The Best backcountry Skiing is in the Wasatch

I learned to ski as a young boy right here in the Wasatch mountains of Utah.  Since learning to ski, I have been a passionate skier.  Because I learned to ski at Alta, I am especially zealous about skiing powder.  My pursuit for skiing powder soon led me to backcountry skiing, and the desire to find more and more untracked snow.  The Wasatch mountains are the perfect venue for this powder skiing obsession.

There are bigger mountain ranges in the world, but there is only one place in the world that has the “Greatest Snow on Earth”.  That place is Utah and you don’t need to just take our license plate’s word for it.  After a lifetime of skiing places like Valdez, Alaska, the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, the Alps of Europe, and on the far north island of Svalbard Norway, I choose the Wasatch mountains as my home, and in my humble opinion, we have the best backcountry skiing in the world.  I know there are some that read that statement in disbelief.  How can this little range so close to the city cause me to make such a grand statement? Well, read on and I will do my best to make my case.

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Greatest Snow on Earth

The Central Wasatch mountains average over 500 inches of perfect density snow each year.  As storms come East, over the Great Salt Lake, they gather moisture from the lake. Because the lake is so salty, it does not freeze, keeping plenty of moisture available to be sucked up by incoming storms.  That moisture is supercooled as it is quickly pushed up 4000 feet from the valley floor to the 10k foot summits, dropping blower powder all across this diverse and unique little range. 

We have frequent and predictable storms, averaging 40 storms a season.  Close to half of these storms produce on average 18 inches of snow or more in a 24 hour period.  This frequency of storms and their moderate size means snow quality is consistently good without putting too much strain on the snowpack stability.

When I say snow quality is consistently good, I don’t mean to say that we have the lightest snow in the country… we don’t.  What we do have is snowfall averaging 8.5% density, often starting warmer (higher density) and cooling throughout the storm (lower density).  This “right side up” snowpack is not only a more stable snowpack, but it also creates ultimate floatation.  That means your skis don’t scrape on the old snow surface, instead, even a foot of snow can feel bottomless.

If you want to read more about the “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth” check out Jim Steelbergs book, which dives even deeper into this unique phenomenon.  But really the only research needed is to ski the central Wasatch on a powder day.

 

Best Avalanche Forecast Center

Finding the best quality, and most pristine snow is only second to a backcountry skiers’ priorities.  First is avoiding avalanches so we can come back and ski again tomorrow.  Utah has arguably the best avalanche forecast center in the world with the Utah Avalanche Center.  This is due, in great part to the incredible amount of resources available in our compact mountain range.  We have 5 major ski resorts; Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta, and Snowbird separated from another by about a ridgeline. This setup means we have tons of weather stations and data points from which we can draw to make our decisions on where to find the best, safest, and even least tracked touring options.

In addition, many people get out in the backcountry and report their findings.  Therefore, we have a lot of information available to help us make decisions about safety and good snow.  

Furthermore, Utah is an intermountain climate, this means we have moderate temperatures and moderate amounts of snowfall.  Essentially this also means moderate avalanche hazard compared to somewhere like Colorado.  Especially later in the season.  Here is an overview of the different snowpacks by Bruce Tremper.  

 

Diversity of Terrain

For those just starting out, or any of us seeking safety on a considerable avalanche day, the upper south side of Big Cottonwood canyon from Mill D North to Guardsman Pass offers a plethora of options for low angle skiing amongst the aspen glades.  While over in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the upper regions of White pine all the way to Lone Peak offer up a true alpine environment with bigger, steeper, and more challenging ski terrain.  The real beauty of Wasatch backcountry skiing, however, is everything in between these two zones.

Our highest peak in the central Wasatch is just shy of 11,500, but most winters there is good skiing down to 6500ft, giving us quite a bit of relief to work with.  We have big alpine faces like the South Face of Superior and Coalpit Headwall, tons of couloirs and technical lines, and great wide-open bowls.  On a snow day, it’s easy to duck into the  Red Pine Trees or Hideaway Park or find corn skiing in the spring on the Southside of the Pfifferhorn or Gobblers knob.  There really is so much diversity and hidden gems, that even after 20 years of skiing here, I still manage to ski somewhere new every year.

 

Wasatch Mountain Access

Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are both major roads that run parallel to one another in an east-west direction, split by a prominent ridgeline. This geography makes it possible to use public transportation to do bi-canyon tours. A bi-canyon tour is where you start in one canyon and come out another.  

These bi-canyon tours let one ski lot’s of terrain options, ski more downhill than you climb up, and ski all slopes with northern aspects. These are fun diverse ski tours with vast options for all types of skiers.  Many trailheads in both canyons provide unbeatable access to just about anything a backcountry skier could want or desire… More than most can ski in a lifetime!

In addition, it is fast and easy to get into some unbelievable powder turns in the Wasatch.  We have many places to go with short approaches.  Alternatively, in other places, you have to hike a long way before you start going up the mountain where you will ski.  In the Wasatch, an abundance of tours exists here with little to no approach which means you get more skiing with less hiking.  

In fact, you can easily ski a 3000 ft run in just a 3 hr tour and feel totally inspired and rejuvenated.  Interestingly, many people get out for a 2-3 hour tour before heading to work for the day.  Others enjoy moonlight tours on a full moon, something that is much harder if you have a long approach.  

 

Overall, the top 5 reasons for The Wasatch Mountains to Be the Best Backcountry Skiing?

  1. amazing snow
  2. superb terrain
  3. good information
  4. easy access
  5. lower hazard than our Continental snowpack friends in places like Colorado  

 

So I hope you come to check out our backcountry skiing and see for yourself!  If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message

 

 

 

 

About Todd Passey

Todd is America’s 62nd IFMGA licensed mountain guide with more than 20 years of experience. His guiding has taken him across the globe, from the Arctics of Svalbard to Antarctica’s South Pole.

Todd has guided all the “Seven Summits” including 2 Everest summits, 22 Denali summits and 22 summits of Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson. Todd has 10 first ascents in Antarctica’s sentinel range, and climbed test pieces like Denali’s Cassin ridge and the Walker spur on the Grand Jorasses.

Todd is an accomplished skier who’s stomping grounds include Valdez Alaska, the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, Norway and of course his backyard, Utah’s Wasatch mountains.

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