Objectives; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
We’re running late because Drew needs a rabies vaccine. Trying to get into a zone that’s plagued us for the last two years, this is par for the course. Something always goes wrong- cars have gotten stuck, horses have run away, and snow has melted from around our sleds, stranding them in the middle of pristine meadows. Now, on attempt number five, we’re not off to a good start- the nearest rabies vaccine is an hour and a half drive, not to mention we now have to catch the fox that originally bit Drew, starting the catastrophe in the first place. Great.
The Ranch; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
The zone in question is home to some of Idaho’s largest peaks and most interesting topography I’ve ever seen. The mountains look like they’ve been put in a vice- wrinkling the rocks into contorted twists and curves straight out of a Tim Burton movie. They’re unworldly- both in terms of appearance and access. In the winter, there’s not a plowed road within 30 miles, and snow doesn’t stick on the valley floor long enough to ride a sled. Spring’s no better, although parts of the roads melt out early other, drifted in sections hold snow through May. By the time summer has rolled around and the roads have fully melted out, warm temperatures have usually reduced the thin, Central Idaho snowpack to mere strips. Not this year though.
An unusually wet spring has stacked the snowpack up high while allowing melting in the valley. This finally created the scenario we’d been waiting for: reasonably easy access and enough snow to make it worth our while. Now, if Drew could just get some shots so he doesn’t start foaming at the mouth midway through the trip we could get this show on the road.
It’s a long way back there; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
I’m getting frustrated that we’re half a day behind schedule when Drew finally shows up and entertains us with the story of how the nurse at the ER used him as her own personal pin cushion- delivering five shots in all. And that was the first in a series of five appointments. There’s people that make you laugh and people that make you mad- few have the endearing quality to make you do both at the same time, and Drew is one of them. I forget we’re behind schedule and we start the trek into the woods.
In addition to Drew, the crew’s a hodgepodge of characters. The Howell brothers, Noah and Jonah, owners of PowderWhore Productions, cruised up from Salt Lake and Bozo Cardozo, a Sun Valley native and guide, is a last minute addition. We start the trek to our selected basin- which offers access to two distinct cirques- with heavy packs. Snow has receded to about 9,000’ and we find an ideal basecamp right at the snowline just before dusk. After some delicious freeze-dried food, we turn in for the evening, ready for an alpine start
Pre-dawn, things are looking good. It’s cold, and the snow has refrozen nicely, providing an excellent hiking surface. We climb another 1,000’ into one of the basins, finally getting a close up view of what we’ve been dreaming of for two years- and it looks amazing. Snow-filled couloirs snake through the mind-bending topography. There’s an entire season worth of lines before our eyes and, knowing our limited time, go for an ambitious double dog-leg couloir. The couloir rises out of the valley about 1,500’, then narrows and curves right over several hundred feet of exposure before topping out.
Midway up the couloir; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
The climbing is good, but the sun quickly warms the upper, non-shaded part of the couloir making us a bit nervous. In the sun it’s warm, but the face has enough of a north kick to it that the snow isn’t heating up that much. We push on to the narrowest, most exposed part of the line. It’s about twenty feet wide with a fall line that pitches toward a several hundred-foot cliff. I’m gripped, but the climbing is good so I try not to think about what’s below us. We top out and make the awkward and nervous small talk that goes on when people are scared, but don’t want to talk about the fear, as that would only make it worse.
Schussing; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
I put my skis on and immediately feel more comfortable. Despite- or maybe because of- the exposure, we make a couple of hack-turns off of the summit. After all, we’re skiers first and mountaineers second, and it’s about skiing the line, not merely surviving it. My bullheadedness satisfied, I resort to side slipping across the meat of the exposure. Once on the main part of the face, we relax and joke about how gripped we were. The snow’s perfect where the sun’s been hitting it- soft corn that’s perfectly smooth. The combination of snow quality and scenery is laughable. Lower down the couloir the snow is still firm in the shade, but it’s still smooth and carvable. Emptying out into the basin, the snow again turns to corn, and then mush by the final turns where temperatures must be in the 60s by now.
Bad Rock Basin
We regroup in the basin and trade stoke on just how perfect everything was working out. Wet slides begin to rip down the south facing side of the basin, and we decide it’s time to get out of there, even though it’s only noon. We struggle to entertain ourselves for the next ten hours of light- we trundle, check out some caves, throw our ice axes tomahawk style at trees and generally kill time anyway possible until we get to ski again.
Church at Sunrise; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
We’re greeted by the same freezing temps the next morning, and head out into the second basin in the dark. This basin is a bit more open, but with the same wrinkled rock formations. Our objective is a massif that has countless options for everybody. It’s a long boot-pack to the top, but the snow’s that ideal density that allows for easy, yet not too deep, purchase. We top out around 8:30, and break off to our different lines, each tagging a different couloir. My line shadows a ledge that runs about 1,000’- it’s aesthetically pleasing yet not overly committed. The snow is a bit firm at the top but then breaks down into perfect, smooth corn about half way down.
Church Summit; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
We gather at the bottom and make a push for one last couloir that’s been in the shade all morning and is just now getting hit by the sun. Again, the boot-packing is as easy as boot-packing gets. The snow’s still firm at the top, and we wait and take in the view as the sun does its work. Looking around, we joke about how many named lines there’d be if this were close to any sort of mountaineering town. But it’s not, it’s in the middle of Idaho, and I think it’s better that lines are only referred to as “that one” or “this one.”
Pond skim warm up, loosing the hat; Photo: Noah Howell/Powderwhore
After about half an hour, we decide that the sun has done its work, and drop in one-by-one. The snow’s soft up top and then gets hard again as I approach the portion of the couloir that’s been shaded. In the apron, the snow heats again and I ark big, fast turns into the flats. We make our way down to the lake at the beginning of the basin, needing to take care of one last piece of business before we head out: pond skimming.
Pond skimming POV
Said lake may be the ideal high-alpine pond skimming lake: a steep pitch into a gentle transition and a pond that’s anywhere from 15 to 150 feet wide. We start off with the 15-foot section and Drew immediately steps it up, going across a section that’s over 100’. This inspires the rest of us and we all take on the wider sections, with varying degrees of success (there were some swimmers).
Hiking out, I laugh at how easy it was this time. Things seem never to run this smoothly, but somehow it all worked like clockwork this time (sans the rabies vaccine, of course). Beyond just how lucky we got, I return to thinking about how mind-blowing yet deserted the terrain is out there. I’m not sure which one makes it more special.