The Pleasures of Winter Yurting
Photography: Glen Allison
As an unapologetic snow addict, I have more than my share of winter rituals, but none is more set in stone than my annual winter yurt trip. Actually, I probably can’t even claim it as my winter ritual anymore since, if I ever tried to abandon the tradition, I’d face mutiny on the home front. My kids, now 6 and 8, have been yurting for four winters, and they count our annual backcountry excursion as the highlight of the year.Most skiers are familiar with yurts. Used by Mongolian nomads for more than 2,000 years, the circular, portable shelters are surprisingly warm, sturdy and efficient. A handful of ski touring pioneers started setting up yurts as winter shelters in the 1970s, and the idea has grown steadily ever since. Many ski resorts now use the unique structures for on-mountain warming huts or as rustic dinner settings, but it’s as backcountry getaways that yurts really shine.
Backcountry skiers often use the terms yurt skiing and hut skiing interchangeably. The concept is the same: a shelter used as an overnight base for skiing off the beaten track. It’s a concept that goes back to the earliest days of skiing. Here in Utah, the Wasatch Mountain Club built a ski cabin in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1929 for just such a purpose, and many club members had been setting up wall tents as ski shelters for at least a decade before that. Probably the most well known hut system is Colorado’s 10th Mountain Huts, which boast 29 huts connected by 350 miles of backcountry ski trails.
For whatever reason — perhaps simply a matter of keeping a good secret — Utah’s backcountry huts have operated more under the radar. And, unlike many of the “huts” in other states — which include multi-level lodges with indoor plumbing and modern heating — Utah’s backcountry huts are rustic structures with yurts being the shelter of choice in most cases. Our local backcountry yurts are heated by woodstoves. Padded bunks, cookware, dishes and firewood are provided, but you bring your own sleeping bag and all of your own food. Plumbing is either an outhouse or an open-air toilet covered by a log roof. For me and my family, that’s all part of the charm. Oh, and did I mention that all of Utah’s yurts are surrounded by acres and acres of untracked powder otherwise known as the Greatest Snow on Earth®?
Yurt skiing is catching fire with a whole new generation, fueled in part by gear revolutions in “randonée” or “AT” ski bindings, wider backcountry skis, and split snowboards, all of which allow any reasonably proficient resort skier or snowboarder to venture into the backcountry. Improved climbing skins and fatter profile skis make earning your turns a whole lot easier than in the old days of skinny skis and leather boots, but the backcountry ethic of self-reliance still applies. In other words, whatever you ski down, you first have to hike up.
Nearly all of Utah’s yurts are situated to take advantage of ideal ski terrain. A few are accessible by snowmobile, but most are located in areas protected for non-motorized winter use, so access, including hauling food and gear, is by skis or snowshoes. Some of the yurts work well for family outings or groups of varying abilities, but some of the routes can be strenuous. In all cases, advance planning and preparation are key.
This is a good place to throw in a note of caution: backcountry skiing is just that: backcountry. There is no ski patrol and no avalanche control. Out there, you are responsible for your own safety and that means skiing with an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe and knowing how to use them. It means being aware of avalanche conditions and being prepared for changing weather or equipment breakdowns.
Having a warm, comfortable base from which to access remote backcountry powder is what first drew me to yurt skiing, but it’s the whole experience that keeps me going back. There is something magical about the very shape of a yurt, the way the round walls hold the warmth and seem to embody camaraderie and good cheer. Relaxing in the company of good friends or family around a woodstove with soft lantern light and a hearty meal … I can think of no better way to celebrate a good day in the snow. As an added bonus, I often schedule our yurt trip during a full moon to take advantage of moonlight ski touring.
Mark Menlove is the executive director of Winter Wildlands Alliance. A frequent contributor to Park City Magazine, he is never happier than when he’s tromping around the Wasatch backcountry on skis.