Friday, November 28, 2014

The Horn of Plenty

As you may know already, last weekend, Alta got so much snow so quickly that they
couldn’t open on Sunday, the days I was planning on logging my first day of the season. If I had convinced myself that winter is a product of chance and is not at the whim of any outside influence, the bitter frustration I felt last Sunday makes me still wonder if there isn’t someone with a sense of humor behind this. Ullr?
Jared approaches A-1 Peak



Blogs about pre-season ski rituals are as ubiquitous as overly optimistic pre-season ski forecasts. Yet, we all know that shitty ski seasons will happen despite what the over caffeinated talking head from Ski Utah says, and we also know that people like me and my friend Jared will spare no preseason blog-space on chronicling our mythical snow god liturgy. I’ve written quite a bit about my pre-ski season rituals in the past, most notably, the annual mountain hike to offer liquor to Ullr, the Norse god of winter-- but not last year… and that’s because I didn’t make an offering last year. I think after I tore my ACL in 2012, I felt forsaken-- my faith waivered. To borrow from the Mormon movie billboard I pass on my way home, “I strayed.” I am a man of logic and analytical thought; there is no rational evidence that proves pouring out 3 oz. of alcohol on top of a peak is going to make a difference in our snow totals.
Yet, as much as the empiricist in me hates to admit, I am also a spiritual person; a Zen Buddhist who struggles to silence his monkey mind long enough to enjoy the present. So superstition aside, I seized on the opportunity of a unseasonably warm November day to go hiking in the Uintas and, if I just so happened to spill a little liquor while asking Ullr for a bountiful winter, so be it. What better way is there to get exercise, enjoy the present and practice mindfulness. With packs full of layers and libations, Jared and I parked on the side of the Mirror Lake Highway with a goal of climbing A-1 Peak.
A-1 Peak viewed from the saddle
belowKletting.
Now, most people may not realize the significance of “A-1” as a moniker, but in the good old days before Google, using A-1 as a company name was a great way to be the first auto mechanic, dry cleaner or escort service that one might happen across while thumbing through the yellow pages. Considering this mountains "top of the list" nomenclature, you might expect it to be a popular climb, but if you are seeking a Uinta hike that lacks human interaction, then climbing A-1 in November would be a fitting place to begin. In fact, considering the lack of a trail, this might be a pretty solitary hike on most summer days.
Hayden Fork
Setting out at 7:30am, we figured we would have plenty of time to make the summit.  The route is a very direct and short course right off the Mirror Lake Highway, but the terrain still proved to be a grind. While not as long or technical as hikes like Superior or Nebo, the climb is relentless in its pitch and without a trail, we got very little "easy treading". After a short, steep descent from the road and a crossing of Hayden Fork (which had a nice shell of ice covering most of it’s width) we rummaged our way across the gentle slopes just below Kletting Peak which were littered with fallen trees. Occasionally, we would come across a game trail, but it was pretty clear that we were on our own recognisance. As the gaps in the trees began to widen, we could start to make out the ridgeline and spot some of the rocky spires we used when planning our route from the car. In my limited research online, there didn't seem to be a commonly accepted route up the west face of Kletting so Jared and I angled a bit south and found ourselves looking up between two minor cliff bands and what appeared to be a mellower angle up the slope.
Bald Mountain and Reids Peak
After 2 hours of tiny steps up the sharp flank of Kletting, we found ourselves with an ever improving view over our shoulders, and shortly after that, when we reached the ridge, we stared down into the large West Basin that lies behind Hayden Peak. The jagged walls of the huge amphitheater were dusted with snow and the small lakes were surrounded by white and showing signs of being frozen over. Once at the ridgeline, the hike traveled north over large talus that was thankfully pretty stable and steady. When we reached the wide, multi leveled summit of Kletting, we started our first of two offerings to Ullr and his mother Skadi. Jared opened up his flask of whiskey and I shared my Aquavit. Winds were surprisingly calm, but the chill reminded us it was still November in the Uintas.
A-1 peak has multiple approaches, but going up and over Kletting is the most direct. The shortened days make hiking summits this time of year a little more interesting than in the summer, so direct was definitely our friend. From atop Kletting, A-1 seemed much higher, although the difference in elevation was only 300 feet. I think the reason it seemed much more lofty was the severe amount of elevation we would lose going down the east side of Kletting to the saddle between the two peaks which tacked approximately another 600’ to that 300’ peak difference. Make this eastern course over a mile and a half even more fitting for the purpose of our hike was the ankle deep snow we were now walking on down the backside of Kletting and back up the north facing side of the ridge. As I told Jared while we worked our way down between the two peaks, it felt good to be in snow again.
Jared just below the sumit ridge of A-1
The west ridge of A-1 essentially has 3 major bulges in its crease that require some pretty demanding scrambling. The worst bulge being the second one which coincides with a rather large outcrop which hangs out over the climber's right of the ridge. While not technical nor exposed, the pitch is just steep. At that point, I collapsed my poles and stowed them in my pack so I could use all fours to keep balance. The method increases stability, but being hunched over like an ape carries with it its own annoyances. Most of our path cheated to the north side of the ridge, which was climbers left because to the right it was a pretty sharp drop to the depths of West Basin. That meant our footing was concealed by snow and judging where to step took greater care. Worried that I might sink down into a gap in rocks or teeter-totter on an unbalanced rock, I couldn't trust any step that planted on white, so I picked the best, exposed boulders I could find and watched Jared dance up in front of me, his trekking poles still out. My inner mountain goat now has a more cautious tendency after you've had a knee destroyed, but I won't discount Jared's skill either at planting those poles.
While the summit of Kletting was broad and flat, the pinnacle of A-1 felt more like a perch. We found some spots to situate ourselves between the rocks and absorbed one of the better views I've had from this section of the Uinta's. The peak lies just north and west of the main crest and is high enough that you can see the depth of peaks for four, maybe five drainages. In addition to awesome views of Hayden, Spread Eagle and Ostler, you could make out some of the giants that guard the depths of the upper reaches of the East Fork of the Bear River. These guys are giants, and when they are fanning out in front of you from a 12,400’ perch, you have a hard time convincing yourself it's time to head back down, even if you are running out of daylight. The Wasatch were a universe away, but still visible in the clear western sky. I ended my season in the Uinta mountains, skiing into June on some of the peaks accessible from the highway, so even though I wasn't on skis this time, I felt like I was now starting my ski season.
West Basin
I felt pretty euphoric, and that wasn’t just from the Aquavit. We had come to this amazing spot seeking gifts from Ullr. We yelled, we drank, we came up with absurd incantations. I raised my voice in each direction and yelled “Kampai”, a Japanese toast, because I had no idea how people in Norway toast. I asked for a ski season that was a “horn of plenty”, with bountiful gifts of powder that fell only on my days off. I don’t know where the horn of plenty idea come from, but it seems fitting now in the Thanksgiving season when, for some reason, we use a wicker horn filled with fruits as a symbol. I don’t know why, no one on this planet has ever eaten plain fruit on Thanksgiving...EVER. I think when Squanto pulled out an apple with the Pilgrims, some chubby kid in a belt buckle hat probably said, “Get that shit outta here and pass the green beans soaked in cream soup and the onion rings on top.”

So the 2014-2015 season is supposed to be a good one. Not because of weather
models that say so, not because ski resorts want to motivate skiers, and not because I climbed a mountain and had a few drinks either. This season will be good because winter will do what it always does: winter gives, winter takes away, and sometime, like it did last weekend, winter clobbers Alta upside the head with a wicker horn filled with snow and says, “I’ll give you snow.”

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