Skiing in Moab! Ski Descents in the La Sals: Mellenthin and Tukuhnikivatz
I have been adventuring to Moab for years and most of the time I even have my skis in the car with the expectation of making the trek up to the La Sals to get some real desert skiing in. In all the ski mountaineering I have done there is nothing quite like the stark contrast of these massive snow capped peaks towering over the desert below. The sheer vertical relief from town is astounding as Moab is nestled in the valley at just over 4000 feet above seal level while Mount Peele towers at over 12700 feet a mere 26 miles away. As we set out to climb and ski the three tallest peaks of Mount Peele, Mellenthin, and Tukuhnikivatz, the La Sals proved they are way more than desert skiing novelty.
A great photo from Summit Post. Mellenthin on the left and Tuk all the way to the right.
On the very same day that we sat in shorts and t-shirts, scheming at the Wake and Bakery as our friend departed to ride mountain bikes, we began the 26 mile drive to the trail head above snow line. Few would know but there is a volunteer grooming operation for Nordic skiing and an incredibly well maintained road that gives you access to the trailhead at 9000 feet. We managed to get the Cripple Creek van all the way up to a snow filled parking lot with plenty of time to enjoy some beers and watch the sun set over the John Henry’s and Canyon lands far below.
Sunset from the trailhead, looking out over Canyon Lands and the John Henry range in the distance.
At 6:30 we were suited up and out of the van on an approach that combined the groomed nordic trails and several skin track short cuts that lead us quickly into Gold Basin. Staying on the right side of the creek we started quickly gaining elevations at the very tip of Tukuhnikivatz. Mount Tuk loomed directly over the valley as we looked up at the steep north face coated in far more snow than you could ever know from looking at the wind scoured west faces from town. Since they were only just moving into a more locked up spring snowpack, we chose to ascend the lookers right rib directly up the face. At times we enjoyed a full value ski mountaineering ascent as we scrambled over steep rock bands very close to the cornice that dropped a sheer 500 feet of the other side. We made decent time in spite of a punchy, not quite supportable crust that at time left of us wallowing in surprising cold winter snow.
Time for the ice axe with the cornice dropping away to a sheer cliff, just behind me.
The booter directly up the north face. It's the first time I have ever packed skis with the Halo 28 Airbag Pack.
We reached the summit of Tuk at 10:00 am at the exact same time as a solo skier from Montana. He had ascended via the more conservative saddle between the two peaks, although he reported there was still lots of post holing to be had on that route. Since the amount of winter conditions for the end of March in the desert surprised him as well, he joined us for the descent of the north face. We skied down the ridge aways to avoid the steepest roll overs and then dropped in to cold snow on a 40 degree slope with many cliffs and rock bands to navigate.
The summit of Tuk from Laurel. Our tracks descend the setup funnel to lookers left of the central vertical rock band. Then traverse left to right over the large cliff.
Tuk went great, but after staring from the summit at the scoured ridges separating us from mount Peele it was clear we would not have time for the full link up. Peele sits recessed to the east from the other two peaks and we were already behind schedule so we went for Mellenthin directly. This involved booting even punchier snow to escape from Gold Basin and then an incredibly long talus field traverse from Laurel Peak to the top of Mellenthin.
Jamie pushing across the wind blown rock, with the Colorado River in the distance
It was hard to believe from the endless scree field that a healthy and deep snow pack awaited us on the north face of Mellenthin, but after pulling the ridge we were not disappointed. A second long and steep descent awaited us on a perfect chalky snow surface.
One more steep decent down Mellenthin.
We had a brief struggle with route finding to get back to the road, but this was mostly due to the first time in my life I was egressing with caution. Usually I vote to just ski downhill and then we can deal with being in the wrong place once it's already too late. In retrospect this would have been a fine choice and it cost us around 40 minutes of messing around. In the end we nabbed two classic Utah ski descents on one tour and left me thinking about what could have been on Mount Peele. After all, its the ones that you don’t get that keep you coming back and left me dreaming of an approach on a bike for just shy of a 9000 vertical gain from Moab to the summit of Peele as well as one of the most classic single track bike descents in the country. The La Sals are big peaks and when you are looking at them from the basins far below you could easily be in any of the much bigger ranges of the Rockies. If you are in Moab with your skis in the car don’t miss the chance to explore these amazing mountains.
- Doug Stenclik