Round up Your Family At Ruby’s Inn

Snow covered hoodoos at sunset point, Bryce Canyon National Park

Redefine family time by venturing into the Wild West with modern-day luxury at Ruby’s Inn — the perfect basecamp for your next adventures. Lodge in one of three well equipped hotels with access to our General Store where you can purchase groceries, clothing, gear and souvenirs so you’ll always remember your time here.

Don your hiking boots, hop on an ATV or board a helicopter and experience the best of Bryce Canyon National Park and the vast red rock vistas of Southern Utah. Saddle up for horseback rides or settle in for a sleigh ride through the towering Ponderosa Pines and snow-capped red-rock canyons. Put on a pair of snowshoes, cross-country skis or ice skates for wintertime fun. Visit to book a trip today!

Charging With the Dorais Brothers

If you have been skiing the Wasatch much over the last few years you’ve probably seen them:  a couple of tall, lean lads of Asian descent on fairly light gear chattering away as they politely go past you up the skin track…..really, really fast.   Andy and Jason Dorais (pronounced “Doe-ray”) have been skiing for less than a decade, but in that short time their speed, creativity, and enthusiasm on skis has already become the stuff of legend.    

The Dorais brothers grew up in that famous skiing mecca of Bloomington, Indiana.  Born to a Korean mother and American father a year and a half apart, they were mostly runners, and after high school they both went to BYU, which has had a long history of producing great endurance athletes. Jason got a partial scholarship to run the 800 meters and cross country and Andy walked on as quarter-miler (an acutely painful sprint), and they had moderate success; Jason was an All-American as member of a speedy distance medley relay team andAndy made the traveling squad on their very competitive team.  

While at BYU a friend asked if they wanted to go rock climbing. Since their dad had climbed the Grand Teton in the ‘70’s they had always had romantic visions of climbing mountains themselves but had always lived in the wrong state, so they were quick to take their friend up on his offer.  With the intensity that they have applied to everything in their lives, after that initial outing the Brothers Dorais starting climbing like mad (literally every day) and spending all of their student loan money on cams and gas, with a goal to do as many of the “easy” (ie relatively accessible with a beater college car) 50 Classics as possible, which initiated their love of mountains and adventure.  

However, somehow they both ended up back in the Midwest for their respective medical schools.  But they made the most of it, with plenty of road trips to Midwestern crags like the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and…..Utah. It was a 22-hour drive to Salt Lake, and they had no problem doing that drive if it meant getting in more adventures, which at that point also had begun to include resort skiing at Alta and Snowbird.  After Andy transferred to the University of Utah with his wife Jessie (whom Andy met at BYU, where she was an All-American cross country and track athlete:  â€œby far the most naturally-talented Dorais” as Andy calls her) Jason was making the drive by himself and ultimately finagled a final med school rotation in Utah.  Both Andy and Jason got their residencies at the U of U, and with the team back together in the West again, it was only a matter of time before they were charging hard in the mountains again. 

Like a lot of people, Andy was starting to get bored with the resorts and was intrigued by the local obvious backcountry nearby.  Andy had met Utah native Sam Inyoue in med school and one evening Sam took Andy out near Neffs canyon for his first tour.  Andy took a beating slipping his way up the skin track and then equally flailed most of the descent, but in the waning rays of a beautiful sunset he linked six memorable untracked turns in the midwinter powder and was hooked.  

Some time later Sam invited Andy to join him, his speedy brother Jared, and local mountain bike racer-legend Bart Gillespie to do a big outing: Box Elder to Little Cottonwood to Mill Creek.   Andy gamely showed up on his heavy Black Diamond Kilowatts and big Scarpa AT boots figuring hey, he was an endurance athlete and at that point he could hang with most anybody on the skin track.  However, not only was he going out with really fast guys, those two had already begun to tap into the world of skimo racing and were sporting that gear, and literally within a mile of the trailhead Andy realized he was going to be hopelessly off the back and watched them disappear up the trail, a view of which he was not accustomed to seeing.  By the time he reached the summit of Box Elder he was able to look across the valley to see Bart and Jared already nearing the top of the Pfeiff after summiting/skiing Box Elder! Andy limped back down to the car, and it was a lesson he would not forget. Once again he started shoveling money carefully allocated for medical education towards his recreation, purchasing the gear that would enable him to keep up with his speedy new friends. 

With both brothers in town, like-minded friends, light gear, and – as in climbing – a vast array of “tick list” objectives to go after, the Dorais’ started charging hard.  Even though their running history was that of short, fast races, they easily transitioned to the longer endurance in the mountains, and as their ragged Midwestern-trained skiing began to improve, word of their shenanigans began to spread:  a one-day traverse of the Oquirrhs, a 5:17 round trip ski ascent/descent of the Grand Teton (with Jared Inyoue), a dawn-to-dark peak-bag traverse of the La Sals, etc.  In the meantime, the Powder Keg skimo race had been happening for a few years at Alta/Brighton, and to start off the 2010 ski season with some fitness they suggested a Thanksgiving day “race” among friends to the top of Snowbird (which, Andy proudly points out, was not all that long after his Box Elder debacle, and he won!).  The following Thanksgiving they did the same thing at Brighton (with the winner getting a pumpkin pie), and with other races began popping up around the West they wanted more race training opportunities, so they started a text thread inviting people to come up to Brighton on Tuesday nights to charge up skin tracks and hurtle down the ungroomed, wooded runs in the dark by headlamp. The winners (or those with the heaviest gear, or the youngest, or the oldest, or the newbies) still got a pumpkin pie. In light of their enthusiasm, the concept caught on, and now the weekly skimo races – sponsored by and Voile – attract well over a hundred racers, making them second only to the Powder Keg as the most popular skimo races in North America.  According’s Eric Bunce: â€œFor the past decade the Dorais brothers have been pushing the standards of ski mountaineering, and along the way they have shepherded in a new era of skimo race techniques into the backcountry.”

It was during this time that Jason found (barely) enough time between his residency commitments, Wasatch skiing and racing, and road trips to ski and climbing destinations around the West to connect with Amanda Catano.  Petite and game, with a shy but radiant smile, she was a good stabilizing force for Jason’s frenzied life.  Their world was rocked, however, when not long after they started dating Amanda was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.  In typical Dorais grab-life-by-the-balls fashion, Jason immediately asked her to marry him, and they embarked on another endurance event together; this one for her life.  Despite a dire prognosis – and as an ER doc Jason was acutely aware of the savageness of disease and the frailty of life – Amanda not only lived, but lived well for years in their Big Cottonwood Canyon cabin until she gently succumbed in the winter of 2017.  

In 2013 both brothers qualified for the world skimo championships in France: Jason as an individual and Andy as an alternate.  In a strange quirk of fate, Amanda wasn’t doing well at that time and Jason decided to forego his spot, which Andy was then able to take.  It was an eye-opening experience: skimo is a niche sport deep within a niche sport in the US, but in Europe it’s the wintertime equivalent of bicycle racing.  There are thousands of competitors – some of whom are legitimate professional skimo racers – and the big events draw tens of thousands of spectators.  With Jason and Andy as anchors (along with Salt Lake local aerobic fiend Tom Goth and a strong Colorado contingent), the US has steadily improved their position on the world skimo stage, such as it is.  This past winterJason teamed up with former pro bike racer Rory Kelly to get 12thin the pairs race at the worlds in Verbier. 

While the brothers Dorais definitely take the lessons learned from the BYU track program to heart and when it comes time to race they do “train,” their main passion is still charging around mountains doing random objectives as fast as possible.   One example of this came in 2016 when they decided to throw down a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on Mount Rainier.  After a typically-fast drive out to Washington and a leisurely morning they put their skins onto their race skis at Paradise lodge, started their watches, and quickly strode up the Muir Snowfield, past Camp Muir and around to the final ascent to the summit, where they were blowing past the startled mountaineers rest-stepping their way slowly upward.  At the top there was no arms-overhead celebration selfies; just a sub-1 minute transition before launching into the quad-quivering 9000 foot descent. They hit the parking lot in 3:57 for the first sub-4 round trip on Rainier.   

Inspired by the brothers’ effort a couple of Canadian national team skimo guys came a while later and took the record down to 3:53.  Undeterred, Jason returned this past spring with the indomitable Tom Goth and they pretty much put the record away (‘til the Euros come?) and did Rainier car-to-car in a jaw dropping 3:24.  A year after the Muir route ski blast the brothers put their old climbing prowess to a speed test and blew away a recent FKT ascent/descent by world class climbers of the iconic Liberty Ridge route on Rainier by two hours, clocking an astounding 7:07 car to car.  Not long after that, on a quick spring vacation to the Oregon coast, Jason and Amanda happened to find themselves at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood with skis in the truck and as Amanda took a nap, Jason went to the summit of Hood and back in 1:44; when he returned Amanda rolled over and said “I thought you were going to climb the mountain?” Jason: “I just did!”

As Andy puts it: “no one cares!” about FKT’s, but they have had a great time doing these incredible adventures together using the special bond that they have not only as brothers, but as longtime mountain partners.    As their buddy Tom Goth puts it:  â€œThey have a very productive dynamic between them. They are supportive of each other with just enough ribbing to stay sharp. For me that’s worked out well and we’ve had some great days in the mountains together.”

It doesn’t snow year-round here in Utah, however, and both Jason and Andy have put their considerable talents and efforts into summer enduro exploits as well.  Jason has pretty much every FKT on the Wasatch Front peaks, from Mt Wire to Grandeur, Olympus, Twins, Pfeifferhorn, Lone Peak, and points in between.  A stress fracture in Andy’s sacrum a few springs ago kept him off his feet but he was able to ride a bike, and despite never having ridden much he quickly spent too much money into a fleet of bikes and almost immediately became one of the fastest cyclists in the state.  He was even knocking around with the pros at the Crusher in the Tushar and broke a 20 year old FKT on the White Rim trail, doing the bouncy 100 mile loop in just under 6 hours.  These brothers are so tight that Jason also sustained an injury around that time that kept him unable to run downhill, so to keep going into the mountains he learned to fly paragliders and speed wings.  Andy of course followed suit, and now many of their summer – and winter – days are spent carrying packs full of nylon and cord to fly off their many summits.  

As gregarious as they are tough, it’s always a pleasure to see the Flying Dorais Brothers out in the mountains.  Though they have racked up innumerable accomplishments, they don’t take themselves too seriously, are always quick to invite folks along (if you’re feeling up to it), and are as interested in you as you are in their recent exploits.  Usually they are both hustling to get to their demanding ER doc jobs and – in Andy’s case – sharing the herding (with his doc-wife) of a couple of energetic young boys (Lars and Teague, named after two of the brother’s best pards) to get in a lot of creative outings.   And in an era of social media where backcountry secrets are treasured and Jason and Andy are as aware of the ever-growing crowds in the Wasatch as anyone, it’s hard to be annoyed by their amazing posts of videos (Andy) and stills (Jason) because they are simply so excited about the opportunities they are creating for themselves and their lucky ski partners. 

So if you’re on a skin track this winter and feel like you’re going along at a pretty good clip and two strapping lads chatting away appear very suddenly on your tails, go ahead and let them on by to charge ahead and start breaking trail.  You still won’t be able to keep up, but you’ll have had a glimpse of a couple of the most inspiring mountain adventurers of a generation doing what they do best.  

The Best of Utah’s Ski Resorts

The entire world knows by now that Utah has the greatest snow on earth. But we can all agree that ski resorts are more than just the powder that falls upon them. Utah’s ski and snowboard resorts are unique, and each can toot its own alpenhorn. But besides the snow (which is obviously most important) a quality resort needs good runs, sneaky powder stashes, and a fun place to have a drink when the ski boots come off. I’ve compiled a list highlighting the best run, stash and après at Utah’s top resorts. It’s a mix of PR-speak, opinions from friends and family, and my own personal favorites. While entirely subjective, the compilation below is arguably the “best” of Utah’s ski resorts.



Alf’s High Rustler, or “High Boy” as the locals call it, is easily the most iconic (and best) run in Little Cottonwood Canyon. There’s a good reason for that. One only has to ski it from top to bottom on a powder day to discover why.


Castle Apron often holds untracked, cold snow when the rest of Alta is tracked up. A long traverse beneath Sugarloaf Peak gets you there, followed by a bootpack up a small chute into the maw of Devil’s Castle. A few quick turns into the chute, and you can explode through powder onto the apron for some hero turns.


When the lifts stop turning, get thee to the bar at the Alta Peruvian Lodge (the P-Dog for short). This is where powder-fueled locals go for a nightly party filled with live music, free popcorn, and the best beer selection on the mountain.

Beaver Mountain


Beaver’s Powder to Teddy’s Frolic off Harry’s Dream lift is the first place skiers should go the morning after a storm. This run has some of the most vertical on the hill and offers a variety of terrain including some nice glades.


Black Forest is aptly named. This tree stash is a hideaway for seeking out untracked snow just below the Gentle Ben terrain park.


Word is that Beaver Mountain does not serve alcohol. So if you need that post-game drink, drive down the canyon to Logan and grab a burger and beer at The Beehive Pub and Grill. They’ve got great food and a full lineup of beer from Moab Brewery.

Brian Head


Alta is not the only resort that claims Alf Engen as a favorite son. He also has a history at Brian Head, where there is a run named after him. Engen’s also happens to be the best run as it’s the longest and steepest. On a powder day, the pitch is perfect for face shots on every turn. During dry spells, Engen’s is a formidable mogul field.


Chair 5 is the stash for those in search of leftovers. The zone has tons of glades and tree runs that hold powder for weeks following a storm. It also helps that Brian Head has few crowds to track it all up. 


The de facto place to chill after skiing is the Last Chair Saloon. Located on the third floor of Giant Steps Lodge, the Last ChairSaloon offers a wide selection of beer and cocktails, plus great food and live music (almost) every Saturday night.



