Backcountry Skiing

Williams Peak | Stanley, Idaho

We roll easily through the winding mountain roads of Idaho. The scenery passes by as we are transported through a winter wonderland in the heated comfort of the jeep. I hold a large cup of coffee in one hand and the other on the steering wheel. Large herds of elk are grazing on the sides of the road. I slow our speed in anticipation that one of these huge amazing animals may decide to cross in front of us. Good conversation on a crisp cold morning and amazing Idaho Scenery. The rolling whitewater of the Southfork of the Payette is deep in the rocky canyon below with steam rising off the water due to the cold air. High cliffs hanging above us shed their loose rock and ice into the barricades along the road. We reminisce about the time before the road was paved, when it was a single lane dirt road winding upward through the mountains. The avalanches that closed the road over Banner Summit have been cleared and the road to Stanley is open this morning. As we pass over Banner Summit we watch the temperature plummet. Negative ten degrees, negative fifteen degrees, negative eighteen degrees, and finally bottom out at negative twenty one degrees. We are in the hole and we roll into Stanley, Idaho with a backdrop of jagged mountain peaks glowing in the early morning sunlight.

temperature guage showing minus 16 ° F
temperature guage showing minus 16 ° F

We have arranged to meet our Guide at the Ranger’s Station just past Stanley. Upon arrival we exit the warmth of the car, the first breath of the frigid mountain air cuts deep into my lungs. The air is clean and clear with a sea of blue sky serrated by the great white peaks that rise above the horizon that are know as the Sawtooth range. Our guide for the trip is Michael Hatch. Upon shaking his hand I am immediately put at ease. Hatch has an easy going attitude combined with eyes of experience and knowledge with the characteristic wrinkles known as crow’s feet that come with spending many days in the outdoors. He wears a well trimmed brown beard and his cheeks are tanned dark brown from continual exposure to the rays of the sun radiating off the snow. Hatch is a native of Idaho. He was raised in Boise, and has been working as a high mountain guide for Sawtooth Mountain Guides for over six years. Hatch and his wife care take a ranch in the basin near Fourth of July Creek. His wife works at the local fish hatchery and they have a new five months old baby girl named Chloe. Hatch will spend over twenty days a month high in the jagged peaks of the frozen Sawtooths away from his family.

Due to the biting cold we pile back into the warm cars and head back to town to go over some logistics of the trip. We stop at the Mountain Village Restaurant and are greeted with the prospect of warm coffee and hot chocolate. We bring our packs in and begin to divvy up food and supplies. Some of the members of our group don’t have as much experience in wilderness winter travel and rent avalanche beacons, shovels and probes from Sawtooth Mountain Guides. My pack weighed in at sixty one pounds when I left the house this morning.

Tad Jones on Skis with Pack | Photo by Jay Stevenor
Tad Jones on Skis with Pack | Photo by Jay Stevenor

I am carrying one breakfast for fourteen people along with gear for a few days in the wilderness. The night before, I cracked thirty four eggs and put them into nalgene containers. I originally worried about them getting too warm, now I am wondering if they might freeze solid. Jay Stevenor offers to carry the eggs, which were one of the heavier items in the meal, and I am grateful to have a couple pounds not attached to my back. We finish shoving all our gear into our packs and drive back to the trail head at the Ranger Station.

Back at the Ranger Station it has warmed considerably. We take a break from our re-packing of gear for a group photo with the Sawtooths as the background.

Group Photo with Sawtooth Mountains in Background
Group Photo with Sawtooth Mountains in Background

We begin shuffling down the plowed forest service road when we realize the members of our group ahead are taking a road in the wrong direction. Hatch yells out to them to “go left” but they can’t hear him. A ranger pulls up beside the group and escorts them to the correct road. The sun is shining brilliantly and the snow crystals glisten all around us. I shed my first layers after only a few hundred yards of touring off the plowed road and onto the Alpine Way Trail.

Sign for the Alpine Way Trail
Sign for the Alpine Way Trail | Photo by Bill Scott

It will be about a six mile tour into the yurts. The terrain is rolling, not steep at all, and we are making our way through a dense forest of lodge pole pine. Within no time we break out of the forest onto a ridge above Fishhook Creek. We have an amazing view up to Mt. Heyburn and Horstmann Peak. We take a little break to re-fuel and hydrate and take a few photos of the scenery.

Tad Jones | View of Sawtooth Mountains Beyond
Tad Jones | View of Sawtooth Mountains Beyond

Back on the trail the pack is feeling a bit heavier and I am wondering if someone sneaked some rocks into my pack while we were taking a break on the ridge. Two of our group, “The Texans”, haven’t shown up yet, so Hatch has gone back for them to make sure they are on the correct trail. I break trail and fall into deep contemplation as I put one ski in front of the other in that lulling rhythmical motion of ski touring. I have to remind myself to look around at the scenery and not look at the tips of my skis working their way up the trail. The sun beats down on the snow, warming it to a point that it starts to clump on our ski skins. Even with all the gear in my heavy pack I have forgotten two important items. My snow scraper and wax for my skins. I curse myself and wonder what else I may have forgotten? I am estimating my time and my pace and thinking that I should be getting close to the yurts. Finally I emerge out of the forest onto an open slope with ski tracks carving down the mountainside above. I must be close. I can see high avalanche terrain above me and flip my beacon on as a precaution, even though the slope seems safe to cross. I ski across the open slope into a small clump of trees and see a string of prayer flags in the trees with the yurts nestled comfortably below the trees. We have made it! I strip off my pack and skis and have a look around.

