Ahead of me, on a split snowboard, my boyfriend Marc broke trail up the snowfield. Our dogs plunged ahead of him like dolphins cresting the waves at a ship’s hull, disappearing completely beneath the snow before ears and noses popped back out. It was March, and the sweet, piney smell of rising sap had followed us through the forest until, in the previous hour, we’d climbed above spring and reentered winter. Lodgepoles and hemlocks had given way to stubby spruce, still bundled in snow and hunched like gnomes caught in migration, heads down, frozen, silent, heading into the wind.
The backcountry—a term used for terrain inaccessible by means other than human locomotion—remained out of reach for many years to all but the most hardy: mainly, telemark skiers who free-heeled through life on the fringes of society. But, fortunately for the rest of us, technological advancements have changed that. With randonee bindings, which adjust from free heel (for ascending) to fixed heel (for descending); windproof, synthetic clothing; and comfy accommodations in the middle of nowhere, society has discovered the backcountry, much as it did bell-bottomed jeans and granola. Now the backcountry isn’t only fashionable, it’s said to be good for you.
It was those intrepid free-heelers who made the backcountry available to us mere mortals without extraordinary circulation in our extremities or a convenient disdain for indoor plumbing. Bob Jonas, who founded Sun Valley Trekking in 1982, is one of them. Last winter was the first in forty years that Jonas didn’t spend nights in the snow.
The Sun Valley native laughs when he recalls his early attempts to introduce others to the joys of backcountry ski touring: “I actually had the idea that I could take people out skiing in the backcountry and sleep in snow caves. I discovered the hard way that not many people want to do that.”
Jonas performed a tactical about-face, buying a few woodstove-heated huts in the Sawtooths from guide Joe Leonard of Leonard Expeditions. “My first trip to the huts,” says Jonas, “we went luxury. I hired a French chef, and we had five-course meals.” A pioneer of the roughing-it-in-style wilderness vacation, Jonas forged a trend that has inspired growing numbers to abandon the resort scene, at least a few days at a time, for the soothing embrace of the backcountry.
Joe and Francie St. Onge run Sun Valley Trekking these days. In their early thirties and looking like poster children for the American Dental Association, they live, with two dogs and two cars, in a Hailey neighborhood. Their office equipment hangs on racks in the garage: dozens of skis, poles that double as avalanche probes, excursion sleds used to haul gear, food and, yes, even kegs of beer. From December through April, the couple leads single- and multi-day expeditions to their five huts in the mountain ranges north of Ketchum. Other outfitters, including Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Heliskiing, also guide excursions and rent huts to groups who, in Francie’s words, want “something different, and to get away from the crowds and noise.”
Scattered throughout the Pioneer, Boulder, and Sawtooth mountains, there are a total of nine privately operated huts accessible to anyone who doesn’t mind strapping on a backpack, stepping into a pair of skis or snowshoes, and following a trail in the snow through some of the most spectacular country in the world. Boulder Hut is easiest to access, just over a mile off the highway. Tournac (and its sauna) and Coyote are nestled just a few miles into the Smokies northwest of Ketchum. Bench, Williams, and Fishhook perch high in the Sawtooths north of Redfish Lake, at the end of mellow hikes of four to six miles. Guests are welcomed with body-and-soul-warming amenities, including wood-fired saunas at the first two. And Fishhook boasts perhaps the most beautifully situated wood-fired hot tub in the world, beneath the jagged face of Mount Heyburn.
If the idea of walking uphill to carve some turns seems outdated to you, Sun Valley Heliskiing could be the answer. They’d be happy to assist you to a cozy hut 8,700 feet up Hyndman Peak, at the epicenter of the Pioneers’ 750 square miles of bowls, glades, and chutes.
