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.

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.

Turned back again…

Yet another unsuccessful attempt. A few weeks ago, Andrew, Parker, and I attempted to climb and ski what is possibly a new route on the north face of Mt. Breitenbach – Idaho’s 5th highest peak and the 4th highest in the Lost River Range. I’ve been looking at this line for a long time. In the route photo, which is not mine, but from SummitPost.org, you can see the line we wanted to take, although we only made it to the red mark.

After leaving the truck at 445am, which was much too late of a start, we made our way up a somewhat lengthy approach to the snowfields below the wishbone couloir. Things were already starting to heat up. There were old wet slides everywhere and runnels in the couloirs so we decided to leave skis and just go for the climb, and either walk down the other side, or walk down/rappel however far we make it up the route. We made it up the first several hundred feet with no issues, and made it to the base of the two couloirs. The original plan was to climb the looker’s right side couloir, but upon arrival, the left seemed like a more straightforward choice.

We made it about a third of the way up the couloir in a running belay and started to notice more and more small snow and rock debris coming down the couloir. The snow was still solid in the shady couloir but the sunlight outside the walls was hot. Just as we were discussing whether to continue up or retreat based on our late start and lack of clear descent route, a basketball-sized rock came barreling off the cliffs above and landed in the snow about 20 feet behind us, where we had just been climbing through. We decided that rockfall hazard was increasing quickly with the heat and that a fast retreat was probably our best option.

We remained in a sort of swinging running belay as we down climbed, always leaving at least one snow stake in for the steep section until we were out of the couloir, where we then simply walked down through the 1-3 foot deep mushy snow. Exhausted, we napped for an hour or so while listening to the soothing sounds of rockfall on the face. We woke up to the reality that we still had to make it back to the truck. The hike back was somewhat brutal, probably due to the heavy packs with both ski and climbing equipment. Although disappointed we didn’t make it to the top via this route, it was satisfying getting back to camp knowing we had nothing planned for the rest of the day. We hope to return to complete this route, hopefully within a couple of weeks!image_1 image_6 image_5 photo 2 photo 3

Bushwhacking and snow bivying in the Boulders

This was an interesting trip. Having climbed and skied Ryan Peak’s north face last June, we got a great view of the north couloir on its neighboring peak, Kent. This was a low snow year so we thought there was a chance the couloir might not have snow in it. Rather than try to ski it, we decided just to bring gear to climb it if it was doable and walk off the other side to get back.

There was a slight chance of precipitation that night but as Andrew and I were leaving the truck at the far reaches of the North Fork Big Lost River Road, the weather looked nice so we just brought sleeping bags and pads, which is what we usually do when the weather is good.

We began the trail-less trek to the base of Kent Peak’s north face, and after about an hour of slow-speed tree hurdles we made it out of the trees and into the bigger and steeper than expected valley. From here we traversed steep slopes towards the base of the couloir, encountering a mountain goat along the way. Eventually we made it to snow, and tromped our way up to some small patches of rock right below the north couloir, which was disappointingly lacking enough snow for a good climb (and definitely wasn’t skiable!).

Bummed we won’t be climbing but enjoying the view and appreciating the fact that we didn’t have to wake up at 3, we laid our pads on the rocks (no, it wasn’t comfortable) and got into our sleeping bags as we prepared dinner, noticing the wind picking up and clouds moving in. As we went to sleep while it began to lightly snow, we joked about how exposed we were, with no tent, surrounded by snow and rocks, at 10,000′. We laughed and then tightened up our sleeping bags, going into mummy mode.

When I woke up an hour later, there was a mini blizzard outside, with snow blowing sideways all around us. Still warm, and glad this precipitation didn’t arrive in the form of rain, I burrowed back into my bag and tried to get back to sleep on my super comfortable rock mattress. It continued snowing and at one point there was about a half inch of snow on top of everything, including us. Somehow, we stay dry and mostly warm through the night, and woke up to blue skies! The walk out always seems longer than the walk in, but we made it back to the truck in a couple of hours. I can’t wait to come back earlier next year and ski this one.

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Skiing Leatherman Peak

After a couple failed attempts on some more technical lines recently (no thanks to our strange spring snowpack), we decided to keep it mellow for once and just climb and ski something simple. We had been spending a lot of time in the Lost Rivers this spring and so we decided Leatherman Peak was perfect. Leatherman Peak is the 2nd highest peak in Idaho behind Mt. Borah (which we have yet to do in winter/spring conditions), and its Northeast face rises 3000′ above the West Fork of the Pahsimeroi River.

