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Wilderness skiing in the deep Utah backcountry

At 3:05 p.m., we entered a grove of ancient Engelmann spruce. A shaft of sunlight illuminated their thick trunks in a bed of snow as soft and fine as powdered sugar.
Alec Hornstein skies the back country Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005, 22 miles east of Beaver, Utah. Hornstein runs what could be Utah's most underrated back country ski tours, drawing fewer than 300 skiers a winter.Paul Foy / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At 3:05 p.m., we entered a grove of ancient Engelmann spruce. 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 ski 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.

But none of the jobs 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.

Standard yurt rates in the Tushars are $125 a night or $150 for a larger yurt higher in the mountains, but those and other rates are somewhat negotiable, depending on the needs of customers, size of the group and length of tours.

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.

The outhouse at his other yurt features 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 woodstove 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.

Scientists describe the Tushars with awe.

"It used to be one stratovolcano after another," said Carl Ege, a Utah state geologist who calls it "one of my favorites" for its beauty, remote location and lack of crowds.

Beaver Canyon, the 18-mile entry to Elk Meadows, exposes thick piles of magma, mudflows and solidified volcanic tuff or ash. The region's most violent eruptions ended about 19 million years ago, geologists say, when the Pacific oceanic plate consumed itself under this part of North America.

The Tushars are home to one of Utah's largest herds of mountain goats, which cling to the flanks of peaks even during winter, browsing for sparse grasses and lichen. The peaks hold about 120 goats, which keep to small groups, says Terry Krasko, a district ranger in the Fishlake National Forest.

Krasko's Beaver district is prized for recreation, with large roadless areas and trails reserved just for hikers, who can stroll through stands of ancient spruce and mature aspen under austere peaks.

"Timber operations are not real big here," Krasko said. "Most of the timber removal is related to forest restoration. It's not an industrial forest like some other areas.

If you go:

: Ski guide Alec Hornstein, (435) 438-6191.

GETTING THERE: Tours depart from the Elk Meadows ski area, 22 miles east of the ranch town of Beaver, Utah, which is 220 miles from Salt Lake City and 244 miles from Las Vegas.

TOURS: Hornstein charges $40 for mandatory guiding to the Puffer Lake yurt, 1.4 miles from a trailhead on the boundary of the ski area. The fee is $80 to the higher Snorkeling Elk Yurt, 4.6 miles from another trailhead. A three-night journey from one yurt to the next goes for $150 a skier. In the backcountry, more ambitious skiers may want his day-long service for travel across avalanche-prone terrain, at $150 a day. They'll also need their own avalanche beacons.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Guests typically arrange through Hornstein to rent a condo in Elk Meadows for their first night. Units go for as little as $100 a night. The Puffer Lake yurt is $125 a night and can fit four people comfortably. The Snorkeling yurt, with ample space for six people, is $150 a night. Each yurt could stuff in another two people.