Out of Boundary: Backcountry Yurt Skiing in the Uinta Mountains

The smell of gasoline fills my nostrils, a high-pitched whine fills my ears, and a bumpy vibration fills the space between my legs. I’m riding on the back of a snowmobile down the Mirror Lake Highway toward the Ridge Yurt in the Uinta Mountains, thanking God that we don’t have to haul our gear and beer the 4 1/2 miles into the backcountry. I look back with every bump to make sure our packs, both of the back and 12 variety, haven’t spilled out onto the snow. We’ve enlisted the help of the fine folks at the Bear River Lodge to shuttle us in, saving us time and energy better spent actually skiing rather than slogging on the flats.

The Ridge Yurt is the fourth out of five yurts on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains operated by BRORA. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

The Ridge Yurt is the fourth out of five yurts on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains operated by BRORA. Of course beer is a prerequisite for any proper yurt trip. (Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

After a short 15 minutes, myself, along with Adam Symonds, Jon Strickland, and Mike DeBernardo, arrive at the Ridge Yurt, the fourth out of five yurts on the north slope of the High Uintas operated in a cooperative effort between the Forest Service and the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance, or BRORA. After bidding the snowmobile driver goodbye, I unload my skis and microbrews and settle in as we share chores necessary for a comfortable yurt life: chopping wood, making a fire, melting water, and cooking. Of course skiing is the most important activity on a yurt trip, and after our to-do list is complete, we skin out to explore the surrounding terrain.

A spooky, burnt forest lies right out the front door of the Ridge Yurt. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

A spooky, burnt forest lies right out the front door of the Ridge Yurt. (Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

Right outside the yurt door, we enter a burnt forest that casts the mountains in an eerie moonscape of blackened stumps and fallen logs. As I skin, my skis scrape over faceted snow that barely covers the ground, due to a dry December in Utah. We ascend a small mountain and switchback through the naked trees. It looks like a giant planted thousands of toothpicks into a styrofoam hill.

Mike DeBernardo skis among the burnt trees around the Ridge Yurt in the Uinta Mountains. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Mike DeBernardo skis among the burnt trees around the Ridge Yurt in the Uinta Mountains. (Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

A few hours of skinning puts us on top, where we proceed to ski the low-angle slopes, careful not to allow our ski tips to sink under a knee-snapping log. The slow turns on shallow snow are challenging, but we savor the quiet solitude of the forest and the wind before heading back to the yurt for the night.

In the morning we are greeted by four inches of new snow. Quickened by the smell of fresh powder, we pack our gear and beer (weight hauled by a snowmobile the day before) onto our groaning backs and push off on the skin track. Our next mountain home is the Boundary Creek Yurt, the fifth and last in the BRORA yurt chain. Boundary is a smaller yurt well beyond the non-motorized zone, which means everything has to be packed in and out. But it’s only a mile-and-a-half through the burnt forest before we drop our bags on the front deck.

The Boundary Creek Yurt is nestled amongst evergreen trees at the base of a perfect ski zone that fall on the north slopes of an unnamed peak. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

The Boundary Creek Yurt is nestled amongst evergreen trees at the base of a perfect ski zone that fall on the north slopes of an unnamed peak. (Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

Clearly Boundary Creek is the best yurt for backcountry skiers. Steep mountains surround the place, with gladed runs just outside the front door. After starting a fire in the wood stove and melting water, we break trail up an unnamed peak. Before we get to high, however, Mike digs a pit to test for avalanche stability. To our dismay, test columns fail upon isolation, and the snowpack collapses under us as we traverse across open slopes. Our senses heightened to the instability, we stick to the trees.

Another burnt forest above the Boundary Creek Yurt provides another opportunity to ski perfectly spaced trees in protected powder. (Skier: Mike Debernardo. Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Another burnt forest above the Boundary Creek Yurt provides another opportunity to ski perfectly spaced trees in protected powder. (Skier: Mike Debernardo. Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

Around 700 feet of the north aspect, we reach a broad bench below a steep summit headwall. The skiing looks divine above, but we play it safe and switch to ski mode. Adam and Jon, however, switch to speed-flying mode. There’s no need to worry about avalanches when you can fly above the snow. After Mike and I watch colorful paragliding-style wings unfold and float back down to the yurt, we make blissfully creamy turns through the pines and another set of perfectly-spaced, burnt trees.

Jon Strickland takes in the view atop a sub-peak above the Boundary Creek Yurt, right before speed flying down. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

Jon Strickland takes in the view atop a sub-peak above the Boundary Creek Yurt, right before speed flying down. (Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

For the next two days, life is simple. We melt water, cook food on the white-gas stove, drink beer, sleep, chop wood, stoke the fire, and ski. Mike and I explore a sub-peak just north of the yurt while our cohorts spend their days flying off the mountain, over and over again, landing each time in the flats behind the yurt. We joke that the next party will wonder at the strange ski tracks that just appear in the middle of the field, connected to nothing.

We discovered face shots in the aspen trees near the Boundary Creek Yurt - one of many runs taken as part of the yurt life. (Photo: Jared Hargrave - UtahOutside.com)

We discovered face shots in the aspen trees near the Boundary Creek Yurt – one of many runs taken as part of the yurt life. (Skier: Mike DeBernardo. Photo: Jared Hargrave – UtahOutside.com)

Two days of skiing, eating way too much food, and drinking all the beer finds us beat and ready to return. After one more powder lap in the trees, we restock the wood, clean the yurt and pack our things. Grateful for lighter packs on the way out, we follow our solitary skin track 6 1/2 miles back out to the Mirror Lake Highway. While we are sad to leave the yurt life, we revel in a perfect weekend spent in the snow.

Check out the video segment of the trip, featured on KSL Outdoors. The yurt trip starts at 11:30

To reserve the Ridge and Boundary Creek Yurts, or any of the yurts on the Uinta’s north slope, log onto brorayurts.org You can also make reservations by calling the Evanston Recreation Center at 307-789-1770.

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