The closest you can get to big-mountain skiing and snowboarding at Brighton is on Lone Pine (and neighboring Scree Slope) off the Milly Express chairlift. This open face is heaven on a sunny powder day for wide turns in the upper bowl. The run filters down into fun mini-chutes and gullies. You can even huck some cliffs if you’re so inclined.


The edges of Wren Hollow are a safe bet to find a powder stash, especially if you go just beyond the resort boundary into the “cliff area.” Go here only if you have avalanche rescue gear and knowledge. Here is where you can find small chutes between those cliffs and untracked in the trees.


Everybody knows that Molly Green’s is the spot to grab a beer at the end of the day. This classic A-frame lounge boasts the best nachos in the canyon, and a respectable bar menu. Enjoy it all next to a huge fireplace beneath obligatory moose taxidermy.

Deer Valley


Mayflower Bowl and the adjacent Mayflower Chutes on Bald Mountain are hidden treasures at Deer Valley. And that’s what makes them among the best. Few skiers venture here, despite the fact that powder can remain untracked on steep 2,000-foot vertical runs with views of Jordanelle Reservoir far below.


Deer Valley skiers tend to stay on groomers, even on powder days. So pretty much any tree skiing can be considered a stash here. But if I have to pick I’d say X-Files in Empire Canyon is the best. Most skiers here cannot resist jumping into the Daly Chutes. But if you traverse just a bit further, some of the best glade skiing and deepest powder can be found in the trees next door.


Swanky Deer Valley skiers tend not to order PBR tallboys and hot wings. So at the end of the day most locals migrate to town. But if you stay on mountain, enter Troll Hallen Lounge in the Stein Erikson Lodge. Have a Stein Burger and garlic fries with your suds by the fire and ponder the name Troll Hallen.

Eagle Point


Delano Drop off the Lookout Chair is a local’s favorite for being steep and deep on powder days. This run has the most top-to-bottom vertical and a favorable fall-line. Just point ‘em downhill and make some sweeping, wide turns at speed. 


Take the Lookout Chair to Hoodoos, then leave the main run skier’s left and get lost in the trees. This glade of evergreens keeps the powder shaded, cold and protected for freshies long after the last flakes have fallen. 


The Canyonside Lodge Bar and Grill offers pizza, pasta, burgers and more. There’s a full bar with spirits and wine, plus local beer on tap. There’s even a game room with foosball and shuffleboard. Enjoy live acoustic music most Saturdays from 4-6 p.m.

Park City Mountain


Tough to choose just one run at a resort so humongous. But my favorite lift here is Ninety-Nine 90 on the Canyons Village side. And my favorite run off that lift is the Red Pine Chutes. The run starts off steep and open, but soon funnels into mini chutes. 


You can find stashes everywhere off the Jupiter chair, especially if you hike a bit. Try War Zone or Dead Tree for quick laps on a powder day. Honorable mention goes to The Abyss off the Peak 5 lift. 


When in Park City, après in Park City. That’s my motto. Get away from the resort and into town at the end of a ski day. Can’t go wrong with High West Distillery. You can literally ski to it at the bottom of the Town Lift. There’s whiskey drinks galore, and the shishito peppers are the bomb.

Powder Mountain


Carpe Diem, which is the main face of James Peak, is Powder Mountain’s longest, most rewarding run. From the Sundown saddle, take the Lightning Ridge Snow Cat up to access James Peak. To get to the summit it’s an additional 30-minute hike. Your reward? Over 2,500 vertical feet all the way down to Paradise lift.


Weeks after a storm, skiers and snowboarders can still find great snow in the Rain Tree area. A snow cat will take you up for some of the best tree skiing in the state. The snow cat also allows you to easily make laps.


The Powder Keg offers live music 5 nights a week with local beers on tap and the best ramen bowls around. This rustic bar has been known to get a little rowdy, bringing locals and tourist together on the dance floor. There’s also free popcorn. Ski bums rejoice!



When snow conditions are good and deep, No Name Peak off the Allen Peak Tram doesn’t get much better at Snowbasin. And the peak’s namesake run is the king line. This run is long, playful, and will have your thighs begging for mercy if you attempt to ski it top to bottom.


Lower Pyramids is just below No Name, and contains some of the more hidden and lesser-skied zones. It’s tough to get there for one thing, so the powder stays a while. But this stash it best in late season because it can be brushy otherwise.


Cinnabar inside Earl’s Lodge is your best bet for apres at Snowbasin. Don’t be intimidated by the thick carpet, high-backed leather chairs, and fancy chandeliers. This place is actually a casual hangout serving up a full bar’s worth of libations and hearty food like blue cheese nachos.



The Hollywood line at Snowbird is Great Scott (K-12) off the Cirque Traverse. It’s arguably the most classic, steep line at The ‘Bird. The run’s entry is a bit spicy, especially early season or in low-snow years. But below the steep start, the run opens into a heavenly bowl. You better ski it in style though, because everyone on the tram overhead is watching.


The best secret stashes are the one you have to work for. Thunder Bowl fits the bill. It takes a lot of traversing and hiking to get there, but if you commit to the goal, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing run with little competition. At the bottom of the bowl, head skier’s left to hit Mushroom Land or White Rabbit and keep the good times going.


If I didn’t write the Tram Club in this spot, an angry skier mob would exile me to someplace terrible like Gary, Indiana. This is the de facto watering hole at Snowbird. Find it tucked away beneath the tram deck and come ready to party. Bonus: you can watch the tram’s gigantic bull wheels spin while you enjoy your beer.




Honeycomb Canyon is easily the best part of Solitude, but it’s more of a zone than a single run. So if I had to choose, I’d pick Here Be Dragons. On a powder day it can’t be beat, with a consistent fall-line that funnels into mini golf cliffs and tree skiing. The untracked lasts longer here too.


Barrett’s Glade on the back side of Evergreen Peak is your best bet when options are low for fresh turns. It’s not visible from any lift, and a steep booter is required to reach this hidden run. But if you make the effort, you can find clean lines days after the last storm.


The Thirsty Squirrel is the only true bar scene at Solitude, which means it’s the liveliest spot for post-ski libations. Think pool tables, neon beer signs, and flat-screen TVs behind a bartender slinging everything from mixed drinks to draft beer. The only difference from a bar in downtown SLC, is everyone here is wearing ski boots.



Bishop’s Bowl at the top of Red’s Lift is Sundance’s signature run. There’s good reason too, as this black diamond is the resort’s only high-alpine bowl. As you ski down, massive views of the Heber Valley and Deer Creek Reservoir spread out below, while Mount Timpanogos looms above. 


Marmot Gulch is tough to get to, and therefore avoided by many. But that means it’s a place where soft snow lingers. Find it off the side of the Top Gun run. You can also jump into the trees skier’s left of Marmot Gulch. You’ll come out onto Roundup, which traverses back to the front side.


Get an old west vibe at The Owl Bar. It’s very rustic with an 1890’s-era bar that Butch Cassidy himself bellied up to in Thermopolis, Wyoming. The bar was moved to Sundance for skiers to lean on while telling heroic tales of their slope side day.

MOAB_The Mother of All Basal Layers

A Season of Trepidation and Destruction in Utah’s La Sal Mountains

By Eric Trenbeath

ba×sal (rhymes with basil): forming or belonging to a bottom layer or base. 

It happens every hundred years or so.

A combination of weather factors over the course of a winter create a prolonged period of dangerous avalanche conditions that challenge human perspective and reconfigure the landscape. The winter of 2018/19 was just such a winter in the La Sal Mountains of southeastern Utah. A particularly persistent weak layer, and a snowfall of more than 200% of average, created a season of sketchy, hair-trigger avalanche conditions that resulted in a fatality, numerous natural cycles, and a historic event in mid- March, that wiped out mature aspen stands, and 75-100-year old Douglas Firs in the process. 

The season started early. Between October 5 – 7, 2018, a series of moist and powerful storm systems brought heavy rain and severe flash flooding to the Four Corners region of the Desert Southwest. When the gray, heavy, moisture laden clouds finally broke, and the cold air moved on to the east, the peaks of the La Sal Mountains appeared pasty white, plastered with more than 3’ of snow above 10,000’. With winter trailhead access plowed to 9600’, and peaks approaching 13,000’, this made for a lot of early season snow in the prime recreation zone. 

Local skiers, and even some out of towners flocked to the mountains for what was likely the earliest legitimate turns in La Sal history. The following week, scattered storms put down another foot of snow and then the hose turned off. As is typical for late fall in the region, high pressure moved in. Unfortunately, it hung around for a long and extended period. A few hopeful looking November storms passed by to the north before dipping down into Colorado, leaving our isolated desert range high and dry. And the once promising 3’-4’ of October snow deteriorated into an ice/facet conglomeration that remained on the ground for the rest of the season, even on many of the highest, southerly aspects. 

It started snowing again on November 30, more than six weeks after the early October snows. Four days of storm brought another 30” to the mountains and we thought it was finally going to be game on. But the storm track again moved to the north, and by late December, the snow that fell early in the month had metamorphosed into a sugary, faceted layer that was as loose as dry sand, and it began to sluff off the surface of the October snow, creating the perfect weak layer/bed surface combination for the epic winter that was to come. 

And then it came.Starting the day after Christmas, and continuing through March, storm after storm cycled through, each one producing natural avalanches that grew continually larger and more widespread as the weak layer was buried deeper, and the overriding slab began to connect more areas of terrain. By mid-January, backcountry travel in the La Sals was akin to traveling through an over-deployed mine field, with human triggered avalanches all but certain. Collapsing and whumphing in the snowpack were rampant, and stiff wind slabs stretched taut as a drum over the underlying, early December weak layer.

Conditions were the most sensitive I had seen in more than 30 years of winter backcountry travel. Local observers and the backcountry community were fit to be tied. It was finally snowing and the range of available ski terrain was reduced to low angle wooded areas, and open slopes less steep than 30 degrees, both of which are in short supply in the La Sals. 

Then, on the morning of January 25, a party of eight snowmobilers from Monticello, Utah headed around to the east side of the range and ventured up into the high alpine basin of Dark Canyon. It had been snowing all week, but the details and severity of the avalanche danger were unknown to the group and they were anticipating a day of excellent powder riding. 

On the way to Dark Canyon, the party did indeed enjoy incredible snow conditions as attested by helmet cam footage recovered from that fateful day. Around 4:00 p.m. the group arrived at the base of a high alpine cirque. Like most of the alpine terrain in the La Sals, there was no middle ground. It was either go big or go home. One rider made the decision to go big, and he shot up a steep gully flanked by a northeast aspect on one side, and a southeast facing slope on the other. By navigating the southeast aspect, he was able to achieve a high saddle near 12,000’.  Three other riders attacked the slope with one heading straight up the gully. The rider at the saddle reported hearing a collapse and said that suddenly, “the whole mountain just came down.” 

Between January 15 and 21, 32” of snow at 3” of snow water equivalent (SWE) had been added to the fragile snowpack. Since the day after Christmas, more than 6” of water, and several feet of snow had fallen prompting natural avalanche activity on January 16, 21, and 24, with a major cycle occurring on January 18. I had issued two avalanche warnings, and rated the danger as considerable or high throughout the period. Between January 21, and 24, moderate to strong northwest winds picked up, and the high country was covered in wind slabs. 

The avalanche measured almost 1000’ wide and ran for over 1500’ vertical feet. Average depth of the fracture was 4’. Remarkably, two riders in the path managed to turn and get off the slope. The rider shooting straight up the gully was hit head on. The debris was forced through a narrow gulch where it piled up to more than 20’ deep, while over wash continued on down the slope for another 1000’. The party assembled and began a frantic search in the fading light but were unsuccessful in locating the victim. A major recovery effort was launched the following day. The body of the rider was recovered near the toe of the debris. He was buried 2’-3’ deep. He had a beacon turned off in his pack. 

As we moved into February, the snowpack began to quiet down and we tried to convince ourselves that we were rounding the bend toward greater stability. Snowpits dug by myself, and local observers, revealed many areas where the snowpack was gaining strength, while the weak layer was still alive and well in others. And though not nearly as frequent or widespread, the bombs would still go off. You’d be skinning along, not seeing any outward signs of instability, and then all of a sudden you would hear and feel a “whumph!” and your hair would stand on end as you collapsed an acre field of snow around you. Then, on February 19, a party of snowmobilers traveling along a forested ridgeline remotely triggered an avalanche several hundred feet wide that broke into a steep, NE facing bowl. Exasperating our concerns was the fact that high elevation, south facing terrain had a reactive persistent weak layer as well. We were still a long way from being out of the woods. 

March roared in like a lion, with strong southwest winds and another two feet of snow in the first week. Then, over a period of 36 hours between March 12-14, the mountains received 32” of snow at 3.6” SWE. This proved to be the final straw. The basal weak layer that had plagued us for the entire season was wiped away as the entire season’s snowpack broke loose to the ground. 

The full extent of the cycle wasn’t completely revealed until Forest Service trail crews began to work their way around the range where they discovered drainage after drainage filled with downed timber. Up until then, an avalanche off the west face of Mount Tukuhnikivatz, with its flattened mature aspen stand visible from the town of Moab, was the only indicator of something truly historic. To be sure, we saw plenty of other carnage right after the event. A northeast facing slide path I’ve come to call “Old Reliable” released up to 12’ deep and more than half a mile wide. Virtually every north face had run big, even though many were repeaters by this point, but the greatest devastation came from infrequently running, south through west facing slopes. 

And then, just like that, it was over. A winter of trepidation and destruction gave way to a deep and stable snowpack. After being tested by such a severe load, any path that hadn’t run, had proven itself strong enough to stay in place. And a long, slow, and cool transition into spring, punctuated with continued smaller doses of snow, likely contributed to further strengthening of the snowpack, preventing what could have been a major wet slab cycle failing on the deeply buried, persistent weak layer. 

