Friday, April 6, 2012

Mount Timpanogos: East Ridge

Yesterday was one of those rare days this year when safe travel conditions lined up with a brief weather window and a short amount of time off work.  Jason and I both worked until well after midnight but we still wanted to get out and enjoy some corn.  We are from Indiana after all.  

Skinning towards Emerald Lake, above Primrose Cirque
We awoke after way too little sleep, picked up a candidate for "most consistently happy man alive", Jon Swain, and drove down to Utah County.  En route, we settled on heading up Timp from Aspen Grove with a few different options in mind.  Knowing we were getting a late start (7:45 departure from the car), I thought that descents off the west side might be corning up by the time we got to one of Timp's many summits.  As we skinned up Primrose Cirque, it became apparent that the high clouds and wind would keep the shallow, settled snow pack locked up.  

As we arrived at the saddle at the head of the permanent snow field, we looked down into the Provo/Orem area and got blasted by a warm but biting wind.  If anything, we were too early.  On the drive, I had written off the East Ridge, thinking it would be too sloppy to dance around and through the many cliff bands.  Realizing that nothing was warming up, I suggested the East Ridge to Jason and Jon, both of whom readily agreed.  I had skied it some years ago; when I probably had no business being there.  Today, I assumed it would feel casual.  

Southern Wasatch above the Provo/Orem area with Utah Lake in background (photo by JD)
In the above photo, I'm dressed entirely in Outdoor Research spring/summer climbing gear.  I feel that particularly in Utah, where the weather is largely dry, "off label" use of seasonal clothing makes sense.  Jared has written about backcountry clothing systems, and I agree that lightweight, breathable materials make the most sense for this predominately aerobic activity.  Check out the Ferrosi hoody and pants by OR, both of which are affordable and make great spring skiing sense. 
Jon and Andy booting firm snow to the South Summit of Timp (photo by JD)

Standing on the South Summit felt cathartic.  Winter is over by calender date and by what mother nature gave us this year.  But, spring is here and that brings its own set of emotions and expectations.  After a winter of dinking around in low angle trees and racing to stay fit, we were finally going to ski something, "important".  

JD on the South Summit.  Note the white tights!
We traversed on skis along the west side of the ridge, faces stinging from the wind.  Using gravity, we reached the corner where the broad East Ridge could be seen.  We then booted up a hundred vertical feet or so, just so we could ski it from the top.  The East Ridge is really more of a triangular face that is punctuated by multiple large cliff bands running the entire width.  Each sneak passage is along the skier's left side and forces one to more or less ski the left hand ridge.  This ends up being extremely aesthetic when seen from Sundance as it looks like the descent is along the edge of the world.  

My first time down this line, I was following the Inouye brothers, Jared and Sam.  While totally blown and tired after a restless bivy at the trailhead and an alpine head start (Sam and Jared arrived a couple hours after us and caught up en route), I felt safe because of soft corn and their combined experience.  Yesterday, I was acutely aware of the consequence of a bad fall.  The snow was rock hard and this time, I was familiar with the magnitude of the terrain below.  A fall would result in death or worse.  Also feeling some sort of responsibility for Jason and Jon, both of whom are very capable skiers, I voiced my anxiety and counseled caution.  Perhaps my heightened sense of consequence is secondary to a lack of steep skiing this year.  Jason suggested it could be due to the addition a young son, strengthening the need to come home safely.  Regardless, we made cautious, controlled turns down the moderately steep face until we had made it through the biggest of the cliff bands. 

Jon Swain, skiing steep firm snow down the upper East Ridge of Timp (photo by JD)

Jon Swain navigating a large cliff band on the East Ridge

Jason Dorais looking for a break in the cliffs

This was the best we could find at one point

Andy finding the secret passage
From my first experience, I knew there was one final set of cliffs that didn't have an obvious passage way.  This was discovered at the time when Sam, skiing on big tele skis, came maching into our stance above the cliffs, oblivious to the danger below.  As we screamed for him to stop, he looked confused and then scared as he lost control and tried to grab at any shrub he could before launching off the cliffs.  Stunned, we were all silent until we heard a faint, "I'm OK" from below.  That day, the snow was soft and Sam was lucky to escape without injury.  Yesterday, we chose to skirt the cliff band by heading hard skier's right before cutting back beneath it.  Then, it was a series of low angle chutes, chokes, and fun terrain features until we neared Stewart Falls.  Again, from prior experience, I knew to avoid the skier's left side of the falls and we found a reasonable exit through steep pines along the skier's right side. 

The cliff band in the center of the photo is the one Sam fell over a few years ago.  

Jon finding another sneaky exit couloir

Andy finding one more

Spring time!  East Ridge visible in the background
Now fully relaxed, we were in spring skiing mode - short sleeves and big smiles from a mega classic Wasatch descent.  Spring is here so for those that have given up on the year, reinvest yourselves.  As a new friend says, "These are the days!"  They are fleeting, particularly given the low snowpack, but incredibly rewarding because of the magnitude of the objectives.   So, for me, I know the next morning that my alarm goes off and I find myself wondering if it's worth it, I'll know.  It's always worth it.  Sleep is for the the old.

East Ridge, Mount Timpanogos


  1. nice shot. way to make it happen.

    "Again, from prior experience, I knew to avoid the skier's left side of the falls and we found a reasonable exit through steep pines along the skier's right side."

    so when i did this line last year, skier's right cliffed out, and skier's left around the falls went. we did this in may, but big snow year. you must be much better at finding a secret line.

    1. Thanks Doug,

      It's funny we had opposite experiences. I found that if we kept traversing hard right, eventually the cliffs petered out and we found a reasonable exit. When I went left a few years ago, we got cliffed out and had to down climb a short section. And, this year there isn't much snow on that side so it would have been bushwhacking through scrub oak.

      Don't let it die! Hang on to winter as long as you can...