This story was originally published in the September, 2011 edition of Eights and Elevens. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.
I don’t think we’re in Sun Valley anymore: Mark Rosenberg in the Sawtooth Mountains. [Photo] Rachel Wood
When we were in Sun Valley three years ago, the sun burned brightly for seven straight February days. But this isn’t Sun Valley anymore. We’re an hour north, and it’s been socked in and gray for the last three days—the complete opposite of the southern blue-sky paradise. That’s no reason to complain, however. Our trio is breaking trail through thigh-deep drifts along a corniced ridgetop in the Sawtooth Mountains and the storm that’s already brought a foot of snow shows no sign of breaking.
Below Defibrillator, Tyler Cohen doesn’t skip a beat. [Photo] Rachel Wood
Three Februarys ago, my two partners and I experienced the brighter side of region, soaking in the brilliant sunshine while touring the rolling and heavily burned Smokey Mountains with Sun Valley Trekking (SVT). The sun and snow captured Mark Rosenberg, one in our trio, and he returned last winter to intern with the outfit. But when Rachel Wood, my other partner, and I first began planning our trip, Mark cautioned that, despite a strong start, the winter had shut off. Shortly before our arrival, however, the seven-week drought of snow came to an abrupt end. When we stepped off the shuttle in downtown Hailey, eight inches of snow filled the streets and flakes obscured the peaks that surround the town.
Rachel Wood high on the Triangle, with the Grand Mogul (9,733 feet) behind. [Photo] Tyler Cohen
We went back to Idaho to cut our teeth on the Sawtooth Mountains, the most challenging and remote peaks in central Idaho. While the majority of the region—including the Pioneer, the Smokey and Sawtooth Ranges—stand within the 2.1-million-acre Sawtooth National Forest, the Sawtooth Mountains are bound by the Sawtooth Wilderness. Francie St. Onge, co-owner of SVT, tells us that the Wilderness was originally set aside to be a National Park, and I can see why—towering 10,000-foot pyramids, jagged ridgelines and countless couloirs both inspire awe and evoke fear. But the land didn’t achieve National Park status, which effectively saved it from crowds. Few people visit the region, especially in winter and during our three-day stay, the only people we saw were our yurt-mates.
The Bench Hut was retired last spring, and will be replaced with a new shelter at the same location for this winter. [Photo] Tyler Cohen
Bench Hut, our accommodations in the Sawtooth Wilderness, is a long-house style shelter, with a complete kitchen, dining area, two wood stoves and an outdoor sauna. It sits on a bench 500 feet above Redfish Lake on the eastern ridge of Mount Heyburn (10,229 feet), otherwise called the Triangle. The north side of the Triangle offers 800-foot, 40-degree couloirs—like Defibrillator, Hourglass and Pork Dinner—down to one of the four high-alpine Bench Lakes. The southeast aspect features a 2,500-foot shot down to Redfish Lake. Beyond the terrain nearest the yurt are narrow slots tucked into the granite folds of the Sawtooths; lines like the Heyburn Couloir, which drops 2,000 vertical feet from Heyburn’s serrated summit ridge or 10,470-foot Horstmann Peak’s tightly walled, 55 degree Sickle Couloir.
With the fresh load of snow, the bigger couloirs are sketchy, so we spend our stay lapping the treed chutes on the Triangle, exploring the terrain around the frozen lakes and enjoying the comfort and warmth of the Bench Hut and sauna.
The author traversing the moraine above the Fishhook Drainage. [Photo] Rachel Wood
On our last night, the storm finally clears, totaling over 18 inches of new snow, and the following morning, the sky shines as brightly as it does at the Equator. High on a moraine above the Fishhook Drainage—where SVT operates another yurt—we skate back to the Redfish Lake trailhead. We could have shot out through the forest, but instead chose to battle up and around Horstmann Peak and through the southern slopes of Thompson Peak (10,751 feet) to gain this high traverse. The views back toward the mountains are stunning in the sunlight—the 40-degree apron hanging off the summit of Horstmann, the high, sweeping bowl on Heyburn, the 3,000-foot slidepaths down Thomspon, and to the south, Sun Valley, the gateway to the chiseled and remote Sawtooth Mountains.
Rachel Wood enjoying a moment of sunshine while descending to Redfish Lake. [Photo] Tyler Cohen
Sun Valley Trekking: Yurt/hut rentals for $35 per person per night with $175 minimum (Sun-Thurs). $350 for private rental (Fri, Sat & holidays only). Guiding, portering and meal options available. Now taking reservations at svtrek.com or 208.788.1966.
Getting There: Sun Valley generally refers to the towns of Hailey, Ketchum and Bellevue. Hailey is approximately 2.5 hours from Boise International. Sun Valley Express runs daily shuttles from Boise to Sun Valley. sunvalleyexpress.com. The Redfish Lake trailhead is another hour north.
Food/Beer: Atkinsons’ in Hailey and Albertson’s in Ketchum are your full-serve grocery options. Get a schooner of beer and some fried food at Grumpy’s in Ketchum or for gourmet pub food and a long beer list, try the Powerhouse Pub & Bike Shop in Hailey.
Nearby Skiing: Galena Pass (approx ½ hour north of Ketchum) has easy-access day-touring options. Dollar and Bald Mountain are commonly referred to as the Sun Valley Resort (sunvalley.com).