We’re standing on top of an island surrounded by a sea of desert. From the summit of South Mountain, (11,862′) we can see out across a vast red desert that extends southward all the way into the Four Corners region where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico share a common border.
To the West, Hatch Mesa drops off abruptly into the Canyonlands Basin, where the Colorado River carves sinuously through an intricate maze of canyons, buttes, and mesas. To the East, the long, serrated, blue mountain ridge of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, can be seen in silhouette under the early morning sun.
It’s just before 8:00 in the morning in mid August, and already the heat waves are rising up from the desert. We’ve just ascended the first 3500 feet of what will end up being a total of over 12,000 vertical over the course of 22 miles. We’re planning to traverse the La Sal Mountains in a day. It was Max’s idea, and he couldn’t find anyone else foolhardy enough for the undertaking besides me.
Everyone else had plans. Any other plans it seemed, besides hiking up and down several thousand vertical feet of talus. Moab is not a town of mountain hikers or peak baggers. Ride the Whole Enchilada? Hell yea! Pull hard in Millcreek. Sure. Float the Daily and drink some beer? Perfect summer activity. Traverse the La Sal range on foot hitting all the high points enroute? Why would anyone want to do that?
But Max Forgensi had a mission. After 10 years working for the Forest Service in the La Sals, both in winter as an avalanche forecaster, and in summer as a recreation technician and fire fighter, Max was saying goodbye. He was moving on and up the Forest Service ladder, and he wanted one last hurrah in the range.
I was in because I also have a special affinity for these surly rock piles that sit high above the desert. I’d been a forecaster here for four years prior to Max, and as a schizophrenic desert dweller that also likes to hang out on mountain peaks, I took a certain pride in ownership of the range and I wasn’t going to let Max do something like that without me.
The La Sals are a tough range to love. Rough and tumble, the rewards are few and difficult to attain. There is no quality rock, no stunning alpine lakes. The snowpack is sketchy and thin and prone to avalanches. But there is an undeniable pull for those captivated by their wild nature and spectacular position high above the desert.
“I wish this place would release me from its spell,” Max says.
My girlfriend Carol drove us around to the south end of the range in the early morning darkness. Max had left a car in Willow Basin, on the north end of the mountains just above Castle Valley, the day before. Then he rode his bike back into town along the river road, braving traffic and the burning summer heat.
We spun Sunflower the Jeep off of Hwy 46, just before the town of La Sal, and bumped our way northward on a rough cobbled road that wound through blackbrush and sage, up into scattered juniper and pinion pine, to the mouth of Lackey Basin at an elevation of 8260′.
In the Wasatch, that would put you at about Snowbird, entry number four, fully within the realm of sub-alpine terrain. But in the high desert country of the La Sal Mountains, we were still standing in tall grass and scrub oak.
“This just might be the craziest thing we ever thought we could do,” Max said.
Carol drove off to explore the foothills around the southern end of the range, and we started walking up the remains of a jeep road that followed the canyon bottom. As the hills grew steeper and the canyon narrowed, the road left the bottom and switchbacked up a steep grassy hillside before ending in a stand of aspens.
We paused to look back down the basin, and out to the south where dawn red clouds, tinged in orange, scuttled across the sky.
“What’s that saying,” I said to Max. “Something about sailors in the morning?
From the end of the road we began wandering upward through aspens, out on to grassy slopes, and back into the woods where thin, sub alpine fir, mixed with blue spruce, eventually gave way to proud Doug firs – tall, twisted, and misshapen by the wind. Then we broke out above tree line at around 11,200′ and encountered our first run of talus before topping out on the summit of South Mountain.
The La Sal, or “Salt Mountains” as the Spanish explorer Father Escalante called them, are broken up into three distinct groups separated by two large passes. The South Mountain “massif” is the smallest chunk of the range with only one significant summit. At 11,862′ South Mountain is nearly 400′ higher than American Fork Twins in the Wasatch, and nearly 1000′ lower than Mount Peale, the highest summit in the range, and second highest peak in Utah, at 12,726′.
