Skiing In The Wolverine Cirque
The Wasatch at its bestby Adam Howard
The slide path is 200-300' down the fall line and takes the shape of a cobra's head. Standing on top of ground zero I slither over to the fracture line allowing my tips to hang over its precipice. I can just make out where my friend was pulled unharmed from the white sure-pack two days ago.
December was warm and dry here this year so when a five day system dropped 28" in late-January winter was ushered back into the Utah's Wasatch Mountains. But while it's been a joyful occasion for most lift riders in the area, those backcountry-bound are largely playing it safe-even my friend for example (who will, by virtue of association, remain nameless)-the slope he was caught on was a gentle 25 degree max.
I hurry back to the skin track that Ian Reddell lays in as he continues up the western flank of the Wolverine Cirque, at the top of the Big Cottonwood Canyon. It's been less than an hour since we left the boundary of Solitude Mountain Resort through the Highway to Heaven Gate, but we've nearly gained the height of land known as Patsy Marley, the famed area above Alta. Solitude's low key exit gates are just another of the list of benefits locals here enjoy and is a close second to sharing lift-lines with, ahh, pretty much no one.
"Do you need to make it back for sweep?" I ask Ian. He's already got his skins off by the time I arrive at Patsy's sparsely spruced summit.
No, I think they'll be fine," he replies in a deadpan tone. I'm not sure if he's being sarcastic. But, as he flashes a smile I'm reminded that along with his ski patrol duties at Solitude, he's also the director and one of several guides for Back Tracks, a resort sponsored backcountry program that allows him to, well, miss sweep and get face shots.
We kick off and glide south. As we go Ian and I peer over our shoulder to the left eyeing several potential lines than drop into the Cirque. There are no tracks in the promising looking 30-40o shots-with good reason. Avalanche danger is at a season high.
Stopping at a natural saddle on the ridge Ian calls back, "this is it." "It" is a several hundred yard long chute that cuts skier's left across the fall line gouging a natural through in the rock, much more low-angle than any of the neighboring options this far down the Cirque. And a lot safer given the conditions. Ian drops in and ski cuts his way to a safe spot. After a quick study he hollers instructions back to me. They're pretty simple-"It's all yours. Wait for me at the bottom." I'm good at following these kinds of directions so I dive in. With fat skis testing the limits of my randonee boots I make quick, if not apprehensive work of the terrain before watching Ian powder-eight my line on his teles-snow flying over his shoulders-as he descends, kyaying as if the fresh snow were his little doggies-and he was rounding them up.
Photo by Andrew Korpi
Kicking through the flats of the Wolverine's gut we thread in and out of the tall spruce and traverse above one of the Twin Lakes. South, towering over Solitude's Summit chair lift, I can see the peak at the top of Fantasy Ridge-10,500' Honeycomb-and it's secondary summit called The Pinnacle. It's also accessed through the Highway to Heaven gate and offers a dozen screamers that empty out in Honeycomb Canyon at the resort-not to mention infinite backcountry tours that can wrap back to Big Cottonwood or drop into Little Cottonwood, home to Alta and Snowbird. New last year the Honeycomb quad brings skiers back to the trail system negating what was once a 20 minute traverse back to the base area.
Before long we're on the Sol-Bright Nordic trail that connects Solitude to neighboring Brighton ski area. Skating back to the Solitude's new village in the winter dusk I have a few minutes to marvel at both the touring and the inbounds terrain here. Out-of-bounds accessibility and a low volume of skiers makes Solitude home to perhaps the most consistent untracked snow within an hour of Salt Lake.