Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Provo Traverse: Attempt One and Lessons Learned

Yesterday I thought we could outsmart Mother Nature by starting early and staying high.  I cooked up the idea to start in Hobble Creek Canyon, climb up to the massive ridge that connects Corral, Provo, Freedom, and Cascade Peaks, and traverse to Provo Canyon.  Essentially, this is the whole ridge above the town of Provo.  Never mind the major problem of getting off Cascade late in a 70 degree day, that was so far away we would "just figure it out".

By late morning, we would discover that our plan was hugely flawed well before we even set foot on Cascade.  What followed was a lesson in idiocy, avalanches, risk management, and good luck.  

What's a reasonable time to wake up?  My brother would probably say eight or nine, so leaving my house at five AM felt pretty early.  I picked up Tom and then drove down to REI to meet Teague.  Teague was no where to be found (actually he could be found at the 33rd South REI), so after 5 minutes, patience exhausted, I started texting and calling.  He promised to hurry and I was glad to be entertained  by Tom's stories while we waited.

We were surprised to find the Squaw Peak road as accessed from Hobble Creek Canyon impassable from snow after only perhaps a quarter mile so we backtracked to the gate and started from the bottom.  Skinning frozen sled tracks for a couple miles was easy enough and then it was time to pick a ridge to gain the main ridge which was our objective for the day.  Our choice proved difficult as we battled sloppy snow with a scant crust that would inexplicably thin, at times leaving us sinking to our knees. 

However as we climbed, conditions improved, and once one the ridge proper we found firm fast travel.  A light breeze was soothing from the west and we thought we'd be fine.  
Along the ridge, conditions were smooth and firm

Tom Diegle with Buckley and Utah Lake in the background
Teague and Tom on a brilliant summer day

Tom skinning up a steepish SE facing slope around 11 AM with nice corn underfoot

Provo Peak Summit
To this point the day was going as planned (other than being about 2 hours behind my overly optimistic schedule).  We were enjoying the undulating terrain, high in the sky, and still thinking that just maybe we might make it to our rendezvous point by 3 PM.   Teague then skied the east facing ridge between Provo Peak and the next peak, an unnamed 11,000 foot point on the ridge.  It looked a little wet but not overly so.  I went next following his path, and on my third or fourth turn let loose a wet sluff that entrained a legitimate amount of snow.  It poured over some rocks and ran slowly into the basin maybe a thousand feet below.  I sent a quizzical look back up to Tom.  This was definitely in the cards for the day but not ours.  Gathering on the ridge, I suggested we pull the plug.  If we were ripping slides at 11:30 in the morning, it was going to be a war zone by late afternoon.  Tom and Teague seemed to happily agree and we enjoyed a nice shot to the NE into the basin formed by Provo and Freedom Peaks. 
Tom finding a nice little shot to the NE on Provo Peak

More Tom

Nice firm snow!
From there, we should have exited out Rock Canyon. My sister, Aimee, was available to shuttle us back to Hobble Creek and it wasn't getting any cooler out there. But as is often the case, we weren't done and wanted to ski some more variable junk and stand on another summit - even if it didn't have a name. Besides, we had changed aspects and were now ascending from the northwest.

Up we go, overstaying our welcome

Teague, Provo Peak, and Utah Lake

Cascade, Timp, and the Central Wasatch

A new perspective of Provo Peak from the unnamed summit to the east
Up top the next peak, I was really psyched we had made the effort.  The views were new and really quite stunning.  We relaxed and shared food and talked about our next move.  Everyone agreed we should descend.  The main question was how. 

I looked down and could see the Hobble Creek Road high in its drainage.  Could we maybe get down safely and avoid the hassle of a shuttle?  Well, there was a ridge with a western-ish aspect.  And maybe we could quickly cross the massive terrain trap gully and stick to more northerly slopes lower down? And maybe the snow would take us all the way to the road where google maps told us we would only be up canyon a short distance from the truck.  With the combined experience of the group, we should have seen the flaws in the plan but it really did seem plausible at the time. 

Here's Tom when things were still going well

And here's Teague, still liking the descent
Suddenly, I was face first in the slush with snow in my ears.  The modestly supportive surface had just given way as we must have crossed the isothermic line.  The snowpack no long had any structure and we were screwed.  Climbing back out seemed unlikely.  Pushing onward might work since from above it didn't seem like we would have to descend anything steep.  If we just payed attention to steep slopes above and avoided terrain traps, we would just have to endure the worst type of back seat skiing (insert Teague's motto that, "there is no bad skiing, just bad skiers!)

Our plan was working and it was funny watching each other nearly go down every time our speed would slow and our skinny skis sink even further.  I was try to keep a little momentum, while applying significant rearward pressure to my cuffs when the slope angle steepened.  I failed to appreciate this until I was mid slope in a slightly more open area.  With gullies on either side, I hesitated and glanced back to look for the other guys. 

Then I saw a wall of white cement tumbling toward me.  I tried to outrun it in my current trajectory but it was clear I lacked the speed.  Turning around, the slide was trying to outflank me.  Within the couple seconds that ensued, I changed my mind multiple times as to whether I was certain to be caught or not.  Moving absurdly slowly, I managed to get ahead of its path while grabbing on to the sturdiest looking tree I could find.  Moving any further also seemed like poor judgement since I was moving toward an obvious gully. 

It just missed me.

This is where I was as the slide passed by.
Taken from the UAC (photo by Tom).  Here is a link to his full observation.

I don't think it was until this point that I yelled, "AVALANCHE!" to the other guys just in case they weren't aware of what was happening. It was like yelling, "FIRE!" after the fire department shows up and is already spraying a burning house.
Tom was across the gully, and I could see Teague skiing the debris above me. We took a minute to assess what just happened and concluded that either I had triggered the slow moving wet slab as the angle steepened or Teague had remotely triggered it as he approached from above. Either way, it was time to get going as we still had a couple hundred feet of terrain to navigate until we were home free on a road with snow mobile tracks.
Our solution was to slowly side step anything steep with our roller ball slough leading to mini slides that cleared the path immediately in front. From there, we skied a creek bed to the road and freedom.
The trail of freedom

The sun was now our friend as we felt instant relief once on dirt. We laughed at our idiocy and began to wonder how far we'd have to hike on dirt to get back to the main canyon road and our ride. Just then a SUV full of high school seniors pulled up. I grabbed my pack and ran up asking for a ride out. I probably scared the kids a bit but they happily obliged.
Thirty minutes later we were enjoying some authentic Tacos, Tortas, and Quesadillas from a delicious hole-in-the-wall place just north of Springville. Talking the day over, it was obvious we could have planned a little better but once "in the thick of it", we seemed to manage risk and avoid any major catstrophes. Tom observed that no matter the plan, things always will come up.  Today was definitely a lesson in flexibility, risk managment, and ongoing decision making. 

While we didn't make it to Provo Canyon (or even to Freedom peak, or Rock Canyon), we did enjoy a really nice portion of the ridge and learned something about wet slab behavior.  Hopefully we experience a return to winter shortly.  It will be fun to go back and explore a little further.


  1. Lucky. I hope you're not going to be relying on luck as a mainstay in future performances, Andy. The world is a better place with you in it.

    That said, most of us, myself included, have had a few chances to get lucky and then learn from the encounter. Just remember to review the notes from time to time. See previous paragraph.

  2. "we seemed to manage risk and avoid any major catstrophes" . . . don't kid yourself. when the dragon has you in its grasp, there is no management going on.

  3. Timing is everything. Not just hours, but days or even years. Welcome to my hood. Sorry you missed the catwalk portion of the traverse. Next time.