La Sal Mountains


By: Bob Michael



The sight of the symmetrical white cones of the La Sal Mountains through Delicate Arch in spring is enough to send any desert mountain freak into a peaking passion. This past Memorial Day, weekend, I had the chance to climb in these mountains which float like an Alpine mirage above the heat waves of Moab country.

Leaving the Denver area after work Friday, we arrived at a friend's house in Grand Junction well after midnight (can't pass up a TGIF Mexican dinner). Next day the three of us drove across the Uncompahgre Uplift via Unaweep Canyon, a mysteriously abandoned course of the Colorado River, and down into a wondrous and completely atypical corner of Colorado with the look and the soul of the Utah-Arizona desert and place names like Bedrock, Slickrock, Paradox, Sinbad Valley and Gypsum Gap. Turning south at Gateway, we took en "automobile raft trip" through the Dolores River Canyon on Colorado 141. In fact, that was the only way the canyon could have bean "rafted" this spring; the Dolores was shrunk to a sickly yellowish trickle by the drought. A few miles short of Uravan, we took a dirt road cutoff which follows the river a few more miles to join Colorado 90 near Bedrock. At the state line, this road becomes Utah 46.

We turned NW off 46 about 7 miles W of the state line, at a small unnamed settlement near a sawmill. A mile north, we took a left turn on a Forest Service road signed "Medicine Lake". We were glad to have a Blazer, because this road would not be recommended for average cars. Smokey's helpers really went to town building gigantic Kelly ditches and water bars, spaced a hundred yards or so apart, and the roller-coaster ride just about made us seasick. We soon climbed out of the oakbrush lifezone, and, at about 9000', entered the most magnificent climax forest of pure aspen I've ever seen. Because of the early season, some groups of aspen were bare, while a light green haze of color was just showing on other stands. Here, the aspen did not have the look of a dainty, ephemeral tree, a passing stage in an evolutionary succession leading to spruce and fir. Many of the aspen here had the look of broad-shouldered forest giants who weren't about to yield to anyone. One monster which we named the General Grant Aspen had a trunk four feat thick and branches bigger than most mature aspen.

The La Sals are "desert peaks" only in the sense that the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona are - forested Alpine peaks rising from desert surroundings. However, this draught year the La Sale fit the description of desert peaks almost too well. I have never thought twice about bringing a water supply to high forested mountains, but when we got to a small camping area in an open spruce-fir forest at 10,000' on La Sal P8ss, no decent-looking water was to be found. The wetercourses coming off the high peaks, already mostly stripped of snow, held only rocks and dust. One spring shown on the topo was full of little black worms - which sort of blunted one's thirst. The Forest Service had, incredibly, routed the road right through the other nearby spring shown on the topo, creating a man-eating mudhole on the Moab side of the pass. Medicine. Lake was a stagnant yellowish beaver pond.

We solved the problem by melting snow from rapidly-dwindling banks under trees. Since we melted the snow in an open kettle over a wood fire, the water acquired a unique hickory-smoked flavor - which, we found, goes much better with the taste of spareribs than the taste of water.

Next morning we drove about half a mile NE of camp to where the road crosses a pretty little glacial end moraine. We rambled north up the valley between Mt. Peale (12,721') and Mt. Tukuhnikivatz (12,483'). The south side of Peale is not appealing. It's an appallingly steep pile of loose, piety, ankle-twisting, cussin' chiprock. A steep hard snow couloir providentially lead through this teetery crud. The couloir flattened out near its top, and patches of tundra grass appeared on either side, enabling us to gain the west ridge of Peale fairly painlessly. The summit register, in an RF'D-type mailbox, competes for attention with the view. Something about the highest point on the Colorado Plateau seems to bring out the literary bent in climbers (except for Ed Abbey, who just wrote his name).

We then headed west on the' 2-mile ridge run to Tukuhnikivatz ("where the sun lingers" in Ute language), a peak celebrated by its own chapter in Desert Solitaire. The ridge is mostly a walk, dropping to 11,700' halfway between the two peaks, except for a short gendarme ridge on the way down to the low point. The word "rotten" just doesn't convey the feeling of climbing on La Sal rock. Try "cancerous".

From the traverse, Tukuhnikivatz looms as a steep, symmetrical, snow-streaked pyramid - a cartoon version or what a mountain should look like. But, when you're climbing that loose summit pyramid, the aesthetics are lost at close range. A phrase from Abbey's new book The Journey Home ran through my mind - "trudging toward .... one more ugly, meaningless, and brutal rockpile in the sky". I'll bet his climb up the mountain where the sun lingers inspired those words. But from the top ... you feel that you could take off and soar like the hawks over the whole impossible landscape of southeast Utah that is spread out before you - Arches to Canyonlands and beyond to the distant Henrys, cliffs and slickrock and canyons further than you can see, "an exhilarating vastness ... room enough for a lifetime of exploration". Aw hell just get a copy of Desert Solitaire and reread the 15th chapter. Better yet, reread the whole book.

Bob Michael
Brown Bear Mountaineering Club
Arvada, Colorado

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