Few tubbing trips in the history of tubbing can compare with this Adventure at Silver Bell Level. When any tubbing gathering is held, and someone asks, "What is the most interesting tubbing trip you've been on (or heard of, if the respondant was not a participant in the story)" the answer is almost always "Silver Bell Level".
In this brief history, Mark Dallon shows us the tenacity characteristic of early tubbers in realizing their lofty dreams and goals as well as their often stupid lack of foresight in planning overnight trips.
Also characteristic of tubbing histories are some apparent, though minor, discrepancies in "how things were" according to different participants. This is often true of most folkloric literature, yet seems to creep into our (tubbing) discipline somewhat earlier, in general, like fishing stories ("I swear that fish was 24 inches or better!").
To highlight these contradictions or to fill in missing detail from Mr. Dallon's offering, Scott Wiersdorf will enter his own comments in brackets [like this], often digressing on long, uninteresting anecdotes.
The Adventure at Silver Bell Level
by Mark Dallon
[with commentary by Scott Wiersdorf]
Early March means many things to many people. To Scott and I in 1991 it meant tubbing. It was our senior year in high school and we had been kept busy with college applications, AP classes, work, homework and other mundane tasks. We tubbed every Wednesday, but it was usually a fairly rushed after school affair. We had been talking for quite awhile about an overnight excursion. Early March tubbing conditions usually rank right up there as some of the best--plenty of base and still cold enough to keep the snow from getting too wet. We probably hadn't given much thought to all this, it was just that we had a Friday off from school and needed to tub.
Thursday after school we didn't waste much time leaving school and getting home. As we walked home it was cloudy, dark and unsettled. The clouds were low and their dark undersides hid the mountains from view. The air felt damp and chilly; like rain. We had all of our stuff* ready from a little trip to the store the night before so we were set to go. My dad drove us up Millcreek Canyon in the old green 1973 Ford pickup and dropped us off at the Porter Fork gate. It was even darker there and a slow drizzle gave it all an ominous, wet feel. We packed our stuff into our tubs and started walking.
[*This probably isn't relevant, but I'll include it for posterity's sake. Some people might get the impression that the Dallon-Wiersdorf duo were rugged mountainman types, living off of pine nuts and berries foraged that afternoon. In reality, our 'stuff' consisted of Life cereal and cowboy mix (a mix of candy corn, boston baked peanuts, sugar coated licorice, and other sugary things). With this we felt prepared to meet nearly any challenge.]
This wasn't an ordinary tubbing trip. Most trips lasted a few hours and were after school during the week. Not this time. We were headed for Silver Bell Level, which would be our base camp for tubbing the next day. Silver Bell Level is an old silver mine near the head of Porter Fork at 8440 feet in elevation, about 3 miles from the Millcreek Canyon road. We had first seen the mine the summer before while hiking a ridge in prime wild cow territory between Porter Fork and Mill B North Fork. We had investigated the mine that day and found an old cabin, workshed, rail workings and tunnel. The cabin and shed were built on a flat spot dug out of a steep slope where the tunnel entered the mountain. It was all maintained by someone to keep the mining claim valid so there was quite a bit of equipment. The cabin and shed were locked and boarded up so we just peered through the windows and cracks. We made another visit to the mine in October of that year and found our way in and explored the cabin and the tunnel itself. Figuring we could get in again, we aimed to stay in this rickety old cabin on that night in early March, using it as a base camp for tubbing the following day.
[I seem to remember mentioning the cabin as kind of a last resort if the weather was too extreme; we were both hoping that we would be able to sleep under the stars, as I recall. As the day began and we noticed that things weren't looking good we talked about "maybe we can get into the cabin."]
The road up through the cabins along the lower mile and a half of Porter Fork is narrow and overhung by maples, firs and aspens. The canyon faces north so the trees are thick and it was dark as we walked along. After a mile and a half we left the cabin area, passed the gate and wilderness sign and trudged on. The snowmobile trail near the cabins petered out and only a narrow ski trail that was several days old remained. The rain had changed to snow. It was getting later and we were 1000 feet higher. We were now above the cloud level and the fog made it darker. The deep snow absorbed the sounds and it was much quieter above the cabins. We didn't talk much as we walked single file up the narrow trail through the snow and fog, pulling our gear in our tubs behind us. The heat from our exertion and the falling snow began to dampen our clothes. It was so dark and gloomy for late afternoon that there was a spooky mood to the canyon. Visibility was low and it was getting colder and we were getting pretty eager to get to the mine.
[I don't recall much of this hike--except that it was somewhat unnerving with no light (I don't remember bringing lights with us, though I'm sure we must have had something) and we were both getting soaked. It felt like we had been hiking for hours.]
We started to wonder at one point, "What if we can't get into the mine? What if someone boarded it up again?" To a couple of wet kids with only average sleeping bags and no tent, these were important questions. The dark fog, snow and late hour were worrying us a bit and we were getting tired. By the time the mine came into view, we were excited, nervous, wet, hungry and tired. If we had only been trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly . . . we would have been good Boy Scouts.
