No one had ever traversed the summits above Little Cottonwood Canyon in a single push. Details about the route were vague. The map showed a horseshoe from 18 to 28 miles long. Crossing the 15 to 20 summits entailed a gain of roughly 15,000 to 20,000 vertical feet. It sounded impossible, whether you took the low numbers or the high. Of course, I had to try — and it didn’t take long to coax Vince Anderson into coming along.
Heat, thirst, and rough terrain had stalled the various summer attempts. A winter foray would reduce water loss; we could ski the easy sections rather than beat across ugly talus on foot. Previous efforts had begun in Bell’s Canyon, which left the most difficult, technical terrain to the end of what could be a 24-hour day. I reversed the itinerary to improve our chances.
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 Broads Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon at 2 a.m. We set the snail’s pace we thought we could keep for 24 hours. By six we had reached the top of the Twin Peaks; as the sun rose we traversed the summits of Sunrise and Dromedary.
To shave weight from our already anorexic packs we’d left the ropes home — so the sight of the jagged, corniced ridge leading to Monte Cristo forced us downward. It felt like cheating to ski past the tough ridge, and we made good time on the firm snow. We sped under the Sundial, booted up Monte Cristo’s north side, tagged Mount Superior and, after ten hours and with 10,000 vertical feet in our legs, reached our cache of food, water and dry socks at Cardiff Pass.
Then the snow softened and our full-size skins turned our boards into snowshoes; short, kicker skins would have offered some glide. We held the pace but had to double the effort as we fought for mileage and elevation on the rolling terrain around the head of the canyon. From the top of Mount Wolverine we slid down past Alta’s chairlifts and climbed out toward Devil’s Castle. Its steep, mush-covered ridge looked technical and hard. Fatigue had whittled away our sense of security, so we avoided the summit. The temperature plummeted with the setting sun.
We shivered in calorie-deficit but kept moving to stay warm. We shuffled over the summits of Sugarloaf and Baldy on ski-boot-tenderized feet, having recovered the steady, 24-hour pace needed to complete the traverse. Then we trudged up Hidden Peak toward our second cache. A mental addition of the day’s numbers told us we were too far gone to keep going; we’d covered 18 miles in as many hours and gained 15,000 feet. Facing a long hard night, we allowed experience to take the reins from optimism. We bailed. Our headlamps lit the ski down Snowbird’s bulletproof corduroy and our legs cramped magnificently.