An Ode to Favorite Spots Most People Don’t Know: Backcountry Skiing Idaho’s Boise Mountains
By Michael Lanza
Fresh snow from the storm of the past couple of days blankets the ground, padding by inches a white comforter several feet thick. Ponderosa pine boughs sag under the weight of a substance equivalent to an awful lot of very tiny feathers. But that storm has passed like a dream you can’t quite recall. Now, the sun throws operating-room brilliance on every nook and cranny of a mountain I’ve come to know well enough to have a detailed map of its terrain in my head.
It’s the kind of winter day you want to put in a leftovers box, to save some of it for later.
Unfortunately, no one has yet invented a box like that. So two friends and I will cut laborious zigzags uphill and float downhill on our skis until our time limitations—and our legs—inform us it’s time to head home. And in the long stretches of silence, when we’re strung out in a line climbing uphill, or taking turns riding gravity like it was a galloping horse, I’ll find myself contemplating the curious intersection of chance, passion, and geography where we find ourselves falling in love with an obscure spot on the map.
We cross an open, domed shoulder of Pilot Peak, which tops out at a little over 8,100 feet in the Boise Mountains of southwest Idaho. We’re laying down only the second set of tracks visible in this fluffy powder—and the first tracks were made by a snowshoe hare. White waves of forested earth roll away to distant horizons; farther off, the sharp points of the Sawtooth Mountains jab at the densely cobalt sky. Above us, mostly treeless bowls scooped from the mountain’s flanks seem to invite us to inscribe the letter S over and over in trackless snow.
There’s a certain degree of pointless, hamster-wheel monotony to skiing: You go up, you go down, you repeat it until, through the fog of mindless joy, your brain finally registers that your leg muscles turned to fruit Jell-O a while ago. If skiers were the first humans sighted by technologically advanced aliens approaching Earth from space, they’d probably think, “What morons. We’ll own this planet in a week.” Those aliens would undoubtedly shake their oversized heads in bewilderment seeing the three of us skiing up a mountain under our own power when there are other, perfectly good mountains, not far away, where the two-legged hamsters on skis at least have the good sense to ride mechanized chairs to the top.
But once you’ve mainlined the narcotic of having a mountain of virgin powder to yourself, skiing at a resort and skiing in the backcountry become as different as toast is from pancakes smothered in Vermont maple syrup: One satisfies an appetite, while the other drives you to eat until you’re stuffed and grinning like a child. And moments of pure, sublime joy come too few and far between in our hectic lives. Since I first took up this sport a couple of decades ago, I’ve found a new respect for hamsters. It’s all I can do, when I pass one spinning his wheel, not to whisper, “Shred it, bro. Lookin’ good.”
Mores Creek Summit
Across the map of central Idaho sprawls a vast expanse of mountains and canyons the size of a small Eastern state—and the comparison ends there. Here, instead of millions of people screaming at each other in traffic, you’ll find only few paved roads and a handful of scattered, one-stoplight towns with barely enough people to have a decent argument.
Near the southern end of this area, on ID 21 between Idaho City and Lowman, sits a mountain pass a bit over 6,100 feet called Mores Creek Summit. Unless you live within an hour or two, you’ve probably never heard of it. Assuming you are not among the statistically insignificant number of people who search Mapquest for the most direct route from Idaho City to Stanley—in fact, the only route—you would have absolutely no compelling reason for driving over it. You’re more likely to hit a bear out here than another vehicle. (I’ve come close.)
But if, like me, you live fairly close by and like to ski up and down mountains that have no lifts or buildings, you just may know every plowed turnout for more than a mile on either side of Mores Creek Summit.
Over the past 16 winters of skiing the peaks surrounding this pass, I have come to know them so well that I rarely even carry a map. There’s little risk of getting lost, given that virtually every drainage we ski leads to the highway where we’re parked; and heading south on Pilot Peak, where I ski often, will eventually drop us onto the unplowed summit road that also leads back to the highway.
Sure, I have occasionally found myself briefly misplaced here—especially in limited visibility—but never for very long. And that actually illustrates why I never tire of skiing here after scores of days: because I come in winter, when snow constantly remakes the landscape. Every time I visit, it looks a little different than the last time.
Favorite Trails, Rivers, Cliffs
Many of us have special places like this. Hikers have a summit they return to until they recognize almost every rock on it. Backpackers have a wilderness lake, a loop hike, or a high ridge traverse. Kayakers frequent the same river over and over, and rock climbers the same cliffs. Avid trail runners will hit one local path repeatedly. There’s a trail in the Boise Foothills that I’ve run more times over the years than I could estimate; but rather than growing bored with it, I’ve slowly fallen in love with its intimately familiar turns and contours, and how I can rely on its quietude except for the soft gurgle of the creek beside it.
It’s a bit like a marriage that works—the more you turn to it when you need a little emotional lift, the less you can imagine ever living without its stolid consistency.
