The original plan was to climb the Grunge Couloir on the north peak of Mt. Timpanogos. Conditions seemed to be right. This is a 50+ degree snow climb (sometimes with a little ice at the top), but with considerable rockfall hazard so it needs to be climbed when it is pretty cold. It is a spring climb, after the avalanche danger has passed but when it is still cold enough to keep everything in place.
Kai and his son Jared spent the night at our house on Sunday night before Memorial Day. We were up at 2:30 am, out the door at 3:00, and left the Timpanooke Trailhead up American Fork Canyon at 4:00 am. It was surprisingly warm, but we figured it would get colder as we ascended. We worked our way up the trail and when we got to the cut off for the Grunge Couloir it was in the 50’s. Way too warm for comfort. We also had my son Niels with us, who had little experience climbing snow. After a short pow-wow, we decided the rockfall on the Grunge was probably more than we wanted, so we skirted around on the Timpanooke fireroad to the base of the Cold Fusion Couloir. The Cold Fusion Couloir is a snow climb (or ski descent for extreme skiers). Not as interesting as the Grunge, but safer considering how warm it was. Because it is wide open there is no rockfall danger like the Grunge which is a narrow chute between rock walls.
After some bushwhacking we made our way onto the couloir proper. Low down the snow was littered with pine cones, some dirt, and other debris.
In an old Patagonia catalog from the eighties, there was a photo of a tiny figure walking up an immense snowy ridge. The caption read, “Mountaineering: walking uphill, slowly, while not feeling very good.” That sometimes sums up climbing mountains. The couloir was not terribly steep, but steep enough that we zigzagged our way slowly up the mountain. The higher we got the steeper it got.
In the lower portion of the couloir we were flanked by pine trees on each side of the couloir, which thinned out to small scrubby pines, until finally we rose above treeline.
About 3/4 the way up the couloir, the snow petered out and we were forced to take off our crampons and negotiate a horribly loose section of steep, loose, rocks. The rocks were the worst in the gully above the snow, but once we traversed out onto the ridge proper, the rocks were more solid. This lasted for several hundred feet before we arrived at a steep, probably 50 degree section of snow.
The slope was much steeper than it looks in the photos, with a nasty run out of a steep, loose rock chute below. Though the climbing was not difficult, and the snow was nicely consolidated, a fall would have been catastrophic. Niels was a bit nervous as he had never climbed steep snow like this. Once we were actually kicking up the slope, he was fine as the climbing was pretty straightforward, and quite enjoyable.
At the top of the climb, the ridge between Cold Fusion and The Grunge Couloirs, we took a break, ate and drank, and relaxed. Surprisingly, there was not a breath of wind on the summit ridge. It was a beautiful, cool, sunny, cloudless day. It felt really good to top out. I think it was around 10:30 am when we topped out.
We scrambled down to the saddle then up to the summit of the North Peak. From there it was lots of scrambling up and down along the ridgeline. The ridgeline was free of snow on the south side, but still corniced on the north side. The original plan was to follow the ridgeline to the saddle then descend the Timpanooke Trail.
As we traveled along the summit ridge, it became obvious that there was still a great deal of snow on the north side of Timp. There were still cornices all along the north side of the ridge, and it looked like there was a good 6-10′ of snow still down in the basin below the saddle. If we descended down the Timpanooke Trail it looked like it would be a long, miserable slog though deep snow. We were not too crazy about tackling that, nor were we too anxious to try to descend down through a cornice to get to the slopes below. New plan.
As we were approaching the saddle where the normal trail ascends before turning south to ascend the main summit, we saw a nice ridge cutting off down the south side of the mountain. It looked pretty straightforward and we could descend down to Pleasant Grove and call someone to come pick us up. It sounded much better than slogging for hours in deep, loose snow. Then we had an even better idea. There was a nice gully next the ridge full of snow. We decided a butt glissade would be our best and most efficient way down. The upper section of the couloir was quite steep, and we were just able to maintain traction with our ice axes. Luckily the snow was soft as it was early afternoon so we could also use our feet to slow the descent. It was an exciting and fast slide down the south side of Timpanogos. We descended probably 2500′ in less than 30 minutes. If you are in the valley looking up at Timp, our descent gully is the prominent snow tongue that extends the furthest down the mountain.
Niels was really nervous about this, but once we got him onto the slope and showed him how to self arrest and maintain his speed with his ice axe he was fine and enjoyed it.
It looked like an easy walk from the bottom of the snow gully to the meadows below, but things are seldom as they seem in the mountains. We spent the next while picking our way down snowy slopes with dirt and rocks thrown in. On several occasions we cliffed out, meaning our route ended at the top of a series of cliffs. Some of these we could carefully down climb, and others we had to skirt around.
Finally, after much longer than we thought it would take, we bottomed out at the meadows above Grove Creek Canyon. We stopped at Indian Springs, drank and rested. Then we hiked down beautiful Grove Creek Canyon and had one of Niels’ friends pick us up.
Based on Kai’s GPS, we traveled 12.5 miles, ascended just under 8,000′ and descended 10,000′, and we were out for 13.5 hours. My feet were feeling it, especially since I was wearing mountaineering boots. It was a beautiful and challenging day in the mountains. Niels did very well for his first mountaineering experience.