Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bold return to the Wasatch

I spent all day Friday driving from the Bay Area to the Salt Lake Valley. Eight hundred miles on a desolate yet crowded Interstate 80. I actually quite enjoy long solo drives, for many of the same reasons that I enjoy long solo runs or rides — I can retreat into my quiet personal bubble, ponder all of the deep thoughts that I don't mind forgetting later, view intriguing landscapes, listen to music, sing out loud if I feel like it, get worked up over news, and snack on junk food. I also dislike long solo drives for the same reasons I dislike long solo runs — some boredom is unavoidable, as is at least one segment when I struggle not to doze off on my feet/at the wheel. I can't always find good places to stop and pee. My legs cramp up. I eat too much junk food and then I feel icky. Then, once it's all over, I'm really tired and feel vaguely hungover. Yeah, that's endurance running driving. 

 But doing the whole 800 miles in one push was all worth it when I woke up early on Saturday morning to attempt a Twin Peaks summit with my dad. Not knowing what kind of spring snow conditions we would encounter, we packed all of our snow gear. Knowing the day's forecast called for 85 degrees, we also packed a ton of water. Heavy packs and a hike that starts at 6,000 feet altitude. I knew that no matter what conditions the day brought, it was going to be a big effort just to keep up with my dad.

We took the standard Broads Fork drainage, starting in the bright green foliage of early summer and quickly losing seasons as we climbed.

Late spring became early spring, with tiny green buds and lots of deadfall.

Continuing to ascend into late winter.

8,500 feet — the hard part begins.

I was a bit nervous about encountering rotten snow conditions and rockfall, but the bowl was filled with old avalanche debris and the resulting base felt solid. Both my experience and skillset in steep snow conditions are limited, so I try to be mindful of variables and extremely conservative in my approach. Still, I had some anxieties. Now that I live away from big mountains, I tell myself that what I miss the most is the beautiful scenery and challenging terrain. But I forget another benefit of mountain living — the opportunity to get out and do things that scare me.

The long climb up the bowl was fairly straightforward, but there were signs of rotten snowpack, at times sinking thigh-deep into jagged postholes. By the time the slope steepened, I was sucking so much wind I could hardly see straight. I've noticed that when I come directly from sea level, 9,000 feet is about my threshold of manageable altitude; beyond that, I'm going to struggle no matter how fresh I am. And of course, the more tired I become, the lower that threshold gets. This was one of my worries about the Bryce 100 and one of the reasons I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to come out to Utah a week early. I hope to avoid this cross-eyed breathlessness if at all possible.

Things got steep while I was fixated on my own oxygen deprivation. On top of that, the avalanche-scoured snowpack had all the structural integrity of a tattered piece of lace. It was effectively a thin layer on top of a large boulder field, and much of the snow below the surface had melted and run off. We couldn't see the boulders, but we started to punch through the cracks between them, wrenching knees, bashing shins, thrashing to pull stuck feet out of holes. I experienced several anxious minutes when I wasn't sure if my dad was going to be able to pull himself out of a hole, and I hadn't found a spot that could hold my weight close enough to help (he was leading, so unfortunately did most of the deep hole finding, too.)

By the time the conditions really started to seem unworkable, we had nearly reached the saddle. I thought the descent would be okay because we could follow our own steps and pick our way around the holes. But there was some really sketchy stuff near the point were we had no choice but to climb onto the rocks — effectively crevasses between car-sized boulders with no way to gain purchase on the crumbling slush "bridges."

So we were both a little spooked when we reached the saddle, and it took us exactly zero seconds to call "no way" on the summit push to Twin Peaks. There was an even steeper and likely more rotten snowfield on the south face, and the other option is a Class 4 scramble on the exposed knife ridge that had its own razor sharp point of snow. A harsh and surprisingly cold wind nearly knocked us over, and we were happy to just look at the view and turn around.

Lovely view it was. Little Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley from 10,815 feet.

But we still had to go down. It was tough. In this photo my dad is trying to work his way around a hole where he fell up to his shoulder on one side. That was the hole where he solicited an adrenaline jolt to scramble out while I scouted for purchase in a spot close enough to pull him out. We descended most of this mountain slower than we climbed it — every step deliberately kicked many times before any foot was planted — and it was even more strenuous and wind-sucking at times. On the positive side, I effectively climbed the mountain twice — in both effort and position, so I don't have any downhill-induced shin pain to show for a 7.5-hour adventure.

Hokas and crampons. Not a bad combination. Usually when I wear my spikes with soft-soled shoes, I can feel the point pressure on the bottom of my foot. But with Hokas, all that cushioning does what it does best.

When we got down to the more stable snowpack, we were finally able to get off our feet for a few minutes.

This gully was filled with the remains of a massive avalanche. At first I thought the slide was recent, but on closer inspection, it probably happened a while ago.

Still, the avalanche left its mark. Our 7.5-hour hike ended up netting my training log a total of 8.5 miles and just over 5,000 feet of climbing. The numbers don't even come close to depicting how tough the effort was. At one point I was gasping for air when my watch buzzed in a 102-minute mile. Impressive.

Proper taper? I might have to take an extra rest day to get over this one. It was still worth it. A grand adventure with what was really just the right amount of scary, careful management, and success, topped off with some jaw-dropping scenery. I do miss you, Wasatch Mountains. 


  1. Wow, what an awesome adventure.

  2. Glad neither of you seriously hurt yourself. You will do great at Bryce. I sort of wish I could play but for many reasons I just can't. Boo.

  3. Always fun to watch you get into the zone before a race Jill. I think you're going to do well and am looking forward to the after race reports and pictures. So cool to have a Dad who loves to hike. Have fun!


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