A quest to ride the perfect line—8,000 vertical feet from the top of the La Sal Range to the Colorado River, by bike and ski—is a lesson in the moodiness of big mountains in the desert.
Photos by Adam Barker
TWENTY-SIX INCHES of fresh powder in April should be something to get excited about. It’s not if you are planning on skiing the high peaks of the La Sals, however. With long, open slopes and one of the most dangerous snowpacks in the West, the La Sals can be deadly with fresh snow. And powder certainly was not what we had been expecting.
We had planned on making the trip out to ski these mountains that reach up like cathedral spires above the red rock of Moab in early April precisely because that’s when the snow here is at its best—the warm desert sun and clear nights that drop temperatures down below freezing instigate a freeze-thaw cycle that sets up perfect corn. And those are the conditions required to hit the big lines I had been eyeing up in the La Sals ever since I first mountain biked on the Slickrock trail and couldn’t stop thinking about the snow-covered peaks on the horizon.
So I was about to be shut out of a ski trip because of too much snow. Worse, this trip was not suppsoed to be just about skiing. The goal was to take on Moab top-to-bottom. We would skin up and begin our ski descent from the summit of 12,482-foot Mount Tukuhnivatz, feast on several thousand feet of fresh corn down to the La Sal Loop auto road, and then hop on mountain bikes to bomb the once-illegal singletrack of UPS (Upper Porcupine Singletrack) and rim-side singletrack of LPS (Lower Porcupine Singletrack). From there, we would join the famed Porcupine Rim trail, riding it down to the Colorado River. The total trip would rack up more than 35 miles and drop over than 8,000 feet of vertical. I envisioned it as the perfect line, a ride down one of the most stunning cross-sections of geography on the planet. Where else could you start from alpine conditions and end up at the bottom of towering sandstone cliffs? What better way to celebrate the mulit-sport possibilities and sublime landscape of the West?
Here’s another problem with two feet of snow in Moab—not only does it spike the avalanche danger, it also closes down the bike trails, leaving them either covered or softened into goo that’s impossible to ride. Unfortunately, our team—Salt Lake City photographer Adam Barker, Mount Shasta ranger and pro skier Forrest Coots and me—had a ton of other commitments. If we didn’t do it now, it wasn’t going to happen this year. That reality hit me even harder after I talked to local snow forecaster and guide Dave Madera, who basically told us the conditions were like mid-winter up there and the danger, especially in mountains as exposed as the La Sals was just too high to risk the trip.
I also started to learn more about the truly ephemeral nature of the La Sals’ snowpack. I asked Madera if it would be better to wait until May for safe corn snow. And I got an ambivalent response that seems to be the norm when you ask Moab locals about the snow in the La Sals: “It might be amazing. It might be gone.” It’s no easy thing to catch the snow just right on mountains that shoot up from the floor of the desert. Islands in the blue sky, the La Sals are buffeted by winds and storms and then baked by the sun, creating a series of bad snow layers. Furthermore in dry periods, the wind picks up all the red rock grit and plasters the La Sals with dust layers, incredibly unstable and contributing to big slides. And when the snow starts to corn up and the dust layers are exposed, they speed up the melting since they are darker and absorb more heat. The big-mountain lines in the La Sals are definitely some of the best you will ever see, but good luck hitting them when conditions are right.
Conditions are definitely wrong. Plus, I took a ride in a slide in Euope earlier in the winter—slamming down along a rock band and luckily not getting buried or injured—and I really didn’t want to repeat it. Madera gives me one option that may work, however—the trees in Gold Basin, just off the loop road and in the shadow of Tukuhnivatz. We could ski powder there. Well, Moab powder and mountain biking at least some of the most coveted singletrack on the planet doesn’t sound too bad, so despite all the negatives adding up, we decide to try a modified version of the trip.
The snow stops the day before we get to Moab, leaving blue skies and the white-capped La Sals lording over town. We hook up with two locals for the trip. Kirsten Petersen runs Rim Tours and will be meeting us at the La Sal Loop road with our bikes. She’s not optimistic that we will be able to ride anything or even get the support van up the road. But our other local hookup doesn’t seem perturbed by the new snow on the trails (his bike also looks like it has seen a ton of abuse). Max Forgensi works full time for the Forest Service in Moab after spending years in the trenches and some ski seasonal bumming at Breck. He also mans the La Sal Avalanche Center along with Madera and he was instrumental in getting the Forest Service to open up the singletrack on UPS, which had been poached for years. Forgensi is also upbeat about the skiing, recommending we go up and check things out in Gold Basin and perhaps scope out some bigger lines.
As we skin up through Aspen glades and meadows with all the mazes of eastern Utah’s canyons sprawling below us, Max informs me that our idea is not all that new. In fact, the Moab bachelor party ritual is even more rigorous—ski Gold Baisn, bike Porcupine, rappel into Negro Bill Canyon, hike out and then paddle the Colorado into town. Furthermore, Moab is misunderstood. Almost unbearable when it’s crowded and of course absolutely clichéd as a desert adventure town, Moab is full of spots no one knows about (including pirate singletrack that’s almost impossible for the uninitiated to find) and beyond the bikes and motorized trails, it’s got world class climbing, paddling, paragliding, road cycling… and, if you hit it right, skiing and snowboarding (there was even once a lift-served resort in the Abajo Mountains south of town).
