Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Salt Lake Syline: Our Attempt at Pioneering a New Alpine Run

A pause in the morning
I'm sitting on my couch after two days of recovering from a 30 hour effort to establish a new alpine adventure run from Draper to Ensign Peak.  The goal was to ascend Lone Peak and then summit every prominent peak on the Salt Lake skyline.  With brother Jason, we nearly nailed it.  Nearly.  

The Backstory:

A few months ago, while driving down I-15, my eyes were drawn to the mountains as they often are, and I felt sudden and real revelation.  The whole skyline was in view and I knew I had to try and cover it on foot in a push.  It was so obvious and to my knowledge, no one had connected these dots. 

Noah Howell had inspired by pioneering the Perverse Traverse, a link up of Lone Peak, the SLC Twins, and Mount Olympus.  The Skyline was the logical extension of his herculean effort.  Ensign Peak sits prominently above the SLC Capitol and is a fitting end point to this aesthetic adventure.  The main problem Jason and I contemplated over the past few months is how to piece this "run" together as the skyline is complex and changes constantly according to one's vantage point (I chose a Sugarhouse-centric view).  Some peaks were obvious like Lone, the Twins, and Olympus.  The east/west running ridges also hold some majestic mountains that are highly visible from most parts of the valley.  Big Horn, North and South Thunder, O'Sullivan, Triangle Peak, and others soon were added to the list.  The ridge above Neff's Canyon is also complex and contains many subpeaks and we would hit them all.  Moving north, Grandeur Peak, Perkins Peak (between Parley's and Emigration), Mount Wire, Van Cott, Black Mountain, and finally Ensign Peak would complete the run.  

Google Earth told me to expect around 60 miles and I guessed the vertical gain would be in the 30,000 range.  Being familiar with most of the peaks and the complex ridges, Jason and I figured 30 hours on the go would be necessary.  

The Story:

Flash to last Saturday.  Jessie and I are driving up just about every major drainage in the central Wasatch to leave food and water caches in an attempt to make this adventure self supported.  Going into it, we have high ideals and plan to maintain the cleanest style we can.  

It's now Sunday at 2:10 AM and my alarm jolts me from a dreamless sleep.  I grab my things and go wait outside for Jason so as not to wake my young family.  We ride out to the Jacob's Ladder TH, eating handfuls of cereal and going over the checklist.  Shoes, socks, tights, long sleeves, wind breaker, beanie, headlamp, food/liquid, crampons, ice axe, and more are on our person or stowed in our Dynafit X4 packs.  

At the trail head, it's cold and our breath is caught between our head lamps and the half moon.  We start at a light jog, knowing that we'll have to fast hike major sections of the day but in the moment, we need to warm up.  After what seems like an effortless dream, we awake and find ourselves approaching the Cirque under the gray dawn sky. 

The hearty shrubs are laced with rime and we keep mentioning the cold that is now numbing our faces. As we gain the summit ridge, the clouds are swirling at our feet and the morning alpenglow is so sharp it's piercing.  

Rising sun over Thunder Ridge

Moving along the summit ridge

Jason in the alpenglow

Jason traversing above the Lars Line

Lone Peak Summit with Question Mark Wall and Utah Lake

Summiting Lone Peak in a little over two and a half hours without pushing, we both remark how fresh we feel.  It's good too since we can see Ensign Peak at the other end of the valley with it's monument perched above downtown.  Years ago, we hiked Lone Peak, unsure if we could avoid being benighted.  Now, the efficiency is intoxicating.  

We spend 15 minutes to film and take pictures and then start scrambling from Lone Peak's blocky summit toward Bighorn.  I had only been on this craggy peak in winter and had never traversed over it.  As I approach its impressive NW face, I'm harboring a lingering fear that it will be difficult.  Soon however, its summit is passing under my feet and I wonder why I ever had doubts.  I guess it was from previously dispelled rumors of 5.8 terrain.  The reality is more like 3rd class by the weakest line, although much harder options are available.

