Timpanogos North Summit

5:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in January, we were all feeling a bit restless. The solution? Climb something, of course.

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Chad and Shaun pull their sleds
Recent warm weather and wet snows had built up some avalanche danger in the mountains, but we wanted a challenging route just the same. We settled on the North Summit of Timpanogos (11,250'), promising to check conditions before making the final route decision.

We left the valley by 10:00 p.m. and covered the six mile approach over snow by dragging our packs in toboggans to keep us breaking through the snow as little as possible. Snowmobiles had packed most of the trail fairly well (thanks!) and made the going much easier. Even so, we reached base camp just beyond the North Face at 4:00 a.m. We left five hours later and started up.

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Shaun in his bivy and trench
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Shaun takes a breather
Snow conditions varied greatly as we ascended a steep chute running up just east of the north face. Sometimes we had to move through thin crusts over depth hoar (sugar snow--dangerous!) to reach shallow, more stable snow. Later, wind crust forced us to don crampons. On the upper slope, deep, cohesive powder made the going easy--as long as you weren't the one breaking trail. timpncrust.jpg (20992 bytes)
Chad and Chris move up hard wind-blown crust
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Chris and Chad step onto the East Buttress ridge
The snow near the East Buttress ridge (1,000' below the summit) grew thin enough that we had to step carefully among the steep, loose rocks. We kicked back and enjoyed the view there for a while. The slope dropped away steeply in every direction (except west, of course). timpncairn.jpg (19281 bytes)
Who had the time and energy to build this enormous cairn?
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Chad and Shaun gaze up the last 1,000'
The last 1,000' of the East Buttress approach was the really technical part. We could choose between a very steep chute filled with light spindrift (dangerous and tiring) or traversing 80' on a narrow ledge, hammering pitons along the way for protection, to reach the North Face and perhaps a better way up.

It didn't take us long to agree that, unless you had snow machines for the approach, this was a three day route. With only two bivy sacks and no sleeping bags (all left at base camp) spending a night on the ridge was not an option. 

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A snow picket anchors the group
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Chad waits as Shaun sets another picket below
On the way down, Shaun had the bright idea to practice catching falls on the rope. After gathering up some slack, he announced that he would be falling sometime within the following two minutes.

The first catch was easy as Chad and Chris quickly sank their axe shafts into the snow. From there we grew braver and braver (say dumber and dumber?) until the top person would dive downhill face first, slide 160', then yank the middle person off their feet as the slack ran out. The last person would also go from 0 to 20 in one second, then we would all dig in our crampons and axes and stop.

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Chad points at the fracture

We had nearly reached the trail at the base of the climb and were getting ready for one last slide when Chad suddenly said, "It broke." Shaun was walking 20' downhill and Chad repeated, "Shaun, it broke!" Turning around, he finally understood what Chad was talking about.

Right under Chad's feet was an inch-wide crack in the five-inch crust. The crack had separated with a whoomph! and ran 20' across a slight bulge in the slope. If the crust below the fissure broke free (many smaller cracks were already moving all across the surface), the top would likely slide as well, taking all three of us with it. The depth hoar underneath would act as ball bearings for the surface crust as it all came crashing down the mountain. We moved quickly across the slope to where trees and rocks anchored shallower snow. In our speedy descent, we had forgotten to continue checking conditions, but lucked out.

Shaun wished it would have broken free only below the top crack and that the rope would have been enough to either pull him out or find him and dig him up quickly. His Outside magazine came the next day with a special section on avalanches, and he admitted to being an idiot. You just don't mess with unstable snow.

After packing up base camp, we headed back to the cars, reaching them well after dark in a slushy snow storm, then driving home to warm showers, dinner, and a good night's rest to recover.

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