Big Game Hunting- Highs and Lows in the Sawtooth’s

Mt. Heyburn, jagged icon of the Sawtooth Mountains, presides over the upper Salmon River Valley. The range’s granitic ridgelines sport hundreds of pinnacles, large and small, like the gendarmes of Franceʼs Chamonix Valley. Skiing among them, down Heyburnʼs Petzoldt Couloir, inspires any ski mountaineer who visits. Dominating glacier carved Redfish Lake’s other skyline is the equally craggy Grand Mogul. Its deep, dark Boyscout Couloir holds snow year-round and also begs for a ski descent. These heady lines were the big game we’d come to hunt in the spring of a phat snow year.

Sorting gear at the side of US Highway 75, we realize even the sizable sleds we have will be stuffed to bulging. Fresh potatoes, cabbage and onions; bottled beer and bricks of cheese. We had spared little expense in weight to live high in the wilderness. Seemed like a great idea for the first two miles on a summer highway. But as we left Redfish Lake, the trail climbed and became canted. The 80-lb. sleds were a real drag on the steeps. On the side-hills, they skidded off the trail and wrapped around trees. Young Todd didn’t seem to notice, bulling his way on, willed by the lure of powder and chutes. Paul and I worked as a team. I’d grab the tow lines near the head of the sled, and “walk the dog” while Paul pushed on the back with his ski pole keeping the tail in line.

Sore backs and strained hamstrings were soon forgotten once we reached our own Private Idaho, Bench Hut. Composed of a thick plastic membrane slung over a lodgepole frame, the design let solar radiation in, and retained heat, while keeping the snow out. The same small pines, which grew thick in the hut hollow, had been roughhewn into a slatted floor. Nestled in an avalanche-safe, wooded, 7,500ʼ bench above the lake, it had a cozy, well-loved ambience. Home, sweet home! Peering into the spaces between the logs, we met the other inhabitants with whom weʼd be sharing: a family of early-rising Pine Martens. They liked to growl and hiss at one another between 4 and 6 am; perhaps trying to rally us for dawn patrols. They seemed to pose little actual threat and our food was safe in Tupperware bins. We later learned Sawtooth Martens have been trapped and removed 40 miles away, yet found their way back! The resourceful and determined little buggers knew hut life was good. We had to agree.

The real beauty of hut life, is touring out the front door, and we wasted no time in heading out to christen the slopes. Untethered from the haul pigs, we fairly floated up to sample the cabin runs. Glades and gullies presented themselves. We kicked cornices, pushed sluffs into steep shots, and dug a pit to assess the snow stability. It was Wasatch-caliber: deep and strong, with few reactive layers. The only sadness was a stout spring crust under the dayʼs 4-6 inches of fresh fluff. We warmed up on “Pork Dinner Chutes,” steep, tasty north-facing drops toward Bench Lake. Unready for dinner just yet, we skinned back to point 8,695ʼ for our home-run: an east aspect, high above Redfish Lake. It was a fine finish to our first Sawtooth ski tour. Gliding back through the towering Doug Fir and scrubby Lodgepole at dusk we bonded with a new winter paradise.

 Snow fell as we gorged on fresh fajitas and poured down hoppy libations. Plans and dreams of couloirs and summits, powder and steeps, carried the conversation as we pored over the topo maps and hut-log entries like kids in a candy store, getting psyched as the pow piled up.

By morning, our hopes for the Petzoldt Couloir were sobered by the foot of fresh, and its consequent avalanche potential. We re-climbed yesterdayʼs route to the ridge and split into pairs to divide and conquer. Todd and Sean dropped the “Pillow Line,” bouncing gleefully off snow-covered boulders. Paul and I leapfrogged down the “Defibrillator,” an aesthetic rock-lined 500ʼ chute. Minor sluffing and soft turns made our hearts sing. Brimming with optimism, we crossed the Bench Lakes toward Heyburn. A clearing revealed shallow fracture lines in many of the steep, north-facing snowfields, including high in the Petzoldt. We read this as a good sign. Enough weight had cascaded down the chute to dwarf that of a few skiers. We kept our eyes up and spread out, but pushed on, even as big fluffy flakes began falling again.

Switchbacking gave way to boot-packing when the solid granite walls closed in. We traded off postholing, our energy feeding off one another. Despite the 50-degree angle and deep snow, we topped out by late afternoon. Weʼd pulled off a major coup! Now all we had to do was get down, the fun part. First we sampled the matching Odyssey Couloir off the south side. It was incredibly deep and soft, if only for a 20-turn teaser. Todd decided he had to come back and ski the south-facing classic through to Redfish Creek early the next day; before the spring sun had time to cook that ethereal fluff. Returning to the saddle, we tightened our boots and bindings for the daunting Petzoldt descent. The slope angle was above 50, and the first turn was a doozy! I pointed my tips over the corniced edge and quickly set my edges into the soft snow. They held fine, a ski-width wide shallow soft-slab ran down the chute, and I was pumped. I hopped down a few turns, traversed the runnel to an island of relative safety, and shot Paul, then Sean, dropping in.