Lines opened up that hadn’t been skiable for more than 25 years, and people were skiing them. It was hard to believe that an area that had been so dangerous, for so long, could turn into such a playground. But that’s the mountains. The key is in knowing when you can go. And when you have the Mother Of All Basal weak layers, you may have to wait for a long time. 

Eric Trenbeath is an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center in the La Sal Mountains where he says, “the terrain is steep, and the snow is weak.” 

Hogum Days

Each year for Christmas my girlfriend Anna is given a voucher for a night at the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird. It’s quite a treat. We hit all of the local watering holes; we swim under the stars in the hot tub. For a night we feel like we are part of skiing’s elite vacationers. But really we’re imposters. We bring our skins into the hotel room to dry. We pore over the weather forecast and avalanche conditions. We count the tracks on Superior. The Cliff Lodge provides us with an extra hour of sleep before our usual early morning ski missions out into remote corners of the Wasatch. 

This season, during our annual staycation we were a little dismayed at the weather. Our Monday morning tour looked like it was going to be a bit skunked by wind, clouds, and snow. Oh well; we’d just have a couple extra mojitos and stay out at the pool a little later. Under dark clear skies we talked about lines that we would like to be able to ski if the weather cooperated, “oh man Coalpit would be so rad. It goes clean to the road this year.” We’d need an early start and near perfect conditions to get that one, I thought. So, we talked about just going up into Maybird and Hogum and looking at lines, skiing some powder on the flanks of the big mountains up in the wilderness. 

In the morning we woke up to a partly sunny sky. “Damn!” I cursed our sleep-in and scattered gear and clothes. “Let’s go skiing!” We quickly rallied, throwing all of our stuff into bags and haphazardly organizing our touring equipment. A dawn patrol was out the window by several hours, and I knew from our late night we’d be moving slow. I couldn’t be mad, we did it to ourselves and would just make the best of the day. 

White Pine trailhead was busy as usual, and we talked to some local avalanche forecasters in the parking lot. One mentioned that Coalpit had gotten skied the day before, and was still going clean. He thought they might try and ski it. It was almost 10am. His optimism gave me some positive reinforcement that perhaps we could make it happen. 

As usual it depended on a variety of factors, mostly though on the clouds. Would they preserve the snow? Would the sun come out long enough to loosen stuff up? There was a lot of fresh from the past week and warming would be the trigger. Plus, I knew that by hearing the green light from a forecaster, I could easily fall into a common trap: expert halo. Anna and I talked about these variables as we padded up the first section of the skin track. We’d go get eyes on our approach, the most dangerous aspect, and see what the snow was doing.

For the next hour and a half I kept my head down and chuffed away behind Anna. She is fast and I was thankful to burn through the doldrums of White and Red Pine. Soon, we were out in the open underneath the North East face of the Pfeifferhorn. It’s an amazing rolling moonscape riddled with granite boulders. The wind had rippled the new snow across the open field like a frozen disturbed lake. After a couple switchbacks beyond the meadow, we were atop Small Pass. 

Small Pass is the gateway to Hogum. It is a precarious little saddle that splits the Hogback and the North Ridge of the Pfeiff. Here the skier is faced with the most extreme wall and couloirs in the Wasatch. The Dresden Face with the Needle, Sliver, and Montgomery’s look impossibly steep and inaccessible. The treeless face is riddled with cliffs and complexity. The granite crown of this face is Thunder Ridge. The serrated edge separates the snow from the sky. 

At Small Pass we got a good picture of what had been happening in our ascent chute, the Hypodermic Needle. Earlier in the morning, snow had moved. Large wet avalanches had come down from the east facing cliffs to the right of the line proper. They were the real deal, and the skin track went right through them. Fortunately the weather that we had expected, cloudy and windy had partly come through. So while visibility was still good, the air had cooled substantially since the morning. We stood there on the pass for a few minutes, pondering our options. A lone skier skinned up through the debris. The snow was still, and the debris was likely from the morning’s warmth. Our later start might have actually helped us. We decided we’d go up and keep climbing until the mountain told us otherwise. Seeing a guy in the Needle, alone, gave me confidence. Avalanche social factor number two on the day: facilitation. 

We traversed toward the Needle and I kept my eyes on the face, no red flags. We skied a nice shot of north facing trees before we transitioned again and began the series of switchbacks up the apron. The route finding from here on out would be new to both Anna and me. While I’d been up and down the Needle, I ideally wanted to skip the bootpack at the top, and instead break out across a hanging snowfield that would take us to the ridge between the Needle and Coalpit Headwall. It looked pretty good, so long as the snow didn’t start moving again. 

Upward we walked, keeping an eye on the sun and the swirling clouds. We made good time and the hike went smoothly. Soon, the skier came down the chute in what looked like excellent powder conditions. We waited out of the fall line for his sluff to pass. He stopped and chatted with us. “I just got off the Pfeiff and the Needle looked too good to pass up!” We mentioned that we were heading to Coalpit. “Awesome, it should be great. I saw a couple tracks over there!” I had assumed there would be. Considering he was the first down the Needle, I presumed the skin track that we all had been following all day was a party skiing Coalpit. Someone to cut windslabs, test the snow in the line. I was cool with that. 

Soon we were at the point where we would either bootpack or skin across the little ramp. Our leader tracks took the ramp option, and I thought it looked safe as the sun was hiding behind a large grey cloud. “Alright Anna, eyes on me until I get to the ridge. Then follow, quickly.” The hazard was sluff falling from the cliffs above. It would wipe us off the skin track. Everything was still, and I was not concerned about stability. I was confident in our decisions. But, in avalanche terrain, one must always calculate what the risks may be, and if it slide came down, or if we fell off the skinner for some reason, it would be an unsurvivable ride over a 150 foot cliff. Sorry mom. 

I took a deep breath and started across, gently padding on my skis. 50 feet to go. Breathing, focusing on each step. Observing the snow around my edges, and keeping one eye on the slope above me. 30 feet. Easy, skinning is easy. Mellow. 10 feet. I punched for the ridge and made it safely across. I beckoned to Anna and as any good partner does, she kept a level head and navigated the exposed traverse. We were both safely on the ridge.  

With our skis on our backs, we marched up an amazing razor ridge, complete with granite high steps, icy rime covered rocks, and dramatic views in every direction. We were also getting an up close view of the famed Coalpit Headwall. You can see it from all over the Wasatch and the Salt Lake Valley. Its giant treeless face looks like something out of Alaska. Fluted couloirs funnel from summit and are lost to the ridgy foreground. From afar it is a steep foreboding white wall. Now, standing there on its shoulder, it welcomed us to ski the powder filled face. 

Clouds swirled as we climbed. Head down on the knife I led the ascent. I looked a step or two in advance, to make sure I wasn’t going to miss the booter, or step on some slick icy rock. I looked up and saw something alien. It was a rectangular piece of black plastic sticking out of the hike. My brain took a second to register but quickly I recognized it as a battery grip of a camera. I stood up out of my bootpack trance and plucked it up. From the snow, I found an entire DSLR camera. Must have slipped away from its owners, to be left alone at 11,000 feet in the middle of the winter. I chuckled inwardly at the strange lost toy and tossed it in my backpack. I forgot about the artifact and kept marching up to the summit. 

Soon we topped out and had to be quick on our switch over. The clouds were moving in, fast. I wanted to be able to see the massive face we were about to ski down. It’s complex and a small windslab could be lurking under a feature, waiting to take one of us for a ride. I watched Anna as she dropped in a made a scary committing turn to get onto the face proper. Again she stayed solid, and waited across the gully for me to join her.

We both were giddy. We were on a face we’d stared at for years. While the clouds made visibility less than perfect, the snow was surfy powder. I grinned and we clicked our poles together. “You first,” I said. Like a kid getting the keys to a Ferrari, she took off down the giant slope. I watched her disappear into the clouds, and knew she was waiting for me somewhere below. I followed her tracks down the soupy sublime descent. 

The rocky couloir ended fairly quickly, and we were in the bottom half of the face, a massive apron of powder. The pitch had eased significantly so we let it ride, and rode the big bowl together. We laughed and hooted as we skied down into small shrubby trees below the Coalpit Headwall. I knew now that another adventure was beginning, and we were entering another complex environment, the Coalpit Gully. This section came with another sampling of avalanche hazards, like rolling convexities and hang fire from the steep walls above. The latter was less of a concern because by the time we arrived at the entrance to the gully, the clouds had moved back in and the weather remained cold. 

We took turns leapfrogging through the long, fun run in the gully. Tree skiing gave way to steep little shots, to a full on rock lined couloir. We kept our eyes on the terrain and stopped on or avoided steep open roll-overs. After a while, we got a wild view of both the face we had come from, and down all the way to Little Cottonwood Canyon, all in all a 5,000 foot descent. We kept rolling down the run, and I knew soon we’d hit The Waterfall. 

The Waterfall had a handline around it. I stood for a minute looking at the rope, and the iced over bulge, and I pointed my skis straight down the thing. An eighteen inch drop over the flowing water was easily hopped, and as I skidded to a stop below I laughed out of joy for being able to have skied this classic run clean. 

The bottom of the line spit us out in an oak forest at the Quarry Trail. Near the creek, way below the summit and a long way from our hot tub at the Cliff Lodge we came up on two guys carrying skis. I knew that unless they had skied the Great White Icicle (unlikely), we had been following their tracks all day. They heard me crunch through the underbrush and wheeled around. 

“Hey!” I hollered. “Did you guys lose…”

After a moment of shock, then responded in unison, “A camera!?”

The Bridge at Bull Valley Gorge


The bridge at Bull Valley Gorge is gone, swept away by the brute force of flash flooding at the end of March or beginning of April this year. Gone is the narrow, white-knuckle crossing over the deep canyon; all that remains of the infamous bridge is a crumbling fin of dirt, rock, and tree trunks. 

Skutumpah Road across Bull Valley Gorge is closed, and the approach to the washout is blocked to stop any driver who ventures to this stomach-churning spot. According to National Monument staff, it could be some time before a new crossing is built; unlike the old bridge, the crossing will have to meet today’s construction and safety standards.

A pickup hung in the gorge for almost 65 years, wedged high above the canyon floor and surrounded by material that was pushed into the slot when the bridge was improved those many decades ago. Until the recent washout, crossing Bull Valley Gorge by road at this extremely narrow spot meant driving or walking over the old vehicle that hung some 20 to 30 feet below the canyon rim. 

There’s a good chance that although it may not be visible, the pickup is still in place–mute testimony to a tragic event that profoundly affected the families and communities of this remote area.

Skutumpah Road, Grand Staircase Escalante, Utah. Three men in a pickup hurtle through the night, the only human souls for dozens of miles in any direction. Just ahead, a thread-the-needle bridge over Bull Valley Gorge, a jagged slot more than one hundred feet deep and, in places, barely six feet across. 

Friday, October 15, 1954: The news spread quickly through Tropic, Cannonville, and Henrieville, a cluster of small towns in the high desert east of Utah’s Bryce National Park. Three local men were missing, two of them husbands and fathers with seven children between them.

Like most people in the area, the missing men were descendants of nineteenth century Mormon settlers. Here, generations have scraped out a living farming, tending stock, or in now-vanished lumber mills, becoming all too accustomed to hardship and loss in one of the most remote, thinly-populated places in the country. On that long ago October morning, everyone prayed hard for a good outcome while silently steeling themselves for the opposite.

The three men were last seen one day earlier, and were thought to have driven south from Cannonville into a region of tangled canyonlands. In the 1950’s, the area’s few roads were mostly unpaved, just as they are today; driving could be rough in dry weather, and sometimes impossible with any amount of rain. Here, temperatures veer between brutal extremes. Water is scarce. And back in 1954, when communities had no funds or assistance to execute a search, little separated a lost or missing person from death.

Catherine, a longtime resident of Tropic, was seven years old when the three men disappeared. She has good reason to remember that day. Her father was one of the missing men.

“My father, Max Henderson, and his friends, Clark Smith and Hart Johnson, attended a funeral at the Mormon church in Cannonville, and when it was over, the three of them started drinking,” Catherine told me. “I recall my father standing outside our house and pounding on the door really hard, and he and my mother yelling at each other.”

“It’s all right if people know how things were between my father and mother. It was a long time ago. I don’t mind,” Catherine said. “I don’t have many memories of my father, but I do remember that he promised me a white kitten before he drove off that day. He said that he left it somewhere and had to go get it.”

The truck rattles down a steep hill to the bridge at Bull Valley Gorge.  Under the waning moon, unearthly sandstone spires and knobs stand like cardboard cutouts, and the gorge itself is ink black. The pickup crosses the bridge but then stops. Within a few seconds, it begins to roll back toward the edge of the chasm.

“In our little towns, there’s no such thing as bad news that affects just one family,” Catherine’s husband, Marion, told me. â€œMost trace their ancestors back to the original Mormon pioneers. And a lot of us are ‘double-related,’ connected by blood or marriage in more than one way.”

Fear envelopes the three communities as the hours pass with no trace of the missing men. There are few people to carry out a search and hundreds of square miles where the men might be. In the 1950’s, this part of south-central Utah was considered among the most isolated areas in the country. One of the handful of roads is 34 mile long Skutumpah Road—Catherine thinks that maybe one of the men kept sheep or had a deer camp near here, and that it may have been where the three friends liked to drink. 

Skutumpah Road is famous for a bentonite clay surface that turns to glue when wet, and for a location so desolate that John D. Lee, a notorious 19thcentury Mormon leader, resisted church orders to establish a settlement here.  The road is also famous for its dramatic formations, including Bull Valley Gorge. In 1954, this slender gorge was spanned by the narrowest of wooden bridges. 

