Growing up in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, extreme sports are simply a way of life. So when it came time to strap on a pair of snowshoes with my trail buddy, and brother-in-law, Chris Campbell, 13 time finisher of the Wasatch 100 Mile Endurance Run, I knew that the contented sport of snowshoeing was about to go EXTREME!
Living in Utah, hiking, mountain biking, trail running and skiing are all common sports that have gone extreme. But snowshoeing? Now that is something different. But then, Chris and I are a little different too. Perhaps our difference is due to the fact that we are both born under the astronomical sign of the ram? I don’t know about all of that. However, it might begin to explain our strong sense for mountain adventures? Because your reading this article, I believe that you know what I mean. We adventurous types are different—to the less adventurous, we may seem a little bit crazy!
After what took about as much time as chugging an ice cold beer on a hot summer day, Chris and I agreed that snowshoeing might be a great way to maintain our mountain trail running and conditioning through the long cold winters and we simply could not resist the urge to give it a try.
From our first experience over twenty years ago, we were hooked on the sport. Snowshoeing, unlike skiing, has a slower pace, which provides an opportunity to see more of the mountain. It opened up a winter paradise that neither of us would have otherwise ever known. Looking back, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever “jumped” into.
We always try to explore the trails less traveled. Snowshoeing in the backcountry allows one to escape the crowds that are often found on the popular winter hiking trails. With snowshoes, we are able to blend our summer mountain trail running skills with the terrain of a world covered in pristine powder! We found ourselves running, jumping and playing like never before. Like a couple of mountain goats exploring the edges of their world, snowshoeing makes us feel wild and free.
Throughout the winter season, the Wasatch Mountains can average above 500 inches of snowfall. The deep snow not only covers existing hiking trails, but it also covers up rocks, small trees and mountain foliage that during the summer months become barriers—you really have to bushwhack to get anywhere off the beaten path.
During the winter months, these barriers are covered in snow and they become our playground– opening up a whole new world of discovery. Fallen and leaning trees, large boulders and small granite cliffs become our springboards into deep, fresh untouched powder—like landing ona bed of soft, cold feathers.
Our favorite place to snowshoe in all of the Wasatch Mountains is Grizzly Gulch. Grizzly Gulch is located above the mountain ski town of Alta, Utah. It’s known for it’s backcountry powder skiing and magnificent views of Mount Superior and the high mountain chutes and bowls.
With an elevation from 8787′ at it’s base to 9479′ to the top of Grizzly Gulch, the mountain provides plenty of steep and deep winter terrain to explore.
We choose all of our snowshoeing routes by first checking the Utah Avalanche Center website for the latest forcast.
Today, the conditions in Grizzly Gulch are perfect for backcountry exploration. As we work our way up the mountain, we read the terrain and scan our potential down lines. We look for fresh patches of powder left untouched by the hardcore backcountry skiers.
As snowshoers’, we typically avoid the ski routes all together. Our routes take us deep into areas on the mountain that the skiers can’t reach due to the difficult terrain for dropping in and/or skiing out. We find ourselves alone on the majestic mountain in some of the most amazing snow on earth.
Utah is world famous for it’s dry and fluffy powder. Grizzly Gulch seams to capture it’s major share of our most precious commodity and corals the major storms–accumulate deep amounts of fresh pow!
Warm, south facing slopes are my personal favorite, especially on cold days where the temperature dips into the teens and even below zero. Aside from our world famous powder, there’s something to be said for golden rays of sunlight to brighten your already playful mood.
It’s important to know, that during the hot summer months, Chris and I escape the heat of the low lying Salt Lake Valley and retreat to the cooler temperatures of the mountains for a weekly hike into the high backcountry, while looking for new winter snowshoeing routes. Although we have snowshoed practically every hiking trail in the Wasatch Mountains, our favorite snowshoe adventures come from discovering new routes of our own.
During our summer hikes, we imagine what the mountain will look like with 5 feet of snow, 10 feet and more. We try to determine what fallen and leaning trees might be visible above the snowline. We scan for hazards. Sharp rocks and fallen trees with splintered branches that rise upward that could cause injury if landed upon—like a snowshoe shish kabob.
