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Climbing in the High Uinta Off-Season: About the Merchant

Cold? No, that's just sending temps. At least that's what you tell yourself. Shade on the wall had come a week ago and its icy grip was here until spring. As far as I knew the Good Medicine Wall had never known sun but I had also only recently come to know the area. I had heard tales of lines of impatient climbers waiting in the sun to get on the classics like Black Elk or Peace Treaty. That was summer. We were now in the heart of autumn high in Utah's Uinta National Forest.

In this alpine wilderness cliffs of quartzite erupt from sprawled fields of talus. Horizontal seams cross vertical cracks to create long, steep and ideal routes. The climbs are well protected but they feel airy and exposed as valleys stretch to the horizon far below, their alpine meadows speckled with glacial lakes and groves of conifers.

The wind blew hard from the north. It had the familiar chill of winter on its breath and threatened to pull me off the wall high above my last clip. My fingers were frozen, numb to the grainy fissures that streaked the route. I eyed the crux, shook out and pulled higher to clip. The sun was close to unmasking the veil of shadow that blanketed the wall but I knew it would never come. I looked down. My belayer was bundled and shivering in the shade.

We were now in the off-season; that time of year that rests its head between the grueling heat of summer and the blistering cold when the snow flies. The only other groups brave enough to face autumn's chill were clans of boyscouts and diehard fishermen with their waders pulled high on their chests. They had more courage than I. They chose to wallow in the frigidity of the lakes rather than pull up high on the wall.

The Uinta National Forest was established in 1897 as the Uinta Forest Reserve under Grover Cleveland but was merged in 2007 with the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Spread over 1,300 square miles the land area covers parts of Wasatch, Juab, Utah, and Sanpete counties making it one of the most easily accessible wilderness zones in Utah. With towering peaks and steep featured cliffs, the Uinta wilderness has a reported 195 climbs including traditional, sport, alpine and boulder routes, though more exist and are waiting for first and second ascents. When the snow begins to fall skiers and snowboarders flock to the steep terrain along with snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers. In all over three million people visit the park in a single year but no one was around as I peered out over the land from my stance on the wall.

I pulled through the crux and clipped at a rest. I wondered what it was like when the sun poured down in summer's bliss. I imagined a warm glow radiating across the peaks and down into camp while a sun-warmed breeze swirled around my back, stretched and bare on the cliff. Then I saw lines of climbers that mingle in the talus. They prod and heckle. Impatiently they leer and jostle for a turn. They borrow draws and shout beta. I cringed at the thought.

Our fire burned tall that night and threatened to scorch our shelter of tarps. We cooked a hearty meal as cold winds blew in from the darkness, our fire the only light beneath a shower of stars. All other parties had abandoned in the cold. Only our solitary clan remained. It was peaceful by the lake and our heater crackled open flame and drew us in. We laughed and drank while our songs carried into to the trees. Clouds began to drift in from the north and draw their silver curtain on the moon.

Red-eyed and hazy we awoke. From inside the tent it looked broken, collapsed under the blanket of fresh wet snow. The failing zipper had finally quit and refused to seal us from the cold. Instead a mound of snow slowly melted at my feet. From the outside the tent buckled and camouflaged itself as a crooked snow bank. I heaved the weight from the rain fly and looked up toward the cliffs only there were no cliffs, just a flurry of driven snowflakes and wind-bent trees. "I guess we're not climbing today," I said. I didn't actually mind. We still had a bed of coals and hot coffee and a communal shelter that flapped and sighed in the wind. This was why nobody else had stayed. This was why the climbers had stayed home. Their beds were warm and the climbing in the city was not hindered by the forecast of winter. I remembered my summer fantasy and smiled.

For now we had the wilderness to ourselves and once the snow cleared and the sun melted away the magic of snow asleep on leaves in change, we would have the wall to ourselves once again. At that moment I was grateful for the off-season. Grateful to have climbed one day and then wandered across our snowbound land the next. I smiled again and trudged to the fire to warm my hands in our friendly winter hut.

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+James Dillon


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