Project Wanderlust- Backcountry Skiing Beyond the Sheep-Pen of the Wasatch

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Millville Peak

 

The ranger is waiting for us, he’s armed, and he’s pissed. My friends and I encounter him after finishing a day of ski touring on Antelope Island. A once-in-a-decade storm dumped three feet of snow in Salt Lake’s foothills and on the island’s highest point, Frary Peak, so we took advantage of the event as part of what my buddy Mason Diedrich coins, “Project Wanderlust.” It’s a season-long effort to backcountry ski outside the “sheep-pen” of the Wasatch as much as possible, and instead tour Utah’s other mountain ranges. The Uinta, Bear River, La Sal, Henry and Oquirrh mountains are all on the short list, so the chance to ski Antelope Island is too tempting to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also illegal.

With tires kicking up slush and screeching brakes, the ranger screams up in his pickup, and slams his government-issue long bed to a stop behind our cars to prevent any escape. He jumps out so fast I think the State of Utah has installed an ejection seat on the driver’s side. “You guys skied off the trail!” he shouts. It turns out Antelope Island is an animal sanctuary, and going “off trail” is strictly forbidden.

Island in the Sky

Antelope Island is another world in the summer, but exploring this desert landscape when it’s coated with snow is like laying a skin track inside the Twilight Zone. I feel removed from reality as we skin up from the Frary Peak trailhead, excited to ski the unskiable. But despite the epic snowfall, rocks and weeds poke out everywhere, and I have to carefully negotiate my skis around boulders and thorny bushes. An epic descent suddenly looks less-than-epic.

Half an hour after starting, we reach the top of a shoulder where the other side of the island is revealed, – a horizon filled with nothing but flat, grey waters. The entire island is white, with skiable lines on ridges and chutes that I enviously scope out. But the snow is too shallow for any real skiing, so I resign myself to skinning up for a day hike of sorts.

Despite this, just being on Antelope Island in the winter proves to be a phenomenal experience. The land is alien, stark and barren. I see no life save for lone trees scattered like pickup sticks along with buried shrubs that accompany the dead, salty waters of the lake frozen far below my ski tips. I feel lonely in this moonscape despite being just a few miles west of a major city glittering across the lake.

After winding through small cliff bands, we traverse west around the lower flanks of the peak until we find a tentative route onto the main ridge. Signs of avalanche activity and unstable snow are everywhere. The snow collapses frequently with audible “whoomphs” and recent slides are obvious on east-facing slopes. It seems Antelope Island won’t let us ski her easily. But the ridge is low angle enough that we continue to the top.

As we near the rocky summit, I can see ski tracks in a small bowl just below the peak. They look like they were made the day before by a party of three. We were beaten to the punch. But judging by the shallow snow and avalanche activity, we decide not to follow suit, and instead make tracks of our own.

Antelope Island

Antelope Island

A few hundred feet of climbing later we reach a false summit. A large radio tower marks this sub-peak, while the actual summit lies north and is protected by cliffs and a knife-edge ridge covered with ice and snow. We decide it’s prudent to turn back here so we eat lunch, take photos of the other-worldly, 360-degree view, and head back down.

Because of the exposed, sharp rocks, I keep climbing skins on to protect my ski bases. Doing so also forces me to stay on the ascent track. As I thread down the mountain, floating on an island in the sky, it can’t be called skiing, but it’s a hell of a lot faster than hiking down.

In under an hour, we return to the trailhead where the mad ranger awaits. He saw the other party’s tracks from the day before and assumed it was us, but we quickly diffuse the situation to the point that that we are laughing with the guy and trading ski stories. It turns out he’s also a skier, and is sympathetic to our mission, having jealously eyed the filled-in slopes of Antelope Island himself. With a stern warning, he lets us leave without issuing a citation, but the encounter depletes our enthusiasm enough that we drive off the island without cracking open our post-tour beers.

As we drive the long causeway across the Great Salt Lake, disappointed yet elated, I know that this adventure is the first of many that will stand out as memorable in our quest.

Free Beer Doesn’t Always Mean Good Beer

Mid-season translates to cold days, deep powder, and touring legs that are just reaching their prime. With dozens of descents from all over Utah under our belts, Adam Symonds, Chris Brown and I pull up to the mouth of Providence Canyon, located just south of Logan in the Bear River Range.

A bumpy, snow-covered, gravel road snakes up into the high country above the town of Providence. We drive as far as the “Yurt on Wheels” (Adam’s used truck camper) can go, then hike in ski boots on a 4×4 road that alternates from gravel to thin snow. Upon reaching a massive old quarry, the snowpack gets deep enough for easy touring, and we make good time climbing into the upper reaches of the canyon.

It doesn’t take long for me to salivate over the powder-draped mountains that surround us, especially Millville Peak – a large summit that dominates the south side of the canyon. But the use of snowmobiles allow a group of skiers to drive to the top hours before us, and they’ve already made at least four runs down the aesthetic north face.

The sight of mongrel tracks marring our prize makes me hate those cheating sled-heads, and I become even more motivated to summit Millville before every skiable line is tracked out. But my negativity turns to immediate friendship as soon as I meet them. Those local sledders turn out to be the nicest guys I’ve ever met in the backcountry. They knew we were skinning up behind them, and purposefully saved the choice line right below the summit for us. After handshakes and the promise of free beer stashed in snowbanks below the run, they give us blazingly fast rides to the summit on their machines that turns what would have been another hour of skinning into a 10 minute joyride.

