Intro: The man and the mountain
It was an invitation thrown out to local Summitpost regulars to climb one of the best spring routes to one of the most-loved Wasatch peaks with someone who knows the area well. In the Utah forum, "play naked" advocate and frequent bare-skinned hiker mtn_runr ("Grizz" Randall) left this message:
On Saturday, April 26, I am going to LEAVE Willows Park at 6:00 AM heading up Big Willow. I expect to summit Lone Peak (#100 even) around noon. I'm guessing the round trip to take 9 or 10 hours. Anyone reading this is welcome to come.
Some 37 years ago Grizz made his first ascent of Lone Peak, and has kept a log of practically every one of his ascents thereafter. A recent trip report documented Grizz's 86th, and in January 2008 he achieved #98 with a group of old and new friends. So it was not unexpected that #100 would take place in the prime of spring conditions this year. (Grizz informed us during the climb that he made #99 summit on Easter Day.) Scattered in between those Lone Peak summit bags, Grizz has kept busy running a small business and running in various marathons and steeplechases, not the least of which is the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run. The WF100 is a cumulative elevatition gain of 26,882 feet (an a loss of 26,131 feet). Grizz has completed the run at least 11 times, making him one of the few holders of the "Iron Ring" AKA "1000 miles of Heaven and Hell" ring, an astonishing realization of his strength when you do the math.
Lone Peak is not an easy climb. The summit ridge is a class 3 scramble over granite boulders with significant exposure, and all of the several approaches require an average of 6000+ feet of elevation gain to the 11,253 foot summit. The roundtrip hike (or run) can be done in as little as 6 hours or so, but for most individuals the round trip is an all-day affair, and most hikers consider just one ascent an accomplishment of note.
So what does it take to make one hundred summits of this beloved mountain? Again, do the math.
The route: Big Willow Canyon
The popularity of Grizz's proposed climb of Lone via Big Willow was quickly apparent. Nine Summitpost locals stated their intentions to show up at the trailhead at the arranged time. Promptly at 6AM in growing dawn, Grizz led the group up the steep mountain trail. Tenth climber Brian (SP: dunsum) caught up with the group as we paused to peel off clothing layers. A short time later it was time to put on the snowshoes, and the group--minus Marauders and Tatwood, both of whom fell behind-- posed for a photo.
Big Willow canyon is one of the several west-facing drainages that cuts into the Lone Peak mountain. At the top of Big Willow is a wide bowl backed on the East by an enormous notched, granite wall. The Big Willow headwall leads up to the Lone Peak shoulder and can be seen easily from many vantage points in the Salt Lake Valley, especially when it it is snow-covered. The route begins in a drainage just south of Big Willow (Little Willow), then crosses over into the main canyon through a lower forest. Once through the trees the route traverses a meadow slope, then passes through an upper patch of forest. The hike began over clear ground and signs of spring indicated the changing season. Higher up Winter still held the canyon, especially after a recent snowfall.
After the last steep slope up to and through the second forest, we finally broke out of the trees and into the cirque. The group was now down to seven. Marauders and Tatwood hadn't been seen since the beginning of the hike. Brian who, without benefit of snowshoes was making slow progress, and hadn't been seen since the meadow area above the crossover point.
Big Willow Cirque/Headwall
After another short break it was time to climb the headwall. The snow was fresh and deep, and as the slope steepened, our snowshoes sometimes tried to slide downhill. The leaders punched several switchbacks into the slope, staying to the right of the minor arete that bisects the wall. By this time it was mid-morning and the sun was out in full force. We were making excellent time and Grizz's prediction of summiting sometime around noon was coming true.
Most of the group took another break on the rim of the Big Willow headwall and munched on energizing food. Joe and Michael had gone ahead an begun the climb of the final leg up to the summit ridge.
The lead crew reassembled for a snack break on the North Shoulder of Lone Peak, taking shelter from cold breeze in a minor gully. Northerly winds were forecasted to die down later in the day, but it was still barely half past 10 in the morning, and the gale was whipping up flumes of snow on the ridge ahead.
The hardpacked snow on the slope leading up to the summit ridge glistened in the Sun, and I donned crampons at the first convenient spot, the only one of the team to do so. But on the leeward side, including the famed knife edge section, the snow conditions became near-perfect for booting. Joe and Mike were leading the group, with Grizz following closely behind.
Back in January, when the snow was deeper and more powdery, we had to leap down from the meanest of the knife edge's gendarmes, which I dubbed the Big Bad Rock. Today though, an excellent track hung above the precipitous East-facing slopes at the base of the gendarme - great job, Joe and Mike!
The airy summit rock, rising above the cirque like a ship bow, was simply too small for today's team. As Grizz and myself were taking pictures, Ammon and Matt joined us at the top. We high-fived Grizz the mtn_runr and the smiles sparkled, but no candles to blow out on this windy perch, and no sparkles of champagne please, I'd rather have this high-adrenaline section of the summit ridge behind me first!
The familiar views of the snowbound Wasatch and Oquirrhs were fun to soak in, but minutes before noon we were already tracking back over the beautifully sunlit razor edge.
The next tricky section awaiting us was the wind-scoured 40-degrees upper section of Big Willows headwall. A few tense plunging steps above the rocky belt, and then a nice glide to cirque bottom commenced! We stopped for a minute at the woods' edge to watch Travis, who was still on the way up near the ridge, and to enjoy the sunshine and - at last - calm air.
Soon, only the corniced tops of the cliffs of Big Willow still popped above the trees, and then we ran down quickly sogging-up snow below the beautiful Guardian Towers - and it was time to take off snowshoes at the trail's crossing into Little Willow, and to enjoy the first spring flowers along the path!.
Joseph Bullough, Moogie737, mtn_rnr, MOCKBA, Ammon Hatch, Matthew Van Horn summited minutes after 11:30 am, and marauders met us at the start of the summit ridge on his way up.
Brent, the oldest member of the team at 67, turned back at the high summit ridge, just before it becomes a knife edge, and tatwood turned back from North Shoulder. dunsum, postholing without snowshoes, made it to the beautiful Big Willow Cirque before turning back. Thanks to all of you for joining the team, and see you up there again!
The rest of the story...