View of Yurts | Photo by Bill Scott
View of Yurts | Photo by Bill Scott
Brenda and Jay arrive at Yurts | Photo by Bill Scott
Brenda and Jay arrive at Yurts | Photo by Bill Scott

I enter the large yurt first. As I remove my sunglasses it takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust from the brilliant sunlight outside to the dark space within the yurt. A large oculus in the center allows natural light to filter into the space. In the center is an octagonal table with four lodge pole braces rising to the ceiling to support the center of the yurt. The space has a holy feel to it and I feel as if I have walked into a miniature cathedral.

Inside the Main Yurt | A Miniature Cathedral
Inside the Main Yurt | A Miniature Cathedral

The main yurt can sleep nine guests comfortably and has a wood stove for heat and melting water. There are three sets of bunk beds in the yurt. The lower bunks can be folded out to sleep two people. This will become the “couple’s yurt”. The large yurt contains a full kitchen set-up with a three burner propane stove, pots and pans, and cast iron dutch ovens. It also has radios and temperature gauge along with extra yurt booties hanging behind the wood stove. There is an ingenious metal container next to the stove with a spigot for melting water. Keeping a constant supply of drinking water has always proven to be a challenge in high altitude winter environments. At higher altitude it becomes even more important to constantly drink water and re-hydrate. The metal contraption works well to aid in turning snow into drinking water throughout the trip.

Outside the Main Yurt | Photo by Tad Jones
Outside the Main Yurt | Photo by Tad Jones

I move from the large yurt back to the bright light outdoors and then to check out the smaller yurt. The smaller yurt is quickly deemed the “Bachelor Yurt” and I take my spot on top of a large storage box with a combination lock on its lid. The smaller yurt can sleep seven guests.

Bunks in Bachelor Yurt | Photo by Bill Scott
Bunks in Bachelor Yurt | Photo by Bill Scott

The storage box, I will find out later, contains extra supplies and I will be required to keep my gear very organized so that it can be quickly moved when items are needed from within the box. It is higher off the floor than the bottom bunks which makes it difficult to pull myself up onto, but is shorter than the top bunks. I have a tendency to roll around in my sleep I figure if I fall off the platform in the nighttime it may not be too far a fall to break anything. It also affords more room between the sleeping surface and the ceiling of the yurt than the upper bunks.

Storage Box (Tad's Bed) | Photo by Bill Scott
Storage Box (Tad's Bed) | Photo by Bill Scott

In addition to the two yurts there is also a small sauna and an outhouse. The outhouse is a “two-holer”. The view from the outhouse overlooks the White Cloud Mountain Range and makes my top ten list of amazing views from an outhouse.

View of White Cloud Mountains
View of White Cloud Mountains

After getting somewhat settled in we round up a group of people still willing to leave their boots on and get some turns in. There are only four of us and we decide to make an attempt at the Skier Summit on Williams Peak before sunset. Hatch, Myself, JT More and Bill Scott turn our avalanche beacons to the “on” position and strap on our equipment, ski packs, and with climbing skins still attached, we head out into the snow covered landscape.

Hatch, Myself and JT are on telemark equipment. The origins of telemark skiing can be traced back to the country of Norway when hunters would strap skies on their boots to make it easier to track animals and travel swiftly across the frozen landscape. The term “Telemark” originates from the name of a County located in the Southeast tip of Norway named “Telemark”.

Map of Telemark, Norway
Map of Telemark, Norway

Telemark skiing is a type of Nordic skiing where the toe of the boot is the only attachment point to the ski and the heel is unattached. When I first started telemark skiing with my parents in the late 1980’s we used skinny Nordic skis that had been outfitted with metal edges. We used leather boots similar to a very stiff hiking boot with a sole that extended out in front of the boot to create a tab that could be locked down with a metal throw on the binding. Under the tab on a traditional telemark boot are three holes that are spaced in a pattern called the “Nordic Norm”. On a traditional binding there are three pins that fit into these holes to hold the toe of the boot onto the binding and the ski. These pins are the origination of the term “pinhead” which is still used today to describe a telemark skier. Another term for telemark skiing is “free-heel” skiing. A common quote among telemark skiers is, “Free your heel and free your mind”.

The traditional telemark turn is a fluid and graceful turn. As the skier drops into a turn the inside leg drops down and the outside ski remains in a forward position. This stance gives more stability to the skier when the heel is not attached and helps to keep the center of balance between both skies. This stance helps prevent the skier from having the center of balance too far forward and going, “over the handlebars”.

Telemark equipment has come a long way from leather boots and skinny Nordic skis. Today we have plastic boots with a very high cuff that provide support similar to a typical alpine boot. The boots have settings that the skier can switch that provide more movement for hiking and then stiffen the boot for more support while skiing. Some bindings still incorporate the “three pins” but most have eliminated the three pin system and now rely on a spring that encompasses the boot and holds it into the binding. The bindings I am using are produced by Voile USA and have releasable plates so that if enough pressure is exerted on the binding, the plate will separate from the lower binding assembly reducing the risk of a knee injury and allowing the skis to separate from the skier if caught in an avalanche. It allows the skier to more easily “swim” to the top of the moving snow without being weighed down by the skis…so the theory goes…I hope not to test this theory. The skies we use today are much wider and shorter than the original Nordic skis. This allows the skier to “float” on the snow more easily and with a shorter ski it is easier to turn in variable conditions because there is less leverage exerted on the boot & binding due to the shorter lever arm in front and behind the skier.

