The Wasatch Mountain Club's annual Triple Traverse
, led by Walt Haas
, was again a great success this year, with 9 people starting out and 8 making it to the west twin and down Broads Fork. Many thanks to Walt for leading it, to all those who broke trail, especially Lubos
, and to everyone for being a great group to climb with.
The Triple Traverse, as is often said, is considered one of the finest snow climbs in the Wasatch: with typically a pre-dawn start, the route ascends 3,400 vertical feet up Tanners Gulch
, a moderate-sloped south-facing gully that frequently plasters the Little Cottonwood Canyon road with avalanche debris and is a classic climb or ski descent in its own right, then climbs Dromedary Peak
, from there following a knife-edge ridge over Sunrise Peak
, continuing on to Broads Fork Twin Peaks
, and exits down Broads Fork, for a total ascent of approximately 6000 vertical feet.
I was lucky enough to tag along this year, for one of the most challenging and incredible experiences I've ever had in the mountains. What follows is the story of my personal experience.
How I Got Here
I gather that one typically doesn't attempt something like the Triple Traverse as one's first real snow climb. Which, you should know before appreciating anything that follows, is essentially what this was for me. I have always thought, "one day I'd like to do the Triple Traverse," but even as recently as a couple months ago I never imagined that one day would be last week. Somehow I seduced myself into this slowly enough to be analogous to the proverbial frog boiling in water, but quickly enough that in retrospect I'm almost shocked that the seduction succeeded. Am I really more of a mountaineer than I was before, or was it all just a dream?
This was going to work out in a more sane and legitimate manner: I'd get some mileage with an axe and crampons on lesser outings, on gentler peaks -- skiable ones, in fact (for, of course, other reasons besides just prepping for something like the Triple Traverse). It was only because I had managed to convince myself that all this could be done on an accelerated schedule this March and April, in time for the Triple, that I even began to consider joining this year's climb. Oh, and it also didn't help that a couple of my ski buddies who have more mountaineering experience than I do repeatedly assured me I'd be "fine" and would have "no problem" -- exactly what I wanted to hear.
However, as the date approached, my big designs for climbing (and skiing) Superior, Box Elder, Provo Peak, and/or such relatively less gnarly mountains fell though, due to favorable conditions never matching up with both my schedule and the schedules of friends I have bugged to join me in such adventures. But I was getting used to the idea of doing this climb anyway.
I wrestled with myself about whether to stick with this goal or not, and got to the point where I was having some trouble separating the subjective aspects of my apprehension from the hard facts about my ability. I knew I needed self-arrest practice, but I was not sure if that was a show-stopper: after all, the parts of the Triple Traverse where I most feared falling were the most exposed, where self-arrest would likely not help anyway. But human fear evolved on the African savanna, not on alpine climbs, and doesn't necessarily match up with objective danger: I knew that too.
To help break my inner stalemate, I decided to attempt to sign up for the trip, and when interrogated about my ability, to simply relate my experience and try not to express my apprehension, which would only distract from the question of whether I was genuinely insufficiently skilled, rather than merely overpsyched. On the phone Walt settled the question of how important self-arrest skill is for the Triple Traverse (i.e. essential), but was organizing a class the day before the climb for self-arrest practice, and we agreed I'd show up there and evaluate the question at that time. I was planning to show up anyway. The class went well, so I retained my commitment to my goal, and swallowed my apprehension.
Almost a No-go
Meanwhile, a few days before the trip, 2 feet of new powder were measured at Alta's Collins snow stake. Everyone was concerned about the snow stability, and a group of SummitPosters led by Grizz
who were planning to go the day before we did (Saturday, May 3) postponed their climb a week, probably a wise decision. At the class Walt mentioned possibly climbing the Pfeifferhorn instead, but an extra day for the snow to settle and bake in the sun proved adequate, and Saturday afternoon Walt emailed us to announce the trip was a "go." I later found out that Lubos had climbed Tanners that day and laid in a nice boot track for us!
