“There’s new snow in the mountains.”
“We need to go investigate.”
“Where do you want to start looking?”
“Superior? West Bowl of Silver? Holy Toledo and Cardiac?”
“All excellent options.”
“Let me take a look at the map…”
And so started a chain of events that ended with us all being able to look back at one of those rare and astonishing days. That kind of superlative, effusive, iconic day where sun and snow and the stunning and enormous terrain seem to continually and constantly steal your breath, leaving you elated, euphoric, and alive.
The conversation was with Dug. Our plans changed slightly as the afternoon and evening wore on, but there was a thematic consistency brewing: we were going to ski powder. The only question was where?
“How about Bonkers?”
“Is that in Broads Fork?”
“Yeah. It’s been on my list for years. People say it’s amazing.”
“OK good. 6:15 at the mouth of Big Cottonwood.”
“I’ll be there.”
And I was. Although after Thursday’s expedition I was admittedly tired. Peeling myself out of bed for yet another Dawn Patrol was difficult. Especially so on a Saturday. But the prospects of skiing one of the most highly spoken of slopes in the Wasatch mountains dulled the groggy, blinkered fatigue. As I drove the thirty minutes to the mouth of the canyon I realized that despite the early hour and the achey muscles, that I was excited. And how could I not be? I was about to ski Bonkers.
Bonkers is an open, cliff lined bowl that features 2,500 vertical of uninterrupted turns. Tyson Bradley, the man who wrote the book on Wasatch backcountry skiing, claims to have once counted 375 turns in one continuous run. And even others, claim more. I don’t know how many turns I made during my virgin trip down that amazing slope. But I can tell you this: I wanted more. Alas, more will have to wait. But for now, I am still basking in the emotional alpenglow that illuminates the soul after such an adventure. It was that sort of day that skiers dream about, endlessly anticipate, and afterward, brag about and recount for years afterward. It was that good.
And I think the primary reason for that was the utterly breathtaking and visionary nature of the mountain. Indeed, sitting atop the saddle, looking into the infamous Stairs Gulch and beyond into the Salt Lake Valley was an awe-inspiring and euphoric experience. And knowing that I was on the verge of fresh Utah powder made it even more so. While awaiting Rob to hike an extra 200 feet up and across the ridge for the sole purpose of photographic documentation I started to grow impatient. My skis were thirsty for the powder below, their tips hung expectedly over the edge. The burn of legs and lungs that it took to gain the summit was long forgotten. What I wanted now to indulge in was the joy induced burn and breathless animation of the white room. I was just about to partake when Rob appeared in the vast whiteness – I nearly wore out the shutter on the camera as he drifted through the snow, leaving a most inspiring contrail of cold smoke behind.
When Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley, it is said that he surveyed the empty, barren, forsaken land and declared, with the confidence that only a man of his stature and accomplishment could muster, that “this is the right place”. And while he was a man of a prophetic and divinatory nature, I do not think he fully understood the entire implications of just how right* a place Utah would become. His declaration was religious and social, in the sense that Utah was the correct place to stop the Mormon trek into the West. It was the right place to build a city and a life. His priorities were survival, both literally and religiously. And remarkably, his people did not only survive, but thrived.
*And of course, Utah has become rather politically right – more red than the deepest red.
Shortly thereafter the granite walls of the Salt Lake canyons started to be explored. Silver, lead, and zinc deposits were discovered, leading to a rash of mining and industry. Towns like Alta and Park City sprung into being, taking on all the stereotypical considerations of western mining towns – namely booze and brothels**. It must have been a stark cultural contrast between the church-going public of the valley, and the roughnecks of the mountain towns. Although, I’m certain there must have been a significant amount of overlap. Just ask Porter Rockwell.
** Several peaks are said to be named after prostitutes. Patsey Marley among the most prominent. One can only wonder who Molly, of “Molly’s Nipple” fame, might have been.
Eventually the mining, the saloons, and the prostitution would be left to the regulatory control of government, leaving Utah’s citizens fleeing into the mountains seeking a different sort of treasure: snow. And on Saturday we found just that, very near the trio of lakes Blanche, Lillian, and Florence (we can only speculate where those names come from), and underneath the photogenic Sundial Peak. Although we were west of those features, traipsing below O’Sullivan and Dromedary and the Twin Peaks.
Falling to the north and west of our vantage point on the 11,000 foot saddle was Stairs Gulch, which offers a harrowing 5,000 foot drop into Big Cottonwood Canyon. Far below the S-curves, where our cars were parked, could be seen on the canyon floor. Stretching out to the west was that same valley that Brother Brigham called the “right place.” Now full of neighborhoods, strip-malls, churches, and elementary schools. The Oquirrhs looked far off and small on the disappearing horizon from our Wasatch perch.
When finally it was my turn to ski, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the endless fall line below me. The signatures of those who had already done so stood out in the untouched white. I plunged forward and downward, ready to leave my own temporary, unique line in the snow. I’ve never skied a run so long. So immense. Turn after turn. And yet, still, my companions were far below, featureless and anonymous against the white canvas of the mountain. Eventually, and elatedly I rejoined them. We looked back at the slope and counted the turns: one, two, a million.
A small group of tourers were nearby, with yet another 2,500 vertical above and between them and their own swoopy lines. They looked at us with palpable envy. But Bonkers is massive. And there were still endless and untracked possibilities awaiting at the top.
Brigham Young was more right than he ever knew.