Trip Report: Snowshoe to Lake Blanche, Sundial ridge saddle & Blanche Peak

Snowshoe to Lake Blanche, Sundial ridge saddle & Blanche Peak
By Michael Hannan
SNOWSHOE 03/08/2016 MSD

New snow helped to make this venture enjoyable instead of despicable. In fact the trail leading to the Lake Blanche dam was packed enough to allow micro-spiked boots the entire way. Brent Waddoups and I took our time on the trail, noting with wry smiles and an occasional wisecrack that somebody had really postholed here or there and we hoped he/she hadn't broken any bones in so doing. The watchword of the day was "Keep your stinking feet on the center of the trail path!"

A leisurely two hours and twenty minutes passed before we reached the east end of what is left of the dam at Lake Blanche. The upslope snow showed very few signs of instability, only a few baseball-sized rollers having snowballed their way down toward the lower portions of the slopes. At the lake, totally shrouded with cottony snow, about 4" of new snow had given the entire area the look of white spun glass, every hard corner made soft and pillow-like. At this juncture Brent began a return to the TH while I, snowshoes tightly strapped to my favorite leather boots and micro-spikes tucked away inside my pack, began the 2nd and much longer leg of the journey.

I took the west route around Sundial by first marching carefully across the southeastern arm of Lake Blanche and then zigzagging upward through the trees and up on to the now white gigantic rounded quartzite boulders which populate this section of terrain. Playing it safe I chose to follow the bottom of the wide drainage leading generally toward the Cottonwood Ridge. In spring and summer these bottoms are usually wet and often flowing with streamlets, but today it offered only pleasantly perfect snow for snowshoeing.

The drainage angles southeast and climbs leading to a forested area which borders what I call the upper valley-like drainage. Views of the Cottonwood Ridge were now becoming quite spectacular in their own right and I studied the possible routes to Peak 10910. That adventure would have to wait for another day. Still following the natural contour of the drainage I angled up and east to gain a wide flat section of terrain which opened up a marvelous and breathtaking view of Sundial, its tawny brown boulder-strewn profile half covered with winter satin. At that point I was happy to say that climbing Sundial in calendar winter was something I need not worry about today for I had accomplished that last winter. No, today I would advance to the saddle at 10,100' south of Sundial and see how I felt, see whether I felt like mustering the energy and stamina I would need to climb to the top of the ridge. We call that point on the ridge Blanche Peak; elevation there is just over 11,000'.

By cutting off a small section I would have summer hiked I wound up intersecting the Sundial ridge at 11,275'. Here the sounds of chopper blades and engine whine drew my attention to the ridge WAY over to the east. Yup, there it was, a red helicopter noisily dropping off well-heeled (or deeply in-debt) skiers. In rapid succession three different loads were deposited on the ridge top before the activity calmed down. The skiers were tiny stalks against the blue sky before apparently disappearing down the east side of the ridge.

I turned my attention to the ridge above me, one I had climbed many times in late summers and early falls. Cornices were in abundance overhanging the east edges of the winding steep ridge while the drifted snow fell away steeply to the west like a gargantuan white flannel sheet stretched taut like a sail. I would see how the snow held as I ascended a few dozen strides, realizing that the climb to the top, if I elected to attempt it, would be a long affair requiring deliberate and measured steps the entire way. I could have used crampons but would have been sinking another 4 to 5 inches into the snow, an activity which would have surely sapped my strength before I reached the top. No, snowshoes with televators would suit me best.

Relieved to find the new snow adhering well to the old I literally put the ridge behind me one slow step at a time. Plant, press, tamp and tamp again; leave a platform firm and level, one which I could trust on the return. Keep my distance from the east edges of the ridge line. Remember familiar sections where the summer trail drops away from the ridge for a dozen yards. Be careful around the trees; sudden traps can almost bury the unwary hiker if heed is not duly given.

The sunshine was warm, the wind cooling. Used to hiking at a moderate pace I had to continually tell myself to take it easy and remember that my slow snail-like pace was purposeful. The important thing was reaching the summit safely. Often I reflected on the boulder-hopping strategy I used to both ascend and descend this ridge in dry conditions, and the contrast to those memories which today's hike provided were almost laughable. But you take what the mountain gives you; today it gave me time to mull and calculate and ponder.

There I was, 3 hours and 40 minutes after leaving the bared blocks of the Lake Blanche dam, standing on the small boulders marking the Cottonwood Ridge on Blanche Peak. Monte Cristo to the east, proud like the head of a bald eagle, the gnarly boulder-toughened Cottonwood Ridge snaking over to 10910 and then to the eastern flank of Dromedary, intimidating yet mysteriously inviting. Then I noticed that the breeze had picked up considerably, and it was chilling me. Clouds began rushing up from the mouth of the Little Cottonwood Canyon, silent, curling, dancing and stealthily engulfing Sunrise and Dromedary, like a tidal wave gathering momentum. I quickly took a couple of pictures and a video before swinging my pack onto my tired shoulders, hoisting my trekking poles to the ready and doing a quick visual sweep of the area to check for errant belongings.

There they were, my carefully laid snowshoe tracks looking like a broad ivory zipper. I followed them down making only a few deviations when slope grade suggested a wiser step movement. At one point I even down climbed an 8'-section to ensure safety and purchase. If you haven't down climbed in snowshoes, you don't know what you're missing. I do not recommend it for extended periods of time. No surprises there - coming down was a whole lot easier than going up. The watchful execution of my cautious ascent was now paying rich dividends; every step held perfectly. The snow had softened up just enough to suggest the possibility of plunge stepping down a steep slope to intercept my contour 200' below. I gave it a test and joyfully concluded that the maneuver would be safe and save me some time. A grand descent in perfectly settled powder was exhilarating; it pumped renewed energy into my spirits and assured me that I could keep cutting corners the entire return to the dam.

Indeed, I reached the dam, looked at my watch and was struck with the fact that the descent had taken exactly one hour. One hour! The same journey up had taken 3+40. Granted, one cannot always clip that much time off the ascent time, but today was an exception, like a huge gift the day BEFORE Christmas. At the dam I took off my pack, found a sun-warmed block to sit on and contemplated the blessings of the Wasatch mountains and their never-ending beauty, a beauty which does not tire of giving freely.

The trip down to the TH was not a chore, but being tired I was anxious to get down and be able to take off the snowshoes. Back at the car I gave silent thanks that no one had rammed into it as they caromed around the S-curve. So many mountains, so little time...