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Skiing a Desert Island in Utah

Colter Hinchliffe, Tim Durtschi, and NIc Alegre explore Utah’s La Sal Mountains, one of the most remote ranges in the West

The empty, remote, unexplored mountains in the U.S. are dwindling. Among the few unknowns left include the La Sals, an island of snow-capped peaks in the middle of a red desert in southeastern Utah.

Last winter, Colter Hinchliffe and Tim Durtschi spent two weeks exploring Utah’s second highest range. Photographer Nic Alegre joined them for one week. Aided by snowmobiles, the trio covered the range’s 10-mile span, mapping out a list of spots to ski—technical descents off 12,000-foot peaks, barren slopes for backcountry booters, rocky fingers ideal for mini golf lines. Fifty miles from the popular climbing and mountain biking town of Moab, the trio saw few other people once up in the mountains. Their photos reflect the striking contrast between elements.

“The best part of it was just that opportunity to have this blank canvas, this entire range to ourselves, to portray it as we felt it,” says Alegre. “It was like everything you ever dreamed of when you were a little kid.”

Where Arches National Park hosts nearly 1.4 million tourists annually, the beta from the La Sals is minimal. That’s not to say the mountains are hidden; you can see them from downtown Moab and be at the trailhead to the comparatively well-known Gold Basin in the northwestern slope of the range in 45 minutes. It’s just that people don’t associate Moab with skiing, says Hinchliffe.

“It was sort of the obvious one that was right under people’s nose,” he says. “A lot of climbers have had the thought to check it out, but not many acted on it.”

Hinchliffe was also on a late fall climbing trip to Moab when the idea to ski the range came to him. He was with Durtschi, whose broken truck kept him in town longer than planned. In November, the peaks had received their first snow of the season inspiring excitement for the winter ahead and the prospect of skiing an unfamiliar range. Then, in January, they took a detour from a trip to the San Juans to inspect the La Sals closer with snowmobiles.

“They’re a pretty legit, high mountain range,” says Hinchliffe. “They have a few fairly pointy, gnarlier peaks.”

When they came back in March 2016 with Alegre, the group started in Gold Basin. They skied a technical descent requiring rope work down the north face of 12,482-foot Mount Tukunikivatz. And they took their snowmobiles to the southern end of the range to ski the less-traveled Dark Canyon, where access requires much more effort. The snowpack was classic intercontinental, and in the high desert, the range is prone to high winds. Conditions were scratchy and firm.

“It was difficult. You’re dealing with a desert environment and snow,” says Alegre. “I had to be aware of this whole extra element of the desert. You’re usually shooting snow or desert. You’re not shooting both.”

Part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest and the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the range was formed from an intrusion of volcanic igneous rock some 25 million years ago. The beauty of the range manifested in sprawling, 360-degree views of the Colorado Plateau from the summit. “From the top of the La Sals you can see all the way to Colorado,” says Alegre.

A storm came after Alegre parted ways. Hinchliffe and Durtschi stayed at one of the new Talking Mountain Yurts (this winter is the yurts’ second season open) in Gold Basin, on the northwestern slope of the range, which is just starting to become known for ski touring. They slept through the storm and woke up to a foot of new snow and no wind.

“You’re there by yourself,” says Hinchliffe. “It brings it back to the reason I think I fell in love with backcountry skiing to begin with.”

This story was originally published in the Photo Annual of Volume 45 (45.5). Subscribe to “The Skier’s Magazine” for $14.97.