I took my first backcountry tour of the season yesterday. That is a pathetic fact considering it’s mid-January and I wrote a freaking guidebook about backcountry skiing in Utah. But I have much to blame, especially everyone’s favorite thing to blame – the weather. With the slow start to the season and a shallow snowpack, I’ve kept to the resorts. Add that I have no “rock skis” with touring bindings mounted on them, and my decision to pull the trigger on my first tour depended greatly on how deep it is out there. But on this day, I could not wait any longer. I had to slap skins to skis and earn my turns.
The snow is still not deep. South-facing slopes are nearly bare in upper Big Cottonwood Canyon. But a recent skiff of snow atop granular depth hoar makes for great “powder” skiing. It also makes for very dangerous avalanche conditions. So my buddy Mason and I skinned to the low-angle slopes of Powder Park in Mill D North Fork.
The approach on the bottom of Mill D was much better than I expected. Coverage is good with a few big rocks sticking out from the “bobsled” section above the cabins. At Powder Park itself, we found variable snow conditions caused mostly by recent high winds. West aspects were especially hard hit with stout wind crusts pretty much widespread. The good snow lived in north-facing, protected slopes (right where the avy dragon lurks). But on low angle slopes outside of avalanche terrain, the meadow skipping was quite good.
With the holiday weekend, the backcountry was especially crowded. We saw several touring parties there in Powder Park, on Tom’s Hill, and even some center-punching Reynolds Peak. One thing I noted was the amount of inexperienced skiers out there. From across the canyon, Mason and I watched a man crashing after every turn as he picked his way down Tom’s Hill. I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he had a broken binding. I hope that’s the case and it wasn’t a beginner skier floundering in avalanche terrain.
Overall backcountry conditions are good in the Wasatch if you know where to look. Avalanche conditions are still considerable in high-elevation, north to east-facing slopes and will likely get worse by the end of this week. Surface hoar is forming and a big storm is on the way. According to Evan Thayer with OpenSnow.com, significant snow is possible bringing “over-the-head blower powder.” Finally, the backcountry will be getting good (but, unfortunately, more dangerous.)