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The Early Bird Catches the Worm: Skiing Utah's Mt. Superior

In backcountry skiing, starting before dawn is essential. Not only is it safer but experiencing sunrise amongst snow covered peaks is other-worldly.

By: Tommy Elbrecht + Save to a List

Before considering a backcountry ski adventure, it is critical that you gain the proper experience and knowledge. Read 6 Things You Need to Know Before You Start Backcountry Skiing.

Have you ever skied in Utah? Chances are you have ended up in Little Cottonwood Canyon at either Alta or Snowbird. While you may have been face deep in Utah blower powder having the best day of your life, in between runs while on the chairlift you've probably gazed at the surrounding mountains and come across Mt. Superior, a behemoth of a peak with steep faces, narrow chutes and knife edge ridges. Like bugs to a light, you are drawn to it, constantly starring at it, anytime you come back to the canyon and park in the valley floor, you gaze up at its prominent summit, well at least thats how I've been for the past three years. 

Anytime I've gone to Little Cottonwood Canyon to go backcountry skiing, the sentence is usually uttered at some point in the day by myself or friends "Man, we should really ski Mt. Superior this season". With time and conditions usually being the limiting factor to attempt the summit, Superior has stayed just out of reach. That was the case until April when a series of spring storms barreled though Utah providing fresh snow after what seemed like weeks of sun and warm temps. Although spring snow is desirable, Superior's South face bakes in the strong Utah sun all day causing loose snow to avalanche down, making it almost impossible to ski. So with safe avalanche conditions forecasted and new snow, we decided that this may be one of the last opportunities to climb it. 

A brutal 3:45 am alarm clock was scheduled to make the relatively short drive from Park City to Little Cottonwood Canyon and after assembling our team, we arrived in the parking lot directly across from Snowbird. While the groomers worked below us, we gathered our gear, made last minute checks, and left for the trailhead. 

Starting in the small town of Alta, the ski tour begins where the pavement ends. In the background illuminated by the glow of near by Salt Lake City, Mt. Superior sits at 11,132 feet above sea level, almost 7,000 feet above the Salt lake valley. We began our tour at 5:30 am, well before sunrise and ahead of the crowds making the trip to the nearby resorts.

Step, plant pole, step, plant pole, this went on in almost complete darkness for an hour before the first signs of light began to show. Confined to our 100 foot bubble of light, progress was hard to judge but with cool temps and good snow our ascent of the first 2,000 feet went quick and without much stopping. 

While gaining the ridge that would ultimately lead us to our summit, the sun began to light up the sky providing us with an amazing array of colors. Although waking up early can really be tough, catching sunrise from the skin-track usually makes you forget about those morning struggles to get out of bed.

In the mountains of Utah during the dead of winter, temperatures can plummet well into the teens, accompanied with even the slightest of winds any exposed skin can become almost instantly frostbitten. Although we were fortunate enough to have temps in the low 20's and little to no wind, we were grateful to stop and soak in the warmth of sun. Once gaining the ridge it became too steep to efficiently climb with your skis on, so the decision to continue via foot was made. 

With the summit in sight and our skis and snowboards attached to our backs, we began to make our ascent of the east ridge. While not a technical climb, traversing the exposed ridge line provided some white knuckle moments climbing steep snow and rocks. The firm snow allowed us kick in sturdy footholds and using our poles to balance the weight of our heavy packs we made quick work of the steep slopes. 

After climbing for almost three hours, we steadily made our way along the ridge line to our summit. 3,000 feet below us we watch as signs of life begin in the canyon, skiers begin to park in the lots, snowcats shuffle off the mountain, and ski lifts begin to turn in preparation for daily operations. 

A little after 8:30 am we had reached the summit of Mt. Superior. Earlier that morning we had unknowingly parked next to two other people also making the attempt for the summit and had caught up with them on the ridge. While the true summit could only fit a handful of people at once, we all happily shared the experience together. From here we transitioned into ski mode. Ski jackets were put over lightweight shells, heavier gloves in favor of lightweight ones, goggles replacing sunglasses, winter hats instead of snapbacks, and then delicately attaching our skis/snowboards to our feet. 

The decision to ski a certain face or line on a mountain has to be made with the utmost confidence, skiing on any avalanche prone slope can have life threatening consequences that every backcountry skier knows. From previous trips to Little Cottonwood Canyon we witnessed older slides that had run through the many chutes lining Mt. Superior's South Face, so it was crucial to find the correct chute with limited avalanche debris. After 20-30 minutes on the summit, we descended on the 3,000 foot face, adrenaline rushing through our bodies, as one at a time we skied down the steep face. Skiing one at a time eliminates the likelihood of an entire party being swept off the mountain by a single avalanche and in the event of an avalanche, the other members of your group can begin the rescue process. 

Picking apart the steep face skiing through good snow and avoiding as much of the old avalanche debris as we could, we slowly made our way down the face. Although taking a fall on this terrain would not mean certain death, sliding uncontrollably on such steep snow could possibly leave you tumbling towards a large cliff. After 20 min of negotiating steep turns we had made it to the low angle snow field that sits at the mouth of Mt. Superior's South face, from here we were home free, the three of us rode together through a wide open field of snow as cheered all the way to the road. Pictured above is Chris Wavle and Sam Pew riding the Southern sub peak of Mt. Superior.

Mt. Superior is no desolate peak, it sees skier traffic almost everyday of the winter, but today we felt like it was ours. With tired legs, we skied back to the road and managed to hitch a ride back to our car where we immediately de-booted, grabbed a beer and sat down to recount the days adventure. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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