Adrenaline coursed through our veins as we carved turns above the rocky narrows, but soon we all schussed cleanly through, and let our guard down. Hoots of powdery joy erupted as each rider spread out in the widening line. Glew opened up his turns and disappeared into the mists below. We waited for the “OK, next,” call, but it didn’t come.

Finally he shouted, but not with the usual enthusiasm. Descending to his safe alcove, at the base of the couloir, we each hopped a 2-3ʼ fracture spanning most of the chute. Heʼd triggered a 100ʼ-wide avalanche that ran 800ʼ and pounded lake 8623 with an impressive pile of debris! Everyone was fine. Weʼd been skiing one at a time, and the slide had broken just below Todd. But what a shock! Why did it run as Todd skied? And why mid-slope, where the angle was only 35 degrees? Of course we had theories, but it was a near-miss, and there was another weak layer buried deeper here. Todd hustled back to the hut to calm his nerves with a victory beer. Heʼd been on the right side of the fracture once again. Heʼd live to ski another day!

Early to buzz, early to bed, early to rise, early to shred. Todd and Sean lived the skierʼs mantra (thanks in part to the Martens,) and were long gone by the time Paul and I rose. The young guns toured back toward Heyburn, and came back raving about great snow and aesthetics in the Odyssey Couloirʼs westerly neighbor. Meanwhile, the sleepy old fogies rallied down to Redfish Lake and up to the Grand Mogul. Undaunted by yesterdayʼs ups and downs, we were drawn to another epic line, the Boyscout Couloir.

We had to climb, traverse, and ski a tricky gully to reach the inlet. Then we skinned up a pillow line, weaving around vertical drops, to reach a land of house-size boulders below the imposing NW face. We felt far from home and skier traffic. How rarely was this bold endeavor attempted? Like warriors on a quest for big game, we forged on despite intermittent snow, heavy at times. We heard an ominous cascade of snow somewhere on Heyburnʼs cliff-crossed south face, and hoped it was not our brethren. Spindrift avalanches in our own midst kept us keenly aware. Approaching the choke of the chute, we heard rumbling above, and dove toward the gully walls. A river of snow poured off the slabby cliffs above, as they were variously hit by intense snow squalls and moments of warm spring sunlight. It was time to climb up or shut up! It was do and/ or die, and we chose neither. “Not do and not die” sounded pretty good to a couple of dads with youngsters at home. We turned tail, just as another avalanche poured through the choke. We settled for some sweet powder shredding back to Redfish Lake.

The Mogul was a committing line, with a huge lower-angled snow slope above, and there were simply too many signs of instability to push on. We had scored big on Heyburn, but we hadnʼt liked our odds today. Later we heard of a Redfish Lake Lodge employee who had skied into a cliff while ripping down the Petzoldt and died on impact. Perhaps he felt the “need for speed” in the wrong place and paid the ultimate price. We did not take any such chance. The Grand Mogul got away…this time.

We returned 6 months later to climb the Elephantʼs Perch, a magnificent granite wall, further up-canyon, and the shadowy Boyscout still had snow in most of its length! Perhaps it’s a line best skied in corn, we decided. Soft snow is “the goods” for steep skiing, except when its sliding! Weʼd come back some day and trust our edges and whippets rather than climbing in a storm with hanging snowfields above! The agony of defeat was short-lived as we dug into our hut-mates deluxe spaghetti dinner, made from scratch with loads of sausage and fresh veggies. The finest quality boxed red wine washed it down, and we toasted another great, solitary day in the Sawtooths. We didnʼt see another soul in the entire 4 days. A welcome change from our native “Wasangeles” Range!

We boogied out early on our final day to tag the Thumb Line before the long trip home, and it was a sweet finish. Spectacular views over the lakes and valley met our eyes as we kick-turned up the ridge through sparse pines. We de-skinned below the runʼs namesake, a 100ʼ tall granite plug standing guard over a stellar, northeast-facing, 1500ʼ drop. It wasnʼt a death-defying couloir, but weʼd had enough of that. We savored the Idaho champagne, and worked up an appetite for brunch, a hearty mega scramble of a dozen eggs, veggies, cheese, bacon and potatoes. We packed our loads tight, and lashed the now empty sleds and duffels onto them. The Redfish Woods were far easier in reverse, thanks to 4 stone less of gourmet fare, and no sleds. The nearly flat highway ski brought out all manner of independent thinking. Between the 4 of us we variously skated, classic-strided and skinned back to the Salmon River, and our lonely vehicle, by 4 pm. It was a long drive back to Utah, but we relished the glow of accomplishment. Weʼd seen the pinnacled Sawtooths in great ski conditions, claimed an amazing descent of the mighty Heyburn, and brought everyone home as safe and sound as big mountain couloir hunters could hope to be.

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