Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pilgrims In A Strange Land

Days 2 and 4

11.12 & 26 Tony Grove Part 1

You mean powder exists outside the Wasatch?
Lunacy overcame me after Thanksgiving.  No, I didn't line up with a bunch of mouth-breathers outside Wal-Mart for a cheap price on a TV-- instead I questioned why the hell I spend so much time and effort on a sport as weather dependent as skiing?  With temperatures warming in the Wasatch, riding my bike seemed more enticing than lapping the few open, artificial snow covered runs at the resorts or scavenging the backcountry for a decent line.  That Saturday while most Americans were quickly abandoning holiday camaraderie to spend, spend, spend, I eschewed retail worship and heading to the ski resort for 30 miles of flat, open farm roads around Logan where I cruised near 25 mph in unseasonably warm temperatures.  I wondered when it might be worthwhile to ski again, but in the meantime, I wasn't going to waste the unseasonably warm weather on a drought induced pity party.

Adam descends Miller Bowl above Tony Grove Lake
But Sunday brought a text from friends skiing up in the Bear River Mountains, (also near Logan) and suddenly the homework and writing and cycling I expected to do on my day off got pushed back.  Colder temps in the northern Utah range preserved the little snow they had, and a tour there earlier in the month piqued my curiosity about some of the rarely skied terrain.  So "Cyber-Monday" morning I shared a bit of post-Thanksgiving desperation on par with the retail lunacy of the season: I left the house at 6am for my 3rd drive to Logan in 5 days for the scant chance of good turns.

I reached Tony Grove Lake, a camping area 7 miles off the main highway in Logan Canyon, around 8am.  A lone pickup with a camper shell sat in the lot, where my friends Adam and Jared, (who had texted me the day before), spent the night like powder gypsies in a land rarely visited by skiers.  The road isn't maintained in the winter, so any skiing we were going to do here had to be done before the road became impassable.  After that, snowmobiles would be the only easy way to ski this area in a day.  And while pickups with campers might be moving the needle closer to "redneckdom", I doubted any of us were ready to risk dropping our environmental passion and IQ for an Arctic Cat.

The view from the ridge above the lake.  The wide, white
bowl is Cornice Ridge, a good spot for skiing
despite its ominous title.
In less than an hour of skinning, we reached the top of the bowl southwest of the lake and were contouring west above Blind Hollow en route to the upper reaches of Cottonwood Canyon.  According to Jared and Adam, 24 hours earlier, snowmobiles were abundant up here, even with the shallow snowpack, but that day we found ourselves in a rare situation for Wasatch backcountry skiers-- alone.  Even when Jared and I first reconnoitered this area on the 12th of the month, we encountered a few souls, snowboarders admirably bootpacking in the bowl above the lake and one skier on a long tour.  This lack of activity starkly contrasts with the Wasatch where well worn skin tracks pave every drainage and the trailheads are often parked to capacity.

The lack of non-motorized users wasn't the only intriguing aspect of the Bear River mountains.  The lack of  backcountry protocols and familiarity with the area took us out of our comfort zone.  Post-holing by snowboarders seemed more prevalent than skin tracks and the few skin tracks we found were viciously steep.  I found myself simultaneously cursing the locals while lauding their willingness to struggle for such a small reward.  The short shots in the immediate area of the lake would be a warm-up for most ski tourers in the Wasatch and Salt Lake boarders would probably rather hang out in Brighton's terrain park than actually earn their turns.  On our first visit to the area, when Jared and I lapped a young couple struggling to carry their snowboards up Miller Bowl, I overheard one of them say, "We should get those splitboards."  My first, smug thought upon hearing this was, "Or you could ski like a dignified human being,", but of course that's not very Buddhist of me.  After my visceral, initial response, I internally acknowledged them as hearty members of the "backcountry ski sangha" and exchanged a few pleasantries with them before Jared and I ripped off our second lap in the bowl.  Then, since we assumed neither of them were wearing beacons (which combined with a Level 1 Avy course would probably be a wiser investment than the grand plus they'll shell out for a splitboard), we watched them make their run and I yelled a genuine "Whoo-hoo!" which hopefully wasn't taken pejoratively.

Miller Bowl, a short but close spot for skiing
near Tony Grove Lake.
These excursions outside the central Wasatch satisfied a more primal aspect of backcountry skiing.  They emphasized the "backcountry" instead of the "skiing".  We found ourselves being more deliberate with the various tools we normally take for granted: route finding, avalanche risk assessment, map reading and orienteering.  The attention to those details evoked a different sensation in me; one that satisfied my Lewis and Clark spirit.  Much in the way the two explorers must have felt looking west from Lolo Pass, Jared and I surveyed the mountains from the ridge above Tony Grove and gazed wide-eyed at all the possible ski routes.  That first day touring Tony Grove, which involved three short laps near the lake and a ski-gouging out-and-back to Point 9493 was good enough to encourage us to make a second trip north, this time with Adam, to new hunting grounds.  Part 2 upcoming.
For more pictures from Tony Grove, visit my Flickr Page.

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