Adam is all kinds of excited. It’s 3am, Justin and I are shuffling like the walking dead around a truck stop somewhere along I-70 in search of caffeine, and I think the toothless cashier is judging us by our brightly-colored, yuppie down jackets. We’re awake at this ungodly hour as a result of “Project Wanderlust,” a season-long effort to backcountry ski outside the “sheep-pen” of the Wasatch, and instead tour Utah’s other mountain ranges. Sometimes that means driving overnight to get a dawn start at some remote trailhead. I snap out of my gazing-at-a-coffee-machine-zone-out when Adam runs up to us like a road-tripping 12-year-old-boy inside an Indian trading post. The source of Adam’s excitement doesn’t stem from our backcountry ski trip to the famed La Sal Mountains, or that he thinks he witnessed a trucker pick up a prostitute by the diesel pumps, but that this neon-flickering, seedy gas station sells coon hats… and they’re only $8.
The Coon Hat
With coon hat firmly in place atop Adam’s noggin like some city-slicker version of Davy Crockett, the three of us continue to rally in the truck camper, which we have dubbed the “Yurt on Wheels.” Just before dawn, we arrive at Geyser Pass in the mountains high above Moab. Exhausted, we catch a few hours of sleep before getting up to ski our first objective, Mount Tukuhnikivatz.
The morning is perfect for a spring ascent of this most famous of Moab’s mountains. From the valley’s slickrock, “Mount Tuk” appears as a perfect, snow-covered pyramid which draws the eye of all backcountry skiers in town for some mountain biking. The name comes from a native language that means, “where the sun sets last” and today, I’m excited to tick Tuk off my Project Wanderlust wish list, hopefully before that prophetic sunset.
Tired from the drive but motivated by mountain air and soft snow, we skin into Gold Basin through aspen forests beneath razor-sharp peaks to the base of Mount Tuk’s main face. We stop for lunch and dig into some cheese and summer sausage, then debate if we should use the north ridge as an ascent route, or just boot up the face to the summit ridge. As we skin further, we find the snowpack is stable so we choose the face. Soon, I am enveloped by Tukuhnikivatz, Tuk No, and Talking Mountain Cirque like a diver going under the surface of the sea. Then, a young couple from Montana suddenly skis past, already on their second lap from the ridge. They whoop in delight on creamy corn snow, showing us our future selves as they flow down the mountainside.
With renewed energy, we quickly boot to the ridge and traverse onto Tuk’s triangular summit. The top is windy, and the raccoon tail on Adam’s furry hat wags in the breeze as if showing us the way. I take time to memorize this moment and spin above the view of Utah’s red rock desert below, Colorado’s mountains to the east, and nothing but deep schmoo beneath my skis. After a celebratory beer, I switch my gear into ski mode and drop onto Mount Tuk’s Northwest Face.
Snow sprays from my edges as I hurtle toward a band of rocks. The run is steep, fast, and brimming over with carveable corn. After I check my speed and come under control, I feel like I’m skiing on the edge of the earth; the amber desert blurry in the distance like a faded watercolor. Then, in what feels like an instant, the run is over. It all happens so fast. Standing at the bottom of the peak in Gold Basin, I look up and watch Adam as he takes his turn in the white field. Waves of cotton snow gleam like ocean breakers beneath his splitboard, and that coon hat, well, its striped tail proudly flies in the wind with every crescent signature left in the snow. That damn gas-station coon hat is furry, ridiculous, and is now the mascot of what may well be the absolute best ski trip of the season.
I’m not a religious man, except when it comes to the outdoors. Sure it’s a common phrase, but to say that the mountain is my church, well, by Ullr’s beard that’s the truth. So on Easter Sunday, instead of sitting in a stuffy chapel on hard benches, I decide to ascend into the cathedral of Mount Nebo in the Southern Wasatch for my own sunrise service.
