Powder on the Plateau

Utah backcountry skiing has it all:  lots of big varied terrain, good access, copious powder snow, no people…..wait a minute. No people?  It’s the Wasangeles, brah!  There are always people crawling over every square inch of the Wasatch, from pre-dawn to post-dark. Ah, but there’s another Wasatch, brah.  The mighty Wasatch Plateau, aka the Skyline.

Most Utahns have done the highway 6 drive from Spanish Fork to Price many times on their way to the state’s famous desert adventures and know well that the highway goes over the relatively inconspicuous 7000 foot Soldier Summit, which is not really known even as a decent bathroom or jerky stop.  But what is not as well known is that the Spanish Fork canyon is the northern end of the Manti-La Sal Skyline, which rises from the roly-poly hills near Soldier Summit to the 100-mile long Wasatch Plateau.  The moniker “plateau” doesn’t necessarily bring to mind great skiing, but plateaus all have to end somewhere, and the 10,000-foot Wasatch Plateau ends abruptly on its western flank and plunges 5000 feet down to the Sanpete Valley.  And in those 5000 feet there’s some great terrain.   All it needs is snow.

Brett Kobernik (aka “Kowboy”) was an avalanche forecaster in the Wasatch for many years and before that had gained notoriety in the backcountry world for being the father of the split snowboard.   Several years ago when the part time avy forecaster for the Wasatch Plateau moved on to become a forecaster in Canada Kowboy grudgingly agreed to split his time between the Central Wasatch and the Plateau for a season to check it out. The area has historically been a big sledder destination and Kowboy – as a proud motorhead himself  – anticipated doing mostly a lot of roaming around on the snowbike that he literally built from scratch. The engine is twice as powerful as a typical Timbersled’s and the track is 2 feet longer than that on their biggest model, and to account for those features he literally had to weld a couple of bikes together to create his monster:  “Goliath.” Kowboy goes big! But after a season of exploring his new haunt, Kowboy was so impressed by the skiable terrain tumbling down from the high plateau that he decided to move to the quiet town of Spring City and the move has proven worthy to all the locals – who are mostly sledders – who love Brett for his wry, straightforward avy forecasting, and he himself has discovered an entire range of great skiing and riding.  And it didn’t take long for his girlfriend Lara – also a strong and avid skier – to start exploring the zone with him.

Most winter days Brett fires up his snowbike at the edge of town and he and Lara ride about 6 miles and a couple thousand feet up an unplowed road into the zone where the plateau is broken up by 10-11,000 foot peaks, park the bike, and start skinning up through huge aspen glades to eventually point their Voiles down the 800-1000 foot bowls and glades (where they #MakeAmerica8Again) that they basically have to themselves. As Lara puts it:  “It’s a different vibe- FOMO and the rush to get out the door for first tracks just doesn’t exist here.”  While the terrain isn’t quite as craggy/dramatic as the central Wasatch, it’s burly enough that the need for an avalanche forecaster in that area is real, with a well-advertised skier avalanche fatality occurring in the visible-from-the-valley Horseshoe Bowl in 2011 and a couple of snowmobilers have perished as well, with plenty of other close calls.  Like the southern Wasatch, the Manti area benefits from a southwest flow, and in a season such as 2017-18 where southwest flow barely ever came through the long periods between awkward storms made the snowpack deteriorate into a sugar snow sandwich, the safe options were limited.  But when the southwest snow gun turns on and stays on, the ‘pack stabilizes and the powder stacks up.

Stefani Day is a different type of “local” who was born in Sanpete and spent the summers of her youth rambling around the nearby mountains with her grandfather, a lifelong Sanpete sheep man. Stefani is now a doc in Salt Lake, but the Sanpete house is still in the family, and as Stefani became a backcountry skier she started to realize that the areas where she used to herd sheep might also harbor some good skiing, and she has been harvesting winter turns there for more than 15 years. Stefani doesn’t have a sled, but she has found as much terrain as she can ski adjacent to the highway.

There are a lot of high rural mountain roads in Utah with gates that come down in November as the snows start to pile up, but not many of them connect coal miners with their mines, and the Fairview Canyon highway 31 that goes from the Sanpete Valley over to Huntington does exactly that, so UDOT dutifully keeps that road plowed all winter to allow the miners to get to work.  The kiting community has known this for years and the top of the plateau is famous for its perfect open and rolling kiting terrain, but like the many sledders who have been braaap-ing around the area before her, Stefani realized that the Fairview Canyon road also bisects a lot of great steep terrain.   For better or worse, the well-advertised fires that have burned in that area over the last few years have created a lot of nicely-spaced burned-tree terrain with innumerable 800+ foot lines that are easily accessible from the road (Kowboy’s tip; bring an extendo ladder – and some good balance- to get across the creek!). But beware of doing loop tours ala the Wasatch’s Cottonwood Canyons; outside of the mine’s weekday commuting hours there’s nary a pickup plying the road to hitch a ride with.  That said, bringing a good shovel to dig out a spot for your car to be over the pavement’s fog line is a good idea, and on weekends the area does come alive with the whine of snowmobiles.  It’s different than the Central Wasatch in that regard, but there is plenty of room for everyone and with fewer people the respect generally goes both ways.

The quaint towns of Fairview, Mt Pleasant, and Spring City are a long ways both physically and culturally from the resorts of the Central Wasatch, and this is a good thing: in lieu of the bustling bars of Park City’s Main Street these little towns have homespun diners and gritty, locally-owned motels.  Again, according to Lara:  “All our neighbors are coal miners and sheep ranchers.  You’re not going to find a yoga studio or a coffee shop. There is a bar (“Stanley’s”), in Mount Pleasant, but you stand out like a sore thumb if you walk in without a cowboy hat.”   There’s nothin’ fancy in the Sanpete valley, but it’s perfect for a cheap and easy ski “vacation” only 90 minutes from Salt Lake, that – if the community so desired, but it doesn’t  -could easily be marketed as a “ski destination nestled at the foot of the Wasatch Plateau.”

So as the winter wears on and you’re growing frustrated with the number of cars at the Butler or Mill D trailheads and you’ve been hearing a lot about “southwest flow” in the local avalanche forecasts, give a gander to Kowboy’s reports from the Skyline and head south to ski the funnest plateau in the state.

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