Off Lone and onto Bighorn
Taking an easy ramp to the summit of Bighorn
Jason cresting Bighorn with the morning clouds burning off

From the summit of South Thunder Mountain looking north
Jason negotiates a bit of complex ridge line
Looking down a bare Coalpit Headwall with the day's agenda ahead

After connecting Bighorn with South Thunder and North Thunder we find ourselves at the Coalpit Headwall contemplating our descent options.  I suggest traversing out to the top of the Y Couloir and then descending to the road.  We look down the headwall but remember Noah's tales of horror.  Ultimately, gravity pulls us down the shoulder then into the Needle.  Small ice flows are letting loose and producing a musical sound as we hop down to the Hogum Drainage.  

Nearing the drainage floor, we start traversing high skier's right in an attempt to avoid the worst of the inevitable bushwhacking.  There are no trails here and every person I questioned about a Hogum exit laughed and recommended otherwise.  Even though the sun is gaining strength and position, we put on our tights, long sleeves, and gloves to protect us from the dense vegetation. 

The battles are short and our plan is working.  We are connecting small talus slopes and patches of snow en route to what I hope is an older stand of pines where I anticipate sparse undergrowth.  Like diviners seeking water, we are guided to open space.  Through the darkness of the evergreens, the slope rolls over steeply and takes us to a secret passage.  Following game trails we emerge on the valley floor and cross a small stream on double logs. 

First steam crossing on suspicious logs
We decide to follow the Little Cottonwood River to near the standard Y Couloir crossing since we know there is a good trail on the other side.  Scanning the river for a natural bridge, we spot a freshly fallen tree that will provide passage over the swollen stream.  I tempt Jason to walk it but he defers.  Once across, he returns the taunt but I too feel sheepish and drop to move a cheval.  

Starting up Tanner's
We walk up to the Y Couloir pull out 7 hours after starting the day, shed layers, and then start walking up the road to where I've stashed food and water.  At the cache, we are quickly sated and start fast hiking the road to Tanner's which we will use to access the high peaks of the Cottonwood Ridge.  

This ascent goes smoothly and we find the dirty sections of snow enjoyable.  Nearing the upper chute, we both pull out crampons since we have them along.  Throughout the day, we had talked about tagging the summit of Dromedary since it is visible from parts of the valley but at the notch, we turn west and start climbing O'Sullivan without further discussion.  More tedious travel ensues and the hours are passing quickly.  First O'Sullivan, then Jepson's Folly, then the Twins are behind us.  We are making up time as we glissade into Broad's Fork, both with CAMP Corsa Axes (Jason's is sawed off and is a perfect running tool).  We follow tracks of our cousins, the traditional mountaineers, and are soon on the standard summer trail.  I want to run freely, but better judgement has us reining in our enthusiasm.  We are still very early in our day (12 hrs at the S curves).  

From the Summit of East Twin looking north

Arriving at the trailhead, I uncover the next food cache and we sit by the river to refuel and fill bottles.  Somehow inertia sets in and it's becoming hard to get organized.  Gels, EFS, crackers, bananas, and granola bars are strewn across the pavement.  A friend from work walks up and says hello.  In a frenzied manner, I tell him and his friends what we are trying to do.  He gets it.  He climbs at a high level and understands personal challenge.  His friends are from Portland and look confused.  I'm starting to get confused too.  Pushing creeping fatigue aside, Jason and I pull our shoes back on and start up the Mill B North Trail.  This time it is taking a few minutes to loosen up.  

We push up the trail which climbs steadily until just under the shoulder of Mount Raymond.  From there, we again turn west and begin running lightly toward Hobb's Peak and upper Neff's Canyon.  We know the Wildcat Ridge looms and hope to get across before night falls. 

