The smell of gasoline fills my nostrils, a high-pitched whine fills my ears, and a bumpy vibration fills the space between my legs. Though this may sound like a teenage boy’s fever dream, I’m actually riding on the back of a snowmobile down the closed-for-the-winter Mirror Lake Highway to the Ridge Yurt in the Uinta Mountains. I’m also thanking God that we don’t have to haul our gear (and cases of beer) five miles into the backcountry. Justifiably concerned about our precious cargo, I look behind me with every icy bump that passes under the snowmobile’s treads to make sure our load, both of the backpack and 12-pack variety, haven’t tumbled out of the sleds we are towing. The snowmobile is not mine. In fact, I’m riding bitch in the back. I have enlisted the help of the fine folks at the Bear River Lodge to shuttle us in, saving us time and energy that will be better spent actually skiing rather than slogging for half the day on the flats of the Lily Lake Trail System.
There are five yurts on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains available for use by backcountry and Nordic skiers, snowshoers, and even snowmobilers. Each is operated and maintained in a joint venture between the U.S. Forest Service and the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance, or BRORA, which is part of the Evanston, Wyoming Parks and Recreation District. The Bear Claw, Lily Lake and East Fork yurts are popular with recreationists of the snowshoe and cross-country ski variety as flat terrain surrounds the structures. But two of the yurts have a realistic amount of backcountry skiing potential: the Ridge and Boundary Creek yurts. Both yurts are the most remote of the five, requiring a 5 to 7-mile slog to get there. Hence, the snowmobiles.
A hair under fifteen minutes after setting out from the Bear River Lodge, we pull up to the Ridge Yurt. Along with Adam Symonds, Jon Strickland, and Mike DeBernardo, I quickly unload skis, sleeping bags, and liquor. After bidding the snowmobile driver goodbye, we earnestly begin “yurt life.” Chop wood, stoke a fire, melt water, and cook – the list is simple and it’s all essential to a comfortable winter night in the woods. Of course skiing is the reason for being on a yurt trip, and after our to-do list is complete, we adhere skins to our skis and set out to explore the surrounding terrain.
Immediately upon exiting the yurt door, we climb a small ridge and enter a burnt forest. Thin, blackened trees devoid of branches cast the mountains in an eerie moonscape of stumps and fallen logs. This devastation is the aftermath of the East Fork fire, which ravaged the area in 2002. The Ridge Yurt was threatened by the flames, but survived. As I ascend the burn, my skis scrape over faceted snow that barely covers the ground. The dry winter has not been kind to the Uinta Mountains. From the ridgetop, I scan for skiable terrain. To the northeast, short-but-steep shots fall below the yurt down to the East Fork Bear River Valley. But the slope is lousy with logs barely hidden beneath the surface of the snow. To our south is a small, rounded peak marked on my topo map as Point 10356. The terrain looks low-angle, but it’s the only skiable stuff in sight. We go south. After flat-tracking a few hundred yards, the grade steepens. We switchback amongst naked trees that Mike D describes as “thousands of giant toothpicks planted into a Styrofoam hill.”
After a few hours of skinning we arrive on top. The early-evening air feels humid, and heavy snow sticks to my climbing skins as I peel them off. The snow also sticks to my skis when I try to go downhill. The slope angle is low enough that I find it hard to gain much speed, and the dampness amplifies the effect. The snowpack is also shallow, so I’m careful not to allow my ski tips to sink under a knee-snapping log. Slow turns on thin snow is challenging, but I find my rhythm of threading my body between fire-scorched trees. Each one poses a danger as the wind starts to blow. I imagine being crushed by a massive, charcoal trunk in a classic wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time scenario. Still, I savor the waning light that fades beyond an eerie forest before we ski back to the cozy yurt for the night.
As far as yurts in Utah go, the Ridge Yurt is quite large. Bunk beds sleep up to eight people, and the shelter is decked out with a large, wood burning stove, propane cook tops, pots and pans, utensils, and a wide, round table that allows plenty of space for our party of four. Tonight, Mike D is making dinner. The guy is famous for eating downright gourmet food on backcountry excursions of both the day-trip and overnight variety. I’m always disappointed with my limp energy bar when I see Mike withdraw pizza slices from his pack, whole potatoes sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, or a maple bar paired with giant, gummy butterflies that he buys in bulk. So I’m excited for what concoction he whips up in a yurt kitchen. Whatever it is, delicious smells fill the place with stomach-grumbling vapors.
