One evening in the fall Garrett had wandered into the dining room and announced, “I just booked a yurt in the Sawtooths in the spring. It has a hot tub. You interested?” “Obviously”, I responded. While the idea of rustic afternoon soaks was certainly enticing, I was mainly just eager to get back to the Sawtooths. I had been blown away by my one weekend climbing in the range, and couldn’t wait to see the jagged peaks covered in snow.
As the trip approached, the group narrowed down to 8 of us: Garrett, Brett, Ellen, Cam, Matt, Hunter, Jess and I. We left Salt Lake City Thursday evening (wonderfully unencumbered by any ridiculously large trailers) and drove into the night to Stanley, Idaho where we crammed into a nice motel for the night. We awoke and I got my first glance of the majestic Sawtooths in their winter best.
The yurt Garrett had booked was Fishook Yurt, one of a series of yurts that sit scattered beneath the peaks. A useful annotated CalTopo map of the area can be found here.
The yurt system requires heading in with a guide who can show the way and check that the previous inhabitants cleaned up before departing. We met our guide, Doug, at the trailhead at 9am. He watched on with seasoned patience as we worked to load up all of our stuff into our too-small packs and the two sleds we had brought. Soon enough, we were ready to go, beer and snacks properly stowed, and we started the skin in.
Its about 4 miles and 500 vertical feet into the Yurt. While the flat terrain helped, we quickly became familiar with the challenges of navigating sleds around melted out treewells and sections of trail. We certainly didn’t set any records getting in, but we were pleased to have kept the sleds mostly upright and all precious beverages closed and intact.
We arrived at the yurt in the midday heat and knew that skiing that day was out of the question. It was probably in the 70s in the sun and the rotting snow indicated that there hadn’t been a deep freeze the night before. Our blistered feet weren’t complaining, and we set about moving in for the weekend.
Fishook Yurt is actually composed of two structures, a sleeping yurt and a covered lean-to style building for cooking and hanging out. The lean-to building has windows that open to the west and create wonderfully cozy afternoon vibes. The much-anticipated hot tub turned out to be a little smaller than we had expected, but we got a fire going to heat the water, and by the time we were settled in it was warm enough for an afternoon soak. The afternoon was spent enjoying the sunny weather and beautiful views.
We set our alarms early to try to beat the forecasted heat and were moving by 6:30am. Our plan was to head up towards Profile Lake in between Thomposon and Williams Peak and ski the appealing looking south face of Williams Peak. We moved fairly quickly, but as the sun rose, the still-distant mountains drove home just how big the terrain in the Sawtooths is. We were treated to an amazing sunrise and we marveled as the face of Horstmann Peak was lit up, highlighting the terrifying line known as “The Shield”.
We eventually got to the mouth of the valley leading up to Profile Lake and started working our way up a series of benches. The scenery was breathtaking, with jagged peaks and steep couloirs on both sides and we savored the last of the alpine glow as the powerful spring sun began to emerge in full force.
Reaching Profile Lake, we headed for the South Face of Williams Peak. Rising about 1,600 feet, the face looked like a perfect start to the trip, steep and complex enough to be interesting, but relatively mellow looking compared to the couloirs we had seen. We skinned to the base and transitioned to booting. I took the lead and, to my dismay, found that the snow was barely supportive and I sunk in a couple inches with each step. I dug a quick handpit and easily sheared off the top 6 or 7 inches of snow. Off to the side, Garrett dug a small pit and performed a quick column test. CT7. The light freeze we had gotten overnight had clearly been even lighter up high and the snow was completely unbonded and rotten. We quickly transitioned and skied down to the lake, getting a couple mushy corn turns on the way down.
Down at the lake, we turned our focus to the North Face of Thompson Peak. The sheer face is split by three or four of some of the most enticing (and terrifying) looking couloirs I’ve seen. The crown jewel, JC couloir, runs down the middle of the face and looked heinously steep from below. Unsure what kind of snow we would find, we decided to start skinning up the apron and play it by ear. Right away the snow was noticeably funky, wind affected and variable, but at least not damp and rotten like all other aspects. We angled up towards a little cliff band in the apron and stopped to dig a pit, wary of the clear wind slabbing we were skinning across. Unfortunately, we got some propagation and a clean shear. We dug a couple more exploratory pits along the skin track we had come up and found less alarming results. Unsure of how widespread any problems were, we debated whether or not to continue upwards. Eventually, we applied the “would-you-think-these-people-were-idiots-if-reading-about-them-in-an-accident-report test” and decided that, yes, an eight person group skinning obviously wind affected snow above a terrain trap might set off some people’s idiot meters, so we decided to play it safe and bail back to the lake. 0/2 on the day.
Wanting to get at least two or three consecutive turns in, the six guys decided to ski back down the low angle bench we had come up the 400 vertical feet to where it dropped steeply to the valley below. The two girls, ever the more rational, decided they didn’t need to ski 400 feet of slush, and waited for us back up top.
After our short little lap, the group decided to head up to the pass between Thompson and Williams Peak to check out the views and eat lunch. The tour up to the pass was mellow, with only a short little headwall before we arrived at the beautiful upper basin between the two peaks.
