The Wasatch Canyons Cruise — Hire a Helicopter and Go

Post by blogger | October 28, 2009      

I’ve always wondered how long my sanity would last on an ocean cruise. Stuck in a boat with thousands of souls, worrying about what disease du jour is spreading. Frantic activity. Noise. The cruise band covering 80s rock. A swimming pool with hundreds of screaming kids. You herd like cattle at every port so you can see the standard tourist sites, then it’s back to the deep where you sunbathe ten hours a day and stare at endless ocean, probably not even knowing where you are, and knowing your location doesn’t matter anyway.

The good ship Wasatch on a canyon cruise in Utah.

The good ship Wasatch on a canyon cruise in Utah.

Sometimes, skiing out of the Wasatch canyons in Utah is like being on that cruise ship (the crowded part of my fantasy, anyway). Especially if you’re doing it from a resort or a helicopter. But even Wasatch backcountry skiers crowd each other with sheer numbers. Add helicopter and sidecountry skiers to the mix, and it gets downright European — only (from what I’ve seen) sometimes worse because road and cableway access is nearly non existent in comparison to the western European mountains, thus forcing most human powered skiers into small areas fed by roadside trailheads.

The greater Wasatch is not lacking in terrain. And even a fair amount of legal Wilderness is designated. If you’re fit and have the time, much of that uncrowded wild can indeed be reached during day trips. But most Wasatch backcountry skiers just mix it up in the easily accessed multi use areas, much of which they share with the whirlybirds.

The U.S. Forest Service recently renewed the Wasatch Powderbird Guides heli skiing permit for a whopping ten years. In a nod to sharing land with human powered snow players, the permit bans heli skiing in the three canyons on Sundays and Mondays. But that’s a mere pittance, as one helicopter can have the impact of dozens of human powered skiers, and more, while in the air it compromises the solitude of a wide area.

The Utah advocacy group Save our Canyons wants to make more legal Wilderness in the Wasatch, which perhaps would mitigate some of the crowding and user conflict by shutting heli skiing out of more areas. But just as our own Wilderness addition proposals here in Colorado seem like a sledgehammer approach, so does expanding Wilderness acreage in Utah (thus banning mountain bikes, hut building, timber management and so forth). Then again, after experiencing myself how ridiculous it gets when you have hundreds of backcountry skiers trying to co-exist with helicopter skiing in the limited terrain near the Wasatch canyons, perhaps the velvet sledgehammer of more legal Wilderness is the only answer.

Anyone know the solution for the Wasatch canyons cruise ship dilemma? Montana?

Save Our Canyons proposed Wilderness map.


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36 Responses to “The Wasatch Canyons Cruise — Hire a Helicopter and Go”

  1. OMR October 28th, 2009 10:04 am

    Lou, you are spot on. The Wasatch is a crowded arena – at least the tri-canyons anyway. Otherwise there is must lonely skiing to be had. The problem is not lack of terrain, rather, it is the herd mentallity of the human race. And skiing is definaltley more a social sport than an adrenalin sport. Face it, skiers are no better than the Crips or Bloods of East LA – skiers go where their homies are. The upshot is that there is tons of Wasatch terrain that goes untouched. Yeah, in these lonely spots you can’t take UTA to the trail head, or go atuopgraph seeking from Andrew and Noah, and you can bet on much gamble oak bush-whacking, but once you achieved, the rewards are huge. Basically, if one is willing to excommunicate themselves from the Church of LCC/BCC, an epiphony of mind blowing freedom will follow.

  2. Lou October 28th, 2009 10:20 am

    That;’s kinda what I thought. So what’s all the whining about? Do the helicopters attack those remote areas as well?

