Some lines steal your imagination the first time that you see them.
That’s what happened to me the first time that I saw Mt. Superior in Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT, three or four years ago. At the time, the South Face of Mt. Superior had yet to be listed at one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. It was simply the largest skiable face that I’d ever seen, and it flowed all the way to the busy Little Cottonwood Road. If you ski at Snowbird, or at Alta, then as you turn to ski downhill, you turn to ski towards its steep white face.
When I first saw Mt. Superior, I was impressed to learn that people skied it, and as the bumblie that I was, I told myself that one day I’d ski the line. I’m now sitting in Salt Lake with the first of the summer’s thunderstorms shaking my windows, looking back on the season, and my descent of Mt. Superior marks a distinct high-point of personal satisfaction.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not special, gifted, or even really that talented a ski mountaineer. On any given day of the week, almost regardless of snow conditions, someone will lay turns down Superior’s South Face. So often, in fact, that it’s a fairly common question to hear batted around at the bar; have you skied it?
However, I like to think that Ian Donovan and I not only skied the line, but we got on the line in near perfect conditions. Because of its popularity, as I mentioned above, the face is skied in almost all conditions. In many cases, the skiers who lay tracks down the face do so in such unstable conditions that I don’t hesitate to call them morons, fools, avalanche poodles, or all the above. They’re likely unaware of the hazard to which they’re exposing themselves, or they just don’t care, both of which are unsustainable options.
For much of December and January, I looked up daily at the face, batting around in my head the condition of the face and instabilities in the snowpack. Because Superior faces South, it’s subject to a lot of sun beginning early in the day, which tends to peel the new snow off its flanks in pretty regular fashion. Any face over about 40 degrees will sluff snow in little loose-snow avalanches as you ski it, and these can be readily avoided. On the other hand, if there is a lingering instability in the snowpack, your weight or the sluffing or both can initiate a larger slab avalanche, which on Mt. Superior would be likely unsurvivable.
The long and the short of it is this: it’s challenging to ski the face when it both is covered in powder snow, and when it’s safe. Thankfully, in April, a thorough warming and refreeze was followed by a good 16 inch storm. This consolidated the underlying snow and provided a stable surface for all of the fresh pow. It was time to rally the cavalry.
Our party left the road at around 3:30 am, at first a party of four and then a party of two. Let me just say now that I’ve never toured with someone using Alpine Trekkers who didn’t break them or have a problem with them. Ian Donovan and I were the remaining members who crested the ridge to Superior around 5:00, and who began to ascend the at times quite narrow ridge leading to Superior’s summit.
Sometime around 7:00, with little of the ridge remaining to climb, the sun rose over the mountains to our East. Few feelings compare to seeing the light shine out across the range under a cloudless sky, knowing that a goal of several years will be realized before most people begin their work day. It was a moment that wholly confirmed not just the sacrifice of rising at 2am, but all the questionable sacrifices that have accompanied my life since college. These are the moments that I search for.
I was nervous when I finally clicked into my skis. I talked to Richie on the phone, who was in the parking lot at the base because his bindings had failed. “Dude”, he said, “You’re about to have the best run of your life”. Both he and our friend Ben (and his video camera) would be watching from below.
There remained a doubt in my mind about how much the snow would sluff on top of the icy surface below it, and I wondered if this hazard could make the skiing difficult or frightening. All of these doubts disappeared as I traversed onto the face right below its summit and carved my first big turn into untouched powder that flew up over my head. It was perfect.
True, some of the terrain chokes had sluffed clean, leaving a stiff bed surface to ski on, but while it didn’t ski nicely, it did reassure me against the avalanche hazard. Most of the descent was nevertheless in fresh, soft, perfect snow. When I finally stopped, my legs burned from 3200 feet of dreamy skiing, and I felt a satisfaction uncommon before 9 am.
The season is now drawing to a close, and rock climbing has fully supplanted skiing as my seasonal obsession. Nevertheless, the memory of Superior closes an early chapter in my aim to become a true expert in the mountains. Though I skied many steeper and much more dangerous lines this season, few brought the satisfaction of this descent.
If you’d like to see video of the descent, it’s available here: http://ow.ly/4UEZx