Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Long Day in the La Sal Range

This week I was privileged to spend a long challenging day in the La Sal Mountains to the east of Moab, UT.  My enthusiastic partners for the day were Tom Goth and Teague Holmes, guys that finished first and second respectively at the recent Elk Mountain Grand Traverse.  I knew they'd be strong.

With tight schedules, this trip was to be a 36 hour blitz.  We drove down to Moab and hurriedly grabbed some last minute items at the store, ate a delicious meal provided by Teague's friend Max, and then went about setting up a car shuttle.  We wanted to ski a lot and figured why not start at the south end and ski out the northern end of the range, which happens to be at the head of the idyllic Castle Valley.  We dropped Max's truck, made the long drive back through Moab, found highway 46, and turned up Lackey Basin.   With only one unintentional detour, we managed to drive up to around 8000 feet on an improbable 4WD road.

Gear spilled forth as we readied for an alpine start.  For three guys who tout the "light and fast" philosophy, we had brought a ridiculous amount of stuff.  Paring down the excess and with bags packed, we flicked off our lamps around 11:30 and hoped for a few hours of sleep.

Confused, I could hear my alarm through my ear plugs.  It took me a second to realize I wasn't in my bed but was about to go hike through the dark through Utah's second highest range.  I yelled to the guys in the other tent to get up and get going (Teague had informed me that he would need extra time ready himself).  More shuffling, and just after four AM we started hiking Teton style up the dirt road hoping to hit snow soon.

4:15 AM
After a few minutes, the patches that had halted our progress in the truck the night before were becoming continuous and we switched to skinning.  Tom seemed eager and jumped out front pushing the pace for an all day effort.  Purposefully, I hiked more slowly, thinking about the thousands of feet and multiple peaks ahead.

Maybe an hour and a half after setting out, we found ourselves on the summit of South Mountain, still in the dark, but now with light flurries dancing in our lights.  Oddly, mine had been fading throughout the climb in spite of charging it fully the day before.  And then while ripping skins, my light completely failed.  Luckily, the skiing proved easy and I stayed between Tom and Teague on the descent.  We laughed at the amazing conditions and figured we'd be able to ski the entire range easily.  I drank a Red Bull and set out skating across a long meadow leading toward Tukuhnikivatz. Transitioning to skins, the snow was thickening and the winds gaining strength.  They were already well ahead of the forecasted 8 mph range.  No matter, we were making great time and even though we couldn't see Tuk, or Peale, we could feel them looming above us and we were navigating easily by compass, map, and GPS.

In spite of our assuredness, Tuk didn't come easily.  The blizzard raged on and ascending the summit ridge was a hilarious act of stubbornness.  At this point, I was wearing base layers, a speed suit, wind pants, two soft shell jackets, a puffy, a gore tex shell, large gloves, a beanie, and a buff and still dreaded every kick turn into the wind.  On the highest point of white I turned and watched Tom grow larger.  He seemed to be floating, hovering, suspended in the clouds and I couldn't tell where solid earth turned to vapor and sky.

Floating Tom

We didn't linger and quickly felt our way down the ridge toward Mount Peale.  Ascending toward the highest peak in the range, we came upon a slightly techy step that forced us onto the southern face.  Here, we recognized the first of many signs that the new snow and wind were creating some instability.  Multiple point releases were visible but we felt the danger level manageable.  We slowed down, tried to travel as safely as possible, and worked together to question each move to make sure it was the right one.
Psyched to be on the summit of something... (photo by Tom Goth)
Navigating Peale's rocky gates (photo by Teague Holmes)
Looking for the summit of Mount Peale
Hoods, beanies, and buffs were the name of the game

On the summit the compass/GPS disagreed with the known topography and common sense.  Trying to reconcile the two, we skied a little too far to the east before dropping off the summit toward the Mellenthin complex.  The coverage was poor and we had to down boot a few hundred feet to reach a strip of snow leading into the huge cirque below.  Here, we fully recognized our off heading and climbed back to the appropriate ridge leading to Laurel and Mellenthin.  With multiple false summits and bumps along the ridge, I kept getting the feeling that we were on the true summit of Mellenthin.  The visibility continued in the 10-20 foot range and I kept reminding the guys to watch out for cornices.  At one point I lurched backwards after nearly walking off one into the abyss.

Rock walking was welcome because at least we could see where we were going
"Watch out for the cornices!" was repeated all day long
Disappointment after disappointment continued and I quit saying, "I think this is the summit".  The GPS would tell us and Teague would take us there.  He put in a heroic effort out front to the top where we were faced with a new challenge.  Thus far, getting off the peaks had been easy since we were mostly just following the ridge.  Our initial plan was to ski Mellenthin's large North Face but after descending a few hundred feet along a rocky rib, it became apparent that to continue would be utterly reckless.  Small fractures were breaking harmlessly at our feet and the rocky rib was giving way to a large amorphous bowl.  The choice was pretty clear.  We'd be booting back out.

