Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains hide just an hour North of the bland and boring I-84 corridor. Like so much in Idaho, they’re unknown, neglected, and assumed to be inferior to the bounty of nearby Utah and Washington. But hidden beyond Boise’s banal skyline is a range of spiky granite that easily earns its name and which offers a lifetime of potential exploration.
I learned about the Sawtooths from a photograph. It looked like a little Patagonia. With crumbling plans to head to Whistler for our Spring break, Taylor and I pivoted to the quiet and unassuming Stanley ID to explore the Sawtooths.
Little information about skiing the range is publicized. There’s no guidebook, few decent maps, and the local guide service keeps its cards close to its chest. The range is also protected by snow forest service roads which are closed to cars until May 1st regardless of snow cover. To get deep into the range requires long approaches or the use of snowmobiles. Suffice it to say that I don’t own a snowmobile.
After arriving late the night before, I talked Taylor into starting with a long day deep into the range. We’d learn about the approaches and the lay of the land, and allay any possibility that we could go the entire trip without a really big day under our belts.
We skied in to Bench lakes, near the beautiful Mt Heyburn. The approach was long and held spotty snow. Skies were overcast. Only the scenery made the crusty snow seem worthwhile.
After a lengthy tour we arrived at the top of our objective for the day. I thought that it was called the Elevator Shaft, based on information from the Sawtooth Guides. Wrong. It’s called the Gunbarrel (corrected by…the Sawtooth Guides).
Either way, with bad weather squalling up the valley, we dropped into a steep and chalky entrance which widened and mellowed below. The gut of the couloir was choked with wet debris invisible from the top, which made for challenging skiing. Taylor afterwards admitted that she was starting to think that all couloirs have bad snow.
Our egress was slowed by beautiful meadows braided with streams, and a weather forecast which reversed. We had skied one couloir, and skinned 18 miles for it. Welcome to the Sawtooths.
Iffy weather moved it, promising a dust-on-crust scenario. We used the slow internet in our cabin to research options for the following day, and simmered our sore muscles in the bizarre ‘Boat Box’ hot springs outside of town. Here, a cast-iron tank sits just off the highway and just above the frigid salmon river. Bald eagles circled, and life was good.
What had begun as an anemic forecast blossomed into a full-blown storm. On pathetically poor information, we found our way to Banner Summit, a local day-touring area. Though not as iconic as the center of the range, it made for a welcome 1-mile approach, and we were startled to discover thigh-deep powder, which we lapped in solitude.
Eager to return again to the high reaches of the Sawtooths, I scraped together a plan to punch into a high camp and take advantage of the storm snow before a rapid warming to come the next day.
On limited information (sense a theme?) we toured into the range from the highway, headed up past Yellow Belly lake to a high camp below our objective for the following day, Imogene peak.
Adventure was in full-effect. We navigated through flat, featureless forest to discover a barely-snow-covered approach. As we negotiated steep skinning punctuated by streams and boulders, the day warmed prematurely, and snow began glopping onto our skins. The pace slowed as ski weights escalated.
Arriving at camp, our limited fuel supply necessitated ingenuity. A fire sheltered by a boulder melted our snow and prepared a reinforcing round of hot chocolate.
As temperatures cooled, Taylor opted to rest while I eagerly booted a couloir just above our camp. The potential of the range is mind-boggling, and the stone crumbles perfectly to form couloirs left and right.
Turning around just before the top of the couloir with some slabby snow ahead of me, I pointed them towards camp in steep, knee-deep snow. Could it get better?
It would be a lie to say that I slept comfortably. Winter camping is not my favorite, and as such, I am under-equipped. With a half-length ultralight sleeping pad and a worn-out 20-degree down sleeping bag, the night was longer for me that for Taylor in her waterproof 0-degree bag.
Still, waking with the rising sun, high within the range, the night was soon forgotten. With clear blue skies and a quickly rising sun, we packed and skinned towards the South Bowl of Imogene peak, which I was worried would quickly warm in the sun.
After a mere hour and fifteen minutes from camp, we stood on the shoulder of the peak, looking down into the bowl. Without crampons, we were denied the wind-scoured summit, but I’ve always favored quality turns over mountaintops.
With warming snow, we center-punched the bowl, sending pinwheels rolling with each turn. The snow was still pristine, and the length of the run left our legs burning. Had we waited ten more minutes it would have been unpleasant, or even dangerous, but we’d snuck in before the door closed.
Happy to have nailed our objective, we talked options. I was tired from trail-breaking incessantly, but I had ideas. Taylor was game, so we again headed up Imogene’s Northeast ridge to a notch that I’d noticed on our approach.
At the notch, a steep, shaded couloir unfolded below us. Its finish was invisible beyond a steep roll, possibly cliffing out below us.
Accepting the possibility that I might have to climb back out, I dropped into the couloir and found deeper, softer snow than I’ve skied in a couloir that steep. Unaffected by wind and sun it hung there and miraculously failed to sluff. Creeping towards the steep roll we were rewarded, the run sneaking through a tight choke before spilling out onto an apron below.
I called to Taylor and she followed, making me proud as we threw down turns in the steep chute. Unhindered by memories of couloirs choked with debris, she found her rhythm and I proved her theory wrong: she found the powder and caught the bug.
A traverse and quick skin brought us back to our camp, somewhat exhausted. The ski out to the car was relatively quick but laborious. We cruised to town for a burger at the empty (but otherwise quite nice) Stanley Sluice Alehouse. Mission accomplished.
With exploded legs and satisfied hearts, we soaked up the sun in Stanley as spring returned and an avalanche cycle turned the snow soggy and dangerous.
Taking advantage of Idaho’s hidden riches, we soaked in hot springs next to the Payette river, with steaming waterfalls flowing into rock pools along the bouldery canyon.
Our trip was eye-opening. With a better understanding of the range and its demands, I’m eager to return and tick off some of the range’s highlight couloirs. It offers the same quality of skiing (or blasphemously, maybe even superior skiing) to Utah’s Wasatch, but with a much stronger sense of wilderness.
Rarely did we see another party. Self-sufficiency and responsibility were paramount. And the effort yielded a great reward.
Support Mountain Lessons by clicking the link below. I recommend a full-length sleeping pad for winter camping.
As always, a big thanks to Icebreaker for supporting my adventures and helping me get through winter camping with summer sleeping bags.I had the opportunity to test the Quantum Zip Hoody on this trip, and loved it. It’s warm, breathable, and stays on for both the up and the down, plus, the hood fits over a helmet.