A MULTIMODAL MASTERPIECE: SKIRAFTING UTAH WITH MIKE CURIAK
Words, Photos, and Video from Mike Curiak @mikesee
What do you call a guy that devises some of the most creative omniterrain traverse ideas going?
And that willingly and silently carries more than his share of group gear?
Who breaks trail all day, and when you finally drag your ass into camp he's already melting snow for dinner?
Who stops and points out all of the fine minutiae that you would like to have noticed: fault offsets, fossil replacements, first trip sightings of jasper, lignite, gypsum?
But who also makes himself scarce relatively frequently so that you can gather your own sensory data?
Honeybunches of Oats for lunch.
I call him Jeff.
Jeff can go for days, possibly weeks, fueled by dry breakfast cereal, miso packets, loaner cheesy poofs, and select pork-adjacent products.
Recently Jeff invited me on a multi-range ski traverse, connecting the Abajo and Henry Mountains with a float of lower Cataract Canyon. Having been on one skiraft mission with him, and having seen trip reports from others, I'm not too proud to admit that FOMO was a big part of initially saying yes to this invite. The route just looked too diverse, too interesting to pass up.
Enjoying the last of the calm in advance of three days of wind.
Heaps of snow both moved and moving on the S edge of the range.
The most cursory of glances at SE Utah snowpack sealed the deal. First, heaps of snow in the high country meant we'd be able to cover more distance on skis than in an average year. Distance on skis beats distance afoot with skis on your back anytime. That's not just a theory–we proved it out by survival skiing (~2:50 of vid below) miles deep into Fable Valley, and as bad as that skiing was it was eminently more efficient than the heavily laden walking that followed. Sliding beats stomping, plain and simple.
Bears Ears shadowed by a looming Navajo Mountain at top left. Linnaeus dominates the near skyline at right.
Second, Lake Powell is at an historic low level–reservoir less than 25% full–which meant that we'd have full current from our put-in at Gypsum Canyon to our takeout at Trachyte Canyon. Floating is easier than skiing, which is easier than walking, but who's going to argue about having current vs. plowing along in flatwater?
Gorgeous morning light and evidence of wind hammering on every aspect.
Bears Ears and Navajo Mountain getting closer.
We walked out of Monticello on a crisp, blustery, blue sky morning. We'd covered 3/4th of the distance to the actual trailhead when a guy in a pickup stopped and offered a ride. Blanding's only (current) lunchbreak-sledding doctor conveyed us that last 25% to actual snow before selecting one of his quiver of sleds and disappearing over the berm. Y'ought to have been there.
Travel through the Abajos was...
...tough. It was much harder on Jeff than I (see above about breaking trail) but the funky, unbroken sun and wind crusts that predominated were just a lot of work to push through. Add in a small slew of blisters to attend to (raises hand) along with a lot of wind and transported snow, and our first two days were long, slow, laborious.
Below, Jeff revels in our first real panorama of the Needles district from on high.
Our route traced Jackson Ridge, over the shoulder of Mt. Linnaeus, then stepped us down onto The Causeway. A note should be made here about how grateful I am for 'seasonal wilderness'. The Abajos are a veritable zoo of motorized traffic in the non-snow months, with silence rare and dust-free air to breathe even less common. Some combination of distance from major population centers, a lack of reliable snow, and a presumed mud/snow/mud transition zone before travel becomes consistent enough for sleds gifted us an entire week of priceless silence. We neither saw nor heard a single other human once we left the trailhead.
At The Causeway we melted snow for beverages while inflating boats. Our craft are incredibly small and light, but any amount of weight and bulk removed from hips and shoulders is welcome, and the route Jeff had plotted included a lot of non-technical terrain for the middle two days of our route. Dragging light, slippery boats was both novel and efficient, and made for easy access to snacks and layers: We'd just drop them on the floor of the boat while moving, then stop and pull the boats up next to us when needed.
Within the Chippean Rocks.
Navigating drifts along the shoulder of Mormon Pasture Mountain.
