The Thin White Line: Late Spring Skiing in Utah’s Uinta Mountains

Bald Mountain 1
I’m hiking up a scree field in my ski boots. With each step, a mini rock-a-lanche cascades down, initiated beneath my worn soles. A few smaller rocks gain momentum and ping down toward Mason Diedrich, who is boulder hopping below. Like me, he has skis on his pack, poles in each hand, and stiff plastic footwear that is probably the worst possible choice for ascending a mountain boulder field. The scene could only be more ridiculous if he was also wearing crampons. The reason for this dubious venture is that we are climbing Bald Mountain in the High Uintas, in June, supposedly to go spring skiing. A thin line of corn snow that Mason calls “a G-string of white on the bare ass of the mountain” lays beside us. I guess that means, in his mind, we are currently scrambling up the mountain’s butt cheek.
Murdock Mountain 2
I have a love/hate relationship with spring. Scratch that. I hate spring. Warmer temperatures, rain, and seasonal allergies that make me feel like I’m being water-boarded in an Iraqi prison all conspire against me during my least-favorite season. I think spring and summer are sad times for anybody who considers themselves a skier. But what we lose in snow, powder turns and cold air, we gain in having a brief window to ski a place we can’t usually access in the winter months. The Uinta Mountains is one such place. The Mirror Lake Highway, the main artery through the Uintas that goes from Kamas, Utah north 55 miles to Evanston, Wyoming, is closed all winter long. During that time, dozens of high mountains that line the highway like stone sentinels are cut off from skiers and snowboarders (unless they own snowmobiles). That means when UDOT road crews finally remove a season’s worth of snow and opens the road for summer, usually around Memorial Day Weekend, spring skiing the Uinta Mountains is officially on. The local ski tribe swarms roadside peaks like journalists stampeding for free food in the newsroom. Mountains like Watson, Bald, Murdock, Reids, and Hayden can all be ticked off with minimal effort. Unless, of course, you get there too late and find yourself on all fours climbing rocks in your ski boots.
Bald Mountain 2
Mount Watson
Sometimes access to peaks at lower elevations near Bald Mountain Pass is possible before the road officially opens to the public. If warm temperatures and aggressive plowing removes snow quickly enough, the road is sometimes clear earlier in the spring all the way up to the turnoff for Trial Lake. From there, you can ski one of the most desirable peaks in the range – Mount Watson.
Such was the case in May the previous year when asphalt was dry almost to the summer parking area at the Crystal Lake trailhead where popular summer hikes to Wall Lake and Notch Mountain begin. I arrived with Adam Symonds, another of my friends who suffers from seasonal denial as badly as I do.
The skintrack ascent started out well enough, but the warm, soft snow proved challenging in places, especially where exposed streams required balancing acts in ski boots atop fallen logs. We followed a set of meandering moose tracks through the evergreens to Cliff Lake. Continuing north, we passed other lakes: Petite Lake, Linear Lake, and finally, Watson Lake nestled at the foot of Mount Watson’s steep, east face. From there, the view allowed us to scope descent lines with an unobstructed view.
Evidence of old, wet slides littered the face – everything from roller balls to actual avalanche debris. The day was warm with temperatures pushing 60 degrees, so we had to hurry. I set a skin track well away from the runout zone, circumnavigating the still snow-covered lake. Clearly our original plan to descend the east face was a no-go. Still, we bootpacked up Watson’s north ridge where the snowpack was showing signs of becoming isothermic and the ascent became a game of finding the narrow line of hard snow between patches of trapdoor muck. But with a little effort, we topped out on the summit where a ring of stone provided seats for viewing the Uinta Mountain range that spread east into the distance.
Bald Mountain 3
Rushed by the day’s heat, we quickly transitioned and made turns back the way we came on the north ridge. As I slashed my first turn, I was elated that the snow held my weight. It wasn’t corn… far too late in the afternoon for that, but it was soft and didn’t slide. The undulating ridge gave way to the lower east face where we, praise be to Ullr, found some corn snow to carve. But several turns in, the snow collapsed on Adam, sending his splitboad tip first into the snow. He cartwheeled into old slide debris, came to a stop, and after finding himself injury free, declared that this was a one-and-done tour. We were wallowing and the snow was getting dangerous. Despite our late start and subsequent iffy snow, I still felt pride looking at our tracks written into the side of one of the Uinta’s most prominent peaks.
Hayden Peak 1
Murdock Mountain
I held onto winter with sweaty, sunburned hands and refused to relegate myself to Salt Lake, despite listening to my mountain bike’s complaints that I wasn’t spending enough time with her. So later, we camped near Bald Mountain Pass and woke early to check out some lines on Murdock Mountain, a rocky, flat-topped mound directly across the highway from Bald Mountain. With the pass clear and open, I was able to scope out this plateau-like peak and found ample snow covering short-but-steep chutes on her north face.
Murdock Mountain 3
With one of his many hats displayed on his noggin (this time a straw cowboy hat he kept in the camper) Adam led the way skinning atop softening snow up to the bare, boulder-strewn summit where we waited for the colder north-face snow to soften. When the time was right, we strapped our boards to packs and traversed on exposed boulders to the edge of the north face. I chose the eastern-most chute, where slushy corn alternated with leg-chattering crusty top-layers which alternated with ski-swallowing sun cups barely covered in a thin veneer of rotten snow. It was so fun to ski that we decided to go for seconds.
An easy skin put us back up to the highway, where we retraced our route to the chutes. For round two, I chose a smaller corridor with a funky natural halfpipe (more like quarter-pipe) at the bottom. The corn skiing was even better here. Sure, the vertical may have been short, but that simply meant a brief return skin, allowing us to lap the face multiple times until my feet yearned for release from ski boots and my belly and brain ached for an après beer at The Notch – a roadside pub in the tiny burg of Samak, conveniently located on the way home.
Hayden Peak 2

