Originally published in Utah Adventure Journal (Dec 2010):
“Livin’ the dream”. If we said those words once to each other, we said them a thousand times over the course of our three night stay at the Snorkeling Elk Yurt, high in the Tushar Mountains. Living the dream applies to nearly each part of your day: watching the sunrise from above 10,000′, following a “40-turner” down the powdery flanks of Delano Peak or the crackle of a potbelly stove while gorging on tacos and beer miles from civilization.
The only person in Utah that has it better than our motley crew of eight (plus two dogs), would be our guide Alec – owner of Tushar Mountain Tours. Alex operates two yurts in the periphery of the formerly defunct Elk Meadows Ski Area, now Eagle Point – just outside Beaver, UT. Elk Meadows claimed the highest elevation of all Utah resorts – no small feat when compared to the dizzying heights found at Wasatch Front resorts. This high perch in the uncrowded Tushars provides an unforgettable backcountry trip.
The resort village of Elk Meadows/ Eagle Point serves as our meeting place and launching point for the excursion to Snorkeling Elk. In addition to his two yurts Alec manages a few condos in the village, offering a convenient launching point for a yurt trip. A unique option would be basing out of a condo and touring around the resort for a few days – an option I mentally file for future trip. Snorkeling Elk, however is calling our names.
Perhaps the best idea Luke, our nominated group leader, had was to secure snowmobile assistance for the skin in. While the grade is an easy cruise, the 4 plus miles feels a tad long while humping heavy packs or pulling a sled at elevation. Alec can help tow your gear in, which is well worth the few extra dollars and also saves your legs for the skiing if you’re not lucky enough to have friends who own snowmobiles. Our pair of ‘biles make short work of all the bulky group gear (read: beer, boxed wine, coolers with real food, etc.). Light packs plus all these creature comforts equals livin’ the dream.
Once at the Yurt, the grandeur of the Tushar range rises behind us, while the pastoral Beaver valley lies below. Once the evening alpenglow turns the neighboring slopes incredible hues of orange and red someone whimsically quips “this place would be a lot cooler if view were better.” No one can take their eyes off the mountains – a truly amazing scene. The night sky, not to be outdone by the setting sun, gives way to countless stars- so many that the star chart only shows a fraction of what we can see overhead.
The real reason we’re here is to make some turns. Opting to hire Alec as our guide for the first day we begin a low angle skin behind the Yurt up a snow-covered ATV trail and we point our skis toward Delano Peak’s 12,173′ summit. Having someone who knows not only where the good snow is, but how to access it, maximizes a backcountry experience. When earning your turns- getting skunked is never fun – skiing creamy boot-deep powder is far preferable.
The skiing off Delano’s western flank is so good we opt to skin back up for another run. This wide face easily provides ample elbow room to stack tracks for our group of eight over several runs. Taking a circuitous route back towards the yurt we ascended a small side-drainage of Merchant Creek that offers some sheltered tree-shots below “The Great White Whale”. Alec had struck gold for us again – we could have easily passed through this drainage without realizing the bounty right above us. Having our skin to ski to skin transition down pat at this point, most of us opt for another run here before heading back to the comfort of the yurt.
Today’s lessons weren’t quite over: Francois teaches the group his rudimentary, yet accurate, method of determining elevation skied. Making symmetrical turns down the hill one could simply count the number of turns made and know that the “thirty-three turner” slope was about 500′. My first run down the same slope I made 4 GS turns. How short-sighted of me: everyone else has 29 more face-shots. After 45 minutes of skinning, best to not have the “down” be over in 5 seconds. Lesson learned.
Not to be outdone by last nights smorgasbord of tacos, complete with homemade guacamole, salsa and fresh corn tortillas, tonight’s meal was equally filling and delicious: pasta with pesto and smoked salmon.
The next morning began with the first company we had since fueling up off I-15 a couple of days ago. A group of three snowmobilers cruised by to make some high-mark turns in one of the bowls directly behind the yurt – an area we had named the backyard slope due to its proximity and ease of access for a warm-up or nightcap run. Over a lunch conversation one of the snowmobilers referred to us ski-tourers as “click-clicks”. Ingenious. This is exactly the sound our bindings make as you skin up the hill…why hadn’t we thought of this? Click-click however, as he enlightened us, referred to the sound skis make as his snowmobile runs over the tips of tourers who don’t get far enough off to the side of the access trail. He was kidding (we think), so we offered him a few sips from one of the adult beverage bottles our own snowmobilers had hauled up. There’s room out here for everyone to recreate without user-conflict – he proved to be a great example of this by towing a few of us to the top of the backyard slope for a few assisted runs. Just to be safe, though, we got our ski tips the heck out of the way as soon as we dropped the tow rope.
The next day a small group of us headed to the south, towards Mt. Baldy and Belknap to ski a gunsight notch we had seen the previous day from Delano. Crossing the Poison Creek drainage the gunsight (two rock outcrops with a patch of snow between them) comes into view. As we had hoped, this patch of snow proves to be plenty wide to comfortably fit 4 sets of tracks. Featuring a southern exposure, the snow was a tad heavier than yesterday, but the aesthetics more than made up for a slight drop in snow quality.
The other half of our group found a great wind-buffed slope just above the backyard slope for a few smooth afternoon laps. Our resident dog Samson liked this slope’s soft feel: he had a long day of doing his best “snow-dolphin” impersonation through the powder earlier in the trip. The Snorkeling Elk yurt truly offers such a wide variety of slope options you can easily find the exposure, steepness and run length you are after.
After three full days of touring, our final night begins early with dice and card games as the potbelly stove dries out gear and provides the rehabilitating effect only a fire can offer. Not to leave any unburned calories on the table, Scott takes it upon himself to build a snow cave adjacent to the yurt. While the yurt sleeps eight, a body or two less would be more comfortable, especially considering we have two full size dogs with us. One would be surprised how comfortable a night in a snow cave can be – and digging one a few steps from a yurt is an ideal opportunity to hone your skills. After getting the fire roaring one last time the temperature reaches 80 degrees indoors – our benchmark for comfort – and conversation switches gears from swapping stories of today’s excursions to planning next year’s trip before sleep begins to grab its inevitable hold. No need to dream tonight, because, after all, we’re living the dream.
Tushar Mountain Tours operates two yurts – Snorkeling Elk & Puffer Lake. SE sleeps 8 (6 is more comfortable), while Puffer lake sleeps less. The terrain found at each yurt is different. SE features more open bowls above tree-line and peak-bagging opportunities. The price is a longer approach.
Alec is your one-stop shopping guy. He can arrange your condo in Elk Meadows, help schlep gear to either yurt and guide your group to the best terrain to suit your goals. He is a wealth of local knowledge – take advantage of him.
Tours begin outside Beaver, UT, a 200 mile drive from SLC