Skiing Utah's Suicide Chute
Skiing Utah's Suicide Chute is a rite-of-passage for any Wasatch backcountry skier. The chute, located off the south ridge of Mt. Superior stares at you from Alta and beckons you to ski it. About this time last year, I watched a video of Angel Collinson and Erik Roner skiing the iconic line. It looked magical and certainly planted a seed with me.
Rise and Shine
It's still dark outside when a familiar twinkling sound softly causes me to wake. I hear this sound every morning, letting me know that my slumber has come to an end and it's time to begin my day. But why is it still so dark? Then I remember. Chris and I decided to ski Suicide Chute before the next snow storm deemed conditions too dangerous to ride for a while. But my bed feels like the coziest place in the world at the moment; I'm warm and weightless in a swaddle of down. Please don't make me get up! Yet I do.
Our gear was all ready to go the night before. Bags packed with essentials. Shovel, beacon, probe. Helmet, goggles, gloves. Even our PB&Js are safely tucked away along with a bottle of water. Chris begins making some oatmeal as I grind coffee for the french press to take on the road. We're efficient in our silent preparation for our day's venture and are out the door in 20 minutes. Skis and poles are thrown in the back of the truck, boots are up front with us to stay warm.
No more than 45 minutes later we pull into the upper parking lot at Snowbird. We were surprised at how quickly we made it over to Little Cottonwood Canyon from our home in Park City. When the roads are clear, the drive is smooth. Maybe too smooth. The caffeine from our coffee doesn't seem to have done much for me as we turn the engine off. I would much rather close my eyes and take a nap than step out into the cold to put hard plastic boots on my feet and a heavy pack on my back in order to climb a mountain. But, of course, I do.
Before long, the alpenglo begins to illuminate our skin track. Headlamps are no longer needed to light our way, and I feel my body begin to wake up. And then... I see the mountains.
The last time I saw Mt. Superior covered in snow was last March. I had been a guide for Kristen Ulmer's Ski To Live camps, one of the most life-changing, perspective-framing events of my life, and was inspired to FaceTime my father from atop High-Boy at Alta. For some reason I felt that my father might never see those mountains again, and I wanted to give him the chance to see them one more time. So I called, and he answered. A lot of the time I resent the conflict of technology interfering with one's appreciation of nature, but that day I couldn't have been more grateful for the geniuses behind the internet and the iPhone. It turned out that my hunch was right, my dad passed away the following month.
Now, here I am again. Alive, and seeing this mountain shrouded in snow once again. I get to climb it and ski it. Who needs caffeine? Chris and I are the only ones on this mountain and suddenly I'm lit up with excitement and appreciation for our day. Who knows how many thousands have seen Mt. Superior before us, and how many thousands will after us, but this mountain, blanketed in this exact snow, is for our eyes only. It is changed as soon as we glide our skis across its surface and place a boot-pack in the newly fallen snow. The mountain is generous and welcoming. We are lucky to be here to enjoy its offerings.
The Boot Pack
The approach up the apron was short and sweet. In just over an hour we began removing our skis and strapping them to our packs. Crampons went on our feet and our ice axes came out of our packs. The boot-pack would be the brunt of this climb, so we were glad that the initial approach was so gentle. Making one's way up Suicide Chute varies in technicality depending on what time of year you're making the approach. It's still mid-December and we haven't quite seen the effects of El Nino just yet... For us, this means that the entrance (and later, the exit) to the chute has a small ice fall (no more than 10 vertical feet) that we need to maneuver before the straight boot pack begins.
Despite some fresh snow, our feet easily find the icy surface below. Crampons were a great decision. The ice axe however, was debatable. At one point I told Chirs that I wished I had a whippet, and he replied "I wish I had another ice axe!" The discrepancy could be due to the fact that I was using a 50 cm ice axe and his was 60 cm, but given that he's at least 10 cm taller than me, I'm not sure that reasoning is valid. Still, I had to bend over pretty far in order to find a firm surface that my iceaxe would plant on and I really didn't need to use the pick end of the ice axe at all.
Conditions were pretty easy for our approach, all-in-all. Neither one of us had serious issues with our gear, just minor details we'd like to improve upon.
It didn't take long for Chris to move well in front of me on this part of the approach. I wasn't moving slowly, but I wasn't about to win an Olympic medal with my performance. So, I did my best to settle-in, something I've found very useful for my bouts with racing mountain bikes. Granted, I realize this chute is child's play compared to what's out there in the world, but it was still hard-work. The sound of my feet pressing through the snow and finding the ice below, served as a metronome for my thoughts. Day-dreaming about the skiing to come, reflecting on my past, letting go of my former-self step-by-step. My glutes were burning and I was sweating, but I could see the top. I could see the top for so long, and I just kept lying to myself, saying "you're almost there, Jen." My body seemed to believe me as I pressed on. Eventually that lie became truth and I stepped out of the couloir onto the saddle overlooking a view of the Salt Lake valley below.
Skiing Utah's Suicide Chute
The ski down always goes too quickly, yet somehow it makes the uphill well worth it. The further we worked our way up the chute, the more filled in it seemed to get. This time, we seriously lucked out on conditions. The skiing was a blast! There is something that feels really exhilarating about chute skiing, even when the pitch isn't super steep. (Suicide Chute is also known as "Country Lane" because it never gets over 40 degrees). But charging between rock walls, and visibly seeing the valley floor getting closer, makes you well aware of your surroundings and your speed.
There was significant powder the entire way down, until the exit. Due to early season conditions, the chute wasn't entirely filled in. You had to be precise and calculated in your turns to avoid some rocks hidden just beneath the surface. Keeping speed under control was key. The trickiest part was working our way through the choke at the exit. We side-stepped our way down and each did a quick jump-turn in order to straight-line the choke. It didn't exactly go as planned for either one of us, as the snow on the apron we exited onto was not ideal, but we survived. Then we got to enjoy some sweet and soft low-angle turns on our way back to the car.
I highly recommend skiing this Wasatch classic line. Be safe, get educated and only ski with partners that you know and trust. The mountains should never be taken for granted!