Little Cottonwood Canyon, Hellgate. The Bone Collector, first ascent.

For three years now, I have obsessed with a line just above my home and work. Hidden in plain sight this line has been ignored over the years. The avalanche bowl above, the fleeting nature of the ice and the Hellgate's reputation for rockfall and poor rock quality have kept most winter climbers away.  

In the early or late season, the conditions can align and for a brief moment the line is perfect and beckons to those ready to pounce.

Last April, a late storm brought cold temps and the line seemed perfect. Recon drives up Little Cottonwood Canyon for lunch all week showed that by the end of the week, the line would be ready for an attempt. Friday's lunch recon showed 32° and ice on all the pitches. The forecast for Saturday looked warm but with an early start I thought things would be perfect. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The deep snow approach took longer than we anticipated and the temperature was already high even in the pre-dawn. 

Jake Hirschi hiking to the base of a project.

Jake Hirschi hiking to the base of a project.

Racking up, the gully above was already showing signs of falling ice due to the warm temps but it was not too bad at that point, so I racked up and decided to go for it. I reached the ledge with the ice dagger and traversed left but even from the corner I could already tell it was too detached to make an attempt. The ice was separated from the wall over an inch. While this was the feature that attracted me to the line, there was still more climbing above so I decided to continue on in the corner system. Frozen moss and since lead to a spot below a roof. By the time I had a good stance for a belay, the gully above was coming alive with rock and ice fall. Large chunks of debris was flying overhead and Jake made his way up the gully.

Right after bailing on the detached ice dagger. Photo ©Jake Hirschi.

Right after bailing on the detached ice dagger. Photo ©Jake Hirschi.

Jake reached the belay and we decided to head down before things got any worse. As we rapped, chunks of ice the size of footballs rained down from above, small bits of shrapnel exploding into us. Safely on the ground and out of the fall line, even bigger chunks started to fall. The temps had reached the 60's° and did not seem to be going down anytime soon. We had made the right call but bailing was not a decision I was happy with.

7 months later, the early season ice climbing has been pretty spotty but a straight week of snow in the Wasatch and cold temps with spotty sun lead to conditions aligning again so I emailed Chris Thomas and with no info other than me mentioning a potential FA, his quick response was "I’m in!" 

This time we started even earlier making it to the base right as the sun was hitting the tops of the surrounding peaks. Joining us for the start was photographer Louis Arevalo. The ice was thin on the approach pitch but still in good shape so we solo'd up to the base of the technical climbing. Knowing the route, I quickly reached the ice, clipping a lone bolt I had added earlier, expecting a dry tooling traverse to reach the dagger. This time the dagger was bonded to the wall as well as the shelf, making for a solid pillar. 

Nathan Smith on the ice pillar during the first ascent of The Bone Collector. Photo ©Louis Arevalo 

Nathan Smith on the ice pillar during the first ascent of The Bone Collector. Photo ©Louis Arevalo 

Only slightly wider than me and no thicker, I gingerly tapped my way up until I reached a spot where the ice met the rock and tried to put in a screw. Early season jitters caused me to drop my first screw only to watch is tumble hundreds of feet down the steep slope below, disappearing from sight. My second attempt went much better and at least slightly relaxed, continued on. The rhythm was now there and what should have been a short stretch took longer than I expected. Swing, shake out, shake out, shake out...shake out again, then another swing. What seemed like an hour later I was standing on top, but the cracks I hoped would make a gear belay were not present, so I hauled up a small pack with a drill and added two bolts for the belay. Louis jugged up and I headed back down to belay Chris so Louis could get a few photos from above before heading out and we committed to the gully above. 

Nathan Smith nearing the top of the ice pillar. Photo ©Louis Arevalo

Nathan Smith nearing the top of the ice pillar. Photo ©Louis Arevalo

Re-climbing the pitch was much easier following and felt like I was finally decently warmed up. Chris took pitch three, a "old-school" grunt of a corner system. Not too difficult but very physical and delicate at the same time. 

Chris Thomas not looking too happy he drew P3.

Chris Thomas not looking too happy he drew P3.

Chris Thomas navigating the first roof on P3.

Chris Thomas navigating the first roof on P3.

Pitches 4&5 went quickly with fun alpine ice, snow and rock continuing up the gully. The weather was splitter and we watched parties Speed Flying off Mt. Superior, skis still attached to their feet after skiing into lines that would mean certain death without the parasailsail. Conditions and climbing-wise, we could not have asked for a better day. I had originally planned on taking the line to the top, but as the day went on, the snowfields above started melting out and were raining rocks down from above. This combined with deteriorating rock and the end of the ice made us rethink our plans. The final blow came when 30' from the anchor I discovered a large femur bone sticking out of the snow. Chris's crampon must have uncovered it as he climbed. Just visible below the protruding bone was a bit of cloth, and instantly I knew what we had found. 

In May of 2012, a hiker disappeared in the area and searches had yet to reveal any info on his whereabouts until the summer of 2015. Two climbers discovered a shoe at the base of the Hellcat Cliffs, looking inside they discovered the remains of a foot. Search and Rescue scoured the area and found more remains and were able to identify him, but a good portion of the man was never recovered. 

Using my ice axe, I dug the snow and ice away from the femur only to reveal more bones, clothing and a boot still attached. A metal plate and screws from a previous injury gleamed in the afternoon sun. Chris and I discussed briefly but there was only one option. We needed to bring him down. I stuffed everything I uncovered into my pack and we started rappelling.

Chris Thomas approaching the belay on P4.

Chris Thomas approaching the belay on P4.

Chris Thomas on the fun alpine ice of P5.

Chris Thomas on the fun alpine ice of P5.

The view from the final belay tree. The South Ridge of Mt. Superior directly across from us.

The view from the final belay tree. The South Ridge of Mt. Superior directly across from us.

Chris Thomas rigging the first of 5 raps.

Chris Thomas rigging the first of 5 raps.

Speed Flyers landing on the road.

Speed Flyers landing on the road.

Rapping down, the sun was rapidly deteriorating the ice and sections we had just completed were already running with water, rock exposed. We had just completed a 3-year long goal only to see it start to melt away immediately. Arriving at the base of the wall and gathering our gear, I had an awkward conversation with the person on dispatch, and they arranged to have an officer met us at our car to hand over the remains. 

Thanks to Chris and Louis for an amazing day, one I will not soon forget...for many reasons. 

Nathan Smith