Technology is always producing new and better equipment. Out of a combination of telemark and alpine equipment has emerged a new system called “Alpine Touring” equipment (or “AT” gear). This gear allows the skier to hike with a free heel and then lock the heel down for the descent using a feet together stance called the “parallel” or “alpine” turn. Some of the members of our group are using AT gear on this trip.

Bill Scott, who has decided to join us on the tour up to skier summit, is utilizing yet another advance in equipment called the “split board”. He has taken a snowboard, cut it in half and then used a system developed by Voile USA to fit the board back together for his downhill descent. For touring, Bill separates the board, places climbing skins on the bottom, and then climbs in a similar fashion as the skiers.

Bill Scott | Splitboarder | Photo by Jay Stevenor
Bill Scott | Splitboarder | Photo by Jay Stevenor

We depart the yurts under the prayer flags with a beacon check to make sure everyone is sending out a signal. We climb and it feels good to get the blood flowing in my legs. We cross many avalanche paths one at a time. The trees in these paths are saplings which indicate an area prone to sliding. Evidence of past slide history is seen in the form of flagging on some of the trees. Flagging is when branches and needles are missing from the uphill side of trees from a constant barrage of sliding snow. We cross an area called “The Bowling Alley”. Hatch informs me that this area slid near the end of December. Traveling in the Sawtooths you are constantly aware that you are in avalanche terrain. The steep granite peaks are constantly in your field of view and we are surrounded by jagged spires and chutes. I am constantly aware that above us could be an obscure wind loaded cornice ready to let loose as we are crossing the run out and deposition zones. We work our way out to the shoulder of Williams Peak and onto another open area named “Jerry Garcia”. I am wonder how it got that name as I feel the snow beneath my feet turn to a hard crust and realize that due to the aspect it is constantly sun baked. Hatch points out the “Silver Saddle” of distant Mt. Heyburn and other various chutes and couloirs visible from our vantage point.

As we near the skier summit the sun is beginning to set behind the Sawtooth range and one of the most amazing visual experiences is about to happen. As the sun sets it casts a shadow of the peaks we are touring on across the valley floor below. I stop my slow trudging up the mountainside to enjoy the experience while it lasts and to snap a photo. Hatch jokes around and waves his ski pole in the air. “Look, you can see my shadow down there” he exclaims. Since I don’t know him well yet, I figure he is either disillusioned from hiking or he is trying to trick me into believing him. I tell him that he may have an issue with scale and I realize that I do feel very small in these mountains.

Mountain Shadow | Photo by Tad Jones
Mountain Shadow | Photo by Tad Jones

I am starting to feel the effects of altitude, exhaustion, and dehydration setting in on my body. I tell JT that I wish I had more red blood cells to transport oxygen to the cells in my muscles. I feel like they are starving of oxygen and I try to take deeper breaths to help my legs put one foot in front of the other.

The shoulder of the mountain has now developed into a cliff on the North side as we gain elevation and work our way up to skier summit. Hatch shuffles out to the edge to look down a chute that he calls “KB’s”. After he is done looking over the edge, I ease out to the edge. I can feel the familiar gravitational pull of the void beyond. My heart races, my palms sweat in my gloves, I get that tingling feeling in my fingers and toes and my mouth gets dry. I ease away from the void.

We arrive at skier summit and I snap photos of all of us that have made the accomplishment.

Mike Hatch at Skier Summit | Williams Peak
Mike Hatch at Skier Summit | Williams Peak
Tad Jones | Skier Summit at Williams Peak | Photo by Mike Hatch
Tad Jones | Skier Summit at Williams Peak | Peak 10084 in Background | Photo by Mike Hatch
JT More | Tad Jones | Skier Summit | Williams Peak | Photo by Mike Hatch
JT More | Tad Jones | Skier Summit | Williams Peak | Photo by Mike Hatch

The tour into the yurt and the fifteen hundred foot climb has taken their toll. Bill joins us at the skier summit and I can tell he is feeling the effects of exhaustion. He takes the last five steps to the summit and kneels down on the snow and I snap a photo of him. He has a sense of euphoria and I warn that he should not go any further by saying, “watch your step up there, that first one is a doozy!”. The void is lurking and I have a slight concern for Bill and his position on the Summit.

Bill Scott at Skier Summit | Williams Peak
Bill Scott at Skier Summit | Williams Peak

Bill changes the placement of his bindings on the splitboard and puts the two halves back together to transform the snowboard into downhill mode. At first I am worried that it may be fairly time intensive to re-attach the two halves of the board, but Bill has practiced the maneuver and is well adept at it. He is ready to go in about the same time as it takes us to remove our skins and change from hiking clothes to warmer downhill clothing.

