Powder, Corn and Champagne- A Sawtooth Ski Traverse



Question: What is the Monolith, also known as the Rotten Monolith?

Answer: It is a cone of “unbelievably rotten” granitic rock similar to compressed kitty litter located in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. According to Louis Stur’s 1962 first ascent description with Fred Beckey in the American Alpine Journal, the (Rotten) Monolith “presents a formidable impression from the east. The tower from this side shows its entire unscarred, vertical altitude of at least 500 feet, smooth, perpendicular and holdless all the way”.  The first ascent eschewed the “holdless” face and took a 150-foot route up the backside. Our mountain guides told me that Beckey deemed the East face unclimbable and it allegedly remains unclimbed to this day.


The Monolith is the distinguishing feature at the head of the cleverly named Monolith Basin. That Basin was our objective this past spring on a backcountry ski trip guided by Sun Valley Trekking for four nights, the first and last in yurts, the middle two nights snowcamping at treeline. We hoped for powder, corn, and perhaps an ascent of the highest peak in the Sawtooths (Sawteeth?), Thompson Peak, and some old-fashioned fun. Mostly we hoped to survive in good style and get in some decent turns.


I’m not sure how I let myself get talked into this one – snowcamping in April in Megamids, the uber light Black Diamond floorless “tent”? I had not slept in the snow for almost 20 years. Twenty comfortable years of down pillows and flannel sheets. And 20 years ago we used expedition tents for snowcamping, not an oversized sandwich baggie supported by one centerpole. Somehow it sounded fun.


We set out from a muddy trailhead at Redfish Lake at midday with light but bulky backpacks; we being four Utahns (Paul, Gary, Eric and myself), two newlyweds from Ketchum (Lori and Scott) – and three guides (Patrick, Kyle and Sam). All the guides are alumni of Johnson State College in Vermont, a vexing coincidence until we realized that the owner of Sun Valley Trekking had also gone there. Our guides are all exceptionally strong skiers owing to years of honing their skill on the finest blue ice New England can offer.


We slowly ascended a ridge paralleling Redfish Lake with excellent views of the lake and after a few miles we veered north and quickly arrived at the first nights lodging, Bench Hut.  A reconnaissance mission was undertaken and we quickly discovered that the snow was neither corn nor powder nor consolidated. We retreated after taking a good look at the route for the following day across Bench Lake.


Back at the Bench Hut we were surprised to see that Sun Valley Trekking had stocked the hut with a bottle of 1985 Dom Perignon Brut Champagne – the real deal. The newlyweds quickly claimed it explaining that it was a wedding gift and that they had asked that it be portered to the hut for the last night, not the first. It was not to be opened until the last night. Apparently it was going to make the trip with us until the last night, god willing.


To the relief of the guides, the first night’s temperatures dropped enough for a mostly solid refreeze. The next day brought sparkling sunny weather and we quickly departed to ascend the pass over to Monolith Basin. The challenging pass is on a shoulder of  the iconic Mount Heyburn. We were rewarded with our first expansive views into the heart of the Sawtooths and the Monolith. Until that point we had been looking at the foothills and the eastern edge of the range. The area has a distinct resemblance to Chamonix due to the many sharp rock pinnacles, auguilles in French, the largest of which is the Monolith. The spectacular granite range has an abundance of perfectly skiable couloirs, often splitting large rock faces. Our efforts had delivered us to backcountry touring heaven. We listened spellbound when the guides described a 10-day high route along the spine of the Sawtooth Range that they guide when conditions allow.


Camp was established at 9,000 feet on a moraine in Monolith Basin surrounded by limitless opportunities for ski descents. Setting up Megamids had a puzzle-like quality to us novices. A quick tutorial by the guides combined with sun-softened, pliable snow and voila, instant shelter. Surprisingly the sturdy looking Megamids appeared ready for the elements, but hopefully not all the elements. We did a quick skin up to Coyote Pass at the head of Monolith Basin.


Coyote Pass is an unofficial guide name due to an auguille that in profile looked like a coyote howling. One of the Utahns, Eric, pulled out his smart phone and picked up a connection from Stanley, roughly 20 miles away. Eric is a website developer for several companies that care not where he is provided that he is readily accessible should problems arise with their website. The upside of Eric’s connectivity was a current weather forecast calling for perfect weather the following day and a brushby storm the following day.


We schussed back to camp on a north-facing palette of soft settled powder. Turning was enjoyable since we were no longer carrying multiday backpacks. The sun descended behind the Monolith and the temperature dropped rapidly as cold air pooled in the basin where we camped. The clear night allowed any vestige of daytime warmth to dissipate into the star-filled sky. It quickly became apparent that not all group members were equally outfitted for high altitude winter nights. I had puffy pants and two puffy jackets, having learned the hard way about chilly nights in the mountains. One of the newlyweds, Scott, had several jackets, but they looked to be bike-racing attire made for cutting the wind, not standing around watching your breath freeze. I offered him one of my puffy jackets and he declined, then he looked at me wallowing in warmth and accepted my offer.


