Sunday, January 2, 2011

South Mountain

My mom is awesome.

The photo above was taken at the summit of South Mountain, near my parents' place in Utah. At the time it was taken, it was about 15 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside, and a cold wind was howling around. We'd just finished climbing nearly 1700 vertical feet over two miles, in the snow. It's not freaking Everest, ok, but it wasn't any Sunday afternoon picnic either. Well, actually, I guess it was.

It all started Saturday, when after nearly three weeks of rain, snow, ice, and oscillating temperatures, a beautiful clear day broke out over the Salt Lake valley. Ever since the Lowe Peak summit attempt, outdoor adventuring had been a no-go (at least in the backcountry, where I love to go in Utah winter) thanks to what the experts were calling "extreme" avalanche danger. At one point the avalanche forecaster was quoted in the local paper saying "it just doesn't get any more extreme than this." Basically, go to the mountain to die:

So I'd definitely picked the right day for Lowe, and for the past couple weeks had been chomping at the bit, training in the weight room and sledding in the little neighborhood parks.

Saturday was spectacular. Out of the kitchen window we could see for 60+ miles to the north, including all of the valley's Oquirrh and Wasatch mountains. We'd gotten a late start to the day, and were in the middle of preparing the legendary deep dish pizza, so a hiking trip was out of the question, but I was looking to take some photos.

We don't mess around with the deep dish

My mom suggested a spot on the south end of the subdivision where I might get a little elevation and take some pictures. For whatever reason I'd never really noticed or thought about the big mountain sitting right there, probably because I was too distracted by Lowe Peak. Anyhow, while the pizza was cooking we cruised up and checked it out. The views were great, but unfortunately I'd left my memory card on the kitchen table, so no photos. Once more, go for a hike without your camera...

So I start looking at this mountain, and it occurs to me that there's nothing stopping me from climbing it. Closer inspection with binoculars revealed no fences, gates, cactus, or buffalo. Even though there's a big army base right on the other side, I didn't see any tanks or dudes with machine guns (buffalo would have been scarier anyhow). The whole place had been torched by a wildfire last summer, so there wasn't even any tree cover. There also weren't any trails, but I need practice with my routefinding anyhow. The gears started turning...

By the time we'd finished eating the pizza, I had the place scouted (thanks to summitpost and WillhiteWeb), and a route planned out. Here it is:


Elevation profile

The astute reader will notice that while the loop route isn't long (just over 4 miles), it is pretty steep. 20-30% grades are no joke, especially in the snow. But I had snowshoes and spirit on my side, and was ready to get dirty. My 53-year-old mom declared that she was going with, since I hadn't let her come to Lowe. You can try arguing with her if you want. Not me.

Enroute, Sunday afternoon

The first mile was gnarly - 1142' of gain over slippery, ice-covered rocks. The snow wasn't deep enough for snowshoes, so we just had to move carefully. It took over an hour, but we finally reached the ridgeline, where we found a giant snowfield resembling a moonscape:

The rest of the route to the summit was covered in deeper snow, so we strapped on our snowshoes and cruised up, alternating through soft, dry, powder and the "crunch, crunch" of hard-crusted snow.

Looking south toward summit

The higher we climbed, the better the views got. While it wasn't as clear as the day before, the scattered cloud cover made for a really cool-looking sky.

The wind picked up when we hit the ridgeline, and it was pretty chilly for exposed areas (namely my face). Fortunately, the latest addition to my layering system, a Patagonia R1 Hoody, worked to perfection (along with a Capilene 2 base and my Rain Shadow jacket) for keeping the rest of me warm. I think that for active pursuits even down to the single digits this system will serve me well. Extreme cold, wind, or camping in sub-freezing temps will require something else. Only after lingering at the summit for over an hour did I start to feel cold.

My camera, however, was feeling it, and a sticky lens cover made for this accidental, brilliantly artsy shot that I'm quite proud of:

Nat Geo, call me.

After another hour we reached the summit, and the views there were incredible! I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better spot to check out the Salt Lake valley and nearby environs. We could see nearly the full length of the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges, Utah Lake and the Lake Mountains to the south, the islands of the Great Salt Lake far to the north, and all the valleys and canyons in between. Here's a panoramic photo - unfortunately with a seam glitch at Flat Top Mountain in the southern Oquirrhs. Otherwise it's pretty good:

Click here for full-size (6 MB!)

We took a bunch more photos, including this one for my friends (actually my aunt and cousin) at Frandy, official fruit gruel of SCCamper!

Frandy goes well with mountains

Looking west to Lowe Peak, I saw some sweet lenticular clouds, and thought of my friend Jay, who knew these by name after I'd mentioned seeing pictures of mushroom clouds at Mt. Rainier. Sometimes I think Jay knows everything.

Lowe Peak gone nuclear lenticular

After having some lunch, we headed back downhill. The first half was a breeze through the deep snow. With a pair of skis one could comfortably cruise down the main ridgeline in 5 or 10 minutes. I really need to work on my skiing.

Along the descent

Things got gnarly again when we hit the cutoff point for our loop, and had to descend a 36% rock-and-snow-covered slope to get to the smaller northeastern ridge. Deciding to go this way was a tough call, but I'm confident that going down the way we came up would have been at least equally as bad. Here at least we had deeper snow to deal with, which gave our snowshoes something to dig into. We really needed some crampons, and in the future that would be the way to go. As it was, it took the better part of an hour to descend 0.4mi, after which we cruised down a deep, snow-covered gully to the finish.

I was super-impressed with my mom. She tore up the whole adventure like a champ, and afterward asked me how many of my friends' moms would have made the trip. I couldn't think of anybody. I don't have that many friends who would be up for it, let alone their moms. Like I said, my mom is awesome.

We made it down just in time to catch the last of the sunset:

I can't think of a better way to have spent my last full day in Utah!


  1. Wow! Your mom IS awesome. Amazing pictures. A great start to your 2011 mileage and elevation goals too! I've flown over this area so many times and wondered at its beauty from 37,000 feet - must be amazing up close!