Who really wants to make the Wasatch one massive ski resort?

A version of this article first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal and again online for Backcountry Magazine.

A ski lift frames the central Wasatch Mountains, Utah.
A ski lift frames the central Wasatch Mountains, Utah.

“Who wants this expansion?” Salt Laker, physician and photographer Howie Garber wondered aloud. He was talking about Ski Utah’s March announcement of their intention to make lift connections that would enable a person to ski all seven Central Wasatch resorts in a single day. They’re calling it One Wasatch, and claim the process will occur through a collaborative effort representing the federal, state, city, county, business and private sectors, all part of Utah’s Mountain Accord process, a regional planning effort. And the map highlighting possible connection zones shows three that stir conflict with backcountry users.

Howie Garber.
Howie Garber.

 

Howie’s been active in local preservation efforts for more than 30 years, so I stopped by his place to get his read on the concept. Sighting the Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow 2010 survey in which locals gave input on future development in the canyons of the central Wasatch, he continued: “Ninety-four percent of citizens support limiting resort expansions…. When do local populations get an opportunity to determine how much takes place in their backyard?” He was right, and I needed to find out more.

 

Personally I love both resort and backcountry skiing, but more development makes me cringe. Open space simply seems more valuable to me. But it’s not just up to me.

 

I got Ski Utah’s Nathan Rafferty on the phone to answer Howie’s first question, who wants this? Nathan pointed to Utah’s tourism industry. He said that, by creating this unique skier experience “unlike anything in North America”, he, along with the areas’ GMs, believes it will grow tourist dollars, which would benefit the state’s economy. I asked about backcountry users, and he acknowledged the value of both in- and out-of-bounds skiing experiences. He assured me that this concept would not make that go away: there are no plans for lodges, parking lots or other developments. “Chairlifts and ski runs only,” he said.

 

In an e-mail from Park City Councilman, Andy Beerman, he declined to take a position on One Wasatch. He did concede that their resorts could be connected with minimal impact since they already share boundaries and suggested that linking the three Park City Resorts—Canyons, Deer Valley and Park City—would likely receive community support. Then, he noted that connecting to the Cottonwood Canyons would be more difficult because, he said, “they involve Federal lands, sensitive watershed areas, and potential recreational conflicts.”

 

To me, the connection from Alta to Solitude—the Grizzly Gulch to Twin Lakes Pass area—will raise the most objections. It’s popular among backcountry users but also one of my “go-to” places as a photographer. Converting it and other zones to inbounds terrain would not only cut away from the backcountry, it would impact my wallet.

Carl Fisher
Carl Fisher

 

Carl Fisher, director of Save Our Canyons, is also against the One Wasatch Concept. “We’ve received over a thousand comments since One Wasatch was announced,” Carl said. “Even out-of-state visitors say it will ruin why they come; which is easily accessed resorts and easily accessed backcountry.” He believes skier days in Utah are on the rise due to increased backcountry use, and thinks that the plans wont even make it through the Mountain Accord process.

Laynee Jones
Laynee Jones

 

The Mountain Accord is Utah’s effort to develop a planning blue print for the Central Wasatch that includes federal agencies, local governments, businesses and organizations with a huge public component. “When are you going to write an article about the Mountain Accord?” The Accord’s program director Laynee Jones had caught me caught off guard. As I stammered she continued, “We have the decision makers at the table. It’s a real powerhouse and they’re here to find solutions and willing to compromise. The ski areas are just one part of the equation in the future of the Wasatch.” She had a point. Through the Mountain Accord Laynee sees an opportunity to do something remarkable that could preserve the Central Wasatch for generations. They are currently developing blueprints in the four systems groups of transportation, economics, recreation and environment. Each group has been tasked with coming up with an idealized scenario, which then will be brought to the board where a consensus will have to be met before it can be approved. She suggested One Wasatch could be part of a proposed scenario, possibly coming from the economic group.

