Five Hours Atop Bear Lake Summit

Trailhead of Bear Lake Summit

There is a time, it seems, when no matter how much clothing you have on you are still naked. These are times when 'clothing' - the societal apparatuses we wrap around ourselves - just doesn't do much good. Those are times when you stand naked in front of the mirror, and the only thing that gets you through the day is what is on the inside, looking back at you, not what's on the outside. I had one of those moments backcountry skiing in the Bear River Mountains last weekend.

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The summit was an innocuous ridge dappled with high points leading to suggestive gullies, all of them draining the right side of Bear Lake Summit, about three miles east of Beaver Mountain Ski Area. Steve and I traded breaking trail around the back of the summit, following a summer road, and up the north face of the mountain, still several hundred feet above us. In a dark primeval forest of huge Douglas-fir the snow let up briefly, yet still stuck sideways to tree trunks. Steve took the lead, cutting a trail with his skis through the foot of new snow, and when we came out of the forest near the summit - 8,742 feet above sea level - clouds and fog swirled above and wind-whipped snow stung our faces, yet a pale sun shone weakly through it all.

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We were rimrocked - again. We weren't even pretending to ski now. Instead we wallowed like pigs, though not as happily, in snow up to our waists, skis off and held above us, groping trough sage and thick scrub. Just off the summit, hoping we knew where we were going in the low-visibility storm, we encountered our first cliff band, which we could scramble over. This cliffband, maybe halfway down the mountain, was much more formidable. I let gravity pull me down and we found a narrow couloir which lead us in between cliffs safely.

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Garden Canyon I've been in a lot of storms, but I'm still not sure I'd been in one like this. After the scant, empty promise of sun all its traces vanished and Garden City Canyon was plunged into an abysmal darkness of snow which blew uphill, following the contours of the mountain. It was snow, snow and more snow, snow on snow and snow blanketing fir and the occasional limber pine and snow on rocks and snow on our packs and jackets and snow so suffocatingly thick there seemed to be more of it than air. I was thinking about avalanches, I was thinking about how in the world were we going to ever drive down the canyon in this mess, and I was thinking about the snow we'd leave behind, unskied, when Steve turned to me and yelled through the storm, Let's head back, this is nuts.

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There is such a thing as too much snow. Today's helping was a foot of snow, much of it wind-blown and dense, on a shaky base of about three feet. The Eskimos are right; there are about a thousand different types of snow. Sometimes a foot of snow is just so much fluff. Today, in this blizzard, a foot of snow meant it was hard to get enough speed to turn. When I could turn, dropping a knee back in a telemark turn, I flung forward sailing face-first. Playing it safe, I paralleled down the slope and had more success, but was still breathless at the bottom. Steve and I started back up the mountain again - we had to climb the mountain to get back to the truck, which was on the other side - thinking maybe we could make another run. Then the storm came on, blowing snow up rather than down, and I knew we were done for the day.

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Jeff Skiing If it weren't for a pale sun shining through the storm we'd be good and lost. As it were we were merely disoriented, trudging across open gentle bowls looking for the other side of the mountain; my truck was parked down there somewhere. I broke trail across this, hopefully, last bowl. The slope cracked and oomphed the whole way - sure signs of instability - but we were already on it. Rather than retreat into who-knows-what Steve hung back while I went across first; with just one of us on a section of the slope at one time, there was less chance for our weight to set off a slide. But at one point I looked back and Steve, just 25 yards behind, had disappeared into the storm.

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In Logan we brushed an inch of new snow off the truck, checked out of the Best Western, grabbed a dozen bagels and coffee, and headed up Logan Canyon. It was day but dark; the road was slick and wet. Steve, who lived in Logan while attending Utah State University years ago, pointed out cliffs he climbed, mountains he summitted and caves he spelunked. Five miles into the 30-mile canyon it started to snow - hard - and stick and at the ten mile point I pulled off the road, locked the hubs, and shifted into high range and four wheel drive. By the Tony Grove trailhead we were into a thick blizzard, cars were sliding off the road, and tandem pairs of snowplows scraped the roadway in a billowing rush of powder. Past the turnoff to Beaver Mountain the road was a windswept blur of snow; occasionally a snowmobiler crossed the road from valley to valley. We passed Peter Sinks - a low depression, the site of a -69 degree morning, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Utah - on our far right. The trailhead was a DOT plow shed. We pulled into the lot in front of the shed as another team of plows was set to depart. I opened the truck door and wind grabbed it from me. I stepped out of the truck and down into a foot of snow that covered the parking lot. Snow swirled into the cab as Steve chomped on a bagel. Already, the mountain loomed above us, lost in storm.

A special thank you to Best Western Weston Inn.

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