600 inches in Utah’s backcountry
BEAVER, Utah (AP) – At 3:05 p.m. we entered a grove of ancient spruce trees. A shaft of sunlight illuminated their thick trunks in a bed of snow as soft and fine as powdered sugar.On a day piercing cold and dry, high in Utah’s remote Tushar mountain range, it seemed as if time hadn’t changed the area for thousands of years.”Those are some big trees,” said Alec Hornstein, pausing on his trip into the range.
Hornstein runs what could be Utah’s most underrated backcountry ski tours, drawing fewer than 300 skiers a winter. He deploys a pair of Mongolian-style yurts under the wind-swept peaks of the Tushars, formed by a series of spectacular volcanic eruptions over millions of years.His Forest Service permit covers 100 square miles of primeval forest and rugged peaks in central Utah, at the doorstep of the Great Basin desert, 22 miles from Beaver in southwestern Utah.Hornstein was poking around City Creek and Lake peaks, neighbors rising more than 11,000 feet, looking for pockets of powder in the early December snowpack. Four other peaks top 12,000 feet.The mountains average 400 inches of dry, fluffy snow a winter. Last winter brought more than 600 inches, and Hornstein was on his skis 190 days, until July 3, as sole proprietor of Tushar Mountain Tours.It’s been a labor of eight winters for Hornstein, 40 and single, who is pondering whether to invest more money in the venture or give it up for something else. He could sell the business. Or he could upgrade or add yurts or buy a used snow tractor to ferry more gear and people into the backcountry.
“It’s getting up to where it’s starting to make some money,” he said.With a marketing degree from Northern Arizona University, Hornstein has held a collection of jobs – real estate agent in Seattle, helicopter ski guide in Canada, restaurant cook in Park City, Utah, and ski patrolman at the defunct Elk Meadows ski area here, where he rents a condominium for the winter. For part of summer, he’s a traveling salesman for his father’s Santa Fe-based specialty furniture business. No job, though, has been as satisfying as running tours in the Tushars.Ski touring by yurt is becoming increasingly popular in the Rocky Mountains, but skiers are on their own at many backcountry yurts. Not at Hornstein’s. He will guide skiers to their yurt, carry supplies by snowmobile and sled, chop wood and stoke the stove. He’ll guide skiers on day-long tours and then cook dinner – part of his “deluxe” package. He will share your beer.He’s carried oxygen tanks for East Coast models on photo shoots. Outdoor apparel makers call on him for wilderness getaways. His youngest visitor was an 11-month-old, carried by her parents.Hornstein says some visitors find his yurts Spartan, while others say it’s better than sleeping in a tent. They sit on wood-plank platforms, a round hut with a cone-shaped roof to shed snow, topped by a skylight. Some of the bare furniture was salvaged from friends and the town dump. At Puffer Lake yurt, the “outhouse” is a 5-gallon pail under a plastic deck chair, with a toilet seat lashed on top.”You sit on it with your clothes on first to warm it up,” says Hornstein, trying to be helpful. “My other tip is to wait until you really have to go.”
His other yurt features the “Taj Mahal” of outhouses – a concrete Forest Service structure with covered entry and skylight.Hornstein has a way of looking on the brighter side of things. Outside it was below zero, and inside the Puffer Lake yurt he’d barely fired up a wood stove when he said, “It must be 60 degrees in here already. ” It still took a goose-down jacket to stay warm.That night – Hornstein said it was his coldest in a canvas yurt – was a battle between wood stove and temperatures that plunged to minus-6 under a half-moon. Interior temperatures advanced and retreated as the potbellied stove burned and demanded more wood.The next evening was a balmy 20 degrees.On the Web