Backcountry skiing at Snorkeling Elk Yurt
Water drops landed on my face and woke me up from a deep sleep filled with dreams of skiing in a rain storm. Confused, I wiped my face and sat up in my sleeping bag to make sure I was still inside the Snorkeling Elk Yurt, located in Utah’s Tushar Mountains. Earlier that night my slumber was interrupted by the sound of “roofalanches” sliding off the yurt’s peaked, fabric top as six inches of snow fell in the evening. That sound cracked a smile and got me out of the warm confines of my sleeping bag to get ready for another day with nothing to worry about but skiing, eating, and drinking copious amounts of craft beer. As for the rain drops, it was merely condensation that collected on the ceiling, now falling with the warmth of a newly stoked fire.
The Snorkeling Elk Yurt is one of two yurts run by Alec Hornstein of Tushar Mountain Tours, who met the six of us at the trail head on Big John Flat Road with his snowmobile (which we reserved exclusively to haul up cases of New Belgium and Sierra Nevada beer.) Loaded down with heavy packs, we slowly made our way up the low-angle road to the yurt. In just over two hours, we arrived and settled in. After lunch, Adam and I cut loose for a quick afternoon tour while the rest wussed out to relax and, yes, drink that beer.
Unsure of where to go, we decided to check out a minor peak near the yurt called the Great White Whale. Skinning up through a forest of old pines to a ridge afforded us a sweeping view of Mount Holly, Delano Peak, and the Great White Whale sitting in the foreground between them. A short ski into the next valley over put us at the foot of the mountain where we headed up into a canyon that rose to the high alpine. A short climb up to a saddle, then a bootpack over grassy meadows put us on the top.
Beer was consumed, photos were taken, and awe filled our minds as we made imaginary turns on skiable lines spread out around us. We had three more days to explore it all, and got down to it by skiing the Great White Whale. Adam chose a steep line on a ribbon of snow while I set up across a small sub-peak to get a good photo. Dropping in, Adam made a series of short turns on hard-yet-edgeable spring corn, framed by a massive view of the Tushars behind. I soon followed, catching up with Adam at the bottom where we made fast turns back to our pine ridge and the yurt waiting below.
After scoping out lines on Delano Peak on day one, the group decided to climb her and ski from the top. Delano is the closest peak to the yurt, and it also happens to be the highest mountain in the Tushar Range. Luckily, her slopes are not steep, and climbing to her top was surprisingly easy.
It only took us around two hours to reach the peak, marked by a sideways mail box and hurricane-force winds. We found escape from the constant blowing just below the summit where we basked in the sun and ate lunch. Bellies filled with beer and sausage, we rallied and skied the leg-chattering-with-every-turn, crusty south face that had frozen with the arrival of high clouds and rapidly dropping temperatures ahead of a cold front.
We were back to the yurt by 2pm, and canned beer broke out like candy from an exploded a pinata. But Eric and I weren’t ready to relax just yet, so we geared back up and went for a short tour in the pine trees below Delano’s west ridge. Our run down the wide spine into a steep tree shot was fun, but may not have been worth missing out on all the festivities that happened back at the Snorkeling Elk, based on the stack of empties we found on the table when we got back.
That night I awoke to that sweet sound of snow sliding off the yurt’s roof, signaling a powder day. Sadly, half our rowdy group had to leave early that morning, so only three of us were left to tackle our final objective of the trip; Shelly Baldy Peak. Her proud, rocky face drew our eyes and our skis to her snowy base, but it wasn’t easy to get there. A series of ridges and drainages stood between the yurt and the mountain, which slowed travel time considerably (but provided opportunity to ski down each of the aforementioned ridges.)
It took four hours and just as many miles to traverse to Shelly Baldy’s foot, where we took off our skis and hiked up the central, rocky ridge to the top. Massive winds that are ever-present in the Tushars greeted us. We readied ourselves for the ski down by hunkering beneath giant rock cairns, yet still had a celebratory beer despite the chill.
The ski down was… interesting as Eric and I found wind-affected powder but Adam made close-and-personal contact with a buried rock that destroyed the edges of both skis. After much cursing and ski-throwing, we traversed the four miles back to the yurt, diverging here and there for powder turns in open meadows and even an aesthetic chute between a pair of red-rock towers that rose from the final ridge like rabbit ears. The snow was punchy and challenging, but that descent was the most thrilling of the trip.
Our final day at the Snorkeling Elk Yurt found us sore, tired and completely out of beer. So we went for a short morning tour and made two laps in the powder-filled tree shots just behind the yurt before cleaning the shelter and poling back down the road to the car.
In all, the trip to the Snorkeling Elk Yurt exceeded expectations. While the yurt is spartan, the terrain more than makes up for it as so much high-alpine runs can be found within short approaches. With three peaks, numerous bowls, and moderate tree skiing all to choose from, the Snorkeling Elk is a place where backcountry skiers can go back to again and again, ye never ski the same line twice.
For more information or to reserve the yurt for yourself, visit Tushar Mountain Tours online.