Writer’s Note: No secret stashes were harmed during this article’s publication.
Let’s try something. If you’re a purist backcountry traveller, keep an open mind about snowmobiles. Just for the duration of this article. Adapt this thought: you skin; they ride. It’s all good.
Consider that maybe no one uses sleds more regularly than Utah Avalanche Center forecasters, the folks who supply you with the daily snowpack information that keeps you safe. Pin whatever preconceived notions you have about the brap-braping to a wall in your mind somewhere and leave it.
Now that that’s out of the way, think about a powder face you once saw deep in the backcountry. Maybe it was already 10am, and you were ready to drop your line and then ski out to your car. You just didn’t have time. Going for that distant face would take all day. You didn’t have all day. Bummer.
But what if you and your best touring buddy both had sleds. You guys reach that face at 8:30am. Your legs are fresh, and you session that face all freaking day. One day like that and you’d never tour again. That’s not true. You’d tour less frequently. You’d have options–like these.
Toby Weed uses a sled to forecast for the Utah Avalanche Center, and recreationally, to ride the backcountry in Logan Canyon. The region, he estimates, offers 250,000 acres of accessible backcountry terrain. Another 45,000 of the canyon contains wilderness closed to motorized travel.
Among the many major trailheads within Logan Canyon, the Tony Grove area is the largest, and most well-known to snowmobile enthusiasts. It’s also a hub for backcountry skiers to access to relatively unvisited wilderness.
Weed explains, “Tony Grove is the Alta of Logan Canyon. It gets the most snowfall. It has complex terrain like cliffs to jump off of, and steep bowls. You can get to the wilderness from Tony Grove, and that offers some really fantastic terrain off the beaten path. You don’t really run into other people in the wilderness.”
“Snowmobile riders outnumber skiers here, by a lot,” Weed says. Many Logan-area snowboarders represent a cross-section of two groups that previously didn’t get along.
“I think the relationship is improving between the two user groups,” Weed explains. “A lot of that has to do with the mixed user groups. It was pretty intense when I came here in 2003. But both groups have made pretty good progress in getting along.”
One example of the Logan area’s mixed user groups is pow surfers. Because they use surfboard-like snowboard without bindings, pow surfers use snowmobiles for backcountry access.
Pow surfing founder Jeremy Jensen says the Logan-based pow surfing community tries to avoid any conflict by giving backcountry skiers plenty of space and not blowing by them. As part of a unique user group that crosses over between snowmobiling and backcountry snowboarding, Jensen explains that the motorized and non-motorized travelers experience what’s essentially a cultural difference.
“They’re two really different breeds of people,” Jensen says, adding, “the backcountry skier crowd here is the polar opposite of the slednecks, who are good old boys into their machines. But it depends on the person. I’ve approached backcountry skiers giving out bad vibes on the trail. I’ve also met sledders who would give you the shirt off their back.”
Pow surfers focus on finding untouched snow and terrain that’s consistently steep enough for them to maintain speed during descent.
“You have to pick the right areas, just like surfing certain swells in the ocean,” Jensen says.
His group is mostly interested in reaching bigger lines and extreme terrain in the alpine, which require long approaches up Logan Canyon. He estimates if you didn’t use sleds, you’d have to hike 7 miles of mostly flat terrain to access any of the canyon’s steep peaks.
Brighton-based snowmobiler Alden Gile says that he started sledding Guardsman because of its proximity to the city and to his job in Big Cottonwood Canyon. He quickly had to adapt to its steep, high-elevation terrain. As he adapted to Guardsman, the area also converted him from a backcountry snowboarder to full-time snowmobiler.
“I read on a Snowest.com forum, ‘don’t go to Guardsman unless you want to total your snowmobile.’ This made me chuckle,” Giles says.
“In 2012, I had to buy a newer snowmobile, a 2011 Polaris RMK PRO 163, that would allow me to maneuver through Guardsman’s tight trees, steep slopes, and deep dry snow,” he says.
“Once I began to learn how to properly ride it, I knew that my sled-accessed snowboarding would immediately come to a close,” he adds. “The sheer maneuverability eased exploration uphill and downhill. You could go up, down, sideways, whatever you wanted with this new lightweight maneuverable snowmobile. Looking for lines to ski down turned into looking for lines to snowmobile down. I never brought my snowboard along again. Lines I previously enjoyed doing on my snowboard I rode on my snowmobile. I was a full convert.”
Sled-accessed skiing works best if you can meet friends at a resort like Alta, Gile explains, where skiers can drop over the resort’s backside and a snowmobile can meet them to shuttle runs up American Fork Canyon’s Dry Fork. Guardsman Pass offers similar options due to its proximity to Brighton and Park City Mountain Resort.
However, Gile argues that Salt Lake City’s closest motorized backcountry zone contains so much steep, technical riding that it’s often too difficult to bring skiers with equipment to the top of a run there. Because Guardsman isn’t open or treeless, it also complicates how riders find the right terrain to build backcountry kickers. The bigger the riding zone, the more terrain variety you have, he explains, but the smaller zones are limited. For bigger, more open terrain, he recommends going to Bountiful, Farmington, or the Uintas.
Despite the combination of access and terrain variety, Utah generally doesn’t see nearly the same number of snowmobile enthusiasts and sled skiers as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
“Other states like Wyoming or Idaho have more base-like snow that keeps sleds on top of the snow,” he adds, “so you’re not trenching down in the soft stuff. Even professional snowmobilers that visit Utah complain about getting stuck a lot because of the deep, light, dry snow.”
