When you venture into the backcountry, there’s only so much planning you can do. Natural variables will, at some point, alter your route, scrap your summit or dictate when you will – and won’t – pass go. All you can do is adjust to conditions and, willing enough, continue your quest for adventure. In theory, with the right group of touring partners, you’d crack a few jokes and make the best of your situation. So after an awkward two-night yurt trip in the Uinta Mountains last winter among four other girls, it seemed fitting that we were already planning another winter pilgrimage together.
None of us could claim to be a backcountry expert, but Bekah and I took on the roles of trip leaders based on our slightly more seasoned experience. Before our trip, packing lists and questions were exchanged via email, and a group shopping trip answered the big dilemmas like, “Creamy pesto or Asian sesame?” and “Will we really need two pounds salami?” At home, we divvied up our food rations and stuffed our packs like a game of Tetris. Meanwhile, the contents of Kirsti’s bag had exploded across every piece of furniture in the living room, only to discover a few forgotten essentials.
To be honest, I was concerned. Well…unsure. Not of Kirsti, but of the trip. I had never organized something like this: bringing together a bunch of girls who had never met, plotting a multi-day adventure and having very little idea about winter travel in the backcountry. But splitboarding to a yurt and camping in winter’s beauty had been on my list for a long time. And this was the year I committed to doing it. The problem was finding people to go with. I just didn’t have a reliable crew. I dated one for a few weeks, but that ended when the relationship did. I had a friend, but whose pace I couldn’t keep up with. A few others who I just didn’t click with. So I made up a crew: a few girlfriends who had a spark for adventure and seemed rad enough to get along with total strangers for a few days. We headed out for the Uintas the following week.
Guided by the outline of old ski tracks and a set of vague, handwritten directions (“fork left after the fallen tree”), we set off from the trailhead, just a few miles past the Forest Service fee station. Our band of Goonies marched and skinned along to a steady pace for nearly three hours, with moments of rest to nibble on trail mix as we relaxed in the mid day winter sun. Every bend on the hillside gave us false hopes that we had reached the yurt, especially when the trail opened up to a plateau and we lost our route-finding clues. Pulling out my new compass, I studied the neatly creased map, fooling myself into thinking I knew where we were. The real truth was that I had no idea how to read a map, use my compass or fess up to my doubts.
So a flood of relief came over when Michelle spotted a narrow trail between a few aspens. We inspected the trailhead and its gnawed-up signage and, under the growing weight of our packs, determined that it seemed like the right way. Within a few minutes, a small bungalow came into sight. I looked back at my crew, their smiles just as big as mine, showing pride in our “Rosie the Riveter’s ‘We can do it!’” attitude.
A few attempts to nudge open the yurt’s door revealed our small, cozy abode for the next two nights. Short on fresh water, our first camp chore was a group effort at collecting snow and boiling out the impurities. Following another set of handwritten directions, we slowly opened the propane tank’s valve and readied the stove for two large vats of snow. Instead, fumes of gas diffused through the yurt as we tried – and retried – to light the burner, never once getting the propane to work during our stay. So we divvied up camp chores, once again: splitting wood, stoking the fire and simmering water from the radiant heat atop the wood stove. We fell into this routine like it was natural, each of us ladies taking on essential but unexpected responsibilities for the greater good of the group.
Although our hike to the yurt had taken longer than expected, we grabbed our gear to explore the rolling terrain around our camp. A large storm had blown in two days before we set off into the Uintas, freshening up the crusty snowpack in time for our adventure. Conditions looked near perfect, but perfection can often be misinterpreted as deceit on the mountains. T-shirt weather had baked the recent snowfall to the point of mush on every aspect, and any hopes for decent turns had melted away as we approached our first ascent in the late afternoon.
Bekah and I exchanged looks as we took turns breaking a switchback trail, our poles sinking halfway into wet, dense slop every step we took. Disappointing conditions, at best, but we shrugged it off. After all, we were pioneering unknown territory with untapped skills, so of course there would be some snags along the way. And we were cool with that. The whole cliché about life as a journey, not a destination, had wrapped itself into the theme of our trip.
Shasta, Michelle and Kirsti kept a steady pace but struggled with their snowshoes, sinking deep into the skin tracks that Bekah and I set. As we crested to a plateau, the five of us soaked up panoramic views from every angle. Someone pointed out the distant, clear-cut trails from Deer Valley and Canyons Resort, a far departure from the uninhabited mountains we were exploring. The thought of manicured slopes and lift lines brought up a few guilty smirks, knowing that we had an entire mountain range in our temporary, but private, backyard.
Peering down the slope we had just climbed, we strapped onto our boards, uncertain of which direction would have the least worst snow. We opted for a northeast-facing descent, holding out hope for a few rideable turns that weren’t completely exposed. Pockets of shade had already firmed up, making our route full of variable ice and mush. One by one we picked a line and pressed our edges into a friendly 30-degree slope, each of us tumbling and laughing through the deceptively awful snow as we made our way back to the yurt. It was mutually understood that since we had another 36 hours to enjoy the crappy conditions, we might as well toast to our maiden voyage with bagged wine and peanut butter brownies.
And feast we did, under the glow of five headlamps clamped to a laundry line above our dining table (The janky propane tank also meant no fuel-burning lanterns.). A simmering skillet of Asian chicken pilaf filled the small room with homecooked flavors – a hearty meal for a day well played. Coffee cups of whiskey and wine to toast to new friendships. And said brownies to savor the sweet lust for adventure.
We awoke to a lazy morning, sipping coffee outside as the sun slowly rolled over the quiet Uintas. There was no rush in putting on our slush-soaked outerwear or booting up until late morning, after the snow had softened. But that window of time when the snow is creamy and good before it turns into a sticky, gloppy mess was short lived. We had already begun our hike, skinning and shoeing through spacious aspen groves, and enjoyed the consolation of our rising heart rates and fresh air. We meandered without any destination in mind, and I looked on as Michelle scoped a few tree jibs and rollers, perfect, she pointed out, for a freestyle session on our next trip, a reunion that already had us excited.
We summited a small ridge by late afternoon and perched shoulder-to-shoulder on a few overturned snowboards, sharing tales that could have been saved for story time around the evening campfire. None of us cared that the snow was, once again, firming up for a less than stellar descent. So we told more stories, polished off a flask of whiskey and the rest of the salami, wishing we had more, and carved sloppy turns down the short face before returning home for our last evening.
After finishing our camp duties the next morning, we shouldered our packs and began the trek back to the car. Hardly a few hundreds yards later, we contemplated a short run that started from where we stood. Bags off and strapped in, we waited in cue for a final joy ride, imprinting the creamy, north-facing slope with five sets of perfectly carved S-turns. It was a parting gift that kept us high as we descended to our car and rolled into the city limits of Kamas.
Pulling up to a local deli, we ordered thick, meaty sandwiches from the menu and melted into the restaurant chairs, impatiently waiting for our food. Conversation turned back to the mountains we had just returned from, already rehashing the glamorous details that inevitably get better and bigger with every story told. “When you do this again, what would you change?” asked Michelle. We eagerly volunteered our tips, however trivial.
“Bring more layers.”
“Remember a water purifier.”
“More hot sauce. Actually, more food in general.”
We all nodded in agreement as we bit into our Dagwood-sized sandwiches, thinking how silly it was to only bring two pounds of salami. But lesson learned. Next time, we’ll plan on bringing three.