  3. Justin October 28th, 2009 10:40 am

    Oooooh….. You just opened a big can of worms…. Unless I’m mistaken, the Powderbirds actually have a number of days when they can swap out, and are able to ski the Tri Canyons on Sundays and Mondays. According to many people (myself included), the biggest problem isn’t that they are here at all, its their use of explosives. They use a lot of explosives, tossed from the heli, for “stability testing.” They often use a LOT of explosives, and it often appears they are trying to do control work (get a slope to rip out, so they can ski it with clients after the next storm) or something similar, not just testing. Most backcountry users dig pits and do other forms of testing that dont involve exposives. Why can’t they do the same?? I’d love to see them gone entirely, but I’d be content if they stop using explosives.

  4. Mark October 28th, 2009 11:08 am

    I’m in a critical mood. The local school district is closed. This was announced when there was all of 2 inches of snow on the ground. Apparently it is all about safety. I grew up in SW Montana, and we never even heard of a weather closure (except for Mt. St. Helens erupting to our west). Perhaps the people using the helis in the canyons should consider getting off their butts and skinning up.

  5. Randonnee October 28th, 2009 11:48 am

    It is unfortunate that the helos and elitist passengers are allowed to overrun the accessible (to turn-earners) canyons terrain close to the cities there. Nice accessible ski touring close to the cities becomes overrun when it becomes publicly promoted especially online, in articles, etc.

    Even without helos accessible-from-the-car terrain that becomes known here in WA is overrun. The trick is, when one finds accessible skiing terrain, is to keep quiet about it, tell folks who ask about the stuff that is known. That also allows others the opportunity to discover relatively uncrowded places as well.

    As far as heli-bombing, that is understandably annoying, I am sure. I have performed heli-bombing and skied from a helo, and hold the opinion that such an operation does need to bomb heavily to ensure safety to the greatest extent. Not to say that I would support the heli-skiing there, just pointing out that if one is allowed a heli-skiing operation then the available technology should be vigorously applied for safety

    It seems like Canyons heli-skiing is a result of money and power. It seems pretty negative for the majority of folks. Unregulated motorized access is egregious, and I say this as a user of snowmobiles to cover road miles to get to ski touring. Snowmobiles definitely are disruptive when uncontrolled- only used on roads and designated play areas would be a good solution. Helicopters are always disruptive and are heard for many miles across mountain ranges.

    As far as Wilderness designation controlling the crowds, maybe not. Here in the Enchantments (ALW) there is no motorized use, of course, no paragliders, no dogs, no-no-no, but the place is occupied to the legal Permit maximum- not at all a Wilderness- solitude experience. My family and I find solitude summer and winter in those rare unlogged and unroaded non-Wilderness areas that are less promoted. It is really all about finding places where one may avoid the urban/ suburbanites who overrun every known nook and cranny in the mountains. Bummer that the helos there overrun the otherwise peaceful mountains…

  6. Justin October 28th, 2009 12:04 pm

    To clarify, I believe their permit specifies they are allowed to use explosives for “stability testing”, but not for control work. Too many people in the backcountry around here to be dropping bombs out of the heli….. Andrew MAY have an opinion on this (hard to tell, he just doesn’t really let anyone know how he feels about the topic ) 😉

  7. harpo October 28th, 2009 12:05 pm

    Cali has a lot of skiers too, but also has the Eastern Sierra which has a wide swath of big terrain that they can disappear into…

  8. Lee October 28th, 2009 12:11 pm

    Why do you say “downright European” Lou? I live in the Pyrenees and try to ski tour as much as possible – I have never seen another ski tourer on any route I have undertaken in the Pyrenees other than Pico Aneto (highest peak in the Pyrenees). What you describe sounds horrible but it ain’t European in my experience. Maybe you mean “vaguely Alpine” or even “a bit like Chamonix” (though even there it depends where you go).

  9. rogerk October 28th, 2009 12:25 pm

    I’m not for the helicopters, but the crowding is a bit of a myth. Someone who lives at either end of the Salt Lake Valley is as close to virtually untouched easy- access skiing as they are to the crowds of the Cottonwoods. In UT, whether the skiing is lift served or self -powered, herd mentality is a huge part of what makes the crowds.