Meanwhile, Jon whittles a stick with a pocket knife, transforming it into an intricate heart for his girl waiting back home. I’m impressed by his skill. The dude is an instant expert at whatever he puts his mind to, from playing guitar, remodeling houses, and speed flying. The Dos Equis, “most interesting man in the world” has nothing on this guy. Most men would deservedly hate him for his perfection and runway-model-good-looks, but Jonny is so damn cool to everybody, that any jealousy instantly melts away into a puddle of one’s own self-loathing.
And then there’s Adam and I. Painfully average in every way, we waste the evening by pounding beers and snacking on summer sausage and dark chocolate. As the wood stove heats the interior to sauna-like temperatures, Mike sets out a batch of butter curry chicken with naan bread. We gather around the table for the eating of food, drinking of beer, and conversation one would expect from four drunk, male skiers relaxing after a day in the woods.
The morning greets us with four inches of new snow. Quickened by the scent of fresh powder, we clean up, pack our gear, and start skinning to the next yurt in the BRORA system: the Boundary Creek Yurt. It is only 1.5 miles between the two yurts, but Boundary Creek lies within a non-motorized zone, which means the snowmobiles stay behind and we have to hoof it from here on out. A few hundred yards up the skin track, we pass a sign marking the no-motorized boundary. The new snowfall has erased any old skin tracks that lead to Boundary Creek, but blue diamonds nailed to evergreens and aspens lead the way. As we break trail through the forest, there is no wind, my breath hangs in the cold, silent air, and for the first time on this trip, I feel like we’ve finally entered a truly remote place.
Less than two hours later, we arrive at the Boundary Creek Yurt at 9,500 feet. It’s immediately clear that this yurt is by far the best in the system for backcountry skiing. Steep mountains surround the place, with glade runs, open bowls, and low-angle meadows that are found just outside the yurt’s front door. After starting a fire in the wood stove, then melting snow for water, we settle in for lunch. Only 16-feet in diameter, Boundary Creek is the smallest in the yurt system, accommodating a maximum of four skiers. It’s also the oldest. According to BRORA, this yurt was the first one built, and was originally located where the Bear Claw yurt now stands. Cozy is a good descriptor, and it doesn’t take long for us to get claustrophobic and leave for an afternoon tour.
Mike D breaks trail in knee-deep powder, and I follow his bright yellow jacket which is the only color I see amongst the contrast of white snow and black trees. For our first tour, we choose to explore the mountain that looms directly above the yurt – an unnamed peak marked on the map as Point 10959. It’s heavily wooded, but the fire that scorched the earth around the Ridge Yurt left behind a few patches of burned evergreens here as well. We switchback up through stands of charred trunks alternating with pines untouched by flame. Before we get above tree line, Mike digs a snow pit to test for avalanche stability. To our dismay, test columns fail immediately upon isolation, and the snowpack collapses under us as we traverse across open slopes. Looks like we won’t be going big on this trip, and with our senses now heightened to the snowpack instability, we stick to the trees.
Around 700 feet above the yurt on the mountain’s north aspect, we reach a broad bench below a steep summit headwall. The skiing looks divine above, but we play it safe and decide to descend from this point. As I switch my bindings to ski mode, Adam and Jon keep skinning up to a more open slope. Despite acres of untouched powder that blankets perfect tree-skiing below us, they insist on speed flying, which is similar to paragliding but with much less airtime and faster speeds. I feel nervous as I watch the pair step into avalanche terrain to find a sufficient launching spot, but I suppose there’s no need to worry about slides when you are flying above them. Still, Mike and I wait until they lift off before we ski. With a whoosh of sound as wind fills their wings, I look up and see Adam and Jon dangling beneath rainbow-colored fabric with skis on their feet as they float back down to the yurt with hardly a sound. We follow, by also allowing gravity to do most of the work as I make blissful, creamy turns through the pines. The snow that fell overnight refreshed the surface with buoyant powder. Mike and I leapfrog each other to set up for photos. We’re both stoked that we found good snow on this trip. I wait for Mike to call out that he’s ready, before dropping into another set of perfectly-spaced, burnt trees where he stands with his camera shutter clicking.
