With the explosion in popularity of backcountry skiing, there’s a risk that I use my years of experience in the sport as an excuse to look upon the johnny-come-latelys with a bit of disdain. This last weekend, I had to suppress the urge to yell, “Get off my lawn,” multiple times when Beartrap Fork seemed as busy as Catherine’s at Alta. However, my nature to seek solitude and isolation, the need to discover less trammeled areas leads me to the relatively obscure corners of the Wasatch, like it did a few weeks ago when myself and three friends searched for safe, tree protected snow on Millvue Peak.
This just under 9,000’ peak sits on the north boundary of Millcreek Canyon. With most of its slopes covered in trees, it seemed like a good bet on a day when the risk of triggering slides on higher, more exposed terrain, was high. The south face, which runs into Millcreek, is pretty steep, but the Lambs Canyon trailhead on the opposite side does provide access to the ridge from the north, which is the option we chose. More popular with snowshoers than skiers, this trailhead is found by taking the Lambs Canyon exit on the way to Park City and driving up the road to the first designated parking area with a pit toilet. The starting elevation is around 6,600’ and as we started up the trail, I already began training myself for an adventurous exit. Like Millcreek Canyon, the slopes were filled with deadfall, thinly covered and I suspected other travelers on the trail were not likely to expect descending skiers. It’s places like this where I feel backcountry skiers need to behave like guests with a privilege, not thrillseekers with a right. So please, be courteous if you do choose to ski here.
The route follows a draw to the southwest until about 7,700’ when it begins making a wide traverse up to a saddle that overlooks into Millcreek. While only at 8,200’, the vantage point is quite rewarding. Gobblers Knob and Mount Raymond are clearly visible across the canyon and back over your right shoulder you can see Mt. Aire. After a brief break to take in the view, we set our skis to the east and began skinning up the ridge to the summit. The final 700’ to the radio tower had its challenges. The sub-9,000’ elevation belied the peak’s steep and windswept west ridge and the sudden exposure to the south winds now had us grabbing layers out of our packs.
Less than 3 hours after leaving the vehicle, we were at the top, inspecting our options on this somewhat unimpressive peak. One of the things I like about skiing the upper reaches of canyons north of the Cottonwoods is the relative isolation one gets when they are removed from the sight of a ski resort. This is why we like to call it ski touring after all. I remember a friend in high school mentioning that her idea of the perfect life would be to live alone in a library. I can definitely relate to that feeling, although I might prefer the library to be a humble little cabin in a remote sub-alpine area. Each day I could see the subtle changes from one season to the next, watch the snow pile up on my roof and feel satisfaction knowing untracked slopes surrounded me. That spirit of isolation and the opportunity to live, even for a brief time, without any distraction is the spirit of this installment’s summit brew, Isolation by Odell Brewing.
I can’t remember when I discovered this seasonal beer from Fort Collins, but until last season, it had become a yearly ritual to drive to Evanston and seek it out. But last weekend, on a trip into Idaho, I saw it in the Ice Cave of a small Preston grocery store and remembered how much I loved it. The label displays a small, remote cabin with an evening glow emanating from the windows. You can’t help but want to see that cabin after a long day of touring, hanging your wet clothes by the fire and watching a new snowfall cover your tracks.
I’ve often maligned winter seasonal beers for overdoing it on the spice. Some people have a problem with fruit beers, I can do without an excess of star anise and nutmeg. Like egg nog, some winter seasonals lose their novelty before you even finish the bottle. But in the case of Isolation, Odell created a dark copper colored seasonal that I feel like is gone from store shelves way too soon. While bottles are normally not a great choice for “ski” summit brews, I had to start 2016’s blogs with this beer.
Looking north along the Wasatch and down into the empty depths below Alexander Basin, I zipped up my jacket and opened the bottle. Smooth and malty it seemed to warm me up as much as a hot beverage would. I like how both the sweet and bitterness stay out of the way of this beer. It has a medium body and very light hoppiness that cuts through the sweetness, just at the very end. The IBU is a very reasonable 42 in a world where IPAs seem to be driving the hop standards to the extreme. The fact that my IPA friend enjoys this beer as well tells me they got it right. When the opportunity comes to pour it in a glass, the cream colored head lasts through much of the beer and leaves a fairly thick lace on the glass. I think the nice caramel quality of this beer gives it all the “winter” season character that it needs. Savoring a beer like this in the backcountry feels pretty rewarding, (you can’t get it in Utah, you can’t get it year round) and like the tour up Millvue Peak, you tend to feel pleasure at choosing to go outside the norm and try something rare.
The mood of the day was beginning to change. We were losing our sun and it made me wish that instead of skiing back to my Outback, we were skiing to the cabin on the label. If we were, then that cabin was going to sit beyond some pretty thick trees with thin snow however, and we put a second lap out of our mind when we realized our short tour in the trees became a Rambo-exit. Back at the narrow bottom of Lambs Canyon, the boots came off and we sat at the car, gear spread out like a yard sale, and talked skiing. It would have been much nice in a cabin. If I squint and hold my nose, maybe that pit toilet could pass… nah.