The Wood River and Salmon River valleys boast the second-largest hut system in the country, pre-dating Colorado’s Tenth Mountain Division by almost a decade. In springtime in the 1930s, when crocuses appeared on Dollar Mountain, the Swiss and Austrian ski instructors hired by Sun Valley Company headed further into the hills, bringing the alpine tradition of hut-to-hut touring to Idaho. “Hence all the funny names out there,” says Joe St. Onge. “Like Flurian’s Noodle,” he laughs, naming a favorite slope you won’t find on any map. “We’re skiing the same stuff they skied.”
The original, European-style cabins have long since disappeared, succumbing to fire or avalanches. Present-day huts are sited carefully to avoid such a fate. “A lot of research goes into how these sites are chosen,” says Janet Kellam, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, explaining that important factors include safe access, a variety of options for all skiing abilities, scenery, and the availability of firewood.
In spite of the previous mention of saunas here and there, the comfortable coexistence of the terms “hut” and “luxury” may seem a little suspect. Would it clarify matters to explain that “hut” usually refers to a yurt? True, “yurt” doesn’t exactly ring with bling, either—but it beats the pants off “snow cave.”
Mongolians have been enjoying the comforts of their round, transportable homes—yurts, or “gers”—for thousands of years. Traditional versions feature a wool-felt outer wall stretched over wooden poles bound together by horsehair cable. Like the spokes of a wheel, beams angle up to a central smoke hole. The design creates a large, open, high-ceilinged abode that was easy to break down and transport on a yak cart when you had to get out of Genghis’s way—and that still works well for changing locations when your Kashmir goats have grazed the grass to the ground.
The modern, western yurt is simply a high-tech variation on the original in which the smoke hole has been replaced by a Plexiglas skylight. Wood rafters—in some cases, hand-adzed pine—radiate around the skylight, supporting a skin of synthetic fabrics with insulation developed by NASA. Woodstoves provide warmth; propane is used for cooking and kerosene for lamps. The impermanence that first made yurts so practical in ancient Mongolia endears them to our National Forest Service, whose regulations require their dismantling each spring. Kellam applauds their sturdy design, explaining how a yurt can be buried in snow except for its chimney pipe and remain structurally intact.
A yurt’s diminutive size, open floor space, and, well, roundness encourage unity, organization, and parity—characteristics often lacking in our homes and daily lives. Francie St. Onge describes yurts as “out of a fairy tale,” like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (of course, one must look beyond the fact that the dwarfs had no indoor plumbing). Janet Kellam speaks of “the magic of a circle.” Indeed, there is something calming and comfortingly familiar about the bright, circular interior space. >>>
The winter backcountry calls to people in many different voices. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on snowshoes, or sledding with children.
Janet Kellam, who spends at least three days a week out in the field, describes “the spiritual recharge of wandering around in the snow.” She enjoys sharing the experience with friends, and doesn’t need to make turns to have fun. She also finds the snow fascinating: “I love how it sits on trees and sparkles. I’m always seeing something I’ve never seen before. There’s always something new.” That’s saying something, for a heliski guide-turned-avalanche guru who has roamed Idaho’s south-central ranges on skis for more than twenty-five years.
Kellam led me to Kirk Bachman in Stanley, referring to him as “the father of backcountry yurts in the Rocky Mountains.” Like Bob Jonas, Bachman is a character who doesn’t need niceties himself, but realizes that most other humans do. He moved to Stanley in 1978 with a yurt he’d built while attending college. In 1985, he founded Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG), a year-round mountaineering service.
SMG maintains Williams Camp, the highest and most northern in the hut system. Dubbed a prime ski destination by Powder magazine, Williams allows quick access to radical terrain that’s well suited to today’s free riding. The camp consists of two yurts (and a sauna), which Bachman recently upgraded in celebration of his fiftieth birthday.
Why is he still out there after all these years? “Great skiing. Great terrain. Great camaraderie. Having home-cooked meals together.” Laughing (all of these backcountry fanatics seem to laugh a lot), he proclaims, “It works!”
Backcountry addict Chris Johnson of Boise skis off-piste more than a hundred days a year. He dreamily reminisces about skiing one day above Bench Hut in fresh snow deeper than he is tall. “I was making a few turns beneath the snow, and then popping out to see where I was going. Talk about face shots! That’s an experience you’re not going to find at a resort.”
