Panic overwhelms my entire being. I’m halfway up a ridge on Delano Peak, the highest in the Tushar Mountains near Beaver, Utah, skinning alongside an evergreen forest I suspect may harbor a powder stash. Wind has scoured the entire range, leaving behind exposed rocks and bulletproof snow. After teeth chattering descents from the 12,169-foot summit of Delano and a lesser peak called The Great White Whale, I’m desperate to feel soft snow beneath my skis. So as the sun marches toward the horizon and sets scattered clouds ablaze, Eric Ghanem and I ignore the protests of spent thighs and search for powder. But that panic sets in, screaming at me that this evening mission is the most foolish thing I could have done on the trip, and that we must turn back post-haste. I’m not afraid of avalanches, injury, or getting lost in the dark. I fear that when we return to the Snorkeling Elk Yurt, all the beer will be gone.
The Snorkeling Elk Yurt is one of two backcountry shelters in the range operated by Alec Hornstein of Tushar Mountain Tours. At an elevation of 10,400 feet, the Snorkeling Elk is the highest ski shelter in Utah. Before we set out for “The Elk,” our group of six meet Alec at the trailhead to load cases of New Belgium and Sierra Nevada beer onto a snowmobile sled to be hauled nearly five miles up Big John Flat Road to the yurt. Our gang is split into two groups: Utah and California. Utah consists of myself, Eric, and Adam Symonds. California includes my Uncle Tim and his friends Darin and Darren, which is never confusing. Each of us are aficionados of fine microbrew, so as I watch the beer cases disappear up the snow-packed road behind Hornstein’s exhaust, I worry it may not last the night.
When the whine of the sled fades, we load up our heavy packs, attach skins to skis, and slowly make our way into the high country. The snow is sticky and wet at low elevation, but as we ascend into the alpine, both snow and views begin to improve. The monotony of skinning a tracked-out road ends when vistas of Delano and Shelly Baldy Peak appear above the tree line. With terrain we’re about to ski now in view, we excitedly point at lines with our poles at distant slopes.
In just over two hours, we arrive at the Snorkeling Elk Yurt and settle in. After lunch and beers with Hornstein, he shows us around the yurt like a RA moving college freshman into a dorm, and lists off a few recommended tours. Then with a wave and a “thanks for the beer,” he leaves us to the vastness of the mountains and speeds off down the road. Everyone is too beat to ski except for me and Adam, so we cut loose for a quick afternoon tour while the rest wuss out to recover and, yes, drink beer.
The day is late, and, unsure of where to go for a short tour, we settle on a minor peak near the yurt called the Great White Whale. Free from heavy packs, we practically dance up an established skin track through an old-growth forest to a ridge that affords us sweeping views of Mount Holly and Delano Peak. The Great White Whale, nestled in the foreground between them, seems a straightforward objective. A short ski through sun crust into the next valley puts us at the foot of the mountain. We enter a broad side canyon where a short climb up to a saddle, then a hike over snowless, grassy meadows puts us on the top.
Despite my haste to ski before dark, I still have the presence of mind to pack a can of beer. With suds in hand, I toast to a hearty first day, take photos, and fill my mind with “what ifs” by tracing imaginary turns on skiable lines spread out all around us. Knowing there’s a scant three days to ski, we get down to it by ticking the Great White Whale off our list. Adam chooses a steep line on a ribbon of snow, and I set up on a small sub-peak across a gully to get a good photo. Adam drops in, makes a series of short turns on hard, (yet edgy) ice, and I snap a shot of him; a speck framed by massive fields of Tushar white. Now my turn, I put the camera away and test the slope. The snow is touchy and freezing fast in the cold evening. I cut my first turn and find the newly-developed crust gives way beneath my weight. I gain confidence. Arching turns over an open bowl, I chase the sun as it sets before me to the west. Adam waits at the bottom and we finish with fast turns back to our ascent ridge where low-angle tree skiing in shallow, protected powder takes us back to the warm confines of the yurt.
I’m relived to find there is plenty of beer left, despite numerous empty cans on the makeshift table as evidence to the contrary. My worries are grounded in the fact that Uncle Tim works as a microbrew distributor. With a career in beer, Tim can put ‘em away faster than anyone I know. My hope is that since all three Cali dudes can only stay for two nights, they’ll be leaving behind a ton of brewskis. I’ve never been so wrong.
The next morning, we rise early to tackle Delano Peak. From afar, the mountain appears steep and ominous, like the arched back of a hunched giant. But closer inspection reveals easy skinning up a wide snow ramp that leads almost directly to the summit. Still, there’s miles and meters between the yurt and the broad top, and those California low-landers take the ascent nice and slow. Three-quarters of the way up, we reach a sub ridge completely scoured of snow. It’s no wonder as the wind is howling enough to fill our jackets and pants with cold air like multi-colored, inflatable sumo suits. With no snow for skinning, we strap skis to packs and hike the remainder of the climb to Delano’s summit, which is marked by a sideways mail box and ever-present, hurricane-force winds.
We find escape from the blowing in the mountain’s sheltered, east face. Without wind chill, I can bask in the sun and eat lunch. My belly fills with beer and sausage before I rally and ski a legs-chattering-with-every-turn, crusty south face that has frozen with the arrival of high clouds and rapidly dropping temperatures ahead of a cold front. It is survival skiing at its finest, the kind of run that would send me home in disgust if it were in the Wasatch. But on a yurt trip, somehow everything is magically forgiven. Just existing in the mountains, with nothing to do but ski, eat, drink, and sleep, makes even the most unbearable snow bearable.
