Let the season begin: Early season skiing in Idaho’s Pioneer mountains

Yesterday, my brother and I beat our previous record for first ski day of the season by 5 days. Having last skied in June, it’s nice to be back on snow after only 3 months off. Although, to be honest, we were enjoying the summer weather just fine, and still had some alpine climbing to be done. That being said, there’s never a bad time to ski powder.

Phi Kappa Peak is a 10,516′ mountain located in the Pioneer mountains of Idaho. For years it has been my go-to spot for early season skiing. Starting 9 years ago, I discovered that you can take an old mining road literally to the base of the mountain. About halfway up its North face, there is a wide gully whose surface is very fine scree. This gully’s position on the mountain, combined with its smooth surface, means it can snow a minimal amount and still fill in nicely, with no large rocks underneath. This creates the perfect environment for early season skiing, and yesterday was no exception.

Usually we just boot-pack up this line, but this time we were able to skin up to a couple hundred feet below the summit, where we then dropped our gear and scrambled to the top. The scenery from the summit is unreal – a 360 degree view of the entire Pioneer range, with the Lost Rivers and Boulders looming in the distance. The summit provides one of the best views of my favorite mountain in the range – the Devil’s Bedstead.

After we down-climbed and were back at our gear, I had to make a second run up to the summit when I realized I had left my helmet on top. After a quick up-and-down, we put on our skis and  began the descent. We had never skied from this high on the mountain before. The first few hundred feet weren’t great as we carefully navigated rocks and wind slabs. Once we worked our way down to the magic gully, it was game on. My brother and I took turns shredding and photographing each other. The conditions were as good as they can get for early season, and we yelled out in joy as we linked several perfect powder turns. As I like to do in moments like these, we took a minute to look around, appreciate the immense beauty surrounding us, and be thankful for how blessed we are to be able to do what we do.

Below the gully, things got a little interesting as the terrain consisted of 10″ of snow on rocks. Surprisingly, we were able to carefully zig-zag ski through this section without too much trouble, never having to remove our skis until we made it down the road and back to the van. We quickly threw in our gear, changed, and cranked on the heater. A few minutes down the road, our mellow was a little harshed when we discovered the van had a flat tire. We hopped out, jacked up the van, threw on the spare, and fifteen minutes later we were back on the road, heading directly for beer and chicken wings.

As you can see, the snow was excellent.

As you can see, the snow was excellent.

We stopped a little bit short of the end of the road when things started getting deeper.

We stopped the van a little bit short of the end of the road when things started getting deeper. From here, we skinned.

Andrew skins along the road to the Base of Phi Kappa.

Andrew skins along the road to the Base of Phi Kappa.

Starting to get higher on the mountain.

Starting to get higher on the mountain.

We skinned a little bit further than this and then ditched some gear before hitting the summit.

We skinned a little bit further than this and then ditched some gear before hitting the summit.

Andrew on the summit. The Devil's Bedstead provides a perfect backdrop.

Andrew on the summit. The Devil’s Bedstead provides a perfect backdrop.

Just enjoying myself in one of my favorite spots.

Just enjoying myself in one of my favorite spots.

Andrew down-climbs from the summit.

Andrew down-climbs from the summit.

Taking in the scenery before I begin the descent.

Taking in the scenery before I begin the descent.

The slow and shallow upper half of the descent.

The slow and shallow upper half of the descent.

And the fun begins.

And the fun begins.

I still can't believe we got this good of snow in September.

I still can’t believe we got this good of snow in September.

20" of snow on smooth shale equals smooth sailing.

20″ of snow on smooth shale equals smooth sailing.

Its always fun to look up and admire your shred marks.

Its always fun to look up and admire your shred marks.

If skiing is art, this is the canvas.

If skiing is art, this is the canvas.

What a phenomenal day.

What a phenomenal day.

Driving home satisfied.

Driving home satisfied.

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Idaho Alpine: Climbing ‘Sky Pilot’ (5.8 III) on Peak 11,280′ in the Pioneer Range

Yesterday, my brother and I completed our first big alpine rock climb: ‘Sky Pilot’ on Peak 11,280. Located Northeast of Sun Valley in the Pioneer mountains, Sky Pilot follows a prominent arête up the towering north side of the unnamed mountain. Since seeing a picture of the 2000 foot rock face earlier this summer, I wanted to climb it.

As soon as we decided we were ready for the climb, the massive Beaver Creek fire started nearby and for weeks we were unable to do much outdoors due to the smoke. Once the smoke cleared, our only concern was thunderstorms. A few days ago, upon seeing a forecast for calm winds and blue skies for the coming weekend, we decided to go for it. With minimal beta other than “follow the arête”, we headed out with a little too much gear and drove to the “trailhead”.

The route is fairly straightforward. Starting at the old Wildhorse mine, the approach begins by climbing off trail for 1000 feet to reach an upper basin. Another mile or so of easier terrain leads to the base of the North face of Peak 11,280.

There are multiple options for gaining the arête. We followed the obvious left-facing couloir (which was snow-free) about halfway up and started climbing from there. We found this first move to be one of the more difficult on the climb, and ran out almost an entire pitch on one cam, although it was easy fifth class other than one 5.7 move right off the bat. I’m sure an easier option existed.

The route is beautiful. The exposure once on the arête is captivating. Throughout most of the route, the rock was good quality, and protection was easy to find and place. As expected on any alpine climb, loose blocks were encountered, but the route was stable for the most part.

We ended up pitching it out only for about 7 pitches; the rest we short-roped or simul-climbed. There were several 5.6 sections, all of which protected nicely and have very fun moves with great exposure. Low fifth class and fourth class terrain connected the steeper pitches. There are great belay ledges the entire way, many with a large, safe horn or boulder to sling for a belay.

Gear wise, we were over-equipped. We brought a lightweight single rope, 13 cams, 4 hexes, 7 nuts, and plenty of slings and webbing. Cams were the most frequently used pro, mostly in the 1″ range. Nuts and hexes were used, although I would leave my big sizes of hexes and cams at home next time. Several cams in the 1″ range, a hex or two, and a couple nuts would be more than enough gear. We never placed more than 3-4 pieces per pitch.

The climb itself took 6 hours, including a lunch break. It could be done faster, but we enjoyed ourselves and took our time. The approach took about 2 hours. After summiting, we descended the south side, followed the steep basin down to the creek (which we quickly bathed in while crossing), and then followed the road back to our car for a round trip of 11 hours. It was a long, fun day. We have our eyes on some other alpine routes, but I would love to be back on this one before the snow flies.

Peak 11,280’s North Face. Sky Pilot follows the prominent arête.

My brother Andrew enjoying a nice lead on mellow 5th class about 3/4 of the way up.

If you look closely you can see Andrew!

Yours truly enjoying the exposure.

Andrew flashes a peace sign as we near the summit.

Andrew looking pretty decked out in all his gear.

This 5.6 pitch on the upper part of the climb was probably the best!

Here I am just taking it all in. Feeling lucky and blessed.

Celebrating our accomplishment!

Peak 11,280 casting a giant shadow on the valley below.

Andrew enjoying his surroundings on the descent.

On the descent we were provided with this awesome view of Goat peak’s impressive NE ridge. This route may have been climbed in the 70’s, but I am not sure. Anybody have more info?

This view of Old Hyndman’s North face is truly spectacular. I LOVE the Wildhorse creek drainage.

Our route in red.