The sun’s warmth feels so good. I close my eyes and tilt my head back to face the sky. It’s the first time I’ve seen the sun in three days, and of course it arrives on the final run of our last day ski-touring from the Steam Mill Yurt in the Bear River Range. These mountains are notorious for being very cold, and during a gloomy, three-day weekend, our frozen toes discover that the reputation is well founded. I open my eyes, trade sunglasses for goggles, then stare down an east-facing slope at the head of Hells Kitchen Canyon. Lexi Dowdall drops in first and trenches fast, long curves, bathed in sunlight. Only four turns later, she’s at the bottom. Adam Symonds goes next, making tight, slalom turns. It takes him twice as long and three-times as many turns to get down. He’s obviously milking it. As I watch, I’m struck at the difference in their skiing styles, and how the tracks left behind tell individual stories. Each sinuous line through powder is the culmination of my friends’ skiing histories. Every ski school lesson, each day on the hill with family and friends, and all the combined bell-to-bell days at home resorts have led to muscle memory and the creation of these two signature tracks. They couldn’t be more different from each other. It’s my turn. I align my tips over a white curtain that sparkles like starlight under the sun. It dawns on me that yesterday was the Super Bowl, and I have no idea who won. Frankly, I couldn’t care less, because I have my own super bowl beneath my skis, and my line choice is untracked. I drop in, and wonder what my signature will say about me.
The Steam Mill Yurt is one of three shelters in Logan Canyon operated by Powder Ridge Ski Touring. Nestled in an aspen grove in upper Hells Kitchen Canyon at 8,100 feet, this yurt allows quick approaches to some of the best ski terrain in far northern Utah, including the yurt’s namesake mountain – Steam Mill Peak. Wide-open bowls, tree skiing, gnarly chutes that spill from summits and even low-angle meadows for hippie turns on high-avalanche danger days are all minutes from the yurt door. The area is accessed from the Franklin Basin Trailhead, just off Highway 89, where snowmobilers swarm around the Utah/Idaho border. But Hells Kitchen Canyon is a non-motorized island – a safe-haven from 4-strokes where skiers can claim all the powder for themselves.
Snowmobile trailers towed behind diesel trucks are already clogging the Franklin Basin trailhead lot when we arrive, but I manage to squeeze my Pathfinder between a shiny toy hauler and a 10-foot snowbank. Mason Diedrich and Zach Scribner load beer and gear onto pulks, then clip the sleds to their hips with metal bars and harnesses. Looks to me like dragging a pulk is a lot of work, but I change my tune when I heft three days-worth of stuff onto my shoulders and reconsider the amount of IPAs crammed in with my sleeping bag.
We head north, cross the Logan River over a snow-packed bridge, and skate toward mountains. Several snowmobilers approach from behind so I stick out my thumb. They don’t offer a tow. After a mile of glissading over snowmobile tracks, we turn west into a narrow valley; the mouth of Hells Kitchen Canyon. The entrance is guarded by bamboo poles and orange fencing to keep away the slednecks, but machine tracks on the other side prove the fence has little effect. Prior to 2003, conflicts between skiers and snowmobilers reached a boiling point, so the U.S. Forest Service struck a compromise between the two groups that left Hells Kitchen Canyon a non-motorized zone. Despite the snowmobile boundaries expanding under a new plan in 2007, rogue riders still sneak into the skiing zones. Proof of the trespass lies beneath my skis as we skin up the canyon over rippled sled tracks. Still, it doesn’t take long before I find myself away from all engine noise. We sneak between aspen trees that absorb the sound of our skis in newfound silence.
Above the narrow, lower canyon, scenery opens up and I get my first view of the ski terrain. Steam Mill Peak to the south is the largest mountain at an elevation of 9,282 feet. On her northeast side, I can make out an obvious swath of white that cuts through evergreen trees like nature’s perfect ski run. More bowls are revealed to the west at the head of the canyon, and mellow aspen glades round out the buffet on south-facing slopes below the yurt. Quickened by the sight of untracked snow in every direction, we skin as fast as the pulks will let Zach and Mason pull, and reach the yurt in the early afternoon.
Like most backcountry ski shelters in Utah, the Steam Mill Yurt is small and sparse. It contains everything we need and nothing we don’t for a weekend of skiing. Two bunk beds with pads and two cots ignite a round of roshambo to decide sleeping arrangements. I score one of the beds. The tiny kitchen counter suspiciously looks like it came from IKEA. I chop logs into kindling, then start a fire in the wood stove for snowmelt. After a quick lunch of summer sausage and espresso-rubbed cheese, we click back into bindings and skin to the ridge above the yurt.
To our north, in the bottom of Franklin Basin, I hear snowmobiles buzzing in the trees. I see their tracks high-marking all the way up the divide. We traverse higher along the ridge and discover untouched powder inside a thicker section of forest where snow machines can’t navigate. Not one to pass up powder in search for more powder, I drop in and slash quick turns in the fluff. The snow is quality. Relieved in the knowledge that we will find untracked stashes throughout our stay in Hells Kitchen, we skin back to the yurt, excited about tomorrow’s prospects.