[Just before the mine came into view, we had begun to pray for some way to survive the night. We were far up the canyon with not much resort except to stay the night somewhere. We felt we could probably get down if we needed to, but then what? Knock on a door and ask for help? Never. Looking back, we had a strange mix of pride and humility in that moment.]
We finally could see the mine. Clinging to the steep slope, barely visible through the fog and just sticking out of 12 feet of snow was the roof of the cabin. If we hadn't been looking for it we wouldn't have seen it. We clamored up the steep slope to the cabin and stopped to look at it. The snow was deep. It was very deep. We could barely see the roof and the bulging snow looked like it was going to swallow the whole place. Fortunately for us there was an overhanging eave on the north side of the cabin. The eave created a tunnel through the snow, leading to the back of the cabin where we had climbed in the October before. We slithered through the tunnel and found the panel on the back of the cabin still pried open. Dusk was setting in pretty heavily so we happily crawled inside.
[This was the really cool part of the story, in my opinion. We had never seen the cabin in the winter and had no idea that canyon received so much snow. The front door was completely buried. As we stood there in front of it, we were just a few feet short of equaling the height of that two-story cabin. The eave, as Mark said, overhung just enough to leave us a triangular tunnel to the back of the cabin, which was pressed closely to the mountain itself. Mark went back first, I think, and said that it was good. I hung my bulky (but warm) down-filled coat on the crook of a stovepipe chimney, then shoved one of each of our tubs with our gear through the tunnel. Then I myself made a commando-crawl down the dark hole.]
The cabin was damp and cold, with dust everywhere. Dim twilight filtered through the plexiglass windows and cracks in the walls. We snooped all around the cabin, shed and entrance to the mine tunnel. This cabin was certainly better than outside, but we were even happier to find a pile of firewood in the shed and a small wood stove in the cabin. We were soaking wet from the snow and our sweat so we didn't waste much time in building a fire and getting that place nice and toasty. [Nice indeed--we guessed that in about an hour we had the cabin heated to somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.] Before long our clothes were steaming, we were eating our Life cereal for dinner and snacking on cowboy mix. Spirits were high as we ate and talked about tubbing. The fire cast a cheery orange glow around the room and I remember few times in my life when I was so content. Numerous comments were made that just a few hours before we had been at school. We swept the rat and mouse droppings out of the small attic (hanta virus anyone?) and layed out our pads and sleeping bags and fell asleep to the sound of the fire crackling in the stove. Visions of tubbing down Triple Divide Peak the next day were my last conscious thought as I fell asleep.
[My last vision was that of Mark and I being crushed under 10 feet of snow. During the night, especially in the first hour of sleep, the snow on the roof, because of the superheated cabin roof (made of galvanized steel), began to crack and slide--boy what a noise it made! It was hard to get to sleep with a loud, sharp report at odd intervals for the first little while.]
Without the fire going, the cabin got pretty cold by morning. When we woke up the air was cold and the morning light was coming through the window. From what we could see out the windows/cracks, the dark, low clouds of the night before had been replaced by swirling clouds, sun and sporadic snow flurries. We ate some more food, but I can't even remember what it was. At that point I don't think I even cared what it was. I would have been happy with sawdust. We had some serious tubbing to do and food seemed to be of secondary importance. We finished eating, packed up our stuff and crawled outside through the snow tunnel.
[We ate more Life cereal for breakfast and a few fistfuls of cowboy mix to top it off. We tidied up the place, better than we had found it, and left a few packs of matches for any other future cold and weary travellers.]
I was the first one outside and a rather unpleasant discovery greeted me. When we arrived the night before, Scott had apparently taken off his coat and draped it over the stovepipe coming out of the side of the cabin. He forgot to bring it with him when we went inside. Unfortunately, stovepipes tend to get very hot when hot air and smoke from a fire goes through for a while. Coats made of synthetic materials laying on top of hot stovepipes tend to melt. Scott's coat was wrapped around that stovepipe like a car around a telephone pole. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and didn't say much as Scott came out of the tunnel. A tubber's equipment is like a good friend and the loss of his coat was a serious blow. The coat was brittle and twisted as Scott pulled it from the now frozen stovepipe. It wasn't how we would have liked to start the morning.
[No comment, except to say that I will make no comment.]
The view from the front of the cabin slapped us back into reality. Clouds were swirling around the peaks, 10 inches of new snow blanketed the slopes and the sun was dancing around the twisting clouds. The ski trail we followed up was barely visible below us and the temperature was perfect for tubbing. [We actually didn't have any idea what the temperature was, but any temperature is perfect for tubbing (as long as the snow is good).] We climbed down the slope from the mine to the ski trail and quickly packed away the gear we wouldn't need for the day in our gear tubs. We stashed them in the snow and started to hike. There is a feeling on a day like this that doesn't come often. The sun was bright, the air cold and the snow perfect. Before we even started we were already over 2000 feet higher than the road. We were full of energy and it seemed like our tubs pulled us up the hill. We climbed up the east slopes of Triple Divide Peak, a peak at the point where Porter Fork, Neff's Canyon and Mill B North Fork come together.