We met at 5 am at the S-turn trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and after hanging around there a little longer than planned, shuttled over to Little Cottonwood at the foot of Tanners Gulch. For some reason, I had neglected to put on my gaiters, so I found myself doing that and other gear fiddling while the others disappeared into the brush; this was at about 6 am. I was able to catch up to Chris, Walt, and Lubos, but only by taking a pace I doubted would be sustainable all day, and somehow by breaking my sunglasses, so I resisted the urge to attempt to catch up with the lead group. A few times I stopped to take photos and then caught up again, and a couple of times I traded the rear with Chris, who was struggling a bit with a headache and the altitude.
Tanners Gulch is an amazing place. Of course we found it as you can only ever safely find such places: out of character. Summer's treacherous loose talus was safely frozen under tons of the snow, which, today, made exception to its usual threat to kill any hapless intruder in its sudden collapses of tenuous stability. Reminders of the usual personality of this gulch, the runnels and piles of ice chunks, the rocks strewn about on the snow and the twigs beat to bits, the mere fact that as much snow as persisted in the center of the gulch this time of year could only have come from farther up the slope in a violent manner--all such observations seemed to reflect a distant, extinct, or dormant danger, not a present, immediate one, like a fossil of a monster on display in the safety of a museum, leaving its living reality to the imagination only.
Near the top of Tanners, I dropped my lens cap and watched it roll down the gulch. Fortunately I've learned from experience that cursing at your gear as it falls down a couloir is an effective method for making it come to a stop, so after successfully employing this strategy, I was able to climb down and retrieve it, but I was still a couple minutes or so behind the slowest group members when I arrived at the saddle, at around 8:30. Here I needed not only to eat food, put on sunscreen, and pee, but also figure out a way to fix my sunglasses (not needed in the Gulch) or else consider bailing to save myself from major eye burns on this blazingly bright clear day. Most of the group was long gone. Lubos waited briefly for me and then continued; Chris waited a little longer and also started off.
The only route I knew up Dromedary was the one I took last summer, following a ramp from a bit below the saddle on the south side into the right branch of Tanners, and then escaping the loose rock to head straight up the south face. To my surprise, everyone descended a bit to the north and followed a nice little couloir to the ridge above the cliff bordering Tanners saddle. There was some 3rd class scrambling on icy rock near the top, which discouraged me a little at how apprehensive I felt about going back down it. When I reached the ridge, I heard "don't look!" and there above was Chris, perched on a bush on the ridge, taking care of the sort of business one finds needful when not feeling well, or maybe just at a certain time of the morning for all I know. Beyond was a short traverse on the south side, at the end of which the tail members of the group could be seen climbing some steep snow back to the ridge above the next cliff band.
Suddenly the icy rocks behind, the steep climb ahead, and the fact that I was so far behind hit me all at once and I became intimidated at finishing Dromedary. Chris was expressing intimidation also, in addition to not feeling well, with a worsening headache and altitude effects. The peakbagger in me decided it was okay to skip Dromedary since I had climbed it in the summer before, and this would give me time to take a few photos from this incredible location on the ridge, and ensure that if Chris bailed back down Tanners at least one group member would be in the loop about it and could let Walt know, and then if I myself didn't bail, I could at least get a fresh start at keeping up with the group when they arrived back at the saddle. So Chris and I downclimbed back to the saddle, and then he headed down Tanners.
I waited for the group at the saddle taking a few more photos and then packing up to be ready to climb when the others were. However, I was not feeling committed to continuing. I had the understanding that the crux of the route, possibly involving some steep mixed terrain, was the downclimb from Jepsen's (sp?) Folly, the minor peak on the west ridge of Sunrise, and I reasoned that if I had felt uncomfortable on the rocky part of the scramble down from Dromedary's ridge, I would feel at least that uncomfortable on the "crux." I really wanted to climb Sunrise Peak, though, and thought perhaps I could return to Tanners from Sunrise, along the ridge I could see, and then go down and around in Broads Fork to meet the group for the Twins, bypassing this "crux," but figured I should wait until Walt returned from Dromedary to discuss it with him.
As the group began to collect at the saddle, I expressed my apprehension and idea for an alternative plan to a few of them, and in doing so began to feel embarrassed about bailing when I hadn't really even given it my best shot yet. Furthermore, not everyone seemed to think it made sense why I would be okay with going down one side of Sunrise but not the other. As Lubos said, "don't worry, there are good steps the whole way." Nothing had gone wrong on the rocky part of Dromedary; all my holds were secure and I had stayed in control.