Saturday, October 16,  the third day that the men have been missing. Eleven year-old Marion is cutting firewood along Skutumpah Road with his father and uncle. “A fellow stopped us on the road, telling us to keep an eye out for the three men and the pickup.”

Max Henderson, Clark Smith, and Hart Johnson were all in their thirties in 1954, and at least two of the men—Henderson and Johnson— served in the military during World War II. Growing up in tiny Mormon communities, they left for wartime duty and then returned home to the same communities. Clark Smith reportedly never married, but Max Henderson and Hart Johnson were each married with young children. Henderson’s wife, Viola Rae—Catherine’s mother—and Smith were cousins.

In 1954, opportunities were scarce in this part of Utah.  Henrieville and Cannonville, each with about two hundred residents, and Cannonville with about four hundred, have remained roughly the same size for decades. “The reason,” Marion told me, “is that young people had to go elsewhere for education and jobs. The timber jobs were gone, and most people farmed, worked with livestock, and kept a cow.”

According to Littlefield, not much cash circulated in these communities in decades past. People often traded with one another to get what they needed, but some things just couldn’t be found locally. “When I was a child,” Marion said, “a man sometimes came through Tropic with a produce truck. He sold things like oranges that we never saw. If you don’t usually have them, an orange tastes like the most wonderful thing you can imagine.” 

Many families were poor, and securing even the basic necessities of life was a challenge. Church participation was a community focus, and everyone, including young children, pitched in and worked for the common good. In Mormon communities, self-reliance and self-sufficiency were foundation principles.  There were few modern conveniences, including telephones—Marion remembers only one family having a phone in his home town of Tropic in the fifties. 

“When my father, uncle, and I came to the steep hill before Bull Valley Gorge, we saw that a few people were standing at the edge of that narrow slot,” Marion recalls.  â€œMy father stopped our truck well before the gorge and told me to stay put.  A few more vehicles arrived, and the men all gathered at the bridge while the women and children stayed up the hill. While I waited in the truck, dad and my uncle looked down into the chasm and saw the awful thing that had happened.”

Garfield County Sheriff Deward Woodard arrived at Bull Valley Gorge with his son Paul, who was visiting his father for the weekend. With them was fifteen year old Robert, the sheriff’s grandson.  Robert’s mother passed away when he was very young, and his father had recently moved to Salt Lake City. The teenager lived with Sheriff Woodard and attended high school in Panguitch, a town of more than 1,000 and the county seat.

“When we arrived, men were gathered on the wooden bridge, looking straight down,” Robert told me. “That was the only way to see the truck. At that spot, Bull Valley Gorge is shaped like an hour glass, wider at the top and bottom, and constricted in the middle. The pickup had fallen a couple of dozen feet before it came to a stop, crushed in the narrowest part of the gorge and hanging high above its floor. It was obvious to me that nobody could have survived.”

The sheriff deduced from the truck’s position and tracks that the missing men had been heading back in the direction of Cannonville. He figured that they probably made it across the bridge over the gorge, but then the pickup apparently halted and rolled backwards. 

The bridge is framed on each end by a steep hill; after crossing, Max Henderson possibly tried to downshift to start up the hill on the far side. Henderson’s truck, which had belonged to his father, was a standard transmission pickup that almost certainly didn’t have a synchronized gearbox.  To downshift, Henderson would have to double clutch while carefully gauging his speed. Evidently, he didn’t succeed and the truck stalled.

Henderson’s driving may have been impaired by alcohol, and darkness no doubt made everything more difficult. The truck rolled to the edge of the gorge and toppled in backwards.

“Max Henderson was still in the pickup,” Robert said. “The other two men had  been thrown out and fallen to the canyon floor.  My grandfather asked for someone to bring him a long rope, and he made a kind of harness. I was lowered down into the narrow gorge, with the idea that because I was 15 years old and smaller than a grown man, I might be better able to work on bringing the victims up to the top. By then my adrenalin was pumping full force.”

In 1954, Sheriff Deward Woodward and one assistant were responsible for all of Garfield County’s five thousand square miles, an area with less than one person per square mile. “I often went along with my grandfather when he was called out,” Robert told me. “He might have known the families of the deceased men at Bull Valley Gorge, but fortunately my uncle, Paul, and I didn’t know anyone.  I think that helped us, given what we  had to do. It took three or four  hours to retrieve the men, and the circumstances were awful. 

“Trying to free the driver from the pickup turned out to be a one man job. It involved maneuvering on and around the wedged vehicle in very cramped conditions. It was terribly hot. The effort required a lot of strength, so my uncle Paul ended up doing most of the work below the canyon rim. He was in his early twenties at the time, over six feet tall, and as a police officer he had already faced intense and challenging situations.

“Pulling the three victims up through the rock-choked chasm to the top required great effort by the men standing on the bridge, but at last it was accomplished. My grandfather had called Magelby’s Funeral Home earlier, and the mortician, Neal Magelby, had already arrived. My uncle and I carried the deceased men  to the mortician’s vehicle and laid them inside.

“It wasn’t until my grandfather, uncle, and I were driving back to Panguitch and talking everything over that my uncle Paul allowed his stress and exhaustion to come out. He had remained calm and in control during the entire experience. I will never forget that.                                                                                                         

“I remember my father’s casket being placed in the front room of our house, so people could come to pay their respects,” Catherine said. There was one funeral in Tropic for all three of the men. It’s difficult to imagine the intensity of emotion at the service that day.

The Bull Valley Gorge accident left Catherine’s mother a widow with three small children and no security. “My youngest sister was only four months old at the time.” Catherine said. “My mother was a bitter woman. She was bitter about Max Henderson and she was bitter about everything else, too.”

“About a year after father died, my mother married Joseph Hughes, who was a kind man and really became a father to us. I think that a lot of the reason he married mother was that he wanted us three girls to have a father. He was a good man, and he was good to us and my mother.

“We were poor, just as many families around us were poor. I was the oldest child, and I grew up wanting to make things be right for other people, to fix things, to make everyone feel all right. My whole life, that’s how I’ve been. 

“Mother passed on this year, and my husband, Marion, and I cleaned out her house. This was the place where I grew up. My mother had become a hoarder and the whole house was filled  with stuff. One of the things she kept was funeral programs and obituaries. She must have held onto every single one that she ever had. When we went to clean out her car, we found the funeral program for Marion’s mother stuck down between the front seats. It had been there over ten years—since my mother-in-law passed away.

“I met Marion when he returned from his Mormon mission and came to a dance at my high school. The way he likes to tell the story, he asked the principal to show him the prettiest unattached girl at the dance. We’ve now been married for over 53 years.”

The Bridge at Bull Valley Gorge

After the accident at Bull Valley Gorge, county workers rebuilt the bridge by pushing quantities of boulders, rubble, and tree trunks into the slot directly over the pickup truck, and making the driving surface of the bridge wider.

Catherine told me that many years passed before she made the decision to visit the gorge. Her husband, Marion, thought that it would do her good, and he brought her out to see the site of the accident.  â€œI have always felt nervous about that place,” she said.  â€œI knew that the bridge and the road were better than back in the fifties. But I still felt nervous because of what happened there.”

Until the bridge washed out, driving Skutumpah Road across the narrow chasm meant passing directly over the pickup that still hung suspended there. Hiking about a half mile upstream, it was possible to cautiously descend to the canyon floor and backtrack to look up to catch a glimpse of wheels and metal–crushed by material pushed on top to form a foundation for the replacement bridge. 

More than sixty years have passed since the deaths at Bull Valley Gorge, and the author wishes to thank Catherine, Marion, and Robert for their generosity and kindness in assisting with this account. They were seven, eleven, and fifteen years old when the accident took place. This is their story.



Check on the condition of the road before you go (4WD and high clearance are recommended). Take emergency gear, and don’t even think about starting out if it’s wet or threatening rain. Precipitation turns the bentonite clay roadbed into thick, slick mud, and there won’t be anyone around to get you out of there. Drive cautiously. Some sections of Skutumpah Road are real heart thumpers; rocky with steep climbs, descents, and hairpin turns.


The road runs for 34 miles, partly inside Escalante National Monument and partly outside. Coming from the north, access Skutumpah Road from Cottonwood Canyon Road, four miles south of Cannonville on Utah S.R. 12. If you’re coming from the south, drive paved Johnson Canyon road north from U.S. 89, nine miles east of Kanab. At 16 miles north of U.S. 89, where the pavement ends, turn east (right) at a three way intersection on to Skutumpah Road. A third and longer option is to turn on to Glendale Bench Road from U.S. 89, 25 miles north of Kanab. From unpaved Glendale Bench Road, you’ll reach the three way intersection with Johnson Canyon Road and Skutumpah Road.


Bull Valley Gorge and Skutumpah Road where it reaches the gorge are located in the National Monument close to Willis Creek and Sheep Creek, and it’s possible to complete a 17 mile loop backpack or hike that includes all three spots. Typically, however, day hikers take in-and-out trips when starting from the Bull Valley Gorge crossing.

Conditions in the gorge are highly variable. Some sections will require rope and climbing skills. Before going, check with Monument Visitor Center staff for current conditions, weather forecast, and information on the skills and gear you’ll need to have. Bull Valley Gorge may be dry or there may be cold standing water and mud that present problems for backpackers and hikers. Flash flooding can be extreme due to the very narrow width of some parts of the canyon. Carry topographical maps, and if backpacking, carry the required permit—available at no cost at the trailhead or from a Monument Visitor Center. 

To access Bull Valley Gorge from Skutumpah Road, take the trail on the right side of the gorge as you face upstream. Until the recent washout, hikers could walk upstream past the trail register for a half mile or so until finding a reasonable place to descend into the canyon, then at the bottom, turn and start walking downstream. 

Night Riders of Utahvania

The sun sets as I take my bike off the hitch rack. Mountain bikers in the parking space beside me do the opposite. They’re heading home. Although their ride has ended, mine is about to begin. I dig my shoes onto pedals and take off up lonely singletrack. A few stragglers are on the trail but for the most part the place is empty. Darkness creeps over the mountainside like a video camera iris slowly closing on the world. I stop, reach to my helmet, and turn on my headlamp. Then I ignite the light on my handlebars. I am a night rider.

I didn’t always seek the embrace of darkness while mountain biking. But now I’m like a vampire. The crucifix represents unbearably hot summer days. Crowded trails are the stake driven into my undead heart. Both aversions have driven me to pedaling at night in the State of Utahvania. But my preference for night riding didn’t begin as a specific hobby choice, or even as an escape from heat and people. It actually started as a practical exercise for 24-hour race training. My teammates and I would get together after sunset at Mueller Park in Bountiful, Draper’s Corner Canyon, and any trail in Park City to become proficient at traveling over singletrack with just a narrow beam of light to guide the way.

After my first night lap on a race loop, I was instantly hooked. Never again was night riding a necessary evil. It became an addiction. There’s just something about the stillness, the quiet air, and the moon casting shadows across the earth that elevates the mountain biking experience. 

But mountain biking in the dark is not easy. When descending full speed down a flowing trail in daylight, I use all my senses to stay on the bike. At night the most important of all, my sense of balance, is especially screwed up. Vision is dulled. All perception of space, time, and movement slows down and becomes out of sync. Objects floating by peripherally are ghosted where tarnished edges of my light barely brush trees that are so close I can reach out my hand and touch them.

There’s another strange effect to riding by headlamp. You get tunnel vision when the spotlight in front is the only thing you can see. But at the same time, riding at night diminishes one of the most basic mountain biking skills – looking ahead.

Bike lights have become so bright these days that if you’re caught on the wrong side of one it’s like staring into a solar eclipse. At over 3,000 lumens, the blinding-est of them all is twice the brightness of a car headlight. And yet, with all the power of the sun shining from my handlebars, it’s still not enough to illuminate hairpin turns. That’s why it’s vital for me to wear two lights; one on the handlebars, and a second awkwardly strapped with duct tape to my helmet. That way when I approach a sharp turn, I can angle my head to scope out what’s below a switchback before committing to the impenetrable darkness that lurks just around the corner.

Riding in the company of friends can mitigate this issue. Letting a buddy go first is helpful for mooching off their lights. It’s also helpful so they can blitz any unseen obstacles ahead. But on this night, I’m riding alone.

Without the perceived safety of friends close by, the forest becomes sinister. Evening light has disappeared to pitch. There is no moon. My lights are the only thing piercing that inky blackness. Out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of white. I pedal faster, then see it again, there behind the pale bark of wraithlike aspens. I hear what sounds like whispering, then the crack of branches. I imagine ghosts lurking in the forest. Actually, I’m convinced that there’s supernatural somethings out there. But nothing is as scary as the wail of my dirty brakes that siren louder than a banshee’s scream.

There it is again, the mysterious white, further ahead this time. Then it’s suddenly at the end of my light, bounding onto the trail. I stop. A large animal stares straight at me. It’s literally a deer in headlights, blinded in a time and place where no light should exist. My pounding heart calms as we face off in a staring contest. The deer shows no signs of moving, so I pedal toward it. Then it takes off, not back into the woods but down the trail ahead of me. I follow, pursuing the doe around switchbacks into an open field where she finally lunges off the singletrack. I hear an entire herd crashing over the forest floor. Night is the sanctuary of wildlife and I feel guilt for sending these creatures into a panic.

It starts to rain. The drops streak through my headlamp’s beam. Lightning flashes on the horizon like a strobe light. The misty rain opens up night smells from damp soil and evening blooms. I smell mint and it makes me think of Mojitos. Time to go home and have a drink.

I come to a stop at my truck as another night rider passes by. He’s just starting his loop despite the fact that it’s almost midnight. It seems I’m not the only bike vampire in Utahvania. We exchange pleasantries and size up each other’s lights to compare who has the biggest. I try to convince him that biggest doesn’t necessarily mean brightest. I tell him to watch out for deer. Then I tell him to watch out for ghosts. He smiles knowingly and nods as if he also believes that there’s more than just wildlife haunting the spaces between moon shadows. Or perhaps he’s actually witnessed them. If I’m lucky, maybe someday I’ll get to spot a glimpse of the supernatural on the periphery of my night rider lights.

