Sawtooth Mountain Guides offers two ski mountaineering camps each year based out of the Williams Peak yurts in Idaho’s Sawtooth wilderness. Erik Schmidt and I joined five other campers from around the west (Ryan, Aaron, Curtis, Dave and Brent), as well as guides Kirk Bachman, Mike Hatch and Clark Corey, to climb and ski some sick couloirs in epic midwinter conditions.
|Thompson peak from profile basin|
The skin out to the yurts via the Alpine Way trail took a few hours, and was really mellow. It had been a few months since I skinned with a heavy pack on, so I ended up chilling at the back of the line with Clark, who was pulling a sled full of gear. Our skin track chatter included stories about Clark’s trip to ski equatorial pow in Ecuador, and my summer of glacier skiing in Oregon and Washington.
That afternoon under cloudy skies Hatch led Erik, Ryan and I on a ski tour above the yurts to ski some really cold pow. I was actually quite shocked to feel the supremely cold face shots – colder than I’ve ever experienced. It was a pleasure to make turns with a crew of rippin’ skiers in such epic snow! This was shaping up to be a good trip.
Day 2 began with a tour plan, then we were out the door skinning up to skier’s summit. Kirk demonstrated anchor building using a tree, then belayed Hatch into the top of KB’s to ski cut the slope. Half of the crew skied KB’s, and the rest of us cruised over to the slightly less intimidating (and less rocky!) Beef Log.
Beef Log was an adventure! Clark dropped in first, making some big, ski cut/traverse-y turns to see what he could get to run. It looked like sluff was our only issue. After Kirk’s quick lecture on sluff management, Curtis dropped in like a ski racer after too many red bulls. He made a few turns charging fall line, then BAM! was knocked down by his sluff. Both skis released. One was found… and pretty soon we realized we had a situation on our hands.
One at a time the rest of us dropped in trying not to release too much more snow. We all spent at least an hour probing the debris pile looking for Curtis’ other ski. No dice. Eventually Kirk sent Aaron and I out with Clark to do a little more skiing and a little less practice on our switchbacks. Kirk ended up skiing back to Stanley to bring a new pair of skis up for Curtis. Thanks, Kirk!
|Sluff on Beef Log|
The three of us cruised over the high traverse and onto Peak 10,084 in almost whiteout conditions. We gained the ridge, dropped over to the other side and skied our first legitimate couloir of the trip: There and Back Again. Clark dropped in first, then Aaron, and finally me. I kicked off a little wind slab at the top, but it didn’t run very far and wasn’t too big of a deal. The turns were epic! Snow flying everywhere all the way down! 10 turns of absolute bliss. After meeting at the bottom of the couloir, we made giant powder turns through Lower Meadow, across the shoulder of Peak 10,084 and skinned back to the yurts for some much-deserved hors d’oveurs!
|Our tracks on There and Back Again... RAD!|
On day 3 we toured to profile basin for snow school. We learned techniques for boot packing and self arrest, including the use of an ice axe and crampons. It was impossible to find a fast, icy slope on which to practice, so we ended up on a 40 degree slope with fresh snow. Probably a good thing so I didn’t impale myself on an ice axe while arresting an upside-down, backward fall! Kirk’s lesson was informative and entertaining; clearly he was speaking from years of experience. Some favorites included advice on self arrest: “act like a cat on a hot tin roof!” and advice on stomping out a platform on a steep slope: “give yourself enough room so you can squat and take a shit!” Won’t be forgetting that advice anytime soon.
|Skinning into profile basin for snow school|
In the afternoon, we split into two groups to climb and ski What’s Up Doc. Kirk had joked earlier that morning that we should bring some carrots to leave at the top as an offering. Looking across the basin, I was wondering if I would become that carrot… The line was definitely intimidating, but I was up for the challenge.
