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Vulnerability and Friendship in the Mountains: Skiing the WURL

The Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup, better known as the WURL, is not for the faint of heart. That’s certainly true when intrepid runners complete it during the summer, which is usually when it’s done, but it’s especially true when it’s done as a ski tour. Each summer, runners travel the ridges surrounding Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, a thirty-six mile route that sees 18,000 feet of elevation gain. So, when Salomon athlete Mali Noyes decided she wanted to ski the WURL, she knew she needed the right partner to do it. Completing the WURL as a ski tour not only required her and her partner, Lani Bruntz to be confident backcountry skiers, but it also took months of planning. A four day, three night expedition last winter is what all that experience and planning finally culminated in. We were able to chat with them more about the process of planning and completing the WURL, their passion for the backcountry, and how getting outside with other women is one of the best ways to do it.

Mali Noyes and Lani Bruntz met while in undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont. They were paired on an Urban Geography project that asked them to compare cities. Both hailing from mountain towns, the project confused them equally. “It was so challenging for both of us cause Mali grew up in Sun Valley and I grew up in Vail so we were like ‘what’s a city?” Lani told me, remembering the pair’s meeting and subsequent late nights in the library. It was between the stacks of the Middlebury Library that this friendship blossomed. But it proved to be built on more than homework. Both Mali and Lani had started their ski careers as nordic racers. For both, their favorite part of the sport was the training and how it not only allowed, but required them to be out in the mountains so much. It was here they found the drive to want to explore the mountains more. Mali recalls getting more into alpine skiing and qualifying for the Freeride World Tour. It was during and after the Tour that she was more drawn to backcountry skiing. “Seeing backcountry skiing as a whole other way to combine fitness and endurance going uphill, plus my love of exploring mountains and then getting to ski downhill. I love backcountry skiing in that you can go anywhere you pick,” said Mali. Lani’s entry into the world of backcountry skiing was more definitive. She’d been working as a river guide on the Salmon in Idaho, and found a huge draw to explore more of the Sawtooths. Growing up in Vail, she knew the risks of getting in the backcountry so her first course of action was to seek out as much education as possible. It was the mentors from her AIARE 1 course that took Lani under their wings that season and supported her in pursuing her goal of being a heli-ski guide.

Mali Noyes and Lani Bruntz in the great Wasatch Mountains. Adam Clark photo.

But how does one go from just backcountry skiing to something like completing the WURL? Mali had previously done a trip where she and a group rafted into the Middle Fork of the Salmon to ski some of the lines in the canyon and was no stranger to big expedition style trips. “I think I’m naturally drawn to big adventures like that,” Mali reflects, in reference to the WURL, “but I think that was a really good example of something that taught me that putting in planning, and all of that, and all the pieces that go into planning an expedition like that is something that I can do, and I enjoy doing, that a lot of people are not into.” Both Mali and Lani talked about the planning as one of the more difficult but rewarding aspects of the trip. “I think it was the first time that it really fell on our shoulders,” said Lani, recalling previous ski trips she’d been on. “I think in my past pursuits, I’d had either a colleague or someone who has had far more experience. And for the WURL, it was really Mali and I as a team approaching everything together… It was really special getting to do it with Mali, knowing we could share the load… It felt like the most collaborative expedition I’d been on.”

The pair ended up skiing the route over four days, winter camping in between ski days so that they could maximize their ski time, and tick off some cool descents along the way. Lani traveled from Crested Butte to Salt Lake two weeks before the trip so that they could scout all the lines they wanted to ski. Mali had skied some of the route in the past, but there were also substantial sections that were new to her and Lani. As for the winter camping, it was an unusual way to experience the Wasatch given how close they are to Salt Lake, but Mali and Lani felt that it was an integral part of their trip. “I had never seen sunset and sunrise in some of these places,” said Mali. “It wasn’t even seeing sunset and sunrise in some of these places,” chimes in Lani, “We got to be out there skiing during those moments.” It’s clear talking with these two that this trip was not only magical because of the skiing, but a really special thing to do with one another.

