SKI THE DESERT: How To Earn Your Turns In The Nevada Backcountry
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE WHAT’S HIDDEN in plain sight.
Recent estimates by the Department of Transportation have close to 10,000 vehicles covering the 50 miles of high Nevada desert between the towns of Elko and Wells on I-80 every day. Using that statistic, some rough math, and a little conjecture, you could imagine about 1.5 million vehicles on that stretch of road during any given winter. A solid number of those vehicles are carrying skiers and snowboarders on their way to the Wasatch, the Sierra, the Sawtooths, the Tetons. With dreams of untracked powder and many miles to drive, hardly a passing glance is given to the jagged skyline to the south, where the Ruby Mountains hide in plain sight.
The Rubies run for about 80 miles, roughly north to south, rising abruptly out of the surrounding Great Basin landscape to top out at over 11,000 feet. Due to their size and orientation, they’re often compared to the Wasatch in Utah — only with no one around. Combine the lack of people with an average snowfall of 300 inches of bone-dry, high-desert powder covering a plethora of terrain, and the place starts to sound like a backcountry paradise.
Of course, getting to the goods isn’t quite as simple as exiting I-80 and driving to a parking lot at the base of a chairlift. The Elko Snobowl does spin a chair when conditions permit, but if you’re after the highest quality shredding in the Rubies, you’re headed to the remote backcountry. If you aren’t comfortable managing avalanche terrain and operating the mandatory gear of beacons, shovels, and probes, an independent trip isn’t for you; you must be responsible for your group. One way around this is to hit up Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience. They’ve been operating in the Rubies every winter since 1977 — it’s safe to say they have the place absolutely dialed.
But if you’re confident in your backcountry abilities and up for the adventure, check in at a Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest office (the Mountain City Ranger District in Elko or the Ruby Mountains Ranger District in Wells) for current conditions when you arrive. There’s no official avalanche advisory for the Rubies, but there are groups of backcountry skiers and boarders. We found that talking to people is the best way to obtain knowledge of the snowpack in the region.
While the Rubies offer a lifetime of options, Lamoille Canyon is the go-to spot for the simplest access to skiing and snowmobiling. Sleds are the preferred method for making the long approach; those registered in other states are welcome in Nevada for 15 days or less. If using your own two feet, the region’s most iconic line, Terminal Cancer — a freak of a couloir that runs dead straight through steep rock walls at a consistent pitch of 30-40 degrees, first skied by Joe Royer in the late ’70s — is just above the main trailhead at Thomas Creek and tops most backcountry skiers’ and boarders’ bucket list for the region. If you’ve got the time and ability, keep walking beyond the sled tracks into 90,000 acres in the high alpine that were designated the Ruby Mountain Wilderness in 1989 and are closed to motorized access.
Accommodations are plentiful in the town of Elko (30 miles from the mountains), with a variety of hotels, casinos, and restaurants, including the best Basque food this side of the Atlantic. But if you want to stay closer to the mountains, try the small Hotel Lamoille, located near the canyon entrance. Once in Lamoille Canyon, camping is the only way to go. The campground at Thomas Creek is a great spot, but depending on the snow level and time of year the options can change. Check the website for Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest for up-to-date information on campgrounds and road conditions. And then get ready to ski the desert.
1. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Ruby Mountains.
I was driving to Reno for a college interview, and there they were, rising above a canvas of desert sagebrush, mountain peaks clutching snow in the distance. I was awed and really wondered what mountains like this were doing in the Nevada desert!
2. This is how you earn your turns in Nevada’s backcountry.
It’s a wild experience to be standing high in the Ruby Mountains only a few hours after exiting I-80. Of the 10,000 people a day who drive the section of highway from Wells to Elko, very few get this view.
3. Collin Collins gets some speed at the top of this picturesque Nevada line as he starts the 2,000 vertical-foot descent to the valley floor.
We love this shot and were joking as we checked it out and called it the “next Ski Nevada poster shot,” as we had seen an old faded poster with the slogan in one of the local bars.
4. Ruby Dome in all its glory.
The highest peak in the range, it tops out at 11,388 feet. We nicknamed it “the Matterhorn of Nevada,” as the way it dominates the surrounding mountains reminded us of the famous Swiss peak.
5. Collin hikes up the “Matterthorn of Nevada.”
Using skins, we toured high above the desert and found some powder to ski. Conditions were beautiful, with comfortable temps for hiking while still being cold enough to throw up a little snow.
6. This shot is going on my refrigerator forever.
It’s one of those fun lines I’ll never forget and is what the mission to explore a new range is all about.
7. Collin finds his way down some scattered rock, making a nice line out of it.
This sunny aspect proved to ski well, and even though conditions we encountered weren’t quite the kind of powder the Rubies are famous for, there were an abundance of fun little zones to ski around.
8. Lamoille Canyon is a hot spot for snowmobile enthusiasts.
When the snow hits, expect a parking lot full of big trailers and fancy sleds. The local miners enjoy the weekends twice as much as the rest of us.
9. A cozy tent with a view is all one needs.
This was a cool spot to wake up and dry out our gear. The Lamoille Canyon walls are incredibly abrupt, leaping thousands of feet into the sky from the valley floor. The dramatic nature often draws comparisons to Yosemite.
10. Collin looks out across what the Rubies have to offer.
The options to explore are limitless and had us scheduling a return trip after the next storm. Collin is best known for his prowess in the air and spinning off backcountry jumps for the cameras, but right now all he’s thinking about is lacing a nice line to the valley floor.
11. The Ruby Mountains are a wild mix of geography and climate packed into one fun weekend.
Weather comes in fast off the desert and gets stuck in these mountains, dumping snow up in the high country.
12. Collin explores a nice nook of the Rubies.
The snow quality wasn’t perfect, but his K2s kept him having fun. As with any backcountry ski trip, it’s more about a safe day and making it back to the car than the conditions.
13. The wealth of the Rubies offers plenty of options for play.
We shredded a few good lines and left plenty for the taking behind us. The orientation of the mountains gives them a large amount of both sunny and shady aspects, which really allows for great skiing to be found somewhere on any given day.
14. Once you get your skis on in Lamoille Canyon, one of the first lines you’ll see is perhaps the Rubies’ most famous.
There she is folks, the famous Terminal Cancer couloir. “TC,” as it’s affectionately known, is a beauty of a line. Conditions weren’t primed for a descent this day, but just seeing it was exciting. Skiing the tightly walled line is unforgettable and tops most skiers’ bucket list for the Rubies.
15. I took a break from the camera to make sure this line was just as fun as it looked.
It was a great snowmobile shuttle to the top and a fun ride down. There was evidence of a large avalanche near this zone early in the season, and the debris acted as a reminder that being careful and maintaining respect for the mountains is always key.
16. The wilderness goes on forever.
Mountains stacked on mountains, there’s a lifetime’s worth of exploring out here. Just scratching the surface has lit the fire for a return trip. #NVAdventure
17. Colorful skies spreading over ranch land signal the start and end of the day. Classic Nevada.