  10. ScottP October 28th, 2009 12:29 pm

    I’m confused; is the problem that the easily-accessed crowded area for turn-earners is also being overrun by heli-skiing? Why are heli-skiers paying several thousand dollars per day to go to easily accessible terrain? Isn’t the point of heli-skiing to go to places you couldn’t otherwise get to?

  11. Evan October 28th, 2009 12:31 pm

    It sounds like somebody is a little bit lonely and/or jealous? As a front ranger, I often glam out about the Wasatch’s thicker, less depth hoarish snowpack, significantly less wind (jet stream) affected snow, ease of access away from interstate traffic, and, well not so much the beer situation. The weekend I spent skiing the Wasatch in a March blizzard two years ago was dynamite! Yea Voile-USA!

    What cannot easily be had in the Wasatch is the steep spring ski mountaineering adventures when the elk mtns (not covered in red Moab)

  12. Randonnee October 28th, 2009 12:33 pm

    Justin I understand that bombing there is for “stability testing”, but not for control work.” However, from what I see online they are bombing the crap out of it (?). If I were the “forecaster” responsible for the heli-skiers’ safety, I would perform “stability testing” by dropping a 50 lb bag of ANFO-bomb. I once proved that a slope would go with abut a 4 ft crown with that method one time long ago…It is semantics, technically there is no “avy control” it is all testing. When I was responsible, I tested vigorously!

    It is pretty clear that the helos there are a problem, used by definition by elitists with money….it is expensive to heli-ski. Sort of like the problem of snomos going where they are not allowed, why cannot USFS see the problem with this elitist use?

  13. Forrest Gladding October 28th, 2009 1:20 pm

    I spent 4 winters in Colorado before making the big move to Utah. I miss Colorado dearly, especially the culture,but to be honest what kept me in Utah was the snow here is the best. I dont dislike Colorado, but I was willing to put up with the crowds, culture, city life of Salt Lake, etc… to ride the powder that Utah has to offer. I think a bigger problem for the Cottonwoods isnt the heli skiing but the expansion of the ski resorts and total lack of a viable transportation system.(the bus system has only gotten worse since I moved here, not better). They should ban cars in the canyons and come up with another way to get up the canyons. Yeah the skin track going up to the top of Superior can be a freeway and sometimes you have to leave extra early to be first, but the reward sometimes outweighs all the pitfalls. I like to think that the Cottonwoods are like the North Shore in surfing. Yeah its crowded and blown up, but at the end of the day there are few places that can match its size and consistency.

  14. rod georgiu October 28th, 2009 2:15 pm

    Lee, I was thinking of spending a year in the Pyrennees. How is skiing there? Snow? and is there steep stuff to ski?

    What months of the year can you ski?

  15. OMR October 28th, 2009 2:42 pm

    All I can say, outside the Tri\’s I can ski uncut Wasatch powder anytime, and go back a week later a spoon my own tracks. Just takes a little effort and exploration. I ski the tri-canyons once or twice a year and usually come away asking myself why? Cardaic Bowl is a suburb of Snowbird, the moguls almost as big.

  16. Lee October 28th, 2009 3:00 pm

    Yes there’s snow! Last year was excellent I skied from Nov ’til mid May…but the year before was about the worst ever recorded and conditions were mostly thin and icy in the mountains. Normally snow isn’t too much of a problem thankfully. The Pyrenees are a narrow chain about 250miles long, highest peak 3404m. The biggest ski areas are Andorra, Baqueira (Spain) and there’s a cluster of resorts in the Western French Pyrenees. Compared to the Alps, the Pyrenees are empty and unexploited. They’re definitely mountains so if you want steep you can find it…best site to look at for a taste of the touring is (in French but some good pictures and most people who post give their website link – do some web surfing). P.S. you’ll need to go back to last winters posts, currently it’s mostly rock climbing. I’m in the Couseran and outside of August it’s empty. I rarely see anyone in the high mountains, walking climbing or skiing. My local resort is small and friendly and apart from two weeks in Feb me and a friend have it all to ourselves until noon then perhaps there are a few of dozen people in the afternoon. The bigger resorts I mentioned earlier obviously cater for package tours and will be busy all season. There are a few ski touring guidebooks – mostly Spanish – but generally it’s still there to be explored.