JT is struggling to remove the skins from his skis. They are new skins and the glue is still very sticky. He looks like a candy maker pulling taffy off his skis as he tries to remove them. They stick together much like large pieces of duct tape. I remove my skins and stretch my legs and get them ready for the downhill. My legs are feeling the hike in to the yurt and the altitude. The lack of oxygen makes my leg muscles feel underpowered. It is the first time I have had my skins off all day and my skis feel fast and slick without them.

We ski one at a time and it feels good to be flying down the mountain with the wind in my face. The shoulder of the mountain has a layer of crust that has developed as the sun has set and allowed the snow to cool and freeze from the earlier thaw. I am careful not to get my weight too far forward. We work our way into a bowl that is more east facing and find soft powder snow. We take a quick break above a steep area and Hatch makes a fast ski cut across the area below us. The snow holds to the mountain. I drop into the steep and make tight turns, jumping out of the turns and falling gracefully into the next turn. The snow is sluffing and passing by me so I loosen my turns and point more downhill to gain some speed and finishing up linking a few larger radius turns and matching the velocity of the sluff to reduce my load on the snow. I feel weightless and as free as a bird. I have a euphoric feeling and am one with the mountain and my surroundings.

We make our way through the trees. Hatch signals us to follow him and it opens into a nice clearing that is a lower angle than the terrain we have been skiing. I link perfect telemark turns and in the dimming light of dusk I feel that I may be in heaven. The White Cloud mountain range is lit a brilliant orange by the setting sun and I am gently floating down the mountain side. I pass under the prayer flags and slide up next to the yurts. Smoke is wafting from the stove pipe and I hear the sounds of conversation and laughter from inside the yurt. I head to the “Bachelor” yurt and change from my ski clothes into more comfortable yurt clothes. The temperature is diving with the sun now gone I pull my feet from my boots, steam rises from the liners. I pull the liners from my boots and the skins from my pack and make my way to the other yurt. I enter the yurt to find it warm and cozy and I am offered a plate of hors d’oeuvres of smoked sausage, cheese and crackers. I have a few of the treats and sit with friends telling them about the run to skier summit and showing them photos on the digital camera.

Jay Stevenor, my friend and organizer of the trip, has carried in awards and party gifts for people and I am awarded a stocking cap for being the first one to hike into the yurt earlier today. I am completely honored. It is a hat that Sue Jurf designed to raise money for one of her friends that is fighting cancer. On the hat is a patch that reads, “Save Barb’s Boobs”. I will wear the hat for the rest of the trip. We have an excellent dinner prepared by Jay and Brenda Stevenor accented with red wine and a salad of mixed greens.

Dinner at the Yurt | Mike Hatch | Sue Jurf | JT More | Photo by Tad Jones
Dinner at the Yurt | Mike Hatch | Sue Jurf | JT More | Photo by Tad Jones

For desert we are presented with an oreo pie and a peanut butter pie with chocolate graham cracker crust. I do like pie. Pie is great!

We sit around the yurt telling stories of the day and past adventures until we are summoned outside. There is a great orange glow on the horizon and after a few seconds a brilliant moon rise above the White Cloud Mountain Range to our East. This is a magical place.

Hatch has stoked the fire in the sauna and part of the group is gearing up to partake, but I am totally beat from the hike in and the skiing from skier’s summit. I opt to retire early. I am asleep before my head hits the pillow. I wake up in the middle of the night to find that my toes are freezing and I have to pee. I get up and put on more clothes. I am now wearing all of my warm clothes that I brought on the trip besides my outer shell and outer ski pants. I go outside the yurt to find calm, crisp, sweet mountain air. The moon is high above and casts a blue hue across the snow. It is so bright that it seems like daylight. Up here, so close to the stars, it seems as if I could reach up and touch them. I make my way down the trail to the pissour and relieve myself looking across the valley below. The entire valley and mountains beyond are lit the moon. I make my way back to the bachelor yurt and while leaving all of my insulating layers on, I climb back into my sleeping bag.

The next morning I wake up to a freezer box. It is well below zero and my breath has frozen to the outside of my sleeping bag around my face. We will later find out that Brenda Stevenor’s eyes watered in the night and her eyelids became frozen shut. I feel like we have awakened in a science fiction film in which we have been frozen for space travel. I glance at my watch. It is 7:00 am. I am in charge of breakfast but am dreading getting out of my sleeping bag and putting my feet into my frozen boots. I lie in my bag for another fifteen minutes procrastinating and falling in and out of sleep. Finally, I find the motivation to make the move. My boots are frigid and I high tail it to the other yurt. It is warm in the main yurt and I start boiling water for coffee. I try to be very quiet so that I don’t wake anyone. People are starting to move around in their bags. Before I know it I am shedding layers. Hatch is up now. He comes into the main yurt and helps me find the tools I need to make breakfast. He also stokes the fire which warms up the yurt even more. Sarah Thomas is my cooking partner. I had originally read her name incorrectly on the cooking partner list. I have only talked with her enough to realize that I have her name wrong and have been calling her Susan. She had corrected me the night before and tried to help me remember by telling me her nickname sounds like a Russian gymnast named “Saravachostovich”...or something to that effect. Sarah was a gymnast for over fourteen years. I try to remember this long Russian name. I don’t, but it works and I remember to call her Sarah for the rest of the trip.