“Given the population and annual snowfall that Utah has, surprisingly it doesn’t get the same hype and tourism as other areas do for snowmobiling,” Gile says. “The snow is almost too light for sleds; it’s better for skiers. It is almost like ash from the woodstove sometimes it is so light and dry.”
UAC educator and videographer, Trent Meisenheimer, calls the Utah’s highest mountains a great place to recreate with snowmobiles with very serious consequences.
The Wasatch Front has an intermountain snowpack, he explains, which is somewhere between a moisture-dense maritime snowpack and a dry, shallow continental snowpack. The Uintas generally have more of a continental snowpack because they’re farther away from moisture, colder, and higher in elevation. He compares it to Colorado’s snowpack: generally shallow with large-grained depth hoar that takes longer time to become stable.
Because of this trends, he would like to encourage is the Uinta-area snowmobiling community reporting slide activity and submitting observations.
“Our position at the UAC is that we don’t single out skiers and snowboarders,” Meisenheimer says,” We like everyone who travels on snow. It doesn’t matter how you get around on the mountains. We’re neutral to all user groups.”
“The Uintas are a little bit of a rugged place,” he says. “I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of really great winter ski touring in the Uintas because it’s a colder place with a lot of wind. It’s better in the springtime.”
The mountains run west to east, he explains, and Utah’s storm tracks aren’t very favorable to that. However, despite the shallower snowpack and more rugged, alpine environment, snowmobiling the Uintas is still enormously popular. It just isn’t as popular with people sledding to ski or snowboard (credit lewis). That’s because, Meisenheimer says, there’s a big difference between what snowmobilers like to ride–big, open bowls and faces to climb without trees–and what people who use snowmobiles want to ski.
A much better sled-accessed ski touring destination would be American Fork Canyon, Meisenheimer suggests. It has a deeper snowpack, ridgelines, classic avy paths, and drainages, including wind-protected, lower elevation zones.
Meisenheimer also recommends the Fairview Canyon, part of the Manti Skyline near Nephi for both great touring and snowmobiling. That area of the Wasatch Plateau runs north to south, and snowcat-maintained roads access stacked, horseshoe canyons with treed terrain and big, open bowls.
The La Sal Mountains
Southeastern Utah might not be a go-to backcountry skiing destination. However, The Beehive State’s second highest mountain range has nine peaks above 12,000 feet. Moreover, where else on Earth can you more descend a 3,000-foot line with views of redrock canyons, buttes, hoodoos, and arches stretching for 100 miles?
UAC forecaster and journalist Eric Trenbeath says the La Sal Mountains’ basecamp, Moab, contains a small, but growing population of snowmobilers with modern, high performance sleds. A much smaller group are skiers who use snowmobiles for access.
He calls the La Sals “extremely avalanche prone” with “big, beautiful, 35 to 40-degrees lines between 1,500 and 3,000 vertical feet above treeline.” The range’s generally weak, shallow snowpack and steep terrain makes it a dicey place to sled and tour until late winter or spring.
“Many lines are convex, which make ski cutting impossible because they lure you way down slope,” he explains. “Most of the snowmobiling terrain is meadow-like or rolling. It isn’t a place for high marking most of the time due to the unstable snowpack.”
“Most of the snowmobile-accessed ski terrain is on South Mountain,” he says, “which is in the southern group in the range accessed on the eastern side near the town of Old La Sal.”
“There is some snowmobile-accessible ski terrain from the west side of the range up around Geyser Pass,” Trenbeath adds.
The Geyser Pass Trailhead, at 9,600 feet, can be reached from the La Sal Loop Road, which is where most winter recreation occurs in the La Sals. From the Geyser Pass Trailhead, backcountry skiers can reach Gold Basin, Trenbeath explains, a designated non-motorized zone with the easiest winter route to Mt. Peale.
“Most snowmobiles leaving from this trailhead go up to Geyser Pass, beyond which is really too far to go under human power, so there isn’t much of a conflict,” he says.
For an even more exotic destination, Trenbeath recommends sledding the Abajo Peak via North Creeks in the Abajo Mountains near Monticello. At the pass at the top of North Creek, he explains, skiers could then skin into non-motorized terrain.
As mentioned, snowmobiles are important machines for the work provided by the Utah Avalanche Center. UAC Executive Director Paul Diegel notes, “Our 4 new sleds, the pride of the fleet, came from Arctic Cat/Big Pine Sports, Skidoo/Weller Recreation, Polaris/Tri-City Performance, and Buttars Tractor. They each give us a new sled each year and take the old one back, giving us a free lease. Sam T Evans just joined the program this year, giving us free use of a new enclosed trailer for the season.” Avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon spearheaded the UAC snowmobile program in 2004-5 and it’s been going strong for 10 years now. They are an invaluable resource to not only backcountry snowmobilers, but also skiers and snowboarders who access terrain that sees heavier traffic such as the Central Wasatch, but also the remote areas mentioned above. While some assume that being on a powerful snow machine adds a level of safety or invincibility “It’s just as important for snowmobilers to carry avalanche rescue gear, get avalanche training, and read the daily advisory as it is for skiers. Riders can cover more terrain in a day, can miss subtle clues to avalanche hazard due to noise and speed, put more load on the snowpack, can get stuck in avalanche starting zones, and can easily access hazardous terrain. These factors all contribute to the rising rate of snowmobile avalanche deaths” says Diegel.
Before you jump on a sled and head for the hills, be prepared with the proper equipment, knowledge and safety skills to get you back to where you started.