A SKI-OUTING IN UTAH’S HIGHEST MOUNTAINS REVEALS FORMIDABLE TERRAIN AND BOUNDLESS OPPORTUNITY
WORDS ■ SEAN ZIMMERMAN-WALL // PHOTOS ■ JAY DASH
The mountainous regions of the planet are everlasting monuments that endure eons and morph into myriad formations that capture the imagination and stir the heart. As skiers, we travel into the backcountry to escape, to experience, to learn and to live. Finding a place that resonates within us allows the opportunity to peer back into bygone eras and discover wildness; our senses scrubbed until they shine.
Early explorers of the American West experienced the unknown on a near daily basis as they ventured into new territory to discover what lies behind the next ridgeline. Throughout their travels they documented the various monoliths and jagged summits that punctuate the landscape beyond the 100th Meridian. The Uinta Mountains in particular stand out as a peculiar collection of peaks and basins that run on an east-west continuum across northern Utah; this orientation alone makes the Uintas a unique geographic feature as they are the only major range in the contiguous United States to do so. The metamorphic and glacial forces that created the Uintas captivated geologists of the 19th century and their namesakes grace the highest peaks of the range: Hayden, King, Aggazis and Emmons to name just a few. At 13,528 feet, Kings Peak stands as the tallest summit in Utah and the High Uintas Wilderness represents the largest grouping of peaks above 12,000 feet in the state.
Traveling into the citadel of rock and snow during the winter for the purpose of skiing entails a multitude of logistical challenges. Despite it being only 80 miles from an international airport and 30 miles from what most people would consider civilization, the Uintas are a difficult place to access and find reliable conditions. Weather patterns continually strike the massifs at an oblique angle, ushering in hurricane force winds, cold temperatures and a notoriously weak snowpack. Luck, timing and hard work must align for the intrepid to succeed in a place such as this.
Our journey begins with an interstate drive from Utah into Wyoming, and back through Utah in a blinding snowstorm. Rented snowmobiles from the aptly named Lofty Peaks Adventures follow along obediently on their trailers as we travel over slick roadways. The morning is cool and despite it being the month of April, the weather resembles that of a mid-winter’s day. Arriving at the trailhead after a white-knuckle drive down the rarely plowed Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, we slide the snowmobiles off the decks and carefully pack our gear onto their tunnels. The ingress to our chosen location on Hell Hole Lake means traveling eleven miles using snowmobiles and AT gear. For the final three-mile walk into the High Uintas Wilderness, we elect to bring pulks—otherwise known as tow-behind sleds—that carry our camera equipment, camping gear, food and adult beverages. Spending three days in this remote area requires preparing for many contingencies and parsing down gear to a manageable weight of 50-ish pounds per person.
Snowmobile riding experience certainly varies across the group, but the conditions are favorable and we manage to make it to the end of the road without much incident. Lashing our gear carefully to the pulks, we start the next leg towards camp. Fat snowflakes fall from the sky and the winds trend lighter during the long walk through the woods. The tranquility of motion under a heavy load becomes all-consuming as we kick and glide our way uphill. A few hours float by and we reach camp in the upper drainage. Settling on a sheltered flat just north of the lake gives us incredible views of the surrounding skiable terrain. We then elect to transform the landscape into a base camp of two sleeping tents, a floor-less cook tent, latrines and an elaborate wind wall.
After grabbing a bite to eat we head up for an evening ski tour on the flanks of A1 Peak, which stands as a juggernaut looming over our camp. The western aspect provides long, steep shots of glorious powder that billows with every turn and we are amazed by the conditions. As the sun sets behind Kletting Peak across the drainage, we ski a home run back into camp and toast our accomplishments. Within an hour, the sky is black and the full moon casts long shadows over the frozen lake. Prepping food, melting snow and drying gear become tedious tasks as temperatures plummet into the icebox. By bedtime our thermometer reads -10 degrees Fahrenheit. To survive the night we stash all our fuel, water, radios and soaked boot liners into the bottom of the sleeping bags. Insulating ourselves against the biting temps is near impossible and the cramped quarters make sleep an elusive goal.
The harsh reality of winter camping hits us in the face the next morning as one shake of the tent from a wind gust covers us in condensation snow. Sun rays eventually reach camp and skiing actually pops back into our minds. Kletting Peak rises to over 12,000 feet and its north ridge provides many opportunities for skiing. A route to the summit exists along a subtle moraine feature that leads to a saddle and then up a wind-swept shoulder. Gaining the peak in a couple of hours gives us unbelievable views in every direction and we realize the true ski potential of these mountains. Couloirs and wide-open cirques punctuate the north side of neighboring Hayden Peak, tempting our group with exciting offerings. Although the weather is clear, the incessant wind and lateness of the day preclude a foray to these tantalizing objectives and we focus on picking some closer, safer descents. The sun is low in the sky as we drop in to the east face and ski settled powder back towards camp. All of us are exhausted from the completion of the formidable Kletting Traverse and our thoughts quickly transition toward replenishing our weary bodies.
The final evening’s festivities center around a roaring campfire expertly crafted by our seasoned winter campers. Their ability to turn borderline suffering into an enjoyable experience allows for memorable moments spent in an unforgiving place. The whiskey flows and tales of traveling dominate our conversations. As the last embers burn out we recount how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to earn the lessons the mountains teach us. We measure our success through endurance and know that each turn on this trip is hard won. The Uintas test the mettle of even the most veteran backcountry adventurers and reward their visitors with a sense of accomplishment. Returning to these lonely hills will occupy our thoughts for the foreseeable future and we look forward to exploring the vast expanses of which we caught a glimpse.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of FREESKIER (20.3), The Backcountry Issue. Click here to subscribe and receive copies of FREESKIER Magazine delivered right to your doorstep.