We make breakfast burritos with eggs, bacon, and I cut up fresh fruit for breakfast. I thought we would have extra eggs, but people’s appetites were bigger than I had imagined and we go through all the eggs. JT reminds me that I have two pounds of cheese and I pull out one bag for the burritos. I underestimate the amount of coffee that we use and we end up drinking two large pots of cowboy coffee. Luckily the previous group has left a bag of their coffee, so we pour it in the coffee pot to make the second batch. Fourteen people will drink at least enough coffee to use two full bags of coffee (one and a half pounds).

After breakfast, Sarah and I do the dishes and get things cleaned up. We are short one helper because one of the members of the group wasn’t able to make the trip and she was on our breakfast team. Jay Stevenor steps in and helps us get things cleaned up so that we can join the rest of the group for the day’s adventures.

Our plan is to tour with the snowshoers down to Marshall Lake. We will then split up into groups depending on experience level and hike up into some of the upper Cirques between Williams Peak and 10084. We pack up and strap on skies and showshoes and head up the trail.

On the way down to Marshall Lake the trail switchbacks down a steep slope. I am thinking to myself that it would be bad to fall off the side of the trail. There are some small limbs just on the surface of the trail and I try to stomp snow from the upper slope to cover the limbs, protect our skins, and provide an easier walking path. Sarah Thomas and Dan Charlton are behind me. I cross one of the limbs and look back to see Sarah fall off the trail. She is stuck with her skis crossed and almost hanging upside down from the limb with her pack on. I go below her and Dan grasps her upper arm and together we tilt her back into a standing position on the trail. As we do this her binding releases and is stuck under the limb. At least she is back on the trail. We help her back into her ski and we are back on track. The team regroups at Marshall Lake and JT More shares a bag of Jelly Bellys with everyone. It is only after everyone is chewing away on their candy that he announces that the Jelly Belly’s had been collected off the floor.

The old “Don’s Bagels” trick returns. The last yurt trip, Jay and I got free bagels at the bagel factory by telling them we were going to feed the bagels that had been dropped on the floor to our dog, Don. Don Jeffery was the trip leader and we had all enjoyed the free bagels before telling the other members of the trip how we procured such a treat. It did help to keep the food costs down.

Touring out of Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Tad Jones
Touring out of Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Tad Jones
Touring to the bench above Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Tad Jones
Touring to the bench above Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Tad Jones

We cross Marshall Lake and once we start up the mountain on the other side JT shows the snowshoers how to make a nice snowbench and we leave them behind in our search for more vertical.

Upper Marshall Basin and 10084 | Photo by Bill Scott
Upper Marshall Basin | Photo by Bill Scott
Upper Marshall Basin and Williams Peak | Photo by Bill Scott
Upper Marshall Basin and Williams Peak | Photo by Bill Scott

After the first pitch we get a clear view of the South facing slopes of 10084. The sun has been warming the mountains and heavy snow is avalanching off the mountain as the crust that once held it together is becomes soft in the warm rays. Large slush balls roll to the valley getting larger as they roll down the slope in the same fashion one would make a snowman by rolling a ball around in the yard. Our climbing skins are starting to clump again in the heavy snow. Hatch has a scraper and skin wax and he passes it around for everyone to use.

Bill McKnight | The Reverend | Photo by Bill Scott
Bill McKnight | The Reverend | Photo by Bill Scott
Sue Jurf | Hang'n with the Boys
Sue Jurf | Hang'n with the Boys

We have a quick snack. My wife Karma has placed a bag of beef jerky in my pack and I pull it out and share it with the group.

By this time we are down to just a few members of the team; Mike Hatch, Myself, Bill McKnight, JT More, Sue Jurf, and Bill Scott. We reach upper Marshall Lake with Williams Peak in the background. It is absolutely breathtaking.

Trecking Across Frozen Upper Marshall Lake | Photo by Bill Scott
Trecking Across Frozen Upper Marshall Lake | Photo by Bill Scott

Hatch points out to me where we were at dusk the night before when we ventured up to skier’s summit. He also points out the chute we were looking down. KB’s. It looks just as steep from down below.

Pointing up to KB's and Skier Summit | Williams Peak
Pointing up to KB's and Skier Summit | Williams Peak

From this vantage point we can see a large fracture line where the snow slope meets the rock face. This is North sloping terrain and the entire mountainside has slid leaving the tale tail signs of a large slab avalanche. The deposition zone is covered in debris and large boulders of ice and snow.

Slab Avalanche on North Facing Slope | Williams Peak
Slab Avalanche on North Facing Slope | Williams Peak

We choose a safe path of travel and provide a great deal of space between each climber so that if there is a slide, there is still someone left to rescue the ones that may be buried. On each side of us are reminders that we are deep in the heart of avalanche country. On the South facing slopes we have warming slides and on the North facing slopes we have the large slabs.

Wet Sluff Avalanche | Photo by Bill Scott
Wet Sluff Avalanche | Photo by Bill Scott

Looking around at the landscape makes me feel very small. Towering granite peaks surround me and forces much larger than anything constructed or created by mankind are at work all around me. I feel a humble sense of awe as I look around at the surrounding landscape and feel the energy of the mountains.

We find a nice warm South facing granite area to sit and take a rest and re-fuel and re-hydrate.