Nah, I don’t have enough lumens.

Central Wasatch Comission Update

What’s Happening with the CWC?

By Tom Diegel

If you play in the Wasatch Mountains at all, you know that you are most definitely not alone in your enthusiasm. From resort skiing to backcountry skiing, hiking to mountain biking to climbing, scenic drives to scenic strolls, you know that all of these activities are wildly popular in the Wasatch. Many businesses rely on those visitors for their livelihoods, and the literally thousands of people who live in the canyons are even more acutely aware of the hordes than you are, since they deal with the crowds on a daily basis.  Add to this the fact that Little Cottonwood and Big Cottonwood creeks are the primary sources of drinking water for a million people, and it becomes a complex equation.  Balancing the disparate needs and managing the visitation has been a struggle for decades the last 30 years, but it’s now possible that we are inching forward to some resolutions.  

Over six years ago, the “Mountain Accord” process was initiated with hundreds of stakeholders involved.  After hundreds of meetings, the Accord itself was created and signed by most of the stakeholders in July 2015.   While the Accord itself was a non-binding document, it set the stage for two more important developments:  formal legislation to be introduced by Congress that would codify much of what the Accord outlined, and the creation of an interagency committee called the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC) that would shepherd the implementation of the goals of the Mountain Accord process, both at the federal and local levels.  The CWC’s executive director is former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, and the commission itself is formed by ten key leaders from Salt Lake and Summit counties.  There is also a 35 member “Stakeholders Group” that is in place to advise the CWC.  

It has taken a while to gather momentum, but the CWC is now making some progress.  Utah’s 3rd District Rep John Curtis is keen to introduce the wordy Central Wasatch National Conservation and Recreation bill to Congress, which would implement many of the key points of the Mountain Accord. The CWC has spent the last several months trying to work out the kinks to tighten up the language in the bill. 

One of the major kinks that needed to be addressed was that Alta Ski Lifts (ASL) decided that since the bill does not include their desired transit solutions of a train up Little Cottonwood Canyon and a tunnel to Big Cottonwood, they were going to pull the portions of Grizzly Gulch that they own out of the land exchanges that are envisioned by the Accord and move forward on putting chairlifts in Grizzly and connecting to Big Cottonwood. Further, ASL has indicated that would need to reserve the ability to get their special use permit (with the US Forest Service) for avalanche control on the adjacent Patsy Marley area changed to a resort extension, which would in turn allow ASL to put lifts on Patsy Marley itself. After several meetings in an effort to find a resolution to this problem, the CWC unanimously agreed to exclude ASL from the bill and further agreements. This in turn meant that the CWC has had to spend a lot of its resources trying to figure out how that will play out in the congressional bill.  

With a great snow year in Utah, wintertime canyon users faced many days of the dreaded “Red Snake” of traffic in both Cottonwood Canyons.  Many grumpy recreators had plenty of time to wonder what UDOT has been doing to address the nightmarish traffic, and the answer is: UDOT has been busy.  At entrances to ASL, Snowbird, and Brighton UDOT has put in traffic flow devices to enable efficient exits from the parking lots to the highways, and a traffic-calming device has been installed at Alta Central.   Under consideration for the near future is an actual merge lane for cars coming from 9400 south onto Wasatch Blvd at the mouth of LCC, possible high-tech tolling options for LCC, snowsheds for the avalanche paths in LCC, additional lanes, and other transit options, including increased bus service. Parking near the mouths of both canyons to accommodate new transit options/solutions poses a major challenge: much of the land is already developed, and the remaining available land is high value. And while many people look to the rock quarry near the base of BCC as an option for a large multi-modal transit center, that quarry is still in use and its future is still in questions.   

UDOT’s efforts of late have focused mostly on LCC due to a $68M grant from the state legislature, which must be spent on LCC-related improvements only. UDOT is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement with regard to LCC, and but they have come to the realization that LCC’s traffic issues need to be addressed congruently with those of BCC, so together improving the transportation/traffic in both canyons is being analyzed under a broader moniker of CC TAP:  Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Action Plan.

While this all seems a bit like alphabet soup, figuring out how to move people up and down the canyons efficiently is one thing, but a larger, more important question comes to mind: Can the canyons actually accommodate those people?  Although the US skier-day visits have remained flat for the last 40 years, Utah’s share has risen slightly. A good snow year and new, affordable multi-resort passes fueled some this growth, which led Utah to set a new record for skier visits this past season. In addition, summertime use is exploding: trailheads in both canyons overflow to dangerous roadside parking even on weekdays, and even though ASL does little to attract summertime visitors, their downcanyon neighbor Snowbird hosts as many/more visitors for their Oktoberfest parties as they do in the winter. All of this intensive use has had some people asking: “what is the capacity of these canyons?”  Carrying Capacity is a concept that is being discussed a lot these days relative to the famously-crowded national parks, including Utah’s own Zion and Arches. The CWC is taking this concept seriously by enlisting help from the University of Utah’s Recreation Management department and the US Forest Service.  Given the myriad of issues/stakeholders/perspectives associated with the Wasatch, the concept of carrying capacity in our small range is proving to be very complex so far, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how this path moves forward.  

The CWC meets on the first Monday afternoon of each month in Cottonwood Heights and the meetings are open to the public if you’d like to get involved.  In the meantime, as you continue to recreate in our fair little range, keep in mind the huge array of users and account for them as you get out on your own Wasatch adventures.  

Whose Duty is It?

Typically the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal are filled with inspiring stories of adventures around our fair state and beyond, as it should be. This story is not one of those. Instead, this tale is about one of the driest topics known to man:  import tariffs.  But bear with me a bit here; whether we like it or not, and whether we try to ignore national/international politics or not, the recent news about tariffs and trade wars has the potential to affect all of us who love to recreate.

If you play in the outdoors, the odds are approximately 100% that you use products that are made in China.  The reason that outdoor companies make products in China is that – like all other consumer product companies – they want to get the best product made for we demanding athlete-customers that is at least marginally affordable to those customers, while enabling a profit both for their company and the retailers (such as REI and Wasatch Touring).  To do so, the companies like Patagonia, Nike, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Mountain Hardware, and many more have been able to take advantage of China’s relatively bottomless supply of workers, an economy with a much lower cost of living, and a decades-long zeal for building an infrastructure conducive to mass production. But inherent with that Chinese production are….tariffs. 

Aerial image of containers in the Port of Long Beach, California.

Tariffs  -or “duties” (the terms are generally interchangeable) are taxes that a company pays to the US government when they import a product.  The amount that a company pays is based on one of the most arcane and complex documents ever created:  the “harmonized tariff schedule” was clearly created by an ancient bureaucratic soul straight outta Dante’s Inferno that assigns a code with an associated percentage on every single product imported into the US. While there is very little logic to the codes, they have been in place since the beginning of time, so companies have been able to easily account for them.  Their shoes or tents or sleeping bags hit the Long Beach port, the absolutely soulless and humorless customs agent inspects the shipment and confirms the customs code, and Patagonia/Nike/Mountain Hardwear gets a bill for what is essentially a tax.  This expense is built into the price structure of the product that we pay for the goods, but at least it’s been consistent over time. 

Until now.  Showing that he lacks a basic understanding of macroeconomics, President Trump has initiated a trade war with China, threatening to tack on an additional 25% tariff on all imports from China.  However, the actual penalty is not to China’s government nor the Chinese factory owners, it’s to American companies and ultimately to American consumers. 

Salt Lake City’s Black Diamond Equipment has recently introduced a line of rock climbing shoes, and based on the success of that launch they are introducing new approach shoes in Spring 2020, with plans for additional mountain-oriented footwear in subsequent seasons.  But BD’s new Footwear Category Director, Derek Gustafson, says: “This potential tariff deal has huge implications for us.  All we can really plan for is the existing status, and it’s nearly impossible to plan for the uncertainty.  If this goes down, we’d have to absorb the cost, substantially raise retail prices and/or move our production out of China to Vietnam, Indonesia, or Cambodia. All of these choices negatively impact our ability to compete. Since all the other companies would be in that exodus and we are just a small fish in the pond, we would be in danger of getting shut out.” Black Diamond has a broad product line and does do some production in Salt Lake, but their long relationships with their Chinese partners drives a large part of how they do business:  the design, development, production, and quality control of the products is dependent on the abilities of their suppliers, and as Derek says:  â€œWe can’t just flip a switch to change our production. And even if we tried to make our shoes in the US, there are literally no factories that could make our shoes here.” 

The idea of increased tariffs is to incentivize American companies to use American labor.  And for sure, there are companies in the outdoor realm that have bucked the Asian-source trend. Locally, Voile USA has made all of their skis, splitboards, and hard goods in West Valley City for over 30 years at competitive prices, and Alta Racks is a competitor to Thule and Yakima and does all its manufacturing in Salt Lake City and welcomes the tariff increases, according to a statement on their website.  But companies that focus on products that require a lot of handwork (like the sewing that is necessary on tents, sleeping bags, shoes, and of course clothes) are reliant on less-expensive labor.

But wait, you say.  I try to buy my groceries and beer locally; why shouldn’t the companies I buy outdoor products from also “buy local?”  The truth is that they would like to, but it would mean that even if they could be made here – which they can’t  – a pair of running shoes would probably go for $300, which simply wouldn’t fly in this country.  For reference, Patagonia boldly introduced new fishing boots this year that are 100% made in the US by the Danner Boot company, and they are going for $445. 

In addition to price inflation, a huge jack in tariffs could even make these companies and the retailers disappear altogether.  If the companies get hit with unforeseen costs they have to raise their prices and thus demand could drop, which creates a vicious circle of cash flow for future operations that could ultimately jeopardize their existence. And the independent local retailers, already struggling with a challenging environment, would face the same challenges. 

There are many national political issues that get a lot of media play but the reality is that most don’t affect our daily lives.  But a trade war could have a big impact on all of our purchasing decisions.  So what are we to do?  The Outdoor Industry Association has already sent a powerful statement to the White House, but pressure from our surprisingly powerful congressional delegation – that purports to be very pro-business – could potentially come to bear on the president’s proposition.   If you feel strongly about this, contact your congressman’s office and/or Sens. Romney and Lee.  And take good care of the gear you have; the replacements might get expensive soon!

An Unexpected Addition to My Gear Quiver

I grew in a camping family. Backpacking and car camping; sleeping on the ground and cooking in the open. When thermarests were introduced, we viewed them as a sign of weakness and moral decay. We felt sorry for those who slept in white aluminum or fiberglass kennels. 

This made my marriage a little tricky. My wife grew up with a family camper and, while she embraced backpacking, she saw nothing wrong with coming inside to eat and sleep on a dining table converted into a bed. There were a few topics we chose not to discuss.

My wife’s mother spent seven of her last years living on the road in a 5thwheel trailer. I had to admit that nomadic life was sort of interesting, despite the winters spent in Sun City. When wrangling a trailer become too much for her 80 year-old bones, she sold the truck and trailer with sadness. About that time, my stepbrother introduced my wife to the yet-to-become-a-Thing art of restoring vintage travel trailers. She concluded that a vintage trailer was exactly what we (she) needed to do for a final road trip or two with her mother. When she revealed that to me, my reply included the words “dumb” and “my dead body” and involved the practicality of an expensive and fragile piece of frivolity taking up space in the driveway.

So a month later we found ourselves southbound on I-15 at dawn, headed to check out a Craigslist trailer in Las Vegas. Built in 1955, white and a shade of brown best forgotten, 11 feet long not counting the rusty tongue, with the aerodynamics of a giant cinderblock, she had been christened Gertrude, coincidentally the name of my grandmother, by her then-owners.  That sealed the deal.

We made it back as far as Hurricane that first night. We spent the evening investigating the micro-drawers and oven as rain pattered on the roof.  We fell asleep to the sound of wind-driven sand and small rocks pelting the aluminum side. We woke up to sun, spent the day mountain biking, and the weather repeated itself the next night. Sleeping in a kennel was not as bad as I’d envisioned.

Years have gone by. Like most 64 year olds, Gertie has an uncertain past, is a bit temperamental, and has needed a little work. But her oak frame is solid. She’s simple – you want a shower, hang the solar shower on a nearby tree.  Need a toilet? Step outside and check out the stars. Electricity was considered a passing fad when she was built, so a small herd of rechargeable LED lights now brighten the interior. The original birch interior is cozy and offsets the ragged exterior. She was built to be towed by a family sedan with 3 kids in the back seat, 150 hp and a bumper hitch, so she tows at 65 behind a 6 cylinder Toyota just fine. 

We (I) didn’t tell many friends that we were RV owners for a long time – we weren’t ready for the inevitable judgment. Then suddenly it seemed that all our friends had Sprinters and #vanlife was a Thing, so we came out of the closet. She is not exactly a Sprinter, but I figure the difference in value between our rig and our friends’ 4wd/solar/Ikea-furnished units will buy us about 5,000 taco dinners in Wellington*, Beaver, and Idaho Falls. And we can still carry manure for the garden in the truck.

Have popular southern Utah destinations become too crowded? You wouldn’t know it parked for a few days in November beside a dirt road in the Swell, Red Canyon, or North Wash. Isn’t pulling a trailer off-road a nuisance? Well, you need to know your limits and understand that a few inches of lift for more clearance is a good thing, backing into an unfamiliar campsite in the dark is generally a bad thing, and shifting into 4 low can go either way. Unhooking from base camp in the morning without needing to put dishes away and earthquake-proof the whole unit can be pretty nice. 60 miles of high-speed gravel road is stretching it, but there are a lot of nice places to tuck into for the night within a few miles of pavement in Southern Utah.

