By Jack Stauss, FOW
Why do we ski steep and intimidating terrain? For Jack, it's the intrinsic reward. Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Jack Stauss // Photo: Matt Sterbenz (@mattsterbenz)
“Ehhhh… I don’t know…”
Greg bobbed his head from side to side. It was not a “no” shake nor was it a “yes” nod. He was undecided. We were standing underneath Cardiac Ridge looking up at some of the steepest chutes in the Wasatch, trying to decide if we wanted to walk up and ski down them or not. The Lightning Bolt couloir did not look great. There was a healside track down it that had side slipped the entire upper section, and the “choke,” an exposed rocky patch over a hundred foot cliff was not as filled in as it sometimes gets. Greg knew it could have more snow on it.
Why even look at this thing to ski?
Well, we have to. It is written. A little self published book, almost xeroxed, has this line in its pages. The Book is marked up and dog-eared on any self respecting Utah BC skier’s shelf. To some, it is a simple guide: a way to explore new and exciting areas. To others, it is doctrine. Rules and style that must be followed, 90 lines that must be completed. And in order to ski every line in there, we had to ski this one.
To me it was just another day. I have skied just over half of The Book, and there are more fun or aesthetic new lines for me to pick from. But Greg is almost done. He only has a few left, and this is one of them. So I was letting him choose: do we hike up and commit, or wait for better conditions.
We hung out in the sun and thought about it. The morning was chilly. Early March was trying to hold onto the cold snowpack of mid winter, but we knew the melt was coming. For Greg, it could be the last chance he’ll get this season. But, that pressure is a familiar trap. It’s that feeling that you need to go “do the thing” because it’s a season goal, a high priority, or simply because you’d already made it “this far.” This complex is known as commitment, and as we stood there looking up, I knew that Greg was weighing that.
Greg, mid-decision in front of the Lightning Bolt. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Jack Stauss (@jackstauss)
After a little more contemplation on the line and our options, we decided that this line was easy enough for us to get to and that we’d wait. It would be a better ride with more snow, and without a rutted track down the middle. For both of us, chasing these chutes isn’t for the publicity, or the claim factor. It’s about being able to explore the mountains and have fun skiing steep lines for their own intrinsic reward. They are less fun when they are not in condition. A nice fat storm might fill in the choke this season, or maybe it would have to wait until next year. We were ok with that too.
Since our decision to not ski the Lightning Bolt, we had to figure out what to do instead. We were up in Upper Cardiff Fork, below Cardiac Bowl and North Superior. This large glacial valley is an awe inspiring location. Rock linked chutes funnel down from every aspect, the ridges of the mountains create a serrated edge against the blue sky. These alpine views, and the insatiable hunger for skiing off the bigger peaks drew our eyes up to the top of Mount Superior. The ridge was always a fun hike, and skiing any aspect off the prominent peak would be a great consolation prize. We discussed the options on Superior, and I thought of a line I had not yet skied.
“What about Cristo Gully?” I said to Greg.
“Oh, that could be sweet!” he responded.
And it was decided. We’d try for a long classic line if the sun wasn’t too hot when we summited Superior. We put our skins back on, and began walking back the way we came, toward a small notch on the ridge that delineated between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.
Within 20 minutes we were back on the ridge, enjoying an excellent hike up one of the most sought after peaks in the mountain range. Even if Mount Superior wasn’t in the Chuting Gallery, people would flock to it. It’s treeless south face looks like a wall out of Alaska. Fluted and steep, it gets splattered with the big storms that sit on top of Upper Little Cottonwood. You get an amazing view of it from Alta and Snowbird, and with that view, the hundreds of tracks from lucky powder hounds that left the trailhead in the dark to ski it after a storm. I have my own story of my first Superior descent, everyone does. It is a rite of passage in the Wasatch.
High above Alta and Snowbird, Jack works his way out to Monte Cristo. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Greg Hewitt (@greghewitt13)
At this point in the day, the sun was high but conditions were stable and since our objective had changed to a marginally less committing line, we were feeling good.