  17. Mira October 28th, 2009 3:17 pm

    I’m too pissed off about this to comment much about it, but at this point, the best thing that could happen is if the WPG triggered an avalanche with their “stability testing” that killed a group of school children. One can only hope.

  18. Forrest Gladding October 28th, 2009 3:31 pm

    Really you leave asking yourself why?? I ask why only twice a year visit? I think you are being a bit of a drama queen. Moguls as big as those at Snowbird in Cardiac? Really? I stand by what I said. You may not find the solitude you desire in the Cottonwoods, but you sure will find the snow.

  19. Anonymous October 28th, 2009 4:29 pm

    “…the best thing that could happen is if the WPG triggered an avalanche with their ‘stability testing’ that killed a group of school children.”

    Are you insane?

  20. dongshow October 28th, 2009 9:05 pm

    Thank you for the great site Lee. I’m a huge fan of the Pyrenees, and good suggestions for touring near Ixaxsou?

  21. Fernando Pereira October 28th, 2009 9:28 pm

    @ScottP: “Why are heli-skiers paying several thousand dollars per day to go to easily accessible terrain?” Because they have more money than sense? It’s a “commuter” heli operation, ~$1000/day for 6-7 runs (probably pretty short from what I’ve observed).

    On the general point, I’ve toured a few times from BCC and LCC. There were tracks here and there for sure, but it wasn’t crowded except at standard hangouts like TLP. Sure, it’s not pristine, but what can we expect a 30 minute drive from a big urban area? When I ski there I do it for social (local friends) and practical (I’m in the area for work) reasons. I set my expectations appropriately, and I had a great time. As Harpo said, there’s always the Eastern Sierra if you want empty.

  22. Scott October 29th, 2009 9:03 am

    I have skied a good deal in the Wasatch, as a non local (hail from San Juans) I am often one of the sheep that goes for tours off the road where I see a skinning highway. I have noticed that the crowds are considerably less once there is a nasy skin track with bushes and switchbacks. Many in the Wasatch are boarders that like to boot pack, that is not competition to me. Once I was on top of of a peak East of Brighton enjoying the sunshine, and here comes a heli, lands about 100 yards away, people unload on the ridge and start hiking to where we were at; the guides were there first and asked if we were planning on skiing the face. We replied that we were, and one of the guide said if you want untouched you should go now before they (clients) slaughter it. I wasn’t happy about seeing a heli, but the guides were very nice and suggested a few good lines to hit on the tour back.

    I would imagine that if UT had a true continental snowpack like CO people would like helis more, there are not many fatal avis in UT as CO for as many people that get out, and when someone gets caught it is often the Powderbird that goes in for the rescue with their guides.

    3 years agon in the San Juans it was an epic winter, mid January had a pretty bomber snowpack, and the Telluride Helitrax was putting down some good lines due to this. One afternoon after summtitng a fairly remote peak we were inching our way down safely trying to get a grip on the snowpack, it seemed bomber, but it was odd to be contemplating a 50 degree face in Jan. All things said “green light”, but the 50 degree starting zone was still in the front of my mind, as I rolled into the starting zone I saw 2 huge craters right in the sweet spot at the top of the convex. They were no more than a day old as the powder residue was still present. Needless to say that made me feel better about an already good snowpack. I was happy that Helitrax had dropped 2 charges. I was also happy to see 8 tracks from the helicopter on similar aspects and elevations. I know that’s not the way to assess stability alone, but it is just one more kernal of knowledge to be armed with.