What the hell are we doing?

I think Tom just likes to be in the mountains no matter what is going on
We were like slow moving old trees, collecting rime during this wild storm.  P.S. the camera is just for show since it didn't record a single thing.

Back on the summit ridge, we pulled out the compass and map again and opted to stick to the NW ridge.  Ridges are safer and we hoped the rocks would provide a visual life line.  We down booted a few hundred feet before finding a nice strip of snow to ski.

We don't do it for the skiing...
Off the peak and moving toward Gyser Pass, we had a back and forth discussion about this ongoing foolishness and decided to pull the plug on the rest of the day.  We'd find a way down to the La Sal Loop Road and then hike out from there.

And then we caught our first break of the day...

The clouds lifted and we could see the Northern Group and more than a few feet in front of our skis for the first time.  Now it seemed foolish to not at least go check it out.

We crossed the long down trending divide between Mellenthin and Tomasaki and the suffering changed from fighting the elements to fighting my own weakness.  I'm getting better at dealing with this dull discomfort though and we kept going.  There were more summits to stand on.

Trading the trail breaking, we tagged Tomasaki, then a couple unnamed peaks, then Mount Maan, and then perhaps Green or Piolet, or maybe just another unknown 12000 foot bump on the ridge.  It was now 6 PM and the lighting was phenomenal.  Why not keep going and hit Waas, Castle, and La Sal Peaks en route to Castle Valley?

As usual, the answer was the tightening noose that was pulling us back to Salt Lake.  Work restraints would require us to be in Salt Lake City by 7 AM.  With a few miles and at least a dozen transitions left along the high ridges and then an unknown exit followed by dirt walking and a difficult car shuttle we knew we were done.  Besides, my headlamp had died before the sun even came up 12 hours ago.

We were finally being forced out of the mountains but it wasn't by severe weather, poor visibility, laughable snow coverage, or our dwindling food and water.  We were being sent packing by the proverbial man.  It didn't seem quite right.

Teague beginning our retreat
Nice lighting after a day in the clouds
But now, reflecting on the absurdity of it all, it was a grand adventure.  We learned a lot and were able to practice valuable skills in the mountains.  We traveled through amazing terrain (even if we didn't see 2/3 of it) and gained an appreciation for another wild Utah mountain range.  Plus, we left a few peaks to ski the next time we're down there.

We skied out Miner's Basin on fast powder in the sharpest spring lighting.  As we descended, the red of the desert was a welcome contrast to the preceding whiteness.  Corn turns on the road were nice while they lasted and quickly we were walking on the Loop Road toward the head of Castle Valley.  Our boots are comfortable but after 15000 vert and 15 hours I was ready for a break.  We shot pictures of each other walking through the desert in ski boots with skis on our packs and enjoyed a really brilliant sunset over one of the most idyllic places on earth.  I was really content...

Tom and Teague running out of snow with Castle Valley in the background

Still quite content...

And then it got dark and we were still walking in our ski boots.  We took them off and walked in the liners which was only marginally better.  The road stretched on and on and we began to wonder if we'd make it home in time.  Then, on cue as we descended into Castle Valley, a lone traveler drove up looking for a camp site.  It was the first person we'd seen all day.  He offered to drive me to our shuttle and I gave him suggestions on local camping.  I grabbed Max's Trooper, picked up Teague and Tom, and we began the next phase of the day - retrieving my truck and making the drive back to SLC.

At 5:30 AM the night time sky seemed to be yielding to the first hints of the coming day when we pulled into Teague's driveway.  It was a flawed journey from the beginning with a horrendously inaccurate weather forecast, but it was successful even without skiing all of our planned summits.  We still liked each other.  We managed to get pretty tired. The mountains still inspire us.  We made it home.

Some Rough Stats:

Distance: ~25 miles
Vert: ~15000 gained
Summits: Eight 12000 footers plus a few others
Calories burned: ~7000

My Gear List:
Boots: Scarpa Alien 1.0
Skis: Ski Trab World Cup Race
Bindings: Ski Trab TR Race
Skins: Pomoca and Coltex race skins (100% Mohair)
Dynafit Ski Crampons
Black Diamond Whippets
CAMP XC600 Pack
CAMP Speed Helmet
Ski Trab Dragon Speed Suit
Outdoor Research Axiom Shell, Transcendent Hoody, Whirlwind Hoody, Ferossi Hoody and Pants, Luminary Gloves.
Julbo Stunt Glasses
Buffs, beanies, avy gear

Salami and Cheese
Honey Stingers
Peanut Snickers x 3
Fruit Leather
Red Bull


  1. Miserably awesome. That photo of you guys walking out into castle valley is classic. Love the floating Tom shot too. Nice write up!

  2. Boys, what a great adventure! No conditions were going to stop you, amazing perseverance!