High on the Mill B North trail.  Phase II of the day across the valley.
Looking west toward Triangle Peak and Mount Olympus

Photo taken from somewhere along the Wildcat Ridge looking north.  Our destination is the point of the mountain in the upper left.
Looking south, our route visible along the skyline
Scrambling over the Wildcat ridge is easy and fun.  I'm relieved it isn't proving more tedious.  And, traversing upper Neff's to the ridge was relatively easy cross country travel through open terrain.  While relieved, I'm still cautious.  Jason and I keep repeating, "no falls" and continually remind each other to double check holds.  Falling off the ridge would ruin the day.  
Jason and the Wildcat Ridge
More alpenglow
Finally, as the last hues of pink and orange fade on the horizon, we stumble onto the summit of Mount Olympus.  However, our last piece of technical terrain lies ahead as we plan to traverse to the North Summit, descend the ridge west, and then down climb the slabs.  I am tired but morale is still high.  Jason is unable to eat and suggests that to down climb the slabs in our fatigued state in the dark is above his risk threshold.  Happily, I agree and after five packs of Juicy Oozers, we are trotting down the standard hiking trail.  To this point, we had been nearly perfect in our quest to follow our version of the skyline.  But now, concessions were being made. 
The view from Mount Olympus just after sunset
Through the rough section of trail, we are moving more easily when I spot a head lamp bobbing toward us.  I yell, "Travis!" and the big man shouts a friendly reply.  He has come up to check on us and offer some moral support.  He wants to go on a run.  We are doing our best.  

He keeps pulling away and is reminded that we are 18+ hours into our day when our foot steps fade behind him.    He distracts us with talk of climbing, movies, and his organic chemistry PhD work.  As we exit the trail, the road feels good.  It's smooth and mindless and safe.  At some point, Jason looks down and sees 9 minute pace on his watch and wonders if we are going too fast.  My watch died hours ago.  

Next up: Grandeur Peak.  The plan is to run up Millcreek to Rattlesnake, along the Pipeline to Church Fork, and then climb to the summit and descend the west side to Parley's.  Cue concession number two.  I think this will take too long.  Jason agrees and now were are heading to the western trailhead and will both ascend and descend this route.  Our next cache is up Millcreek but we will get food at the gas station.  Pseudo self supported is OK. 

The gas station is closed.  It's almost midnight.  We have no food (that we'd consider eating) and Jason has been out of water for over an hour.  In a moment of weakness, we call Nick, who arrives minutes later with 9 double cheeseburgers, 3 large fries, and 3 large drinks.  It's so good.  I eat all three by the time we hit the Grandeur trail.  

Travis is up front setting the pace.  I can't tell where we are or how steep or flat the trail is.  I hear the crunching rhythm of our foot steps and am vaguely aware of Travis' attempts at conversation up front. I'm tasting cheeseburgers.  We sit for a second at the branch point half way up and I can feel myself falling asleep.  Maybe a quick nap would be good?  Travis calls us "pussies" and we respond to the call.  

On the summit, there is no fanfare.  We turn around without taking a single picture.  On the way down, we move at a half jog on the STEEP trail.  Perhaps the city lights are improving the mood, or maybe it's just Travis and his random banter at 2 AM.  Back at the trailhead, I wade through some sage and find our 4th cache.  Gatorade, EFS, gels, V8, chips, and bananas.  I want none of it.  It's cold and we are huddled behind a retaining wall to get out of the wind and the spray of an annoying sprinkler.  Travis is antsy and wants to get moving.  He has to work in the morning and it's now 3 AM.  

More concessions ensue.  Our plan was to move on to Perkin's Peak (behind H rock) and ascend the Southwest ridge to the summit and then descend the Northwest ridge to the mouth of Emigration Canyon.  We realize as we pass our intended route that to follow through with our plan would see us finishing at some point mid to late afternoon.  Jason still has to get home and sleep so he can make it to a long and very intense night shift.  To be stubborn now would be irresponsible.  

We bid Travis adieu and run the road to Emigration where Jason has left his truck.  Damn.  Morale is now low since we deviated in a major way from the skyline.  I eat a pickle and drink some Mountain Dew.  Jason has found his appetite and picks through our stash of food and then we are off.  

The first hints of dawn appear in the eastern sky.  Fast hiking up the steep trail Jason has been resurrected.  From stopping to take breaks on Grandeur, he is now climbing Mount Wire at a pace that will see us on the summit in around 35 minutes.  I'm hanging on but it's not smart.  I reluctantly voice my concern and he lets me in front (we don't like to show weakness to the other).  I slow somewhat but try to keep the pace honest so he doesn't step on my heels. 

