Another wave of recreationists have hit southeastern Utah, swishing and gliding down slopes of the LaSals with the abandon of first-comers to a winter wonderland.
The alpine range southeast of Moab this year lured not only the local cross-country set but also ski enthusiasts from the Wasatch Front, Telluride, Colo., and other states.More than 1,650 winter recreationists - attracted to sunnier climes and untrammeled slopes of the Manti-LaSal National Forest - ascended the slopes in record numbers since December, according to registration at the Geyser Pass trailhead.
With yet another six to eight weeks to go this season, the number of winter users in the LaSal mountains has already surpassed registration figures for 1989 and 1990 combined, said commercial outfitter Tom Shellenberger.
"That figure is skiers, snowmobilers, tubers. But I'd say probably 80 percent of those are skiers, and we're seeing a bigger proportion of skiers up there coming from out of the area - skiers from Vermont and Massachusetts are spending days up there skiing, because it's such a unique area," Shellenberger said.
"It's really a back-country skier's mecca because there's so much terrain and open slopes," he said.
Co-owner of LaSal Adventures Inc., Shellenberger has been the sole permittee for commercial guide services in the Gold Basin and Geyser Pass areas for two years. So far this year, four other outfitting companies have applied to the U.S. Forest Service to work the slopes in the 1991-92 season.
Pat Spahr, forester with the Moab Ranger District, said applicants for winter use permits include a helicopter skiing operation out of Telluride, which has been airlifting skiers to peaks of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado for a number of years.
"It fits right in with our recreation initiative, a nationwide initiative to emphasize recreation more, on more of an equal par with the commodity types of uses," Spahr said.
"The whole idea of what we're doing is kind of a back-country ski area. It's the theme of what we're working on here."
Spahr said most applicants arecompanies new to Moab. One has been filed by a group out of Salt Lake who bought private property in the LaSals with plans to develop a cross-country ski resort area with cabins, he said.
That type of development, and the enthusiastic response of skiers this season portends the kind of growth in the winter recreation industry that community leaders envisioned in planning the first Winter Festival Snowmobile Rendezvous in 1988.
"I see it doing nothing but expanding," Shellenberger said.
David Bierschied, who organized the winter festival three years ago, said about 30 snowmobilers participated, along with some skiers. The following year, only skiers turned up. No festival was planned for last year or this year.
"I think it needed to go commercial," Bierschied said.
Shellenberger says back-country skiing has a big future all over the country, because once a person has bought their equipment, the sport is free, "and it's a lot of fun."
Spahr said the Forest Service anticipated increased winter recreation in the mountains as a spinoff of mountain-biking and two years ago established an avalanche and weather forecasting station in the LaSals.
For the winter festival, the county began plowing the road 12 miles to the Geyser Pass turnoff, and has kept it up. LaSal Adventures has been grooming the remaining five miles to the trailhead, with funds from the Forest Service.
The private sector also established the cross-country trails and telemark runs, and LaSal Adventures purchased materials for six trail signs and a register box.
"Some of the things we've done so far . . . I think we're staying ahead of it, but it is taking off," Spahr said.
Spahr said there is some agreement with Shellenberger that commercial permits for cross-country ski groups should be limited to a single outfitter in the Gold Basin-Geyser Pass area.