Bill Scott | Bill McKnight | Jay Stevenor | JT More | Photo by Tad Jones
Bill Scott | Bill McKnight | Jay Stevenor | JT More | Photo by Tad Jones
Tad Jones| Lunch on Granite | Returning Thumbs Up | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones| Lunch on Granite | Returning Thumbs Up | Photo by Bill Scott

Hatch takes a small break and then heads up onto a South facing slope to dig a snowpit. As Hatch is unloading his pack something falls out and slides down the slope and comes to rest just above where we are. We all see it slide and think that it may be his record keeping book. My legs are feeling like they need some blood to start moving again, and I would like to see the results of the pit so I strap on the skis and head up to the pit. I get to what we think is the record book, and it is a Sam’s Splint. I tuck it into my ski pants and continue up the hill. I reach the snowpit and Hatch is performing a shovel test. The top layer is sheared off about 12 inches down and is so clean that I jokingly ask if he cut it off with his snow saw. He assures me that he did not and that it sheared with no force at all. I get very uncomfortable standing on the slope which I would estimate to be squarely in the most dangerous angle of 37- 38 degrees. He adds some weight using the shovel and another slab shears off easily at about another 15 inches down.

Michael Hatch | Evaluating Snow Conditions
Michael Hatch | Evaluating Snow Conditions

We decide that we have gone high enough and that it may be time for some turns and to look for some lower sloped terrain. We remove climbing skins and feel the slickness of ski bases to snow. The snow has warmed enough that the top layer is creamy and easy to carve. I go first making nice rounded turns down to the rest of the group below us.

Tad Jones | Classic Telemark Turns | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Classic Telemark Turns | Photo by Bill Scott

Hatch follows with more speed and rips less turns so that he exerts less force on the snow below our feet. We reunite with the others and make our way to a more East facing aspect. The snow here is lighter and no crust. We take turns weaving through windblown trees, some of which look to be thousands of years old. Much like the wrinkles on an old man’s face or the tough skin of an elephant, these trees have seen many years come and go and give the sense of wisdom in their age.

We come to a small drop with a steep landing below and Hatch dives off first. I wait for him to gain a location of safety and then I drop off and carve a couple of sweet sensual turns on the steep slope before heading back into the woods.

Sue Jurf | JT More | Tad Jones | Mike Hatch | Bill McKnight | Photo by Jay Stevenor
Sue Jurf | JT More | Tad Jones | Mike Hatch | Bill McKnight | Photo by Jay Stevenor

We emerge out of the woods onto a nice open glade that has a perfect fall line all the way down to lower Marshall Lake. We take turns carving the soft creamy snow. It is my turn and I am building up speed to break out into the open glade when I catch an edge. I see a tree fast approaching and I hold on for as long as I can so that I am clear of the tree before I fall. I can feel the pressure building up on my knee and just as the torquing motion becomes painful; I feel and hear my binding release. Thank goodness for releasable telemark bindings! I fall past the tree and roll, coming to a stop with one ski still attached. I spot my other ski up the hill. Hatch skies down above me, retrieves my ski, and brings it down to me. I laugh at myself for falling and thank Hatch for retrieving my ski.

Tad Jones | Crashing above Lower Williams Lake | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Crashing above Lower Williams Lake | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Back up and Skiing | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Back up and Skiing | Photo by Bill Scott

I get up and make four to five more turns and catch an edge again. I am down, but this time I have both skis, so I go with the flow, roll over, stand up, and am back up skiing. I make some nice rounded telemark turns down to the rest of the group and laugh with them about the falls. I am covered head to toe in snow.

Tad Jones | Covered in Snow | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Covered in Snow | Photo by Bill Scott

Hatch comes down behind me, jumping off the edge of a cliff, makes two high speed long arched telemark turns and speeds by. He dances down the mountain and off a large boulder below. This is his playground and he knows it well. I follow and also launch off the big boulder. The snow is soft and I sink into it on the landing, but hold it together and carve the rest of the way down to the lake below.

Jay Stevenor | Cutting it up | Photo by Bill Scott
Jay Stevenor | Cutting it up | Photo by Bill Scott

Back at Marshall Lake, with hearts pumping oxygen throughout our bodies and breathing heavily from the turns we just made, we ski across the lake and attach our climbing skins for the tour back up to the yurts. We stop at the lake to take some group photos with our ski tracks in the background. It has been a glorious day of Sawtooth skiing.

Group at Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Jay Stevenor
Group at Lower Marshall Lake | Photo by Jay Stevenor

We hike up through the dense forest and emerge back at the prayer flags. We enter the yurt to find the rest of the group happily playing a game of scrabble and enjoying food and drink.

Arriving back at the Yurts
Arriving back at the Yurts
Scrabble Players
Scrabble Players
The Crew on the Deck | Photo by John Freeman
The Crew on the Deck | Photo by John Freeman
John Freeman | Jacki Freeman | Tad Jones | Jay Stevenor | Brenda Stevenor
John Freeman | Jacki Freeman | Tad Jones | Jay Stevenor | Brenda Stevenor

JT More and Sue Jurf are making Yurtaritas tonight. They are similar to Rivaritas or Margaritas, depending on your particular locale. Each person has packed in two beers for the concoction and JT and Sue have packed in the Tequila. Hatch’s job is done for our trip and he will head down the mountain to pick up another group in the morning. He stokes the fire for us one last time and loads trash onto his back and gives us his farewells. He has been an excellent guide. He has a high level of professionalism and his presence and knowledge of the area has made the trip exponentially more enjoyable.

