The Triple Traverse (TT) via Tanners Gulch is the name given to one of the Wasatch Mountain's premiere Spring snow routes. The route begins by ascending Tanners Gulch, a steep avalanche prone path on the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon, then tags the three westernmost peaks on the Cottonwood Ridge; Dromedary Peak, Sunrise Peak, and Broads Fork Twin Peaks. Tanners Gulch is infamous for huge snow slides, and is generally avoided except during a narrow window of opportunity during the Spring when it provides a popular moderate snow climb to the crest of the Wasatch Cottonwood Ridge.
I generally avoid hiking activities which involve an early Sunday morning start, since they tend to result in very long and highly caffeinated work weeks. So when I saw that the annual Wasatch Mountain Club (WMC) version of the TT was scheduled for a Sunday, I decided to make my own plans for the hike on Saturday the day prior. Summitpost interest in the TT was high so I posted the activity on the SP Plans & Partners board, where 11 individuals expressed interest in joining the hike.
But the stellar weather forecast of earlier in the week slowly deteriorated as the day of the hike approached, culminating in a Thursday/Friday storm which deposited 4-8 inches of new snow in the mountains. I received a flurry of e-mails and PM's from various members of the group, expressing concerns about the conditions, and whether it might be wise to postpone the hike a week or two. I was wavering a bit myself so I called Grizz, who was planning to participate in the WMC Sunday climb. Grizz indicated he felt conditions were still relatively safe, and to his knowledge the Sunday climb was still a 'go'. He also assured me that the Sunday group would keep their eyes peeled for scattered gear or body limbs protruding from the snow.
Saturday's DNFThe storm and new snow from the previous day had apparently taken its toll, with only 4 others showing up at the S-curve meeting spot in Big Cottonwood Canyon. We carpooled to Little Cottonwood Canyon, and after a short delay due to an error in locating the proper starting point, the 5 of us headed into the gulch. One member (Todd?) bailed almost immediately so we were quickly reduced to a party of 4. Shayne, who'd driven up from Las Vegas the previous evening just for this climb, struggled for a few minutes with some altitude sickness, but he soon shook it off and we began making rapid progress up the snowfield. Tanners Gulch was a somewhat eerie place to be in the predawn light; steep granite walls enclosing a narrow funnel of avalanche debris and rock fall. The scattered corpse of a mountain goat fit right in with the atmosphere of the place.
As we climbed higher the snow became softer and deeper, slowing progress somewhat, but we continued moving up the gulch at a steady pace, rotating leads as we became fatigued with the step kicking duty. Arriving at the Tanners saddle between Sunrise and Dromedary, we then headed up steeper snow on the southwest flanks of Dromedary. Here the snow was much harder, making us suddenly wish we'd put on crampons, but now in no position to do so. It was somewhere near this point that I uttered the statement “we’ll be on the summit of Dromedary within 20 minutes". Famous last words…
We soon arrived on gentler terrain on the summit ridge, but here the snow became deep and powdery, slowing progress considerably. With the morning sun now beginning to exert its force, we also began to worry about snow stability. After a lengthy discussion about the conditions, we came to the majority decision that it would probably not be wise to continue, and we made the decision to abort the hike and bail back down Tanners. Plunging down the steep soft snow was nearly as strenuous as the ascent, but we moved quickly, and after returning Troy and Shayne to their vehicle I was home by 10:00am.
Dejected over the failed attempt I contemplated a consolation climb of Mount Olympus on Sunday. But this did little to cheer me up, and I soon realized what I needed to do; forget about a sleep-in day this weekend, and take a second shot at the TT by joining the WMC trip the following day.
Flash forward to Sunday morning. What was supposed to have been my sleep-in day begins with a 3:30am wakeup, slam-dunk a giant mug of coffee, then off to meet Grizz, Lee, and Dmitry at the Broads Fork trailhead. Here we left two vehicles behind for afternoon shuttle duty, then proceeded to Little Cottonwood Canyon where we met up with the rest of the WMC crew.
