The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 128: Skiing More of Utah

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Can you get away from the crowds in one of America's most popular snow playgrounds? This week on The WildeBeat; Skiing More of Utah

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twenty eight, made possible by support by our listeners.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Some people get away from it all, only to find themselves back in the middle of it. That would be my description of a vacation to a popular resort area. But guest correspondent Kurt Repanshek found a way around that.

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KURT REPANSHEK: As you fly into Salt Lake City, if you look out your plane's window you'll notice the craggy Wasatch Range down beneath you. From this mountain, many canyons run down to the Valley floor. One of them, Mill Creek, flows downhill pretty much like it's namesake creek. It's a tight, heavily treed canyon up high and slowly opens up the farther down you get.

KURT REPANSHEK: Near the top of this, you'll find a beautiful area for cross-country skiing and if you're adventuresome enough plenty of trails that will lead you higher-up, into the backcountry, where you'll find some of the best backcountry skiing Utah has to offer. It's here that I met Tyson Bradley, explore some of possibilities of backcountry skiing here in the Behive State.

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KURT REPANSHEK: We're here with Tyson Bradley, author of a backcountry ski guidebook to Utah, standing here in the Wasatch range. Tyson, why is Utah such a prime stomping ground for backcountry skiing?

TYSON BRADLEY: We'll Kurt, I think it's easy to get to Utah, and it's easy to get into the mountains here, and once you're in the mountains it's not all that cold, and there's quite a bit of snow, and the snow is relatively light and dry... So it's good quality snow, and easy to get into the mountains. You don't necessarily have to walk a long way up a drainage to access the fine backcountry ski bowls and chutes. They're just a relatively short climb from the to of a ski lift or from backcountry trailheads.

KURT REPANSHEK: Now across the country though you've got the Sierra out in California, and you've got the Alaska backcountry skiing, and Colorado, and even in New England you've got some prime backcountry skiing. Why Utah? What makes it so special?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well, the snow is drier and you have to walk less far to get to the goods. [laughs]

KURT REPANSHEK: Now when you fly-in to Salt Lake International, which does provide that easy access to the Wasatch, you see these incredible, craggy mountains rising up from the Salt Lake Basin, is it user-friendly terrain, or is it pretty much scary stuff?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well, I think there's everything. There's the rugged, gnarly stuff that tends to be in the Lone Peak and Twin Peak Wilderness areas adjacent to Salt Lake City, but if you drive on past those an up the canyons into big and little Cottonwood Canyons and Mill Creek Canyons, then you get into some user-friendly rolling terrain, and on the Park City side more benign terrain, you've got the Aspens and the rolling terrain, so there's really something for everyone, whether you're skiing, you know, with skins and ice axe and mountaineering type stuff, or whether you want to go with a wax skis or patterned base type skis. You've got terrain that's conducive to all those types of recreation.

KURT REPANSHEK: What prompted you to write your guide book?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well, I felt there was a need for a guidebook to the ranges outside the Wasatch, in Utah. And there was really nothing. So I've got twelve ranges in my guidebook. Not just the Wasatch but the La Salle Range, the Oquirrhs, the wonderful Bear River range around Logan, and a bunch of other ranges in Utah. So I was hoping that I would perhaps spread out some of the use.

KURT REPANSHEK: Do you find that there's a growing interest in backcountry skiing? Are people wanting to move away from the ski resorts?

TYSON BRADLEY: Yeah, I think backcountry skiing has become very sexy. People think that this is a way to get away from the crowds. And the Aerobic thing is getting real big. A lot of folks love to, you know, run triathlons or bike race and they translate that in the winter time into backcountry skiing. I mean, backcountry skiing is wonderful whether you're fit or not very fit. If you like to hike and you like to ski, this is for you!

KURT REPANSHEK: And that brings up another point, I mean a lot of people will look at backcountry skiing ans say, "my gosh, you know, you really got to be a top athlete to do that." Is that the case? Or, what range of individual does this work for.

TYSON BRADLEY: You know I really think that if you're an intermediate skier, and you have a reasonable base-line level of fitness such as being able to hike three miles and gain a thousand feet, you're ready to go. You're ready to go out there and have some fun. And especially in a place like this where you don't have to go that far to get into the good terrain.

KURT REPANSHEK: Right. And yes, if you're coming to Utah and say you're an intermediate backcountry skier, what directions would your book point them towards?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well I would probably point you towards the Reynolds Peak area in Big Cottonwood Canyon, or the upper Mill Creek area where we are right now. Those are good areas also some of the lower portions of the White Pine drainage in Little Cottonwood Canyon are quite user-friendly, and actually in the upper head of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Grizzly Gulch area they maintain a snow cat road so access and egress is totally user-friendly and there's low-angle benign meadows in there that you can get your feet wet with this sport and take relatively little risk from both an avalanche standpoint, and from any steep skiing concerns.