    I also like seeing don’t mind seeing Helitrax in the distance, they generally ski peaks that are a 6 hour one way trip from the road if not more. I wont bash them because they may rescue me or a friend someday.

    One positive that has not been hit on regarding helicopters is that the rich people that ski out of them are often so moved they can help us lowly ski bums preserve our areas. It gets people out into inspiring terrain and I’d venture most are moved in a spiritual way much the same way we are. If they are inclined to, they can be an ally in protecting these area.

    Not basking snowmobiles, but I’d rather see a helicopter, at least they are skiing. Luckily in the San Juans the terrain is pretty narley and densely treed in areas so snowmobile rarely prove to be a hindrance to those that are in shape and don’t mind long tours.

    Happy Winter!

  23. Bryce October 29th, 2009 9:12 am

    I agree with Fernando, I grew up in N. UT and now love skiing the Cottonwoods a couple times a year on visits. I don’t find it particularly crowded … even inbounds at Solitude, in Honeycomb Canyon, it’s less crowded than some of these posts make it sound. And you don’t even have to go to the Eastern Sierra to find empty … just go anywhere above Ogden or Logan an hour or so north of SLC.

  24. Jeff Prillwitz October 29th, 2009 11:29 am

    Mira is starting to scare me!

  25. Scott October 29th, 2009 11:51 am

    Stay away from Mira’s stash you may have a cornice block sent your way….

  26. Lee October 29th, 2009 1:19 pm

    Itxassou is at the other end of the Pyrenees to me, the Basque lands in fact and only just the start of the Pyrenees. Mountains near there are around 1000m high and close proximity to the sea means you need a good winter to ski there. Last year was a good winter so they did! See
    It’s probably only an hours drive or so from there to the Western High Pyrenees – probably the best area for touring!

  27. mike October 29th, 2009 4:41 pm

    the helis always leave my favorite 20 degree meadows untouched…..perfect for skipping.

  28. Njord October 29th, 2009 7:45 pm

    This may be blashphemy, but would reducing Wilderness make things better? The reason LCC/BCC gets hit so much is the EASY CAR ACCESS! Maybe is there was better access to other stuff, there would be less crowding…


    (of course, unless you start touring from your front steps of your house, you are only partially “earning your turns”, the rest was brought to you by your fossil fuel consuming car.)

  29. Bryan October 29th, 2009 8:49 pm

    Bryce: Ix-nay on the olitude-Say. :whistle:

  30. Lou October 30th, 2009 6:18 am

    Funny you should mention that Njord. I was just talking to a 4×4 advocate the other day, and they were saying that perhaps if the USFS and BLM opened up a few more 4×4/ATV trails around here in the non-Wilderness land, perhaps they’d actually support certain Wilderness additions! He was saying that the reason a lot of the motorized recreation crowd are so opposed to legal Wilderness is that they already see their numbers growing as their trail mileage shrinks, and in the face of that they see these Wilderness proposals and it all just doesn’t add up.

    He also mentioned that perhaps there are parts of our legal Wilderness that are actually lacking in Wilderness qualities and could be removed from the Wilderness designation, opened to multiple recreation use, in return for designating more Wilderness lands of a more pristine nature. Of course, that is blasphemy in many groups. But to me the guy was just thinking outside the box and I found his take to be interesting.

    I don’t know how that applies to the Wasatch. But our situation here in west central Colorado is at least worth looking at as to put things in perspective.

    As I’ve always said, I like the Wilderness we have and perhaps there are certain lands that would make very appropriate additions. But in this area of Colorado, I’m not a fan of adding more Wilderness acreage. Why? Not because I’m some kind of rabid anti Wilderness fanatic, but simply because I’m a recreation advocate and I firmly believe we can manage our public lands for recreation and conservation without more of the highly restrictive federal Wilderness designation (which not only bans mechanized recreation, but also does things like blocking the building of mountain huts.)