For the next two days, life is simple. We melt water, eat food, drink beer, chop wood, stoke the fire, sleep and ski. A large, wood deck on the front of the yurt is hangout-central where we crack open cans of IPA, sit on coolers, and stare at the Uinta Mountain views between ski laps. I decide that Boundary Creek is the ultimate ski-in, ski-out yurt. Visible through smoke wafting out of the crooked chimney are ski tracks scribbled onto the mountainside. They begin and end right at the deck. There is no approach to ski terrain – we are living in it.
Adam and Jon are all about speed flying. On the second day they ditch us to seek out better launch-zones and flight paths. So Mike and I explore a smaller peak that sits just north of the yurt – Point 10485. Her aspects are more open than the terrain we’ve been skiing, and the sun has not been kind to the exposed snow. We break trail through wind drifts and swing our arms to bring feeling back into our frozen fingertips. Near the summit, the slopes become low-angle, almost flat. Rather than bag the peak to suffer through a tabletop of breakable crust, we choose to ski down into some low-elevation trees where I hope to score protected powder.
As I de-skin on a ridge, I find a pair of rotting, wood shooting-sticks leaning against a rock outcrop. Hunters must have left them behind. Just then, I hear a whoop in the canyon below and see Jon and Adam’s colorful speed wings carving air and riding wind currents. Jon especially looks to be having fun as he banks steep turns, almost clipping the tops of trees. Adam follows close behind as he shoots video of his friend with a helmet-mounted GoPro. I want to get a photo, but by the time I pull my camera out, they are gone. I toss the shooting sticks into my pack and imagine the hunter using them to track an elk or deer through a scope, and wonder what he would make of my airborne friends.
Sure, the wing-men seem to be having fun, but I’m perfectly okay with keeping my skis on the ground. After all, Mike and I now have less competition for fresh tracks, and we stand upon a mountain untouched. Mike goes first and slashes turns on the upper face through chalky wind-buff until he disappears. I follow alongside his tracks, then enter the forest where tree shade kept the snow cold and fluffy. I lean into my ski tips, trusting the rocker to not allow a forward tumble, and laugh as powder rewards me with sprays to the face. This is the best snow of the trip. At the bottom, we shoot out into a huge, open meadow that Adam and Jon have been using as a landing zone. We laugh at the sight and joke that the next party visiting the yurt will wonder at the mystery of strange ski tracks that just suddenly appear in the middle of the field, connected to nothing.
We awake early the next morning to ski a few runs before our return home. The skinning is easier up our unnamed, backyard peak as the track is now well-packed after a few days of constant use. I scope out some lines we haven’t skied yet that fall into a side-canyon on the mountain’s north end, but worry about the terrain trap. The poor snowpack likely has not improved. Still, we break a new trail into parts unskied but stop short of the steep summit crown. Our decision to come here is justified as untracked slopes spread out above the canyon. I push off and weave through small, low-angle evergreen patches in powder that is old but still creamy. Just before reaching the steeper canyon walls, I trend left and ski an off-camber fall line. It takes one long, left turn for every three right turns to avoid skiing into the gully. I’m milking the run because it is my last. Today, yurt life will be replaced with real life, and I am not ready to leave.
Back at Boundary, we load our packs, roshambo to see who has to carry the garbage bag, and have lunch before the long, 7-mile skin out. All I have left to eat is a lousy energy bar and a gel packet. I can only shake my head when Mike D produces what suspiciously looks like a homemade calzone with a side of broccoli and Tiramisu for dessert.
The Yurts: The Lily Lake Yurt System is operated through a joint effort between the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance, or BRORA. The City of Evanston Parks and Recreation District manages the yurts and takes reservations at the end of October. Rates are $50 per night Sunday-Thursday, and $75 per night Fridays, Saturdays and holidays. To make a reservation, call the Evanston Recreation Center at (307) 789-1770. One person from the group must be a member of the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance. The annual membership fee is $15 per person or $20 per family, and can be paid when you make the reservation.
Additional Lodging: The Bear River Lodge is the closest place to stay near the yurts. They offer overnight cabin rentals with hot tubs on site, snowmobile rentals, and even a general store if you have to go back to alleviate a mid-trip beer emergency. www.bearriverlodge.com
Grub and Brews: To get to the Lily Lake yurts, you’ll be driving through Evanston, Wyoming. Fuel up at the town’s only brewery, Suds Brothers. They have a good selection of craft beer on tap and decent food. I like the Blues Bros Burger paired with a pint of Monkey’s Butt Amber Ale. www.sudsbrothersbrewery.com