Peter Metcalf
Peter Metcalf

 

Next, I spoke with Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake-based Black Diamond Equipment, and while BD no doubt benefits from both resort and backcountry, Metcalf has always been a vocal proponent of preserving Utah’s open spaces and believes we currently have a good balance between developed and undeveloped terrain. Peter sees the One Wasatch Concept as a marketing move, but doesn’t buy it. “Who’s really going to ski all resorts in one day and is it even possible without sitting on lifts all day long AND doing mediocre traverses?”

 

Knowing the resorts’ desires to expand will not go away, Peter has given some thought to an arrangement. Speculating that if these connections were worked through the Mountain Accord Peter shared a possible scenario. “Approval of the interconnect as part of a much larger Wasatch agreement would include the following: a route that was the least impactful to the existing Wasatch backcountry ski experience, minimal & defined prepared piste on the sides of the lifts, guaranteed access to backcountry skiers of the linked zones, full support of the expanded Matheson Wasatch Wilderness Bill, a giving up of all future development rights via conservation easements on all private lands surrounding the new lifts, and binding agreements between the ski areas and the forest service to never expand the ski areas beyond their current boundaries.” This wasn’t the resounding objection on all fronts I imagined Peter to give on ski area expansion in the canyons. After letting this seep into my brain I began to understand how this concept and any other development might be handled.

 

When I shared Peter’s scenario with Nathan, he agreed that if One Wasatch were to become a reality, compromises would have to be made. “[Ski Utah] can’t have this conversation without putting something on the table,” Nathan said. And while he’s excited about One Wasatch he admits that it’s a complicated idea. There are, after all, seven areas with seven separate owners, he reminded me, and each link would have its own issues.

 

Eventually, I was back where I began, talking with Howie.“The bottom line, Louie, is that it’s about the preservation of powder skiing,” he said, “which I truly believe is a dwindling natural resource!” We both laughed, but Howie was serious. For him it’s preservation, for Ski Utah it’s about growing the economy. Is it possible to do both?

The central Wasatch Mountains from Clayton Peak, Utah.
The central Wasatch Mountains from Clayton Peak, Utah.

 

To find out more about One Wasatch and stakeholder counter arguments, visit TK, TK, TK.

 

mountainaccord.com

saveourcanyons.org

onewasatch.com

wasatchbackcountryalliance.org

copyright louis arevalo 2014

Mountain Mis-step. What mistakes have you survived?

Winter Sunrise in the Wasatch Backcountry.On November 13, 2011 I was involved in a backcountry skiing avalanche. Correction, I was actually avalanched. Throttled, beaten, damaged and at one point completely buried, I somehow managed to limp away. On that same morning 12 other avalanches were reported within the central Wasatch resulting in several close calls, a broken femur and one life lost.
I once heard avalanche specialist Jill Fredston say, ‘snow innately wanted to stay put… but the fact that it was constantly changing made it difficult to predict.’
After taking that 400-foot ride, receiving a broken finger, bruised pelvis, hips, elbows and knees along with some lacerations, her words constantly ran through my head. I knew the danger on that stormy day was on the rise. I’d received snow education and had years of experience, but still went out. Alone at the trailhead I followed a fresh skin track that ascended into steep terrain figuring there would be safety in numbers. At the point of catching the two creators of the track I decided against descending with them and exited from the lee side of the ridge into the wind exposed slopes to carry on and out alone.
Shuffling along my skin-covered skis clattered along snow-dusted talus before coming to a shallow pillow of wind deposited snow, perhaps twelve inches deep. Beneath the new winter deposits the gully held the rotting skeleton of October snows. Fifteen feet wide it terminated into rock rubble thirty feet below. Experience told me that it would slide, but the amount of running snow wouldn’t be much; maybe enough to knock me off my feet, not much more. Unknown at the time was how high the pillow ran above. Its top, obscured by the storm, tipped closer to 40 degrees and twisted to face north. All that was needed to release the wound up spring was me. After three steps onto the surface the snow beneath my skis settled. The echoing whoomph was felt in my chest. One beat of silence followed allowing me to reflect on my mistakes before being tackled by a wall of snow.
Since the avalanche I’ve found that snow, although complex, is not the hard thing to forecast, it’s the people who play on it that are difficult to predict.

