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Wasatch mega report - winter 2023

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Posted by timgibson11 on 3/18/23 2:32pm

How much snow does it take to cancel other plans for the winter and follow my nose to Utah? It turns out that 400” by mid-January is enough. As the calendar rolled into 2023 I was no longer able to sit idly while the snow stacked up in the Wasatch, so Charlie (dog) and I made the long drive to Salt Lake City, where I spent 2 months doing very little besides cherry-picking the best days to ski the biggest and most aesthetic lines, with very short (often 15 minutes or less) drives to the trailheads. Here’s what I got up to. I’m using video to tell this story but may add some photos in the comments section later.

For my first week in Utah the snow continued to fall almost daily, so my intro to the Wasatch was a steady diet of tight couloirs and tree skiing. I was a frequent visitor to Kessler Peak, which holds a multitude of fun ski descents. I even got to do some resort skiing in support of Greg Scruggs’ relentless pursuit of excellence in journalism - his visit to SLC coincided with my arrival and got this trip off on the right foot. Throughout my time in Utah marginal weather days and half-day plans provided good excuses to sample the easy-access terrain near Alta. You can get a lot done in just a few hours on Flagstaff, Cardiff Peak, Cardiac Ridge, and Wolverine Cirque. 

During week 2 the skies cleared and I was able to ski some of the classic lines in the Wasatch (Superior, Bonkers, Stairs Gulch, Box Elder) in nearly perfect conditions, along with half the population of SLC. It’s amazing how many people get after it in this area. If you come to the Wasatch be prepared to start early and move quickly, or else you might find your line completely tracked out. To put a positive spin on this, it’s a great place to meet a lot of cool people who crush in the mountains! Despite all the warnings I never got any attitude from Wasatch locals, only good vibes.

During weeks 3-4 my focus shifted to more remote and technical lines, many of which were in thanks to the fat and stable snowpack. I joined some friends on a spectacular alpine traverse linking Pfeifferhorn and Thunder Ridge via Montgomery Chute. The NW Couloir of Pfeifferhorn was good fun. Montgomery…not so much. I decided that mid-line rappels aren’t really my thing and now refer to Montgomery as “WTF Chute” due to the puckering downclimb required to reach the anchor. Still, I enjoyed the wild ambiance of Thunder Ridge so much that I made the long approach 3 more times, and was rewarded with first tracks down the Hypodermic Needle and Coalpit Headwall, plus the Sliver. 

The East Face of Twin Peaks was right at the top of my list due to multiple pro skiers from Utah naming it as one of their favorites. It took a couple tries but Mitch and I managed to get it untracked on a bluebird day, and it definitely lived up to the hype. Shoutout to the party ahead of us who put in a skin & boot track to the summit and then decided to ski a different line!

No Utah pow pilgrimage would be complete without some desert skiing, so I spent a few days exploring the La Sal Mountains outside Moab. The 9600’ winter trailhead and expansive views over the canyonlands make this a unique ski destination. The entire cirque of north-facing terrain surrounding Mt Tukuhnikivatz is rad, but the desert wind is relentless, so getting it in good conditions takes luck and/or patience. I went up there 4 times and skied several different lines but only found good snow once, on Tuk’s NE Face. 

As February wore on, high winds wrecked quite a few ski plans back in the Wasatch too. My laser focus on alpine objectives and dislike of tree skiing didn’t help. But after several days of bad skiing and general discomfort in the alpine I flipped the script, stayed low, and scored big with a deep powder run on the Y couloir. The arrival of March was reason to celebrate, as it brought several more feet of snow without any wind. March 2 was one of my best ski days ever - a rare convergence of perfect weather and snow conditions. Determined to take full advantage, I set out on a solo mission linking five classic Little Cottonwood descents in an awesome circuit that I didn't want to end. The victims of this mass chuting were Toledo Chute, The Hallway, Benson & Hedges, Little Superior, and Homicide Chute. 

As unlikely as it sounds, I’d have a better tan right now if I had just stayed in Seattle. SLC and the Wasatch consistently had one sunny day per week this winter - almost always on Thursday, which I designated Sunny Pow Day,  the one day of the week when you definitely want to clear your schedule. On my final Sunny Pow Day my partners and I explored some hidden corners of the Wasatch on a traverse from Neffs Canyon to Big Cottonwood Canyon, linking the Whipple and Waldo couloirs and finding great snow and scenery along the way. 

The big peaks of Utah County (south of SLC) are worth considering whenever conditions allow. Mt Timpanogos holds countless possibilities for ski descents covering all aspects and terrain types - Mt Rainier might be its only rival in the Lower 48 for quantity and variety of ski terrain. I climbed the E Face to the summit, skied the NW & SW faces, and felt like I’d only scratched the surface of this massive mountain. I also skied some fun lines on Lone Peak, Big Horn, and Deseret Peak. It’s an incredible feeling to drop from these lofty summits with your skis pointed straight down at the city 7000’ below. My last run in Utah was a 5000' beauty right from the summit of Mt Nebo, highest point in the Wasatch. It would have been even better if we could see where we were going. The entire mountain was engulfed in clouds all day; we waited 1.5 hours on the summit for a window that would allow us to see beyond our ski tips. 

It’s important to have good company on these big missions; I was fortunate to meet some great partners in Utah (too many to list) and rarely toured alone. Special thanks to Jeremy Page for matching my stoke on big objectives, being available whenever the forecast looked good, and crushing the descents no matter what obstacles we found. The days Charlie and I spent on Mt Olympus were easily among the top moments in Utah. Charlie is my all-time favorite ski partner, but he’s now 9 and who knows how many seasons of touring he’s got left. Most places in the Wasatch are off-limits to dogs. I put Olympus on my list because it’s dog-friendly, but it turned out to have some pretty awesome ski lines as well, all right in SLC’s backyard. This might just be the world’s best urban skiing. We climbed and skied the Zeus and Apollo couloirs, plus two of the Memorial Couloirs - all of which were just as good as anything in Little Cottonwood. 

My time in Utah was going so well that I entertained thoughts of becoming the first person to complete the whole Chuting Gallery in a single season. It was definitely there for the taking if I wanted to stay through the Spring and focus on getting it done. I finally decided that my time would be better spent skiing all the fun lines from the book, plus other fun lines elsewhere in the Wasatch, instead of scratching my way down some of the more contrived descents. I ended up skiing 35 of the 90 Chuting Gallery lines, including most of the good ones, and all 4 of the 50 Classics located in Utah. It was pretty successful, if you’re into that sort of thing. And hey, the Great White Icicle will surely be waiting for me next time I’m in the area. While I didn’t get to ski everything on my list due to limited weather windows, the biggest disappointment was not seeing a moose while out touring. Despite numerous reports of moose sightings in the Wasatch backcountry this winter, I had no such luck - I may have spent too much time in the alpine and not enough in the forest ;)

I’ve always said that there are three places to be in the lower 48 if you love mountains - the North Cascades, Tetons and Eastern Sierra. The Wasatch made a strong case for #4 this winter. 

Inspiring!  What a string of cool descents ....thanks for putting this TR together!

Really nice report.  I enjoyed that very much.

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2023-03-18 21:32:45