Ever since a very snow-sparse adventure ski outing with Andy early in the 2010/2011 ski season, in which we both looked down Sugarloaf’s East face from the summit and wondered if the line were continuous, I’ve had my eye on returning to ski it. (Fortunately, we correctly guessed that it was not continuous, an obvious fact to Alta regulars) Once we skied around to a different vantage point, the sweetness of the line was a little more apparent, as was the need for a little ropework.
It’s been over a year and a half, but the stars finally aligned to enable a descent. It might not have taken so long, but this terrain, and uphill skiing in general, is off limits at A Lot of Traversing Around (Alta) until they close for the season. (And, as I’d learned in late 2010, it’s not quite ready in the early season days, before Ski Patrol puts the kibosh on uphill travel.) Roping in Brody Leven (check out his ski and travel adventures at brodyleven.com) for the day with a text that offered ‘corn to cliff,’ we met up and headed toward the line as it glimmered in the sunlight of a new day. The view of the line from the approach was great, and we spent a minute or two discussing the best descent option. Although the top appeared a bit bony near the summit, the line looked to be in decent shape despite the recent heat.
Reaching the Sugarloaf summit, Brody and I tried to match up the view we now saw below with what we saw above as we skinned in. A quick examination of a picture snapped on the ascent revealed what we needed. Since Sugarloaf’s East face has a pretty steep rollover bisecting it, it’s hard to see the complete edge from the summit. That of course makes it a bit more challenging to ski to the spot one has already picked out, in this case one of the fingers of snow that reached closest to the edge.
Confident that we had spied up the right line from above, we moved over to the South side of the peak to wait. Although the sun was out, the snow appeared to be completely frozen. With a steady, if light, breeze, we tucked in out of the wind’s cooling reach to kill time while the slope softened. Naturally, not only had I left my sunglasses in the car at the bottom of the canyon, I’d also not packed a single extra layer, hand warmers, hat, or any other heat retaining device. When you do it wrong, it’s best to do it fully wrong. Whoops.
I shivered as we chatted, sharing our stories of growing up in what we’d just learned were neighboring towns. Time went by, we chatted more, and eventually, quite unhurried, we decided to check out the slope. It was still completely frozen on the wind-kissed lip, but I postulated that it might well be soft below. Brody agreed, and as we breathed deeply of the cold, thin mountain air, our spirits soared just like the local eagles that float lightly upon the wind with outstretched wings. We clicked into our tech bindings, then took turns crossing the rock band which bifurcated the snow.
Here, 20 feet from the lip, the snow had indeed softened into a near perfect layer of corn. We leapfrogged down the hanging slope, eventually stopping about 30 feet above the edge. We surveyed the scene at this new distance and perspective, then made our final turns to the anchor.
Here’s where some fun began. These kinds of descents provide an interesting adventure because, being uncertain of the height of a cliff, one never knows if the ropes will be long enough. Unable to see if the ropes hit the ground from above, one must be ready to get down by whatever means necessary if the nylon turns out to be too short. It’s good to have a backup plan in mind to cover this base.
As it was, despite good throws, the ropes both landed on a ledge that was invisible from above. I rapped first, descending to the ledge. There I re-coiled the ropes, and re-threw them in the direction of the ice filled cleft nearby. I reasoned that the cleft had the highest snow ramp, and, since I still couldn’t see whether the ropes touched the snow below, I was trying to stack the odds in my favor.
Just then, the good news arrived in the form of falling icicles. Hmmm. Rapping where the entire ice filled gully could release in a deluge of frozen, rock hard water as I hung there trying to make another anchor – if it went that way – flitted across my mind’s eye. No good. With a whipping spiral motion, I coaxed the ropes out of the cleft and across the rock face. Still couldn’t see. Brody inquired what I was doing, and I filled him in.
Finally, leaned out over the precipice, with a load of weight on the stretchy 6mm cord, I could see what we’d hoped for: the ropes reached! Gleefully I shared the news, then quickly rapped down. It felt good to be back on snow. I skied off to the side a bit, as much for safety as for the view. There was a lot of loose rock on the face, and I expected some of it would be coming down.
Brody took his turn, and I got to witness the action from a voyeur’s perspective. And indeed, two large rocks came tumbling down, making me happy for my position off to the side. Soon on the snow himself, he began pulling the ropes down while I quietly hoped they didn’t get hung up. It wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if they had gotten stuck, however. I would have been more than happy to return to this line to re-ski it, as happened recently. The corn was perfect, the access is quick and easy, there’s snow more or less from the parking lot, and there are no shadows on the slope to change the consistency of the snow surface. What you get near the top is what you get near the cliff edge, which isn’t always the case.
We both skied out a distance, and looked back at Sugarloaf’s East face one more time. Clinking poles, we’d just landed a fine ski descent that I’d wanted to check off the list for a while. It was, as these things go, another fine ski day!