Introduction: One Big Peak
Lone Peak is a serious mountain by Wasatch Range standards, even though it is far from being the highest in the neighborhood. The trailheads are all at low elevation, and in winter in particular, one needs to gain approximately 7,000 ft in elevation to summit. The final couple hundred ft are especially challenging due to spectacular exposure, steep firn, cornices, and verglass ice patches.
Although the chutes of the East face may be quite alluring for extreme skiers, it's a very long slog to the top. So ascents of Lone Peak by skiers are rare. In fact the classic Wasatch Touring tomes advise against ascending beyond the North Shoulder of the peak.
For the 4th year in a row, Grizz Randall (aka mtn runr on SP) organized increasingly more popular late-January Wasatch Mountain Club snowshoe ascents on Lone Peak. Over time we kind of got used to the cries of "But this can't be done!". This trip was his 98th so you can all agree that this great mountain is Grizz's home turf. I just hope he doesn't retire after topping 100! So, here goes the story:
Two groups - or one?
The Official Wasatch Mountain Club LPWA'08 was scheduled for Sunday January 27th this year, and the trip has become booked rather quickly (that's Utah's very first Designated Wildreness area, and a group size limit of 11 applies). So marauders organized an additional SP group, to start before dawn on Saturday the 26th. But the monster storm forecasted for Sunday made the WMC group change plans at the last moment. So when Grizz's crew of 7 took off from Orson Smith TH at 6 am, we could still see the headlamps of the SP group a short distance upslope.
We caught up with the guys above Bonneville Shoreline Junction, where Cherry-Willows trail crosses a deep gully. There, with the altitude barely over 5,200 ft, it was time to put on snowshoes already. Lots of white stuff this year! A few minutes later, Lubos caught up with us too, and the combined force broke trail into the entrance to Mahogany Tunnel. The group gradually started to spread out over Cherry Bowl and Windy Crest (which lived 100% to its name now), and did not reconnect again until the snack break in the relative calm of the Cowboy Camp Flat.
Reunited, that is, but without Joe Bullough and CragHag, who decided to turn around. It was real pleasure to have Joe, a LPWA veteran, join the crew, but I guess after last winter's near-death avalanche accident, he still needs more time to rebuild himself to shape. And billyray66, who started a bit later because of a night shift at work, hasn't caught up with us.
So for all practical purposes, it was one combined group now.
Minutes after taking off from a nice break in the quiet sunshine, we were over the right-bank morrain of Lone Peak cirque, and the spectacular cliff faces opened up in their full glory.
Trail breaking was heavy, and the WMC crew really appreciated added help from Apachedino. But the route was perfect, a nearly straight, steady traverse beneath the rock spires of Little Willow Divide.
Minutes after noon, we finally passed the last cliffs and the wide North Fork Little Willow Saddle, and stopped for another quick break and layers-up at the last quiet spot at the treshold of the North Shoulder. It was all into the wind of the summit ridge now!
A few switchbacks in the deep snow in the protection of last little trees, and then our route crossed to the Southern, wind-blasted side of the summit ridge. Another couple hundred yards brought us to the beginning of the always-cool knife-edge section, and now the snowshoes were definitely off. Although the crampons were clearly optional this year - the snow remained fairly soft, and there were LOTS of it.
So much of it, in fact, that the usual weaving around the gendarmes didn't seem to be an option.
Going over the top of the meanest gendarm meant that we had to make a leap of faith into the 40-degrees snow, dropping precipitously to the lip of huge cliffs on the right, and overhanging by an enormous cornice on the left. The landing was comfortably soft, but I am sure nobody was excited about the perspective of climbing back up this smooth exposed rock on descent!
(For comparison, that's how this same section looked last year - note that the Big Bad Rock was a slightly overhanging 10-footer then, and the pre-summit chimney wasn't filled to the rim with snow either)
Finally, minutes after 2pm, Grizz is the first to summit, for his 98th ascent of Lone Peak! A bit slower than in the recent years, but this trailbreaking was something...