I joined the group of three splitboarders (Clark, Dave and Brent), which was super entertaining! Hearing “GOD DAMN IT!!!” echo off the walls of the couloir while a certain member of our group was mid-switchback was pretty hilarious. Halfway up we transitioned to boot packing, which was a little hairball for me but seemed easy for the rest of the crew. An ice axe in my uphill hand and a Whippet pole in the downhill hand made me feel extra safe!
|Booting up What's Up Doc|
The scene at the top of the couloir was a little hectic: people peeing, taking photos, coordinating with photographers on the radio, queuing up to drop in… there was enough activity that I didn’t have the opportunity to think too much about the line I was about to ski, which was probably a good thing.
Pretty soon it was my turn to drop in. Had the Deadsy cover of Rush’s Tom Sawyer running through my head. Clark told me to take it easy and watch my sluff. Made a couple of turns as slowly as I could (no easy feat on DPS skis!), no sluff issues, but wow it was steep! Made a few more, stopped, everything was cool. Lined myself up to transition below some rocks to skier’s right of the couloir where there was fresh snow…. Made a big turn, let ‘em run a little, whoa I was going fast, freaked out, fell, kicked off a slab avalanche. Then I was down, tumbling, all I could see was white, snow was in my mouth, snapped into full survival mode. Got into my well-practiced “cat on a hot tin roof” position, jabbed the Whippet pole into the slope, and stopped my slide.
Both skis were still on my feet, but I lost one pole. Dug around a bit for it, but really I just wanted to get the hell out of there! So I stood back up and made some smooth pow turns down the steep apron to the sweet sound of cheering from the rest of the group. Sorry I erased your turns, Aaron!
The last three people down were the spliboarders, who opted to ride the “Skinny Minnie” variation of the line with no tracks and a really tight choke. All three of them rode the line with style. Very nice, gentlemen!
|Dave shredding What's Up Doc|
After some traversing, some mellow turns, then some skinning back to the yurts, fiesta night was on! The Tecate and Jäger were flowing, along with spirited reliving of the day’s events and lots of other awesome stories about mountains and snow. A particularly fond memory is of Hatch describing his philosophy of ski mountaineering as “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome” while gesturing wildly during the “Overcome” part. Good times indeed.
On day 4 we split into two groups again: one group headed back to profile basin to ski a sick couloir called Resurrection, while Hatch led Erik, Curtis, Kirk and myself on his classic tour, the “Peak 10,084 Reacharound”, with the goal of doing some rope work.
After skinning and bootpacking up to a ridge high on Peak 10,084 (which Kirk refers to as Peak 10,082 after he knocked a rock off the summit), we skied a giant cirque called Upper Meadow. With my previous two days of avalanche issues I was a little squirrely about skiing such a wide-open face. Kirk seemed to think everything was fine, so I dropped in for some nice powder turns without incident.
The transition from Upper to Lower Meadow involved a super steep slope that we sidestepped down on belay from Hatch, then transitioned to a hand line for the rest of the steep area, before dropping the rope and making some turns in the quickly softening snow. I had romanticized the experience of a free-hanging ski rappel, but it didn’t happen for me on this trip. Next time…
|Sideslipping on a hand line|
Once back at the yurt, we got a quick and dirty classroom session from Kirk on anchor building and ski belays in the warm sunshine. Before I knew it, we were all packed up and headed back down the trail, leaving the spectacular Sawtooths and fantastic yurt livin’ behind.
Arriving in the parking lot of the Ranger station, I felt relieved, sad, exhausted, and excited all at the same time. Relieved because I knew this trip was going to be an incredible challenge, and I was psyched that I was able to push my limits and succeed. Sad because such a fun and exciting weekend full of epic snow, amazing terrain and great people had come to an end. Exhausted because we were averaging over 3,000 vertical feet per day. Excited because I was leaving with a whole new bag of tricks and a totally different idea of what a ski line could be in the alpine.
Thank you to Kirk, Hatch and Clark for giving me the opportunity to improve my ski mountaineering skills in such an ideal environment. Your backyard is spectacular! This was a trip I won’t soon forget.