“This is the nicest yurt I have ever seen.”
It’s Saturday afternoon in the La Sal Mountains and I am taking off my ski boots at the door of the Geyser Pass Yurt to avoid tracking mud onto the gorgeous wood floor. My friends enter behind me with similar exclamations about our lodgings. The bunks appear as if they were hand built and are adorned with fresh mattresses. The kitchen would make an IKEA designer proud and is well stocked with all the stoves, pots, and utensils one could need. And the afore-mentioned floor? It’s nice enough to support the weight of millionaires enjoying a champagne sabering at Deer Valley. This fine specimen of yurt is one of two in the new Talking Mountain Yurts system, and our group of six are among the first to book the place in its inaugural winter.
I take off my jacket, drape it over the back of a chair and sit. I am exhausted after nearly four miles of skinning up here with a 60 pound pack from the parking lot to Geyser Pass, where the namesake yurt is nestled against evergreen trees near the famous start of the Whole Enchilada mountain bike trail. I pull a beer from my pack (a twelve-pack is the source of all that weight) and a map. We gather around the table and check out the terrain. Geyser Pass Yurt, located at an elevation of 10,500 feet, is surrounded on all sides by serious peaks. Haystack Mountain to the west squats across from Moonlight Meadows. To the east, Mount Tomasaki is a windblown, jagged spire. Probably most dramatic of all is Mount Mellenthin’s north face a few miles south of the yurt. From the front door, you can eyeball three summit chutes that converge onto a wide apron that just sings to be skied. But instead of making a navigation plan to those classic summits, I trace my fingers over the map through the Gates of the North into the North Group of the La Sal Mountains, where some of the most remote and least skied peaks reside. This yurt provides access to those elusive mountains, and that’s where I aim to ski.
But the hour is late and a short tour is all we have time for. So outside the yurt our crew gathers: Mason Diedrich, dharma ski-bum; Sean Zimmerman-Wall, outdoor writer and Snowbird Ski Patroller; Preston Griffall, former Olympic luger and one-time American Ninja Warrior; Adam Symonds, flight instructor and connoisseur of fancy 7-Eleven food; and Eric Ghanem, a French Canadian whose thick accent causes us to misinterpret words with often hilarious results. Oh, and there’s little ole’ me, the guy who brought this crew together for a weekend of backcountry skiing.
We skin beneath gathering clouds through a forest of evergreen and aspen to the base of Haystack Mountain. Unlike her imposing neighbors, Haystack is more like a small mound that doesn’t even reach an elevation of 12,000 feet. Despite her lack of stature, we see several tasty lines with good vertical that make this mountain well worth the short approach. But a fog rolls in and I start to have doubts about an evening ski descent from the summit. We press on and reach a small pass on the peak’s northeast side. Once there, the ceiling lifts and we get our first view of Southern Utah’s red desert from an 11,000-foot perch. I can see everything from here: Castle Valley, Arches National Park, the street grid of Moab, and an unending expanse of rock formations; cliffs and fins that spread west to the Henry Mountains floating white on the far horizon.
A short boot pack up a steep, wide ridge provides a quick route to Haystack’s indistinct top. As shadows grow long, we quickly transition from skins to skis, and one by one, I watch my friends make turns on creamy corn down the mountain’s open, east face. The last to go, I edge my skis into the late-afternoon snow and race alongside the stenciled tracks everyone left behind. But near the bottom, in view of the group gathered in the flats below, I sink a tip into a patch of mank and pitch forward, slamming down on my neck and shoulder. The impact sends a series of crackles down my spine. While everyone laughs, I dig snow out of my collar before heading back to the yurt, sore but happy.
Geyser Pass Yurt is the larger of the two in the Talking Mountain Yurt system. At a roomy 24-feet, it can comfortably sleep eight people on two bunks and a full-sized futon. The second yurt is located closer to the trailhead in Gold Basin, where skiers can easily access the range’s most popular terrain off Laurel Highway, Talking Mountain Cirque, Middle Cirque, Red Snow Cirque and the crown jewel of the La Sals, Mount Tukuhnikivatz. The Gold Basin Yurt is smaller at 20 feet, but still accommodates up to eight skiers with bunks and cots. Both yurts are brand new and were built by Will Kelley and Jonathan Dutrow, who run the company together.
We meet Jonathan on our second day after he motors up to Geyser Pass on an old snowmobile adorned with Alta and TGR stickers to deliver fresh water. The lack of recent storms has made melting snow for drinking and cooking a bit unsavory, so we welcome the delivery. Jonathan looks like a skier – full beard, black puffy, plaid hat. A dog named Porter rides on the seat between his legs. Originally from Indiana, he spent three years at Alta before moving to Moab to work with the Division of Wildlife to restore endangered fish in the Colorado River system. Basically, helping manage the yurts is a side job that he can focus on thanks to a flexible schedule. As I put skins on skis, I repeat what I said the first time I entered the yurt. He laughs. “Everybody who has come through has had nothing but good things to say. They’ve all said ‘oh, these are the nicest yurts we’ve ever been to,’ which is kind of our goal. I mean, if you’ve got the ability to do it, why not do it and make something people want to come back to?”