Still, the snow and high wind is bad enough that we are back at the yurt by 2 p.m. Cans of beer fly out like candy from an exploding piñata. But Eric and I aren’t ready to relax just yet, so we gear back up and go for a short tour in the trees below Delano’s west ridge. The wind direction, combined with sheltered evergreens, gives me hope that powder does exist in the Tushars. But then I panic. We’ve been gone for hours, and four of the heaviest beer drinkers I know are back at the yurt with nothing else to do. Duly motivated, I switch from tour to ski mode, and enter the woods.
Trunks thick with needled branches scrape against pack and shell as I beat my way through the tangle. Before long, the evergreens thin, and I find meadows covered in recrystallized powder. The run is short as I link slalom turns to the bottom, savoring each arc as I unweight my skis from one side to the next. The snow isn’t deep, but at least it’s soft. The wind is all but gone in this natural cathedral.
As we skin along the road back to the yurt, I’m content in the knowledge that I just scored the best run of the trip so far, and no amount of beer would have been worth the experience in trade. But when I swing open the yurt’s plywood front door, and gaze upon the stacks of empties on the table and floor, my mood goes into rebellion. Adam and the Californians are sprawled out on the bunk beds, giggling like preschoolers who just discovered how to burp. It seems Eric and I missed out on one hell of a party. Almost all the beer is gone, except for a couple cans of amber ale, a few tall boy lagers, and a single IPA. With two nights left at the yurt, I find it hard to comprehend how I will survive.
Water drops land on my face. I dream that I’m skiing in the rain. Another drop splashes down, this time on my eyelid. Confused, I wake up and wipe my face. For a minute I don’t know where I am. I sit up in my sleeping bag and see a faint glow of red embers shining through the wood burning stove’s cracked door. It all comes back to me: the yurt, the skiing, the beer, and the wind from the day before ushering in a cold front and hopefully snow. The rain drops of my dream turn out to be condensation dripping off the ceiling. Then I hear the sound of a “roofalanche” sliding off the yurt’s peaked, fabric top. It seems we’ll have a powder day after all. I zip out of my sleeping bag, slide bare feet into cold ski boot shells and step out the door. Fat flakes glimmer down through the light of my headlamp, and the path we dug to the outhouse is already buried. I make sure the others are asleep, and under the pretense of going to take a leak, grab three beers, hastily dig a hole in a snow bank, and bury the cans.
Sadly, half our rowdy group has to leave early in the morning. Work schedules in California beckon Tim, Darren and Darin back to palm trees and sunshine. We Utahns remain to tackle the final objective of the trip: Shelly Baldy Peak. Her proud, rocky face drew our eyes days ago, and now our skis are drawn to her snowy base. We skin north along the road above the yurt for a short distance, then turn west. I plow my ski tips through six inches of powder that fell overnight. All negativity about crusty snow surfaces, wind, and beer massacres evaporate with each soft click of boot against binding. It’s amazing how a little fresh snow can completely alter one’s outlook on a ski day.
A series of ridges and small valleys stand between us and the mountain. Numerous transitions from tour to ski and back again slows travel time, but the upshot is that with every ridge ascent, there’s a knee-deep powder descent on the other side. This undulating approach takes four hours to travel a mere four miles to the foot of Shelly Baldy, and it’s well past noon when we arrive.
Last night’s storm clouds break apart and the sun shines through, heating up the south aspect we intend to shred. I remove my skis, strap them to my pack, and hike up a central, rocky ridge the final few-hundred vertical feet to the top. Massive winds slap our faces and dampen any plans to relax and take in the views of Mount Baldy and Mount Belknap on the north half of the range. We hunker down against giant rock cairns in a feeble attempt to escape the howling wind, but no amount of huddling keeps creeping cold from penetrating our warm layers. Still, tradition dictates we celebrate summits with suds. Those remaining, tallboy lagers come out, and our already frozen hands stiffen around metal cans as we attempt to drink faster than the air-exposed beer can freeze.
Unfortunately, the sudden afternoon wind destroys any snow that fell the night before. I drop into my scoped-out line and find inconsistent powder mixed with Styrofoam and breakable crust. Meanwhile, Adam makes close-and-personal contact with a buried rock that destroys the edges of both skis. After much cursing and ski-throwing, Adam rejoins me and Eric at the bottom of the peak and we traverse the four miles back to the yurt, with a side-trip to an aesthetic chute found between a pair of gigantic rocks that appear like rabbit ears from below our final ridge. The snow is punchy and challenging, but the lap is an excellent capper to the trip as a whole.
Our final day at the Snorkeling Elk Yurt finds us sore, tired and completely out of beer. In the morning, we go for a short, final tour in the powder-filled tree shots just behind the yurt. After cleaning the shelter and chopping wood for the next ski party, Adam grouses that there aren’t après beers to enjoy before skate-skiing to the trailhead. I grab my avalanche shovel, dig into the snowbank, and retrieve a can of IPA. Without even a hint of panic, I pass the beer around.
IF YOU GO: Tushar Mountain Tours operates both the Snorkeling Elk and Puffer Lake Yurts. Yurt rentals run from $100 – $140 per night. A guide is required for first-time visitors (Puffer Lake: $40, Snorkeling Elk: $85.) Other guided trips in the range are available. Visit www.skitushar.com
GETTING THERE: Drive three hours south of Salt Lake City on I-15 to Beaver. From there, drive up State Route 153 east for 16 miles to the start of Big John Flat Road and park in a plowed pullout on the north side of the highway. Eagle Point Ski Resort is a few miles further up the road.
MORE SKIING: Eagle Point is open Thursday through Sunday. Lift tickets run from $30 – $58 depending on the day. Lodging is available and the outdoor hot tub is luxurious after a long yurt trip. www.eaglepointresort.com