When I sit down to write these blogs, most of the time I am in my study (doesn’t that sound more sophisticated than “office”) where a large framed picture of a snow covered peak is on the wall to my right. I bought this poster up at Alta not long after I moved to Utah and the focus of it is Mt. Superior emerging and reclining from the cloudy depths of Little Cottonwood like a grand, white throne emerging from the smoke of Valhalla. On a clear day, a skier at either of the Little Cottonwood resorts would be transfixed on Mt. Superior like nothing else in the Wasatch. The uninterupted south face broadly fans out from its small, rounded peak and becomes a monumental bastion on the wall that divides Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons’. I have always felt a little empty looking at that poster, not only because I have yet to ski Mt. Superior, but also because I’ve never even been to the top. I realize mountains need not be climbed to provide inspiration, but the effect of looking at this poster was similar to the effect Cindy Crawford’s poster had on me in my younger years, “If the poster is that good looking, imagine what it’s like in reality!?” Fortunately for me, this poster doesn’t create awkward surprises with dorm partners, and unlike Cindy Crawford, I can experience Mt. Superior.
The route to Superior will be obvious to anyone who has visited Alta. Park west of the High Rustler Lodge and follow the trail behind the Alta municipal buildings towards the large bowl with the powerlines running up it. Once you reach the point where the powerlines descend into Big Cottonwood canyon, follow the ridge west to the summit. The hike seemed a little odd at first. The “powerline” trail that I was following wasn’t blanketed in snow as I’m accustomed to seeing when backcountry skiing. While the north facing slopes of Alta to my back were snow covered on Oct. 20th, the south facing slope I was ascending was still bare. About 45 minutes after setting out from my truck at 8,700′, I had reached Cardiff Pass at 10,000′. This divide between Big and Little gives an expansive view north into Cardiff Fork and the rest of the Wasatch beyond.
Because I felt like avoiding the snow as much as possible, I traversed around the south side of the small peak that is west of the pass and dropped into the large bowl above Hell Gate where numerous mountain goats were grazing. They looked at me with their big black alien eyes and allowed me to get incredibly close. Maybe they are docile just because of the amount of human interaction they experience in the Wasatch, but I also think they watched my pathetic attempt to stalk them and they realized they could go anywhere on a mountain much faster than me, so why bother rushing off like some simplistic, tick-ridden mule deer.
The trail continued just below the ridge on the south side and saved me the up and down of a small peak just before the climb to the top. I thought this small peak was Little Superior, but I have also read some accounts that call the small peak west of Cardiff Pass Little Superior. Either way, the real climbing began beyond this little peak on the saddle below the long eastern ridge of Superior. The ridge was pretty sharp and a large, round headed pinnacle erupted from the iron-oxide colored arête and so began the first of many obstacles to the summit.
Because of the loose scree on the southern slope, I put my micro-spikes on my boots and followed some footprints into the snow on the north side of the ridge. Only a few feet down, I left the pleasant autumn sun and entered winter. My feet crunched into the faintly familiar snow and I was chilled by the shade. Looking down a long, smooth white bowl, I felt my ungloved fingers go numb from reaching into the snow for balance. I backtracked and crossed back to the south side of the ridge just past the obstacle. From there, I picked up a faint trail in the jagged talus that traversed across the face of the mountain.
This was where the climb got dicey. While there wasn’t a sheer drop off to contend with, any slip on this small, splintered rock would probably result in a long slide down before I could arrest myself. Unlike some peaks where the scree is large enough that you can feel confident in the footing, the face of Superior was a gauntlet of furrowed channels filled with painfully sharp embedded rock splinters and slippery, gravelly streams of candy bar sized rocks. The one exception was a section on the ridge where the rock had been flatened out, sidewalk style for about 20 feet. It was a welcome respite.
After 40 minutes of struggling around the south face, I started to feel the adrenaline that comes with upward movement towards the top. After the tedium of down-climbing around tricky spots and getting tricked by one false summit, the end was finally within reach. 2 hours and 37 minutes after leaving my Xterra, I was on top of Mt. Superior. At 11,060′ the summit is actually lower than Monte Cristo to the west, which shows up as “Superior Peak” on USGS maps, but I was satisfied with the accomplishment none the less.
At the top, it was time for a much deserved SummitBrew as well as an offering to Ullr, the Norse god of winter. For the past few years, I have made an annual ritual of offering liquor to Ullr on a Wasatch hike in return for his blessing of a bountiful ski season. The first attempt at this didn’t go so well when I combined cheap booze and a modest hike. Last year however, I went the steep climb to the top of Kessler Peak and poured out some Macallan Scotch. In return we were rewarded with one of the longest and most plentiful snow years in recent memory. Given that sort of “cause and effect” evidence, I had to feel pretty good about this sojurn. Within my overloaded day pack was not only a flask of smokey Talisker scotch but also a Nimbus Pale Ale brought all the way from Arizona.
Brewed in Tucson, this American style pale ale has a consistent, hoppy bitterness that lingers without an initial bite or an overbearing aftertaste. The beer pours cloudy gold and has a thin head that lightly clings to the glass. The finish is buttery smooth, a texture that balances both light summer and hearty winter and a thin body. The beer has an IBU of 38 and the bitterness builds subtly as you drink it, which I thought was kind of unusual. However, you can really savor the bitterness of the hops without being overpowered. For an American pale, I thought it had a low malt character while also lacking an overbearing fruit note. Nimbus Pale Ale comes in at 5.5% ABV, so while I would have loved drinking the whole bottle, for a climb like Mt. Superior, I was happy to share half of it with Ullr.
I also took a quick sample of Talisker scotch, which has as smoky a flavor of any scotch I’ve ever drank. However, the overall taste is smooth and finishes well. There really is no “bite” at all in this lone scotch from the Isle of Skye. Even though the character of it is predominantly smoke, it doesn’t have any fire. While most skiers may prefer the alarming flavor of something like Jagermeister or whiskey to accelerate their ambition, I was quite content with the mellow but rewarding libations I brought to the top. The combination of Mt. Superior, Nimbus Pale Ale and Talisker Scotch were all hopefully working their magic in the early fall sun as I sat on a small pile of rocks on the west end of the mostly snow covered, narrow summit. The view stretched north down into the canyons of Big Cottonwood and then back up along the Wasatch towards Mt. Ogden. To the west I looked over the long Wasatch Crest that continued on from this peak towards Twin Peaks, which were all hidden behind Monte Cristo’s 11,140′. Best of all though may have been the view east which covered the whole way to the Uintas.
With the sun already lowering in the west and flattening the Pfeifferhorn, Thunder Mountain and other peaks into a light blue silhouette, I had to start heading down. My final look was down the south face towards the bottom of the canyon. I thought about the sensation of starting down this run on skis. Here, high up in the sky, I gave Ullr his fair share of beer and scotch and thanked him for last years gifts and urged him to repeat the favor this season.
For more photos from this hike visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/beatrider51/sets/72157627844741217/