I did one last walk through of my basement apartment in the 9th and 9th district of Salt Lake City, slowly closed the door, and strolled down to the car – packed to the brim and ready to hit the road. As I settled into the driver’s seat my elbow brushed a bag whose contents were more responsible for an incredible winter in Utah than any other items strewn about on the bed in the back. Instantly, I was thrust into a wave of flashbacks as I drove south past the Wasatch Front. This bag, containing skis, skins, crampons, axes, beacons, probes, shovels, and other backcountry odds and ends, had offered me the opportunity to do just what I had set out for back in October – spend a winter uncovering what it was about the Utah mountains that attracted millions of visitors each year.
With a fun and rewarding job in Alaska for most of the year, my winters have been dedicated to the mountains – doing my best to find meaningful seasonal work wherever I land. This winter proved to be one of my best yet and, as the Wasatch faded into the rearview, I couldn’t believe it had already come and gone.
I knew I would be spending the season in Salt Lake City before even leaving Alaska – a drastic change from the previous season where I didn’t know I would end up in Lake Tahoe until the week before, as I cut a rug on the dance floor of a wedding in Wisconsin. While the easy transition certainly helped contribute to a great start to the season, my friend base in the city made things even more special. Friends from high school, Colorado, and Alaska all call Salt Lake City home and, as the winter progressed, a whole new group of go-getters joined the ranks of lifelong friends.
But, of course, it was the mountains that drew me to Salt Lake City, and I would be remiss to not mention how special the Wasatch Range truly is. There is good reason over two million people call the Wasatch Front home and, yet, it is not that difficult to escape the masses. Once you do, the terrain of these mountains can feel as wild as anywhere. The ultra dry snowpack, in combination with major storm cycles, helped make this winter one for the record books and a season that even the jaded old-time locals were comparing to “the good old days.”
Over the past few seasons, I have gravitated toward backcountry skiing – trading chairlifts for skins. This winter I intentionally didn’t buy a season pass to any of Utah’s world class resorts. The hope was that this move would force me to spend nearly my entire season in the backcountry and become more comfortable and confident with snow science, navigation, and decision making in avalanche terrain. My skiing has gone this direction in search of the quietude, remoteness, complete ownership of an experience, and (naturally) the quality of skiing that only untracked backcountry terrain can provide.
This winter it truly felt like I hit another personal turning point in the sport of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, and I have the Wasatch Range to thank. It is impossible to express just how grand these mountains are and how varied the terrain actually is between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. It is the perfect playground to hone your skills on the “Greatest Snow on Earth” in a variety of terrain. You can’t help but grow and improve as a skier by devoting a season to the Wasatch. Even on days with an elevated avalanche hazard, there are resources to help the motivated skier get out and still ski countless world-class zones while making smart snow safety decisions. On days when you can push it a little further and steeper, there are even more incredible places to explore (just see Andrew McLean’s The Chuting Gallery http://straightchuter.com/chuting-gallery/).
From waist deep tree skiing and open powder bowls to narrow chutes and alpine exposure, I experienced a lot of what the Utah mountains have to offer and still feel like I barely scratched the surface. I admittedly was a bit hesitant upon moving to the area. There is a lot of quirkiness to Utah, and the mountains can’t be that great…can they? After a winter in the Wasatch I can confidently say that yes, yes they can. Simply put, this place is special. While I am unsure when I will be back, or if I will ever be able to spend another full winter around Salt Lake City, these mountains are officially on the radar. You better believe that every winter from here on out I will be regularly checking the snow forecast in the Cottonwoods, tracking seasonal avalanche trends in the area, and scrambling to make room in my schedule for winter escapes to the Wasatch.
As the highway took me further and further south, and snowcapped peaks eventually gave way to the deserts of Moab, it finally hit me that the bulk of my winter had come to an end. I’m still optimistic that there are more ski days on the horizon this spring, but I would also be okay if this drive marked the end of winter 2016/2017. It was one for the ages. I reconnected with old friends and met new ones, and hit the seasonal lottery with another incredible winter in the mountains. As the red rocks of Moab passed by the windows, I looked to the immediate future. The ski bag under my elbow just happened to be sitting atop a tote full of rock climbing gear. Gear that will be put to full use in a few short days, as I get the opportunity to explore the exploding climbing scene in Southeast Asia. Ski season may be over, but if you dream big enough there will always be something on the horizon. For now, it’s on to the next adventure.