Ski vs. Bike

Last week I had the opportunity to work with my friend and photographer Dane Cronin. We were shooting mountain bike athletes riding their bike sponsor’s new 2015 line. It was a great experience in which everyone involved learned a great deal. Sometime in the week Dane and I began comparing the experience to ski photography. He was in the camp that skiing was easier to shoot. I asserted they might be about the same, maybe skiing slightly more difficult. There are definite similarities. What do you think?larevalo_mngsepark_0614_0057 Hike a bike somewhere on the Wasatch Crest Trail with Chris Akrigg. larevalo_ptsymrly_0213_0460 larevalo_wlvrnsr_0313_0048

Wasatch People

The Wasatch Mountains
The Wasatch Mountains

I often tell my wife that I’m not a people person. I  don’t like crowds and minimize time spent in public. The truth is I totally get a kick out of the diversity and energy most folks have to share.

Peter Metcalf
Peter Metcalf CEO Black Diamond Equipment

After Ski Utah announced the One Wasatch Concept in March there was a flurry of articles and blog posts. There’s opposition to ski resort expansion and the loss of open space in the small Wasatch Range. There’s also support to grow skier traffic and Utah tourism. People have chimed in from local and national scenes.

Laynee Jones program director of Mountain Accord
Laynee Jones program director of Mountain Accord

When the editor of the Utah Adventure Journal asked if I had any interest in writing about the issue I said yes, but was unsure it would pan out. I figured it had been done and until something changed there might  be nothing new to talk about. Despite this doubt I picked up the phone.

Carl Fisher director of Save Our Canyons
Carl Fisher director of Save Our Canyons

It didn’t take many calls to find out that there was more to the story and more passionate voices to be heard. I feel grateful to the people from Black Diamond Equipment, Mountain Accord, Save Our Canyons and Wander Lust Images who took time out of their schedules to help me better understand this concept. Despite what I tell my wife and myself, there are some pretty cool people in this world. Look for the article in the next issue of the Utah Adventure Journal.

Howie Garber, physician, photographer, conservationist
Howie Garber, physician, photographer, conservationist

Wonderboy. What motivates you?

A version of this story was published in the summer 2012 issue of Utah Adventure Journal.

 

The Lone Peak Cirque.

 

The rain subsided at 4 AM August 14, 2011. By 530 the clouds broke, allowing a full moon to illuminate buttresses of green and red patina covered granite. Below them, tinted snowfields led to mounds of boulders. Between the talus were patches of rough grass covered in yellow blooms. Water trickled its way from the snow, through the rocks and meadows, in an attempt to make it down to the Great Salt Lake. For the moment none who had made the 5,000-foot elevation gain from the valley floor were awake. Although it saw its first technical ascent over 40 years ago, climbers are proving that Lone Peak Cirque still offers adventure high above the sprawl of Salt Lake City.

Nik Berry with pecker piton.

“That pecker’s like a bolt,” Nik Berry proclaimed. It was now 8 AM in the Cirque and as a handful of climbers were rousing from sleep, Nik was explaining how he’d protect the crux pitch of an aid route on the summit of Lone Peak. An aid climb usually requires the placement of gear into the rock, which the climber then uses to assist with upward progress. Nik was working on eliminating the assisted points from this route. He continued by saying that a pecker piton, wafer-thin and less than a centimeter deep, supplemented with micro cams and stoppers would be enough for the A3 rated pitch. None of that gear is rated for high fall forces. Standing in the morning sun, listening and sensing that it would be short work for Nik, the climbers believed that the pecker just might be as good as a bolt.

