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Backcountry Skiing in the West Desert

You’ve had it happen before. You get up at a seemingly early time, make your coffee, drive your geared up car to the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the line of cars is already waiting for you. You wanted serenity, and you got the opposite: a line of cars containing increasingly aggro skiers, each hoping to beat each other out for fresh turns.

Here’s the thing. If you’re willing to waste 90 minutes of your life in the car, turn around and drive to the West Desert. No, the snow isn’t as deep as central Wasatch. Nor is the access as easy. But the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys offer adventure. And no one’s there to share it with you. “Even though they are in close proximity to the Wasatch Front, skiers still avoid the West Desert ranges,” explains Jared Hargrave, author of Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Utah. “This may be because there is little information, no avalanche forecast, and private property locations can be hard to navigate. Research is key to a successful tour in these zones,” he adds.

University of Utah Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and founder of Wasatch Weather Weenies Jim Steenburgh recommends checking SNOTEL observations from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Stansbury Mountains have a SNOTEL site at Mining Fork (8,295 feet). The Oquirrhs have three SNOTEL sites: Bevans Cabin (6,520 feet), Rocky Basin (8,704 feet), and Dry Fork (7,093 feet). However, Steenburg notes that many SNOTEL stations are in sheltered locations that hold snow, which have dramatically different snow depths than south-facing or wind exposed locations. “I tend to look at the snow water equivalent in the snowpack and compare it to sites in the central Wasatch to get a handle on the situation,” he adds.

Steenburgh speculates that the Oquirrhs and Stansburys are drier than the Wasatch Front because of their comparatively smaller size. While there are some high peaks in both the Oquirrhs and Stansburys, he says, neither range is as long as the Wasatch. As a result, Steenburgh says, their impact on the atmosphere, and in particular their ability to force the flow to rise, cool, and create precipitation, is more limited. Despite this limitation, he says that both the Oquirrhs and the Stansburys still get precipitation from a variety of directions. “The northern Oquirrhs do sometimes get northerly flow lake-effect when the Wasatch do not,” he says. “The southern Oquirrhs see less lake effect, but sometimes do well in southwesterly flow.”

 

Hargrave, whose book includes detailed route descriptions for the Oquirrhs, says that he starts planning a tour by reading the Central and Southern Wasatch avalanche forecasts and getting a baseline of the snowpack danger. Despite the Oquirrhs’ proximity to the Wasatch, he is quick to warn that the snowpack is very different. “[The Oquirrhs] generally receive less snow and more wind, which can play a big safety factor on the uppermost slopes,” he adds.

Calling self-sufficiency a requirement for the Oquirrhs, Hargrave has cautionary notes for any backcountry travelers heading into this remote range: “Dig several pits. Perform snow stability tests. And check the National Weather Service forecast for the zone in the days leading up to a tour. Look for expected snowfall amounts and wind speeds when planning where to ski.”

Planning an objective in the Stansburys is similarly complex. The range has only one SNOTEL site and no avalanche forecasting, making it a low-risk, high-consequence adventure. Nonetheless, there are resources you can explore before you plan your tour.

The Backcountry Pros Owner and Lead Guide John Mletschnig explains, “The snowpack [in the Stansburys] often can share similar trends those found on the Manti Skyline. That is still a long distance away,” he says, “so by no means is that comparison to be relied upon….Temperature and wind data from Johnson Pass at the south end of the range can be useful. The Stansburys are wild and should be approached as such,” he adds. “It is a far cry from the busy central Wasatch and outside assistance should not be counted on. Users should act accordingly with careful planning and preparation.”

“Backcountry skiing in the Oquirrhs involves longer approaches, both in the car and on the trail, than in the Central Wasatch,” says Tyson Bradley, lead guide at Utah Mountain Adventure and author of Backcountry Skiing Utah. “But it's far less crowded. There is generally less snow, and corn often develops earlier than elsewhere. The snowpack is similar to the Wasatch, except shallower.” Since access is notoriously complicated in the Oquirrhs, Tyson recommends Picnic Canyon, Flattop Mtn from Pole Canyon, and the Chandler Peak area. These three tours offer relatively shorter access to great terrain and snow. Unlike many ski routes in the range, they don’t require you to trespass across private property. One of the areas, Pole Canyon, Bradley notes, has the earliest corn snow in the greater Salt Lake City area.