Bald Mountain
Back on Bald Mountain the following year, Mason and I step off the talus and onto the ribbon of snow we were climbing alongside. Careful not to sink up to our hips in the unconsolidated edge that has been warmed by the rocks, I shuffle to the top of the snow strip, and wonder aloud how to test snow stability in the summer. There are no cornices to drop nor slabs to ski cut. So I grab a microwave-sized rock and huck it onto the run. It splashes into the snowpack and immediately disappears below. That’ll do.
Avoiding the pothole I just created, I ski-cut across the snowfield from one boulder edge to the next. Nothing moves. Slowly, I make my first turn, still wary of a wet slide, and find a layer of corn less than an inch below the slop. It is delightful snow, softened like vanilla ice cream left out in the sun. I weave between the rocks, milking the 45-degree slope for all it’s worth. My skis push around the snow like a butter knife wiping excess mayo off a slice of sourdough. Roller balls pass by like thousands of ping-pongs following me from behind. The run is long and steep. At one point, as I approach a large roller, I feel as if I’m skiing off the edge of the earth. Any disappointment I may have felt this morning while looking out the windshield at these almost bare mountains melts away as fast as June snow.
Elated at the bottom of the run, standing aside Emerald Lake, we look back up at our line – 1,000 vertical feet of creamy goodness. Skiing this late in the spring, one has to play the aspect game where timing is critical. With mountains over 11,000 feet in elevation, the Uintas are usually blessed with an overnight refreeze. But the high sun works quick come daylight, allowing for only a few hours to ski any east or south-facing slope. Our timing was almost perfect this morning on Bald Mountain, but we narrowly avoided the closing window of corn-to-mank as it came slamming down behind our ski tails upon descent.
Hayden Peak 3
Hayden Peak
Still rolling the dice in the aspect game, and with hours of daylight left, we drive north on the Mirror Lake Highway to Hayden Pass and the Highline Trail. There, Hayden Peak and Mount Agassiz dwell above the evergreens. Narrow couloirs with names like “The Mountaineer” and “Reynolds Wrap” fall from Hayden’s west side. The latter has melted to a thin strip as wide as the length of my skis, while the former is broken by bare patches of rock and soil. But beyond a cliff-strewn spur south of the peak, we find it: a wide swath of west-facing snow that goes uninterrupted from Hayden’s summit ridge to the valley bottom, where morning sunlight has just begun to soften the snow.
Hayden Peak 4
We skin across a large meadow toward the castle ramparts of Hayden, then turn south. Contouring around a cliff-strewn shoulder that separates Hayden from Mount Agassiz with a little over a mile of travel, we find ourselves at the base of our chosen run. It looks filled in, with only a few rock gardens to watch out for. But the climbing is at an angle that’s moderate enough for us to keep our skis and skins on. With snow now soft, we dig our edges in and switchback up to the ridge overlooking Middle Basin that spreads out on the opposite side.
I stand between two stone walls that form a notch on the windless ridge, and joke with Mason about how much I hate Utah. The cloudless blue skies, expanses of tarns and meadows below our skis, jagged peaks to the horizon, and an untouched field of just-cooked corn waiting to be shredded is just so damn offensive. Still sarcastically giggling about how awful this place is, and how much I wish we were in Kansas, or maybe Texas right now, we continue up a short distance to the summit of Point 11820, an unobtrusive sub-peak southeast of Hayden’s main summit. From this vantage, I can just barely make out our morning ski tracks on Bald Mountain.
As we sit on summit rocks and enjoy a good soaking in of the view, another touring party skins up our same ascent route. Instead of feeling annoyance at other people encroaching on a mountain we thought we had to ourselves, I am happy to see fellow skiers who also know the secret about skiing in Utah – thanks to the Uinta Mountains, it doesn’t have to end when summer begins.
After a summit brew and lunch, we put our skis back on, and make a few short turns to the top of the face. This west-facing snowfield has been in the sun long enough, and has transformed into just the right combination of wet snow and supportive hardpack underneath – al dente corn at its finest!
Hayden Peak 5
I stand on my skis. My hands are ungloved as they clench ribbed ski pole handles. I close my eyes. The sun warms my face. It is a summer sun. I can feel heat radiating off the rocks. Without shades, the snow is too bright to look at. I open my eyes, then voice words I do not want to hear coming from my mouth.
“This is probably the last run of the season. Right here.”
I scan the horizon and it dominates with vistas of Bald Mountain and the Uinta’s north-slope peaks. With the memory of this place, this time, this feeling safely stored, I cut my first turn, which soon leads to my last.
Mount Watson 1
If You Go
Access to the Uinta Mountains on the Mirror Lake Highway is dependent on UDOT’s snow-removal operation. While Memorial Day Weekend is the date road crews aim for, they often have the road open before that. On high-snow years, however, opening day can be pushed back. In 2011, UDOT didn’t get the road open until July 6th. Periodically check the road’s status at
Avalanche danger is still a concern, even in late spring. The best snow conditions are found on sunny days after an overnight refreeze. Check the weather before heading up. The Utah Avalanche Center stops issuing daily reports this time of year, so you have to be your own avalanche forecaster. Play the aspect game and get off slopes that show signs of wet activity.
A half-dozen peaks can be accessed from the highway once it is open. Below are a few good roadside hits.
Murdock Mountain 1
Mount Watson: Park at the Crystal Lake trailhead, found at the end of the road for Trial Lake/Notch Mountain. Skin north/northwest toward Lily Lakes and generally follow the summer route to Watson Lake. The mountain’s northeast shoulder provides the safest ascent route. From the summit, ski the marquee east face, or down the ridge you ascended.
Murdock Mountain: To call this a peak would be a stretch – it is more like a rock-strewn plateau. But the north face is steep and features chutes that hold snow well into summer. Park at a pullout along the highway on Bald Mountain Pass and skin southeast to those north-facing shots. This is by far the easiest skiing in the Uinta Mountains.
Bald Mountain/Reids Peak: These twin peaks also rise straight up from Mirror Lake Highway. For Bald you can park at the pass and ascend the south face to reach the summit, but I prefer to drive over the pass and park near Mirror Lake to climb the east face. A few snowfields can be skied between the talus. For Reids, start at the Mirror Lake pullout and skin west around Bald Mountain. Continue northwest along a meadow to the north side of Reids. A large couloir here between cliffs is a good bet to find late-season snow.
Hayden Peak: Park at the Highline Trailhead near Hayden Pass. Skin northeast to climb/ski Mountaineers and Reynolds Wrap couloirs. Otherwise, go southeast around a sub-ridge to find west-facing snowfields beneath Point 11820.
Après Ski: Driving back to the Wasatch Front, The Notch in Samak is your closest salvation for a burger and beer. I recommend Dave’s Famous Smokehouse Burger with a bottle of Uinta Hop Nosh to cap off a day of late spring/summer skiing.

