On Saturday the 17th of December, 2022, Colten Moore and I climbed a local-classic link-up of Squash Head (WI4, II) and Backoff (WI4, II), for a total of four stunning pitches in the beautiful and sleepy Santaquin Canyon of Utah’s Uinta Mountains.
Sunday the 18th I was ticketed for a family Christmas visit to Los Angelenos – five days of sunny skies, beaches, late nights and first world eats – so I just HAD to get out and smash some icicles along the way. After skiing the Four Hour Couloir in Grand Teton National Park the day before, I drove a fully loaded van five hours south to the bustling metropolis of Salt Lake City, Utah. I messed up my blanket beta, tossed and turned my way through a frosty night of sleep in the Smith’s parking lot and found myself with local Utahn ice man Colten Moore in Santaquin Canyon the following morning. Per his suggestion, our plan was to link up two classic WI4 routes, Squash Head and Backoff, by way of a fancy ridge scramble and rappel situation – totaling over 200M of technical ice. I was psyched – not only to log more mileage on steep ice in a new-to-me setting, but also to beat every last ounce of nervous energy from my body before gearing up for a day of air travel.
The approach to the base of the routes followed a closed Santaquin Canyon road, on foot, for a few miles. On the way we enjoyed sights to some of Utah’s hardest WI5-6 ice test pieces, The Candlestick, Automatic Control Theory and Angel of Fear – maybe some day. On the south side, the eloping flows of Bozo Falls begged for a quick leg stretching solo. The air was crisp, damp and cold, cutting through my double boots almost immediately, but frosty solstice alpenglow and dramatic mountain topography kept my heart full beyond worry. About 45 minutes from the van and 10 minutes succeeding the easy on-road river crossing, the breadth of Squash Head was obvious as could be, and just a stones throw from the valley bottom.
Squash Head (WI4+, 100M)
Colten and I had never climbed together before. We connected via social media after I sold him a pair of skis a few years earlier, and it was only by chance, through the conduit of Facebook, we were able to partner for an impromptu day of ice. Having never shared a rope, I was placing a lot of confidence in Colten’s belay as I started up the intimidating first pitch WI4+ pillar of Squash Head, which looked thinner than the mid-winter photos I scouted on Mountain Project. Though well adhered to the cave behind, the pillar was chandelier’d with fresh ice, eroded overhanging at the base, and aerated enough to discredit all protection. I had never climbed steeper ice in such chancy condition, though the pillar was short enough to skate by on gusto and fortitude. Above, I slogged the rope 45M through steep snow and WI2 bulges to the base of the main attraction second pitch, reaching the bolted anchors east of the flow with only a few meters to spare.
Colten took the second pitch, a rambling WI3 circumstance with a steep start and gentler finish in a superbly aesthetic gully. The ice quality was markedly better if not perfect, and he made quick work of the business. I followed in my Black Diamond Mercury Mitts to save my fingers, and all of a sudden we were 500 feet above the Sanataquin Canyon River enjoying breathtaking sunny views into the open sunny western valley, and craggy south facing cross-canyon peaks.
Backoff (WI4, 100M)
To reach the base of Backoff, whose notoriously thin and sustained second pitch was the star appeal of our outing, involved some scrambling trickery and cryptic limestone slab dry tooling covered by a meter of granular cane sugar. I found and aided on a manky fixed rope, slung a few trees and eventually reached the bolted anchors on the eastern toe of the prominent cliff above, about 10M from the belay in full. Though this mini-scramble certainly isn’t a “pitch”, a rope is prudent to protect against the unforeseen. A 30M rappel over interesting terraced slabs brought us to the base of Backoff, who stared directly at us with an overawing aura reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies – this was going to be good!
To reach the tenderloin of Backoff we soloed a few steps of WI2 and steep snow, eventually gaining the bolted anchor on the western extremity of the flow. Although Colten is far better and experienced ice hacker than I, he had already lead Backoff in thin conditions, reported mild psychosomatic trauma, and wished to pass off the deed – for which I was stoked, after all, how could anyone pass up an on-sight attempt on such a beauty?
Armed with only nine screws for 50 some meters of territory I opted to solo the first quarter of low angle ice, all while getting spritzed from a gaping crater of exposed waterfall above. By the time I reached the steep 10M headwall crux I was plastered in icy water, already turning to flaky rime. The ice overhead was questionable at best, and my first worthwhile screw didn’t sink until I was through the WI4 climbing and nearly 100 feet off the deck. Reliable sticks in wet hero ice kept me globbed to the wall, with frozen hand management the only true strain. It was hard to tell if Backoff had been climbed yet this season. I didn’t see any screw holes or beaten hooks ubiquitous on Squash Head, and I can’t imagine the smear was climbable much closer to Thanksgiving. Trepidations aside, the upper flow quickly relented to steep, thick and routine WI3 climbing. Ultimately Backoff was both easier and harder than it appeared from below. The ice never quite hit vertical and kept a consistent grade, so I was able to maintain about as minimal a pump as imaginable for WI4, but the shoddy protection and incredible exposure kept the air serious. If you are fortunate enough to find a good stance high on Backoff, take a second to observe your surroundings – I’m not sure I’ve ever been anywhere quite like it.
A Quick Reflection and Route Summary
Leading the crux pitches on Squash Head and Backoff represented two of the prouder ice leads of my life. Squash Head drew headiness from sheer steepness and technical features, where Backoff just couldn’t back off – 50M of steep, thin and unrelenting exposure. Linking the routes together makes a storied and logical full day outing in Santaquin Canyon, and many more routes neighboring these lines could provide an even longer junket for faster and stronger climbers.
Connecting with Colten provided the major headline – not often do you have a first day of such caliber with a new partner. As a former ice climbing guide, Colten provided a reliable belay and climbed faster than anyone I’ve ever shared a rope with. That said, he was generous enough to pass keynote pitches to the visiting climber, even though he could have strung the rope twice as fast. Our connection represents a positive angle of social media – the ability for climbers 300 miles apart to coalesce and share a memorable experience with the click of a few buttons. I look forward to more adventures with Colten in the future.
Rack Discussion and Extra Beta By Route
If planning to climb either of these two routes, ice screws should be the only warranted protection in normal conditions. If the Squash Head pillar is not touching the ground, two hardish bolted mixed routes can be climbed or aided on the left side of the cave to access the upper flow (more information on Mountain Project). Bolted anchors are available on climber’s left above the first and second pitches of Squash Head. Bolted anchors available on climber’s right above pitch one (below and right of the main flow), and climber’s left above pitch two, on Backoff. Extra small screws and stubbies may be helpful on Backoff. Descent from both routes can be made with a 60M rope and v-threads, though two ropes would avoid the need for any threads. The rappel from the top of Squash Head to the base of Backoff can be made with a single 60M rope.
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.