Just beyond Superior lies Monte Cristo. The often photographed “Edge of the World” upper bowl is a puckering few hundred feet followed by a long winding chute all the way down to the canyon road. Greg had skied it before, but had gotten lost trying to find the clean line versus the rappel, and I had never been down it so it was more or less new terrain to both of us. Since he hadn’t found the clean line, I was a little dubious about skiing over a cliff. But as we summited Superior and continued along the ridge to Cristo, we talked about it. We’d take our time, and ski it slow and smart. Besides, this run was south facing, and sure to have some cruddy snow.
"Edge of the World” couldn’t be a better name for the summit pitch. It’s a wide open sheet of snow, a relatively mellow bowl. But, on the skier’s right side, the bowl just ends. It’s like a knife sliced the side of the mountain away.
Booting to Edge of the World. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Greg Hewitt (@greghewitt13)
New alpine terrain always gets me out of my comfort zone and that’s exactly why I seek chutes in The Book. I wobbled a little bit on the knife traverse, but stayed calm and kept breathing as we passed over cliffs and steep snow. I punched my toes into the side of the mountain, secure and connected, and soon we were topping out. Another new summit, thanks to The Book.
Skiing next to the Edge of the World is exciting; if you lose control or catch an edge, you’ll be going for a long fall. But it’s a major feature to this line, so of course we were going to dance with it. As we clicked in, I studied the wind rippled snow.
Greg dropped first, making clean turns in the chalky buff, cruising down to the top of the couloir proper. I took one more nice look around at the views of the mountains and Salt Lake Valley and pointed my tips down the mountain.
While the conditions and exposure did not condone “ripping” the upper headwall I skied as close to the edge as I could and it was pretty exhilarating to be skiing on that sheer corner of the mountain I had seen from Superior and in photos for years.
We're suckers for aptly named lines. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Greg Hewitt (@greghewitt13)
As I exited the Edge of the World at the bottom of the bowl Greg and I high fived and looked back at our tracks. While it wasn’t a gnarly traverse over a cliff a la the Lightning Bolt, they were fairly bold for a second best option. We were pretty stoked on the upper headwall, but I knew we still had a lot of line left, and a lot of which was terra incognita to both of us.
When Greg had previously skied the clean “Gully” (as opposed to the Directissimo), he had gone left too early, he thought, and ended up having to do a series of gnarly downclimbs and rappels. We were hoping to avoid this today. It seemed like from the description of this area that the sneak to the clean line should not be too hard to find, but you never know until you’re there. So onward we skied, leapfrogging down an aesthetic rock lined couloir. The conditions were not “good” as far as the normal metrics go, but the snow was stable and edgable so we enjoyed it.
Greg pointed out the saddle that he thought had sucked him in last time. I consulted my pocket map. “No way man, we’re still way too high!” I said.
So down we skied. I knew the cliff of the Directissimo loomed somewhere below, so the further we descended the more I reigned it in.
High above Alta and Snowbird, Jack works his way down Monte Cristo. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Greg Hewitt (@greghewitt13)
Soon the slope rolled away and dropped off. We were pretty far down the line, and directly on top of the 150 foot rappel. Fortunately a prominent and obvious saddle rose to our left. We traversed over to it and again were high fiving. We had found the clean fork sneak. Much lower now the snow had fully corned up, and without any fear of falling off a cliff we were able to let go and really open our skis up.
Finishing out the line clean and in good style and time was a fulfilling conclusion to a day that had started with some indecision. The rush of ripping out of the apron away from a classic reminded me why I love skiing these steep lines. It’s part route finding and decision making, it’s part skill, and it’s definitely a weighing of objective difficulties. And, it’s always an adventure. But the reason I personally really chase these lines from The Book is that at the end of the run, you know you’ve done something amazing that few others will ever experience. It’s like you’ve been let on to some big secret of life. That giddy joy I feel skiing out of a steep mountain corridor is like nothing else.