Thursday, January 14, 2016

East Fork and Lisa Falls Link Up

The last time I skied Lisa Falls, it was in the worst possible conditions imaginable.  Almost the entire 5000 foot line was filled with frozen watermelon sized chunks of debris.  I still remember Jared yelling, "This is the worst skiing of my life!"  

I guess "skiing" avy debris is preferable to the dire conditions we've experienced the last few years where the line didn't even come close to filling in.  Well, with the cold temps and an average snowpack, we decided it was time to go for it again.  

Typically, it seems people either approach from Tanner's, ski into Broad's, and climb the Twins, or just come up from Broad's Fork and arrange a shuttle.  Looking at google earth, and the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map, it seemed that a nicer way would be to ascend the Maybird Chute and continue to the summit of Sunrise (O'Sullivan), from there ski the East Fork of Lisa into the main line, some 3000 plus feet down, and then continue up to the summit of the Twins.  

Turns out, that assumption was correct and the East Fork of Lisa is a babe in its own right.  

Ascending some frozen debris in the lower section of Maybird, Jason thought we should turn around and do something else.  Perhaps he had a premonition of things to come.  About the skiing, he couldn't have been more wrong.  

Above Maybird en route to the summit of Sunrise

On the summit of a seldom traveled ski peak
After a rather sluggish climb to the summit of Sunrise (heavy packs with ropes for potential raps), we were surprised by how good the East Fork line looked.  We were further surprised by the nice sheltered powder still preserved in the skier's left side of the chute.  Near the confluence with the main line, we enjoyed light snow over boulders while imagining how heinous the creek bed must be without the snow to ease travel.  Those imaginings also turned out to be a premonition of things to come. 

Jason dropping in

Big Lars in the East Fork of Lisa Falls

More Lars and his white spandex

At the confluence of the East Fork and the main chute of Lisa Falls, we skinned up and started climbing.  We figured we'd just follow the drainage up to the saddle between the summits, but got suckered left up a wider chute that we figured was the main line.  Five hundred feet up, we realized our mistake and found a nice little sneak back into the couloir proper.  

I bet not too many people have seen this tree as it's off the beaten path and you'd have to be lost like us to find it. 

From there, we booted the upper steeper section until just below the saddle.  Transitioning back to skinning, we noted some fairly recent slides that we attributed to the wind event on January 10th, two days prior.  Following a small sub ridge on the bed surface of a small slide, we gained the saddle and clambered over to the east summit for a quick snack.  

Lars, his snow camo outfit, and SLC beyond

Chilling winds turned us back and we were all psyched to ski this king line in good condition as well as to get out of the north wind.  Examining our options, we felt we should stick to the ridge and ski back down the known safe ascent track.  Jason led out cautiously, skiing just a couple feet to the left of the ridge to avoid any bigger wind slabs.  

The snow was soft and I could see his tracks from about fifty yards back.  Then in horrifyingly slow motion, the slope fractured at Jason's feet as well as a couple feet above him, just off the ridge.  He had skied onto a slab and it was too late to turn back.  I began to scream for him to fight his way off as I skied the bed surface above the shattered mess.  He clawed and tried to climb over the few feet of blocks that were trapping him, eventually arresting himself after being churned for a hundred feet or so.  

His face was red and wet and his helmet crooked but otherwise he was oddly calm.  I felt sick.  

He said he was fine, still had a hold of his poles and skis, and declared he was ready to go home.  Lars joined us and we commenced a rather sullen retreat down what would have been five thousand feet of childish laughter.  

I asked Jason if his adrenaline was pumping but he coldly stated, "I felt nothing!"  Kid has ice in his veins. 

After a couple thousand feet, distanced from the mistake above, the mood lightened and we decided to ski out to the road rather than climb back up and ski down Maybird.  We bounced along the snow covered boulders, criss crossing the stream and intermittently making sparks with our edges along the way.  

Finally, above the waterfall, we spied our high point from previous reconnaissance and traversed skier's right in order to avoid the annoyance of rapping off a collection of broken branches I'd collected for a deadman.  It wasn't long before we were switching between booting, ski schwacking, and literally jumping from side to side of the creek and from slippery boulder to boulder.  With skis on, I tried to skirt the lower falls but pinned myself between two boulders.  One final down climb led to a pretty decent ski to the road from there.  

Getting grim
In the end, all's well that ends well but we learned a valuable lesson.  I hope we can forever remember to not take short cuts.  It was clear we should have walked down the rocky ridge and skied the safe ascent track rather than flirt with the clearly sensitive, albeit small wind slab.  We had recognized the danger, taken the appropriate precautions on the up, and then were simply lazy on the way down.  Seems kinda of ironic seeing as how we enjoy the work of the up. 

The final words for the day, as oft uttered by a former ski hero, "Live to ski!"


  1. Thanks for the cautionary tale. Honest reflection helps us all be safer! Glad it turned out like it did for you guys!

  2. Great read. Valuable insight into your decision making process. Lessons learned that you will surely carry forward! You guys do it well, for the right reasons. Keep it up!