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Skiing in July

The skiing was the easy part

ALTA, Utah — On Monday, July 7, my friend Steve sent me a photo from his cell phone of the snow still left on Gunsight at Alta. I asked if he would be up for skiing it that weekend. He replied that he and his friend Jorden had already planned to ski the chute on Sunday, and that I could join them. And so a plan was born.

On Saturday, I prepared my pack, worked out the logistics of carrying my skis and boots, and confirmed a spot to meet them before heading up the canyon.

We first drove up to the Albion Basin side of Alta to scope out our intended target: Gunsight. The snow had melted some since Monday, but it looked perfectly skiable.

Our route was still in question when we started hiking up into Collins Gulch. Generally, we anticipated hiking up the dirt utility road, and then traversing across to Gunsight’s entrance, much like one would access the run when skiing. One thing Steve had mentioned on the way up is how much steeper the mountains feel when hiking them compared to skiing down them. Although I had anticipated a fairly sketchy walk across the upper slopes of Alta’s Collins ridge, I didn’t anticipate that what Steve had said would ring so true.

The view from Collins Gulch at Alta Ski Area

The walk up the road was fairly benign, although I struggled to keep pace with Steve and Jorden. I was not in great hiking shape, and I was lugging about 25 pounds of ski gear up the mountain (they were, too).

Eventually, we reached a point where it made sense to leave the dirt road and head across the scree slope and up to the entrance to Gunsight. I started out on the scree slope just fine. It was loose, but there were plenty of spots solid enough to hold my weight without terra firma sliding out from under me.

As the slope beneath me got steeper, however, my wits began to betray me. My pace had slowed to a crawl as the places where solid earth showed through the rocks disappeared. I weighed each step carefully as I prodded the scree for some semblance of solid footing before taking each step.

Steve and Jorden, however, were moving fairly quickly over the scree. Several times they stopped to wait for me as I slowly made my way across the slope. I think they may have been more comfortable on the scree because they had more experience on that type of surface, or they were more confident in their ability to stop themselves from sliding down the mountain. Whatever it was, I was taking much longer compared to them. (I later learned that your best bet is to just keep your feet moving.)

When I finally arrived at the top of the Gunsight, I was a bit unnerved from walking across that scree slope. The sight of the chute didn’t exactly make me more relaxed.

Gunsight at Alta on July 13, 2008

The snow was littered with rocks and other natural debris, but it looked perfectly skiable. The snow, however, didn’t start at the top of chute. There was about a 20-foot gap. The possibility of a difficult process to get down to the snow made me a little nervous. Conveniently, there was a rope in that gap that would make descending to the snow relatively safe.

The gap between the top of the chute and the start of the snow posed an interesting problem because it didn’t seem practical to climb down to it with ski boots on and unwieldy skis to carry either in hand or still lashed to our packs. So we ferried our skis down to the snow with our hiking boots still on.

Steve climbed down into the chute while gripping the fixed rope. Jorden passed him his skis, which he carried down to the snow. He then climbed back up and we repeated the process until all three pairs of skis and poles were staked in the snow.

Then we put on our ski boots at the top and took turns descending the fixed rope down to our waiting skis.

Once we reached the narrow patch of snow at the top, we slid down a little ways to give us some more room to put on our skis. Steve and Jordan were telemarking. I skied on regular alpine gear.

Steve got the honors. He skied a couple turns in the gray-ish snow near the top, and then fell (a rare thing for him). He quickly got back up, though, and skied down a ways where he set himself up to film Jorden and I skiing down to him.

I went next. I sideslipped a little until the snow widened a bit more. The snow was generally choppy and hardpacked near the top. I took a few deliberate, skidded turns to get a feel for the snow, and to avoid the rocks. I finally let it rip for a bit before coming to a stop near Steve. It felt weird to be skiing with a pack on. It felt weird to be skiing, period.

Partway down Gunsight at Alta Ski Area on July 13, 2008

I went first for the next stage of our run. This part of the run had the best snow, and I skied some really good turns. I stopped with about a third of the run remaining to wait for Steve and Jorden.

Steve led the way down the last stretch of our run. After skiing Gunsight proper, we had to remove our skis and walk across some grass to reach a patch of snow to the right of Gunsight. We skied the last 75 yards down to a spot where we shed our ski gear for, perhaps, the last time this ski season.

From there, we had to walk down the bottom half of the Albion Basin side of Alta Ski Area, and then over to Steve’s car in the Collins parking lot.

Alta’s Albion Basin, with Devil’s Castle on the far right

Our route down was still in question as we swapped ski gear for hiking gear. Jorden had proposed that we head south across the meadow and then down Greeley Hill to the dirt road in Albion Basin. After he did a little reconnaissance, however, he decided that the hill was too steep to hike down, so we did what Steve had initially proposed. We hiked up over the little ridge to our right, hiked across and down to the dirt road that switchbacked to the base of the Sugarloaf lift, and then hiked down to the base of Alta via the dirt road that is the Home Run trail during the ski season.

It took us less than an hour to hike down to the car from the bottom of Gunsight. We stopped at Porcupine Pub and Grill for pizza, which put me into a serious post-hiking/skiing coma for the rest of the day.

Hiking down through Albion Basin at Alta Ski Area
Gunsight at Alta on July 13, 2008