Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Wasatch mountain bender

Well, I'm back in warm and sunny California after a great five days in Utah despite the disruption of my family's annual Grand Canyon tradition. I visited a couple of friends from college, did dinner and a movie with my best friend from high school, ate a few pounds of my mom's homemade pumpkin cookies, and binged on Wasatch mountain scenery just as autumn began its stark transition to winter. I got in 20 hours and 37 minutes of hiking over my five days in town — much of it at a similar effort level to the trail running I do at home, so it was a solid week of training, too.

Dad was coming down with a nasty cold but he rallied for a Saturday outing up the Cherry Canyon Logging Trail. This trail begins at a nondescript city park on the edge of Draper, about two miles from where my parents live, and climbs straight up the steep face of a mountain. On a good day one can ascend 7,000 feet to the top of Lone Peak, but we knew snow and ice conditions would prevent us from attempting the technical scrambling up the summit ridge, and also that route finding would be more difficult under fresh snow. We set our sights on the "Outlaw Cabin" in the pine forest at 9,500 feet elevation. Still a 5,000-foot climb.

It was a gorgeous day, but the wind was fierce and above 7,000 feet we were soon slogging through shin- and knee-deep powder. Temperatures climbed just above freezing, but the wind made it feel much colder.

Lone Peak and its drainages remain my favorite section of the Wasatch Mountains. The massif towers over my childhood house (where my parents still live) and I consider it my home mountain. I always love the opportunity to return here.

The Outlaw Cabin, built in 1960 by the Allen Brothers, was constructed before the pine forest where it's located officially became part of the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. I admit backcountry cabins like this creep me out; I half expect to find the bones of a long-dead miner or the bloody victim of a chainsaw murder inside. Dad pulled back the wooden slab of a door and peeked inside, but I couldn't bring myself to do so. We brushed the snow off a log and enjoyed a shivery lunch outside. Then we started down the 5,000-foot descent that always seems so much longer than that.

On Sunday I squeezed in a quick trip up the West Ridge of Grandeur Peak. Another cold storm had moved in and the mountain was shrouded in thick fog and pummeled by wind, stinging rain and sleet, so I pulled my buff over my face, put my head down, and marched. Although it's not the most scenic route in the Wasatch, if I lived in Salt Lake City I would probably climb this trail often. It's a great training "run." In five miles there is 7,400 feet of elevation change (3,714 feet in 2.5 miles, and both the climb and descent are pretty much equally difficult at those grades.) On this hike I managed to shave twenty minutes — four minutes a mile — off my pace from when I hiked it back in May. I like to think that maybe I'm actually in better shape now than I was in the spring, but mostly this just demonstrates my tendency to do better when the weather is awful than when it's nice. Also, I love the kind of terrain where 29-minute miles feel like a hard effort. If I had a steady supply of steep mountains to climb or snowy tundra to traverse, I would be a happy hiker. I wouldn't miss running one bit. But I do enjoy trail running, of course, for the way it's taught me how to move more efficiently over variable terrain and cover more distance in one go. Come to think of it, I really need to start running again soon.

The clouds moved away for several minutes just as I arrived at the 8,300-foot peak, affording me a brief but nice view of the surrounding mountains.

 On Monday I had another short window of time, so I decided to head up Little Cottonwood Canyon to climb to White Pine Lake, which sits in a rocky basin below Red and White Baldy peaks at about 10,200 feet altitude. Right before I left the house, my dad suggested that I borrow his snowshoes because Little Cottonwood always gets "slammed" when there's a storm. The suggestion surprised me. Sure, these fall storms had dumped a few inches of snow, but surely not enough to be snowshoe worthy?

Dad was right; there was a lot of snow up there, starting with about three inches at the trailhead and building to nearly two feet at the lake. Many of the aspen trees still had their leaves in tact, creating a cool spot-color effect on the black-and-white landscape.

Light snow continued to fall throughout the climb, which was a genuine trudge. Dad's snowshoes are a bit heavy and the snow was wet and cement-like. I logged one 38-minute-mile to the top that was an all-out, gasping effort (being at 10,000 feet could have had something to do with that. I actually do okay at altitude for the first few days of acclimation, and tend to start struggling with it more later in the week.) I had plans to visit my sister in the afternoon, and was trying to keep the hike to three and a half hours. It took me 2:30 to reach the lake, only five miles and 2,600 feet of climbing from the trailhead. Luckily I was able to take the snowshoes off and jog most of the last three miles, keeping the hike to 3:40.

Despite my efforts to rush through this outing, it was soothing and peaceful. I broke a fresh track all the way to the lake and only saw two other people on the return. Fine grainy snow fell and thick fog streamed through the canyon. Above treeline I encountered full white-outs, which were deeply unsettling in their complete sensory deprivation. On two occasions I stopped walking and gazed into the gray silence, grasping to regain some feeling of reconnection to Earth. I felt like I was floating in outer space (a sensation probably sparked by the fact my friend and I saw "Gravity" at the movies on Saturday.) The tiniest sparks of panic would creep in, and that was always the moment when the clouds moved through and I could see the outlines of rocks and ridges in front of me. I can see! These moments of sensory disconnect continued for most of the last painfully slow mile, and I was happy to have my own tracks to follow down.

And that's my trip to Utah. I flew home on Monday evening, back to bikes and 80-degree weather. But it's time to start gearing up for winter. Beat and I have lots of good things coming up, and as my PTL shellshock continues to diminish, I feel more excitement about all of it — 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, Alaska, Iditarod, snow bikes ... many good things. Although I was roughed up by my summer adventures, I feel like I've grown stronger because of that. Twenty hours of time in the winter-kissed Wasatch Mountains was a solid jumpstart for the mojo I feared I'd lost.