KURT REPANSHEK: What about avalanche concerns. I mean, somebody like myself, very rudimentary skills, I don't know if I'd venture too far out into some of these slopes.

TYSON BRADLEY: Well, I think that's a valid concern. Avalanches are a big killer for backcountry skiing and mountaineering, and most of the accidents/incidents occur to folks who just really didn't realize the risks that they were taking, and so I think to take a basic avalanche awareness class, a really good idea, maybe hire a guide and go out in the backcountry your first few times, or do some reading. It's like anything. You want to work your way gradually into it and start with the more benign terrain and learn some of the basic P's and Q's of avalanche awareness and... Most avalanches occur during or just after a large loading even such as a wind storm or a snow storm, or during a period of very rapid warming. And so there's some basic rules that you can follow. Get up early if you're going to ski on a hot day and get off the snow before noon. If it's a cold winter day and there's a storm going on, yeah, go ski in the woods and stay out from under the big chutes, and you'll probably be OK.

KURT REPANSHEK: Most people who would come to Utah, I would think, for a backcountry ski trip, you know, unless they're really experienced, they're going to stick to the Wasatch Range. If somebody wants to be a little bit more adventurous, where does your book point them to?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well, I think I try to describe some benign tours in each range, as well as more aggressive tours in each range... But, most of the ranges have a variety of terrain, from low angle stuff where you're walking up a valley floor or in meadowy terrain, to the steep chutes and the thirty five hundred faces and that sort of thing.

KURT REPANSHEK: Were there any tours that you put in your book that you really kind of wanted to hold back because they're so -- you find them so special?

TYSON BRADLEY: Oh yeah, I did hold back! I only put sixty tours in twelve ranges in there. There's probably five hundred tours, and then there's at least thirty ranges in this state. But I didn't hold back for that reason. I put in there the main places. You know, and I left a fair amount to the imagination. I gave the general gist of how to get in and out of the ranges and my book is based on the assumption that you own a topographical map of the area, and you know how to use that. You're maybe carrying a G-P-S, one as a aid to get in and out of the mountains safely and point you toward the best terrain, and generally speaking the more obvious lines, but there's so much room for creativity beyond that for people to get the subtle nuances of the range and find their little shots and kind of read in between the lines and find some more stuff.

KURT REPANSHEK: Do you get into gear in your book?

TYSON BRADLEY: Yeah, I talk a bit about gear. It's interesting in terms of gear. Telemark gear used to be the type of touring gear was popular in the United states, and long skinny wood telemark skis and people used skins or not skins but now everybody uses skins and most people are on Alpine touring gear. And the telemark gear I think was conducive to the low-angle meadows and the moderately skiing, and some people took it to steeper terrain... but most people have adopted the alpine touring gear which has always been popular in Europe and now it's the mode of operation here in The States and I think that's one of the reasons for the burgeoning growth of backcountry skiing is that folks realize they don't have to learn a new sport like how to telemark, they can just fix the heels for the downhill and use the same boots as they do in the resort, and then free the heels and get the aerobic workout... One manefestation of that that I'm not too thrilled about is just the speed... at which people ski the backcountry now, the extreme skiing films have kind of made that really sexy to go big and go fast and I don't think that's such a good idea in the backcountry because when you hit a little bit of dry reef there, and then the next thing that hits the rocks is your head and then somebody's got to do trauma type of first-aid, and in the backcountry boy that really spoils the fun. So I think if you're going a little slower and making a few more turns you're going to have a lot less accidents and generally speaking a better experience out there. I think a lot of people's ski skills and the quality of the equipment allow them to get into avalanche-prone terrain before they've perhaps even realized that it is avalanche-prone terrain, and also maybe before they've had a chance to realize that a ski cut is a really helpful thing and skiing one at a time, and re-grouping in islands of safety. You know, just some of these basics which could reduce a lot of accidents.

KURT REPANSHEK: What attracts you to the backcountry? Why backcountry ski as opposed to the resort skiing?

TYSON BRADLEY: Well I think I'm a bit of an adventure junkie... But for me it's the aesthetics of the line more than anything, and the adventure involved in getting to and from the line, and... I love the scenery, I love the smell of the woods, and when I stop at the bottom of the run and I smell an Engleman Spruce tree or a Doug Fir, that's home to me.

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STEVE: More of Kurt Repanshek's work can be found at National Parks Traveler dot com. My thanks to Kurt for contributing this report.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your first time experiences skiing in Utah's backcountry, or about your favorite places to ski away from the resort crowds. And we always like to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to information about Tyson Bradley's book, Backcountry Skiing Utah, links to other information about backcountry skiing in Utah, and a high quality extended stereo version of this show, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty eight. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- a snow shoe primer.

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