Along for the ceremony is Sean and, as always, Adam , who is also on the hunt for a new hat. In the darkness before dawn, we leave Salt Lake under a good weather window that makes the day perfect to bang out some spring-corn turning on Nebo’s Northwest Couloir. Bleary-eyed, we rally down to Santaquin in Adam’s jeep and stop at the Maverik to refuel. In the entrance, hidden amongst a rack of trucker caps, are two hats Adam agonizes over. One is a simple yet inspired design that features two strips of bacon on the front, and nothing more. The other hat is also genius in its simplicity. It is bright yellow and white, flat brimmed, and has the word “Meh” typed in blocky letters on the front. Maybe it’s Adam’s sense of irony, or maybe he doesn’t have much enthusiasm that snow conditions will be good, because he chooses “meh.” With his new hat askew on his head, Adam drives us to the town of Mona, then as high as the jeep will go on the snow-covered Mona Pole Road.
Luckily, we make it far enough that the skin up the remaining road is short. Before long, we reach a slidepath that allows entry to the cirque below Nebo’s summit and her two skiable couloirs – Champagne Couloir and the Northwest Couloir. We aim for the latter because the top of Champagne doesn’t look like it has enough snow. But what a spot! The cirque is a huge stadium of cliffs that wrap around a semi-circle atop the flat meadow below – a hanging valley high above the valley floor where ant-sized cars on the interstate slowly creep by.
At this point, the morning sun has crested the rock walls that loom over me. It is the sunrise for my Easter Sunday, and I’m celebrating the only way I know.
Emboldened by the sun, I aim for the rock-walled chute, first skinning high above the canyon, then transitioning to crampons and ice axes for the steeper section higher up. The snow alternates from firm to soft and to my alarm, wet slide activity is beginning to happen with roller balls tumbling down and even rock fall zipping by my head close enough that I quickly put my ski helmet on.
After what feels like thousands of steps, followed by a steep, sketchy traverse over a rock band, I heave myself onto the summit ridge. The final push to the top of Mount Nebo is only 600 feet away. Elated by the climb and the view, we drop our packs and start for Nebo’s summit. Unfortunately, the snow has disappeared on the south aspect, and we find that hiking up loose scree in ski boots is an energy-sucking effort.
Halfway up, wet avalanches start coming down in the canyon below us, and virga-bottomed storm clouds are fast approaching from the west. For safety’s sake, we ditch the summit push and return to our packs to shred what we came for in the first place – the incredible Northwest Couloir.
With my ski tips over the corniced edge, I find the drop in the 60-degree upper face of the couloir daunting. With a measured push, I slide down and make careful turns on what Sean calls, “the steepest skiing he’s ever done.” Considering that Sean is a patroller at Snowbird, that statement has weight.
After navigating the rocky and steep upper section, I’m free to open up and make turns in the middle of the couloir. The snow is a bit firm, requiring balance and precision with every shift in weight and pressure on my skis. But spring corn welcomes us near the slope’s bottom where a thousand feet of creamy buff shoots me down into the cirque flats.
Pole clicks and celebratory whoops of joy follow our descent. We are elated with the run. It is by far among the most visually stunning, steep, and difficult backcountry ski tours of the year. Turns out our Easter Sunday on Mount Nebo is far from “meh.”
“Shootin’ Deers and Drinkin’ Beers”
It’s a new season of backcountry skiing, and Project Wanderlust is entering its second year. While the late-November 2013 snowpack is grim in the Wasatch, a massive snowstorm dumps 2-3 feet of powder in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Utah. With reports of over 26 inches covering the Abajo Mountains, the Yurt on Wheels is coaxed from her summer slumber and myself, along with Jon and Adam, point the steering wheel south. Of course, Adam needs a new hat for the occasion.
We don’t have to travel far to find the perfect cap for Adam’s freshly-bearded noggin. At the Flying J in Salt Lake, a plethora of redneck, camo, and hunting-themed trucker caps are everywhere. After laughing at them all, we settle on a hat that’s epic in its awesomeness. The cap is brown with a camo bill. On the front is a drawing of a trophy buck next to a can of beer. The hat reads as follows: “Shootin’ Deers and Drinkin’ Beers. That’s How I Roll.” And that beer? It’s a mighty can of Uncle Buckey’s Light Backwoods Brew. Considering we are on a backwoods trip hunting powder, the redneckedness of it seems appropriate.
