AdventureFeature December 23, 2016

On the Throttle

Finding gas-powered powder turns in the Idaho backcountry


It’s been a few days since the last fresh snow on Baldy—maybe even a couple of weeks. Skiers and snowboarders throughout the valley are getting antsy. The bowls and trees are tracked out. So is the side-country and their secret stashes. The groomers are fun for an hour or two, but what they really want is powder—those untracked slopes sparkling like diamonds in the early morning sunshine, the cold slap of snow in their faces and the smooth, silent push of white fluff beneath their skis and boards …


The good news is Sun Valley is surrounded by three mountain ranges and somewhere in that wilderness there are slopes holding the powder they crave. It’s out there somewhere. All they have to do is find it.


If they’ve got the cash and prefer a guided experience to quench the powder addiction there’s always Sun Valley Heli-Ski and its beautiful A-Star helicopter. There’s also a cat-skiing operation nearby at Soldier Mountain in Fairfield. If they’re willing to hike for it, the entire Sawtooth Mountain range to the north is a powder-stuffed playground with steep couloirs, wide-open glades and almost limitless tree lines.


This is all well and good, but finding the spare $1,500 for a day of heli-skiing is easier said than done, and while spending the whole day hiking through the mountains for a few thousand vertical feet of powder turns is a wonderful experience, the Sawtooth Mountains’ long approaches and short days of winter limit the achievable downhill vertical and make any backcountry mission a dawn to dusk proposition. Luckily, there is another option for the devoted powder hound: snowmobiles.


Known by a variety of monikers such as “sled,” “snow machine,” and “poor man’s helicopter,” these versatile mountain steeds have become a key piece of equipment for any powder-obsessed skier or snowboarder in the Sun Valley area.


“They offer an unbelievable amount of freedom,” says Wyatt Caldwell. A pro-snowboarder and photographer, Caldwell was one of the first Sun Valley locals to realize what a powerful powder tool snowmobiles are. “Sometimes we use the sleds to access a particular zone we want to hike and ride,” explains Wyatt, “other times we can ride them right to the top of a run or lap a jump we built. Occasionally we’re having so much fun riding the sleds that our boards never leave their racks and we spend the whole day neckin’ around in the hills.” Neckin’ is jargon for “Sled Necks,” a term snowmobile riders use to describe themselves and the act of off-trail, freestyle riding that’s popular in the Idaho backcountry.


While buying a snowmobile is far from cheap–a new top-of-the-line mountain ready sled will cost about $15,000—they open up a whole new world of accessible terrain with the potential to score countless untracked turns. Faster than hiking and cheaper than helicopters, snowmobiles also appeal to the do-it-yourself rugged individualism of Idahoans. Providing a broad range of backcountry possibilities with nary a road sign in sight.


Before blasting off the trail and into the backcountry, however, make sure you’re prepared. Far from making their riders immune to backcountry hazards, the extra power, speed and weight of a snowmobile add stress to fragile snowpacks and can leave a rider a long ways from nowhere if the machine breaks down. The level of exposure and danger snowmobilers face in the backcountry increases dramatically when they leave groomed trails. Avalanches kill multiple snowmobilers every year, many of which could be avoided with a few basic precautions and routine snow stability checks.


If you plan on riding in the backcountry spend the extra cash and get racks to attach your skis and snowboard while you’re on the throttle and good safety gear like a helmet, avalanche transceiver and other backcountry necessities like shovels, probes and a well-equipped first aid kit. Never ride alone, take a snow safety course and stay informed about changing conditions and snow-stability forecasts.


With over 120 miles of groomed trails and countless off-trail opportunities in the Sun Valley area, picking a place to ride and practice your off-trail skills can be daunting.

“I think the best zone for snowmobile-accessed powder turns near Sun Valley is the Baker Creek drainage,” says Caldwell. “It’s really user friendly with a well-groomed trail that leads to multiple skiing and snowboarding options, so it’s a fun place to ride no matter what your ability level is.”


Located in the Smoky Mountains and accessed via a large parking lot on the northeast side of Highway 75 south of Galena Lodge, Baker Creek has it all. A groomed forest service road climbs gently up the drainage with a series of open hillsides to play around on either side. A few different trails branch off along the way before the groomed road comes to a stop. A little off-trail riding from here will get riders into the goods where they can choose to ditch their sleds and hike up the peaks or access the high country via some more technical hill climbs. Rookies beware; riding on a groomed trail is far different from riding off-trail in fresh snow.


Getting stuck is just part of the deal when you’re snowmobiling off-trail. This is especially true when riders are new to the sport and still figuring out the often counter intuitive techniques required to ride a snowmobile in deep untracked snow.


“Dig and pull, dig and pull,” Caldwell says with a laugh, “there’s really no way around it. If you’re riding off-trail you’re going to get stuck.” The first thing any experienced snowmobile rider will tell you is that the throttle is your friend. Problems arise when a snowmobile driver hesitates and eases off the gas. That’s when the 250-pound machine sinks into the soft snow and gets unruly. Before you know it, you’re in a giant hole of your own creation. Then it’s time to dig and pull again.


Since most of the snowmobile accessible terrain around Sun Valley lies within the Sawtooth National Forest and Recreation area, it’s important to be aware of the different motorized, non-motorized boundaries and other rules put in place by the Forest Service. For example, riding snowmobiles up Hyndman Basin in the Pioneer Mountains to the east of Sun Valley is only allowed after March 15, and motorized traffic of any kind is forbidden within the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. These boundaries are often marked on trails but can be hard to spot. If new to riding in the area, stopping by the Ketchum Ranger District’s office and picking up a map that delineates where snowmobiles are permitted and where they’re prohibited is highly recommended.


“Once you figure a few things out, that’s when the fun really starts,” Caldwell explains. “Plus the new sleds nowadays are much lighter and easier to maneuver, so the general learning curve is a lot quicker.”


With the snowmobile Mecca of Stanley just an hour north of Sun Valley with thousands of acres to ride, it’s no wonder that more and more trucks around the Wood River Valley have snowmobiles hanging out the back of their beds. With all those mountains to ski and snowboard, not to mention how fun it is to ride the sleds, suddenly those long days between storms are flush with powder potential.




This article appears in the Winter 2016-2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.