When wandering the streets of Ketchum or through the surrounding mountains, one can’t help but feel the palpable convergence of history and unspoiled wilderness. While the beauty of the landscape is timeless and unchanging, the history of the Wood River Valley continues to evolve and is chronicled in the buildings, art, and monuments that have stood the test of time.
Few places better exemplify this melding of human history and awe-inspiring natural beauty than Pioneer Cabin. Nestled at the base of Idaho’s imposing Pioneer Mountain peaks, Pioneer Cabin seems almost defiant in its remote, rugged location, epitomizing humanity’s innate desire to tame the wilderness. While Sun Valley continues to experience extraordinary change, this high-mountain shelter has remained a perpetual symbol of the spirit of adventure shared by all who are drawn to these mountains.
Having weathered 83 cold, harsh winters and counting, Pioneer Cabin was initially constructed in 1938 by the Sun Valley Company who wanted to recreate the high-country alpine touring huts used in the alps. Skiers could haul gear and provisions to the cabin, using it as a base to access and ski the surrounding peaks and bowls that would otherwise require too much time and energy to climb and ski in a day.
Few if any photos exist from Pioneer Cabin’s early years, but it was likely well-appointed as it was trimmed with carpet and other finishes from the build out of Sun Valley Lodge. Retired curtains from a Union Pacific Railroad car were repurposed to provide privacy between bunks. Intrepid members of the Sun Valley Ski School spent many of those first winters enjoying guided tours of the pristine, untouched powder stashes of the Pioneer Mountains, returning in the afternoon to hot meals and the cozy confines of the cabin, despite being perched at nearly 9,500 feet.
In later years, the cabin became a requisite summer pilgrimage for those undaunted by the stout 2,800-foot climb. Many would leave their mark on the cabin, carving initials into the wood walls or scrawling song lyrics or poems on the undersides of the bunks. One particular group of visitors would leave a mark that has become part of the very ethos of Pioneer Cabin.
In 1972, a group of climbing buddies set out to hike to Pioneer Cabin, intent on giving it some much needed TLC. The Decker Flat Climbing & Frisbee Club (DFC&FC), as they came to call themselves, worked under the heat of the summer sun to clean and restore the cabin. In a moment of divine epiphany, it occurred to Gordon Williams, the acting DFC&FC Social Chair, that their job wouldn’t be complete without adding their slogan to the roof of the cabin. With an impressive eye for spacing and in perfect typeface, the club painted the words, “THE HIGHER YOU GET, THE HIGHER YOU GET.” Nearly 50 years on, those words have become the most memorable and iconic feature of the cabin and a tenet that is awfully hard to argue with.
As it reached the status of beloved landmark, Pioneer Cabin started to show not only its age but also signs of wear from the waves of summer visitors. This included accumulating junk and garbage, broken windows, and enough food waste to support a burgeoning population of mice. The quaint, rustic cabin had become the smelly, shabby cabin, and it was time for a new group of like-minded locals to once again take on the responsibility of restoring Pioneer Cabin to its former glory.
In the summer of 2016, local Olin Glen and his father Bard began spearheading volunteer efforts to complete extensive restoration efforts. With the help of many volunteers, hours of hard work over 100 days were poured in to stave off the potential demise of the treasured site. Three horses were enlisted to carry supplies in and haul out the old mattresses from the high alpine perch. The old carpet was removed, and the interior was painted and completely revitalized. The entire cabin was even jacked up, so that half of the rock foundation could be replaced.
“It is an honor to work with our community on this cabin,” said Olin of the efforts. “Its history as the first backcountry skiing cabin in the United States, and its stunning and remote setting, make it extremely unique. It is a community asset without formal maintenance, and we ask visitors to leave it better than they found it!”
For those hiking to the cabin for the first time, there is nothing quite like the dramatic arrival into the meadow that is home to Pioneer Cabin. With legs burning, one climbs the final rise, slowly and dramatically revealing the peaks of the Pioneers from top to bottom with each successive step. After the peaks fully unveil themselves, finally the bold little cabin comes into view, and it is a short descent to the front door of Sun Valley’s history, surrounded on all sides by the magnificent, enduring grandeur of the mountains. As we continue to embrace and contribute to our collective human history in this special valley, we must do so mindfully, so that places like Pioneer Cabin can continue to enchant generations to come.