JT and Sue prepare a greek spanakopita for an appetizer and an incredible dinner of Jambalaya. After dinner the sauna is fired up. I put on my bathing suit and head down to the sauna. The sauna provides both a way to relax after a hard day of exertion and a way to cleans your sweat soaked body. The sauna is crowded by the time I get inside and it is amazingly hot. I sit in one of the lower seats to allow my body temperature to adjust to the heat. After I begin to acclimate to the heat it is time to move to one of the upper seats. My core body temperature rises to the point that I feel too hot and I have to exit the sauna. I run out of the sauna and grab handfuls of snow and rub it all over my body. We joke that it is called the “loofah scrub” because the snow crystals feel like they are exfoliating your skin. Because my core temperature is so hot, the cold snow feels invigorating. I head back into the sauna, snow still attached to my skin. When I get back, people are comparing the blisters on their feet. I have a bad one on the arch of my foot, but no ones compare to John Freeman’s blisters. They are the worst I have ever seen. He has one on the inside of each heel and it looks as if they might go all the way to the bone. I cringe at the thought of him walking out tomorrow morning with such tender feet. I take one more dive in the snow and then am done in the Sauna. I get dressed and make my way back to the main yurt. We play games, tell stories, and enjoy great friendship and laughter. Then we have a special surprise. JT and Sue have baked a birthday cake for Brenda Stevenor! JT used the dutch oven and cooked the cake exactly to perfection. Those of you that have cooked in a dutch oven know that it is a fine balance between a gooey middle and a burnt bottom. This cake was text book perfect! We sing Happy Birthday to Brenda and then Sue Jurf slices up the cake and passes the slices around for everyone to enjoy. It was a great treat!

Brenda Stevenor's Birthday Cake | Thanks JT and Sue!
Brenda Stevenor's Birthday Cake | Thanks JT and Sue!

That night we wait for the moonrise that we saw the night before but it doesn’t show up. We joke about the moon being stolen and I mimic a newscaster, explaining that the moon has oddly disappeared. Soon we tire of waiting for the moon and people shuffle off to bed. I stand out on the deck of the yurt for a while looking up at the beautiful clear sky with so many star jewels hanging above me and wish I could stay up here forever. Finally, I also shuffle off to bed; into the frozen “Bachelor Yurt”. Luckily we have realized that inside the storage trunk I have been sleeping upon are a few heavy down sleeping bags. Earlier in the day we had each thrown one of these bags over our sleeping bags. I sleep well under the down sleeping bag. I am warm and cozy and comfortable.

The next morning I awake and make my way to the warm yurt. Bill and Pam McKnight have coffee on and I pour myself a steaming cup of hot coffee. We sit around talking about the day and our adventures and I can tell that everyone wants to stay longer. We plan a short ski above the yurt before the hike out. Bill and Pam make breakfast burritos with chorizo sausage and it is an excellent breakfast that will give us fuel for a nice ski and treck out. Pam has raised the idea of a competition of our breakfast vs. hers. I do not concede as I think that our breakfast is better due to the fresh fruit. Their breakfast is a fine meal and nothing to shake a stick at.

Sue Jurf and I use some of the extra tortillas and cheese and made casadeas for lunch later. Then it is time to get moving. I separate my gear into what I will need for the ski and pack it into my smaller pack. Everything else I pack into my large pack to keep everything organized. Bill Scott stands under the prayer flags with his beacon. We all pass by him to the increasing frequency of beeps. As I slide by I thank him for checking everyone.

Bill Scott | Checking Beacon Operation at the Prayer Flags | Photo by Tad Jones
Bill Scott | Checking Beacon Operation at the Prayer Flags | Photo by Tad Jones

We are on the same skin trail we had made the first night of arriving and it seems fitting that it will be our last skin up the mountain. We cross the “Bowling Alley” and as we are heading out onto Jerry Garcia the snowshoers announce that they would like to turn back. The icy slope is making it difficult for them to maneuver the sidehill. Dan Charlton initially expresses the intent of turning back with the snowshoers, but we talk him into the “Slow Boil”…(a term coined by Sue Jurf on this trip) by telling him that the snow would be much better in a half hour or so and that we aren’t in a hurry. This is all true, but we are definitely “simmering” him up the mountain. We continue up Jerry Garcia and Dan does a great job keeping up with the rest of the group and making his way up the mountain.

Dan Charlton | Removing Climbing Skins for the Ski Down
Dan Charlton | Removing Climbing Skins for the Ski Down

We decide not to go to the top of skier summit since the better snow is down lower. We find the area where we had dropped off to the East the first night and stop hiking here. The wind has picked its velocity so we find a nice place behind some trees to take our climbing skins off and change into warmer clothes for going downhill.

JT More | Prepared for the Ski Down
JT More | Prepared for the Ski Down

We had done a pretty good job of cutting up the powder the other night and off the top we have a difficult time finding untracked powder. I cut way left and find some nice shots of soft snow. We then head into the trees and out onto a nice untracked section of open glade. The open area is a bit to skier’s right of where we had skied the night before. This patch is some of the best skiing we have had all trip and we have timed it just right with the sun. We relished in the simple pleasure of carving nice wide arcs across the landscape. Back under the prayer flags and back to the yurts we express our jubilation with high fives, hand shake, and bear hugs. It is a good day.