I was concerned that the champagne would freeze. So Dom Perignon spent the night with me safe inside a sleeping bag stuff sack surrounded by puffies, doubling as a pillow. It passed the night intact. The Megamids performed flawlessly during the perfectly calm clear night. Our breathing during the night created a layer of ice crystals inside the tent and we did as little as possible to dislodge them. It was a perfect spring morning pregnant with the promise of corn skiing. But first we needed to absorb some warm sunshine to shake the early chill and we waited, patiently at first, then not so patiently as the sun rose behind a ridge and finally crested it, bathing us in golden light. The youngest guide, Sam, had a spell of severely cold toes. Patrick, the lead guide, understood the gravity of the situation and allowed Sam to warm his feet on Patrick’s stomach.


We quickly got moving and followed our skin track from the prior day to Coyote Pass. The promise of the early morning was fulfilled. We covered a lot of ground, climbing peaks, exploring couloirs and skiing corn in the sunshine and powder in the shade. The last run back to camp was an exposed descent off Braxon Peak down an aesthetic chute named the Birdcage. The overall disposition at camp that night was of contentment derived from a day of satisfying exploration and exercise. We retired to the Megamids that night aware that the forecast was for a fast hitting storm to arrive during the night.


And arrive it did. The winds ramped up and roared into Monolith Basin and spared us none on our exposed ridge. It battered the single pole Megamids from several directions. Spindrift found its way into the tents through countless tiny openings and it tingled upon contact with any exposed skin, especially the tip of my nose as it protruded from my sleeping bag. The walls we had built to hold the base of the tents down contradicted our intentions and instead allowed the snow to accumulate on the lee side of the walls. The Megamids sagged into our sleeping space that we had dug down into the snow. It was a night of little sleep, but the Megamids held.


In the morning we extricated ourselves from our snowy hovels. It had snowed around 10 inches, not much by Wasatch standards but plenty when snowcamping. The deadman anchors succeeded in holding the tents during the night, but breaking camp required ice axes to dig the frozen anchors out. It was a chilly morning combined with loud gusts of wind and blasts of snow that made breakfast preparation impossible.


We made our way down canyon by contouring on one side of the drainage. Occasionally we had to put on skins and climb around cliff bands to avoid getting lured into a narrow ravine emptying the drainage. After a few miles the contouring ended when we skied open glades down to a broad valley floor. We found ourselves in a dense wilderness of tangled trees, deadfall and underbrush. The guides called this section “The Jungle” and warned us to leave our skins on as it would give us greater mobility. It was crazy how thick the mossy pine trees became. After what seemed hours we pulled into an opening, skied over a deep stream across a foot-wide snowbridge and soon came to the Fishhook Hut. Unlike the Bench Hut, which is a roomy rectangle hut with lots of light, the Fishhook Hut is a classic yurt, round with one door and a circular skylight in the center.


We quickly got a fire heating the place, had a late breakfast and early lunch rolled into one nonstop eating session. I pulled out the well chilled but intact 1985 Dom Perignon and we marveled at its survival. It was 28 years old, but the last three days had challenged its constitution unlike any others. I had babied it like a Faberge Egg and the proof was right before us. We gathered eight glasses, popped the cork and poured equal shares. The flavor was outstanding, subtly effervescent and not too dry or sweet. It was so different in a pleasant way from every glass of “champagne/sparkling white wine” I had ever tasted. It was as Dom Perignon himself famously said after his first taste of champagne “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.” Then it was gone.


The next day Scott and Lori headed back towards Redfish Lake with Sam and we set off with the two remaining guides, Patrick and Kyle for Mount Thompson, the highest peak in the Sawtooths at 10,751’. It is an impressive piece of rock that requires a good bit of effort to ascend. We passed several areas similar to Cardiac Ridge that tempted us with long flawless runs but we remained intent on the summit. The Sawtooths sparkled all around us with a coat of fresh snow beneath a sapphire sky. The final 500’ to the summit required ice axes and whippets up an exposed ridge to a summit couloir. Most of the loose rock was welded together by snow and ice providing us with solid footing. The views off the top were exceptional in every direction, especially since the storm had scrubbed the atmosphere rewarding us with fantastic clarity.


We did a body rappel off the summit on a line set by Patrick. The chance of taking of spill was relatively low but the consequences were high due to proximity to a steep dropoff. We enjoyed a long ski descent as we circumnavigated Mount Thompson through wide-open bowls and pristine slopes. But soon enough we found ourselves back in the woodland thickets of The Jungle. This time through we managed to encounter a gully, escaped only by wallowing chest deep up a short incline before we located our skin track from the prior day.


We returned to the yurt, reloaded our packs and set out the final miles to the trailhead. The snow grew scarce as we descended and often we took off our skis and walked. The final insult came at a creek crossing across logs done impatiently with skis on as it was deemed easier than to take them off again. It was disaster narrowly averted as Gary slid backwards on the logs towards the creek but got hung up just inches from the deep stream and was quickly extricated by other members. The last quarter mile to the trailhead we skied on a swath of snow two feet wide. Sam had returned with a half case of beer to the muddy trailhead after dropping off the newlyweds in Ketchum. We enjoyed the tasty brews as we watched the sun set behind the jagged skyline of the Sawtooths. The beers signaled the end of the trip, but they also stimulated our collective desire for crispy french fries and we set out immediately for Ketchum.


Sun Valley Trekking in Hailey, ID operates several huts and yurts in Central Idaho, and offers guide service as well. Go to www.svtrek.com for more info.

One Response to “Powder, Corn and Champagne- A Sawtooth Ski Traverse”

  1. I enjoyed the story “Powder, corn and champagne by Ron Peniner. I hope to do a Saw Tooth range sk trip
    one day with you folks! Thanks!

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