A somewhat ignoble knob of a summit as seen from the south, South Mountain nevertheless has an impressive north face that qualifies as good, sporty skiing in anyone’s book. An adjacent north ridge is steep, loose, and reminiscent of the worst sections on the north ridge of the Pfiefferhorn.
We take in the view and assess the already forming cloud situation. Veils of virga hang over the Abajo Mountains 30 miles to the south. To the west, bands of monsoonal moisture are welling up beyond the distant Orange Cliffs. The desert below is baking.
We pick our way down off the summit and onto the splintered spine of talus that makes up the north ridge. At treeline, the ridge flattens out before rising again to South Mountain Knob. From there, a duff covered, and extremely slippery slope drops steeply away. Often using trees for support, we pinball our way down to the flats before busting out of the woods into the lush grassy meadow surrounding Medicine Lake.
We have a quick breakfast at La Sal Pass. A cheese tortellini MRE, and a quart of Gatorade that Max had stashed on one of his last details. We top off our water as well. Not true self support style I understand, but we’re just a couple of dudes cruising through the La Sals, and we’re not out to set any records.
Our next leg takes us along a short stretch of trail, and we follow it up through aspens to the approach gully for Mount Peale. We ascend the gully through talus and rubble for 1000 feet before cresting the ridge at the upper end of Gold Basin.
From this minor summit, the ridge forks in three directions. To the west, the ridge runs for about a mile to the summit of Mount Tukuhnikivatz, or “last place that sees the sun,” in the Ute language. The ridge wraps around the head of two cirques on its way; Talking Mountain, infamous for the 1992 avalanche accident that killed an avalanche forecaster and three others; and Middle Cirque, which in winter, provides the cleanest snow line off the summit of Tuk.
To the east, the ridge goes for about a mile to the summit of Mount Peale. Straight ahead, the main divide runs north forming the main spine of the middle group. It bumps up over Laurel Mountain, down to a low saddle, then up a steep talus ridge to the summit of Mount Mellenthin.
We had briefly discussed matters of style and overall objective beforehand but now we have a clear decision to make. Add about four miles to the trip, and another 1500 vertical feet, by doing out and back jaunts to both Peale and Tuk, or blow them off and press forward.
I’m not going to lie, the additional climbs seem daunting. There is also a distant threat of developing thundershowers and we have a very long way to go.
“We came here to do a traverse,” Max says. “We’ll take the most direct line from south to north, staying along the crest, and hitting all the high points on the way.”
Relieved, I agree and we set off across a section of tundra, a pleasant respite from the loose talus. We gawk over both sides of the ridge, taking in the splendor of our position. The cirques and peaks of Gold Basin are on our left, with the Moab Valley and Canyonlands Basin stretching beyond. On the right is the Paradox salt valley, and the Uncompahgre Plateau all hemmed in by the distant San Juans.
The middle group is the literal and figurative center of the range. The cirques of Gold Basin surrounding Mount Tukuhnikivatz, have the most rugged, alpine feel, particularly in winter, when the steep, snow covered slopes and rock buttresses carved with couloirs, belie the hundreds of acres of talus that make up the majority of above treeline terrain.
The La Sals are a lacolithic mountain range, which means they were formed by an intrusion of magma that was forced between sedimentary layers. The pressure from the intrusion caused the overlying strata to rise and buckle in the formation of a dome. The magma then cooled and hardened without ever reaching the surface. Finally, after eons of erosion, the overlying sedimentary rock was stripped away and voila, groups of mountain peaks were revealed.
The hardened magma formed a bluish gray rock called diorite, which shattered into rubble through weathering and a process known as isostatic adjustment. Also called postglacial rebound, this process involves the rise of a landmass that was formerly depressed by the weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period.
In short, the La Sals are choss piles of the worst degree. We experience that first hand as we ascend the minor summit of Laurel Mountain. Here, dinner plates, and refrigerator size blocks hang in delicate suspension, and their occasional movement frazzles the nerves.