We found a rhythm early on. Up a a bit after first light, Jeff would melt snow for meals while I packed up the 'Mid. We'd rehydrate food while loading packs, then ingest while changing from sleep clothes to ski kits. Getting boots on was easily my least favorite part of each day. High insteps with ballerina arches are not what boot designers have in mind when spinning out their latest creations. I envied Jeff his ability to simply slip feet in and twist a BOA, while I stomped and cursed and cringed and whinged before cinching and ratcheting and levering to get going. I did a lot of pre-trip work to get my boots to conform to my feet. Seeing Jeff's system made it clear I have yet more work ahead.
Once on the trail we'd move pretty consistently til ~lunchtime, then take an extended boots-off break while melting snow to rehydrate and pack some calories and electrolytes in. As with many trips, as the days added up we conversed less and less. Introverts like us require lighter verbiage than most. We aren't talked-out per se, we just see little value in actually verbalizing something that isn't vital to share when a gesture or/with a grunt can suffice. Through the middle ~8 hours of one day I can only remember verbalizing once: "Cheesy poofs?" Jeff lit up while extending two cupped hands forward: "Ooo, yeah–come to papa!". Then we buckled up and skied silently through that afternoon and evening.
We both opted for pattern-based skis in sane lengths. Skins were used heavily on the first two days, but beyond that we enjoyed the efficiency of the scales 97% of the time. Removing transitions from the equation is always nice, but removing drag from skins is revelatory. The more time I spend gliding in the backcountry on scales the less I want to spend on skins–to the extent that Jeny and I both own a wider scaled option and spend aggregate weeks of every winter farming fresh with them.
Two long days–one of them a scorcher–of sled dragging delivered us to the drop into Fable Valley. Unrestricted views of a massive chunk of the Colorado Plateau were the highlight of this route. Uncompahgre Plateau, Lone Cone, and La Platas to the E, Chuskas, Shiprock, Comb Ridge and Monument Valley to the S, Bears Ears, Navajo Mountain, 50-mile Mountain, and the Henrys to the W, Aquarius Plateau, the Maze, Wasatch Plateau, Island in the Sky, Needles, Bookcliffs, and La Sals to the N. Not sure I can point to a better panorama in the lower 48.
Dropping from North Long Point to connect onto the Dark Canyon Plateau. Bookcliffs form the northern horizon, Maze District at top left of frame.
Hiding from el sol at lunch. Henry's starting to come into focus even though they are yet five days away.
Boats deflated and stowed for drop to Fable Valley Trailhead.
At the lip of Fable Valley we found dry duff under piñon pines and enjoyed our only night sans tent. That luxury was largely academic, as high winds ripped through the P/J and ensured fitful sleep.
In the morning it was 30 minutes of awkward downhill postholing til we could click back in and glide through thinner and increasingly weirder snow. Impatience–and a desire to not thrash my bases–had me constantly thinking, "We should pack up the skis now" but Jeff continued to link creative routes through the sage and chamisa, only occasionally needing to waddle a few delicate steps across dirt or gravels to get back onto snow, and to gliding.
Alas, no time to explore the many Fable Valley ruins on this go round.
At one tricky spot I lost his tracks in a quagmire of over-the-head brush where I could scarely see either feet or sky. We emerged on different sides of the watercourse, and continued that way for another ~30 minutes. When next we met we both had skis on packs and that was largely that. The snow wasn't done with us, but the big, contiguous patches where it made sense to slide had ended.
Confluence of Fable and Gypsum. And there was much rejoicing.
Jeff eyeing the next traverse to avoid a large dry fall.
If the routefinding through Fable had been interesting, getting down into Gypsum and around its many dry falls was something else entirely. Should exposed scrambling on airy oversteepened slopes with a melange of snow, ice, mud, scree, and unanchored gravels tickle your fancy, you'll find lots of that below the confluence. With unstable ankles and a heavy pack, this section kept me out of my comfort zone for most of a day.