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The snowmobilers drop us off just below the summit, then leave us to boot pack a short distance to the top of that choice line. With virgin snow beneath my ski tips, appreciation for the local snowmobilers fills my soul. With that warm fuzzy feeling and anticipation of free beer waiting at the bottom, I drop in. The run is amazing. Four-days of cold, dry snowfall lay untouched, and I savor every face-shot turn of it. There aren’t many backcountry runs with such a consistent slope angle and fall line, and when you find one, you might just find Jesus. This is one such line.

At the bottom, the sledders share my elation, offer more beta on good runs in the canyon, then point to the snowbank where the promised beer is stashed before speeding off on another lap. Eager to celebrate one of the best runs of the year with a tasty brew, I dig into the snow and find… Budweiser & Clamato Chelada.

Some say you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Others say free beer is better than no beer. I say Budweiser Clamato isn’t beer at all. I say those snowmobilers tricked us. But Adam, always an optimist, downs an entire can. Adam, always one to regret a terrible decision, spends the rest of the tour burping up clam juice and tomato.

The Boards, Bikes, and Beer Trifecta

Spring in Southern Utah is the best time of year for outdoor adventure. The variety of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, camping and even speed flying is possible in a single day. With bikes and boards on the hitch rack and beer in the cooler, we drive south to the Henry Mountains for one of our final Project Wanderlust trips.

The Henry Mountains are the last range in the U.S. to be mapped and surveyed, which speaks to how remote they are, even to this day. Access is made difficult by dirt roads that are unmaintained in winter, meaning the window of opportunity to ski them (aka finding enough snow to ski on relative to snow melted off the roads) is really short. I figure the first weekend in April is a safe bet so Adam, Jon Strickland and myself make an adventure train: the “Yurt on Wheels” camper with a Jeep hitched to the back and skis, bikes, and all attendant gear strapped on.

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Enroute to the Henry’s

It’s surreal to drive through desolate desert to go skiing, and as we approach the Henry Mountains they appear to levitate above the vastness – white peaks in a sea of brown and red. There is still snow up in them hills, and I am excited at the prospect of skiing it. After fueling up in Hanksville, we drive 22 miles south on country roads and find them to be totally dry save for a few patches of snow here and there. It seems that we timed our trip perfectly, but upon parking the Jeep above the Lonesome Beaver campground, I realize we are almost too late. The snow line is very high, and it will take some serious hiking to get the goods.

So with a late start at 2 p.m. we keep our shoes on, strap skis to our packs, and hike up through forests of ghostly burned trees toward Mount Ellen, the highest point in the range. Luckily, it only takes a mile of walking to reach a place where I can put skins on my skis.

From there, we switchback up a sub-ridge that should allow us to gain Mount Ellen’s top. But the late hour and approaching dark weather put us on deadline. After around three hours of hiking and skinning, we stop above a slide path below the summit ridge and decide now is the time to ski.

The lateness of the day also means the sun had its way with the snowpack. Despite the north-facing aspect, I trench almost to the ground with every turn. Though overall I have little problem surfing the slop with wide skis, Adam’s skinny sticks just sink. Jon, however, has the best idea of the day as he puts together his split board, then pulls out a speed wing. Unleashing the wing in a blossom of colorful fabric and lines, he catches the wind and literally flies down the mountain above the naked, black pines. Adam and I jealously watch as he floats below our sight, leaving us to slog the remainder of the slide path ourselves. While the skiing could have been better, I still happily tick off a run in the Henry Mountains.

The next day, seeking better snow, we drive to other side of the range to scope out the South Summit. It’s a long drive down the highway toward Capitol Reef National Park, then along Notom Road and finally on rough dirt east to the foot of the Henrys. I notice that several slide paths still hold enough snow to ski, and all we have to do is pick our poison. So we park the Jeep, hike up a ridge, and billy goat to the top of the divide. Moderate winds blow from the east and Jon feels good about another flight. Adam and I are content to ski a thin strip of snow that falls all the way to the road. It’s still frozen but rapidly softening under the desert sun – enough for fast, flowy turns.

In fact, when I make my first carve and swing my ski tails around, I find the snow is perfect corn. Turn by turn I slice crescents above the red rock desert, ripping peak on yet another island in the sky. I only stop to watch as Jon gathers his speed wing, offers it to the elements, and takes off from the ridge. The winds are steady enough for him to stay aloft for a long time, enough to perform barrel rolls and swooping curves in the air from one end of the South Summit to the other. As Adam and I link turns back on earth, we pause each time Jon’s wing flutters above when it catches a rush of air lifting up the mountainside. From afar the scene must have looked like pure freedom as three mortals harnessed snow and wind in a synchronous dance down a desert mountain.

Back in camp, our day is far from over as the tradition of spring in Southern Utah has yet to be realized: skiing and mountain biking in the same day. So I grab my bike and put rubber to slick rock that we discover just beyond a dry arroyo. After jumping off ledges and banking turns on sticky sandstone, I stop on a small rise and look east to the Henry Mountains as the sun casts a low glow on her upper peaks. From this distance, I can barely make out the curving lines we left behind in the white. It’s another perfect moment, soon to be capped off by beers and brats around a campfire. Turns out backcountry skiing far away from the Wasatch isn’t all bad. Sure, the snow isn’t as deep, and the drive is much longer, but the experience feels so good that it should probably be illegal.

I think our ranger friend would be jealous.

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