To say I was sucking wind would be an understatement. At one point, I wasn’t even sure I was skiing. Yes, things that looked like skis were attached to my feet though they were only about an inch and a half wide. And there was certainly snow all around with views of mountain peaks, aspen stands, and dense conifer forests. But the hard fought rhythm I was struggling to maintain grew slower and slower until I was awkwardly walking, no staggering, herring bone style, up one of the numerous steep pitches on the road to 10,600′ Geyser Pass in the La Sal Mountains of southeastern Utah.
Normally I wear a relatively fat pair of Voile skis with climbing skins on the bottom when I’m going uphill. And generally speaking, I prefer ridge crests to roadways. But I had been cajoled during an extended period of high pressure, in what was already a low snow year in the La Sals, into going skate skiing by my friend Brett Sutteer. Brett was an early pioneer in the backcountry skiing community of Moab, but he had tired of the often fickle and treacherous nature of the La Sal snowpack and had fully embraced skate skiing as a way to stay fit up into the mountains in wintertime. Brett was leaving me in the dust. He and I alternate between crushing one another on mountain bikes, but in this activity, I was clearly outmatched.
Though we were on a roadway, the surface underneath our skis was fresh corduroy recently laid down by volunteers from LUNA, or the Lower Utah Nordic Alliance. Using a pair of Skidoo Skandic snowmobiles, the volunteers drag a roller around to pack down fresh powder, followed by the “Ginsu” groomer that carves neat little grooves and even sets a classic track for inline skiing off to one side. The equipment is stored in a trailer that lives at the Geyser Pass trailhead all winter. Volunteers come up on Fridays and Mondays, or whenever they feel like it after it snows, and groom trails up and around Geyser Pass, and out the road into Gold Basin.
Early Nordic skiers in the La Sal Mountains relied on snowmobile traffic to “groom” the road over the pass. The ensuing skiing experience was rugged at best, complete with ruts and chunks of frozen death cookies, but at least the snow was packed down. Brett was skating here back then too. He describes some of the best conditions as being wind buffed, when the snow had been smoothed and packed out by the powerful winds the La Sals are notorious for. Problem was you’d be skating along, focusing on your breathing, working subtle nuances in the snow surface, when suddenly a thin ski would break through the surface, and you’d be sprawling head over knees into a face plant on the side of the road.
Then in 2002, longtime Utah skier, climber, developer, and urban planner McKay Edwards brought the first real grooming to the range for the first annual La Sal Loppet, an 18k skate skiing race that went up and over Geyser Pass and around a meadow at the top. Edwards got a Utah State Parks Pisten Bully that was used to groom snowmobile trails on the Wasatch Plateau / Manti Skyline to come over and groom.
Edwards says his motivation for the event was to showcase the high quality Nordic skiing opportunities that the La Sals have to offer, as opposed to the backcountry skiing which he says can also be quite good, but not always safe and reliable due to the capricious nature of a weak and shallow, continental snowpack. “With 12 inches of snow, road and meadow touring is on for the year,” Edwards said. “And the high altitude makes touring reliable throughout the season.”
The Pisten Bully wasn’t available the following year so Edwards fashioned a homemade groomer out of some chain link and pulled it around by a snowmobile for the next couple of years. Then in 2005, a new generation of Nordic skiers, inspired by the Loppet, formed the Lower Utah Nordic Alliance. The alliance was aided by USFS La Sal avalanche forecaster Max Forgensi who applied for a grant from Utah State Parks and recreation to purchase grooming equipment. Forgensi presented his plan to Trail Mix, a Grand County sponsored committee that helps plan and facilitate the development of non-motorized trails. The timing was fortuitous, and for the final two years of the Loppet, LUNA provided the grooming.
Each year in November, the Forest Service holds a training session for LUNA volunteers. After an indoor session where the inevitable paperwork is filled out, they head up to the Geyser Pass Trailhead and go over the machines. They look under the hood and see where to check the oil, antifreeze, and belt. They learn how to replace a fouled spark plug, and they talk about how to get unstuck. They go over the Forest Service JHA, or Job Hazard Analysis related to running a snowmobile, and then they are off, taking turns riding, packing down snow, and getting the track set up for the season.
A seemingly incongruous relationship at first – cross-country skiers meet snowmobiles – but many in the group seem to enjoy the actual grooming as much as skiing. Of course there is the inevitable getting stuck, the occasional head-on with a tree, and sometimes even a drive off of a steep embankment, but in the end, they manage to groom close to 20k of trail if you go out and back.