Below, Jeff scopes the line on the last exposed traverse and descent before Gypsum allowed us to merely stumblefuck a few cobbly miles down the watercourse to the Colorado. Cobble bars are fine with a daypack and fresh legs, but I struggle to enjoy them outside of that scenario.
With five hard days and ~66 miles of travel in our legs, I couldn't wait to inflate boats and cover some effortless miles afloat. A cold rain moved in as we transitioned to aquatic mode, soaking our gear but unable to dampen enthusiasm for floating lower Cataract. I've experienced this canyon twice in the past ten years, but both times hiked out just upstream at Imperial Canyon. As such I did not expect and was indeed unprepared for how visually different lower Cataract is. Bigger, steeper, less choss, more organized. Prettier aesthetically to my eyes. Continuous cold showers notwithstanding, lower Cataract was a treat.
Lower Cataract near Bowdie Canyon.
Smack dab in the middle of our second day afloat we passed under the Hite bridge and shortly thereafter gained two fellow travelers: Jeff's SO Hannah and her bestie Molly. With fresh voices, ideas, motivation, and food on board, we four floated a few miles down to Trachyte Canyon. A thin fringe of muck separated us from my first experience with Utah tussocks, then we spent the next day+ hiking up and out.
Molly and Hannah joined us for the last day+.
Utah tussocks. Part of the Dominy formation, courtesy of a rapidly receding Lake Powell.
Trachyte Canyon delta.
Camp within the narrows of Trachyte was exquisite: No wind, little rain, an overhung kitchen, songs of canyon wren, junco, and chickadee to enliven.
Focused wandering would be the most apropos phrase to describe how we move upcanyon. No trail exists within the cobbled watercourse, so we engage with the terrain, shortcutting bends and following the straighter route that high water might. As we pick our way through the eponymous grey surface rocks it pays to scan for outliers of chert, conglomerates of shells, and chalcedony. None are fortunate enough to spot an armored mud ball.
Trail Canyon opening up to reveal a stormy Hillers.
Early afternoon the canyon broadens and we catch glimpses of the Little Rockies and Mt. Hillers momentarily emerging from within looming cumulonimbus. This is the re-start of our alpine route: 4ish days over Hillers, Pennell, and Ellen, then down almost to Hanksville. Alas my body is crying uncle: blisters actively eroding both heels, edematous cankles exacerbating the problem, knees swollen stiff. A good friend recently shared that "getting old isn't for sissies". I could only whimpersniffle in response. I'm wrecked. I understand on every level how badly Jeff wants to see this route through to conclusion, and he's towed me along in his wake to get us to this point. But the hardest part of the route is ahead, and feeling the way I do it's simply not in the cards to continue. We pull the pin where the route crosses Hwy 276.
Jeff's words and photos are here.
Finally, please enjoy a few hundred million moving pixels that might help to paint a more complete portrait of the country we traversed.
Mike Curiak is one of Hyperlite Mountain Gear's oldest friends, and a constant source of inspiration when it comes to creative trip planning. You can follow more of the incredible ways he makes the most of his free time HERE.
Absolutely love the change in terrain and scenery on this trip, thanks so much for sharing!1
Oh man, what an inspiration! The idea of "seasonal wilderness" is new to me, and the Henry Mtns have had a spot on my to-do list since I first saw their snow-capped peaks in May of 2019 while I was on the way to Capitol Reef NP (photo below) so this hit a lot of buttons for me.
Since 2019, I've learned that they were the last peaks in the lower 48 to be named by Europeans, and they also house a genomically important heard of bison, which only increases their appeal. I've purchased Michael Kelsey's guidebook to the region, but I have a hard time knowing where to start with his books, so haven't made much headway planning a trip. Thanks so much for sharing this adventure with all of us.1
Did this route (minus the skiing) in 2014 with my partner and dog. those round the waterfalls/pouroffs are no joke. very high off the deck, and almost 10 years ago there was certainly not much in the way of a trail.1