After loading canisters of water into the yurt, we say goodbye to Jonathan and Porter, then point our ski tips east toward Mount Tomasaki. Our goal is to ski Manns Peak, a 12,272-foot summit in the heart of the La Sal’s North Group. A contrast to the clouds and fog of yesterday, this morning is bluebird. We follow a frozen, old skin track across meadows and aspen glades to the base of Tomasaki, where a cliff-walled cleft divides the mountain like a hatchet gash in a stump. This notch is the Gates of the North, a name that evokes Game of Thrones images of giant ice-walls and undead armies haunting uncharted, forbidden lands beyond. The description is apt as the North Group is likely the least visited part of the La Sals in winter, and this tight choke provides the only way in from a southern approach.
I pass below Tomasaki’s long shadow and break trail down the middle of a vast meadow. At the head of the canyon, Manns Peak comes into view. We are elated to see the mountain is cloaked in white, unlike Tomasaki’s summit, which is stripped bare by wind. A relatively straightforward skin along a creek bed and up through rolling hills brings us to the mountain’s base. We debate the best ascent route, and settle on the south ridge. A few switchbacks later, we attain the ridge above tree line, and are treated to what I consider to be the best view I’ve seen so far in the La Sals. I skin ahead and look back at the group as they follow, single file, with an incredible mountain backdrop of the Middle Group: Peale, Mellenthin, Tukuhnikivatz, Tuk No, Burro Ridge, and Haystack.
On the summit, Sean and Preston clear snow from a “hot tub” of stacked rocks so we can huddle inside, hiding from a frigid wind that somehow only blows at the top of this mountain. We each pull the tabs off celebratory summit brews and eat a light lunch of mini naan and tuna packets. From here I can see the rest of the North Group peaks like Castle Mountain, Mount Waas, and Pilot Mountain. Each beckons for further exploration.
Now it’s time to ski. We retrace our ascent route down the chattery south ridge to the mountain’s east face. I lean over a small cornice and plant a pole into the snow like a chef sticking a thermometer in meat to see if it’s done. The snow is cooked to perfection. Dropping into the wide bowl with probably too much enthusiasm, we make wide, sweeping turns on cream corn. Halfway down, I stop for photos and watch Preston rip beautiful, calm turns at high speed as if he’s once again sledding a luge run at the Sochi Olympics.
We finish off the bowl and traverse above the drainage to a glade we scoped out on the ascent. Not satisfied with one-and-done, we reapply skins and climb once more to a shelf below Point 11947 between Manns and Tomasaki. I pick a small opening in the trees on a southwest aspect and weave through small evergreens casting shadows that alternate the snow between corn and crust. A turn left puts me into full sun and softer conditions where I race around warm rocks. Snow melts at their edges. The run spills onto the canyon floor where we pole our way back through the Gates of the North.
A short skin brings us back up to the yurt, where we meet a solo skier coming from the direction of Haystack. It’s Will Kelley, who co-owns the yurts with Jonathan. Will sports mirrored sunglasses over a salt-and-pepper beard and wears a jacket from the Chile Pepper Bike Shop where he works as a mechanic. He had just finished a tour on Burro Ridge and swung by the yurt to check in on us. We invite him inside to share a beer when he tells us the history of the Talking Mountain Yurts.
It all started four or five years ago when Will and Jonathan met in Moab and began to ski together. That’s when they hatched the plan. Will says he always had a dream of having a little mountain chalet or yurt. But building a system in a remote range like the La Sals was tricky, because Moab is in the bike business, not so much the ski business. “As much as I love skiing the La Sals, they are not necessarily a world-class ski destination,” Will says. “However, I think the skiing is unique and worthy. But to be able to operate along a world-class mountain bike trail system, it made the idea of yurts seem more viable. So we could have a year-round business and remain in Moab. That’s kind-of the dream.”
The only hurdle? The U.S. Forest Service had a moratorium on new development in the La Sal Mountains for a few years while they created a new recreation plan. So Will and Jonathan waited, and as soon as the moratorium was lifted, they were first in line with application in hand. They got approval and started construction. But Will says their first winter season almost didn’t happen. “We barely got these things in. The last time I drove up here, there was 14 inches of snow on the ground. There was going to be no more driving up to this yurt. It was the last load and the floor wasn’t even finished yet.” But friends and the community rallied with vehicles and labor and got the Geyser Pass yurt finished in the nick of time.
