Skiing the Unknown Mountains
The Henry Mountains, Utahby Chris Solomon
Northern Utah may indeed have “the greatest snow on Earth,” but unless your tastes run to celebrity-choked film festivals and to shoe-horning turns among the powder-chasing masses, “Was-Angeles” can grow wearisome. Next time, grab your tele boards and climbing skins and point your rig toward Utah’s sunburned south, and the peaks where the buffalo still roam (really) – the Henry Mountains.
The Henry Mountains viewed from Colt Mesa in Capitol Reef National Park.
One of the last-surveyed and -named ranges in the Lower 48, the Henrys were terra incognita until the 1870s. “The Unknown Mountains,” explorer John Wesley Powell called them. Unknown, maybe, but hard to miss: a cluster of frustrated volcanoes towering weirdly above the rectilinear landscape of south-central Utah. “Peaks of Alpine form and grace,” wrote early geologist Clarence Dutton, “like a modern cathedral among catacombs – the gothic order of architecture contrasting with the elephantine.” Adds Tyson Bradley, author of “Piste Off Utah” (Falcon Press), a book of backcountry tours in the Beehive State, “It’s kind of an island in the sky.”
Just five major peaks comprise the range – Mt. Ellen, the highest at 11,506 feet; slightly shorter Mts. Pennell and Hillers; and the unskiable Little Rockies, Mts. Holmes and Ellsworth. Only the most stout and masochistic backcountry types endure the trek into tree-furred Pennell and Hillers to claim the steep skiing cascading from their summits. Mt. Ellen’s high slopes, treeless and more accessible, are the more obvious prize.
Of course, this being southern Utah, ‘accessible’ is relative. The western approach to Mt. Ellen requires a 60-odd-mile drive from Hanksville, including nearly 20 miles across cob-rough dirt road suitable only for a high-clearance 4x4. (The eastern approach via Bull Mountain is shorter, but snows tend to close the road at lower elevations.) Gullywashers, or even two inches of snow, can suddenly render the routes impassable, and can strand travelers for days. Winter storms also trigger slides that frequently sweep Mt. Ellen’s higher slopes.
Mt. Ellen with an early season dusting of snow. Photo: John George
In short, late season is the preferred time to venture here, once the weather has (usually) moderated and the snowpack has consolidated. In April a group of us drove as far as snow permitted, about 8,000 feet, then attached skins to skis and headed up. The Henrys greeted us with a banshee wind, a near-whiteout and slabby, dangerous snow. We retreated to McMillan Springs, betting on a hopeful-looking horizon, and found a padlocked BLM cabin. Murf pulled a key from behind his truck’s seat – a pair of bolt cutters. We built a fire and spent a good night on musty mattresses like banditos on the lam. In the morning Murf produced a brand new lock, sealed the cabin, and dropped the key, and a note, in an envelope addressed to the local BLM office.
The desert sky was blue and windless with woolly clouds dragging their shadows over the greasewood mesas. In look and lore the Henrys are a page from a Zane Gray novel – a land once peopled by cattlemen and cattle rustlers, by grubstaked miners, let-me-alone polygamists and desperadoes seeking sanctuary. Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch hid out in Robbers Roost, just to the northeast. As we skinned, four abreast, across Nasty Flat, all eyes coveting Mt. Ellen’s south ridge as if it were a stagecoach full of gold, we seemed to fit right in – a latter-day James Gang in Scarpa Terminators. Only missing was a sighting of the 200-plus reintroduced bison that wander the range today.
Once atop Mt. Ellen’s nearly four-mile-long backbone, skiers choose from unlimited lines that descend as much as 3,000 feet. (Bromide Basin, an old mine on the eastern face of the south ridge, makes a fine high camp during the spring corn harvest.) We loosed cowboy whoops and dove into a 2,000-foot shot of knee-kissing powder – though only after soaking in the most unusual vista you’ll ever get while on skis. The streaked rock of Canyonlands National Park – Ed Abbey country – sits to the northeast. On the other side of the ridge, stare down into the colorful crumple of Capitol Reef National Park and the Waterpocket Fold. Lake Powell sloshes in its sandstone bathtub out of sight in the south, just beyond the Little Rockies.
But the best view is of what you don’t see: a single profaning sign of what Abbey, that old solitude-greedy coot, called “syphilization.”
For more information, call the Hanksville BLM office, at (435) 542-3461, or check out the book “Piste Off Utah” by Tyson Bradley (Falcon Press)