We’re skinning through a boneyard. Only a few steps into a tour of Utah’s Old Blue Mountain ski area, and I’m already unnerved. Remnants of a Poma lift, shack and small parking lot are a weathered reminder of a bygone time. I look up at snow-covered firs on a foreign horizon line and am reminded of why we made the trek to ski an abandoned resort. We have the entire place to ourselves.
Old Blue Mountain sits on the north side of the Abajo Mountains, a small range about 50 miles south of Moab. This collection of desert peaks are often overlooked by Wasatch Front skiers who rarely make the drive beyond the more glamorous La Sal Mountains. The tiny ski area once catered to Canyon Country locals from Monticello, Blanding and Bluff, but was abandoned in the ’80s due to lack of consistent snowfall and declining skier numbers. Snowmobilers and the occasional wanderer in search of elusive desert snow are now the only visitors of Old Blue’s abandoned and intact infrastructure. As I break trail, the hiss of surface hoar beneath my skis cut’s through the ghost resort’s eerie silence.I poke my head inside the bottom lift shack where it squats beside tall evergreens intertwined with ratty aspens. Sun-bleached wood and rusty nails barely hold it together, and snowdrifts fill the interior where lifties once waved at families skiing second-hand gear. I imagine kids grabbing hold of the Poma’s metal bars with mitten hands, laughing after they fell off just a few yards up the line.
The ski area’s main run is overgrown with pucker brush, and the powder is tracked out by last weekend’s snowmobile orgy. Continuing uphill, I trace the lift cable that still cuts up the mountainside. Sections sag so low between pitted lift towers that it’s buried in places by snow. The old cable line is a narrow swath through an overgrown forest, but it holds the only untouched powder around. Maybe I hear a specter whisper in the trees, or maybe it’s just the wind, but a chill down my spine tells me Old Blue wants to be skied again. I am happy to oblige.The five-hour drive from Salt Lake City resulted in late start, so Adam Symonds, Jon Strickland and I race against the sun on frozen sled tracks. Halfway up the derelict slope, new growth holds protected powder and hides a vacant snowcat track leading to the top of the resort.
I pause below the upper lift shack. Shattered windows framed by naked tree limbs stare into space. The La Sal Mountains to the north and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the east peek through a lowland inversion mist like battleships at sea.
Everything is still. I rip skins off my skis and the sound is like trespassing. As the sun’s fading light casts a cold hue on the snow, we drop in under the Poma cable. I sink my tips into the first turn and duck beneath the thick, metal wire. The next turn, I have to duck even lower. The run is like a tight couloir, with the added bonus of an undulating, low-hanging cable split down the middle. Despite my evasive maneuvers, my skis eventually come down mid-turn on a buried section of cable that I slide like a park rat on a greased rail.Halfway down, the run widens and I slice surfy turns around lift towers that shed flakes of pale, red paint. A wind-loaded section covers the cable so deeply that we can track the entire width between forest walls, then jump over it as the snow-snake cable rears back up toward tower wheels that have been stationary for decades.
At the bottom, we gather at the solitary lift shack. Dusk is receding to night and the haunted sound of branches against eroded metal in the cold evening wind gives me the willies. Yet I am cheered by our unusual powder run in a mysterious setting. Trying to stay warm, I push off across the abandoned, snowbound access road. And, like locals did decades before, I leave Old Blue Mountain behind.