Mt Ellen looms very big on the horizon when you look East from Boulder Mtn on hwy 12, which is one of my fav corners of Utah. So I've been thinking about visiting this remote giant for a long time.
The mountain's biggest claim to fame has something to do with a very big difference between its altitude and the altitude of the desert and Colorado river canyons surrounding it. Mt Uncompahgre in the Northern San Juans is of course the other huge hulk of a mountain on the other edge of the Colorado basin depression, 183 miles to the East . Just over a century ago, US military was determined to beat the French record of long distance intercommunication, set by intercontinental heliography over some 150 miles of Mediterranean sea. The Signal Core placed a team with an 8-inch mirror heliograph on top of Ellen, and claimed to have transmitted a Morse message to Uncompahgre on Sept 17, 1894.
Climb-wise, the mountain is not supposed to be anything spectacular, it is just a 1000 ft elevation gain walk-up in the end of a long bone-rattling drive. But when nebben suggested a winter climb, I got interested. Instead of a short hike, it could be a fairly long backcountry ski adventure! In hindsight, I should have checked SNOTEL data, which showed 16% of the normal snowcover in the Abajos, none (!) on Boulder mountain, and 31% on Aquarius plateau. Only LaSals had decent snowcover in early January '06. The BLM office in Hanksville also mentioned that the snowpack is low this year and they haven't had precipitation for a month, so in their opinion we had a chance to drive to Lonesome Beaver CG, at 8,200 ft. This actually sounded encouraging at the time, a chance to drive into the timber country, and over 3,000 ft ascent from the car. The reality of course beat the expectations handily. We left Salt Lake after work on Friday Jan 6th, me and Igor with skis and Ben hoping to snowshoe, and Sasha the yellow lab just ready to paw it. Left pavement on a marked turnoff 9 miles South of Hanksville, and drove into Lonesome Beaver CG at 10 pm. By the way the washed-off section of Bull Creek road between the creek crossings, at about 7,700 ft elevation, has been fixed back in October. In the darkness we saw a glimmer of snow here and there on the upper slopes, but the ground was mostly bare at the campground, and we decided to drive on a bit longer. There was a bit of snow around the switchbacks to Wickiup Pass, but nothing at the 9,100 ft pass, just mighty firs and yellow grass. We decided to camp here, and make the final plans once we see the slopes in the first light of the morning. The skis actually turned out to be useful, to weigh down the tent corners against the breeze ;) .
What we already suspected turned out to be true in the morning twilight: most of the slopes and ridges were completely bare, some tentative ribbons of snow stretched along the ridges or gullies but this was it. So the skis, snowshoes, transcievers are all to stay in the car, and we will drive as far up as reasonable, and maybe drive home on the West side if we could reach the 10,500 ft Bull Creek Pass by car (see the 180-degrees change of expectations?). A snowy patch finally stopped the 4Runner at 10,060.
Once we saw the West side of the mountain, it's become even more clear that the choice to boot was right: the West slopes had no snow whatsoever. They had something else in abundance though: a gale wind. That Saturday, local lower elevation meteo stations reported gusts up to 25-30 mph, as the winds blew ahead of an approaching Pacific storm. Well, it certainly was stronger than that on the ridge, especilly in the gap of Bull Creek Pass and on Ellen Peak. We had to lean hard against the wind, stumbling like a bunch of drunkards, and loosing balance with every stronger gust. I guess it just made an easy hike a bit harder, because of all the static muscle tension. Kind of like in a fight when you anticipate a blow any second. In the gullies of the East side, the wind was swirling huge clowds of snow (whatever still remained of it), but up on the ridge, the visibility was great, Tent Mtn range 80 miles North, Thousand Lake and Hillgard to the right of the gap of hwy 24, and Boulder and Aquarius plateaus to its left, with the Tushars at an 80-mile distance in between; then in the South, Navajo Mountain, in 70 miles, just to the right of Mt. Pennell, and the only snowless shape on the horizon; and to the East, La Sals and Abajos framed the distant white chain of (Yes!) the San Juans. We hiked past the main summit to the pointy Ellen Peak and back, and returned to the car by noon, stopped for a hot campfire lunch at the Wickiup, and still had plenty of daylight left, so we detoured to Temple Wash on the way back, squeezed through the Fat Man's Misery crack on the North wall of the wash, and then drove another 4 or 5 miles to explore the upper reaches of Crack Canyon, to the 2nd waterfall. There was more frozen water on the canyon bottom then on the whole Mt Ellen, it seemed! Finally, with the Sun already down, it was time to start a long drive back home. No use for skis on this tour, but beyong any doubt, it was an adventure! PS: More images on the SP Mt Ellen Page and on utahgeocachers Mt Ellen trip gallery