Our sizeable group of 12 proceeded into the dark at around 5:30 am. We maintained a comfortable and steady pace up the increasingly steep gulch, aided at times by the remnants of boot tracks from my previous day's aborted attempt. At one point Grizz expressed his pleasure at the nice line of steps, so I dropped a hint that a proper display of gratitude would typically include a case of beer, but the suggestion apparently fell on deaf ears.
Topping out on the Tanners saddle we took a quick break to snack, adjust clothing, and empty our bladders. The majority of the group left their packs at the saddle for the quick scurry up Dromedary. After a brief summit visit we did an about-face and headed back to the Tanners saddle, where we gathered our packs and began heading up the east ridge of Sunrise Peak.
The snow on this ridge was generally firm, although we occasionally bogged down in a couple of mushy sections. At one point one of Dmitry's vintage crampons was sucked off his foot in a deep boot track, similar to a shoe in a mud puddle. Luckily we managed to locate the missing crampon - not only would they be needed for occasional front-pointing later in the day, but more importantly the crampons are Antiques Road Show material, and it would have been a shame to break up the set.
We arrived on the corniced summit of Sunrise Peak where we stopped for more snacks and waited while a couple of stragglers caught up. Two down, one to go... Continuing on we descended the ridge to the west, then began the shorter climb up to the summit of unnamed Peak 11,085. Then it was onward and downward to the west until we reached the top of the buttress adjacent to the Broads headwall saddle.
Earlier we had talked briefly about possibly doing an end-around traverse to the south in order to bypass the ±100-foot downclimb of the buttress, but the subject wasn’t mentioned again so down we went. One by one we began the careful downclimb, which alternated between 50° snow and occasional patches of bare rock. The key phrase running through my mind at this point was "don't fall here". At the base of the buttress we scooted over to the saddle where we waited until everyone had completed the downclimb. Grizz utilized this short break to set up a stove and brew a cup of coffee.
It was around 10:45 when we began our single file march up the ridge towards the east summit of Broads Fork Twin, the highest point of the day at 11,330 feet. Several different lines of ascent were selected by the group as we worked our way up, but all paths led to the top, and soon we were all gathered on the East Twin. After a brief pause we made the quick traverse to the ever so slightly lower West Twin in order to call the job complete.
Hands were shook, backs patted, munchies snacked, then it was back over to the east twin and down to the Broads saddle, where we removed our crampons for glissading action. The steep headwall provided semi-decent glissades, but the snow was quite soft and we quickly plowed to a halt as the angle eased. The group became a bit spread out as we made our way down into Broads Fork basin. Those who carried snowshoes put them on, while the rest plunge-stepped their way down.
Several large avalanches had already released from the steep east facing slopes of the Twins, but even more snow remained still waiting to come down. Dmitry turned on the afterburners and I pushed hard to keep up. I was eager to move out from under these prime glide avalanche slopes as quickly as possible, feeling the entire time like I was looking into the barrel of a loaded gun. I caught up with Dmitry near the iced-over lake at the entrance to Broads Fork basin, and we stopped for a few minutes to snack and enjoy the view. Most of the group was still some distance further up in the basin, so we continued on down, stopping briefly at the stream crossing to remove snowshoes, then completed the remainder of the hike down to the S-Curve trailhead, arriving just before 2:00pm.
While waiting for the rest of the group to arrive Dmitry zipped home for some quick personal business. I flopped into the back of my vehicle where I immediately began to doze, until I awakened to the sounds of the rest of the team, who'd completed the remainder of the hike together. Dmitry arrived soon after, looking cleaned and pressed, then it was shuttle duty to return everyone to their vehicles back in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Thanks to all for a great weekend in the mountains!
ParticipantsSaturday 5/6/06 Group
Sunday 5/7/06 WMC Group