As we say our goodbyes to the yurts we look up at our ski tracks. The weather is rolling in and the ski tracks will be gone by morning. A blank chalkboard wiped clean by the eraser of a winter storm rolling in. A blank slate for the next group of incoming skiers. I settle into the rhythmical motion touring back to the trail head with my pack not quite as heavy and my heart and mind a bit lighter as well. Jay and I joke around as he snaps a photo of me taking a photo of him hiking out on the trail.

Tad Jones | Taking a Photo of Jay Stevenor
Tad Jones | Taking a Photo of Jay Stevenor
Jay Stevenor | Taking a Photo of Tad Jones
Jay Stevenor | Taking a Photo of Tad Jones

I pictured myself as a 1950’s ski poster from McCall or Sun Valley or possibly a rendition of a Ward Hooper print and pose in a classic ski position for the camera.

Tad Jones | 1950's Ski Poster
Tad Jones | 1950's Ski Poster

Soon we run into Mike Hatch and Clark Corey coming up the trail with another group. We talk with them briefly and thank Hatch again for a job well done.

I keep my climbing skins on for quite a while to control my speed with the heavy pack. JT, on the other hand, takes his skins off at the first opportunity. I pass him, as he is playing the taffy candy man again; trying to pull his skins off his skis. JT is an incredibly large and strong guy and behind that strength is a lot of weight. I imagine him flying down the narrow trail behind me like a wild locomotive. I ask him to hoot and holler at me when he comes barreling down the trail so that I can quickly move off the trail and out of his way.

I skin for quite a while before I hear him yelling out behind me. I immediately jump out of the trail and stand perfectly still. The one thing I don’t want is to be doing is the dance of “I go this way, you go that way”. JT whizzes by me at breakneck speed. I keep my skins on and decide to wait for Jay and Brenda and check on them. They show up shortly and seem to be doing fine so I tell them that I am going to pick up the pace a bit. I catch up to Sarah and Dan next. Dan says they are feeling a little low on energy and asks if I have any snacks. We are on the ridge above fishhook creek and almost to our first stopping point the first day of our adventure. I have some chocolate covered almonds in my pack and I break them out and all of us eat handfuls of the quick energy. Sarah says she is feeling better. I ski with them for quite some time until we come upon Bill Scott. He is taking photos of people coming by and enjoying the amazing scenery from the ridge.

Sarah Thomas | Dan Charlton | Tad Jones | Photo by Bill Scott
Sarah Thomas | Dan Charlton | Tad Jones | Photo by Bill Scott

I tell Sarah and Dan that I am going to take my skins off and ask if they will be ok. Sarah indicates that she is feeling much better and will take her time on the way down. I peel off my skins and am relieved to feel the slick surface of my bases on the snow again. It is such an invigorating feeling to feel the potential of speed.

Tad Jones | Ridge above Fishhook Creek | Photo by Bill Scott
Tad Jones | Ridge above Fishhook Creek | Photo by Bill Scott

Off I go…down the trail that has become a virtual luge run. This is the way to travel in mountain country. Trees whiz by me and I throw my skis into a snowplow to control my speed. It is an amazing feeling of freedom of travel. I come upon Kevin Frost and see that he is missing the rear attachments for his skins. I have found two attachments up on the trail and have picked them up earlier. He says that he was in fact missing them, so I fish them out of my pack and hand them over to him and he is happy to have them back.

Kevin Frost
Kevin Frost

Before I know it I am passing the sign that says “Alpine Way Trail” and am back on the road. I skate ski back on the road and am surprised at how fast I can skate ski with such a heavy pack. Back at the parking lot I unlock the jeep and in the cooler I have packed some beer. I have been worried that they might freeze and explode, but they are still in tact. I have packed five beers and I hand them out to all the first arrivals and we enjoyed a frosty beverage together while we wait for the others to arrive.

Frosty Beverage | Frozen in Ice Block
Frosty Beverage | Frozen in Ice Block

I also pull out some smoked sausage, crackers, and cheese that I have been carrying in my pack for emergency food. JT slices up the cheese and we have a small feast.

Jacki Freeman has also arrived early at the parking lot and she fires up her Yukon and heads up to the trail to pick up members of the group that are still making there way down the trail. A few minutes later they arrived with the Yukon packed with people and two of them riding on the running boards.

Running Board Transport
Running Board Transport

We share the last of the smoked sausage, crackers and cheese and then head into town. The group from Portland decides to get some more food and drink at the Mountain Village Restaurant. We are concerned about a possible avalanche closure on highway 21 and I want to make it through the elk herds lining the highway before dark so we opt to not eat at the restaurant.

We roll out of Stanley with the Sawtooths as a beautiful backdrop. We talk about new and exciting places to ski as we pass Copper Mountain, Bull Trout, Grandjean junction, and the Blue Jay Trail. There are so many places to explore, so much terrain to ski. It has been a great trip where we met lots of new friends, saw some amazing scenery, had some incredible skiing and a chance to gain some wisdom and insight into this journey we call life. I hope to return back to the mountains soon.

~Tad Jones

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