Monday, September 19, 2016

Partially Tame; Entirely Beautiful

Early fall is, by far, the best season. This is an authoritative, universal fact, and ought not to be questioned. The last of the previous winter's snows have finally melted, the bugs have died off, a yellow hue begins creeping through the aspen grove, and on the shady sides of the highest peaks, there's just a trace of snow. A month ago, I had to fight swarms of bugs and swarms of people. A month from now, I'll be huddled in my sleeping bag as an early-season snowstorm rips through the mountains. But this - this is perfection.

The nights are chilly, no doubt about that. But still, the cheery sunshine boosts the temperatures as soon as it peeks over the horizon. The frost accumulates thick at  night, but is burned away within minutes of sunrise. Time flies though - it's the upper elevations' last hurrah before winter.

Inexplicably, I had lived in Utah for the better part of four years, and had never climbed any of the peaks in the upper part of Big Cottonwood Canyon (Patsy Marley and the Honeycomb Cliffs don't exactly count). For one, none of them rise above 11,000 feet, and thus don't fall on the list of classic Wasatch giants. For another, the top of Big Cottonwood is the hub of ski-area activity. From some peaks in the area, six different resorts are visible, and three more are hidden just behind ridgelines. I prefer my wild places a bit... wilder.

But I had been looking at the lake country just on the east side of the Wasatch crest for some time now, and had been eyeing a couple nice-looking lakes to camp at. And just adjacent to the lake region was the string of peaks that surround Brighton ski area - a string of peaks I'd never explored.

I expected nice fall scenery. I expected a bit of melancholy over the degradation of wild places. But I didn't expect to be blown away. 

It's always a thrill to get out of work and camp two miles above sea level just hours later. I parked my car in the Brighton parking lot and explored the surrounding slopes. Before the area was purchased by the Forest Service, several generations of people had built cabins in the upper Cottonwoods. You can find many quaint/grandiose/ramshackle cabins grandfathered in, including several dozen within ski area boundaries. I wandered around, looking at the architecture and wondering how much, exactly, these places sell for. By and by, a few friends showed up, and we carpooled up to Guardsman Pass, head of Big Cottonwood.

We parked at Guardsman and descended a few hundred feet to a couple of very well-used campsites at busy Bloods Lake. We opted to bypass the lake and climb up to the ridge on the other side of the lake. By this time, it was getting dark and we set up camp on a grassy ridge overlooking Park City. It was a gorgeous (albeit chilly) evening and I camped under the stars for the first time in a couple months (mountain weather has a funny way of making that a very bad idea most of the time). The frost was thick and heavy, and I dreamed about soaking in a steaming hot tub - and plotted modifications to my gear for the winter season. But the amazing sunrise over the distant Uintas made the cold night worth it, and the sun soon bathed everything in warmth.

After lazing over breakfast (an amber ale, a bag of gummy bears, and a handful of pretzels, just like they teach you in Home Economics), we all set out on our ways - they headed back to the car, and I bushwhacked steeply uphill, toward the day's first objective - peak 10,420.

10,420 is a pretty dull name, not only because it looks weird at the beginning of a sentence (sorry for that brief foray into recursion), but also because it's a neat little peak and deserves something a little warmer than a clinical-sounding moniker. I paused for a few minutes on top and took in the mountain views. One peak down, seven to go.

Down into a dip, up to another summit - Clayton Peak, elevation 10,721. Beautiful yellow leaves, a hardcore lady in her 70s hiking solo. A half mile of trail. A minor peak covered in nasty scrub oak (Preston, 10,315). Down again - past the top of the ski lift I frequent on dark winter evenings. Ahead, the terrain grew steeper. 

I climbed over another minor peak, this one unnamed. A bunch of loud ATV's roared past on a jeep road below. The ridge turned downward briefly before ascending further to Pioneer Peak. At 10,420, Pioneer is the exact same height as the first peak I climbed (we'll call it Recursive Peak, just to complete the Möbius loop), and even less prominent. Yet somehow, Pioneer has the honor of a proper name. 

Pioneer Peak marks the mental halfway point of the ridgewalk, even though it's a little bit more than that distance-wise. From Pioneer on, it's constant steep ups and downs the rest of the way. The rock turns white and sandy, almost chalk-like. After a short but steep downhill to a saddle, I climbed up to Sunset Peak, where a group of loud townies were perched, having climbed from Catherine Pass. I hastened off the summit and down to the pass, a bit perturbed at how obnoxious several people were being. Don't get me started on the subject of yelling in the mountains. Ditto for playing top-forty hits over speakerphone.

[takes several deep breaths, counts to ten, regains composure]

Once past Catherine Pass, the ridge ascended steeply to Mt Tuscarora. Tuscarora isn't really a peak of its own, merely a shoulder of Mt Wolverine. I traversed the ridge and reached the highest peak on the route, Mt. Wolverine. Coincidentally, the Michigan Wolverines football game had just kicked off, and yes, of course I checked the score (they were losing early in the first half, but came back to win convincingly). Seven ought of eight peaks done.

The last peak, Mt Millicent, only stands at about 10,400, but it's by far the roughest. Large, steep talus litters all sides of the mountain. Getting to the summit wasn't too bad, however the descent down its north slope extremely slow and tedius. The boulders were unstable and steep - perfect ankle-twisting terrain. With an appropriate amount of caution, I slowly made my way down to a trail. After having hiked off-trail (or on faint/skethy trail) for hour, I felt relieved to have terrain pass under my feet at three miles an hour. Despite the ski lifts, the clear-cut ski runs, and the ever-present hum of ATV's, I had wandered through a truly beautiful place. I arrived at my car, thoroughly impressed by the fantastic vistas, the cheery fall colors, and a corner of the Wasatch that I'd previously written off. 

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