The Oquirrh mountain range is the often overlooked chain of mountains, west of the popular Wasatch Front. The range extends from it's southern point near Flattop Mountain to the northern end at I-80 (Blackrock Canyon). The range is approximately 35 miles long, with the highest elevation being 10,600' (Flattop). Most of the peaks in the range sit above 9000'. After being inspired by the Dorais' ski traverse of the Oquirrhs in a day, we decided to give it a go! Our guess was that since the Dorais traverse in 2011, it hadn't been repeated. I wonder why....Hmmm... Let's take a look, shall we?
Essentially from Utah Lake to Salt Lake City, as the crow flies. Ouch.
We were a team of three. Members included myself, my main partner Danny and our buddy Reed Rombough. Our goal was to complete the traverse in 20 hours, with a secondary goal of under 24 hours. We estimated the traverse would be roughly 40 miles and 17,000' of elevation gain. With snowpack looking good, a few days of high pressure behind us and a good weather forecast we picked our date as Sunday, March 17th. Let the preparations begin....
All three of us have very strong and somewhat opposing personalities/goals... The trip started with a bit of conflict. I was set on not bringing ANY avy gear, where Reed was in the opposite mindset. I'm typically pretty stingy about weight, whereas some of my friends aren't so obsessive. Reed had just been indirectly involved in a climbing accident down in South America (avalanche) so I understood him. However, I was not backing down. I refused to carry a beacon, shovel and probe for 35 miles. Especially in what I felt was a springtime snowpack. In the end, we worked things out and eventually compromised and decided we'd at least carry our beacons. Reed also carried an emergency blanket & an InReach mini, which I felt was a good call. I don't travel without an InReach anymore, and I owe that much to his logic.
Logistics issue #2: Access in the Oquirrhs is horrible. There are really only a few reasonable trailheads, the main one being via Ophir Canyon. There are only 1 or 2 reasonable bail options if something were to blow up. Driving through the night, we dropped off my van at Blackrock canyon, on the north end of the traverse off I-80. We made it to the weird little town of Ophir at roughly 12AM Sunday morning. No sleep was the name of the game, my favorite -_- From the trailhead, it was an easy track until the base of our first mountain ascent. The snow was icy and crusty, which made for difficult skinning up to Flattop. We were traveling light, so once on the ridge, it was cold and breezy. This was okay, as we knew it was going to warm up fast. Arriving on the highpoint and first summit of Flattop, we could see the city lights of PROVO to our south east and Salt Lake City to our Northeast.... At this point, we realized the scale of our adventure... Massive! In the back of our minds, we knew this was destined to hurt, bad. In the front of Danny's mind, he was dealing with some fatigue issues. He already started doubting his completion of the traverse, not an ideal thought at summit #1. Reed and I assured him that the sunrise would change everything... It always does!
Skiing on our skimo race skis in the dark was a trip, we had powder on our first descent through the trees, which was difficult to navigate in the dark. Eventually, we reached a saddle where we began skinning to the next summit... Still dark. On top of Lowe Peak (Summit #2) our first glimpse of sunrise started to appear. It was a beautiful sunrise and gave us a burst of energy, especially Danny. The 'whoops' started coming out! The southern end of the range is particularly rugged, with lines that match the Wasatch and almost look as if they don't belong in the range. I've been corn skiing in this part of the range in the past, it is a great place to be and can be accessed from another drainage.
Continuing on, the ascent was mostly moderate, with a few sections where we had to take off our skis and boot around cliff features. Luckily, we had Reed and his excellent route finding abilities. Reed is one of my favorite partners in the mountains... He's confident, strong and just a cool guy to be around. Even though we had some conflicts planning this whole ordeal, his instincts saved us a ton of time through these difficulties. As we got into the lower elevations and on the ridges, we were worried about coverage. However, 2019 appeared to be a good year in the Oquirrhs, so we had solid and continuous skiing, even on the scree covered ridges.
Dropping lower & lower, we eventually reached the Butterfield peaks and we were blown away by the scale of the Kennecot Copper mine. This is one of the largest open pit mines in the world, possible the largest! From the valley, it's impressive, but not THAT impressive. We could see massive 20' tall trucks travelling through the switchbacks, which looked like an army of slow moving ants. Amazing & destructive!
From here, we could see how much farther we still had to traverse. The first signs of fatigue started setting in for Reed and I. Danny was contemplating bailing at this point, as there are only a few bail options. We probably had 20 miles to go and alot more to climb. Intimidating. Danny's girlfriend, Jess, would have picked him up from the bail spot if needed. However, we convinced Danny to keep going as we were over halfway.