We grab another round of beer from the snowbank by the door, and I ask what their aspirations are for the summer season. Jonathan said earlier that he was worried about the location of Geyser Pass Yurt for winter use and put it here primarily for the mountain biking crowd. The Whole Enchilada trailhead is just yards away, making this place the ultimate base camp for riding a trail that’s now as popular and iconic as the Slickrock Trail once was. Will admits that summer operations are key to the yurt system’s survival. After the snow melts, they take down the Gold Basin Yurt, rename it the Jimmy Keen Flat Yurt, and move it to a lower elevation at the intersection of the Jimmy Keen Loop and Kokopelli Trail, halfway down the Whole Enchilada. There, mountain bikers can stay the night in the middle of a world-class trail network with million-dollar views of Castle Valley, the Colorado River, and Arches National Park.
The afternoon marches toward evening, and Mount Mellenthin is awash in sunlight across the valley. Game for another go, myself, Sean, and Mason gear back up and leave Will, Eric, Adam and Preston at the yurt. I know the hour is too late for a summit attempt, but these mountains seemingly do talk, and Mellenthin is practically begging to be skied. We flat-track to Geyser Pass Road, then ascend what feels like a never-ending forest where no visual of the mountain means no reference to mark our progress. About an hour-and-a-half of skinning recrystallized powder puts us at the base of Mellenthin’s north face; a wide bowling alley of snow-covered lanes separated by rows of talus. We start climbing the eastern-most lane and nearly reach the half-way point to the top. But the sun has gone behind the mountain. A cold wind picks up, and clouds are gathering. We discuss our options, risk versus reward, and decide to ski from here.
Sean goes first. The setting sun has left the snow hard and choppy, but his years on ski patrol are evident as he aggressively and competently lays GS turns all the way to the headwall apron. Mason follows with a more pragmatic approach, weaving tight turns around rock gardens as his skis chatter over the ice. As I start my descent, the snow is clearly not just ice, but frozen sastrugi. I step off the gas and look ahead. Graupel pools dot the fall line. I time my turns to link those pools together, alternating my edges from soft graupel, to sastrugi, back to graupel on the right turn, sastrugi on the left. Thankfully, the low-angle apron is a mix of collected graupel and surface hoar where every turn almost feels like powder. We three ski together into the woods, reveling in what little powder there is to be found in the range.
“In the La Sal Mountains, you ski uphill both ways.” That’s how the saying goes amongst skiers who explore this desert range, and every time I ski here, the adage holds true. The topography is more complex than other mountains. Instead of ascent routes that go uphill one way through canyon bottoms then up ridgelines to mountaintops, the La Sals have numerous depressions, low meadows, and valleys that curve and descend away from roads and trailheads. The result? A ski tour often ends with you skinning back up a ridge in order to return to the car. Turns out, the same is true when it comes to returning to Geyser Pass. I’m reminded of this while standing in the middle of Moonlight Meadows as I apply skins back on my skis for a short ascent to the yurt.
We’ve just completed our final run of the trip – a rowdy ski-jaunt down Haystack’s east face. The morning was overcast and we feared the snow would not soften up enough to ski. But as we skinned to the peak, the sun blazed out and we had blue skies on the summit. With a clear view of Moab’s red rock below our boots, we set up chairs made from our skis and packs, and cracked open beers to celebrate the yurt life. The descent was a little tricky, however, as the sun had not warmed the snow as much as I would have liked, but it was still edgeable and fun. In the La Sal Mountains, you may have to ski uphill both ways, but the downhill is always worth it.
Back at the yurt I pack my bag, which is lighter without a half rack of IPAs. I regret not being able to stay longer, but that just means we will have to make plans for another trip next season. Maybe Gold Basin Yurt. Probably a summer visit for mountain biking is in order as well. Options will be vast, especially in the coming years as Will and Jonathan have big plans for their yurts, like solar power, large decks, and even bike washing stations and portable showers. They’re currently tossing around the idea of building a third yurt in the South Mountain area, which boasts the finest powder skiing in the range. They’ve also applied for an outfitter guide-permit so they can cater, transport people to the yurts and conduct avalanche and skills clinics. But if even none of that comes to pass, I suspect Talking Mountain Yurts will have no problem filling the calendar and drawing repeat customers every year. Because seriously, these are the nicest yurts I have ever seen.
Reservations can be made for both the Geyser Pass and Gold Basin Yurts starting on October 1st. Geyser Pass Yurt is available year-round. Gold Basin Yurt is available November 15-April 30. Gold Basin costs $220 on weeknights, and $250 on weekends. Geyser Pass costs $230 on weeknights and $280 on weekends. Both yurts sleep up to eight guests. To book your trip, visit www.talkingmountainyurts.com