Fire and Ice: Mountaineering in the La Sals
There is always something slightly surreal about starting the day surrounded by red rock canyons, and then recreating in nearby snowy mountains for the remainder. But that is part of the reason why I feel so fortunate to live in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Nowhere is the juxtaposition of rock and ice more apparent, than when driving through Moab en route to the La Sal Mountains for a winter adventure. The massive white peaks are etched against a bluebird sky, seemingly a mirage shimmering through the desert heat waves, above the rust colored earth from which they emerge. On a recent warm and sunny day, when most people were dusting off their mountain bikes, my ski buddy Pete Harris and I unearthed our winter mountaineering gear, and drove the steep and winding La Sal Loop Road from Moab, to the highest winter trailhead in Utah. Our plan - a loop traverse linking two 12,000 foot peaks of the central La Sal range. Leaving the Geyser Pass Road trailhead, we skinned our way through pine and aspen forest and across meadows. Occasionally catching glimpses of the high peaks above and the slickrock below, it felt as though we were suspended between two worlds. 2,000 feet higher, the Pre-Laurel weather station, perched upon a ridge at tree line, marked the transition to the true alpine and therefore the commencement of our mountaineering adventure.
Crampons were needed for climbing the wind hammered 'snow'
The copious desert winds, that carve the rock formations in the canyons below, also erode the snow from the exposed peaks. The snow was icy and hard and afforded no purchase for either skins or boots. The crampons came out and stayed on for the remainder of the day’s climbing.
From the weather station the traverse between Laurel Mountain on the right and Mount Mellanthin on the left can be seen. Photo: Pete Harris
We climbed first to the summit of the wind scoured rocky west face of Laurel Mountain. A summer trail provided the best surface for our crampon points as six inches of snow had blown in and collected in the slight depression through the talus. The weather was warm and the sun intense, until reaching the final ridge when the slight breeze reminded me it was still winter. At the summit, we made a quick switcheroo back to skis, so that we could officially declare that we had skied Laurel Mountain. We made survival turns for a few hundred feet, down the ridge of wind hammered snow towards the base of Mount Mellanthin. Unlike the views, the skiing was distinctly unspectacular.
With crampons back on, and skis mounted on packs, we looked for a route up our final climb of the day. The snow on the south ridge of Mount Mellanthin was softening in the sun and looked unsupportable, so again we took a summer trail veering across the west face, a ribbon of white through the mass of loose rock.
At 12,645 feet high and the second highest peak of the range, Mellanthin’s awe inspiring summit views are truly a window to the world. More than a vertical mile beneath, red rock ripples across the earth’s surface, sculpted by nature’s chisels of wind and water. Towering formations are visible to the eye, deep in the canyons and valleys below. Naturally, from this heavenly point on, the only way was down. After soaking in the views and having a bite to eat, we launched into the vast bowl of the north face. Our skis chattered and bones rattled over the sastrugi - snow sculpted into ridges and waves by the wind. The 1,200 foot descent to the rocky moraines at the base was challenging though as always, fun.
Below tree line snow conditions improved, giving us a few hero turns, but for the most part the egress was a rolling snowmobile packed road. With a few little hills thrown in, requiring skate skiing, and after a hefty seven hour day, my legs were happy to return to the trailhead. As we drove back across the high desert into Colorado, the sun set in the west. The iridescent snowy peaks cast the canyons deep into purple shadow. It was hard to believe that just a few hours before we were on top of the island in the sky.