Ascent to American Fork Twin Peaks-Red Top S Ridge on 2011-03-12

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Bill from
Date:Saturday, March 12, 2011
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Point Reached:American Fork Twin Peaks - Red Top S Ridge
    Elevation:10980 ft / 3346 m
    Remaining Elevation:509 ft / 155 m (12% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

My goal was a winter ascent to the highest point in Salt Lake County, the summit of the American Fork Twin Peaks (11,489’) that loomed over the Snowbird ski area. The tram at Snowbird reached pretty close to the peak at 11,000’, and the ski area has backcountry access gates, but my research indicated that the Snowbird ski patrol would likely keep the gates closed during my visit to Utah and arrest violators (according to an entry on Summitpost). I didn’t have the required partner and shovel to use the gates anyway. So I decided to bypass the ski area entirely and climb it using an entirely backcountry route from the White Pine trailhead, via the south ridge of the Red Top (11360’+) subpeak.

I found the plowed and paved turnoff to the White Pine Trailhead on the Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, just before the Snowbird ski area. I didn’t see any signs at all, so I guess they were buried by the snow—this was the only turnoff on the road in winter anyway. I parked in the lot there and started off at 8:30 AM, headed for the White Pine Basin, and, hopefully, the American Fork Twin Peaks.

Behind the outhouse at the trailhead I saw no real trail signs, but the paths and tracks in the snow clearly led downhill to a bridge across the Little Cottonwood Creek—the snow was up to the level of the bridge railings. Once across I saw from my GPS and its topographic basemap that I needed to head right (west) to reach the trails into the White Pine Basin, so I followed what seemed like the most likely tracks. These meandered flatly through open meadows along the main creek, below avalanche chutes far above. The tracks that seemed to be heading in the best direction were snowshoe tracks, so I followed them as they soon started uphill through forest. After some gain the main set of tracks abruptly ended, apparently where a party had turned around. One lonely set of tracks headed uphill steeply into thick forest, so I carefully switchbacked and kick-turned uphill, paralleling them the best I could.

I was starting to wonder about the wisdom of my quest at this point. The snow was heavy and breaking trail was hard work when I could not follow the snowshoe tracks exactly, and I knew I could not manage thousands of vertical feet of this kind of work. I also didn’t want to be the only person on the route. I considered bailing and doing a day of downhill runs at Snowbird instead, but decided to plug on until a major trail junction shown on the USGS map (WGS84: 40.56604,-111.68939) to see if a better uphill skin track could be found there.

Sure enough, at the junction area a myriad of ski and showshoe tracks all appeared, heading in many directions—I had clearly taken a poor route to this point. Now a very nice and obvious skin track led uphill, and I happily followed it through deep forest as I paralleled the west bank of the White Pine Creek. I was now making good uphill progress. I didn’t see anyone at all while heading up, but did hear some voices in the distance at one point. I could tell by all the uphill and downhill tracks that this area was a very popular backcountry skiing hotspot.

My plan was to get to the Red Top-Red Baldy col, which was up a left-hand (eastern) arm of the upper basin. I could tell from my GPS that my skin track was a bit on the right (western) side, but it was so easy to use the track that I was just happy to be gaining elevation quickly and figured when I got higher I would start to worry about veering left. The track did suddenly start a steep climb up to the right, which worried me a bit, but I thought I was still low enough (8900 feet) to be OK a bit off-route.

However, as I reached 9400 feet, it dawned on me, though obsessive GPS checking, that I was way too right, and I wanted to veer left way before even approaching White Pine Lake. So I reluctantly abandoned my nice skin track and took off to my left in bottomless snow on a slight rising traverse. I crossed a minor rib and found another skin track to use, but it had been made by one person and was still a lot of work to follow. This new track also soon started heading too far right for my taste, so I broke trail again to the left to the crest of a rib, where I could see my col destination. It looked like I had no choice but to drop down a few hundred feet, cross the main creek, and then head uphill into the sub-basin I needed to be in.

Upset at the lost time, I switched my A-T gear into downhill mode and skied downhill 300 feet in a series of traverses and swooping turns in super-deep manky concrete snow. There I found more skin tracks, and after putting my skins back on I used one to head uphill in approximately the right direction. I had to break trail briefly to finally get to a single-person skin track heading the right way—during this time a group of 4 skiers came by me heading downhill, the first other people I had seen since leaving the car.

I headed uphill, and as the trees began to clear a bit I came upon a solitary skier who was making the skin track I had been using. I caught up to him quickly, since I didn’t have to break trail, and we started chatting a bit. His name was Bill, a ski bum type guy who used to work at the gear website—he instantly recognized my rental ski gear and told me it was a sweet set-up.

I took over trail-breaking duties from Bill, since I had already been following his track, but soon we were above the remaining tree islands, where the cold of the higher elevations made the icy snow crust harder, sturdier, and easier for travel. The weather was now deteriorating, too, with a cold wind and some snow showers beginning to add some accumulation to last night’s dusting. Without any trees it was kind of a white-out, too, as we ascended into the upper bowls of the basin.

