Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bear Rivers, Part II

Adam skis the other Cottonwood Canyon.

Day 4

11.26 Tony Grove

I’ve been slowly reading an enlightening book by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson called The Social Conquest of Earth which, while sounding excessively academic, does a great job of explaining the incredible set of circumstances that led to our species being the dominant force on this planet. Among the various elements of our evolution, migration played a critical factor, and while the search for food obviously dictated that homo sapiens expand their territory from Africa to Europe, Asia and the Americas’, I suspect that as the human mind slowly developed, the curiosity of exploring new lands may have also played a role in our wandering. Regardless of any scientific proof that we possess a natural inclination to roam, it was that force which drove my sub-species homo randoneeusto further exploration in the Bear River Range, whereas of this writing, I have skied more days this season than the Wasatch.

Descending into the canyon
Mt. Elmer in the background.
Tony Grove served as a launch point for our first two excursions where we found short, easily approachable runs in the immediate area of the lake. A second excursion led to the longer, snow packed bowls in the upper reaches of Cottonwood Canyon west of the lake. That second tour on November 26th seemed like it would be disappointing given the drought we were experiencing, and I questioned whether I wanted to join Jared and Adam who were already up there. But the characteristically cold temperatures of northeastern Utah preserved the light, early season blanket of snow and when I reached the ridge above Tony Grove Lake and looked into Cottonwood Canyon, the east facing slopes shone pure and white in the clear morning sun. All along the canyon’s west wall was a series of low peaks, each bookending a chain of inviting bowls that gently funneled into the bottom of the canyon. Sprouting up at the southern end of this chain rose Mt. Elmer, a 9,600’ peak just lofty enough to be named, just close enough to be tantalizing and just far enough to quickly dismiss attempting it—at least from this location. [Upon inspecting the map however, it would be a long tour from any direction.]


"We just ski down, and skin up... right?"
Our destination that day would be the east facing bowls that seemed perfectly carved for skiing, but first we had to cross the canyon from where we were on the ridge south of Tony Grove Lake. One option would be to follow the ridge west around the head of Cottonwood Canyon and approach the runs along the ridge from the north, but instead we would ski down the forested west facing wall of Cottonwood Canyon and skin directly up to the opposite side. I think we all had low expectations for this route, so reaching the bottom with minimal ski damage seemed like a victory. It was like skiing through a minefield, as we searching for smooth, white patches of ground, trying to steer around gullies and deadfall. Adam, who had the oldest skis of anyone, played scout, and we were soon at the bottom of the canyon at approximately 8,000’. This is where things ended up being trickier. Multiple gullies and thin cover made crossing the bottom of the canyon tough, and I particularly had trouble getting my skins to stick on the steeper sections where loose, shallow snow had yet to consolidate to the ground. We probably were only a few hundred yards from a more sensible approach, but as I’ve said, this wasn’t the Wasatch, where you have always have s skin track to follow; we had to evaluate the terrain we could see and go from there. Stray too far from our surroundings and we risked backtracking if we got dead-ended. This led to some pretty ugly skin tracks in the lower elevations of the canyon which I’m sure will give the locals (or local) a good laugh.


Near the top with Cherry Peak and Mt. Naomi
in the background.
Finally out of the trees, we identified a prominent sub-ridge that juts almost straight east from the west side of the canyon and pinches off the head of the canyon floor. North of that ridge was a rounded out bowl with a few small cliff bands near the top. We made out some faint ski tracks down the slope, but that was it. The tracks couldn’t have been more than a few days old and the severe lack of tracks made me feel like we were sneaking into someone’s backyard to use their pool. Runs like this near Salt Lake would be tracked out in a day or two, yet here we were, alone and eager to get to the top. We followed a mellow spine up to the ridge, then traversed south until we reached a point that started on that prominent east-west running ridge. We were at 9,300’ and on the divide between Cottonwood Canyon and the steep, rocky walls of Smithfield Canyon. To the north Mt. Naomi and Cherry Peak (a really inviting if not dangerous looking peak) dominated the horizon and southwards we could see the brown patchwork of Cache Valley’s farms and neighborhoods. This view really impressed me, displaying some of the more dramatic views this small range has to offer. I suspected that the distant mountains to the north were the Portneuf Range east of Pocatello and southeast of us the Uinta’s were barely visible on the cloudless horizon.
Our lonely tracks down the bowl.

While whispy clouds lurched around Mt. Elmer and Cherry Peak, winds were remarkably calm, so we ate lunch on the top before making our run down the bowl. I skied cautiously near the top since it felt and sounded like I had only a few inches of white dust between my skis and the rocks and a short but wide rockband required some traversing to get around, but once I hit the sweet spot in the concavity of the bowl, the snow seemed velvety smooth. Around a 1,000 vertical feet down, the bowl flattened out and the snow got thinner, so we skinned northward, back to our original uptrack to check out the next bowl to the north. This shot wasn’t as good and we only went down about 400’ or so before deciding to head back to Tony Grove. Instead of dropping back down into the canyon and following our approach route back, we contoured north around the head of the canyon then made the long skin east along the ridge. This was one of those ridges to flat to ski, but with lots of little down slopes just steep enough and long enough kill your quads while trying to control skis that feel velcroed to the snow. And no matter how much I brace myself for the inevitable jerk at the bottom of the slope, I always pray my legs don’t pull out of my hip sockets when that Velcro finally grabs my skins and sends my body flying headlong over my tips in a bizarre, cartoonish manner.
Opening 'er up as I felt more snow under me.

We finally reached Miller Bowl above Tony Grove Lake and I was elated to rip my skins off. We skied down the steep chute on the east side of the bowl where the first few turns were a little tenuous seeing that most of the snow seemed to slough off under our skis, but further down, where the snow really pooled on this northern aspect, we got some nice, deep powder turns. I finished the day with an exclamation point, face planting twice on this run and testing my knee’s elasticity, before navigating the painful maze of crusted snow and shrubbery just above the lake. I figured it wouldn’t be long before the road to Tony Grove Lake would fill in with snow, and the drive here was getting tedious, so I thought this might be the last tour in the area for a while, however Tony Grove isn’t the only place to ski in the Bear River Mountains.
A somewhat complete track of our tour.  This starts
from our descent into the canyon and follows
us back to the truck.

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