Has it made us soft? Well, maybe a little, but it has also opened up a lot of new options for getting out of town. And there is no rule against tossing your sleeping bag on the ground outside to watch the November shooting stars through a tiny breathing hole after cooking, eating, and watching a Netflix DVD. Having a warm, lit place to stand and sit up to cook, read, chat, and repair and dry gear has made winter road trips easy. No more bailing into the tent at 6 pm and re-emerging at 8 am or spilling chile verde in the sleeping bag. I’m writing this on a 3 x 4 foot linoleum-covered table by the light of a battery-powered lamp as rain soaks the red sand around us, the dog snores in the corner, the Salt Lake air quality is deep in the red, and NOAA cheerfully announces the likelihood of rain is dropping to 30% this afternoon. Maybe I’ll make some cookies. 

Having an insulated aluminum skin around us for winter camping feels a lot like having fat skis, sport climbing routes and suspension bikes– yea, they make adventures less hard-core but they also make challenging conditions more fun and open up a lot of new possibilities. Like reading glasses and zip-off pants, I’m learning to embrace a lot of things I used to scoff at. Our 77 square foot second home has grown on me. Has a micro-RV become the newest piece of essential outdoor gear? Is a van or trailer beside the garage becoming as ubiquitous as a quiver of bikes, skis, and climbing gear on the walls inside? And are we occupying a little sweet spot in time; a period when we can still have a little portion of BLM land to ourselves in December that we know will be overrun in May? Will we become the curmudgeons we laugh at, complaining that we used to be able to roll in here on Friday night and have the place to ourselves? Or are we just figuring out what our deer-hunting and 2-stroke brethren have known all along?

See you on the road. I’ll be the one in the right lane with a taillight flickering on and off.

*A moment of silence, please, for Los Jilbertos in Wellington and for the hope that they’ll rebuild soon

Paddling the San Rafael

“What are you looking at?” My wife, Louise asked. 

“CFS,” I replied.

“Ahhhh. What’s CFS?” She inquired.

 â€œCubic feet per second of course” I stated with a smirk.  

“Oh, okay but….What?”  

Our conversation wasn’t going well.  Louise had no idea what I was doing and/or referencing as she watched me stare at a line and plot graph on my computer screen.  It was May, and I was analyzing the spring runoff. The winter snows were melting. I tracked the water levels on the southern Utah rivers, waiting and hoping for them to spike.  

The 2018/19 winter in Utah was stellar.  Every water drainage in the state was above 100% of normal snowpack and some approached 200% of normal.  With those kinds of numbers, this is the year to monitor the flow rates, plan, and make an escape to float one of the many southern Utah rivers.  These rivers rarely flow at a level that one can comfortably float. But, this is the year! 

The San Rafael River located in central Utah is a river that meanders its way through a high desert known as San Rafael Swell, before emptying into the mighty Green River.  Normally, the river is ankle deep and easy to cross. But, depending on the snow year and trip timing, the runoff can result in an enjoyable to challenging float through canyon country.  

Louise and I drove the dirt road just outside Cleveland, Utah.  It was a Friday night; we encountered no traffic as we headed to the San Rafael River Bridge.  We passed the beautiful Buckhorn Wash rock art panel. It’s a worthy stop, but we decided to save that for the return trip in a few days.  In our Land Cruiser, we weaved through the towering canyons of the San Rafael Swell. Louise peeked through the moonroof and saw the red rock walls hundreds of feet overhead. It was good to be in canyon country again. 

We drove over the bridge at a slow speed and glanced at the river below.  Yep, it was swollen. Normally, this river is four to six feet wide and ankle deep.  We spotted a segment that was 25-35 feet wide, milk chocolate in color, and flowing at a pretty good pace.   We turned away from the water to focus on finding a camping spot. Soon enough, we found a nice site on the banks of the river.  Quickly, we setup our tent, so we could relax in our chairs, sip cold beer, and watch the waters flow eastward along the canyon walls. 

“This reminds of being streamside in the mountains,”  I said.

“Yeah, it’s crazy to see this much water flowing,”  Louise added. 

We turned in for the night and listened to the echo of the water off the canyon wall.  Water sounds actually lulled us to sleep in the middle of the desert. A surreal desert experience.   

The San Rafael River originates near the town of Castle Dale, Utah; and flows southeast toward the Green River.  It’s the last major tributary of the Green River before it joins the Colorado River. Much of the water is used for irrigation in the surrounding high desert farmland.  During the early 19th Century, a northern route of the Old Spanish Trail was established as a somewhat viable route to California. For centuries, Native Americans called “The Swell” home. Their ancient rock art is found on boulders and canyon walls. Pictographs, painted figures, and petroglyphs, etched figures, appear all over the rock and boulders of the Swell. 

The following morning, we made our way to the put-in at Fuller Bottom.  We weren’t alone. A dozen or so vehicles covered the tamarisk and cottonwood trees river bottom.  I grabbed the boats while Louise packed the dry bags. Our plan was simple: float the roughly 18 miles back to our camp, close to the San Rafael River bridge.  With the gear packed and boats inflated, we ferried them down to the river. 

Our attention fixated on the amount of water flowing.  Previously, we had driven across this river one fall when the water depth was only 10-12 inches.  On this day, it was deep and moving! I got Louise prepped and ready in the inflatable kayak, pointed the nose of her kayak into the current, and sent her off.  I quickly followed. Louise was 100 yards in front within a matter of seconds. With a few deep paddle strokes, I reconnected with her at one of the oxbows in the river. The river was moving; in return, so were we.  We paddled occasionally to steer the kayak in the right direction. Otherwise, we sat back and admired the views of canyon country—in a unique experience.

“Did you hear the Canyon Wren?”  Louise asked. 

“Not sure, but I heard all kinds of birds,” I responded. The river was alive with birds.  Spring had sprung. The trees were leafing and green grasses already lined the bank.  Flowers such as the state flower, the Sego Lily, were vibrant and made the air fragrant rich.  Our senses heightened. The current moved us downriver at a fast pace. The river weaved its way out of the flatlands and into the deep redrock canyon that makes up the San Rafael River Gorge.  We strained our necks to look up hundreds of feet to the canyon rim. Instinctively, we refocused on the river and the next bend. 

Louise and I paddled when needed.  Otherwise, the current took us, and we simply enjoyed the ride.  I scanned the canyon walls for rock art. “There!” I shouted. I pointed to indicate to Louise to paddle over to the bank.  I followed. With our two rafts beached, we strapped into our sandals for a hike up the canyon wall. Within 15 minutes, we stared at a 15-foot yellow snake pictograph.  Stunning! This 600-700 year old snake had been painted on the wall with natural paint made from the surrounding plants; it remained beautiful and appeared to be the guardian of the river.  We wondered aloud about the artist, the reasoning of the pictograph, and if the artist admired the view as much as we did. We returned to the rafts to continue downstream. 

Look at a Utah map. The many southern Utah rivers are so inviting to float if the water fills its banks.  That’s a big IF. Imagine floating the Escalante River through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Lake Powell.  Think of finding solitude while floating the Dirty Devil River as it carves its way through Robber’s Roost country. Or, ponder floating the Muddy Creek through the southern part of the San Rafael Swell.  Timing is everything. Louise and I made the right decision. 

Louise and I floated in the deepest part of the San Rafael River Gorge.  The canyon rim rose roughly 1,000 feet above us. We wondered if people were looking down on us from the Wedge Overlook.  This area of the river is known as the “Little Grand Canyon” and rightly so. The late afternoon light danced on the redrock walls, Mother Nature put on a show, and we were the audience. 

The river continued to twist and turn but eventually straighten, signifying our final stretch of paddling before San Rafael River Bridge.  â€œThere’s our spot,” Louise shouted. She ferociously paddled her raft to the eddy before the current would take her downstream. She beached her raft and quickly jumped out to grab the line on mine.  With our boats safely on shore, we walked to our encampment. We prepared dinner and watched the spectacular sunset! 

The following morning, we awoke to sore shoulders and oblique muscles.  We brewed coffee, and our spirits rose as the caffeine hit our bodies.   We quickly ate breakfast and prepped our bikes for the ride to our put-in spot—Fuller Bottom.  The ride through the canyon was glorious and peaceful. We stopped at the beautiful Buckhorn Wash Rock Art Panel and walked along the 150-foot wall of ancient images.  Painted by the archaic culture, these enormous pictographs date back 2,000 years.  Amazingly the images remain today. 

Six miles or so further down the road, we arrived at our Land Cruiser.  We loaded the bikes and returned to our camp. The sun rose high in the sky and its rays hit the western slopes of Bottleneck Peak.  The landscape was bright, warm, and inviting. We packed up camp and headed north. As we drove toward home across the San Rafael River Bridge, we looked at the river once more. It would be our last time seeing the water this high this year. 

A week or so later, I returned to my computer looking at CFSs again.  Sure enough, the river dropped to 95 CFS. It had passed. The high, floatable water would return next spring.   And, so would we.  It was good while it lasted! 

Trip Insights:

-Fuller Bottom to the San Rafael River Bridge is roughly 18 miles.  We floated it in a day.  However, don’t be afraid to spend the night out on the river.  There are many places to camp along the way. 

-Watch the Flow.  The ideal CFS for the San Rafael River is anything over 300CFS.  Check out this website for the latest flow rate:

-Rafts and canoes work well. 

-Bring a water filter. Cleaner water can be found in natural springs by walking up side canyons along the river.  Only filter the San Rafael River water in an emergency. Sediments and sand will clog your filter immediately.

-Wear shoes or sandals that can get wet and allow you to hike.  There are numerous places to explore on foot.  


Overlanding—the latest buzzword in the outdoor world.  Don’t believe me? Notice all the roof top tents atop vehicles.  Notice the vehicles outfitted with roof racks, extra fuel cans, awnings, and other gear attached to them.  Overlanding is all over social media, as well.  But, what does overlanding mean?  And, how to do it?  Lucky for you and me, Utah presents perfect places for overlanding. 

The word “overlanding” has many origins, but most give credit to the people from the continents of Africa and Australia.  The vast lands of those continents require adventurers to traverse long distances in their vehicles and to remain self-reliant if something goes wrong. The citizens of those continents have been overlanding for years out of necessity and for enjoyment.  African companies introduced roof top tents to sleep above ground where wild animals (tigers, hyenas, and elephants) roam.  Portable, 12-volt refrigerators were introduced to transport medicine, food, and essentials with no need for ice.  Without a doubt, the gear today makes overlanding possible for many recreationists.  But, do you want to overland?  

While on the border between Utah and Arizona with my wife and daughter and a good friend and his son, we meander in two vehicles around the Grand Staircase National Monument and the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.  Earlier in the day, we had tried to obtain a walk-in permit for The Wave, so did 100+ other people.  Unfortunately, our lottery number wasn’t drawn.  No worries.  We found plenty of other places to explore and adventure in this vast land that straddles the Utah/Arizona border.  

“Shane, what do you think, ‘overlanding’ means?”  I inquire while making dinner.

“The act of using a vehicle to access and adventure in the backcountry. Off the beaten path.  To travel self-reliant and self-sufficient.   The journey is just as important as the destination,” stated Shane.  I agreed. The word has many definitions. For me it means to explore the backcountry using a properly outfitted vehicle and adventuring immediately upon arrival.  And, yes, remaining self-reliant.  Miles from help and service, I rely on myself when a situation arises, not AAA.  

Most overlanders want to avoid people.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love people and consider myself a very social person.  However, I desire to enjoy and adventure in the backcountry—“mine” for the day or weekend. Granted, I might encounter fellow overlanders, but I want to camp in the backcountry away from crowds and campgrounds.   I want to adventure in places off the beaten path and without a trailhead parking lot.  I want to camp on a scenic overlook or in a stunning canyon, not in a campground with 300 other people.   I want to “discover” that tight slot canyon, rock art panel, and beautiful trout-filled river.  I want to “discover” a high alpine lake on which I can paddleboard with just the noise of the wind or a marmot.  Solitude fulfills a worthy overlanding goal.  

We had seen no one during the few days we explored the Vermillion Cliffs. The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument includes colorful and crazy rock formations.  Places like The Wave and Buckskin Gulch get much of the attention, but overlanders discover much more.  We were determined to find something new.  Miles of dirt sandy roads crisscross this high plateau.  Ranches from yesteryear dot the landscape.  Certainly, we were not the first travelers in this area. Native Americans lived here hundreds of years ago.  Their dwellings and rock art dot the landscape.  We had packed our hiking shoes and cameras resolved to “find the goods” of this place.  

The vehicle of choice for most overlanders features 4-wheel drive. Your vehicle’s capabilities will help or hinder accessing your destinations.  The joys of overlanding including finding that remote campsite, accessing that unbelievable slot canyon, or crossing a river to find the best place to wet a fly.  Overlanding offers the joy of accessing by vehicle those hard to get to places so that once you arrive the adventure beckons.  The ability to access many of the backcountry gems only comes with a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  I continually want to explore where that road goes or that one; the ability to shift the vehicle into 4-wheel drive provides unlimited opportunity!  

“Off to your right,” Shane said over his vehicle’s radio.

“Hmmmm.  I don’t see it yet.”  I responded. I scanned the desert landscape. He was in the lead; but within minutes, I spotted the old ranch.  A few of these ranches still exist in this high desert landscape.  They are not in use, but they offer a sign of life long ago.  We stopped at this ranch to use it as the base of our hike.  The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument holds some truly amazing, crazy rocks.  Rocks that I can’t fully describe.   Rocks that only a geologist could explain.  

“These are known as cauliflower rocks.”  Shane offered.

“Ahhh.  What?” Louise responded.  She and I needed a minute to process his comment.  The rocks did look like giant heads of cauliflower.  Crazy!  We gathered our packs and started hiking across the “cauliflower.”  