2 Responses to “The Thin White Line: Late Spring Skiing in Utah’s Uinta Mountains”

  1. Cool to see that the names i came up with 30 years ago for hayden have stuck. The line, north facing out of middle basin, or ryder, mcfeader is called the spiral staircase. I named reynolds rap after a great athlete out of park city who would never shut up, randy reynolds. Thanks man

  2. I’ve been thinking about you, Danger Dan. In particular the day we summited & skied Hayden Peak with Randy & Toby Weed in the rain & fog on a futile video mission. It was my birthday, May 16. 1988 or something like that. A year or two later, we summited & skied Bald Mountain on my birthday after I ran into you on Main Street in Park City at about 3 in the afternoon. You suggested we go ski Bald Mountain & I said OK. Two hours later we were on the summit. It was a stone cold blue bird day. Deep afternoon corn on the ski down.

    You took this photo of me & Arrow on the summit with a great look at Hayden Peak in the background.

    I’ve been trying to figure out which couloir we climbed & skied way back then. When I saw the name “Reynold’s Wrap,” I was almost sure it had something to do with Randy. I would have never guessed you gave it that name, but I’m not in the least surprised. I’m thinking we probably climbed and skied “Mountaineer”, but I don’t remember hiking that far along the ridge to get to the summit. I’ll bet you remember which one it was.

    It’s great to see you’re still alive & kicking. I’m trying to put together something about Park City ski history in the 80s & 90s. We were right in the middle of it and it’s a story worth telling. Hope you see this & reply. It would be great to hear from you.

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