Saturday, May 9, 2015

Into Less Dense Air, the Ben Lomond/Willard Peak Expedition of 2015

If you have never climbed the face to the summit of Ben Lomond Peak in Weber County, Utah, be prepared for a unique experience.

Prologue –

Our extensive planning for this expedition began last Tuesday when Misty threw out the invite to summit Ben Lomond and Willard peaks the hard way, up the front face. 
Our planned route
There wasn’t any snow remaining, the weather looked to be perfect, why not.
So plans were made, gear assembled, support crew fully staffed, and five of us made the climb on that fateful day last Saturday.  Misty Alessandri, our fearless leader, Curtis Thompson, our resident drug dealer, Corey Vigil, our Postal Service representative, Forrest Stuart, master roofer, and myself, just a hanger on and wanna be expedition member.
We knew that this climb would be arduous, difficult, breathtaking in more ways than one, and a hell of a lot of fun.  Nonetheless, we felt we were up to the task that lay before us.
Our route was carefully planned through many many years of route finding, looking up the mountainside, and just generally saying to each other “let’s go that way”.
We gathered on that fateful Saturday morning at the North Ogden Gravel Pit trailhead.  An inauspicious start to be sure, but it was convenient for everyone and close to town.  Looking over our gear, I could tell that we were definitely ready to go.  Everyone had their hydration packs, an assortment of gels and other foodstuffs (I use that term loosely), appropriate clothing (for the most part), and a sense of comradery that made us more confident and sure of ourselves than we had a right to be.
We had meticulously calculated that this trek would take us about 6 hours, 37 minutes given our level of fitness, the distance, and the prevailing winds.

The Journey –

We began our epic adventure (a way overused term) promptly at 6am or so.  Leaving the trailhead just as dawn was breaking.  We trotted and hiked easily towards the North Ogden Divide Road, then beyond that along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, knowing that we would be able to establish our base camp in less than an hour.
We arrived at our base camp location and stopped to decide which way would be the best to go as we headed up Thompson Canyon. 
Near Base Camp
We could hear the snowmelt rushing down the canyon and a few of us wondered if we would be able to make the climb up through the rushing water (I just made that last part up, but it sounds good).
As we left base camp and trekked towards Camp #1, we bantered back and forth, traded ribald comments, and generally were in good spirits. 
Starting up Thompson Canyon photo: Misty Alessandri
Little did we know that by later that morning, we would be rethinking our decision to make this trek.  We climbed on and made it to Stuart Spring in good time.  We stopped for a drink of the clear, cold water, ate some breakfast (or lunch, I don’t remember), and carried on towards Camp #1.
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We made Camp #1 about one hour into our expedition, and since we felt no need to actually camp (plus having no actual camping gear with us), we carried on, and began the dangerous climb up Alessandri Rockfall.  We knew this portion of the climb would probably be the most dangerous.  Nothing but a huge, very loose scree field made up of big rocks, big, very loose rocks, and a 45 degree slope.  We spread out across the face as best we could so that if someone did kick some rocks loose, those below stood a better chance of avoiding being crushed, buried, or otherwise damaged.
Heading up Alessandri Rockfall

Nearing the top of the rockfall

During this climb, we did set off a couple of rock avalanches that, had someone been below, would have resulted in someone getting a scrape or two. 
Eventually we made it through Alessandri Rockfall and to our Camp #2 location. 
Camp 2 location
Once again, since we had no camping gear, and it only took a couple of hours, we pressed on up Vigil Ridge.  Vigil Ridge isn’t particularly difficult except that it’s about a 30 degree slope at 8500’. 
Although we all knew that we would be trekking to high elevations, none of us thought to take along supplemental oxygen.  Stupid us.  We were all feeling the effects of oxygen deprivation when we noticed a huge storm bearing down on us.  There was very little in the way of shelter along this ridge, but we did manage to take cover while we were graupeled (look it up) on for the next five minutes or so.  Once the vicious storm had passed, we again headed upward.  Our next milestone being the Farka Step.
Hunkering down waiting out the vicious storm.  Note the snow on Misty's hat 
The Farka Step involves a rock scramble of about 20’-30’ that can’t be avoided.  If one were to fall off this step, they would be looking at a fall of 30’ or so, enough to kill you, or at least make you hurt a bit.  Now I’m a chickenshit when it comes to stuff like this, so I was a bit worried about going up this, but I figured if everyone else can do it, so can I.  Somehow I managed to make it up and over and lived to tell the tale.  After going over the Farka Step, it was a short little hike to the summit.  We had made our first objective of the day, and it had only taken us three hours (plus or minus).
Once we made the summit of Ben Lomond, our first comments were “holy crap, there’s a lot of snow up here”. 

