Two USU students founders of the Wellsville Mountain Ski Patrol
By Heather Fredrickson
"We're not good enough for (that)," said Jason Wooden, a mechanical designer at the Space Dynamics Lab at Utah State University, and founding member of the two-man WMSP.
Wooden and high school friend Tim Watkins, now a graduate student in the Landscape, Architecture, and Environmental Planning department at USU, began skiing in the Wellsville foothills in 1987, Wooden said.
"It's a stupid high school thing," Wooden said. "It was a tongue-in-cheek way of claiming (the Wellsvilles) for our own."
They drive up forest service roads from Mendon as high as they can, Wooden said, and then hike to the peaks of the range.
"The total climb takes three hours if we drive part of the way," Wooden said. "Some routes take longer. We usually ski down in 15 minutes."
Watkins said part of the attraction to skiing the Wellsvilles is quick access to the top. The WMSP drives about three miles to the wilderness boundary, Watkins said. "Conserve energy for the (climb up the) slopes," he said. "It's an intimidating looking mountain."
"It's intriguing," Wooden said. "You stare in awe at the ridge and cornices. It gets into your blood."
Wooden said he can see into Idaho, Nevada and the Salt Lake valley from the top of the Wellsvilles.
"(You can) see what it's like to stand on the edge of the world," he said.
Every weekend, from the first snowfall after New Year's Day to late June, depending on the snow, Wooden said he and Watkins spend 80 percent of their time up the Wellsvilles.
"This year we've been going to Logan Canyon because snow is sparse in the Wellsvilles," Wooden said.
"We have an annual goal of hitting the Wellsville summit," Watkins said.
If the conditions aren't right, the two cancel their climb.
"If we hear the snow shift, a low-pitch wind sound and the snow settles below, we turn around," Watkins said.
While both Watkins and Wooden say they call the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center before climbing, they said they don't often heed its warnings.
"Our routes aren't as dangerous as other bowls or in Logan Canyon," Watkins said. "If they give moderate to severe warnings, we"ll go out to see for ourselves."
Avalanches have yet to grab WMSP, but blizzards and what Wooden called "wet slides" in spring have surprised the duo on their treks.
"One time, there was a thick blizzard halfway up," Wooden said. "We waited 30 to 45 minutes before coming down ‹ we didn't want to ski off a cliff."
Wooden's younger brother, a senior in high school, sometimes tags along on their trips with a snowboard strapped to his back, Wooden said.
"He got buried up to his waist (in a wet slide)," Wooden said. "It starts out running like a river, slow enough and narrow ‹ easy to avoid."
Injuries haven't hampered WMSP's excursions too much over the years, Wooden said. They've had equipment problems, one twisted ankle and one broken tailbone, Wooden said.
"Just take a deep breath," he said, "and limp home."
Wooden warned skiers with limited experience to attend a class or seminar on backcountry skiing before attempting the Wellsvilles. "It's critical to learn before backcountry skiing, especially on the Wellsvilles," Wooden said.
Wooden cautioned skiers to take a friend and a cell phone up the mountains, along with a minimum of two to four quarts of water.
"Don't rely on melted snow," Wooden said. Dehydration sets in quickly because of the salt content in snow, he said.
With so much danger in backcountry skiing, why not stick to the groomed slopes of resorts?
"Everyone is on the slopes," Watkins said. "There's no adventure."
"No snowmobilesö on the Wellsvilles," Wooden said.
Watkins cites budgeting concerns as a factor in his decision to avoid ski resorts.
"Once you've got the equipment, that's it ‹ no lift tickets," he said, "just gas to get up there."
The Wellsville Mountains, just west of Wellsville, are listed as the "steepest free standing mountain range in the lower 48 states" in the Encyclopedia Britannica, according to the WMSP's Web site at www.fortunecity.com/marina/salmon/668/mountain.html. "There's a certain stigma attached to (the range) being in the record books," Watkins said. "People hear you ski there and they go 'oooh ‹ the Wellsvilles.'"
Through friends and contacts with outdoor stores in Salt Lake City, Watkins said, one well-known back country skier has shown Wooden interest in being led up the Wellsvilles. "He travels worldwide and demonstrates Black Diamond gear," Watkins said.
"Andrew McLean is the Michael Jordan of backcountry skiing," Wooden said.
The WMSP has led groups of three or four people up the mountains before, but is in no hurry to expand into a money-making operation. "We do it out of fun," Wooden said. "We meet people, share techniques, swap stories. The mountains are for everyone."