The Battle of the Cottonwood Canyons

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(Photo by Derek Edwards and Kolby Howell)
(Photo by Derek Edwards and Kolby Howell)
(Photo by Derek Edwards and Kolby Howell)

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON

During the winter, the north-facing side of Little Cottonwood Canyon is populated by inbound-skiers attempting to recreate a Greg Stump ski film. But just across the road, you’ll find plenty of uphillers with similar visions of grandeur. There’s a good reason for this: Little Cottonwood Canyon is steep. Really steep. Ski touring in Little Cottonwood is performed with the mindset of going straight up and then straight back down.

Every time I drive into the canyon, my mind wanders to M.C. Escher’s 1930 cliffside lithograph, “Castrovalva.” The sides of the canyon have this Escher-like presence that borders on the vertigo-inducing style of his steep-hilled pictures. This quality perhaps explains the canyon’s appeal as a proving ground of sorts for Utah’s extreme sports community. Little Cottonwood is home to chutes like the “Y-Couloir” and “Suicide Chute,” which are absolutely and unforgivingly steep, with insane drops and avalanche hazards. It takes a certain amount of masochism to ski this terrain.

I doubt you could meet anyone at the Mount Superior trailhead (the one just behind the sheriff’s office) who would describe him or herself as risk-averse. Living on the edge is just part of the backcountry scene of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

It is possible to ski less-intense lines in the canyon, especially as you move up from Flagstaff Ridge toward Grizzly Gulch. My touring partner and I even enjoy the easier runs in the Binx’s Ridge area. That said, any tour in the canyon will still make you fight for the uphill. There always seems to be an easy way to blow out your lungs during a ridgeline ascent here.

The climbs may be difficult, but they aren’t unpopular. The horde of destination backcountry skiers up the canyon is ever-growing. But how could it not be? Little Cottonwood skiing features incredible views and heart-pounding steep descents. Everyone knows the canyon invariably gets the most and best snow in the state, so get up there early if you want first tracks.

 

(Photo by Derek Edwards and Kolby Howell)
(Photo by Derek Edwards and Kolby Howell)

BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON

Big Cottonwood Canyon also has some epically steep lines. Andrew McLean devotes 16 pages to them in his classic book The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains.

But it only takes a tiny taste of this touring scene to immediately notice it is distinctly different from the one in Little Cottonwood. Look at both canyons on a topographic map and you’ll see why they are named the way they are — Big Cottonwood is the wider of the two canyons by far. Around a dozen forks and hollows feed off of the main portion of Big Cottonwood, while Little Cottonwood runs straight up to its main ridgeline on either side.

Understanding that there are similar elevations on the main ridgelines and floors of both canyons, it’s easy to see why Big Cottonwood Canyon is home to a much mellower scene. Having stretched out a bit, it has the same qualities of your roommate coming back from a yoga class: a bit more forgiving, slightly less harsh. It’s certainly much easier to find lines with less consequence and at reasonable angles than it is in Little Cottonwood.

In a reflection of the setting, the canyon’s recreationalists also have way less attitude. And the neighboring out-of-bounds scene reflects this laid-back vibe. Brighton Resort also has relaxed policies regarding area boundaries and uphill traffic — a rare thing in an industry now seemingly intent on squeezing every last dime from property access. They even do single-ride lift tickets for those looking to just pass through.

The atmosphere, access, and angles make for easy and fairly quiet excursions, provided there’s enough snow. It’s often possible to trek for some distance in the western-most forks of the canyon without encountering any other groups. While the Lackawaxen Bowl behind Brighton can be a bit treacherous, it’s the easiest thing to slip out the Great Western Lift Gate and head the other direction to do some ridgeline skiing back down into the resort. For a happy in-between medium of tour length and traffic density, Willow Fork, across the road from Solitude Mountain Resort, makes for some easy turns with only a short hike out from the parking lot.

This canyon is an ideal touring destination if you want to get out of the smog and into the trees quickly. Generally it’s a good place to go uphill to get away from it all, and you probably don’t even need to bring your ski crampons.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Backcountry skiing is a hazardous activity, regardless of where you go. Always make sure to reference the Utah Avalanche Center’s daily report. You should also pack the proper safety equipment before venturing out-of-bounds, and choose your touring partners as judiciously as where and when you ski.

d.edwards@chronicle.utah.edu

@terminallysilly

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