I was glad to have a partner at this point, both for safety and company. The avalanche risk was virtually nil given the icy snow crust and cold temperatures, but it was nice not to be alone in the white void of a minor blizzard above treeline, and chatting with Bill about skiing topics helped pass the time as we slogged uphill. His goal was just to get out for exercise and fun, but he seemed interested in at least getting to the Red Top-Red Baldy col on the ridge ahead.

The last part of the ski up to the col attacked a steep headwall, and while breaking trail I had to start switchbacking so my skins would not slip on the icy crust under a light snow covering. Near the top the ice started getting worse, and about five vertical feet from the very top my skis went out from under me—I started a slow slide downhill, but quickly arrested using my ski pole and punching my knee through the crust. It took me a couple minutes to dig out a more solid purchase on the snow and remove my skis, after which I hiked up the few feet to the crest of the col (10,700 feet, WGS84: 40.54454, -111.66254). It was now 1:30 PM.

Here Bill and I took a rest. The weather was not good, a windy white-out with ice-pellet snow. To the north, the ridge to the summit of Red Top (a forepeak of the American Fork Twins) was still barely visible, and we decided that hiking it would be the best idea. While eating and resting, two skiers appeared near the top of the ridge and skied down to us—they had just traversed out from the Snowbird ski area, and they told us that both the skiing and the weather above were pretty terrible. After hearing this, Bill decided to ski down from where we were. However, I was very close to my goal, so I thought I would head up the ridge.

So I said farewell to Bill, strapped my skis on my pack, and started booting up the narrow ridge as Bill took off into the whiteness below. The ridge was a mix of icy crust and windpacked snow, and I had to be careful not to get too far to my right where a minor cornice was forming. At first I had good footing in the windpack, but after about 300 feet of climbing I hit an icy patch where I was a bit nervous about slipping. I started thinking here about turning back—the weather was still a minor blizzard, these icy route conditions were not good, and I was now all alone. I didn’t think of it at the time, for some reason, but the real issue was that I had no crampons or ice axe—with those tools, the ridge hike would have been much easier and safer.

I hiked up a little bit more, encountering more icy boilerplate snow, and deliberated a bit more before finally deciding that I had better get my skis on and get the hell down from here. I was at almost 11,000 feet, just about 400 feet below the summit of Red Top, from which it was theoretically an easy stroll to the top of the Twins. But the weather was still horrible and I was still nervous from my previous slip on ice just below the col.

So I carefully took off my pack, removed the skis, placed them in a punched-out trench in the icy snow, took off the skins, tightened by boots up for downhill mode, and stepped into my skis, making sure they were pointing to my left, away from the steep and corniced right side of the ridge. I skied off to the left for a few feet, across some bulletproof ice, to a series of rocks. Here I decided not to try to turn on the narrow band of ice on the ridge, so I removed my skis for a short hike across the rocks and put them back on, now facing the large open slope (called “Long John Silver”, I think) on the west face of Red Top. All this time I was very nervous about losing my footing, my skis, my pack, or (worst case) my life to a long icy slide.

I finally started traversing across the face of Long Johns, and it was indeed terrible skiing—crusty sastrugi ice on a very steep slope, with a very light dusting of ice-pellet snow. At first I was terrified of trying to turn, so I lost elevation by extending my traverse and finally turning at the far side of the open area. One more long traverse brought me back to near the ridge, a dumb move that forced me to turn in a fairly narrow space. I finally went back into the middle of the slope, got my confidence fired up, and started firing off turns consistently down the slope.

It was still survival skiing, though—icy, steep, and the white-out made it difficult to tell when you had stopped. I made my way down to the flatter lower sections of the upper bowl, and then found the uphill skin track we had made and Bill’s downhill tracks, which I tried to follow. It was not as steep, but the snow was now like thick concrete and I still had vertigo problems in the whiteness until down into the treed areas.

Once in the trees my retreat was pretty straightforward. I took a short rest at one point to eat, drink, and change my GPS batteries, then followed meadows and lightly treed areas down to the main skin track at 8900 feet, where I had made my wrong turn on the way up. Then I had a fun run down through the thick forest, alternating between skiing on the skin track (sometimes too slick and fast) or turning in the deep snow (slow and difficult). At the trail junction from my uphill trip, I easily found the way I should have taken up, a nicely worn-in cat track that brought me right down to the bridge and the parking lot by 3 PM.

Despite not making the summit, I had enjoyed some adventurous exploring and backcountry skiing in the Wasatch wilderness. Better weather, better snow conditions, and carrying crampons would all have contributed to a more successful outcome, I believe, but I was still satisfied with the effort I had put forth this day towards a winter ascent of a fairly major peak.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3640 ft / 1109 m
    Total Elevation Loss:3640 ft / 1108 m
    Round-Trip Distance:8.1 mi / 13 km
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground
    Gear Used:
Skis, Ski Poles
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Very Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:3640 ft / 1109 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 3310 ft / 1009 m; Extra: 330 ft / 100m
    Loss on way in:330 ft / 100 m
    Distance:4.2 mi / 6.8 km
    Route:White Pine Basin
    Start Trailhead:White Pine TH  7670 ft / 2337 m
    Time:5 Hours 15 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:3310 ft / 1008 m
    Distance:3.9 mi / 6.3 km
    Route:White Pine Basin
    End Trailhead:White Pine TH  7670 ft / 2337 m
    Time:1 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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