The Idaho mountains caught my attention a few summers ago, and this winter I felt a magnetic pull to the majestic Sawtooth Range. Imagine the mountains of Patagonia and Alaska had a baby… that’s the Sawthooths in my mind. The mountain ranges surrounding Sun Valley, Idaho have accumulated a snowpack ranking as the third deepest on record which means many zones that are normally un-ridable have been dubbed the green light. Early season, we ticked off laps in the burn, Grumpy’s and Hourglass along the side-country of Sun Valley Resort. While the rare depths of the Wood River powder was a treat, my gut was yearning for the rugged spires of the Sawtooth backcountry. Skiing there is relatively remote, takes a strong physical effort and quality ski partners. Lucky for me, I’ve been adventuring with Sun Valley local backcountry skier/sledder extraordinaire, Jeremy Lato with all the insider beta on the area. This blog takes you along my ski adventures to Boyscout, Sickle, Gun Barrel, Outer Space and Petzholdt Couloirs, and the elusive North East face of Hortsmann Peak, “The Shield.” I rode the Nomad Lite 105 ski providing the freeride style on the descent with incredible light weight to fly up the skin track.
The first time I locked eyes on Boyscout Couloir was two summers ago wakesurfing across Redfish Lake Jeremy Lato on his home turf alongside Matt Heffernan and Bo Torrey. We drooled over the ski possibilities of the steep and narrow line down the center of the jagged Grand Mogul’s north face jutting out of the lake’s south cove. Since that day I’ve been drawn back to the energy and solitude of the Sawtooths, and Boyscout Couloir has been number one on my “to-ski” list.
The stars and snow conditions aligned for Jeremy and I to give Boyscout a shot in early March. We doubled his snowmobile out roughly six miles across the frozen Redfish Lake. Instead of the straight-forward boot-pack up the couloir, we opted for a more adventurous tour exploring another zone tucked around behind the main face.
Most years there is a mandatory mid-line rappel through the choke; however, with this season’s massive snowpack, the chochstone was completely filled in allowing us to ski top to bottom with no ropes. The snow was smooth and chalky as we linked turns between the steep rock walls. Full of energy, both Jeremy and I gave a nod to the sky dedicating our run to Heffy who joined in spirit.
Feeling fully satisfied, yet ever hungry for more deep Sawtooth adventures, I returned to Salt Lake City, and within a week, Jeremy called with an opening for us to stay at the Fishhook Yurt. I stayed up until 4am finishing my last writing project then drove the five hours back to Sun Valley where we quickly packed up the truck and drove north to the Sawtooths. We rode the snowmobile several miles to the Redfish Lake Lodge then skinned several more miles to the yurt through the dark and torrential rain downpour. The Fishhook Yurt is nestled in a meadow by the winding creek with the iconic peaks of the range towering around it.
By morning the weather cleared up as we set out to ski the famed Sickle which is the narrow and steep couloir etching the North East face of Hortsmann Peak at 10,470’. The sun’s glow refracted off frozen rain droplets on the trees as we skinned several miles approaching the base Horstmann.
Jeremy, Parker, Steven and I canga-line boot-packed to the top, wallowing through deep snow and reassessing the stability along the way. Finally topping out, the crystal blue skies allowed for endless views inspiring new routes for future days. Dropping in to the steep and deep narrow line, my heart was beating, legs burning, and stoke through the roof. There was nearly 14 inches of powder plooming with each turn!
The first time I really stared at the alluring Sickle Couloir was earlier this winter soaking up the sunset and hot springs in Stanley across the valley. The sliver of a line is walled in for 1,000’ vert at 45-55 degrees of steep hop turns, which earned it a ranking in the 50 Classic Ski Descents.
That evening in the yurt, we brewed up hot chili, and I studied for my Wilderness First Responder tests while the boys chopped wood for the fire to heat up the outdoor hot tub.
Gun Barrel Couloir
Rejuvenated (and revved up with coffee) by mid-morning the next day our crew meandered through the forest again in pursuit of the Gun Barrel Couloir. Unlike the Sickle’s soft snow, the Gun Barrel was filled with frozen old debris making for a less enticing descent. We traversed slightly to the side for a smoother run down. The days with less than ideal snow conditions are solid recon scouting missions to return another day!
The Shield. Enough said. The first time I saw the spines on the North East face of Hortsmann Peak, it literally took my breath away. Only a handful of people have skied this face because of the high consequence and rare chance snow is more than mere sugar facets sloughing over the two massive cliff bands. However, the day we skied the Sickle which outlines the elusive NE face, “The Shield,” we took photos, talked through several descent line options, and came to the conclusion that with the high depth of snowpack and having a window of time with safe conditions we could ski the face from top to bottom without a rappel.
After a couple rest days back in Sun Valley, we hit the road before sunrise to meet Olin and Tim. Cutting roughly five miles out of our hike round trip, we rode snowmobiles to the trailhead from the road. The skin to the top of the Shield was absolutely stunning! The hidden nooks of the Sawtooths fluted with snow are jaw dropping and allowed us to feel at ease with several backup descent routes in case the Shield was not 100% once we got a closer look.
A long skin, bootpack and spicey ridge scramble later, our team reached the summit of Hortsmann Peak. After refueling, agreeing on safe snow conditions again, and gearing up for the downhill, we discussed our group travel and communication plan one more time. While this was the day of all days to ski this line, we were one of three groups to hit the summit at the same time. First up was solo rider Shantelle who led the way. We were sure in awe of her guts to climb up and ski this line completely solo.
Following Shantelle, Jeremy, Olin, Tim and I grapevined down the upper spine riddled face where slough management was crucial. After regrouping, we traversed across the lower half, and set up one 30m handline to assist with the dicey exit at the bottom. I’m incredibly grateful to have skied that face with such a competent team! Hours later back in Sun Valley, copious amounts of pizza and ice cream were devoured.
Possibly the most majestic peak in the Sawtooths is Mount Heyburn outlined by dramatic rock spires. It’s another iconic backdrop of Redfish Lake. There are two main north couloirs that split half way up. Petzoldt and Outer Space. After multiple long days of hiking, Jeremy and I were slow roasting this morning, and my new boot liners gave an unwelcome offering of heel blisters during our 5+ mile hike in.
Late in the day, half way booted up the Heyburn North couloir, we decided the wind loading, new snow and overall timing was not right to continue to the very top. Sometimes, it’s difficult to turn around before your objective, but very important to practice cautious decision making. We were blessed with light and dry powder turns all the way to the lake and a woopty James Bond trail back to the sleds!
In normal fashion, Jeremy and I bought ice cream and beer from the gas station on the way to soak in the Boat Box hot spring several miles up the highway along the Salmon River. A common theme of time in Idaho has been shred to springs for the mountain endorphins to geo-thermal therapy. Being surrounded by the beauty and wonder of the Sawtooth mountain range fills my heart and has left me with a large perma-smile. Inspired to explore more!