If you’re a backcountry skier or snowshoer, your local haunt is the place nearest home where you get the quickest access to the highest, snowbound elevations. Some of these spots are iconic destinations, like Teton Pass at 8,432 feet on WY 22 between Jackson, Wyoming, and Victor, Idaho. Go there right after a snowstorm, and you’ll see dozens of skiers carving up the fresh powder almost as quickly as if the slopes had lifts. You’d think backcountry skiing was as popular as watching football.
Mores Creek Summit isn’t like that. Skiers won’t ever travel from afar to come here—we don’t have the big elevations or 1,500-foot-vertical runs to draw attention. (Teton Pass sits 300 feet higher than the summit of Pilot Peak, for Pete’s sake.) You won’t ever read about it in a ski magazine. And that’s the point.
Mores Creek Summit is just another fairly anonymous pass on a rural highway. But it happens to be relatively close to a city, Boise, with a surprising number of backcountry skiers working day jobs as doctors, insurance agents, bike mechanics, trail managers, engineers, business owners, and a few struggling writers—all gazing wishfully out windows and scanning SNOTEL sites whenever the winter sky turns battleship gray and hovers just over the rooftops. Despite their varied backgrounds, these people share a common skill: The magical ability to disappear from their workplace on a weekday after a snowstorm.
The Next Generation
Another winter Saturday, and I’m skiing up Pilot Peak with my 13-year-old son. Nate recently took up this sport—today is his second day skiing in the backcountry, actually. He’d been mildly interested for a couple of years, telling me he wanted to start backcountry skiing with me. I held off at first, for several reasons. It’s very rigorous, and kids don’t have nearly the stamina and fat levels of fit adults—and I’m talking about energy reserves, not love handles. Plus, skiing ungroomed snow is hard; I wanted him to have the skills, honed through resort skiing, and the fitness for it. And I wanted his first experiences to happen in relatively good conditions—so he’d actually have fun.
Waiting until he was ready made sense because of his size, but also teaches him a little about taking responsibility for safety, and that some gratifications do not come immediately or without effort. I recently started telling my 10-year-old daughter, Alex, that she’ll be big enough in another year or two to join us backcountry skiing. And she always responds with an eager, “Yes!” I’m a big believer in building up anticipation.
I’m also extremely conscious of the fact that skiing wild snow carries risks. I won’t take Nate out anytime or anywhere there’s real avalanche hazard. As we explore the peaks above Mores Creek Summit together, he and I talk about safety in the mountains.
I follow Nate up the hill, letting him set the pace. My friend David Gordon has pulled beyond sight ahead of us; he’ll evaluate the snow conditions and ski a couple of runs down meadows where we plan to rendezvous before Nate and I finally get there.
Unfortunately, the skiing is horrible today. More than a foot of new snow in recent days made us optimistic about finding deep powder. But temperatures had warmed for a brief period during the storm, and rain crept higher up the mountain than we expected. Now, a thin skiff of light confectioner’s sugar sits atop a rain crust as hard as a sidewalk—“dust on crust” is the derogatory for these conditions. As we try to climb upward, our skis constantly slip downhill. When skiing down, we struggle to hold edges on the icy crust.
And yet, later, after we have given up on finding good snow and done some “combat skiing” back down to David’s truck, Nate will smile and say, “That was a great day!” In his mind, we had an adventure—no matter the snow conditions. He’s right. And that’s part of the slow process that turns an obscure spot on the map into a favorite place: the accumulation of memories.
I’ll take one more good memory away from this day of poor skiing. As we’re skiing uphill, with my son gradually sketching his own mental map of this place I’ve come to know so well, Nate tells me, out of the blue: “I love it when we do these things together.”
Hearing him say that feels better than any powder day.
Note: You might also like my story “A 12-Year-Old’s First Time Skiing Wild Snow,” about my son’s first day of backcountry skiing, as well as my stories about the trails of the Boise Foothills, and about backcountry skiing Wyoming’s Teton Range, Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit and skilled backcountry skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers who know how to evaluate avalanche hazard and possess the necessary safety gear and skills to use it in case of an accident. There’s an abundance of skiable terrain pitched at fairly easy to moderately difficult angles.
Make It Happen
Season The prime backcountry skiing season in Idaho’s Boise Mountains usually goes from December through April or May.
The Itinerary You’ll find online maps of the Mores Creek Summit area and regular posts about skiing and avalanche conditions at the excellent Mores Creek Summit Backcountry Skiing blog, morescreeksummit.com.
Getting There Mores Creek Summit is on ID 21, 11 miles north of Idaho City and about 90 minutes northeast of Boise. There is a large, plowed parking lot at the pass, and several turnouts north and south of the pass.
Permit Not required.
Contact Boise National Forest, (208) 373-4100, fs.usda.gov/boise.