At this point, our luck started to change along with our energy... The snow turned to mank. The north facing snow was breakable crust, which caused Reed to crash hard at one point on a low angle slope. He said his helmet saved him from a concussion, but I'm still going to pick on him for wearing a helmet on the traverse :) Skinning up the south faces were our only option, and our skins glopped up, resembling moldy carpet coated with a layer of gum. Glopping is a wonderful phenomenom when your skins decide they love sticking to snow so much, they would like to carry the snow as well. Luckily, we carried two pairs *shoutout Jason Dorais*, so we were able to switch them out when the glop monster overtook us. The night before, I had waxed my skins to avoid glopping. It helped, a ton. My teammates did NOT listen to my recommendation to wax and they paid in pain. Sorry guys, u dun goofed.
The northern end of the range has much more access issues, with barbed wire fences, no trespassing signs, radio towers and weird structures. I'm not saying we crossed any of these no trespassing signs.... But we may have 'missed' a few.
Eventually, we made it to a triangulation tower on Clipper Peak and took a rest to melt snow and take our boots off. Our feet looked like soggy raisins and hurt just as bad as they looked. From Clipper, we could make out Farnsworth peak and figured we only had 4 summits or so to go...Easy! If only it were that simple.... *face palm*
The elevation profile starts to rise from here, bumping back up to above 10,000'. The views were still spectacular, but the summits never seem to get closer.
Looking back on our traverse, we were impressed... How did we manage to make it this far?
Going higher meant more snow & better snow, but at a time when we could care less. As the infernal glop was our constant companion, the distance between myself and my partners was getting frustrating. We decided to split up at this point, as Danny and Reed were having issues, and I wanted to finish before dark. I continued on, breaking trail and skiing the smaller subpeaks through trees and tiny cliffs. Eventually, we reached a cattrack at the radio towers (near Farnsworth) and I knew it would be easy travel from here. At this point, 18 or so hours later, I think we were all hallucinating a bit from exhaustion. Mind numbing exhaustion. Finally, I reached the top of Farnsworth and could see just one more summit to go! I skied down a nice slope to another saddle and started what I thought would be my final climb. Once on top, I was devastated... Yet another summit to go. Even though it was only a 300' descent & ascent, it had broken my spirit. Oh well. The snow was good, but the rocks were not. On the descent, I cringed with every turn... Core shot, core shot, core shot.
Finally, I was on top of the last peak looking into Blackrock Canyon. The sun was setting over the Great Salt Lake, and I managed a final 'Woo hoo!'. Now the real fun begins....
I've dreamed of skiing Blackrock face since my first time driving past on I-80 a few years ago. It's a giant 40-45MAX degree slope that extends 3000' from the summit to the highway. From the highway, it looks benign. Not the case. I could see the face was littered with gullies, cliffs and dead ends. Yikes. Photo below for reference (not my photo), drops off the high peak and into the drainage:
I was nervous about my partners skiing blackrock in the dark, although in my exhausted state I had forgotten they would have fresh tracks to guide them. The skiing was actually intense. Light was fading, so I skied as fast as I could manage. There was so much powder and my legs were nothing more than wet noodles. I had to take a few breaks due to the cramping and pain. The final bits required navigating cliffs and old avy chunks towards the end. I kept a conservative line, as now was not a great time to blow it. Eventually, I reached the bottom where the breakable crust returned for more vengence. This time, it was UNSKIABLE breakable crust. Maybe my skiing is just that bad? It was so bad that I actually took off my skis and walked the final 200' to the dirt. Falling in the breakable crust would result in being cut. Yuck.
Exiting the canyon turned out to be harder than I suspected. I couldn't focus well, and there were strange 100' deep fissures everywhere and wierd lumpy hills. My feet hurt so bad, I took off my boots and walked barefoot to I-80. Jess & my girlfriend called me to ask where I was, in which I responded 'I have no f*cking clue, somewhere near I-80?!' They decided to surprise us and show up with pizza! You both are saints. Eventually, I saw their car headlights and walked over to the smell of pizza.... My brain exploded. The smell of cheese and bread was overwhelming. To go from near collapse to pizza in a few seconds is more than one person can handle. They nursed me back to health and I explained the situation with Danny & Reed. Apparently, Danny had texted Jess and told her that his boot had broken and he was unable to skin. Uh oh. Was this going to be a rescue situation?? I was also incredibly nervous about them skiing the face in the dark, so I called Reed and started explaining the best route option. A few hours later, I could make out headlamps coming to the car. Hooray! They were in serious pain, but we were all so happy to be done. In the end, I finished somewhere around the 20hr mark and Danny & Reed finished in 23hrs and 54 minutes. Some pizza snuggles in the car were had.
Almost a year later, I still look up to the Oquirrhs and smile. The pain has vanished from my memory and all that remains is a positive image. Funny how that works. What an adventure in the bastard range. Long live the Oquirrhs! Thanks for reading :)
Weird lumps? IDK
Looks benign from the canyon floor, don't let this picture fool you.
Another view of blackrock in the distance.
Oh Salt Lake, how I love you!
Link to Dorais Bros Traverse (Thanks for the inspiration!):