Untracked Line: Salt of the Earth

New yurts and desert powder in Utah’s most mysterious mountain range.
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The late spring light is fading to thick, misty fog as photographer Lee Cohen and I founder in dense snow. We’re roughly 26 miles outside of Moab, Utah—a town known best for slickrock mountain biking and geologic marvels—on our way to one of two new backcountry yurts situated at 10,000 feet in an unlikely desert oasis: the La Sal Mountains.

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According to folklore, the Sierra La Sal was named by the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776. As the party crossed the redrock desert below, they assumed these high peaks were covered with salt—sal—rather than snow, an understandable mistake given the kiln-fired landscape surrounding the range.

But while the La Sals don’t ever see snow depths like the Wasatch, some years (like this one in 2015–16) they receive a respectable bounty. And any lack of powder is compensated for by altitude and sheer vertical relief—most peaks are above 12,000 feet.

I’m pulling a sled full of food, beer, and sleeping bags on the 2.1-mile approach and am ready to begin a last-ditch grid search for the yurt using my GPS when snowmobile headlights beam into view. Aboard the machine are skiers Kyle Frederick and Liz Rocco.

Frederick helped construct the new Talking Mountain Yurts: Gold Basin and Geyser Pass. The operation is run by Will Kelley and John Dutrow, both former Alta skiers and current Moab residents with a passion for the backcountry. Within moments Frederick leads us to the Gold Basin Yurt, in a meadow surrounded by aspens, and Cohen quickly sparks the wood stove to “sauna” setting. Settled in amongst the aspens we crack a beer and then drift asleep.

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The next morning, blue skies prevail ahead of another approaching storm, and six inches of fresh lure Frederick, Rocco, and me to the 12,048-foot summit of Tukuhnikivatz North (Tuk No). We bypass several tempting short powdery slopes that dive off the adjacent ridge as we skin for the king line, assessing stability along the way.

Tukuhnikivatz (“Where the sun last sets,” in Ute) and Tukuhnikivatz North tower above the desert like great pyramids, and the steep northeast chutes of Tuk No may be the most aesthetic lines in the entire range.

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Bouts of clouds and sun greet us on the summit, and red hues from Canyonlands National Park, 6,000 feet below, contrast with the white dome of the peak. Last night’s storm loaded two of the three northeast chutes, named Gravel Pit Lanes, and they avalanched sometime this morning. The third, however, was sheltered from the wind and remains pristine. It plummets down the fall line, a perfectly sustained alley.

Avalanche hazard is serious business in the La Sals, where steep, convex geology and an extremely continental snowpack often converge to create fickle conditions with few moderately pitched alternatives. Even in good conditions, as we’ve found, the La Sals require a humble approach to reap the rewards.

Rocco skirts through the peppery entrance and links perfectly controlled turns down the chute. When she’s out of sight, I drop. My third turn is into eight inches of unaffected stable spring powder, and I open big arcs down the rest of the 1,800-foot chute—a run to remember.

We’re awakened by the sound of the yurt’s roof shedding a foot of new snow. Holy shit! It dumped! I quickly fire up the coffee, and we head to the old-growth fir forest of the North Woods and Pre-Laurel Peak. Howling wind hunches us over on the ridge, but fortunately The Funnel (named for the two bowls that converge into one chute/terrain trap) has yet to develop a new slab. After some careful snow assessment we dive in one at a time.

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Dry plumes send cold impulses up my thighs as I transition between turns, floating toward the spout of The Funnel. And at the bottom, I watch Rocco, Cohen, and Frederick ski, each sending reeling powder sprays that, if I squint just right, maybe, just maybe, could be mistaken for billowing, pure white salt.

Erme Catino writes about anything powder-related in Utah. Thankfully, he has lots of material.

Details: The La Sal Mountain Scenic Route loop offers year-round plowed road access. The yurts are equipped with pots, utensils, firewood, an outhouse, a woodstove, bunks, and pads. Just bring sleeping bags, toilet paper, food, and brews. Reservations: talkingmountainyurts.com; $220–$280 per night for up to eight people.

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