I decided to get into the Little Cottonwood backcountry. Contrasted with much of the off-piste skiing in the Wasatch, the area I chose feels more wild because of its remoteness. It is quintessential high country. From the city and road it looks unapproachable. It is abstracted in steep pitches and jagged peaks. The fuzzy blur of trees cling to the wall of toothy mountains.This is contrasted with a large majority of other Wasatch terrain that is either lift accessed or a quick tour from the road. I didn’t want it to be easy. I wanted to know those distant away sights, trees, rocks, and snow. The wilderness area a couple miles south of the road is known as the “Lone Peak Wilderness” but from the trailhead one can access four distinct drainages, each of which I wanted to explore. I knew there were paths to the high places.
The trip began as many do with a last minute stop at Wal-Mart. I exited my van in the South-Towne-sprawl headed toward the door of the superstore. A raven sat on top of a light-pole and squawked at me. As the automated glass slid open I grabbed an oversized cart and listened to the bird’s continued cries. The doors closed behind me and I embarked on the first of many exhausting walks of the weekend. It was St. Patrick’s Day.
Inside I found all the calories and last minute supplies I would need for the coming days. Apples, beans, canned herring, black tea, a wrist watch. I moved quickly through the isles of DVDs, shampoo, food, tires and toilet paper. I saw families: a girl with a short dad and a tall mom, two punks with skateboards and pimples and leather coats, and I heard a young woman with long dark wavy hair ask her sweat-panted boyfriend if Wal-Mart had green cookies. I paid for my pitiful cart of goods and exited the store.
The raven was gone.
I unloaded all of my gear into the White Pine trailhead parking lot. I stuffed my recent goods into my bags and shouldered them: the larger, on my back, and the smaller slung across my front. I was laden with weight and became exhausted just putting my skis on next to the porta-pottie. Folks in the parking lot laughed as I awkwardly took my first skin steps. I slid down a small slope and started walking across the bridge over Little Cottonwood creek. The snow was so high that I was parallel with the handrail. I was unbalanced with the weight around my shoulders and I could have easily toppled into the bubbling stream. I pushed this and moved onward. I began a long hot hike up into the woods.
I passed brown U.S.F.S. signs, first at the trail head, and again along the way. The Forest Service offers rules that govern the mountains. The signs are similar to those all over the country, brown and wooden, etched with information and regulations. These showed simple maps, identified different land destinations, told me where I could or couldn’t have a fire. They come from a long and fraught relationship with the land. I took the signs, as I always do, as a reminder that this is a “land of many uses.” I would soon pass into the area that was designated as “wilderness” which I knew had the highest protection from human utility.
As I rounded that corner into the Lone Peak Wilderness, I looked down into the city. The view down Little is a brilliant sight and one that is often used to promote the Wasatch. At the bottom of the steep and wide granite walls of the canyon, the city is cradled. In this giant “U,” one can see history of the geography through the glacier’s path as well as the road the miners took. The city then stretches from the bottom of the canyon out to the Oquirrhs which creates the edge of the Valley and the beginning of the Great Basin. It beckons the imagination with the grandness of the West and the dream of freedom. This is seared into my mind as an ode to the mountains I love and their closeness to my home in the city.
I looked down onto the concrete snake, the canyon road. I set my bags down and popped a seat in the snow. I needed a drink. The sun was still high overhead but I could imagine the pink and gold sky that it would create in a few hours. I couldn’t wait for sunset. I had to pitch my tent before dark and I still had far to travel. It was going to be cold, and I was already beat from my haul. As I sipped water and looked out over the city, I thought more about my place in the West. How had I come here? Why did I have the privilege of terrific access to a wild environment? What did all of those signs I saw on the way to my repose really mean, what foresight did they hold? What would my future children see from this same view?