The Abajo Mountains are located just west of the town of Monticello, so we find that it’s a bit of a haul to get there. After 5 hours of driving, we pull up to a parking lot at the end of a plowed road, near the base of the Old Blue Mountain ski resort. This ghost resort once catered to local skiers with a few cut runs and a surface lift, but had shut down decades ago. Much of it still remains, however, as the old lift shacks, cables and runs are still there, waiting to be skied once again. We are happy to oblige. With skins on skis, I hike up the old run to the top of the resort, then keep going up into the trees. But the late-afternoon start forces us to turn around after only an hour.
Finding a descent that isn’t marred by snowmobile tracks, I make turns on soft, deep, untracked powder through the narrow, abandoned lift line where a platter tow once lived. The turns are tight and springy, but I have to be very careful not to trip up on the low-hanging cable. Yet despite my evasive maneuvers, I come down on it mid-turn and slide like a park rat on a sick rail. At the bottom, I give out a whoop of joy as my first backcountry run of the season is blower pow in an a very unusual setting.
The next morning I wake early, intent on a mission to ski Abajo Peak. The range’s namesake mountain is also the highest, so I am determined to stand on her top. The day is bluebird and calm as we skin up the snow-covered North Creek Road. A few snowmobile tracks make the going easy all the way to the pass. Once there, we leave the road and head into pine trees where deep, soft snow abounds. A thick layer of surface hoar covers the entire north aspect, and we discover a wide glade that makes us salivate.
But the summit is the goal, so we push on. A few switchbacks later, we hit the top of the divide, then traverse to the summit of Abajo Peak. The top is littered with dozens of communication towers, so the remote, backcountry experience is totally destroyed. But the views of southeastern Utah’s desert is unbeatable. The La Sal Mountains to the north, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the east, and the Henry Mountains to the west all peek through an inversion mist like battleships at sea. After lunch and a good soaking in the sun, we ski down to a fragile lip above the southeastern face.
Instead of skiing that face, which is thin and rocky, Jon and I elect to stay on the summit while Adam pulls out his speed wing. With a rush of air into fabric, he quickly flies aloft above the mountain and down to the bottom in under 20 seconds. All Jon and I can do is wait as Adam skins back to us. Luckily, I have a flask of whiskey to keep us occupied. After Adam rejoins us, we traverse around to the north side and ski that wonderful, powder-filled glade. The snow is a week old, yet has remained creamy in the tall pines. The glade is almost like a cut ski run as it falls into a gully where we play on terrain features in a natural halfpipe. At the bottom, we rejoin North Creek Road and quickly coast back to the parking lot.
Stoked on the snow conditions and our on-the-spot decision to come to the Abajo Mountains, we hatch a plan to ski Horsehead Peak on our final day. The mountain is located just north of Abajo Peak, and is named after a patch of pine trees that, from a distance, looks like a horse’s head.
The long skin up the road is shorter than Abajo Peak as we leave it halfway up. A long, steep ascent in a gully west of the peak makes an efficient route to the top, which is made even better by its exposure to the sun. After three hours of work, blistered, tired and sore, I make it to the rocky summit of Horsehead Peak.
After a few beers, I gear up and aim for the “horsehead.” But better snow draws me skier’s left of the pine forest, where I find an uninterrupted, 2,000-foot run that falls all the way to the canyon bottom. The snow is wind affected in a few places but I can make wide, fast turns that are almost uncontrollable as I shoot off each slabby pillow like a pinball amongst rubber bumpers.
Halfway down the run, I stop and peer at the grey fog covering the valleys below. Here, high above the inversion, warm in the sun, completely alone, caught up in the moment of skiing a huge line on a remote mountain, I reflect on the success of Project Wanderlust. It’s been a long trip, and like Adam’s new hat, the search for new lines in remote mountains in Utah really is like a hunt. I don’t shoot deers, I drink beers, and then ski. That’s how I roll.