In 2006, Dick Webster, a 64-year-old mountaineer, and writer of the first guidebook to climbing in Joshua Tree, was killed on the west ridge of Tuk, when a slope of talus broke loose carrying him for hundreds of feet.
We pop up and over Laurel, and then scramble our way up 600 feet of steep and loose talus to the to the summit of Mount Mellenthin. At 12,645′. Mellenthin is the second highest peak in the range, and our high point of the trip.
Mount Mellenthin has the greatest mass of the peaks, with a broad grass and tundra meadow on top. Taking in the view we notice the first serious threat of thundershowers encroaching over South Mountain. To the east, the San Juans are beginning to amass their usual array of thunderheads, and a veil of showers are pressing up on Tuk.
We move quickly to the northwest ridge for our descent to Geyser Pass. Picking our way along the summit crest, we look down the north face, one of the proudest ski runs in the range, before emerging on to the “boardwalk,” one of the few actually enjoyable sections of solid ridge walking. It is short lived however, as the angle of repose quickly tips, and the entire ridge crumbles into a sharp jumble of loose rubble.
As the first rumble of thunder is heard, we quickly descend the 2000 feet to Geyser Pass risking rockslides, and broken limbs. We take shelter in the woods as a wave of showers move through, and while munching power bars, quickly assess our options.
We could hitch a ride down the Geyser Pass Road and call it. But the thundershower activity is spotty, and we have a couple of miles of below treeline travel across Geyser Pass and then up to Burro Pass, before we are exposed again. We can always reassess there, and head down the start of the Whole Enchilada trail to Warner Lake if need be.
We press on making good time to Burro Pass, before breaking out above treeline near Mann’s Peak. The showers have moved on, and we have a nice window of sunshine overhead, so we bust a move for the summit (12,272′) where we encounter a young couple from Indiana. They are thrilled to be there and can’t believe the view they are enjoying.
At this point, we’ve come up and over the south and middle groups and have crossed the two major passes in the range. Nevertheless, we are only about half way in terms of distance. The north group is the most extensive in the range and has half a dozen summits over 12,000′. It’s also the most remote with few options for bailing out.
An isolated shower moves through Geyser Pass and we catch some residual sprinkles. Thunder rumbles in the distance, but to the north it’s broken skies with patches of blue. The ribbon of ridge rises and falls ahead of us, curving around Beaver Basin and climbing to the summit of Mount Waas (12,331) a few miles distant. Beyond that, through a low saddle, our second to the last summit, Castle Peak looks impossibly far away.
I’m thoroughly bonking and popping Clif Blocs as I stagger up the talus to the summit of Castle Peak. The rock slides under foot, clanking with the sound of iron ore, and I take one step forward and two steps back. From the top, I look dishearteningly over to the final summit of La Sal Peak (12,044′). A low saddle separates us.
A crack of thunder, and developing clouds, gives me a second wind and we quickly descend to the saddle. We look for a way down into a side drainage, but it’s all steep scree and runnels channeling into a massive gully. No choice but to see this thing through and we make our final talus ascent to the summit of La Sal Peak (12,001′).
We’ve saved the worst for last, as we knew we would. We’re looking at a 4700′ descent, 2500′ of which will include the worst of everything we’ve encountered so far and more. Loose steep scree; hard, ball bearing covered surfaces; duff and woods, bush whacking galore, and ultimately, the fall of a darkness.
On the bright side, the threat of rain has once again dissipated and we are surrounded by broken skies and clouds tinged with the glow of late evening light. A few veils of virga hang over the peaks to the south. The great green mesa on the backside of the range extends out to the north before dropping off abruptly into the red desert of Professor Valley. The Colorado River can be seen winding its way through the “daily” section, and the tops of the Fisher Towers are ablaze with the last of the sun.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Max says.
“What are you going to miss?” I ask. “The heat. The choss? The sketchy avalanche conditions?
Max laughs, “Release me! Release me from this spell!”
We move toward our descent. It looks bad. As we start down my feet immediately begin to slide and as I grab for the nearest scrubby tree one thought pops into my head.
“You did remember to leave beer in the car right?”