The community of snowsliders here is pretty small and no one from out of town comes here for it. Most of the locals even lose interest when the weather warms up and biking takes over. But Max is core. He points out line after line, including the bowl where an avalanche foecaster and his party were killed in a slide back in the ’80s and one absolutely delicious perfect looking shot off the shoulder of Tukuhnivatz (called Tuk No, as in, no, it’s not the summit) that starts atop a perfect pyramid and runs straight down Gold Basin.
Forgensi also deconstructs the soul of the Moab athlete for me. He tells me about Colorado athletes who come out hypercharged for a workout and dressed in the latest, greatest outdoor gear. “The Moab way, “ he tells me, “Is to take it just as hard as the Colorado athlete but drink some beers and smoke butts along the way.”
We head up along a big ridge above the woods in Gold Basin hoping to get powder turns on some decent terrain. We are quite a ways up when we realize that it is not going to happen. Forgensi himself is shocked at how temperamental the La Sals are on this day. That two foot dump has been windswept and sun baked into absolute manky crust. We survival ski it (Forrest makes some admirable big turns considering how bad it is), finding at least some soft snow in the tree shadows further down, but all-in-all it’s rough. Meanwhile, the chute of Tuk No taunts us from above—it actually looks good and has been softening up in the sun. But we only have enough time for this one long run since we still need to bike all the way down and we have no idea what the trails are going to be like.
As we head back to the trucks, Max phones in to Kirsten and asks me if we need her to bring us anything.
“A bottle of Jagermeister, “ I joke. “Wouldn’t that be what a Moab athlete would need?”
When we arrive down along the loop road to the trailhead for UPS, Kirsten and her van drivers are there waiting for us with our bikes and …. a bottle of Jagermeister. So after fueling up on a shot (or two) of the dreaded black alcohol (the Moab way!) and some Honey Stinger chews, part two of the perfect line gone awry begins.
UPS is out. It’s just too snowy, so we give LPS a go. Kirsten joins us and punches her way through slush and mud. It’s ride-able but barely. We slip and slide down through a tight spot called The Notch (which requires more cajones than any of us can muster to ride) and start climbing up the other side of a small canyon into the sun. The sun! An amazing thing happens. The trail is snowfree. Better, it’s tacky, a blast to ride. LPS snakes right along the side of the rim, pure singletrack riddled with fun technical problems and a hundred foot drop into Castle Valley a few inches away. I don’t know if it’s the Jager or the surprise of the ride actually working out or maybe even the Kona Coilair (an enduro bike, that’s got downhill chops but will still pedal up the occasional hill), but it feels like riding in Moab has never felt better for me. Fast. Flowy.
I have never been the biggest fan of Porcupine Rim. It’s ridiculously crowded and most of the riders on it are decked out in fancy team jerseys and riding Mavericks and Yetis but have absolutely no idea how to mountain bike. And it’s really more of a jeep road than singletrack, except for the final section when it sneaks through the cliffs to the Colorado. But this time, it’s absolutely fantastic. It feels as if the trail is just rolling under the tires, little airs happen naturally, tricky problems seem obvious. Best of all, we don’t see a soul—not one other mountain biker on Porcupine Rim. By the time we do reach the final singletrack with the sun turning golden and the white peaks of the La Sal far behind, we are absolutely high on the ride. It’s redemption and worth it.
We plan on going back and trying the chute on Tuk No the next day, but that night a massive wind picks up, scouring the peaks and pulling our tent out of its stakes and almost depositing it in the river. It’s over. But ever since, I have had that line in my mind’s eye. When I go back next time—and I promise I will—I’m not going to plan the trip because you can’t really plan anything with these mountains and, anyway, having no real plan would be doing it the Moab way. •
You are on your own if you want to ski Moab. Very few people even know you can ski in the mountain-bike-and-4-wheel Mecca, but the skiing in Gold Basin can be deep in the winter and the road is paved allowing for easy access and powder laps in the trees. Spring mountaineering is (as we found out) a crapshoot, but April should be the best time to find enough corn snow to ski/snowboard some incredible big-mountain lines. Be absolutely sure to check conditions and talk to the folks at the La Sal Avalanche Center (www.utahavalanchecenter.org, 888-999-4019).
Biking in Moab needs no explanation and can be incredibly good early when the trails are tackier and the crowds have yet to descend on the place. For a guaranteed good time, book a trip with Kirstin Peterson and Rim Tours (www.rimtours.com, 800-626-7335), who can shuttle and/or guide you up Porcuine Rim or deeper into the La Sals. Rim Tours also runs longer epic trips on the Kokopelli trail (135 miles between Fruita and Moab) and White Rim (90 miles in Canyonlands National Park).