Was it just fear of the unknown that was bothering me? I didn't know for sure I could do this climb, since I had never actually put myself to the test, but that was what I came here to do. If I did not even begin the test, I would be no better off than if I had slept in, but rather worse, because I'd feel driven by the sense of unfinished business and failure, to come back and try again. Would it be any different then? Maybe conditions could be worse; they couldn't be much better. I'd still have the same psychological challenge I faced now, but a lot more pressure. And that was the real challenge, and it was one that was surmountable by the simple act of starting up the ridge, putting one foot in front of the other, and making sure to always have a good axe placement. That, I knew I could do, so that's what I did, having a vague idea that I was committed now, and therefore liberated to succeed. I didn't even wait for the rest of the group to return from Dromedary.
Mark, Brad, Bard, and Christine led the way, with Lubos and Clint right behind me, and Walt not far behind. I lost myself in the rhythm of snow climbing and the incredible location and was very glad to have continued. At one point, the ridge bared some rock, and Mark, and Brad, I believe, climbed directly over it. Christine, who had heard me express my apprehension earlier, shouted back that I might want to go around on the south. I considered that, but couldn't see the entire bypass, so I asked Lubos if he knew it to go through clean. He recommended sticking to the ridge for avalanche safety, and I was feeling up to the obstacle anyway, so I scrambled up a ledge below a smooth quartzite slab dusted with snow. I seem to remember Christine showing up above right then pointing out a better way up, which Lubos and Clint took, so while I searched for a foothold on the slab, the others topped out via the bypass, and watched as I lost my footing on the slab and dangled from my ice axe for a sec before somehow--it's a blur--crawling or hoisting myself up. Lubos I think had even grabbed my pack.
From here it was pure, wonderful snow climbing to the summit of Sunrise Peak.
Downclimb from Sunrise
At this point some of my apprehensiveness about this downclimb returned, but I continued on. Clint gave me some excellent plunge stepping pointers, and the downclimb then proceeded as rhythmically as the way up, though slow: always making sure to be balanced and solid before taking the next step. A short traverse to bypass a cliff brought us to a low-angle ramp leading to Jepsen's Folly. The group took another short break on top, and began to discuss descent route options. I remember Walt saying, "there's no good way down, it's basically a thrash for survival."
Walt downclimbing Jepsen's Folly
Mark took the more direct ridge route over the buttress involving some mixed climbing. He encountered verglas and frozen mud and put on crampons (I believe this was the only use of crampons on this year's trip) after some "disconcerting moments." The route most of us followed descended on the south face on about 50º snow and then traversed to the saddle between Sunrise and Twin Peaks. When I got far enough to discover that the snow was deep enough for good axe placements the whole way down this section, my apprehension was replaced with enthusiasm and confidence. Although you did not want to fall there, I got absorbed in focusing on the individual moves, tediously making my way down in a careful and controlled manner. I actually felt more calm than scared. By the time I arrived at the saddle, I was tired but at an emotional high for the day. I was past the hard part!
Actually, the hard part was arguably ahead on the east Twin, but it didn't matter; really the hard part was in my head and I was
past that. I got a bit behind again resting a bit and eating as much of a sandwich as I felt I could make time for on the saddle while the others pushed ahead, but easily caught up when the crux created a minor bottleneck. Lubos and Walt climbed the crack in the slab from a ledge, as is usually done, and Mark pulled up over a roof direct up the ridge, but by the time I arrived, everyone else seemed to be of the opinion that because there was so much soft snow, it was difficult getting onto the rock even though it was easy enough after that. Christine was coming back down to blaze a traverse over to a little steep couloir that led to the ridge above the slab. Obviously the others had no idea that I was suddenly no longer afraid of cruxes, and recommended I follow Christine. I would have cheerfully ignored this no-longer-necessary advice, but even the likes of Bard and Clint were expressing preference for Christine's route, which did posses its own interesting challenges, for example a rocky choke near the top of the gully, so I followed her.
