The Sawtooth Mountains in Central Idaho are nothing short of spectacular. Reminiscent of the Eastern Sierra, they offer soaring granite spires and peaks, hundreds of alpine lakes formed by long defunct glaciers, and sweeping moraines and valleys, all while boasting layer after layer of beautiful and challenging terrain year around. Whether it’s skiing, climbing, backpacking, fishing or whatever, these mountains are guaranteed to keep you busy for a lifetime, no matter what your chosen discipline is.
About 3.5 miles out of the Redfish Lake campground, in the Sawtooth Wilderness, sits the Bench Hut. Bench is part of a series of huts, including the Fishhook Yurt and the Williams Peak Yurt, all operated through a special use permit by Sun Valley Trekking. The Bench Hut was first built in 1983 by Joe St. Onge after the previous Bench Yurt was crushed during an exceptionally heavy winter. By 2012 it was worn out and tired after nearly 30 years of service. Joe had visions of a newer, better design. That same year the original Bench Hut was dismantled and burned to a pile of ash and red hot nails. It was then immediately cleaned up and rebuilt using local materials into its current comfortable, balanced, and aesthetic form. Believe me when I tell you, this hut is comfy!
It’s now mid-January 2016 and our discipline du jour is skiing. Well, snowboarding for three of us, skiing for the other 11. That’s right, there are 14 of us, all from North Lake Tahoe. Our talented, knowledgeable and diverse group boasts Squaw Valley ski patrollers, professional guides, ex pros, photographers, and all around heavy hitters from both sides of the bed. We also have Niels and Jess, two “porter/cooks” hired from Sun Valley Trekking. Calling “the boys,” as we affectionately dubbed them, simply cooks or porters would be doing them a great disservice. They are also guides when guides are needed, hut keepers, human guidebooks, ripping skiers, stewards of the wilderness, and they very quickly became friends, part of the group. They also cooked three meals per day for us, allowing us to ski, ski, apres ski, and ski some more. Coming home to a clean, warm hut and bubbling baked brie with smoked trout after 8 or more hours of hard touring was priceless. They got to ski every day as well, just not all day like us heathens.
Day 1 started with a five mile skin in, climbing a relatively gentle 1,200’ of vertical gain. We carried our own personal gear, but the boys and two other porters brought all of the food and booze in by pulling sleds and wearing large packs; like I said, priceless. The first half was cruiser as we wondered along a snow-covered road near a steaming stream to Redfish Lake chatting and getting to know one another. I had become close to four of the group on a similar trip last year in the Tushar Range of Utah, but the rest were new to me. From here we crossed into The Sawtooth Wilderness, this is where the proper skin track up through the moraine began. Wandering in and out, up and down, it followed an obvious and easy route, scoring the occasional peek at the massive and craggy Mt. Heyburn fast approaching as we wandered through the woods, eventually arriving at the hut at 7,400’.
By the time I got there, the powerhouse team of Glen Paulson, Ming Poon, John Morrison, and Jessica Lisagor were already repacked and heading out. I’ve skied with Glen before, he is an almost mythical skier in the Sierra, nicknamed the “Sierrabot” due to his intense drive and focus when it comes to absolutely crushing the backcountry. He, and as I would soon see, the rest of that group, known forthwith as Group 1, are motivated, fast, and extremely powerful backcountry skiers. I’m not even joking when I say that we really kept track of what they were up to by tracks appearing on distant peaks in very prodigious places.
Those of us in what shall be called Group 2 didn’t exactly slack either; 15 minutes later we were out the door, having reduced our packs to just the basic survival stuff consisting of avalanche gear, snacks, water, and headlamps.
It felt great to have that big pack off and back skinning with friends. We were all smiles on this beautiful, crisp blue day as we zagged our way up the Triangle, obviously named for its shape and how it presents itself as you look up at it from the hut. An easy 45 min later we were on top of the Triangle and began the transition. Transitioning from climb mode to downhill mode is a very deliberate process that can be done in under a minute by skiers, but on a splitboard, it takes fellow splitboarder Kendra Nardi and I about five. Our friends are patient though and no one seems to mind as we thrash around, changing bindings, puting away ski poles, all while gradually sinking deeper and deeper in to the snowpack. It probably looks even more comical that it sounds.