Yours truly on the summit
Looking along the ridge over to Willard Peak, most of the trail was covered in snow, but the trail over by the peak itself was clear.  So after the requisite pictures proving we made the summit, off we went, along the ridgeline towards Willard Peak.  This was a bit of slow going, and we had all sorts of snow to cross (let the postholing begin), but we did get over to the clear trail and even managed to trot a bit in the process.  As we rounded a corner along a particularly steep slope, we saw a huge snow drift blocking our path.  Knowing that if we traversed and someone slipped, they would slide to their doom (to the tune of several hundred feet) we elected to climb up and around that snow field.  Needless to say, this added a bit of time, what with climbing up, then boulder hopping, then back down to the trail.  It was at this point that we collectively decided that Willard peak wasn’t getting bagged today.  Indeed, we were looking at a substantial increase in our time.
Willard Peak in the distance.  Ridge running time.
We headed along the trail on the west face of Willard towards Inspiration Point.  Once we made the saddle between Willard and Inspiration, we looked out over Willard Basin and Curtis was the first to say “we’re screwed”.  We weren’t really screwed, but our original plans went flying out the window.  Nothing but snow, lots and lots of snow.  Now during the summer, we would just go downhill towards a small lake, catch the Mantua Road, and continue on our way.  Going down that slope in these conditions was out of the question.  Steep slope of snow, probably 10’ feet deep, potential postholing, potential of getting hurt.  Yep, not going that way.  So on towards Inspiration Point we went.  Our thinking was that at Inspiration Point we might be able to at least follow the road, buried though it was.  Plus, following the road made for a less steep descent. 
Looking at Willard Peak from Willard Basin
At this point, we had covered less than half of the distance we needed to cover, we had spent double the time that we had planned covering it.  The outlook was looking bleaker and bleaker with every passing minute. 
Trekking across Willard Basin
Oh wait, no it wasn't really, just a lot more work and time than we had planned on.
We began our descent into Willard Basin using a combination of the road, and just going straight downhill.  At times the postholing was hip deep.  Corey postholed to his hip once and got his foot stuck.  He had to dig down to his shoe to free his leg from a certain snowy doom.  We did think about just leaving him to his fate, but opted not to.
Meanwhile, we were scanning for the best, easiest, and quickest way across the basin to the road.  We considered three options.  One, just going down to the stream at the bottom of the canyon and following it out.  Two, following the road as it traversed around the south side of the basin.  Three, going straight down into the canyon, crossing the stream and straight up the other side to the road.  We tossed option one since we didn't know if we would cliff out at some point.  That would not be good.  I argued for option two, since it involved less climbing, just a long traverse on snow.  This option was vetoed as well.  Option three was a straight down descent to the creek, through snow, crossing the creek, and ascending 700’ up the other side.  Very steep on both sides, but the far side was snow free and that appealed to us.  So down through the thickets, thorns, and snow we went.  On the other side of the creek, a steep ascent to the road.  At least this part wasn’t snowy and didn’t have as much vegetation.
Finally, at about 12:30-1:00pm we made the Mantua Road.  Although snow covered in places, we were able to make reasonably good time in the places that were snow free.  We were thinking that we might need to take that road all the way to Mantua, but once we made the trail turnoff, we knew we were home free.  At last, snow free single track. 

Sweet single track
Now we had nine miles of blissful, downhill single track.  At last, we were able to actually run.  Needless to say, the rest of the run was pretty uneventful, down we went, through the trees, descending the switchbacks, enjoying the scenery, the beautiful day.

Postlogue –

We finally made it to the gravel pit in Perry at about 3:30pm.  It took us fully 9.5 hours to cover just over 20 miles.  Yep, we didn’t set any speed records on this “run”.  We were all beat, tired, thirsty, hungry.  Forrest’s wife Pam met us with a cooler full of beer, chocolate milk, Gatorade, and also brought two Papa John’s pizzas.  Yeah, we devoured those pretty quick.

Words of Wisdom –

Sounds like a great adventure doesn't it?  And it was.  We had fun, we saw places that very few people see at that time of year.  We got to experience something other than the standard trail run.  However, things could have gone horribly wrong in a heartbeat, necessitating the need for rescue, perhaps a long cold night out, severe injury, or worse.  What kept us from that and made our journey safer?  Several things.  First, we are all in very good shape to be able to just travel that distance.  Second, we are all experienced at moving quickly through the backcountry, regardless if there’s a trail or not.  Third, we were all familiar with that area of the mountains.  All of us had been up in that area numerous times.  Fourth, we made good, smart, collective decisions on which way to go.

Here's the Strava -

Some bonus pics