January 31, 2016

Extreme Sledding in the Wasatch Mountains

Gray clouds loom and the forecast calls for a chance of snow as the sun sets over the Wasatch Mountains. It's a December evening at the end of a long workweek and my friend Jordan and I are eager to escape the inversion blanketing the valley.

We’re going nighttime sledding.

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Despite the forecast, or maybe because of it, we load our hiking gear in the car after work. Destination: Mill Creek, the canyon closest to Salt Lake City, for a nighttime sledding adventure.

Rain begins falling as we drive up Canyon Road. It intensifies; turning to snow by the time we reach the parking lot thanks to the 2,500-foot elevation gain. It’s late enough that there aren’t any cars in the lot when we arrive. We have the canyon to ourselves tonight.

By day, Mill Creek bustles with hikers, bikers, and dogs, but every November 1 the U.S. Forest Service closes the gate leading to its upper section. Snow builds on the five-mile stretch of road, which makes the perfect playground for snowshoers, cross-country skiers, downhill skiers, and snowboarders.

It can get dangerously crowded during the day. But quiet nights like this bear entirely different risks.

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Jordan and I adventure together by bike, foot, and snowboard, though typically by day. Night is an arena we’ve rarely explored beyond sitting around the glow of a campfire. So despite our familiarity with this canyon road, walking up with just a headlamp has me on edge, even if just a bit.

“What was THAT?” I say at the sound of wood cracking from somewhere in the darkness.

We pause, wondering if an anything will emerge from the darkness. Deer frequent this road in winter but there’s a bigger concern. The river that parallels our path is home to a notorious bull moose. I’ve seen him from the safety of my car, but confronting him at night on his turf could prove disastrous.

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We debate turning back, but continue on our path. Our feet slide across patches of ice but the snow grows deeper and before long we have the traction we need to make the two-hour trek to our destination.

I finally see the cabins through the falling snow and know this is the spot.

We stop and I unload the sled strapped to my backpack. It’s plastic with a rope handle and it’s just big enough for us to share.

I’m excited but a lingering thought takes root. We’re about to plunge down the mountain and into the darkness. What if we run into a tree or a rock? Or that bull moose?

Apprehension starts to grow as I hop into the back of our sled. If Jordan shares my concerns, she doesn’t say anything. She simply jumps in and grabs the reins.

If she’s not nervous, maybe there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

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She reaches down and starts to push the sled and suddenly I’m reminded of that nervous excitement you feel when a rollercoaster pulls away from the loading dock and you’re sitting there wondering what you were thinking as it inches up that first incline.

I reach down and help her drive us forward. A moment later, we’re off!

I shut my eyes as we accelerate. The deep snow tempers our speed but we continue to gain momentum thanks to the laws of gravity.

When I finally open my eyes the lights from our headlamps bounce across the snow. We can only see a few hundred feet in front of us, which means we’re gambling with what lies around each bend.

Between the speed and the darkness I can’t tell how far we’ve come, but I know I want it to last. Any lingering fear has given way to exhilaration and we both alternate between fits of giggles and screams of joy.

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Momentum drives us even faster and I know we need to slow down, if just a bit. I let my boots slip from the sled and dig my heels into the snow to act as brakes. We start to wobble and snow kicks up, washing over us.

I don’t want to crash but I find myself laughing again. Where’s the fun in slowing down? So I pull my feet back in and enjoy the ride.

It isn’t long before we race around a curve and I look up just in time to see our lamplights reflecting off a gate in the distance.

We’re closing fast but I’m not worried. Not one bit. The road flattens at the end and we naturally start to slow, coming to a stop long before we crash.

I jump out of the sled, unable to contain my smile. Despite my initial trepidation, I only have one thought: “Can we do that again?”

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