We reached this area after driving 30 miles of two-track roads and driving the entire time in 4-wheel high gear.  Two-wheel drive vehicles would have bogged down hopelessly.  

We hiked across this unique rock surface.  I scanned this wild landscape in amazement.  Lilly and Louise continued to look down, suspecting that the rock might break under the weight of our feet.  Nope.  This landscape survived thousands of years.  After a few hours, we returned to our vehicles and savored some snacks and drinks. And, we didn’t see a soul.  On this day, we explored this national monument as if it was ours. 

Self-sufficiency requires appropriate safety and vehicle recovery equipment. I purchase and carry gear that can get me out of any “sticky” situation. Calling a tow truck is not an option. I equipped, my vehicle with a front mounted WARN winch and with ARB Traction Boards.  The winch allows me to pull myself (or others) out of a stuck scenario.  I can also place the traction boards under my tires to grip my wheels.  Thus, I can get out.   I rely on the ability to conquer most situations. I go prepared.  

Once I started overlanding, I quickly identified essential gear.  I purchased snatch straps, tow straps, d-shackles, a tire repair kit, and a complete first aid kid purchased locally from MyMedic. The more you travel off the beaten path, the more gear you will realize as necessity.  I carry 10 gallons of water, five gallons of extra fuel, and a shovel/ax combo—essential equipment for overlanding and adventuring in the backcountry.   

Shane and I drove a deep, sandy stretch of road in the Vermillion Cliffs in hopes of coming to the edge of this enormous plateau.  The sand was soft, which potentially could bog our vehicles; but with enough speed and 4-wheel drive, we got through.   In the distance, we spotted the shores of Lake Powell.  My phone registered LTE and began to beep as text messages came through—signs that civilization was near even though we stood a thousand feet or so above the city of Page, Arizona.  

We selected our camp spot then, wandered to survey our surroundings. Lilly and Austin climbed the red rock towers while Louise and I scoped the rock walls for signs of rock art. Shane, a professional photographer, looked for his next landscape photo.  All of us immersed ourselves in these new surroundings.  I focused sight on the Lee’s Ferry area and on rafters preparing to descend the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.  We returned to camp and prepped for dinner. Louise and I started the fire.  Shane, turned chef, grilled ribeye steaks over the sweet smells of a juniper fire. Lilly and Austin played hide and seek within the juniper trees.   It was an extraordinary evening deep in the backcountry.  

As day turned to night, we gazed at the star show high above.  Lilly and Louise climbed into our roof top tent to sleep, while Austin crawled into the bed of Shane’s truck.   Shane and I continued to converse over the juniper fire about the next great place to explore.  

The following day, we awoke to clear skies and cool temperatures.  We packed camp and traveled on the sandy two-track road to our next destination—White Pocket.  Yep, you guessed it.  Crazy rock! It appeared that “someone” had poured gallons of red and orange paint over the white rock to create another “Mona Lisa.” A painter’s work of art?    Nahhh…. It was Mother Nature’s work.   Shane and Austin departed for Arizona and home. After saying our goodbyes, our family found a great place to camp on the slickrock and began our new exploration of this geologic wonder.  

Addiction results from successful overlanding.  Once you experience the backcountry in a remote way, you will be addicted.  Trust me.  You won’t want to camp at a campground with others.  You won’t want to hear the noise of a generator from the next camp.  Nope, you will desire the peace and quiet of solitude again and again.  

We finished our dinner, cleaned up, and walked out to White Pocket to savor the final rays of the setting sun.  The place was ours.  Large, cumulus clouds shimmered in pink tones as the sun set in the west.  We walked barefoot across the smooth slickrock, then we turned-in for the night.  The cool, night air lulled us to sleep.  

Overlanding provides an exceptional way to experience the outdoors. An opportunity to “discover.”  An opportunity to explore and wander.  Why wait?  Utah offers many places to overland.  A trip to the San Rafael Swell.  A journey into the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.  A weekend exploring the West Desert.  Grab a detailed map and wander away.  A dirt road awaits.  So too an adventure.  

Overlanding Insights: great resource for overlanding.  Find destinations, equipment, and knowledge on this internet site. website with local, Utah information about adventures.  

Roughs in the Diamond

Park City is undeniably a world-wide mecca of mountain biking. With over 400 miles of singletrack and the honor of being the first IMBA Gold Ride Center on the planet, there’s a trail for every taste and experience level. People travel for miles to ride famed routes like Mid Mountain Trail, Wasatch Crest, Spiro, Flying Dog, and the gravity trails at Deer Valley. Buff singletrack, sweeping berms, jumps and rollers, and epic views are what mountain bikers expect these days, and Park City delivers.

But Park City’s fame comes at a cost – crowds, and lots of them. That’s why it’s sometimes nice to steer away from the marquee trails and escape to lesser-traveled environs. Park City has plenty of those as well. Think old school, hand cut paths with loose rock, and overgrowth. These are the rides that will rattle your teeth and bloody your knuckles. There’s no flow, no berms, and best of all, few people. If Park City is a diamond, then these trails are the roughs.

Princess Di

Princess Di is a classic backwater trail. The path is narrow. There are no berms. Sections can be loose and rocky. But that’s what makes the ride so fun. The trail is located in the Promontory neighborhood on the east side of Highway 40. 

This is a solitary trail and a lonesome ride. There is no network here. Just one singletrack that wraps around a mountainside. The 14-mile ride begins with an ascent up paved bike paths through the Promontory neighborhood. At the top, the singletrack begins with a few descending switchbacks before it climbs steeply, crossing dry drainages as it goes. The switchbacks are tight and can be loose, especially if it hasn’t rained in a while. 

Beyond some cool rock formations, the trail traverses across the east side of the mountain with sweeping views of Rockport Reservoir. A final climb lets you pedal through a burned-out forest. A wildfire years ago left behind charred ghost trees. A few switchbacks up through the blackened woods brings you to the top of a ridge. From here, a boisterous descent to the North Promontory entrance above I-80 ends the ride. You can walk your bike through a tunnel that goes underneath the interstate to ride the Rail Trail back to Promontory. But it’s probably best to do this ride as a shuttle.

Spin Cycle 

I’ve mountain biked in Park City for 18 years before ever rolling tires down Spin Cycle at Deer Valley. Sure I’d heard of it, but there are so many other options nearby that are, quite frankly, easier to get to. And I think that’s what gives Spin Cycle its charm. 

Unlike newer gravity trails in the resort’s bike park, this descent is a bit more 1980’s. The trail begins in open meadows along wide switchbacks that crisscross ski runs. It then enters a large aspen grove before dropping down a natural halfpipe in a tight gully. Seemingly never-ending turns and curves get tighter and tighter as the trail crisscrosses over a tiny stream. Just when you can’t take much more of the fun, Spin Cycle spits you out at a garage with a neighboring, rusty washing machine that’s the trail’s namesake.

Unlike most of Deer Valley’s downhill-only trails, you can’t get to Spin Cycle from a chairlift. To borrow a skiing phrase, you have to earn your turns with a 6-mile loop. Finding the entrance to Spin Cycle is not easy. There are a few ways to access it from the Snow Park Lodge using multiple trails, then navigating through the Deer Crest neighborhood just to get to the trailhead. Maybe that’s what keeps the crowds away. That, or the fact that you have to ride back uphill through Deer Valley to return to your car. 

Mormon Pioneer Trail

Are you more interested in history lessons than riding bikes? Then the Mormon Pioneer Trail is for you. This path traces the route that Mormon pioneers traveled from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Their route was 1,300 miles in length and took 3-4 months to complete. In the present day, we get to go mountain biking on it.

The best section of the Mormon Pioneer Trail is from Affleck Park in Mountain Dell Canyon to the summit of Big Mountain Pass. This 7.3-mile out-and-back is nothing like what you’ll find in Park City’s popular zones. Berms? Zero. Turns? Not many. What this ride does have is bombing straightaways and little else.

From Affleck Park, expect to pedal up a straightforward but steep ascent through the canyon bottom. This is followed by switchbacks that climb to Big Mountain Pass. At the top, you’ll be treated to one of the most gorgeous and sweeping views in the Wasatch Mountains. Turn around and burn out your brakes on that straight and scary-fast descent. This trail is also done as a shuttle ride. 

South Canyon

If one trail was the red-headed step-child of Park City, then it would be South Canyon. So why ride this under-the-radar singletrack? Because while everyone is dodging each other on the crowded trails at the resorts, you can assuredly find solitude here.

The South Canyon loop starts at the Star Pointe Rail Trail trailhead on Promontory. From there you pedal south on the Rail Trail to the Roc Mon trail. This is an overgrown trail that is difficult to find. It switchbacks up to the actual South Canyon Trail which traverses south then east. This seemingly unmaintained trail is rocky, with a few technical challenges suitable for intermediate riders. It ends at the Black Rock Ridge condo complex. Turn around and ride it South Canyon Trail back to Promontory for a 9-mile ride that won’t have another soul on it.

Iron Bill & Legacy Loop

The Utah Olympic Park has some great trails that many mountain bikers love to ride. I particularly enjoy the Yeti’s to Moose Puddle loop. But for some reason the Legacy Loop and Iron Bill are a bit overlooked. Let’s start with Iron Bill. It’s a steep climb that connects the park to the RTS loop below. The only people I see climbing it are lost tourists or hikers who accidentally wandered onto it from the Utah Olympic Park. Maybe riders stay away because categorizes it as an expert trail. Sure it’s a bit steep with techy, rocky corners. But the climb is totally doable. 

The Legacy Loop that connects to upper Iron Bill is, in all honesty, not worth the climb. These narrow trails are overgrown, with scrub oak branches that double as handlebar grabbers. It’s kind of neat to pedal to the soundtrack of vacationers screaming in terror on the zipline, but that’s about the only redeeming quality.

Descending Iron Bill, well, that’s what you came for. Assuming you came for chunky rock gardens, not many fast straightaways, and feeble attempts at creating berms. My favorite is the two rotting pallets used on one particular corner. Clean those rickety features and you’ve got A-type fun right there.


So why ride any of these trails? Because sometimes we need to get away from “flow” and challenge ourselves on something nasty. It keeps us honest and reminds us of how spoiled we all are being able to ride on such a huge and incredible system like we have in Park City. So pull out your Mountain Trails Foundation map, log onto Trailforks, and plan a ride on singletrack that you’ve never heard of. You’ll probably come home with scraped elbows, banged up shins, or maybe a broken rib or two, and you’ll be better for it.

A Wild Classroom

Around this time last year I wrote an article for the UAJ about a semester-long academic road trip that Westminster College offered in fall, 2017 through its environmental studies program. Since then Westminster has continued to expand its field-based studies programs, most notably through the creation of an outdoor education and leadershipmajor. As a part of that major nine students, a rotating cast of college faculty, and I, as a full-time instructor, spent seventy-five days this fall participating in a wilderness-based field semester.

As a part of this field semester, the students and I spent ten days backpacking in the Wind River Mountains, a week paddling and rafting on the Green River through Flaming Gorge, eleven days rock climbing in City of Rocks, fourteen days backpacking near the Dirty Devil River, nine days taking a Wilderness First Responder course at the Capitol Reef Field Station, a week canyoneering near Horseshoe Canyon, a week backpacking in Grand Gulch, and a few days wrapping up the semester at the Rio Mesa Field Station. Some might look at this description and wonder how students earn a full semester’s worth of college credits “Just by playing in the woods.” Sure, there were many points on the semester where it felt like we were just out there having fun. But I can also say that the value of what I saw every student learn on this semester far outweighed anything that I felt like I gained when I was a student taking more traditional classes on campus.

The curriculum for this field semester included helping students develop effective leadership skills, learn how to design and facilitate educational experiences that cater to a variety of learning styles, become competent living and working in a wilderness setting, and develop a connection with the natural world. By living in an environment where we were fully immersed in this curriculum, where we experienced all our joys and challenges, all our successes and failures, together, we collectively had an experience far more powerful and lasting than would have been possible in the comfort of an air-conditioned building on campus.

But don’t just take my word for it. I asked some of the students to share the most significant aspects of their experience. Here’s some of what they said (and a few of my thoughts too):

What’s your favorite memory from the field semester?

Haley Schiek: One of my favorite memories is more of a feeling than anything else. The feeling of comradery, and also absurdity, of what we were doing together. My heart felt full and fluttery, even though my pack was weighing me down. I was thirsty, exhausted, annoyed, ready to be done, but this moment lifted me up. We had stopped on a service road, all together, lost in the desert in the middle of the night. But from the light of our dimming headlamps, all I could see were smiling, golden faces. Proud faces. Happy faces. Entirely present-right here right now faces. Getting lighter and lighter as the words flew out of our mouths and into the nighttime air.  We sang “American Pie,” first slowly and quietly, then at the top of our lungs, belting out the lyrics we knew, mumbling through the parts we weren’t so sure about. We forgot about being lost. We forgot about being tired. We forgot that this moment wasn’t exactly part of our “plan.” But there we were, together. It was the best feeling in the whole world.

Julia Vorsteveld: There are millions (not an exaggeration) of beautiful, favorite memories from the field semester. One of my favorites occurred early in the semester, about four days in, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. We spent the better part of our morning making our way to Knapsack Col, a saddle between two peaks with breathtaking views in either direction. We danced on the snow in celebration, took a few jolly pictures, then began discussing how to descend down the other side. To us students it seemed obvious that the only way down was to scramble down a massive boulder field. “What about the glacier, could we slide down that?” asked Tiana, one of our instructors for this section. We all looked at each other, apprehensive at first, then a look of excitement and mischief spread across our faces in smiles. The runnout was long and clear of potentially dangerous rocks. “Okay!” Tiana gave us a briefing on how to glissade and then began to make her way down, simultaneously knocking her boots and digging her hands into the snow. I decided to go last, hoping to get a front seat to witness four of my peers doing something new and challenging for the first time in their lives. Like magic, fear dissolved, only to be replaced with calculated focus and a childlike sense of wonder. One after another, we descended a few hundred feet sliding on our backs, then our bellies to practice self-arresting.  Our glissading adventure was the first of many more learning opportunities that came up naturally, seamlessly, and right in step with our development as outdoor educators. We had simultaneously pushed our comfort zones, assessed risk, learned and practiced a new skill, and best yet, bonded over it all.

