Hidden Paradise: Backcountry Skiing Idaho’s Sawtooths
By Michael Lanza
At a pass just below 9,400 feet on the north side of 10,229-foot Mt. Heyburn, in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, the wind that has been steadily turning the dial upward for the past hour reaches full volume. Another snow squall bursts upon us, spraying white bullets sideways and dropping a veil over the rocky, snow-spattered, serrated ridge just overhead.
Six of us have labored 2,000 feet uphill on skis this morning in search of a doorway into a secluded mountain paradise of sorts, a high basin known in some circles as the Monolith Valley, though not marked as such on any map. A slender gash between Heyburn and another 10,000-footer, Braxon Peak (which I’ve stood atop in summer), the Monolith exists in the topographical shadows, easily overlooked. Most of our group have only seen tantalizing photos that revealed legions of rock spires towering above untracked snow. The images inspired visions of marking up deep powder on slopes rarely inscribed by skiers—like Zorro, but leaving many “S” signatures instead of a “Z.”
As sometimes happens, though, we’ve found something in between what we had hoped for and what we expected.
We’ve climbed up here from the Bench Hut, operated by Sun Valley Trekking, our base for four days of backcountry skiing the bowls and glades below jagged peaks around the Bench Lakes in the Sawtooths. It’s the first week of April, and the mountain-weather gods appear to not be paying close attention to the calendar. We’ve come at this time of year in hopes of finding a snowpack still deep but more stable, with less avalanche hazard than in early or mid-winter.
It wouldn’t seem objectionable to receive some warm sunshine, either.
Some 20 feet below the pass, we step out of our bindings on a flat patch of earth big enough for all six of us to sit on our packs. A few of us scramble up slabs crusted with thin ice and snow onto the narrow spine of wind-scoured rock at the pass. Through the blowing snow, we can barely discern the terrain on the opposite side, which looks less like a place a cartographer would call a valley than it does a convoluted maze of subsidiary ridges and clefts. The gauzy scene invites exploration while seeming to issue a stern warning: Prepare to have your ass whooped.
But dropping into it would require traversing below an enormous, steep slope on Heyburn’s backside. Today, that slope is loaded with snow that we suspect hides some unstable layers—primed to avalanche if prodded by the weight of a skier. We knew that coming up here, but figured we’d have a look anyway. Like many objectives in the mountains, this one will have to wait for another day.
So instead, we drop one at a time back down the bowl we just ascended, arcing turns that are surprisingly enjoyable despite a crust lurking beneath a thin plaster of new snow. And no one’s disappointed to be turned back at the gate to paradise, because turns like these are all we really came here for, anyway.
The Bench Hut
Idaho’s best-known mountain range, the Sawtooths remain surprisingly, pleasantly uncrowded. I’ve taken backpacking trips on gorgeous weekends at the height of summer without seeing more than a few other hikers, walking below cliffs and through pine forest strewn with glacial-erratic boulders that often reminds me of the High Sierra or the Tetons.
But come here when snow blankets the peaks and you may see no one else for days.
While the razor heights of the Sawtooths look formidable—and indeed, many summits are only reached through steep, off-trail scrambling or technical rock climbing—the middle-elevation mountainsides below those stone fins and pinnacles harbor a rich bounty of slopes pitched at moderate angles perfect for skinning up and skiing down. But unlike more accessible areas frequented by backcountry skiers, these slopes like a few miles from the road. Stay at this hut or one of the two backcountry yurts in the Sawtooths—all small enough for one private group to rent exclusively—and you’ll have the snow to yourselves.
Located in pine forest at 7,400 feet on the north side of Redfish Lake, the recently rebuilt Bench Hut is a long rectangle with a wood-burning stove in the center and a propane-powered kitchen. A bank of plastic windows high on one wall keep the interior bright during the day (there are propane lanterns, too), and the bunks sleep up to 20 people, according to Sun Valley Trekking—though a max of around eight keeps the place more comfortable (and less stinky), and keeps your group at a more manageable, safer size for backcountry touring.
Several of us take a winter yurt trip together almost annually. The group composition varies from year to year, affected by work and family demands; and we’ve hit different places, from Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains to Oregon’s Wallowas. (Later this winter we head to the Baldy Knoll yurt in the Tetons; I’ll write about that trip and share photos in a future post.) For some of us, this trip marks our first return to a Sawtooths hut or yurt in several years. We really shouldn’t let that happen.
Most of the friends I ski with in the backcountry are telemark skiers, but we have a couple of friends on alpine-touring skis on this trip. And we treat them the same as anyone else. Just because they make alpine turns doesn’t make them bad people.
For the effort of carrying gear and four days’ worth of food (and spirits) on our backs into the mountains, our payoff is being absolutely cut off from cell service and job headaches, from feeding kids and facing reminders of what needs to be done at home. We can fill most of our conversations with talk of skiing and gear and no one complains about that. Rather than denounced as rude, flatulence is respected as a form of individualized expression (an aspect of yurt trips that may be gender-dependent).