Hargrave says if he only had one opportunity to ski the Oquirrhs in a season, he would hit the freeze/thaw cycle. “I call it a corn-skiing mecca,” he explains. “You can work the aspects here for perfect corn on every run. Start on the southeast face of Rocky Peak which sees the first light. Then as the sun moves, work your way over to the southwest facing runs on Lowe Peak. You can get quality, soft turns all day here.” 

“Mining companies lord over this range and they own entire peaks and valleys,” says Hargrave. “The only place you can skin and reasonably know you're within the law is to tour the southern end of the range in Ophir Canyon. There are a few trailheads that allow public access through private property to reach the upper mountains.” The three main zones with public access are in Ophir Canyon, he says, where you can reach Lowe Peak, Rocky Peak, and Picnic Canyon. An access gate at the bottom of Serviceberry Canyon allows public access, and he recommends staying on the jeep road until you reach tree line in order to avoid crossing private property. Because not all private property is marked in the Oquirrhs, Hargrave recommends doing your due diligence and reviewing maps of private and public property at Tooele County’s BLM field office. “I've also talked to land owners, personally asking permission to skin through their land to reach the upper slopes,” he says. “If you want to ski the Oquirrhs a lot, building respectful relationships with landowners can go a long way to assuring access in the future.”

 

Mletschnig, whose company is permitted to guide in the Stansburys, explains that range has a diverse terrain selection, including wide open bowls, pine and aspen glades, and committing steep couloirs. “Cold winter snow and spring corn skiing are the norm depending on the season and location,” he says. However, one of the range’s biggest challenges, like so many parts of the West Desert, is access. Though you can drive about an hour from Salt Lake, Mletschnig points out that the range’s best access point, South Willow Canyon road, is gated in winter about four miles from the trailhead and remains shut frustratingly late into the spring, usually long after the road melts off. The only realistic option is to snowmobile the snow-covered road, or to bike it after the snow has melted. Either way, Mletschnig says to expect a long outing.

Bradley says, without a snowmobile, it’s best to ski the Deseret Peak Wilderness in the early or late season when the road is open up to 7,000 feet at Loop Campground.
From the Loop Campground at the end of South Willow Canyon road, you can skin up Dry Lake Fork to reach the base of Deseret Peak. “When conditions allow,” Mletschnig says, “climbing and skiing the Twin Couloirs in conjunction with a summit of Deseret Peak (the high point of the range) can provide an exceptional ski mountaineering day in steep terrain with a remote backcountry feel. Linking the two forks can make for a great loop.”

Hargrave calls the North Twin Couloirs a must-do when touring Deseret Peak. To nab it, he suggests leaving Salt Lake City at midnight and getting on the summit before noon.

“I park at Boy Scout Campground and ride a bike up the remainder of the road with skis strapped to my pack,” he says. “Then skin up Dry Lake Fork to the bottom of the couloirs. Boot up the chutes then skin the summit ridge to the top. After skiing the couloirs,” he adds, “it's rad to sun yourself on the rocks in the basin while safely watching avalanches pour off the summit cliffs in the afternoon heat.”

Still, Desert Peak isn’t the only objective you should add to your tick list in the Stansburys. Mletschnig says, “A bit further south in the range, upper East Hickman Canyon and Bear Fork provide a staggering expanse of bowls and sub-ridges, which can be linked together for a multitude of high-value runs. The area sees a fair amount of sun come late winter,” he adds, “so plan accordingly.” East Hickman Canyon, and other access points in the Stansburys, also contain dirt roads, he points out. Therefore, it’s important to expect no winter maintenance and to use a snowmobile or 4WD vehicle depending on snow cover.

Sleds bring you to remote places pretty readily, Mletschnig says, which is great for skiing, but it’s not great if something happens to the machine. To prevent getting stuck, he says, “Be prepared to be out longer than anticipated, or to potentially walk longer than expected to get out.” Before you start going out on sled-access tours, he says it’s necessary to have at least a basic knowledge of how sleds work. This knowledge, he says, will keep a preventable or easy-to-fix issue from sinking your entire day. Ideally, he recommends, try to travel with two sleds in event that you experience mechanical issues. Refrain from getting too rad on the sled, he adds, because the harder you ride the more likely you are to get stuck. Instead, he suggests sticking to road grades and meadows and avoiding pinning your sled’s throttle.

This article is by MacKenzie Ryan from utahadvjournal.com.

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