Life and Death Skiing in the LaSals

Whoomph! The sound stopped me in my tracks and raised the hair on my arms and neck. The entire five-acre meadow of snow had collapsed under my skis. Though I was clear of any avalanche run out zones, I instinctively cringed against an onslaught of tumbling snow and made a quick scan of the surrounding terrain. Serrated peaks stood motionless at the head of the basin. Not a breath of air moved. Feathery surface hoar shimmered like glittering potato chips in the cold, hazy sunlight. All was quiet except the sound of blood pounding in my ears.

LaSals

I regained composure and pushed my ski pole into the snow. I felt resistance for 8-10 inches before the trapdoor opened and my pole plunged straight down another 2 1/2 feet before striking the frozen ground. Yikes! I continued on through an aspen stand and over a rise before stepping into another meadow. Whoomph! Another heart stopping cringe. I collapsed three more meadows that morning before moving into dense conifers and eventually moving up to a high alpine basin. Leery of exiting the forest, I stood next to an ancient Douglas Fir so large it would take two people to reach around and gazed up at the peaks.

 

There were beautiful lines everywhere‑‑big open bowls, narrow couloirs and long, undulating aprons‑‑all untracked. It was a backcountry skier and powder lover’s dream. I gazed up longingly at the high peaks, watching the morning sunlight move down the east faces. I observed my bodily sensations as the urge to dive into deep powder bliss struggled with common sense. Cold shook me out of my trance and I put on warm clothes, took one last look at paradise, stripped off my skins and safely followed my track back out.

 

Welcome to the La Sal Mountains where terrain is steep and snow weak. Islands in a sea of desert, the rocky peaks rise above Moab at 4,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet. Buried in snow, the high peaks and basins have an alpine splendor equal to the finest mountains on earth. Big lines beg to be skied. From the 2000 foot classic “Moab Lanes,” on the northeast face of “Little Tuk,” to the massive north face of Mount Mellenthin there are ample opportunities for sustained big mountain riding with a serious caveat‑‑there’s no in between. Moderate terrain‑‑slopes of 30 degrees or less‑‑is in short supply. Much of the terrain above treeline is bulls-eye avalanche angle of 38 degrees, and ominous convexities lure riders further down slope prohibiting safe and effective ski cuts. And then there’s the snowpack. With an average snowfall of between 250 and 300 inches a year, the weak, shallow snowpack is more akin to the mountains of Colorado then the central Wasatch. This, combined with the terrain, make the La Sal Mountains an exceedingly avalanche prone range.

 

The southwest flow storms can glide right past the La Sal Mountains to deposit a foot of snow in Arches National Park while scattering only a few inches at the Geyser Pass Trailhead. When storms pass, winds shift to the northeast, blowing what snow did fall into the Painted Desert of northern Arizona. “The final insult,” as ex-forecaster for the range Dave Medara used to say, but the La Sal Mountains can get dumped on and have powder as epic as anywhere in the Rocky Mountain West. The problem is that the dump usually lands on the previously described house of cards and all hell breaks loose, resulting in a widespread avalanche cycle. When the loads come in smaller doses each adds another straw to the pile, every one threatening to topple the balance. And so La Sal riders creep around on pins and needles most of the season steering clear of the big north faces and trying to find something safe to ski.

 

After growing up along the Wasatch Front and spending 10 years living, working and skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I thought I had a handle on snow and avalanche conditions and what a rider could get away with. Snow was plentiful and came regularly. Depth hoar as an avalanche trigger seemed an abstract concept. People went big all the time. Center punching Cardiac Bowl was routine. The south face of Superior was skied during and the day after a storm.

 

Then I came to the La Sal Mountains, spending my first season as a forecaster in 1999 basically just walking around. I’d skin for hours to the bottom of a huge alpine basin, look at the massive slopes all around and walk back out. That season meadows collapsed any day of the week between December and the end of February when a sustained series of storms blew in on a moist, southwesterly flow, accompanied by strong winds, and the place ripped out wall to wall.

 

Some years the La Sal Mountains have more snow and greater stability, but a typical winter plays out like this: Early season snow falls in October followed by extended high pressure in November. Cold, clear nights wreak havoc on the existing snow as vapor transfer by heat loss from the ground turns the pack into a pile of sugary, faceted crystals. December storms add more snow to the fragile structure. A few slabs pull out naturally on upper elevation northerly aspects, but most slopes stay intact in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the additional load or trigger in the form of an unwary backcountry traveler. January typically brings another period of high pressure and its effects on the snowpack are multi-faceted, no pun intended. On the one hand, relative stability may ensue as the fragile snowpack adjusts to the snow load of December. On the other, continued cold and clear nights further exacerbate the depth hoar problem. Mid-level and near surface facet layers are preserved and world-class jumbo-chip surface hoar crystals form, creating the perfect scenario for persistent slab, as well as deep persistent slab, problems when snow returns.