But mostly these trips are all about mountain scenery and finding snow that no one else has found yet.
After skiing down from that snowy pass, we stop for lunch on the white plain of one of the middle Bench Lakes and watch the snow squalls abruptly give way to mostly clear skies with just a thin film of high clouds. Heyburn’s thorny crown of spires scratches at the blue dome. We tour north, ski down one bowl, then put climbing skins back on our skis and start a long, angling ascent on a thin layer of soft snow atop a firm crust, our skis constantly sloughing to the downhill side.
At a ridge top around 8,800 feet, we finally stop going up. Gusts of wind throw rooster tails of fine powder spinning into the air. Below us, a treeless mountainside sweeps downward for several hundred feet—an invitation to bliss. Several inches of creamy snow lie atop the buried, firm crust that thankfully holds our weight. Skiing down it, turns all flowing smoothly, I get lost completely for a few minutes in the addictive, simple physical joy of motion, that sensation that ends too quickly and makes you immediately hungry to get it back again.
Don’t go out in the cold before reading my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter” and my reviews of winter shell jackets and insulated jackets.
Skiing The Triangle
On our last morning, we ascend several hundred feet to the top of an east-facing slope known to Sawtooth backcountry skiers as The Triangle, below the soaring granite of Mt. Heyburn. The sun feels like it’s focused through a magnifying glass; we’re sweating skiing uphill in shirtsleeves. A few hours from now, when we reach our vehicles around midday, the temperature in the Sawtooth Valley will hit 50° F. That 9,400-foot pass we skied to in a cold snow squall two days ago will seem months in the past.
Atop The Triangle at about 8,600 feet, the highest we can go before running into cliffs, we linger for a while looking out over the Bench Lakes, Redfish Lake, the wildly chopped-up skyline of the Sawtooths, and across the valley at the equally dramatic White Cloud Mountains.
Then, in pairs, we drop quickly back down The Triangle, skis throwing off waves of snow with every turn, the skiing better than anticipated, given the warmth—demonstrating again that the place that lies between high hopes and modest expectations often proves very satisfying.
NOTE: See my stories about backpacking a remote area of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains in late summer and climbing Mt. Heyburn in the Sawtooths in autumn.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit, experienced backcountry skiers and snowshoers with training in avalanche safety and rescue. Backcountry travelers should all carry appropriate equipment, including a shovel, probe, and transceiver (or beacon) and know how to use them. See more below, under Concerns.
Make It Happen
Season The prime months for backcountry skiing in the Sawtooths are mid-December through April. Occasionally there’s enough snow cover to ski by November, and the season often extends later into spring, though snow becomes less reliable and skiing conditions deteriorate.
The Itinerary There are numerous moderate-angle slopes for backcountry skiing in the area of the Bench Lakes, including one just minutes north of the yurt. The Triangle is the name locals sometimes use referring to an east-facing, roughly 30-degree, mostly open slope below the jagged east ridge of Mt. Heyburn, reached within 30 minutes of skiing uphill from the yurt. There are also good slopes for skiing around the Bench Lakes and north of the lakes.
Getting There Park in a plowed turnout along ID 75 about five miles south of Stanley, Idaho, near the end of Redfish Lake Road, which is not plowed in winter. Ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile two miles up the road (the snow is almost always packed by snowmobiles) to the Redfish Lake Trailhead, beyond which snowmobiles are prohibited. Then follow Trail 101, climbing 1,200 feet over six miles to the Bench Hut. Except during or right after a big snowstorm, there’s usually a ski track leading all the way there. This route is free of avalanche danger, but be aware of avalanche potential if you wander onto steeper slopes near the trail.
Permit No backcountry permit is required for staying at the yurt (or camping in the backcountry of the Sawtooths), only a reservation with Sun Valley Trekking (see below).
Maps USGS Mt. Cramer and Stanley 7.5-minute quads, $8 each, (888) 275-8747, usgs.gov/pubprod/maps.
• Natural and human-triggered avalanches pose a serious threat throughout winter and into spring. Know how to evaluate the hazard level and practice beacon searches and rescue skills, or take an avalanche-safety course (see below)
• Communication with the outside world is difficult (cell service is very spotty). Rescue is hours away in the event of an emergency.
• Freezing temperatures present the risk of hypothermia or worse. Bring proper clothing. (See my tips on how to dress for outdoor adventures.)
• Navigating off-trail through the snow-covered mountains is very challenging, so have expert skills or hire a guide (see below).
Hut and Yurt Rental/Guided Trips/Avalanche Training At least four months before the start of winter, reserve the Bench Hut or any of five other backcountry yurts in the area with Sun Valley Trekking, (208) 788-1966, svtrek.com. Rent the Williams Peak yurts, also surrounded by excellent backcountry skiing terrain at the base of Williams Peak in the Sawtooths, from Sawtooth Mountain Guides, (208) 774-3324, sawtoothguides.com. Both outfits offered guided trips and avalanche-safety courses.
Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area, (208) 727-5000, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. Stanley ranger station, (208) 774-3000.