Like most people, the spring of 2020 was a lot different for me than I thought it would be. In early April I was finishing up six months of structured training and looking forward to eight weeks in the Alaska Range. Unfortunately, by mid-April the Alaska season was cancelled, as was my summer guiding season in Europe. I picked up a construction job and started to shift my short-term mountain goals to weekend objectives closer to home.
The first two challenges that came to my mind were the Grand Traverse in the Tetons (four hours away), and the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup (WURL) that starts four miles from my house. Until May 31st of this year, it had been a decade since I had been into Grand Teton National Park. The last ten years have been a lot of travel for me. When I’m home I generally stay in the local Wasatch peaks. Ironically, I had also not completed the full WURL since I’m usually gone from April-October when the ridges are free of snow and quick to travel on.
It only took a day or two to shift my rhetoric from ‘woe is me’ to ‘opportunity knocks’. The plans I had in Alaska involved large single day pushes, so I figured a snowy grand traverse and the WURL would both be good litmus tests. I started to look at the spring as an opportunity to see if the training stimulus was sufficient, and to begin planning and adapting the next cycle for Alaska 2021. I talked to two friends, Sam Hennessey and Michael Gardner, who both had similar Alaska plans cancelled. Serendipitously, they have intimate knowledge of the Teton range from guiding there for years and putting up impressive summer times on the Grand Traverse. Neither had not done the whole traverse in spring conditions and both were excited about the idea.
On Saturday May 30, I made the drive up from Salt Lake to Teton Village, and at 2:30AM Sam, Michael, and I met in the Lupine Meadows parking lot and started talking about our chances. Michael had turned around days before from an objective due to poor snow conditions and daytime heating. We figured we would find out early in the day if conditions were not ideal. We set off with the mentality, ‘If you don’t go you will never know’.
We were relieved as we hit the snow on Mount Teewinot and it was supportable but never overly firm to the point that crampons were required. Three hours out of the parking lot we were standing on top of Teewinot, our first of nine named highpoints for the day. Looking out at the remainder of the traverse it was obvious we had some adventure in store for us.
The snow conditions stayed manageable on the high ridges. We rarely sank past our knees in the rapidly consolidating spring snowpack.
The three of us moved quickly through the snowy ridges, and I was grateful to be traveling with two guys who knew the terrain so well.
Our big 'question mark’ for the day was the north face of the Grand. We hoped the Italian Cracks would by dry enough to provide reasonable passage. Our other option was a mixed line we thought might provide an icy route through the north chimney. We ultimately decided on the Italian Cracks, and other than a few feet of wet rock it was beautiful, warm and sunny climbing on stellar granite.
With the Grand Teton behind us, it was just a matter of continuing to move and staying motivated to keep the ridge. One by one we worked through the remaining high points, and paused for a brief moment on top of Nez Perce to admire the range.
Looking back at the terrain we had traveled through, it was hard to believe we had made it through so much snowy high alpine terrain that day. The mix of glissading and running down 5200’ vertical was a blur. We hit the car 18 and a half hours after leaving it. Which meant I only had 10 and a half hours till I had to be at work. I drove thru the night, slept a few hours in Twin Falls, and made it to work with 20 minutes to spare! I felt like I made the most of my Sunday.
Objective 2- Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup
A few weekends of unsettled weather kept me from trying the WURL until June 27. After knowing about the WURL for 10 years, my schedule and weather finally lined up to give it a shot. I always thought it would be interesting to try and do it in an unsupported style, while there were snow patches around to melt water from. It is common practice for people to leave water jugs and food bins at key points along the ridge so they can travel with just 1-2 liters of water and nothing else. I set off at 2:30AM with 5,000 calories, 1 liter of water, a small stove, ½ liter pot, and a 4oz isobutene canister.
Previously, I had traveled through each section of the WURL, but never all in one continuous effort, and mostly in winter with skis on. The path would be a bit different with the ridges almost completely devoid of snow. Despite the disadvantages of some on-the-go route finding, moving with an eight-pound pack and running shoes felt like I was flying compared to wallowing through a winter snowpack in ski boots with skis in tow!