Just up from the Geyser Pass trailhead, a loop branches off to the north and goes around an open meadow surrounded by aspens. The half-mile loop offers rolling terrain and excellent views of Haystack Mountain before joining back with the Geyser Pass road. The Meadow Loop is excellent for beginners to go out and around, and is also a perfect start for a ski up the road.
About a mile up the Geyser Pass road, the junction to Gold Basin appears. The Gold Basin road provides an intermediate out and back that climbs steadily up through a mixed forest of aspen and conifer before topping out at the minor crest of Laurel Pass. At the pass, a backcountry skin trail known as the Laurel Highway crosses the road providing access to powder filled meadows, glades, and high elevation alpine bowls. Nordic skiers will pass on this option, and instead embark on a minor descent that takes them around a sweeping corner, and through a beautiful aspen stand, before coming to a small lollipop loop at the end of the road. Distance from the parking lot to the end of the road and back is about 8k with just over 600′ in elevation gain.
The Meadow Loop, combined with Gold Basin, make for a pleasant and vigorous workout that also provides skiers with some classic, La Sal Mountain scenery. But for the truly adventurous, and might I even say extreme Nordic enthusiast, the route up and over Geyser Pass and around the Loppet Loop, provides what Brett calls “a destination in brutality. One of the burliest, most consistently demanding, skating adventures anywhere.”
The route climbs 1000′ in 5k, or three miles from the parking lot to Geyser Pass. Numerous “problems,” as Brett calls them, are encountered along the way. Steep hills and sharp corners demand total mind and body concentration to maintain at least a minor bit of forward gliding motion. And there I was, at a virtual standstill. I had struggled to maintain my rhythm, focusing hard on my breathing, and grabbing “rests” on the only slightly steep pitches, as opposed to those that stared me right in the face. It was a delicate balance trying to keep it together. Every pole plant mattered. Every ounce of expended energy had to be controlled and directed toward forward momentum. If only an inch or two of glide could be achieved, it made all the difference.
But I had lost my glide. I staggered up the pitch, blood pounding in my ears, gasping for breath. I looked ahead and tried to keep moving as the angle eased back. Brett was disappearing around the next bend. Pole plant, breathe. Pole plant, push. Pole plant. Slowly I was able to get some semblance of glide going again. The rhythm increased, and the more it did, the faster I moved, and the easier it became. Relatively speaking of course. I still felt as though I could barely stand up. But to keep the glide at all cost would get me over the pass.
Geyser Pass wouldn’t be obvious if not for a sign proclaiming the area as such. It’s wide, wooded, and relatively flat. But with my heart exploding, and my lungs filled to maximum capacity as I skated on, I could discern the grade shifting to slightly downhill, and I took advantage of it for the next kilometer before skating into a large, rolling, alpine meadow dotted with islands of trees. I found Brett waiting for me there.
The alpine crown of Edward’s race, the Loppet Loop, provides 3k of remote Nordic skiing and is a just reward for the demanding approach. From the meadow, you can see across the red rock desert of the Paradox Valley, all the way to the serrated ridgeline of the rugged San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The massive north face of Mount Mellenthin looms beyond the meadow. I stared up at it and remembered how, nearly 25 years before, I had driven to Geyser Pass in June, strapped skis on my pack and booted directly up that face. It was my first season in Moab as young river guide, and it was the first line I ever skied in the La Sals. I looked down at the toothpicks on my feet thinking not with these things, but then I remembered what gear was like in those days.
We made a few laps around the meadow. After the brutal climb it was so nice to glide up and over the small hills and around the corners, and I was beginning to see what had captivated Edwards and the other line of La Sal Nordic skiers. The gear was light, I wasn’t wearing a pack, and I was moving freely around the mountains in snow and getting a great work out.
Then it started getting late, and things were cooling off. We untied light shells from around our waists and put them on. Then we skated back up to the pass. It was then I noticed that shaded sections of the trail had glazed over, and that minor ridges, or grooves in the snow, which had been inconsequential an hour before, had now hardened into potential ski stopping obstacles. The snow surface had become chattery, and my legs were beginning to feel weak and rubbery. Suddenly, standing there on those thin little skis, the realization dawned on me that it was going to be a wild ride back down.