Ski Touring-off the Beaten (skin) track

offthebeatenskintrack

Why climb for hours on skins from Alta or Spruces CG only to find your planned run has already been skied? Have you had enough of sharing SLC’s “Urban” backcountry with the masses?  Why not drive an hour north, south or west and not cross a track all day? Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons do have amazing backcountry skiing, but that secret has not been well kept. If you want fresh snow, new views, more wildlife and fewer skin trails, read on…

Most Wasatch Front-based backcountry skiers have of course seen, but never set foot in the Oquirrh Mountains, Salt Lake Valley’s “other” range. Yet by pointing the skimobile west, instead of the habitual east, it’s possible to tour in complete solitude. Ophir Canyon is the most aesthetic and user-friendly ski zone in the 30-mile-long, mine-ravaged range. Picnic Canyon is a great quick tour with a classic old cabin at the base of a 1200’, northwest-facing “afternoon delight” powder stash. Sharp Mountain and Chandler Peak offer easy access to terrain for all abilities and commanding views to the west. If corn snow is coming on (which happens early in the Oquirrhs) Lowe Peak’s SW cirque is tremendous, as is the broad south-face of Flattop Mountain, 10,620’, the highest and southernmost peak in the range.

Reach Ophir, Utah, by driving south and west from Tooele on Utah highways 36 and 73. Continue .8 miles above the charming old-west mining town, and park at a gnarly 4WD creek ford at 6800′, where Serviceberry Canyon joins from the west. Climb 1500 feet up the switch backing jeep road in this canyon to access the Sharp Mountain area. Continue up Ophir Creek to ski Picnic Canyon, Powder Gulch, or the corn snow paradise between Lowe (10,589’) and Rocky Peak (10,273.)

The Logan Mountains offer similar snow and terrain to the Central Wasatch without the crowds. High Canyon, on the north end of the range, is the premier ski touring area for big open powder bowls and exquisite quietude. Epiphany, a wide, northeast-facing powder paradise, is the “Cardiac Ridge of Logan,” and should not be missed when the avalanche danger is moderate to low. When the hazard is high, go elsewhere! The approach is certainly longer than accessing Cardiff Fork from Alta, but very similar to coming in from Big Cottonwood.

Scanned Image-12

From Logan, go north on US 191, and turn right on High Creek Road, about two miles north of Richmond. A high-clearance, 4WD vehicle will get you further toward the campground and trailhead. Park wherever you can get turned around and begin skinning up the former road (now a trail) from around 5,000’.

Skin up the canyon, passing increasingly large avalanche run-outs, and North and Little Left-Hand Forks and wind south toward Cherry Peak. To get “the Logan goods,” leave the canyon at 6,700’ and skin up a small side gulch. There is no “avalanche-safe” terrain to climb, so if you don’t like what you see in a snowpit here, opt for anchored terrain in the northerly evergreens. At 7,500’ set a friendly track right up the sparse glades of the epic Epiphany run to its high point, 9,384.’ Ideally, you’ll make laps all over this half-mile-wide, 2,000’ mega-run using the same skin trail each time.

After your last run, contour skier’s right through the gully and ski the “Exit Run”, a 600-foot, 30-degree, east-facing mini-Epiphany that drops you into the South Fork of High Canyon. After the run, a short glide north returns one to the approach trail and the road home.

SharpMtn_Feb15th 061 Skier and watcher__garysaxlehner

Willard Peak and Ben Lomond Peak dominate the skyline north of Ogden and offer high-quality ski touring. One look at the steep, rocky western escarpment of these summits confirms the approach is from the east, and North Fork Park. If avalanche hazard is above moderate, skin up Cutler Ridge from the trailhead near Camp Utaba. When the danger is low, it may be worth the risk to boogie directly up the drainage (aka “terrain trap”) into the impressive ski (and avalanche) terrain of Cutler Basin. Willard to the north and Ben Lomond to the south offer long, outstanding runs on warm and cold snow, respectively.

An early start makes it possible to ski corn (or “shmoo” as the case may be) on Willard’s broad southeast face before climbing west to the scenic divide. The actual summit of Willard Peak, 9,763”, is guarded by rocky ridges, and isn’t an appealing ski run. Gain the Wasatch Crest just south of Willard, and follow the broad, friendly ridge south to Ben Lomond, absorbing stunning views of Willard Bay, the Great Salt Lake, and the Wasatch Front. The tour is worth doing just for the amazing scenery, but if the snow is good, it’s even better!

Skin right to the summit of Ben Lomond, and enjoy commanding, 360-degree views. Its northeast face is a proud line and often harbors fine settled powder. However, it’s the site of many avalanches, and is best skied when both snow and weather are stable. A series of parallel gullies separate smooth “ridgelets” falling at 35-40 degrees for 2,000’.  Low on the face, all lines funnel into a natural half-pipe feature with fun “wall-hits” that rolls on for another 500’ into Cutler Canyon.

Lone Peak is a great destination for corn skiing (on the south face,) steeps (east face,) and rock-climbing in the west-facing cirque. Although it divides the Salt and Utah Lake Valleys, and is seen by millions every day, it is rarely climbed. Low trailheads make for long ascents, and it’s usually not possible to slide all the way back down. But for the fit, rugged adventurer, there is exciting terrain, unmatched beauty, and spectacular point-to-point ski mountaineering.

Scanned Image-13

Virtually all winter “tour-ists” begin in Alpine, north of highway 92 in Utah County. However, if you stash a vehicle in Little Cottonwood, Bells Canyon, or along Wasatch Blvd, a variety of rewarding through-tours are possible. The Crows Feet, highly visible from SLC, is a hard-to-access 3,600′ avalanche path, and makes a superb finish to a Lone Peak tour.

Ascend 4WD roads, a summer trail, and glacier-carved basins for nearly 6,000’ to the south summit. Avoid the technical traverse to the true (north) peak by skiing either of two 50-degree chutes on the precipitous NE Face. Among the steepest, continuous lines in the Wasatch, these wild chutes are safer in mid-winter than spring when they can get icy.

A more benign alternative is to ski the south face for a few hundred feet, then traverse skier’s left, back to the divide, at around 10,800′. A less committing, and slightly shallower-angled (but still 45+) north-facing line drops into Upper Bells Canyon from here. Glide northwest under the east face, and climb a clean couloir on your left to a prominent “gunsight” notch. From the col, ski the west-facing chute into Big Willow Cirque, another quiet part of the Central Wasangeles Range.

Boot steeply north out of Big Willow and ski a 400-foot powder run in Rocky Mouth Canyon. A skinless traverse across the north side of this drainage leads easily to the impressive Crows Feet. Ski straight down the northwest-facing gut for 3,000+ feet, or in the trees to skier’s left, where many alternate chutes go through. The final exit to Wasatch Blvd is easier if there is avalanche debris in the gully bottom. If not, you may miss dinner at La Caille as you side-slip endlessly through dense scrub-oak. In any case, a short down-hike is generally required.

Leave a Reply