    I know many readers here disagree with that take and think we should continue to add legal Wilderness until it indeed covers nearly all public land. I respect your opinion, but heartily oppose it. :angel:

  31. Dan Powers October 30th, 2009 7:52 am

    Lou – That is a far too reasonable attitude to ever really catch on, but you’ve got my vote.

  32. Randonnee October 30th, 2009 9:47 am

    Reduced access is the damage to us all on many fronts- caused by Wilderness, preservation over Multiple-Use. protection of every critter or plant regardless of efficacy of the ‘protection,’ assumption that human-use is harmful and unnecessary, reduced trail miles and recreation opportunity that results in overcrowding and Permits (less access). Wilderness buffer zones are created here in WA around Wilderness. Formerly logging-hammered areas bordering Wilderness are gated miles from the nice country and we the Landowners are allowed the privilege of walking through logged-area closed roads, now washed-out and overgrown. Big money from big Organizations pushes the anti-human-use agenda and gains support from increasing numbers of folks.

    Unfortunately Wilderness designation, such a treasure at the core, in expansion becomes a barrier to us using and enjoying our Public Lands.

  33. Mason October 30th, 2009 1:04 pm

    Lou, good point- Montana might be the solution for Wasatchers, although they wouldn’t be able to handle the long approaches, lack of snow, bad snowpack, no rescue options, confusing route finding, no one to break trail for you, no cell phone service, wolves, bears, lions, no guide books… Ha, ha, just kidding, it’s crowded, you’ll be fine!

  34. Andrew October 30th, 2009 1:28 pm

    I certainly agree that access to many areas in Washington blows heartily. The Henry M Jackson Wilderness and Glacier Peak Wilderness have been unreachable from the west, barring a dozen or more miles of road walking/biking for quite some time. The PCT still hasn’t been repaired, and it was washed out in 2003! But is it possible that the lack of repair on the roads and trails might have more to do with budgets at the forest service rather than environmentalist conspiracy to reduce access?

  35. Seldom October 30th, 2009 1:37 pm

    Herd mentality and easy access aren’t the only reason that the Cottonwoods see a lot of skiers. These two canyons are snow generating freaks of nature. The deep snowpack makes the runs better and improves snow stability. I often drive more than an hour to Little Cottonwood Canyon (past excellent ski terrain only a few minutes from my house) so I can ski long runs on steep slopes with a whole bunch of other people. Outside the Cottonwoods, skiing in Utah is a lot like Colorado, without the 14,000 ft peaks.

  36. Randonnee October 30th, 2009 6:25 pm

    Hey Andrew,

    True points- budget issues. I place the origin of that problem squarely on environmental initiatives and an Agency that became divided and schizophrenic between old-guard multiple-use adherents and new-guard environmentalist/ preservationist in USFS. Extractive uses, specifically logging provided revenue that funded all sort of recreation in the past. That is now such a distant memory that folks now blame something else for budget shortfalls in USFS budgets. In modern times, simple fixes of roads and trails in existence for decades is complicated by environmental agendas aided by Judicial Policy-making in the absence of clear Law for USFS resource management. For example, the Icicle Road washed out last year after a landslide blocked the river, and will require years of analysis and etc. before it may be rerouted on old logging spurs nearby, perhaps beginning next year. In 1990 the same section of road was washed out to a lesser extent and was just fixed- I witnessed this personally since I was wading the washed-out road to get to my trapline. I am acquainted with someone who recently retired and was involved both times,. and frustrated at the environmental agendas/ Agency bureacracy that now cause such complexity to fix a 50 year-old road in a previously logged area!

    Back on topic, Wilderness designation may be easier in many ways for the USFS to manage an area. Sadly, that is accomplished by restricting use and maintenance in Wilderness and even in surrounding “buffer” areas. Basically, it denies use to the Public landowners, allowing for easier Management.

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