Before we reached the ridge, we stopped for a few minutes for Scott and his coat. He went around a corner from me and without much fanfare had a ceremony for his coat and buried it. We haven't spoken much about it, but at that moment it seemed he was more worried that his mom would be mad that he ruined his coat. He had me take an oath that I would never tell anyone about his coat (until now). In retrospect, it is fitting that a fine coat die in the 'heat' of battle and be buried where it was at its best. [Uh, that's Mark's pun. Mark's strength in humor lies in dry understatement and immaculate timing.]
It didn't seem like the hike to the ridge took long from that point. We hit the ridge near the peak just north of Triple Divide, one we call Triple Divide's Neighbor (for lack of creativity). As we climbed the last wind blown snow to the ridge the view to the west of the peaks came into view. As the clouds swirled around we briefly caught glimpses of the Salt Lake Valley to the west, Grandeaur Peak to the north, Neff's Canyon and Wildcat Ridge to the west and southwest and Big Cottonwood Canyon to the south. The light was intense as the snow and clouds scattered the light in a million directions and the clouds were flying over our heads as they passed to the east. I have a picture of Scott eating an apple sitting there on the peak with the Cottonwood Ridge behind him. Not very many people have eaten an apple in such a fine setting.
We finished eating and climbed a bit off the ridge to get ready. We started down the east side of the peak in what can best be described as indescribable. There were no other tracks, the snow dry and fairly dense and it was steep. We floated down the mountain hollering and yelling and without a care in the world. The chute near the peak widened into a broad bowl, then narrowed and curved to the left. It widened out again as we approached the mine. The entire route was full of variations in aspect and steepness and there were plenty of small trees to jump. As we arrived at our gear stashed 1600 feet below, we crashed into a heap.
Our faces were cold and covered with ice and snow and began to tingle as the snow melted. A tubber knows that feeling well and recognizes it as the 'must have been a great run' indicator. I can't speak for Scott, but that moment was one of the most memorable I've had to this day. Everything that tubbing is to me was epitomized as we lay there in the snow. After a few moments of just enjoying the feeling, I realized that my head was also feeling a bit cold, a situation that my trusty green Froghead Beer hat should have remedied. Without even checking, I knew what had happened. I had lost my goggles the week before, which usually held a hat in place. Without the goggles, my hat was exposed to any errant gust of wind, branch, or wild cow. Now, one could use the missing hat to explain why a few minutes later we packed up our stuff and hiked up Triple Divide again. But deep down inside I like to think that we probably would have done it anyway. Regardless of what our motivation to hike back up again was, as tubbers we knew that another 1700 vertical feet of tubbing would be the reward.
So there we were, Scott without his coat and I without my hat. The sun had come out a little stronger by then and it was getting warmer. The sun was softening the snow and the clouds were fewer. We sat in the bottom of the canyon just beneath the old cabin and peeled off layers and started back up. We followed our down tracks up so we wouldn't miss the hat. The snow had changed a lot since the morning's climb up. It was wetter and heavier but the hiking wasn't bad. I don't remember much about the hike back up except that we finally did find the hat--20 feet from where we had started on the peak. That old hat hadn't wasted any time abandoning my head. I assume that I did something to prevent the hat from pulling the same stunt again on the way down but I can't remember what it was. We had the typical good time tubbing down again and were shortly crashed into a heap next to our gear at the base of the peak.
By this time it was getting to be mid afternoon and we still had to get to the road with all of our stuff. We had each brought two tubs so we strapped them together in a way I remember thinking was quite clever. We put all of our gear in our back tubs and strapped the front of it to the back of our riding tubs. It made for a double long tub that was heavy at the back end but it certainly worked. The ski trail back down Porter Fork was quite handy. The canyon isn't steep enough to tub unless a trail has been packed down and the old trail with 5-6 inches of new snow on top was perfect. We got moving pretty well at a few spots and had some fun trying to make a series of 3 or 4 switchbacks with our long trailers. Going around the switchbacks with any speed swung our long back ends to the edge of the switchback and the steep, icy slope below. It was pretty fun trying to see how fast we could take them and how close to the edge. Once we got to the cabin road it was a long roller coaster ride over the snowmobile washboarded trail to the road. At least we had Paris tubs and not the boxy Torpedos of the modern era. We just slid right over all those bumps instead of digging through them.
Before long we reached the gate at the Mill Creek Canyon road. We just sat there waiting for someone to pick us up and kicked stones into Mill Creek. I glanced over at Scott as we sat under the bridge. He was asleep, leaning against the bridge foundation. I could almost see a grin on his face as he slept. I just sat there and felt pretty wiped out and content all at the same time. It's not uncommon for tubbers to feel like that after a good day. I assure you that that had definitely been a good day.