 

In the winter of 1992, such a scenario cost four skiers, including an avalanche forecaster, their lives. After an extended dry spell, during the second week of February two feet of snow blanketed the mountains in a few days. On February 12, skies cleared and forecaster Mark Yates, Craig Bigler, Jeremy Hopkins, Maribel Loveridge, Steve Meleski, and Bill Turk ascended the Laurel Ridge to the minor summit of 11,700-foot Pre-Laurel Peak.

 

At the summit, the group discussed their plans. Yates advocated skiing off the south face on a run known as Goldminer’s and then heading to the north face of Talking Mountain Cirque in upper Gold Basin. His enthusiasm was high, the sun was shining and the powder deep. The situation was a classic case of the human factor and group dynamics playing into avalanche accidents. Though some were uneasy with the plan, others in the group put their trust with the expert and ultimately they all complied.

 

The group skied Goldminer’s and made their way into Talking Mountain Cirque. As they began to skin up the lower aprons of the basin they heard and felt a huge collapse. According to survivor Steve Meleski, the group had time to acknowledge what had just occurred before the remotely triggered slide covered them. All six were buried. Meleski and Bigler were able to extricate themselves and they quickly worked to uncover the rest of the victims. One by one they dug up the lifeless bodies of their friends.

 

The incident shook the small, blossoming, winter community of Moab to the core and left an indelible mark on their collective consciousness. Today, many locals stick to the trees for their powder turns, rarely venturing into avalanche terrain except when the forecast is green light conditions. But more people with ski town backgrounds have moved into the area. As the backcountry in the Wasatch, the Tetons and other places starts to resemble a crowded ski area, more people are coming to the La Sals to get away from it all. As a result, boundaries are pushed and more folks are venturing into what had previously been considered the forbidden zone.

 

Most of the La Sal Mountains backcountry is accessed via the 9700-foot Geyser Pass Trailhead, the highest vehicle accessed winter trailhead in the state of Utah. The parking lot is often maxed to capacity on weekends with backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, and skate skiers. LUNA, or the Lower Utah Nordic Alliance, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, grooms from the parking lot up the Geyser Pass Road, through an adjacent meadow to the foot of Gold Basin. Snowmobile traffic, though sometimes noisy in the parking lot, generally heads up the road to Geyser Pass and beyond. Gold Basin is closed to motorized use. Backcountry skiers head up the groomed/snowpacked road beyond the parking lot a little less than half a mile and turn right onto an unmarked skin trail known locally as the Laurel Highway, one of the classic tours of all time. The high alpine scenery and expansive views of the red rock desert is otherworldly. The route passes through mixed conifer and aspen forest and a couple open meadows before climbing steeply through the woods and onto Laurel Ridge, breaking out at treeline a little above 11,000 feet. Conservative skiers usually stop here to admire the views, have lunch and ski back down through the woods. Continuing on the ridge another 500 feet takes skiers to the weather station at Pre-Laurel Peak.

 

Pre-Laurel Peak is spectacular. Surrounded by the high peaks and cirques of Gold Basin, the point affords a view of the sweeping red rock desert, Moab Valley, Canyonlands National Park and the imposing north ridge of Mount Tukuhnikivatz. The bowls of Talking Mountain Cirque beckon and it is easy to understand the pull that led Yates and his companions into their midst.

 

Beyond returning back down the ascent ridge, descending off of Pre-Laurel Peak requires definite route finding and avalanche awareness skills. The north and east facing slopes into Horse Creek are exceedingly steep, convex and cliff riddled. On the right days south facing provides an excellent run into Gold Basin, but it is avalanche terrain with steep rolls and gullies to be avoided. A westerly facing run known as the Funnel, called that for obvious reason, also provides a descent route down into Gold Basin, but it is the real deal. Anyone venturing into these areas needs to be keenly aware of current avalanche conditions, and knowledgeable of the nuances and variability that makes the La Sal Mountains snowpack different from other areas.

 

A backcountry trip into the La Sal Mountains is a unique alpine experience in the midst of a vast desert Conditions can be fickle and treacherous. Hammered by wind, and cursed by low snow, it is a surly little range that doesn’t give up its rewards easily. It’s also “uphill both ways,” as locals like to say and one coming out of the bottom of Gold Basin will quickly discover. Nevertheless, the stunning terrain has an undeniable appeal and the promise of a great skiing or riding hangs like a carrot at the end of a stick. Spring provides the safest opportunity for going big, though there are occasional windows of opportunity in the winter. But don’t come here for that. Come to get away and experience something different that can’t be found anywhere else on earth. Come with a healthy dose of caution. If conditions are right there might be some great powder skiing. At the risk of sounding trite, the rewards of the La Sal Mountains are greater than that.

2 Responses to “Life and Death Skiing in the LaSals”

  1. Nicely written Eric. We do have something special up there. Especially this winter!

  2. Well said, Great to see you’re still getting out and about up there, wish I was 🙂

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