It’s easier to picture Nik Berry hanging out with Michael Cera than it is to see him red pointing big wall free routes, but this Salt Lake native is talented and motivated when it comes to the rock. Before getting sucked entirely into climbing, Nik was known to run 85 miles a week during the summer months and snowboard all winter long, but that was a couple of years ago. In 2010 he free climbed “Goldengate”, “Freerider”, and “The Salathe” ledge to ledge, on El Capitan in Yosemite. Then, looking for something more than repeating existing free climbs, in the spring of 2011, he did the first free ascent of “Lunar Ecstasy” in Zion. Add to the list hard ice and mixed routes along with red pointing 5.14 and you could say the past couple of years have been very productive.

In July 2011, becoming bored with sport climbing and looking for a bigger experience, Nik lugged a huge gear-filled pack up to Lone Peak. Once there he attached a 90m rope to the top of the main summit and rappelled down to investigate the aid route “Wonderwall”. First aided in 1978, the 600-foot line was finally getting some free climbing attention. Immediately Nik saw possibilities and went to work cleaning and figuring out the moves. Another trip down to the valley and then back up with another day of cleaning and rehearsing, he along with prolific climber Ari Menitove, were ready to lead it from the ground up. It was August 14.

Ari frees the second pitch of Wonderwall.

Nik led the first shady pitch. Already established as 5.9 he set up an awkward belay at the beginning of the A2 dihedral. Next, Ari cast off on the second pitch. Through lie backing and technical stemming, he passed the difficulties freeing it at 5.11c. Sunlight now bathed the wall as Ari belayed from a ledge at the base of the third A3 pitch.  After a short break Nik started up. Placing a micro-cam and a nut along with clipping the pecker, he was at the first crux. He moved his left hand into a gaston. Then, as he flexed to raise himself up, POP! The hold peeled from the wall. Ari closed his eyes as Nik fell onto the pecker. It held.

Nik falling onto the pecker piton.

With the hold now gone, Nik set about trying new sequences that would lead to a no hands rest above. Around his fifth or sixth fall the pecker finally ripped from the seam. Ari stepped in as Nik bounced, catlike, off the back of the ledge.

Dangling a few feet below, Nik quiped, “I guess peckers are not bolts!”

Merrill Bitter

In the summer of 1989 another Salt Lake bred climber named Merrill Bitter, who’s been climbing hard along the Wasatch for over three decades, set out for a similar undertaking in the cirque. His sights were set on free climbing the “Question Mark Wall Route”, aka “The Beckey Route”. First climbed in 1962 by famous climber Fred Beckey, this route is a gem of Lone Peak. Though The Question Mark Wall stands lower than the summit it makes up for its lack of height by a pronounced steepness and its shady aspect. Beckey’s three-pitch route goes straight up its center. Rated 5.7 A1 it took Merrill four trips from the valley floor, to aid, clean and figure out the first pitch. Merrill concluded his venture by red pointing the crux pitch at 5.12b. His partner that day, Stewart Ruckman, on-sighted the second pitch, freeing it at hard 5.11 and they both enjoyed the final pitch, 5.7, to the top.

For Jonathan Knight, a key member of the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, “The Beckey Route” was a different journey. It was the summer of 1996 and he had just arrived to the base of the route after hiking up from the valley. There, he was greeted by friends Kim Csizmazia, who had just red pointed the climb, and Chris Harmston.

“They handed me the gear sling, stacked in the order that Kim had placed it, not that it helped because I had no idea where each piece went, then told me to go for it.” Jonathan thrashed, thrutched and trembled his way through blind placements, suspect rock and run outs. Eventually he found himself at the anchor of the pitch. He was the first person to have flashed the climb, doing it without falling on the initial go.

Following this feat Jonathan became a major contributor of hard routes in the cirque. “Dirty Harry” 5.12a, “Lonely Mountain Challenge” 5.11c and “Rareform” 5.12c, are just a few of the routes he has helped establish. Then in 2010 he ushered in a new number grade to the Cirque when he red pointed “Interrogator” at 5.13a.

Having only lived in Salt Lake for five years, Shingo Ohkawa has wasted no time putting his mark in the local canyons as well as the Cirque. First visiting Lone Peak in 2007 he has spent an enormous amount of time there and helped contribute nine routes, his favorite being “Da Black and Gold”. After a couple of seasons up there, Shingo along with another Salt Lake climber, Zac Robinson, did a repeat aid climb of “Wonderwall”.

