Snow & sandstone: Stan Wagon explores the La Sals

A classic Utah vista in the La Sal mountains. PHOTO BY STAN WAGON.

With the snowpack in the mountains of eastern Utah at 146 percent of average, a pair Summit County ski mountaineers spent the equinox exploring peaks in the La Sal Range, near Moab. This is contributor Stan Wagon’s report from the expedition.

Jonathan Kriegel near the Summit of Haystack Mountain in the La Sals of eastern Utah. PHOTO BY STAN WAGON.

By Stan Wagon
On Friday, March 19, 2010, Jonathan Kriegel and I headed up the Geyser Pass trail with large packs (55 pounds) to set up a camp for three nights at the pass.

Conditions were stormy (and the drive up difficult in 6 inches of new snow), but the storm was ending and so it seemed perfect, with a forecast of sunny days and lots of fresh snow. We got to the pass in just over two hours and set up camp. We headed north for a short ski tour in the late afternoon but got a little lost on return, having to climb 200 feet to return to camp.

On Saturday we went for Haystack (11,640 ft), which we failed on two years ago because of very firm snow and no crampons. This year, armed (footed?) with the proper tools, we easily cramponed up the steep east ridge and enjoyed some fine summit time. We could look down the large north face, which would have been skiable, but we stuck to our plan of skiing the south face. The rest of the story and more picks after the break.

Wide-open snowfields and firm conditions at the summit of Haystack Mountain in the La Sals of eastern Utah. PHOTO BY STAN WAGON.

The descent of the south face was not great — firm and uneven — and we had hopes for better on the north-facing slopes of Mellenthin (second-highest peak in the La Sals). In the afternoon we investigated the route to Mellenthin (12,645 ft) and set a useful track to the base of the wonderful north face. Looking at things up close, it seemed like the left-hand ridge (the northeast ridge) would offer the best way to the summit, and there appeared to be a rock-free way down from the summit area to the center of the face we wanted to ski. Jonathan had skied this several years ago, in a lower snow year. Snow conditions this year were amazing, at 146 percent of normal.

On Sunday we headed to Mel, our track making the approach fast. It was another full-sun day, though the winds were brutal at the higher elevations. We skinned as high as we could, then turned left to the ascent ridge and donned crampons, which again were quite necessary, for the final climb. The climb went well but the winds forced us off the summit quickly. What a great place though, with 8,000 feet of relief down to the town of Moab.

The north face of majestic Mellenthin, with 8,000 feet of vertical relief to the Moab Valley below.

A quick transition and we dropped into the spot we had scoped out. It was a little rockier than expected, but the snow was very firm and we easily side-slipped down to where whiteness ruled. A couple hundred feet of firm snow brought us to powder which we enjoyed immensely. Back at camp we rallied for an afternoon tour up the west side of Tomasaki. I was tired, and I was getting extreme skin gloppage despite skin wax, so Jonathan went farther. His descent was about a third of the longer route of the impressive west gully that descends from the summit of Tomasaki.

Base camp near Geyser Pass Road in the La Sals. PHOTO BY STAN WAGON.

On Monday we did a morning tour up Burro Ridge and had some firm but enjoyable skiing on its west slopes and, as always, great views from the top. Then the return to the car, which was especially easy as a groomer had made a couple of runs over the road just before we left.

We started driving down the road to Castle Valley, a paved shortcut out of Moab, but after 10 miles we were faced with a closed road due to snow. So we backtracked, but the Sand Flats dirt road looked too beckoning and we figured it had to be clear down to Moab. The first few miles were fine but then it became very muddy. Fortunately it was almost all downhill. It might have been difficult or impossible to reverse. My spirits sank when I saw a huge road grader ahead, but the fellow told us all was good behind him! So we got to continue on this great road (part of the Kokopelli trail) all the way to the Slickrock trailhead and back to town. Whew! Getting a tow out of there would have been an unpleasant way to end a great trip.

The Forest Service in Moab seemed concerned that our vehicle was at the trailhead for so long and, the day after I arrived home (Tuesday morning),I received a call from a ranger who had traced the plates. He wanted to make sure we were all right.

More photos and Stan’s original blog here.

Stan Wagon is a professor of mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, but spends winter, spring, and summer in Silverthorne. He is the founding editor of Ultrarunning magazine and is an avid nordic skier, mountain skier, desert hiker, and snow sculptor.  He does not bike even though he has appeared in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not on a very special bicycle he designed: it has square wheels and rolls smoothly on a properly shaped road. More info at


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