"My Utah Boy Scout Moment" or "Why You Always Bring a Compass"

Day 3, 11.18.12 Catherine's Pass

You can never undervalue landmarks
when touring in the backcountry.
In the Wasatch, the Cottonwoods stand out as the target for most of my backcountry skiing.  Yet, being the explorer that I am, skiing familiar areas started to feel a bit humdrum.  Last Monday's tour in the Bear River Mountains [blog on that experience still in progress] contained the "Lewis & Clark" experience I savor.  Without the denizens of Utah's largest metropolitan area tracking and skinning up every good area in this range near Logan, my cohort and I navigated and explored rather than relying on prior experience.  It really felt like "true" ski touring.  Since neither of us had skied there before, we really took our time with a map, compass and GPS to figure out where we were.  It's something we rarely have to do in the Wasatch, but as we learned yesterday, it's still wise to carry most of those tools along.

Yesterday (the 18th), we planned to continue the 2012-2013 Ski Wanderlust tour with a return to Tony Grove in the Bear Rivers, but the oncoming storm which could have made the road impassable, scrubbed that.  Next we settled on Bountiful Peak, another new area closer to home, but the gate was locked at Farmington Canyon road, (probably due to a rock slide last spring) and we were onto Plan C: Big Mounain at the head of East Canyon.  With a rain/snow line of about 7,500', Big Mountain and the surrounding areas looked pretty pathetic, bare slopes and soggy, rain soaked snow.

That's when we settled on returning to familiar ground, Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Skinning up the eastern boundary of Alta carried little novelty, but they had snow, that is still a trump card over wanderlust.  The storm put down 9" overnight and it was still falling, so we expected good skiing just about everywhere and decided on Catherine's Pass, an area we knew fairly well... or so we thought.

Checking our snowpack
before making the first lap.
The storm must have come in pretty warm and wet because during a short section of trailbreaking, snow clung to our skins pretty heavily, although the bigger shock was that we were trailbreaking at all.  This is one of the most popular backcountry areas of Little Cottonwood.  Further up, we rediscovered the skin track and the snow quality improved.  Rather than skin up the actual pass, we found a skin track that bypassed the pass and came up on an inviting, mellow 20 degree slope just south of the pass.  We dug a pit on this northern aspect and found the snowpack pretty solid, albeit shallower than expected.  That run along an open gully proved pretty satisfying, but for a second lap, we skinned directly to Catherine's Pass and traversed along the the ridge, staying in the same neighborhood, but driving on a different street.  This is where the familiar became unfamiliar and even in the Cottonwoods, we got a bit of Lewis and Clark.

Jared on our 2nd lap on
supposedly familiar ground.
With the storm obscuring our sourroundings pretty heavily, we recognized some chutes down into Lake Catherine in Big Cottonwood Canyon.  While they looked really well covered and tempting, it felt too late in the day to make the long skin out of the bowl.  So while we stood on a point with Big Cottonwood to our left and Sunset Peak in front of us, we used our excellent familiarity with Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons to assume Alta was to our right.  After all, Big and Little parallel eachother.  So we skied down 500 vertical feet in some heavy but really turnable storm snow.  We figured we were skiing the Catherine's Area sidecountry of Alta where there are mellow, sparsely treed slopes with very few cliff bands.  We stopped to asses our next route and after a few moments of adulation for the great skiing, we looked around and found our surroundings somewhat unfamiliar.  Below us, the run flattened out and a gully with barely covered boulders dominated our line.  That didn't seem right.  That's when the compasses came out and we realized we were skiing south.  South?!  While my first reaction was joy at skiing a southern aspect this early in the season, that clue combined with some map examination and the lack of ski tracks convinced us we had, in fact, skied down into American Fork Canyon.  An important geographic concept I failed to remember is that while Big and Little Cottonwood run predominantly west-to-east, Big Cottonwood sort of wraps around Little Cottonwood and jogs southeast near its head and American Fork comes up from the south to close in Little Cottonwood from the other side.  The point we we stood on when we made our assesment of "Big Cottonwood to the left, Little to the Right" was the exact meeting place of these three canyons and with the storm socking in the horizon, we were disorientated enough to get...  [OK, you can criticize me for euphemizing with the upcoming phrase all you want, but I contend there is a difference between "lost" and] "a little off-line".
The red lines are our descents, the blue dot is the crux
of our adventure where 3 canyons meet.

No one speeds to judgement on the numerous lost hikers in the Wasatch faster than I.  We could have easily fallen into that category yesterday, but do you know why we didnt'?  We had a map, we had a compass (keep in mind, no GPS) and when we realized something wasn't right, we returned exactly the way we came.  It's a lesson all travelers in nature, regardless of how experienced they think they are, need to heed.  And I contend that you are better off with a map and compass and the skill to use them than just a GPS.  GPS technology takes too much reasoning and route finding out of your hands while a map and compass require you to interact with the surroundings, activating your brain.  If we get to reliant on electronic gadgets, our evaluative process becomes weak and that tool is so important to surviving in the wilderness.  Are you listening Boy Scout leaders?  Plus, batteries in the cold don't last very long.

Skiing out with the familiar Alta in the background.
Skinning back up to the ridge wasn't easy, and we may have been able to find a better route out, but my partner had the right idea in following our tracks back up.  Had we tried to make a new route, even using the map as a guide, we risked disorienting ourselves more.  In this case, returning to the same spot we started from proved invaluable because we didn't have to re-reference ourselves to the surroundings.  Amazingly, once we reached the ridge, Alta's familiar Catherine's Area became recognizable in almost 500 feet.  We could even hear the Supreme chair going through pre-season testing.  A group of five skiers coming up from the other direction validated our location.  We were pretty humbled realizing how fine a line there was between skiing familiar territory and wandering around like a Boy Scout in the Uintas.  So for all you backcountry skiers, new and old, don't take anything for granted and be prepared.


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