That first run of the trip was glorious; it had snowed 6-8” within the last 48 hours and had stayed cold, giving us the feel of depth. We started through nice open trees as it slowly began to take shape in to a series of steepening narrow gullies, peppered with cliffs and pillows. I hit it right when I got a run of pillow after pillow that seemed to just explode as I hit them, often getting me lost in massive face shots for a bit too long, resulting in me riding blind, that brief glimpse of the fast approaching terrain only a memory that I had to replay as I went deep into the white room again and again. Steep and fast, just how I like it. I stopped to spot Andrew Eisenstark as he got into a little cliff band, and he in turn spotted Kendra as she moved left and Nick and J-Mack as they moved right. Shouting directions back and forth, the group safely navigated through the short steeps and we were off again. Another 400’ of wide open pow brought us to Redfish Lake, which is where we had left the road and entered the wilderness earlier that day 4 miles to the East. A short but strenuous skin and we were back at the hut for dry socks, dinner, and whiskey, lots of whiskey.
It’s standard procedure to be up before, or at least at, first light when backcountry skiing. I follow a tried and true formula that backcountry skiers have been using since before the wheel was invented. Yes, the ski actually was created before the wheel.
The RAD (Ready at Dawn) Theorem states:
It’s simple really.
In a hut with 16 other people that ratio can vary widely depending on who snores, who ate beans, and how many times the creaky door opens and closes for a late night wizz to name a few.
Algebra be damned, the boys were up well before first light, stoking the fireplaces, melting water, and brewing coffee. We awoke to a steaming muesli bar with a variety of nuts and berries – good power food for those long 5,000 calorie days.
Being the slowest one in the group, I blew out of the hut well before the rest of the crew(s). We had a plan and I knew where to lay down the new skin track until they caught up with me. Another crisp, cold, beautiful bluebird day, I heard only the sounds of my breathing and my skins squeaking through the pow as I left the previous days trail and began laying down a new track across Bench Lake # 3. There is something magical about skinning across a frozen lake, all by yourself, the only evidence of humanity being the lone skin tracks stretching out behind you. The mountains in the winter are completely silent as the snow dampens all outside noise, wildlife is virtually dormant, and the only sounds heard are yours and yours alone.
Skinning across Bench Lake # 3 Photo- Jake Carrier
Across Bench Lake # 3, up into the trees. Still being alone, I am very careful to not wander in to any avalanche prone or exposed areas. The going was slow, but consistent and steady.
Eventually folks started catching up. First it was Squaw Valley ski patroller Jason Mack, then the incredibly strong husbo and wife team of Romolo Marcucci and Elise Clark, then Kendra, Andrew Eisenstark, Nick Dearnley, Court Leve, and so on.
The timing was perfect, as the slope jacked up, the trees thinned, and we felt the exposure as Dearnley put down the new skin track while we waited and took on the slope one at a time with everyone alert and focused on the task at hand. We were now at the west base of Mt. Hayburn. Hayburn had been dominating the skyline for the last 24 hours and we were posted up and ready to ski the Thumb Line, named for the giant granite proboscis that loomed overhead.
We had dug a pit and performed several stability tests before launching onto the exposed slope down lower. We knew that the avi conditions were considerable at best, west facing slopes had taken on substantial windloading and there was a very evident weak layer about 6-8” down.
Send in the patroller, makes sense to me. J-Mack laid down a ski cut and the whole slope ripped directly under him. We all dropped strategically, one by one, extending out the ski cut and each one creating our own shallow slab avalanche while the rest of the group “had eyes” on the exposed skier as we skied from safe spot to safe spot. The snow was dreamy – new windblown pow on top of old, cold snow – it really was bottomless. This is the stuff that we live for. Slowly, safely, down down down, back to the lake. Not a face without a big toothy grin as we transitioned back to skin mode and started heading back across the morning’s skintrack towards the hut. But not before nailing the Triangle again. We put in a new track up the north side of the triangle and the snow was phenomenal. North is the side to be on, blower pow and no windloading. Jake Carrier and I were having gear problems so we retreated back to the hut for repairs after one lap while the rest of our group lapped North Triangle again.
