Dry spell - where to go?
A long mid-January spell of high pressure brought chilly smog to Utah valleys, and crusts, facets and sugar to the mountains. One day a backcountry avalanche report famously said something like "nothing fun there, forget it, go ski the resorts". Specifically with respect to Western Uintas, the avy report mentioned hard crusts in the sun and crystal sugar in the shade, with nothing in between.
Another week was coming to an end, with the consensus opinion that the snow is gonna suck but it's better to brave crusts than to break trail in the sugar. So, it must be the South slopes. An e-mail went to the UINTA team:
"Rob and myself are thinking a Uinta tour on Sun, possibly Big Elk Lake area with ascending one of the two peaks North of it, the ones we haven't visited yet. Or maybe Haystack by the way of Rock Creek. Anybody up for joining?"
No other takers.
At 8:30 on a bluebird morning, we were putting on skis on the Norway Flats TH, to give a shot to Cone Peak (11,270) in the very heart of Western Uintas. It is 10 miles away and the January days are still too short for that kind of a long-haul, but maybe the crust will help us get there.
It was crusted pretty hard at the starting elevation, but crystals of overnight frost covered the crust and the traction was pretty decent. We were pushing hard to get to the higher elevations before the Sun softens the snow. We got to the flats by 10:30 am, that's about a half-way point. The old track ended in another half a mile, thence we just cut straight North to Norway bench and reached the high point of the bench, overlooking Big Elk lake and our destination, by 12:30.
The supposedly hard-crust-and-sugar condition of the Uintas was simply not true! Around 10,000 ft, it was mostly between 1 and 4 inches of packed or recrystallized powder over crust, easy trailbreaking and fun skiing downhill. The snow didn't appreciably soften in mid-day either, except for the most open, steep, South-facing slopes (where the softer crust was actually quite helpful). So it was fun and fast going.
We stopped for lucnh behind a stand of firs almost as soon as the peak came into view, less than two miles away now. A short descent to Big Elk Lake and kick-and-glide across, and we skinned up for the final push to the summit.
Another beautiful high bench, which haven't yet skied before, followed around the base of Peak 10,931, then spread wide between Cone Peak and Island Lake. There we turned onto the steep crusts of the lower South Ridge. We were able to ski to within 0.2 miles of the summit (10,900 el), then it was easy booting up the bouldery ridge.
The honey-colored quartzite outcroppings justted out of the wind-packed snow.
What an amazing view from the top! The whole of Western Uintas with its countless lakes and peaks, and distant Wasatch on the horizon. And a long glide ahead, along the high benches, still lit by the late afternoon Sun.
Trip stats: 6 hours all in all to the summit (9 to 10 miles distance, 3,800 ft gain) and only 2.5 hours back, we were back at the car by 5:20.