Tora Bora. The name conjures up memories of caves in Afghanistan housing militants, and other less wonderful parts of American history. But that’s only for one meaning attached to this name. Another version of Tora Bora exists right here in the Wasatch. It’s another one of those relatively uncelebrated Wasatch ski descents. Here comes a little celebration, with some details on the history supplied by ½ the team who skied it first!
I read about the first descent of Monte Cristo’s Tora Bora on Fritzrips.com, shortly after Derek Weiss skied it with Tom MacFarlane in April of 2010 or 2011. Neither of us is certain of the year, though my guess would be 2011, the big snow year.
Reason for the uncertainty? The aforementioned site got hacked/destroyed, and the present incarnation includes a slightly confusing mix of more recent stuff, archived stuff, the occasional duplicate, and links to Google Doc rewrites of formerly more detail filled ski outings. The next time some cool cat tells you he’s a hacker, smack him in the mouth. From Derek. And then run him over with your car. That’s from me.
That original version of the story got erased, so a few weeks ago I asked Derek for the pared-down version that’s out there, because I couldn’t find it. He clued me in to some line details, without giving me so many that the adventure aspect would disappear. Chief detail was that they’d used a 30 meter rope. Multiple 50 foot rappels? Why not? It’d be more like a survival story on Everest this way.
His words concluded: “Pretty straight forward line. Just be careful on the ramp, it was snow over ice/rock/facets when we did it.”
Since my mind takes a fancy to these sorts of ski descents, I’d had cause to look at Tora Bora from a lot of different vantage points during past ski outings. It can be seen pretty clearly either before or after descents of the HoD, the Diving Board, and Rampage, since it lies between the HoD and the Diver. It makes sense that Derek had spotted the line and envisioned a ski descent during an outing to a nearby ramp line with Jim Harris and Mark Hammond.
Most recently, I’d taken a moment to look over the edge of Tora Bora from above during the descent of the Broken Hearted couloir about six weeks prior. (the lines share the same upper couloir) Remember perspective and foreshortening? From no angle does this line appear less steep. Derek sure knows how to pick ‘em!
After skiing it, I asked Derek for some more details on his and Tom’s descent. He had this to add to the story:
“We approached it from HOD so we could see it before we skied it. Top turns on the ramp were soft enough to hold an edge, but chalky and progressively more hollow as we descended. Eventually it became a few inches of snow/ice over rock, at which point we started to rap. One could have made very dangerous turns in a couple places in there, but not having climbed it first, we opted out.
I think the ideal way to do it would be to climb the steep mixed pitch when it has ice on it, then boot up the ramp. That way you’d get some awesome hard mixed climbing in, and then see the conditions first hand, otherwise you have no way of knowing what the next turn will hold.
Finding anchors wasn’t easy in the compact rock, as you saw. We left the rope because it’s all we had, and it wasn’t long enough to do double. We underestimated the length of the route.”
A surefire recipe for an ‘adventure’ is to have short ropes. Though I brought two, I decided to do the line in the same style, with multiple short rappels. Then rounded it out with double ropes so one wouldn’t be left behind. I completely forgot to bring a knife along, which makes me slightly sad, because tat could have been cut from the second anchor and the tied-in rope removed from the last rap. If you head out to do the line, be a sport and bring a cutting edge. (The tied off rope is pulling on the anchor, so your actions may just save it for future users.)
Approached Monte Cristo via the standard eastern ridge route – up Superior and head west. Followed some soloist’s booter across the ridge beyond Superior and almost blew through the cornice to highway 210, again. Just like on the BH couloir approach.
I timed the upper, west-facing couloir to catch it after sun warming, thus it was pretty nice corn. Without warming, you’d want pretty sharp edges in Springtime, a mid-winter snowpack, or pretty dull senses to ward off the pain of the 250 foot cliff that lurks immediately below the Tora Bora turnoff. Once the (skier’s right) turnoff is reached, the rest of the line faces northerly.
I was lucky enough to find the anchors still in place. Derek worked some nice anchor magic with combinations of nuts and pitons. They remain solid, for anyone interested, although the middle one seems subject to avalanche impacts and deterioration based on its location.
As for Derek’s cautionary words that the upper, hanging snowfield was ‘snow over ice/rocks/facets?’ Mmhmm, 100%. Couldn’t sum it up better myself. You can see the appeal, or the horror factor – depending on how your brain works. While making turns, sideslipping, then rappelling, I wondered if the slope would let go. It was clearly hollow. Fortunately, there wasn’t a ton of snow remaining on the upper ramp, but a slide would still have been ugly.
Derek’s thoughts on improving the style also ring true. Climbing the line, though adding technical difficulty, would add knowledge of the quality of the snowpack, which isn’t going to improve this season. Hopefully future years offer less sugar on the ground; we’ve had three seasons in a row now of fairly deep facets on the ground on north facing slopes in Utah. Still, my best guess is that this line is in good condition for only the shortest window of time each year, as it takes a fair bit of snow to cover the rocks that guard the lower couloir’s exit. The line having two different aspects only complicates matters. But on a big snow year, coupled with excellent stability, it just might be possible to ski directly to the last anchor…
Fortunately the lower couloir had a bit more substance to the snow, if similar amounts of facets. Also fortunately, the line doesn’t let up until well onto the apron – it’s still plenty steep beneath the rappel landing zone. This could be considered a Wasatch classic for at least a dozen folks here in Utah!
Since I’d been out of town for a few weeks, I thought it would be good to see how low the snow goes these days, and exited towards BCC. Arrived at the S turns after only @1.5 miles of walking on mixed dirt/snow. Not terrible, but the snow isn’t going to last all that long here in the Wasatch. Three hitchhike rides later – down BCC, up Wasatch Blvd to the mouth of LCC, and up LCC, I found myself again at my auto, stoked to have tagged another beautiful, rare descent in the backyard!