Skiing Mount Watson
Updated: May 19, 2020
Despite the lifts closing in mid-March this year due to the Coronavirus and several 70 degree days in late April, I wasn’t ready for the ski season to end. Furthermore, Sean, Fletcher and I hiked to the summit of Mt. Watson in November to scope it out for spring skiing so I was determined to check this peak off the list.
The gate on Mirror Lake Highway was open at Soapstone so we drove just past the Cobblerest campground before we hit the snow line. As always with late season snowmobiling, the ride to Crystal Lake as rutted and there were a few patches of pavement to contend with. From the Crystal Lake parking lot at about 9,500 feet, there is only about a 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the point that you can no longer take the snowmobiles but it was more technical than I thought it given how soft the snow was. But the biggest obstacle of the day was the melting lakes. You could see patches of water emerging from the semi-frozen lakes so we did our best to hug the shoreline. But I did have one incident when I was close to the shoreline and I felt the ice and my sled sinking so I pinned it and was able to get on terra firma safely but it was a little unsettling.
My buddy, Sean, had only snowmobiled one other time so I was concerned if he would be able to make it to the base of Mt. Watson given his novice ability but he crushed it and surprised me throughout the day. I continued to push the limits and he delivered every time (a future snowmobiler in the making).
We took the sleds towards Clyde’s Lake as our plan was to skin/bootback up the north facing side of Mt. Watson. We were able to get the sleds to 10,570 and now the "fun" part was about to begin.
We were hoping we could skin up part of the way but no such luck – this was going to be a bootpack to the summit. The north facing slope was still relatively firm which reduced the postholing. If we had summited from the southeast side, we would have been postholing to our knees the entire trek up. On the way up, we noticed a wide open and relatively steep (I measured 39 degrees) chute just to our right so we noted that as an optional ski descent.
The climb to the summit from our snowmobiles was about 1,000 feet and we made pretty good time ascending that in 45 minutes. When we reached the summit the clouds starting rolling in so we only absorbed the amazing views of The Notch, Reids and Bald Mountain for a brief moment.
There are several articles written on skiing Mt. Watson and they all talk about how steep the east face is and how big the cornice is but they never talk about skiing the east face. It is tempting to be lured into skiing this aspect but once you are on top and you are standing near the cornice, you understand why nobody skis this line. It is intimidating and high risk. There is a good video on YouTube that shows people skiing the southeast chute and another article recommending the north face. We debated skiing the southeast chute but it was later in the day and the snow was getting soft so we opted to ski the north face.
The peak had received about 3” of heavy, wet new snow in the last 12 hours so the first few turns from the summit were sticky. We followed our bootback down for the upper section and then we decided to take the chute just to the skiers left of our bootback which turned out to be an interesting adventure. I elected to go first and I did a ski cut across the top as the snow seemed “slippery” meaning that i couldn’t hold an edge and the wet, new snow was sliding. As I crossed the slope and reached the rocks on the side of the chute, I started a wet sluff/slide. It was a slow moving slide that resembled lava flowing and it was only the 3” of new snow that slid. Nonetheless, it was a little unnerving but it freed up the chute of the new snow allowing for skiing on a more firm pack. As we made our way down the chute, we came closer to a rock section which I thought we would be able to pick our way through but it became apparent that it was a rather large cliff.
I went to the left, took off my skis, hiked across a few rocks and was able to connect with another chute and skied down safely. Sean decided to go to the right and as I crossed under the cliff, I heard Sean yelling down to me asking if his line was safe. At first I couldn’t spot him as he was minuscule against the large rocks but once I got my eye on him, I was able to direct him through the maze of rocks. Note to other skiers that want to ski Mt. Watson, I recommend skiing the southeast chute or skiing the north face along the east ridge and then drop into the lower part of the east bowl. I wouldn't recommend skiing our line given the substantial cliff at the bottom.
Spring skiing is less about skiing amazing conditions as it is about extending the season and checking off bucket list lines. That proved to be the case today as te conditions were far from great but the adventure and skiing one of iconic peaks in the Uintas was epic!