Summit of Mount Wire at sunrise
On the summit I ask for the time and Jason happily states that from the truck, we took 43 minutes.  We are now watching the sun rise for the second time and are prematurely tasting the finish.  The steep descent to Red Butte is tedious but at least we are on good trails for the duration.  We cross the road and then it's back to climbing mode as we move onto Mount Van Cott.  Again, we are both surprised at how we are able to climb quickly but yearn for the day to end.  

On the summit of Van Cott, one more concession is made and we turn down instead of along the ridge to Black Mountain.  Down is easy.  Down takes us home.  Black is one of the larger foothills and I feel shameful for passing it.  Our adherence to our route and ideals has already been compromised though and it's getting easier to keep doing so. 

Descending from Van Cott toward Dry Creek
Hiking up Dry Creek I'm now finding that I am developing an assortment of aches and pains.  My back hurts and my feet stink.  I have blisters on the dorsum of my hands from the straps of my poles.  Strange muscle groups are sore but fortunately I have yet to feel even an inkling of cramps.  

Near the high point of the shoreline, I sit down and take some ibuprofen.  It's not long now but I want to feel good at the finish.  I used to live in the Avenues and would run these trails and up Ensign Peak often.  As we proceed, the checkpoints tick by.  

We are climbing again and this time will be the last.  Like a JV runner who has saved too much throughout the race we are now pushing again.  As the monument becomes visible we are still trying to get pictures and video.  Breaking out of our shuffling gait, we are running; legitimately and fast.  Not that it matters if we finish in 30 hours and 15 minutes or 30 hours and 16 minutes but we simply want to be done and are excited by the thought of just sitting.  

We tag the monument and startle some of the tourists.  Looking over the city at the skyline we can trace our last 30 hours and I feel strangely powerful.  

Minutes later, I'm sitting at lunch with Jason and his girlfriend, Amanda, who was kind enough to pick up two rancid guys and take them to get Mongolian Beef and General Tso's.  We couldn't be happier. 

Final Thoughts: 

We had some shortcomings but the idea and a close embodiment of that has been carried out.  On this "run" I set personal records for total time moving, distance, and vertical gain on one outing and don't feel utterly shattered.  Often after long trying days, I ask my partners how much money would be required to get them to turn around and repeat everything they just did.  

Could I do that again in that moment for any sum of money?  Not a chance.  But, I'm already thinking about my next cleaner version, my perfect version.  And, I'll do that one for free. 
The last few hundred meters of the day with a large portion of the skyline visible in the distance
~65 miles
~30,000 vertical gained
30+ hours from car to monument
Self supported except 3 cheeseburgers in a moment of weakness
14 distinct summits

4 slices of pizza, 2 cookies, 3 granola bars, 2 EFS gel flasks, 4 Powergels, 4L Gatorade, 6L EFS, Mountain Dew, 1 pickle, 5 packets of Sport Beans, 10 packets of Juicy Oozers, 2 bananas,  a box of Cheez-Its, a bag of Goldfish, a bag of chips, 3 Snickers bars

Gear used: 

Dynafit React Dry Short Tights
Dynafit Pivot Summer Beanie
Dynafit X4 Dy. N. A. Pack
Dynafit Movement Powerstretch Pants
Outdoor Reasearch Helium II Jacket
Outdoor Reaseach Storm Tracker gloves
Black Diamond Z poles
CAMP Corsa Ice Axe
Katoola crampons


  1. I often experience juicy oozers when I'm unable to eat as well

  2. I was searching for info on the Dynafit Feline and found this report..WOW strong work!!...(and way better time killer then any shoe review)

  3. Fantastic idea! Love it. And you can't really see Black Mtn. from anywhere in SLC except around the airport anyways, if I was looking at the right bump.

  4. congratufreakinlations. good for you and Jason. keep up the amazing efforts. for yourselves, if for nothing else.

  5. you guys never cease to inspire

  6. After doing Lone to North Thunder today, I now appreciate your route much more. You guys went a long way on some really tough terrain.