It must have been 2003 and although I had retired from climbing I still hadn't kicked the habit of experiencing a particular feeling every spring.
My friends were in Alaska and I was jealous. I was chained to a desk, a mouse-click away from the Denali Park weather report, and two clicks away from a plane ticket.
Instead I found an Alaskan style ass-kicking right in my own back yard. Details about attempts to traverse the summits above Little Cottonwood Canyon remained vague since it had yet to be completed in a single push. From the map I surmised that the horseshoe-shaped traverse covered 20 to 26 miles and crossing the 15-20 summits required roughly 20,000 vertical feet of gain. It sounded impossible. Of course, I was hooked and it didn’t take long to coax Vince Anderson into coming with me.
Heat, thirst, and rough terrain had conspired against summer attempts. A winter attempt would cut water loss, and one might coast easy sections on skis rather than beating feet across ugly talus. Previous efforts began in Bell’s Canyon, which left the most technical terrain to be negotiated at the end of the day. Knowing the beat-down an 18-hour effort provides I reversed the itinerary, hopeful that starting on the hardest section would offer a better chance of success.
A cold front forecast for May 8th promised the hard freeze needed for easy travel. It was 13 degrees at 11,000 feet when Vince and I left the Broad’s Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon at 2a.m. We set a pace we hoped to keep for 24 hours. At six we stood on top of the Twin Peaks then traversed the summits of Sunrise and Dromedary as the sun rose.
To shave weight from our already anorexic packs the rope stayed home so the jagged, corniced ridge leading to Monte Cristo forced us downward. Cutting beneath it seemed like cheating as the skis ran fast on the hard snow. We hooked under the Sundial, booted up the north side of Monte Cristo, tagged Mount Superior and with ten hours and 10,000 vertical feet in our legs we raided our cache of food, water and dry socks at Cardiff Pass.
The snow softened and even on skis the travel wasn’t as easy as we hoped. We fought for mileage and elevation on the rolling terrain around the head of the canyon. Our full-length, full-width skins gripped but didn’t glide. Kicker skins would have helped. From the top of Mount Wolverine we dropped into the Alta ski area and climbed out toward the Devil's Castle. The mush-covered technical terrain below its summit was too scary so we gave it a miss. As fatigue worked its magic my sense of security on steep, difficult terrain waned.
Sunset brought plummeting temperatures and we shivered in calorie-deficit. The optimism that should have kept us warm disappeared when we compromised the ideal. The summits of Sugarloaf and Baldy passed beneath our ski boot-tenderized feet almost unnoticed and we trudged up Hidden Peak toward my wife, nephew and another cache. We had finally hit a pace we could hang onto for 24 hours, but we’d figured it out too late. With 18 miles, and 15,000 feet behind us we were too far-gone to keep going. We bit off more than we could chew and choked about nine miles short of the finish line. We skied Snowbird's bulletproof corduroy by headlamp with my legs cramping magnificently all the way.
Hindsight points out errors that my years of experience should have sidestepped. Older doesn’t mean wiser, it just means older and I woke up on the 9th with my joints feeling every one of their 40 years.
In 2005 I skied the last nine miles over the last few summits then out Bell's Canyon to Wasatch Boulevard. It was June 9th so there was a bit of hiking toward the end but it showed me the traverse is feasible in a single-push. The terrain mellows considerably near the end, which would correspond to waning energy and attention. Who knows? It may have been done by now.