Within 3.5 hours in I was on top of Dromedary Peak, and soon took a break to melt snow and catch up on calories. The section from Drom to Superior is mostly fun ridgeline scrambling. However, I had to make sure to keep looking straight ahead, as the view to the south is of the final third of the traverse, which looks impossibly far away! At 5 hours 25 minutes I was on top of Superior and ready to move on what most people consider the ‘mellow third’ of the WURL. In upper Little Cottonwood the peaks start to become more grassy and rolling terrain: evidence of a historically more glaciated area. Fortunately, my friend Ryan met up with me to boost morale from Twin Lakes Pass to Catherine’s Pass.
My legs felt heavy as we parted ways and I headed up towards Rocky Point. I felt that if I could make it to Hidden Peak at Snowbird then the rest of the traverse would happen. I kept plodding along the ridge of Devil's Castle, from Alta into Snowbird.
I was fortunate enough to have another friend, Bobby, join in at Hidden Peak and travel across with me to the American Fork Twin Peaks (the highest points in the central Wasatch). As Bobby dropped off the ridge I headed toward Red Stack, which hosts some of the most tediously sized scree and talus I have encountered.
Descending off Red Stack and starting up Red Baldy, my fatigue was noticeable in the heat of the day. The fact that I only had 8 remaining out of the 21 peaks comprising the traverse kept me positive and moving forward.
Moving towards the Pheifferhorn my pace slowed significantly. I told myself if I just continue to move that progress will happen. Soon, I had only Bighorn and Lone Peak left.
Around 8 pm I was standing on Lone Peak, 17.5 hours after I started. As I moved along the ridgeline of Upper Bells Canyon I heard, “Alan, is that you?” Wondering if I was experiencing fatigue-induced hallucinations, I nervously looked over. To my pleasant surprise I saw a couple of friendly faces. It was Brooke and Adam, two people I had taught a mountaineering course to the year before. They were putting their skills to good use, climbing rock routes in the Lone Peak Cirque. After a much needed social interaction, our descent routes took us in different directions. I started to figure out terrain I had not yet traveled in, looking for a notch leading down into Bells Canyon.
From a distance I spotted that the descent gully still had snow for about 600’ vertical feet. I was wearing running shoes with no crampons or ice axe so I was nervous, to say the least, about going down this steep chute after 18 hours on the move. I picked up a rock to use for self-arrest, and started a combination of down climbing the snow and wedging myself between the rock wall and snow to make it down the final, difficult section of the route.
As I hit dry ground I felt my anxiety lower, until it donned on me that I had only ever skied in Upper Bells Canyon, and that finding a faint trail in fading light may prove difficult. I spent over an hour stumbling through talus fields and spruce groves, until my faint headlamp beam hit the trail. Other than almost stepping on a rattlesnake at the mouth of Bells Canyon at 11pm, the trail was uneventful. My wife was kind enough to pick me up despite it being 2 hours later than I planned. She pulled up to the Bells Canyon lot at 11:30PM, just as I was jogging into the parking lot. I stopped my watch at 21:04:35, ~36 miles ~ 18,500’ vertical gain and loss. I’m excited to try to better my time in the future with more familiarity of the route, and I will likely try to do it in the more common ‘supported style.' This is the fastest ‘unsupported’ time that I know of.
I did not think I would get to do the Grand Traverse or the WURL in 2020. They are maybe not as elusive of objectives as what I had planned for spring 2020, but in the conditions and style I climbed them in they pushed me very close to my limit. Lessons were learned, and areas for improvement have been targeted. I encourage you all who had big goals this year to adjust your gaze closer to home. With some creativity you can simulate big efforts, whether that be a hike, long road run, or even an epic gym day. I’m thinking of 2020 as a building year and bottling up all the psych for when I can stray farther from home.
Alan Rousseau is an AMGA, IFMGA, and UIAGM Certified Guide, and member of the Beal and Grivel athlete teams. After spending his childhood in New England, Alan moved to Utah in 2004 where he lives with his wife and learned to climb. Initially, Alan picked up climbing as a secondary activity in an effort to take his skiing and snowboarding further up into the mountains. But the more he did it, the more he found passion in climbing impressive lines and summiting awe-inspiring peaks. Aside from his guiding trips, Alan has also received grant funding for five expeditions attempting first ascents in the Himalayas.