It was actually the difficult way, since on the way up the snow, several of us decided we'd rather climb the dry, ledgy slab next to the gully, similar to what Walt and Lubos had gone up, and then changed our minds halfway up and traversed sketchily back onto the snow, topping out with a pick jam to get over the rocky choke.
I paused again to take in the views, and some photos, thus getting behind again. When I reached the summit of the east Twin, the high point of the day, most of the others were already on the west peak. I considered whether for politeness' sake I should call it a day so I wouldn't get farther behind, but unlike with the case of Dromedary earlier that day, the peakbagger in me was not siding with courtesy: I had been to the east Twin twice before and had never bothered to go the extra little walk over to the west peak; the summit fever was impossible to resist. I also rationalized that with some cloud cover beginning and cooler temperatures rolling in, perhaps the exit out Broads Fork would be safer the longer we waited. There was one step with 3rd class scrambling on the way down from the east peak, but mostly it was a gentle walk and Walt, Bard, and Lubos were still there when I arrived. There were congratulations and lots of smiles, and I, true to character, got behind again in order to take photos of the views.
On the way down the west Twin, altitude sickness and fatigue suddenly set in. In order to keep up as well as I did with so many stronger climbers than I, I had not made time to eat more than a Clif bar and half a sandwich all day. I had to slow the pace down further now because my mind was cloudy and I was a little bit dizzy. I nevertheless had the presence to at one point suddenly wonder if we were too close to the cornice. Imagine our reaction when we found out what happened there two days later
. At the 3rd class step on the way back up the east peak, my sunglasses broke for good and my left eye was exposed for the rest of the day.
I found the group departing from the rest spot above the crux, where we had all ditched our packs for the jaunt over the Twins, as I approached, and I tried to eat more sandwich, but then ran out of water, an essential side dish with peanut butter and jam. I had brought a pocket stove and light pot to melt snow in, thinking there would be some kind of longish lunch break some time in the day in which I could refill my water, but this never happened. I did have a thermos of lukewarm coffee that I drank a bit later, and that was what I operated on the rest of the day. Walt stayed back in case I needed any help getting down the crux--we went the normal way this time--and in my state of only partial recovery from the altitude sickness, I did in fact appreciate his pointing out footholds; I'm sure I could have found them myself, but perhaps his help sped us up a bit, and soon we were back at the saddle.
Walt climbed into his bright blue $7 used duct-taped rain pants, which he acquired as a result of ripping expensive ski pants on a trip years ago, for the glissade, and I drank my coffee, and then we were off. The upper part was great fun, but with the soft snow we quickly plowed to a halt as the angle eased, and had to walk the rest of the way down, with only occasional short glissades. We stopped just before entering the glide slab runout to put on snowshoes and strip off layers, and then slogged out of Broads Fork.
a final wave back at the Triple Traverse Peaks before leaving the basin
After crossing the bridge, we lost the trail; Walt said he thought we were too low, and I agreed in not remembering the trail to be so close to the stream, so we bushwhacked our way up and east, getting separated. I saw a ridge ahead, and remembered that the trail contours around a ridge in order to get into Broads Fork from the parking lot, so I headed for the ridge and topped out to find myself on the trail right at the Wilderness Area boundary sign. I rested from the underfueled bushwhacking for a minute, and heard Walt below. I called to him that I'd found the trail, and a few more minutes of walking had us at the parking lot, with Christine and Lubos still there. I later found out that several of the others had lost the trail too: Mark and Clint had crossed Big Cottonwood Creek on a log (and Clint lost his ice axe in the river, so if you see one there sometime this summer, I'm sure he'd appreciate if word could get to him about it!), and Christine had only barely talked Lubos out of a similar result.
For me it was about 12 hours end to end. Brad and Bard, who came down first, must have been about a half-hour ahead. It was a beautiful day and a great group. I was ecstatic about finishing as much of it as I did, but I have also felt bad I wasn't able to share in the responsibilities of trail-breaking, and that I needed to rely somewhat on some of the others. I'm not used to that; I usually organize my own trips and often go solo. I hope they didn't mind too much. It is definitely appreciated; I could never have pushed my limits this much in one step on my own. If we're ever in a situation involving beer for sale, the first round's on me.
Chris (who made it safely down Tanners)