Mali on the uphill. Adam Clark photo.

I asked Mali and Lani about challenges they faced on the trip and how they’d trained for such a big physical feat. Mali’s challenges mostly lay in the planning stages, for both her and Lani as well as their videographer and photographer. When asked about training, Lani mused “I feel like life is just training.” But the real challenge and training for both? Operating their GoPros. “We had to be learning how to turn them on, turn them off, we had limited battery…” remembers Mali, as Lani erupted into giggles. Moments that they’d normally just be present for needed to be captured on film, providing a whole new task on top of the huge one they’d already taken on. “Major props to people who can self document and make themselves look cool,” Lani said

While the WURL itself is a hugely impressive athletic feat, for Lani and Mali, one of the biggest things they gained was the time with one another. “Having someone that’s solid out there, but then also someone you can laugh with...I feel like that makes everything better. It’s so fun and rewarding when you find someone that can be serious and take care of business, but also have a fun time doing it. Like that’s who you want to spend time with,” said Mali. “I’d always want a Lani with me, like someone who can get that shit done.”

“It was so fun,” recalled Lani as well, “It was such a good trip. That was the easiest way to sum it up.”

The pair doesn’t have plans to do the WURL again, but they do have plans to do other similar ski trips. Currently in the works is one in Idaho, a kind of homecoming for both with Mali being from Sun Valley and Lani’s backcountry career starting in the Sawtooths. “Those are the mountains that introduced me to not just backcountry, but my love for the mountains and just being outside. It was really that place that was super transformative and has really shaped my entire existence since then where my whole life is based around the outdoors. Getting to go back with Mali and our friend Lucy, who's now a super close friend, will be a special landscape to get to move through with super strong women” says Lani of their upcoming trip. Both feel as though the WURL helped them to gain confidence in their abilities to plan and execute such a trip. “I know exactly what backpack I’m gonna use, and which tent, but I’m gonna open the vents this time,” joked Mali of this newfound confidence.

Lani brewing some backcountry tea. Adam Clark photo.

Although the focus of their Salomon TV video was really on the completion of the WURL, there’s something huge to be said for the example that Mali and Lani have set for other women in the outdoors. “What I appreciate so much in the backcountry about the right female partners, like Mali, is being able to collaborate, and to be vulnerable, and to ask those questions, and to say what’s on your mind and speak up. To me, it feels more like a process that I’m super involved with and my partner’s super involved with, and that’s why I enjoy so much getting out with Mali. It feels so much like a team. Not to say it’s not that way with a lot of my male ski partners, but for some reason, it feels easier,” says Lani of her experience skiing with other women.

“The way women are always saying ‘sorry’, and ‘thank you’ when we don’t need to, it’s like definitely comes out in the backcountry with making decisions and I think that’s something I’m getting more comfortable with, is speaking up to men in the backcountry. But with a female partner that I totally trust and respect, it’s a different level of comfort and ease and accomplishment when we do something,” agreed Mali. Mali and Lani put into words a feeling likely many women have had in the outdoors. “I couldn’t put my finger on it, cause it shouldn’t be any different, but it is,” says Mali of this feeling.

Sunrise in the Wasatch.

“I think women can make each other strong and build each other up. I mean, I think we’re damn strong.”

“I’d like to motivate and inspire more women to get out there, cause like I said, I think women are so strong, and capable of so much, they just need the confidence behind it. If that’s what the WURL did, then that’s great. That’s the bigger point beyond us going and skiing some lines,” said Mali when I asked if they felt they’d been role models by making the film. What started off a pitch to Salomon, not even knowing if they’d accept it, created an opportunity for Mali and Lani to spend time together, learn something new, and act as an inspiration all in the process. Skiing the WURL is not only a hugely impressive athletic accomplishment, but the authenticity shown by Mali and Lani in the film truly speaks to their character, and shows just how much of an inspiration they are for women getting after it in the mountains. 

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