Admitting that epic turns are just part of the fun, Johnson waxes poetic about the sunrises and sunsets and the company of friends, whom he wrangles from three or four states for annual retreats. He tries to outdo his companions in the kitchen on his assigned night of dinner duty: on one trip, his culinary apogee was a contribution of fifteen pounds of sushi. But, he laments, “It was beaten by someone who was actually a good cook.”
I spoke with Johnson in Boise last August as the thermometer was creeping toward 100 degrees. He sighed wistfully, “Those backcountry trips help get me through the long, hot Boise summer.”
If you don’t feel like cooking or skiing with a backpack full of negihama, Ann Scales of Chocolate Gulch Catering has the solution—and the menu. She prepares dinners for groups at Boulder Hut, offering specialties such as baked, curried Brie with chutney and cashews on baguette slices, and grilled lamb with a mustard-herb glaze. I don’t think the dwarfs ate that well before Snow White came along, or even after she arrived.
Back in the ’80s, Boulder Hut was the first dinner yurt in the country, rivaling Ketchum’s best restaurants; today, it’s known by locals for unique birthday and holiday parties, and arguably the best wood-fired sauna in the Valley. It’s also a great place for kids. “If they get tired on the trek in,” says Francie St. Onge, “they can just pop onto the sled.”
Everyone remembers the scene in the Disney classic in which birds tweet around Snow White’s head and deer eat out of her hand. Although locals frown on feeding the wildlife, our furry friends wander the backcountry, making appearances when it suits them. I’ve seen moose, coyotes, and elk. Snowshoe hares lay a Morse code of tracks in the snow, and wolverine prints crisscross the upper basins. At Galena, a gregarious pine marten eats well at night if we forget to hide the granola. Foxes in coats of mottled silver stand at the edge of the woods like chess pieces. Late March brings sandhill cranes to nest at the edge of the meadow on Fishhook Creek. And then there are the grouse: These normally benign birds allow falling snow to bury them for warmth and protection—but the practice also makes them easy to step on. Like feathery land mines, they wait until you ski over them. Then, as Chris Johnson says, “They shoot out of the snow and scare the hell out of you.”
But perhaps the most magical feature of the backcountry—and some might call it black magic—is the fact that, in the Sawtooths, the Smokies, the Boulders, and the Pioneers, cell phones don’t work. Don Shepler, a longtime telemark skier who makes his own sort of magic in the kitchen of CK’s Real Food in Hailey, revels in “just getting totally away. You don’t have to worry about phone messages. You can focus on having fun with the people you’re with.” He pauses, then adds with a wicked grin, “Also, diving naked into the snow after the sauna is very refreshing.”
One snowy night last winter, Marc and I snowshoed up to one of three yurts twenty or so minutes from Galena Lodge, where we work. For the guests who had ordered dinner, Marc carried an insulated backpack heavy with grilled elk steaks, tomato-basil bisque, and a loaf of fresh challah. I waded behind him through a spooky, silent world.
In the beam of his headlamp, the forest was like a dark, deserted castle with tall furniture draped in sheets.
Suddenly we saw a flicker of lanterns among the snowflakes, and heard peals of laughter. We knocked on the door, planning to hand over the pack and go, but were invited inside. Our guests pushed glasses of wine into our cold hands and made room for us close to the glowing wood stove. I immediately began dripping onto the futon; they didn’t care. An hour later, Marc and I returned through the castle of snow back to our own yurt, tipsy and light of heart.
That’s what happens in the backcountry, especially in the circle of warmth known as a yurt. Friends become closer; strangers become friends. It isn’t magic: it’s the science of population density and animal behavior. Such moments can easily carry you through the long hot spells.
Betsy Andrews lives in a yurt north of Ketchum with her dogs, Junebug and Pezzo Marie; her cat, Tesserwell; and her person, Marc. Her mother actually approves.