Brett: One memory that stands out to me is soaking in the Durfee Hot Springs in Almo, ID after spending the day climbing at Castle Rocks State Park. We had been climbing for about a week in City of Rocks, and the showers at the hot springs were one of the biggest motivators for going. After shedding a thick layer of organic grime, we all sunk our sore muscles into the geothermally heated pools. For an hour we played with the toy basketball hoop, tried to swim across the pool underwater, and had handstand contests, feeling like little kids on the first day of summer vacation. As we got tired we retreated to one of the smaller, warmer pools and watched the sky and clouds temporarily catch on fire, burning a fierce orange before turning to a deep purple ash. Pure happiness radiated from each of us in a way that seems more rare than it should be. In that moment we were content; content with where we were, content with who we were with, content with ourselves. I hope we are all able to continue to have moments like that. 

What has been your most significant learning from the semester?

Maddy Kane: The most significant thing I learned on the semester was balancing flexibility with firmness, so to speak. Being able to go with the flow and keep a level head through challenges is vitally important in life, particularly in outdoor recreation, but standing your ground and vocalizing your thoughts and beliefs can be just as important. Advocating for yourself and making yourself heard can be hard when working with peers, and knowing when to take a step back and let others lead can be challenging as well. Finding the right balance of being an active follower and a strong leader was the most significant learning I did on the semester. 

Julia: Although nearly three months have passed since we returned from the field semester, I’m still discovering things I took away that are now popping up in my life. Right now, with a new semester on campus starting, I’m especially reminded of how much the field semester brought me closer to myself. I learned how to show up for myself, how to take care of myself, and how to advocate for myself. In turn, I saw that positively reflected in the way I learn, the way I work with  and lead others, and the way I develop my attitude about a situation. An example of a time I showed up for myself on the semester was when I finally told a peer about something going on in my personal life that was increasingly preoccupying my thoughts and energy. I had created a habit of not reaching out and persuading myself I could handle it all on my own. The truth finally came out one evening, and there’s nowhere to hide when you live with nine other people.

This was all significant for me because I had developed a habit of prioritizing myself last in many parts of my life. It’s safe to say that until the field semester, this learning was absent from my life. How can I expect myself to grow and thrive if I neglect my own needs? How can I help others when I can’t help myself? I’m still working on this, I think it’s a lifelong practice, but it feels pretty amazing to see such a clear transition of this learning from the semester come back with me into my life here in Salt Lake.

Haley: I did not realize how deep and yet undiscussed native history in Utah is. Not even looking for it I found remnants of Utah’s past, of its original homemakers. An arrowhead laying in the sand, petroglyphs carved into a rock wall I walked past by chance. The tiny town of Blanding, with more history than it seemed some of even the locals knew. I did not know about Bears Ears. I did not know what it took for the native people to get it to become a monument, for them to acquire some sense of justice and respect from the government. I did not know of the wonders woven into Grand Gulch, the memories of generations that it holds. From this I learned the importance of protecting these spaces and supporting these people in protecting their culture, supporting them through elections. Voting. I need to vote. It is not something I have done before, but I intend to change that moving forward.

Did the field semester change your relationship with wilderness? How?

Julia: I’m much more observant and curious when I travel in the wilderness now. It was an ongoing theme over the course of the semester and the places we went to “get to know a place”. At first I didn’t really see the value in that. So what if I know it? What does that do? However, I  think knowing a place is the first step in connecting with it on a more nuanced level than simply observing and admiring its inherent beauty.

All the land we lived in and traveled through has its own history in a variety of ways. We taught each other lessons about the places we were in throughout the semester. A few examples include the geology of the Dirty Devil River in south-central Utah, the fictitious Almo Massacre outside of the City of Rocks in Idaho, and the distribution of the Colorado River’s water throughout the West. We also continuously learned about land use, management, and conservation from each other and a Bureau of Land Management representative.

Perhaps what stood out to me and interested me the most was Native American history and current issues in these places. Since a trip I took to a reservation in South Dakota when I was sixteen I’ve really made a point to educate myself about an otherwise overlooked issue in the United States. To study theses places and concerns in the field was especially eye-opening. This is something I’m also still working on in bringing into my academic life, through research, writing, and advocacy. These stories and histories made my connection with wilderness more well-rounded and profound. I’m excited to keep getting to know all the places I travel to, whether they’re wilderness or a city.

Maddy: This semester deepened my appreciation for the wilderness and strengthened my relationship with it. I think spending so much time in the wilderness helped me further see that the wilderness is a gift that needs to be cherished and protected. We were able to talk to a lot of people who work in the areas we were visiting, many of whom had ideas about the wilderness which starkly contrasted with my own personal views. If anything changed about my relationship with the wilderness, it was that it broadened my understanding of the different ways humans understand and use the environment around them. 

Haley: The field semester intimately introduced me to beauty of the natural world. It also demystified spending time in it. Backpacking can be challenging. The desert has its threats and dangers for us humans, as do the high mountains and alpine regions, but these are not impossible terrains to explore. There is safety in the wild. A deep peace, a slower pace that I cannot achieve anywhere else.

What advice would you give to a student considering going on the semester?

Haley: Go. If you think you can’t, think again. You do not have to have x, y, z skills or experiences first. You start where you are and you build from there and odds are you will have nine to eleven other people cheering you on the entire time. Remember that everyone gets insecure sometimes. Everyone feels fear, especially of the unknown. But you take it day by day. You have this chance to totally put yourself out there, in all senses of that phrase, and grow. And learn. And lead. Everyday. You do not have to feel totally “ready” or “capable” or “good enough.” You are allowed to wonder if this experience is right for you, even as you are halfway through it! Things get tough, but you get tougher. You laugh a lot. You build friendships and create memories that most other people will never get to understand. I am eternally grateful for making the choice to go. And I am so excited for everyone else who will make that choice, too.

Maddy: Your classmates are all you really have out there, so cherish them. Nurture and build your relationships with them. Take time for yourself when you need it, but lean on the people around you and be there for others to lean on you when they need it. Attitude is everything, and it’s also contagious to those around you; a bad attitude can spread through a group like the plague. Offer support when things go wrong and celebrate together when they go right. Accept them as your weird little family for the next 75 days and always remember you’re in it together. And COMMUNICATE always, about everything, all the time. 

Julia: Throw yourself into it. Cherish your time with the people and the places you are in. Keep an open mind. Seize the opportunity to be uncomfortable and grow from it. Advocate for yourself and your needs. Ask a lot of stupid questions. Then ask five more. Be silly and share a lot of laughs with your peers. Do the things that scare you. Look at the stars. Take moments of solitude for yourself. Write about your experiences. Bring your own creative flare into your leadership style. Ask for help if you need it. Confront your peers if you’re having a problem. Learn as much as you can. Reflect thoughtfully on your experiences and how they play into the rest of your life. Practice your communication skills while you’re in a supportive environment. Doodle all the beautiful things you see. Take advantage of the times you get to explore and play. Rely on your peers for support, and support your peers in their times of need. Get to know all your instructors- they’re amazing. Rest when you need to. Go into this experience with an open, growth-oriented mindset. You’re going to have the time of your life.

Kellie Gerbers (Professor, Outdoor Education and Leadership):Extended field time is something that can’t be replicated in the classroom, and it is a tremendous privilege to be able to carve out enough time and space while pursuing a college degree to be able to spend so many consecutive days in the field. I’d encourage students who are considering an extended field experience as part of their program of study to reach out to students and faculty who have led or participated in these types of experiences to get their advice, recommendations, etc. Every experience is bound to be different on account of different people, itineraries, weather, abilities, etc., so it’s hard to give a “one size fits all” description of what an extended field experience can do for a participant. With that being said, things that seem to be consistent among participants are: 1) Everyone hits high points and low points during the semester—you can anticipate and prepare for these as much as you can, but the reality is that when you hit a low point, it just feels terrible. Know that the low point isn’t permanent and these low points often lead to the most significant learning experiences. 2) Everyone seems to learn a little humility at some point or another on these programs. Embrace knowing what you don’t know and use mistakes as an opportunity to improve. 3) Time goes by fast—there will be days when you are literally counting down the minutes until you can move onto the next section/activity, but when you look back on the semester as a whole, you’ll be shocked how quickly it goes by. Be present. Enjoy the people and the surroundings. Again, it’s a rare privilege to spend extended time in the field—take in all the sights, sounds, and lessons!

As an instructor I always wrap up this type of extended wilderness experience with the question, “How will you apply what you have learned here to the rest of your life?” If we go into the field and have a fun, challenging, and fulfilling experience but then leave that experience behind when we reach the trailhead, then what have we really learned? Living and traveling in the outdoors, through creating an obvious connection between action and consequence, depending on and supporting our fellow group members, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and removing the excessive level of distraction that exists in the modern world, creates a perfect classroom for learning many life lessons. In the wilderness we learn to take care of ourselves and our group, build trusting relationships with the people around us, communicate effectively, tolerate adversity and uncertainty, live in the moment, appreciate living simply, accept the things we cannot control, and control what we can. These lessons, and many more, do not only apply in the mountains and deserts of the world. In fact, I think that applying these to the rest of our lives might be the most important thing we can do.

Winter is Coming…Hopefully


“Winter is coming.” This simple phrase made popular by the TV show Game of Thrones,is pervasive and overused.You’ll find ithashtagged and quoted on every Instagram post featuring autumn colors, dark skies, or the first white dusting of the season. The saying is also very true. It’s a mantra that every mountain person doesn’t need to be told. We just subconsciously know. The thought is embedded in our minds as soon as that first waft of cool air blows in on a late September breeze. This bellwether sign ignites a sense of panic in us. Not from fear of the impending onslaught of pumpkin spice products, or that Christmas will be vomited into chain stores the first week of October. Rather, our panic stems from an uncontrollable urge to get prepared. But as I write this, true winter is on the doorstep, and I haven’t done jack squat to get ready.

In years past, I’ve been obsessive with getting ready for winter. And I know I’m not the only one. I think this urge is like an internal alarm clock embedded in our DNA. Like a squirrel storing nuts, our ancient ancestors must’ve had honey-do lists a mile long to prepare for the cold and dark months. Animals had to be hunted and fish caught for dried meat. Mammoths killed for their hides to build shelter. Bears skinned for their coats to keep frigid air away from fragile human skin. Never mind what a time-consuming hassle it must have been to pack up your entire community and migrate toward warmer climes to wait out an ice-age winter. I think that instinct has been passed down to us over the eons.

Hell, even as late as the 1980s, winter prep meant survival in my own modern family. I spent my childhood summers stacking split logs in the wood shed to earn my allowance. Growing up in a trailer at 6,600 feet with no furnace, we only had a wood-burning stove to keep us warm. That meant months of splitting, hauling, and piling at least four cords of wood to last a single winter. Oh, and freaking out every time a black widow crawled up my sleeve. I absolutely hated this chore. But looking back, I appreciate what that labor meant. Now, the smell of wood smoke hanging in the air is the scent of a tough job completed.

But these days preparing for winter isn’t about survival. Instead it’s recreational. That ice-age instinct I fancy is no longer used to keep myself warm and alive. Now I use that compulsion to wax my skis or put snow tires on the Subaru. At least I did up until this winter.

It’s not for a lack of things that need to get done. I have stitching coming out of my ski gloves that need mending. My climbing skins must be re-glued. The compressed air tank in my avalanche pack needs refilling. All of my 13 skis, both backcountry and resort, require a tune up. I’m overdue to re-read Bruce Tremper’s book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. And there are so many holes in the seat of my long underwear that it would be criminal of me to not try on several new pairs at REI (though I’ll probably not make a purchase and just re-hang them on the rack for someone else). But I’m not going to do any of those things because I’m not convinced that winter is coming, John Snow be damned.

Global warming, climate change, a plague of sunshine; whatever you want to call it, last winter in Utah was anything but. Ullr did not bless skiers with a powder-horn of plenty. Nay, he went one further and denied us the very thing that many moved to Utah to enjoy. Call me cynical, but last winter’s second-worst on record in terms of snowfall has made me… well… cynical.

So I’m done. This past fall after the leaves changed, cold rain fell, and I found half-eaten candy corn stuck in odd places, I committed to denying the internal clock. No more mountaintop hikes for Ullr supplication. No more burning skis in a pray-for-snow bonfire. No more wasting sacrificial whiskey to appease the snow gods. Hell, you won’t even find me at a ski-movie premiere.

Nope. This year I’m going for a foolhardy reverse-psychology. Autumn sweaters are staying in a bin under the bed. My bald truck tires will stay bald. I’m tossing out gear guides in ski-related magazines without reading them. I’m not even going to rake the leaves in my yard. I figure if I deny the existence of winter, then maybe this time it will actually arrive. Like how it always rains when you wash your car, I’m betting it will snow Armageddon if I choose not to put new batteries in my avalanche beacon.

This spring I’ll know if my experiment worked. If it does, you can thank me for the 700+ inches that should destroy Alta. I’ll be the one on the mountain wearing a shell that’s more duct tape than Gore-Tex, turning slowly on unwaxed skis while nursing frozen fingers. I will suffer the consequences for the greater good.

But after all those promises I’ve made about shunning anything related to winter prep, whether mental or physical, there is one thing I’m not giving up on. Even though it might mean my mountain man-card is in jeopardy of being revoked, there’s no way I’m giving up my pumpkin spice lattes.