Upon returning in the winter, we work our way up the mountain reliving our memories of the previous summer, while looking for the playground that we imagined. We see the large boulders and fallen trees and because of what we’ve learned and experienced, we have confidence in a relatively safe day on the mountain. At the very least, we feel like the odds are in our favor.
Reaching the snow covered mountain ridge line of Grizzly Gulch, we take time to appreciate the wild wilderness in which we now sit. We admire the views—they are breathtaking! We unzip our backpacks and remove our cooking burners and canned fuel along with our previously prepared foil dinners.
This afternoon’s trail meal will be served at over 9,000 feet. It’s going to be amazing! Hashbrown potatoes, diced chicken , smoked bacon, broccoli and red onion mixed with a clove of garlic and other special seasonings. Chris and I name each of our backcountry meals after hiking trails in the Wasatch.
But this particular meal, for reasons that I wont get into right now, we have appropriately named, “The Avalanche.”
Snowshoeing up the mountain through waist-deep powder is hard work to say the least. It always works up my appetite. My body screams for energy to fuel the adrenaline rushed adventure. Even the stale, dry and forgotten granola bars from previous seasons that lurk in the dark corners of my pack taste good.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the sizzling smells of the Avalanche to escape it’s foil wrapping. I turn my gourmet, precooked backcountry meal four to five times, re-heating the contents and blending the flavors to perfection, steaming hot with just the right amount of char. Sweet smells fill the air and I am grateful that for now, there are no grizzly bears in Grizzly Gulch.
A fresh hot meal in the backcountry of a winter wonderland, atop one of the most majestic mountains in all of the Wasatch, always excites my taste buds. Simply amazing! Best I’ve ever had! But then, it always seems that way–”Best I’ve ever had!”
We wash our high elevation meal down with a frozen beer that’s more like a slurpee slush than a liquid and we take a traditional shot of whiskey to take the edge off the chill from sitting on a frozen mountain while wet with sweat. It’s time to get get moving again. The best is yet to come!
We play a quick game of Rock-Paper-Scissor to fairly determine who gets to be the first to jump off of the first obstacle in our natural terrain course. I win, rock crushes scissor. Chris descends the ridge with my camera to set-up for our first shot. We love taking photographs of our adventures. It’s fun to relive the memories over and over again.
At the end of each season, I create large posters with photo collages of our mountain adventures. I design a poster with summer images of trail runs and mountain biking photos and another one with winter snowshoeing pictures. I give the printed posters to Chris each year as a Christmas gift. His walls are covered with our adventures.
With a smile on my face—energized from an amazing meal accompanied by an incredible view, It’s my turn to descend the ridge into the snow-covered backcountry wilderness of Grizzly Gulch. Chris and I have the playground all to ourselves—no one but us in sight. It brings back distant memories from my youth and I feel as if I was let out early for school recess. I sing out a big scream of joy, alerting Chris that I am on my way. He echos back, letting me know that he is all set with the camera to capture my moment of bliss.
Keeping our “up” mountain tracks in sight, I make my own fresh tracks down the mountain, gliding and sliding through fresh, un-tracked powder. I race towards the first obstacle, a series of large granite boulders about 10-15 feet in height and tucked into the slope of the mountainside.
My heart races as I reach the point of no return—beyond commitment to the jump. I’m in the zone!
I count the strides; one, two, three and I push off the edge. Time stands still. I become weightless, like an astronaut in space—zero gravity! This is a moment in time when nothing else matters.
My mind is focused. My senses are fully alert and in pure concentration of each and every millisecond of time and of my immediate surroundings. I sense the wind, the temperature and the warm sun on my face. I see crystals of ice as they swirl around my body in motion and follow me into the vacuum of space around me as I propel myself over the edge.
Frame-by-frame, like a movie in slow motion, my mind prepares my body for a collision with the earth. I am focused on my landing point and like a heat seeking missile, I strike—POOF! Millions of tiny, dancing snowflakes explode outward in every direction and my body comes to rest in a crater of fresh, deep snow. I sense that I am safe–unharmed and I feel exhilarated—wild and free!