We broke out our lunches and soaked up the views of the surrounding peaks. After lunch, most of the group decided to head back down the valley we had came up, the most direct way back to the yurt. Garrett, Hunter, Cam and I decided to tour around to the south, and take the valley between Mickey’s Spire and Mount Bush out. We figured if the skiing was going to be bad everywhere, we might as well see some more of the Sawtooths.
We worked our way south and quickly arrived at a little bowl that separated Mount Carter from from Mickey’s Spire. Luckily the snow was north facing enough to be safe, and after 15 minutes of steep skinning (Hunter wisely choose to boot), we arrived at the high point of our day.
The views to the south were absolutely stunning, with row after row of jagged peaks making it very clear how the Sawtooths had gotten their name. The slope down into our exit valley was gradual and inviting looking and the backdrop of the Sawtooths made for some epic slush turns as we started our descent.
The snow deteriorated as we got lower, growing more and more unsupportive, but we savored the easy spring-skiing vibes, enjoying the gravity powered tour of a beautiful new drainage under bluebird skies. Eventually our gravity assist came to an end, and we trekked the final mile or so of flat back to the yurt, baking in the midday sun. We had to laugh when we saw the stats for the day: ~13 miles and ~4800ft, all for what felt like about 600 feet of real skiing. Definitely a ski tour with the emphasis on “tour”.
With it being Easter weekend, we slipped into our spring finest and took advantage of the long days to make a solid dent in the provisions we had hauled in.
Sunday was forecasted to be even warmer than Saturday had been, and with temps still well above freezing after dinner we decided there was no point in trying to race the morning sun and instead to just commit to sleeping in a bit and ski the popular “Gun Barrel”, a north facing chute we knew had been skied recently and would therefore be safe.
The ridge approach to “Gun Barrel” was wonderfully pleasant with green moss blanketing the trees and sweeping views of the Sawtooth Valley.
After about two hours, we arrived at the final section of flat ridge near the entrance of “Gun Barrel”. The snow to the north still seemed awfully firm and the couple hundred feet below the ridge to the east looked almost corn-like so we decided to ski a quick mini lap. While not true corn, the snow was the best we had seen all trip and we savored the turns before it turned to mush lower down.
Arriving back up on the ridge, satisfied with our decision, we made our way to the top of the “Gun Barrel”. The snow was firm and tracked, but the line looked enticing from above, direct, steep-but-not-too-steep, and fairly long. Its easy to see why its a moderate classic.
While killing time on Friday we had invented a silly game that involved hitting cans speared on ski poles with snowballs with varying “prizes” based the distance to the ski pole. Brett had been lucky enough to hit the “ski a north facing shot naked” can twice and selected Matt and Cam as the lucky winners. Figuring this might be the only north facing skiing we did all trip, the two dutifully stripped down and showed us how it was done.
The snow in the chute certainly wasn’t anything to write home about, scraped mostly clean up top and then punchy down low, but it was still an absolute blast to ski my first couloir in the Sawtooths and felt great to do 1200 feet of continuous skiing. And by continuous I mean stopping every five turns to give the legs a break from the jolty, chattery snow.
Regrouping at the bottom, we all felt it was too early to return to the cabin and commit to a full afternoon of day drinking so we decided to head up Fishook Creek drainage and at least check out The Sickle. The Sickle is considered the classic couloir in the Sawtooths and made it into the famed 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. Based on the quality of snow we had found in the “Gun Barrel”, none of us were particularly convinced The Sickle would be much fun to ski, but it seemed like a fun adventure to at least get up under the NE face of Horstmann and have a look.
The tour up to the basin beneath The Sickle further drove home the insane amount of terrain back in these mountains. Looking north across the drainage, we could see line after line of snow splitting the rock faces. This place really would be the world’s best playground if you caught it in solid corn conditions.
Eventually we arrived underneath The Sickle and stopped to grab some food and consider our options. While we were deliberating, a group of two exited The Sickle and skied past us. We asked for a conditions update and they reported finding terrible snow and turning around 100 feet below the top due to the conditions. Feeling no need to channel our inner Cody Townsend and side step on awful snow, we made the call to just relax in the sun and enjoy the views.
Eventually we decided to head back down and started the long slog back to the yurt. Other than the initial 500 foot drop back into the drainage, not much good skiing was had, but the outtrack was just steep enough to avoid putting on skins until the final mile or two to the yurt, a welcome surprise.
The forecast for Monday predicted clouds, snow, and much cooler weather. Knowing this would mean bulletproof, slide-for-your-life conditions on pretty much all aspects, we accepted the fact that the skiing portion of the trip had likely come to an end. The rest of Sunday was spent enjoying the beautiful spring weather and company of friends at the yurt.
We awoke to light snowfall and cool weather, confirming our decision not to wake up early to try to ski. We enjoyed a mellow morning packing up the yurt and, as the skies began to clear, started the ski back to the cars.
With lighter packs and sleds, the ski out proved much more pleasant than the ski in, and we were soon back out on the final snow covered section of road. The clouds had lifted enough to provide some final views of the range and it was rewarding to look back at all the different valleys and peaks we had skied around. The terrain in the Sawtooths is steep, remote, and very very rad. The lines we saw were the types of runs you might have to wait multiple seasons for conditions to align, but scoring any of those chutes in powder conditions would be a lifetime experience. We were all disappointed conditions didn’t align for some larger lines or better corn skiing, but it was the perfect teaser for the area, and I’m definitely motivated to come back next year.