Night settled in with good food, good times, and lots of whiskey had by all. We talked skiing and climbing, looked at maps, played games, took pictures, and just simply existed. Life in the hut, with a bunch of kindred spirits, like minded warriors with shared ambitions and desires.
Ski, Rinse, Repeat. Wake up, coffee, food, Josh leaves first and starts laying down the new track, gets passed by Rom and Elise, then Allison Donovan, so on and so on. This time crossing Bench Lake # 5 and up the Silver saddle on the East side of Heyburn seeking that North facing pow.
And pow we found. 1,400’ of untouched, wide open, stable, blower powder. This is what you write home to mama about. One at a time, we dropped in and slaughtered this perfect 35 degree face. It felt so good to just open it up, put my arms out and make airplane noises as the wind beat on my goggled face while I laid down huge turns. High fives at the bottom as we looked up and watched Andrew grace us with his flawless, confident style. Then J-Mack and Jake went right and just nailed it. Their line was straight sexy. Looking up at our collective tracks was stunning.
We skinned back up and I took the role of conscientious objector as I sat on a rock in the sun, watching small avalanches cascade off of South facing distant slopes as the rest of Group 2 just destroyed it on another lap. The husbo and wife team groveled their way up a steep, narrow couloir and laid down some very impressive turns as one after another of the group repeated the wide open powapalooza face to the right. It was so fun to watch them zip by, focused, lost in the task of skiing. What a pleasure to witness, damn my friends are good at this! The crew skinned back up and we dropped back through the notch in to the Silver Saddle and down to Bench #5. A couple more transitions, a couple more lakes, and another North Triangle run brought us home to more great food, lots of whiskey, and some really crazy stories.
As we passed the Paul Bunyon sized flask around, (no joke, this thing holds a handle of whiskey and has a GoPro mount on it) Andrew, a professional guide, told us of how he and his group had watched a very high profile pro skier get buried three feet deep just a week before. They had him out in about seven minutes and said skier will be gracing us with his antics in the future due to their training and fast action. Glen talked of some very tragic events in the past when his intimate knowledge of the Tahoe area led to finding young skiers who had been taken from us early in life due to avalanches. John Morrison had the weirdest story of them all. On Jan 4th, 1999 John was shot in the chest by a random highway sniper while driving on I-80 North of Reno. Long story short, he didn’t “pack it with Copenhagen and go skiing” as jokingly asked by someone in our group (yeah he’s that hard). He simply stuck his finger in his chest and drove to a fire station. Coincidentally, he is the second person that I have met, out of nine, that had been shot by that sniper. It made me think of Steve Martin in The Jerk “He hates these cans!” but not really as funny.
We drank, we slept, and it was time to go. We all had plans upon exit, Court and I were off to Jackson Hole, Husbo and Wife were Snowbird bound, and much of the crew had to get back to Tahoe. But not before skiing some more, duh. North Triangle it is for a couple more laps and one last dose of high grade South Idaho powpow. And it was glorious.
The ski out sucked though, well for Kendra and I on our splitboards, or maybe just me, she seemed to fare OK. The skiers had it made, skating and poling out on the forest luge track while we suffered. No big deal, we all got there and I laid down one last butt plant as I crashed right on to the shoulder of the highway.
What an amazing trip, the snow was deep, the weather was perfect and the crew was unstoppable. It was an honor to ski with these people. I can’t wait until next year to ski, laugh, drink and celebrate life with any, and or, all of them.
Niels and Jess for diligently cooking for us, keeping the hut flowing, and your wealth of knowledge.
The North Tahoe 14, you guys are incredible.
And a big fat North Tahoe YEEEHAAAAW goes to Andrew Eisenstark. This was all your fault. Thank you
Check out more of Court Leve’s photography at: courtlevephoto.com
More info about The Bench Hut: http://ascentbackcountry.com/to-build-a-hut
Sun Valley Trekking: http://www.svtrek.com/