The main summit of Lone Peak.

Rolling away from the typical slabs of the summit it took on the vertical south face of a corner for its third pitch. Rated 5.9 A3, this four-pitch route required knifeblade pitons and RURPs (Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons), thick as a dime and millimeters long, making it one of the more daunting routes up there. Starting late, struggling with route finding and after taking a fall onto a cam hook, they topped out beneath a full moon.

“The appeal of Lone Peak is that with such a monster approach you feel like you should be far away from civilization,” Shingo related, “but then you top out and see the surrounding metropolis and realize how close you are… It’s really cool.”

Nik and Ari take 5 on the "killer belay ledge".

After this Shingo went about pitching “Wonderwall” to strong local climbers as a possible free climb. While he saw the potential he also knew that it would take a massive amount of work.

By mid-August 2011, Nik Berry had to decide how to protect the third pitch of “Wonderwall”. Speaking with several people including Shingo, he chose sawed-off knife blade pitons; only slightly larger than peckers. Back in the Cirque Nik hammered the pitons into place then spent hours rehearsing the moves. After spending hours working the crux in the sun the skin on his fingers was shredded. If he were to have a chance at sending he would have to climb the granite while it was cool, before the sun arrived.

At the end of August Nik returned with fellow climber Rob Duncan, who he had partnered with in Zion, to give the route a second go from the ground. They rose before dawn and climbed the first two pitches with minimal light. At the ledge, the base of the crux pitch, just past eight, Nik had less than two hours to free it before the sun arrived. After days of cleaning, practice and several brutal approaches, it came down to this.

Nik finds a no hands rest on the crux pitch of Wonderwall.

Nik cast off confidently from the ledge. He dispatched the lower crux without difficulty then hooked his left foot over a black diorite chicken head and pressed his right shoulder into the off set seam. From this awkward stance he managed a no-hands rest that allowed his arms to recover. Making the next move his foot popped off unexpectedly causing him to fall before reaching the second crux. He returned to the ledge disappointed and pulled the rope. He and Rob could see sunlight moving across the cirque getting closer to their climb. After a 20-minute rest he tried again. Back to the chicken head and then with focus he made it to the second crux. Once more it was his feet. This time they wouldn’t stay put on the smooth granite and he fell. Back to the ledge, the sun creeping even closer, Nik led back up. He set his feet precisely, giving them a slight twist to help the rubber bite. This time they stayed in place when he moved up. On his third attempt of the day, just before the sun arrived, Nik Berry finally climbed the pitch free. Rob then romped up the rust colored 5.8 corner pitch to the summit, concluding the first free ascent of “Wonderboy” at 5.13c R.

The past winter when Fred Beckey was asked about Lone Peak he replied, “It’s a long walk!”

This summer, during the approach as you leave the sweltering Salt Lake Valley and are hiking through fields of lupine, flax and buckwheat, just about the time you catch your first glimpse of the granite walls that are peppered with alpine firs and your legs are quivering beneath the load on your back, consider that Beckey also had this to say about the Cirque, “it’s a beautiful place… [with] quality rock…[and] there’s still potential up there.”

 

Copyright 2011-2012 Louis Arevalo

 

 

A Winter Moment: Why would you wake up before dawn?

Even with a lack luster winter there were a few days that will keep me smiling for years to come. Here are a few photos from one dawn patrol in January 2012.

The alarm was set for 430, but I was up before that. Call it a combination of habit and anticipation.

 

Not wanting to keep anyone waiting at our 545 am meeting spot, I had my gear ready at the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After finding a place to park, breaking trail in the new snow felt effortless, especially if you lag behind to make photos.

 

Despite the single digit temperatures the coming dawn put a smile on your face and warmed you from the inside out.

 

Just being there to see the clouds warm up then slowly burn off makes the whole thing worthwhile, but…

 

you might as well have fun while you’re there too.