Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Ashley (Mis)Adventure

Grizzly Ridge Yurt

Limber Flag Yurt

View from Limber Flag Yurt

Being a non-snowmobiler, I felt pretty hard core two weeks ago when I got to go snowmobiling on a 22-mile roundtrip groomed trail on the Boise National Forest. It was not challenging in the least, but was really fun. I felt primed for my snowmobiling trip on the Ashley National Forest the following week (last Thursday). Turns out my fun - and very mild - adventure on the Boise was absolutely nothing compared to the trails I trekked on the Ashley. Would I be lying if I said at one point last Thursday I wished I was dead? Nope! I remember mumbling aloud, "Somebody kill me" at least once during the four hours I bounced around on the back of a snowmobile on the series of "trails" we traveled. It was insane, but I think the worst hit after I got back home.

I left for Vernal, Utah Wednesday afternoon, driving 3+ boring hours to the eastern edge of the state. There is jack to do in Vernal, especially in the winter when it's freezing out, so I hunkered down in my hotel with - you guessed it - bad TV, which I am exceedingly happy we do not have at home because really, how much Toddlers and Tiaras does one person really need to watch? I refuse to confess how much of the marathon I watched. I won't do it. After a poor night's sleep, I met up with my Forest Service guide at the Vernal Ranger District and off we went up to the Ashley.

It was a pretty drive up to the top of the ridge and the niceness of the journey kind of stopped there. It was bitter cold despite the multiple extra layers I bundled up in. The wind ripped across the ridge, blowing with it swirls of snow. Once we got into the trees, it wasn't so bad. I should mention before I get too far into my lengthy story that the two yurt trails we rode on are not groomed trails, nor are they for snowmobiles. They are cross-country ski trails, but when you're with the Forest Service, you have the luxury of motorized travel. We went to Grizzly Ridge Yurt first (the first photo), about four miles in, and the ride was actually kind of fun. Nothing too rough, just a little bumpy. The yurt was awesome. It's the first time I've ever seen one off the pages of a magazine. I was impressed and now have a hankering to pack into one next summer. I shot my photos, stepped off the trail and into knee-deep snow that I had to crawl out of, lost the visor shield off my helmet, and had an overall fine time at Grizzly Ridge. Backcountry snowmobiling... I could do this, right?

Wrong. Next was Limber Flag Yurt, another four miles in and "the hardest one to get to", according to my guide. The getting-to was the easy part. The getting-out was a cruel joke. Long series of hills, some with greater than 10% slopes, lead to the yurt (the second photo), and with deep, fresh snow and two people on one sled, it was not easy. Getting there was extremely bumpy due to countless snowdrifts blown into place by the relentless wind. On the last big downhill, we ended up getting off-trail but gravity was working for us so it wasn't a problem. We didn't fare so well on the way out. About halfway up the first hill, still on the trail, my guide flies off the sled and into skinny tree. I hit the brake just as the sled went off the trail. I had to get off and trudge through thigh-deep snow for a few feet to get back on the trail. Up we went again, slower this time.

The last, steepest hill loomed ahead. All was well until about 3/4 of the way up when my guide flew off the sled again. The sled carried me about ten feet off-trail and then rolled, throwing me face down and downhill, pinning one of my legs from the knee down. I was perfectly fine though, just stuck, but obviously the situation could have been much worse. The guide freed my leg and when I went to stand up, I sunk up to my waist, and it was then that I realized that the force of the "crash" untucked all of my layers and I had a bunch of snow up my shirt. It was crammed into the pocket of my down jacket, caked into the mouthguard of my helmet, and packed into both boots. I felt like a damn Yeti. And let's not forget that I was stuck in waist-deep snow. I clawed and clamored my way back to the trail, then realized I was needed to help turn the sled right-side up, so back in I went. We righted the sled, I stomp-stepped my way back to the trail and exclaimed, "I will walk my ass up the rest of the hill!" I'd had it. I wanted dry clothes, a crackling fire, and a beer. We made it back to the trailhead without incident, just more wind and bumps, but all I got was a semi-frozen peanut butter sandwich and some water.

We sat in the truck for a while with the heat blasting on high and after a crappy field lunch and some layer rearranging, we headed out again, this time on a groomed trail 15 miles one-way to Trout Creek Guard Station (the fourth photo). "Groomed" was an understatement. A massive storm had passed through since the groomer had been out, and the trail was buried under 14+ inches of fresh snow. The ride in was even bumpier than Limber Flag's trail, much longer, and really curvy. It took about 40 minutes to reach the guard station and by the time we did, I was frozen to the bone. My gloves literally froze in the shapes of my curved fingers. I put toe warmers in my boots for the ride out, which helped greatly, and my guide traded me gloves since he had finger warmers on the sled. The ride out, although bumpy as hell, was much better since I wasn't so cold. We took a side trip out to Colton Guard Station (sixth photo) on the way back to the trailhead, maybe a five-mile detour, and had no trouble, except with getting the combination lock on the cabin open, which is actually a common occurrence with Forest Service cabins.

Soon enough we got back to the truck, the heater, and paved, snow-free roads. I changed into dry clothes at the office and hightailed it out of Vernal, determined to beat the coming storm and sleep in my own bed. I was successful with the latter part, but I hit the storm at Soldier Summit at Strawberry Reservoir and it was brutal. Although the snow was only about a half-inch deep, the wind produced near white-out conditions. Visibility was only 50-100 feet. I kept up with the glowing red taillights in front of me and all was well. Daniel's Summit was rough too, but once I got down the canyon a couple miles, the snow stopped completely and the road was dry. Phew. I ended up getting home only 15 minutes later than I had planned.

Now for the worst part. It turns out that 50 miles of snowmobile-riding is rather hazardous to your health. After all the leaning and bumping around, my back, neck, arms, and even my hands were trashed. Friday I could barely move and couldn't even squeeze my shampoo bottle. I wished hard for a hot tub, but settled for a heating pad and some Advil instead. By Sunday, I was back to normal, although I'm still not sure I ever want to snowmobile again. Maybe just not on the Ashley.
Trout Creek Guard Station

View from Trout Creek Guard Station

Colton Guard Station

Colton Guard Station "Yard"

Bunkhouse Latch at Colton Guard Station


lisa said...

These are such wonderful photographs!
Looks like a great place to be!

Lisa said...

Despite the mishaps, you shot some beautiful photos!

Nonnie said...

Steph, you need to be in for supplemental hazard pay! Awesome photos and what a story to tell.

Anonymous said...

AWESOME!! Gets me excited to go!