The best part of a yurt trip besides the skiing, is what happens inside the yurt. Life scales back to a simpler existence, where all you have to worry about is chopping logs, melting snow for water, keeping the wood stove going, making dinner, and drinking good beer and whiskey with friends. Time goes by fast, even though all electronics, connectivity and distraction are taken away. Of course the lack of music is not by choice, but because nobody remembered to bring mobile speakers. Eventually someone grabs a metal bowl and sticks their iPhone inside it. An impromptu dance party ensues around the makeshift Victrola. That night I sleep like a rock.
I awake to the smell of coffee and bacon. Zach packed in freeze-dried breakfast burritos and they are phenomenal. With full bellies, we exit the yurt and find that six inches of snow fell overnight. The powder refresh also brought much colder temperatures and the snowpack is light and dry. Eager to ski, we make a beeline to Steam Mill Peak. At the base of the mountain, a skin track is already in place. Although I’m surprised to see locals broke trail this far into Hells Kitchen Canyon before dawn, I’m grateful that the hard work has been done for us. Following the efficient track, we tick off elevation in short order.
Halfway up the mountain, I hear a dog barking. Behind me, another group is catching up and they have two pooches who are having a ball in the snow. It seems this drainage is popular with Logan-area skiers on day tours despite the longer approach.
The top of Steam Mill is small and rocky, so I take off my skis and hike the last dozen feet to officially bag the peak. Our trailers catch up and I ask if they regularly do dawn patrols here. The guy in front laughs and shakes his head no. Turns out they got up early to get a run in before the Super Bowl starts in the afternoon. I had forgotten that today is the biggest American sporting event of the year, and am actually relieved that I won’t have to suffer through a Super Bowl party in Salt Lake tonight while pretending to give a damn about millionaires “sporting” their hardest.
After half-heartedly wishing the local’s favorite football team good luck and giving the dogs some love, we hike down the summit rocks to our waiting skis. I see descent tracks made by the group who broke trail, but there is plenty of untracked left. A wall-to-wall blank canvas on the whole north-facing side of the mountain waits for us to shred. The run starts off low angle, so we all ski together, bouncing through powder so buoyant that every turn rebounds as if the snow is a mountain-wide trampoline. Halfway down, the slope steepens. I go first to take photos and watch as my friends leapfrog from safe zone to safe zone. Although I’m the last to ski, I find ample room to make sweeping turns around wide-spaced evergreens where the snow laps up to my knees and hips. The trees thin even more as the run opens into an avalanche path. I step on the gas and bomb down the ever steepening east shoulder. Out of breath on the flats of Hells Kitchen Canyon, we are elated. I eat an energy bar and sip hot coffee spiked with whiskey, and the group with the dogs catch up. One and done, they continue downhill to get home before kickoff. We wave, then reapply skins for the first of several more runs.
The following morning, Zach and Mason rise early in order to drive to Salt Lake in time for work. Sad to see them go, I watch as they carefully navigate with their pulks down amongst the aspens. Soon, they disappear into the trees. White bark glows pink with the brightening dawn.
Now only three, I skin west from the yurt with Adam and Lexi to explore a different zone. On our topo map, we pick out two unnamed peaks that squat adjacent to Steam Mill. Looking at them from the ridge, we see they are riddled with rocky ledges that alternate between open bowls that look mighty tasty. But as we get closer, I discover that someone had poached our goods and almost tracked out the entire east face. It seems the touring parties we ran into on Steam Mill Peak weren’t the only pre-Super Bowl skiers out yesterday. Undeterred and motivated by the warm, morning sun, we switchback through a steep evergreen forest to the top of the ridge that separates Hells Kitchen Canyon to the southeast, and Steep Hollow to the northwest. Here the terrain flattens out, so we turn south and traverse in search of any leftover powder. Just below Point 9067, I find it – a large, east-facing bowl with an entry guarded by rock bands. Yesterday’s skiers traversed in from below and center-punched the face. But from where I stand, I see untouched lines to either side of their tracks.
With the sun on my face, I take a photo of Lexi as she makes a huge, long turn toward the top of the bowl. Adam goes next, making tight turns as if he’s skiing in trees, even though none are in sight. Then it’s my turn to ski. I look at my watch and know that after this run, there is only time for one more before I too have to pack up and return to civilization. I make a mental note to check the Super Bowl score on the drive home in preparation of co-workers asking me if I watched the game. Then again, why pretend? I should just tell them the truth about how my super bowl experience was awesome – filled to the brim with cold powder, steep lines and yurt life. I wish I could stay here all week. Ready to drop in, I check and recheck the ski mode on my boots, kick thickening snow off my tips, click my poles together, and let gravity take over.
Details: To reserve the Steam Mill Yurt, contact Powder Ridge Ski Touring online at www.sites.google.com/site/powderridgeskitouring. The yurt sleeps 6 people though there are only 4 bunks – the other 2 have to sleep on provided cots. Amenities include a wood burning stove with plenty of wood, LP gas cook stove and LED lanterns. Pots, pans, dishes and utensils for cooking make up the kitchen. A makeshift outhouse is near the yurt. The cost is $150 on Friday and Saturday nights, and $100 Sunday through Thursday in addition to a $50 deposit.