After taking it in for a while I took a nap while waiting for Mark to come up. After an hour, though, I started to get a bit worried and sent him a text message (yeah, yeah, pretty lame I know, but I had four bars up there). Surprisingly, I got a response pretty quickly. Apparently he had encountered poorer snow conditions than myself and decided to bail on the climb about halfway up the face.

Right before I geared back up for the descent I heard the unmistakable BAAAAA of a baby mountain goat. No more than 50 yards away was a family of the beautiful white beasts traversing the summit ridge. The smallest one would get stuck behind her parents and jump around haphazardly on granite slabs blissfully unaware (?) of the sheer four-hundred-foot drop awaiting a slight slip. On the other end of the summit ridge, just past the South Summit, was another family of goats making their way South. Lounging on the summit, I had a clear view of no less than fifteen mountain goats going about their business. What a day to forget my camera.

The descent was thankfully straightforward, safe and quick, and well before 10 I was waking up Mark in the middle of his own snooze. We hung out for a bit then packed up to make the eight-mile trek back down to the valley.

A Stroll in the Woods: The 2008 Wahsatch Steeplechase

It was a long time coming, but I greeted the summer solstice with a 17.5-mile trail running race in Salt Lake’s back yard. By 5:30 AM I was on my bike cruising down South Temple in the pre-dawn, and by 5:45 at Memory Grove Park next to the Capital Building, surrounded by an antsy crowd of 20- and 30-something athletes. Fifteen minutes later the proverbial gun was fired, and we were off.

Immediately a brisk pace was set and in no time the pack had separated into semi-discrete bunches of runners chugging along. I hadn’t warmed up at all and the first mile or so up the road was not as easy as it should have been. Right away I drifted off behind a few dozen runners until the race took a turn for the steep onto the Bonneville-Shoreline Trail.

The next three miles or so varied between effortless cruising and uphill panting. I was familiar with the trail, having either ran or biked it in the month before the race, but it didn’t make it any easier.

About four miles in: Black Mountain is at right

The single-track trail was pretty fun as it snaked along gully benches, but right after the first aid station about three miles in things got difficult. The rhythmic flurry of striding legs turned into plodding steps, and the first signs of anguish betrayed many a runner. I wasn’t feeling particularly exhausted but was concerned for a nagging foot injury which had crept into every training run (amazingly, it lie dormant for the whole race). It wasn’t until the false summit of Black Mountain that the course started to let up, 4500 vertical feet above the race’s start.

Not many people experience third-class scrambling during a running race, but therein lies the beauty of the Steeplechase. Boulder-hopping on a knife-edge limestone ridge after 6 miles of calf-burning uphill running holds a certain appeal to a deranged few, myself included. It was far and away the most enjoyable part of the race (I think I uttered a “Whoo! This is what I’m talkin’ about!” at some point) but ended quickly at a welcome aid station, greeting us with Gu and Gatorade. I snagged a Gu and tore off down the course, a pleasant, soft footpath rather reminiscent of the trails around my house growing up.

Coming down the mountain was pretty fun, too, if not just for the nutjobs tearing downhill (oh wait, that was me) at speeds unreasonable for any two-legged creature. At one point I stopped to retie my shoes next to a barely-noticeable switchback in the trail:
“Whoa! Heads up dude!”
A tatooed guy well into his forties literally hurdles me. At least he gave some warning.
“Uhh, hey, that’s not the trail!”
“Whuu? Aww shit, time for some bushwhackin'”
He then proceeds to stampede downhill through thirty yards of eight-foot brush like a rabid Grizzly, soon stumbling on the trail and tasting some of it in a full-out Three Stooges-style wipeout right in front of me. I was too busy laughing to care that he had blatantly cut me off.

Not many running races require route-finding skills, but this horribly overgrown and blowdown-strewn “trail” demanded them. At times you would hurdle a three-foot diameter fallen tree trunk only to have to put on the brakes on landing for a faint switchback hiding beneath two feet of undergrowth. Yeah, it was pretty sweet.
Another half-mile or so of this put me back down into City Creek Canyon and the barely-downhill nine miles of road and single track trail. I hauled so much ass coming down the mountain that I had time to fill up my Camelbak at an aid station without being passed.

About three miles from the finish pure exhaustion started to creep in and the experience began to take on the hellish pain that only competitive endurance-fests can provide. Two hours and fifty-six minutes after setting off I crossed the finish line to an angelic whoop of cries and applause. It was over. I collapsed in the shade, took off my shoes and uncovered a two-square inch blister on my heel. A wave of ecstasy washed over me as I stretched out in the cool grass, having finished the most difficult physical challenge of my life.

‘Til next year! Or…sooner?

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