Friday, September 9, 2016

labor day weekend part 3: steep

The weather forecast looked clear so we did a hike on Monday that was the opposite of our Saturday hike: from Alta to Cardiff Pass to Superior, very steep and completely exposed.  The skies were clear, winds were light and it was much, much cooler than it has been for months.  We knew that it would be busy out there on the trails because of the long holiday weekend, but we still waited just a little bit for the sun to come up and warm things before we started.  We left the car in the parking area near the Alta Lodge at 8:15 a.m. and there was still frost on the cars that had been parked there overnight.

That's where we're headed

The trail starts on an actual paved road that goes by the Alta town offices and police department, then quickly turns into a dirt road, and then turns off onto an old mining road.  There is a ton of mining relics and remains in those south-facing hills above Alta, collapsed and blocked shafts, mine tailings, old metal- and stone-work.  The old road climbs steeply between switchbacks, following the power line, then the trail splits off from the road and climbs even more steeply.

Bit of a grind here

The footing wasn't our favorite - loose and rocky - but the scenery was spectacular, giving us a completely different perspective of Alta and Snowbird across the canyon.  We climbed very quickly, flattened out for a bit in a tree-ringed meadow that looked perfect for a tentsite, then continued to climb for the last steep bit to Cardiff Pass.  Just below the pass, there was a jumble of rocks and we saw a ton of pikas, scurrying around, collecting grasses to store for the winter and meeping at each other.

Cardiff Fork (Big Cottonwood Canyon)

We paused for a moment at the pass.  To the north, the ground fell away into Cardiff Fork (which we have never been in and will have to remedy).  On the way up, I had thought we might be able to go east along the ridge, over Flagstaff Peak and along the Emma Ridge, descending through Grizzly Gulch to make a loop.  But to get to Flagstaff from the pass we would have had to get up (or past) a rocky, exposed cliff and we just weren't up for that.

Sketchy trail

Instead, we turned our attention to the west, towards Superior.  As we researched this hike, we uncovered vague and ominous descriptions of the trail disappearing, knife edges, the need for ropes.  As we started hiking, we knew that we might not make it to the summit.  H doesn't have a great head for heights, so knife edges are tough on him; I can scramble on slabs and boulders all day but get extremely nervous with loose footing.  We would just have to see.

Hellgate Couloir (45 degree pitch) with Alta far below

We started traversing the steep meadow bowl to the south of the pass, crossing over some old mine tailings.  We went through the notch there - where the ground just fell away in front of us - and promptly lost the trail, ending up picking our way down to it when we finally spotted it below.  From there, we were able to follow the trail, which ranged from rock to dirt to loose scree, as it went both along the ridgeline and on the south-facing slope.  We could see the trail ahead of us, climbing towards Superior to the south, although the trail did seem to fade away some distance from the summit.

The trail to Superior goes up to the left (south) of the ridge

The further out we went, the more nervous I got.  We were both extremely focused on where to put our feet next: the trail was narrow and the slope below us was incredibly steep - with a pitch of about 40 degrees.  I didn't pick my head up unless we were stopped and I had both hiking poles planted; luckily, we stopped a fair amount because the scenery was spectacular.  As we started the final approach, however, I got uncomfortable with the footing, loose scree on slabs.  Before we got to the summit - and I think we were really close, unfortunately - I asked H if we could turn around and head back.

Not scared right there

I had been dreading the return over the loose gravel but it didn't end up being nearly as slippery as I had feared and we got back quickly and without incident.  We stopped for a snack at Cardiff Pass and then continued back down the way we'd come up.  We met a lot of people going up as we went down; this is apparently a very popular trail.

H with Snowbird across the canyon behind him

The further down we got, the further away from my nervousness I got, and by the time we'd gotten back to the car, I was regretting having turned back.  I know enough to recognize and respect my discomfort in potentially dangerous situations, and up further the south-facing slope has a 50 degree pitch, but with time and distance (and a post-hike beer), I wonder if maybe I could have gone further, if the reward of the summit might have been worth pushing myself a little further.  Technically, we haven't crossed Superior off the list, and now that I know what to expect from the first four-fifths of the hike (and know I can do it), maybe we'll have to revisit it - on a less crowded day - and cross it off for real.

Hike stats:  It's not a long hike by any means but it is pretty steep and kind of nerve-wracking.  4.41 miles; 2:33 hours hiking time, 1:31 hours stoppage time; 1.8 m.p.h. moving average speed; 2,000 feet elevation.

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