Soon after Grizz cleared the way for the rest of us, the limited space on the flat summit boulders began to fill with bodies. Although the sky was clear and the wind was thankfully well-behaved, the group did not stay long at the summit. After a quick round of photos, it was time to begin the descent. Each member of the group carefully placed each step along the narrow walkway and made their way back over the two large boulders that proved to be the crux of the climb. At one point the knife-edge became a two-way path as Matt, still making his way toward the summit, passed those coming down and back over to safer ground.
A few minutes later he and Bruce made their way back over the knife edge, Bruce giving a much needed hand to Matt over the boulder step while Grizz and others watched from a higher standpoint. Meanwhile, far below on the cirque trail, unseen eyes were watching the action from a distance. Summitpost member billyray66 had begun the trail in Draper 2 hours behind he WMC group and had arrived under the peak in time to take pictures from his point of view (see the photo below). The trek down from the shoulder of Lone Peak was quick and the remainder of the afternoon was spent retracing our steps South and West toward home in the gorgeous sunshine and sparkling snow. The downhill walk gave speed to the fore-part of our group, and some arrived back at their cars only 3 and a half hours after leaving the summit. But all of us had to pass through the gauntlet of high winds beginning at the West end of Cowboy camp and down the wide, hard Draper Ridge to Cherry Bowl.
Sometimes the winds would go away but then when a corner was turned a gust roared up at the trekkers as if it waiting in ambush. The scene of angular, sharp-edged wind deposits and textured snow patterns on the lower half of the trail was in sharp contast to the rounded soft piles of deep winter cover in the cirque. The wind and noise made for a dreamy experience but it also felt like an assault.
As the sun dipped lower in the sky and settled behind the Oquirrh mountains, the welcoming lights of the suburbs got closer as each member of the summit team walked, stomped and slid down the trail through scrub oak trees and occasional thin snow cover.
Not long after sundown, all 9 summiters were down off the mountain and safe. The last of our group reached the trailhead at about 6:40 PM, re-inforcing the counter-cry of "This can be done!" How popular will this climb be next year?
Matthew Van Horn
External LinksBruce's photo collection @ Picasaweb
Comments by other trip participants
"As for my personal experience: It was a great trip. Starting off I had the pleasure to meet several people on the trail that I had only corresponded with over Summitpost. It was a great pleasure to meet mtn rnr, MOCKBA and Joe Bullough, all of whom I have earned my respect through SP.
This was the largest and strongest group I had ever been a part of. There was constant progress being made up the mountain and it felt great to be among such strong hikers. The break in the Cowboy Camp was a nice time to get to know each other a little more and I was enjoying all of the company I was in.
Shortly before reaching the cirque I hit a wall and didn’t recover from it for the remainder of the day. It was one of those unforeseen circumstances that came out of nowhere with some (rather embarrassing) consequences to my body. I was in no condition to keep going up after that. Oh the disappointment! Still, more important to me was the fact that I was able to get down safely, and on my own power. I look forward to making another attempt, and I hope to get out with these great people again."
Matthew Van Horn:"A few years ago I wouldn't have dreamed I could take myself to the top of Lone Peak in the winter. All that has changed. I was at a slight disadvantage for this trip, however. I had only a few hours sleep the night before and my body seemed to be running on a low battery up until I got to the last 800 feet of the climb. In that constant internal dialogue I kept asking myself 'how far can I go?' My mantra was a notion from lyricist and percussionist Neil Peart: 'No one gets to their heaven without a fight!' Some highlights for me were seeing Joe and Shelly Bullough in the light of my headlamp early in the morning. It was exactly one year ago to the day that Joe and I climbed the Pfeifferhorn, my first real winter climb. Other highlights were reaching the summit, of course, but also watching everbody else up there doing what so few people around here do. And that cirque--I could have stopped there and had a good day."
GPS track of the trip
More to be added?
Most of the work is done... except maybe adding to the portrait gallery of the summiters, and possibly more personal comments of the participants.