Adventure Journal | Lone Peak South Summit Skiing
These past two weeks Utah’s snowpack has gone isothermic and the spring skiing window has opened up. Spring skiing for many backcountry skiers means that larger objectives are now safer to attempt, with most of the dry snow avalanche dangers gone until new snow falls next fall. It also often means pleasant spring temperatures and ripping corn (when large grains of snow freeze together overnight and warm and soften during the day in above freezing temperatures).
Kalem and I watched the sunny 60 degree forecast and a week of “low” avalanche danger forecasts from the UAC (Utah Avalanche Center) and decided to head out to summit Lone Peak. Lone Peak is one of the tallest peaks in the Wasatch range, standing at a stunning 11,260 ft. The gorgeous, sheer walls of the cirque can be seen from I-15, the main interstate running down the Wasatch Front, and have distracted many a climber, hiker and skier looking at its beautiful curves and angles as they drive. The NE couloir of Lone Peak is one of the steepest and greatest lines in the Wasatch, and is a part of the Chuting Gallery, Andrew Mclean’s infamous collection of 90 of the steepest lines in the Wasatch. While Kalem and I have the NE couloir on our bucket list, we decided instead to take it easy and scale the more gentle south face to the summit, and return the same way, on a 4,000 runout deemed “Heaven’s Halfpipe”.
We started prepping the night before, driving up to Schoolhouse Springs Trailhead to camp in the van and get a good night of sleep. Once there, I organized our food for the next day throwing together some of my favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies (here’s a link to the recipe I use), homemade trail mix with some dried fruit, nuts and seeds I had on hand, and pb&j’s to serve as fuel on our ascent. We awoke the next morning at 5:30AM to another car arriving to the trailhead. We had set alarms for 5:45AM. After listening to the early morning conversation of the skiers that came in the car about whether they should have brought crampons and beer, we got up, quickly threw on our layers, strapped our ski gear to our backs, turned on our head lamps and began the approach by hiking a little over 3 miles in our trail runners.
We took the most popular route, climbing to the First and Second Hamongogs. I had to look up what a Hamongog was, a little confused. Apparently in this context it means “mountain meadow”, but the word originally comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekial, referring to a valley. From the Schoolhouse Springs Trailhead we climbed the road. As a note, when in doubt on which way to travel (especially if it is still dark), continue going right. Once the wider trail had come to an end and we had arrived at the sign pointing left toward the First Hamongog Trail in a small meadow, we took a sharp left, crossed a little stream and followed a narrow single track trail up to the Second Hamongog, another meadow. We gained the ridge and entered Heaven’s Halfpipe. It’s pretty straightforward skiing up the halfpipe. There’s a large gentle opening to the left of the halfpipe a couple hundred feet below the ridge, we traversed through this opening and continued upward to gain the summit ridge. (Stop for a second and take in the incredible views.) From there, we followed the ridgeline up to the South Summit. We skiied down the same line we took up.
We cruised until we reached the Second Hamongog. At this point, the sun had started to rise and the frozen mud had gave way to a solid snowpack. We made a quick transition into our skis and continued into Heaven’s Halfpipe, anxious to warm ourselves under the sun’s rays that were now hitting the east aspects.
The next 4,000 feet of climbing were spectacular. Cloud banks moved in and out of the rough, alpine ridgeline. The whole bowl is open, almost entirely void of trees. This morning had a surprise in store- a solid 8 inches of new snow that had fallen during rain showers in the valley the previous afternoon. Climbing out the halfpipe through the gentle opening we were expecting to be close to the summit. However, traversing through the opening and rounding the corner, we realized how far off our depth perception had been lower down on our approach. We still had a little more than 1,000 feet of climbing to go before we could stand on top of the rocky outcropping of the South Summit, at 11,260 feet. As you take the final switchbacks toward the summit, the Question Mark Wall, begins to spread out to your left. It’s a beautiful face of quartz monzonite, which looks very similar to granite. This offers fantastic climbing and camping in the summer, with an approach from the Jacob’s Ladder trail.
We spent a few minutes resting our legs, eating a victory cookie at the summit, looking at the crown of a small avalanche that had just barely broken off as four skiers had dropped into the NE couloir, and taking the prerequisite summit selfie. We then transitioned, and I took a few sticky turns before stopping to have Kalem help me scrape the ice off my skis. The next turns were some of the best of our backcountry season, hard won, floaty and gentle. Kalem and I leapfrogged down Heaven’s Halfpipe, skied through and climbed out of the Second Hamongog and then transitioned back into our trail runners for the exit hike.
Car to car, the trip took us a little over 8 hours of continuous work at a comfortable pace. All in all, it’s about a 7 mile climb up 6,000 vertical feet, with the same descent.
Although it requires the extra step of beginning your approach in shoes, I’d recommend going in the late spring, which usually is met with low avalanche risk and beautiful weather. I’d also recommend starting early. This route is becoming more and more popular, and while there is plenty of snow, an early start guarantees you fresh turns, and the spring sun will turn Heaven’s Halfpipe into slush around 1:00PM or so. Besides the requisite avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel and probe), no additional safety equipment is required.
For anyone getting into backcountry skiing, this is a great option for a long, full-day tour, with gentle terrain all falling between 20 and 30 degrees. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a tour in March or April, and am already looking to come back next season.