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.
Lower Tanner's Gulch (Photo: BigNick, Summitpost)
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.
Upper Tanner's Gulch
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.
Sunrise Peak, 11,280 feet
L-R: Dromedary, Sunrise, Jeppsen's (Photo: Travis Atwood, May 2009)
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)
Climbing back up Jeppsen’s and Sunrise went quickly without crampons. I pulled myself up and over large rocks, staying close to the ridge top. To my left was a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into upper Broad’s Fork. Below me and a half-mile away as the crow flies, I could see two figures hiking over snow up into the basin. I wondered if they could see me up on the peaks. Upper Broad’s Fork was still completely covered in deep snow, and the Twins’ East flank was still mostly white even after the glide avalanches had released. Further in the distance I could see the beaver pond and the adjacent meadow were completely dry and green. Snow was melting quickly in the late May heat wave. As I climbed up and over Sunrise Peak, only two things ahead worried me. I could get to the summit of Dromedary with no problem, but how would the snow in upper Tanner’s Gulch be? I was concerned about wet slide avalanches as the temperature rose. After the incident of falling in the hole on the first climb up Dromedary, how likely would it be for me to fall into a deeper, more dangerous hole in lower Tanner’s Gulch? The draining water runs stronger down below, and the gulch narrows considerably. I must be very careful and alert. I reached the summit of Dromedary for the second time. One last meal on top, then I descended to the notch atop Tanner’s. I peered over the edge down into the steep, narrow upper gulch. The snow had been softening in the morning heat. I judged it to be good enough to descend, and carefully lowered myself down at the edge of the notch, in a gap between rock and snow. Stepping out onto the snow, I felt it was just right for a quick plunge-step descent. Then I determined it would be good for glissading. I sat down on the snow with my feet straight in front of me and let gravity pull me down. I slid a thousand feet down in a few minutes, enjoying the free ride out of the narrow top portion of the gulch, then through the wide snowfield of the middle portion. I stopped and stood up not far above the waterfall, and walked down to it. Where the cold clean water poured out from underneath snow, there was a small platform before it fell over and disappeared again into a black hole under snow. I stood there and filled a bottle with cold, clean water. I drank it all, them refilled. I made a short jump down from the waterfall onto snow, careful not to land directly above the creek. The grey granite walls of the gulch rose up high to my right, and less dramatically to my left. I listened for rock fall, and moved quickly down canyon. I passed the battered tree trunk. I tried glissading again but the surface of the snow was violently bumpy. I followed the long tongue of snow downward. Ahead and below I could see the green, dry woods of the canyon lit up in sunshine. I hiked up the bank and found the hiker’s trail, and within a few minutes arrived back to my vehicle parked at a curve in Little Cottonwood Canyon. My total time from start to finish was 7 hours and 57 minutes. A few years ago my time to complete just one traverse of the same peaks was over 8 hours. Several years ago my first traverse over the same peaks was over 12 hours. I said a prayer, grateful for my safe return, and drove home.