The approach is simple and relatively short. We camped out the night before at the trailhead to Leatherman Pass. The skiing crew consisted of my brother Andrew, Parker Brown, and myself, while Jeremy hung back in camp to take photos.

We woke up at 1230am and had a small breakfast with some black tea. Luckily we woke up early enough to be able to justify groggily stumbling around camp for a little while before we finally hit the trail at 115. Trails are a rare thing for us, and we appreciated this one as we made better than expected time through the forest to the base of Leatherman and the beginning of the snow.

Still in total darkness, we began climbing up steep snow and rock with our headlamps on (only later, on the way back down, did we realize that we took an overly difficult route up this bottom section). I was feeling very strong, and we made good time as we progressed up the climber’s right side of the northeast face. Eventually, we gained the ridge, giving us a breathtaking view of neighboring White Cap peak basking in the golden morning sun. The views from this point on were absolutely spectacular as we watched the sun rise over the mountains and valleys behind us while the desert to the immediate west of the range was still dark in the shadows of the early morning hours.

We continued on in great climbing conditions, without the need for even a single axe, occasionally climbing over small rock sections. At 645, we reached the small summit, excited to be somewhere so cool so early in the morning! With a slight wind, the summit was just a little chilly as the sun’s pace of rising seemed to slow. Because of the size of the range compared to the desert 6000′ below, a tremendous shadow of the mountain projects halfway across the valley below, creating one of the most magnificent vistas I have ever seen.

After taking everything in both mentally and digitally, we started to make a plan for the descent. While the conditions were good for climbing on the way up, there was no freeze the night before, with the low only reaching 45 at the truck. The snow down low was mush even in the dark hours, and although the snow was mostly supportable on the way up, we knew it wouldn’t last long once the sun hit it. Rather than trying to wait to time it just right, we decided to drop right away and get headed back to camp.

The snow was good. We all agreed it was like a slightly icy Baldy groomer, which is better than it sounds. We all skied pretty high-speed almost non-stop, regrouping a couple times on the way down to give each other super stoked high fives. After skiing 3000′ to the meadow below, we put our shoes back on, strapped the skis back to the packs, and hiked slash jogged back to camp, arriving at 10am.

The rest of the day was spent lazing around and recouping, with plenty of hours of napping. At 6pm, Andrew and I woke up and decided we were going to hike back towards Leatherman Pass and try to climb the north face of White Cap peak. We spent a couple hours hiking back toward where we had just came from and then headed west toward Pass Lake, which would be our bivy spot. Upon arrival, after noticing the beauty of the still-frozen lake below the huge peaks in the evening light, we also noticed that all the routes looked very difficult, most being steep couloirs blocked by vertical rock at the bottom. The routes looked hard, especially considering the plan was to climb most of it in the dark. We decided instead to just enjoy the view, sleep in, and then head back to camp. A several minute long period of rockfall during the night, and plenty more in the morning, reassured us that we made the right choice. image_10 image_9 image_8 image_3 image_6 image_7 image_4 image_5 image_4 image_1 image_2 image image_8 image_7 image_6 image_5 image_9 image_2 image image_1

Sierra East Side

The end of May was a fun (and busy) couple of weeks. My brother Andrew and I left Idaho en route to Lake Tahoe, which has been our home for the past 4 years while we attended school at Sierra Nevada College. Now, after finishing classes in December, we were returning to participate in our graduation ceremony! It was a great time – awesome to see friends from school and hang with family while celebrating a pretty big milestone.

We didn’t spend much time at the Lake after graduation, as we headed down to the Bay Area to begin a 3-day, 225 mile bike ride from Sunol to Paso Robles with our Dad. It actually all went smoother than I expected and besides a sore butt after our first (90 mile) day, I felt strong for the entire ride. It was nice to experience via bike a gorgeous part of California that you would not usually see in a car as the route took all back roads.

After the ride, we left the Bay and headed for an old favorite spot – Yosemite’s Tioga Pass. Having just come from graduation and a road bike ride, we weren’t properly prepared for this unplanned stop. With plenty of snow left to play on, we found ourselves wishing we had brought ski and ice gear. Without crampons, there was no way to access most of the alpine rock routes, either. The trip ended up being more of a scenic tour as we enjoyed a sunset on the smooth granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows, camped in the van, and then proceeded back down the pass in the morning, where we then enjoyed views of the beautiful and strange Mono Lake. What looks like a desolate martian landscape is actually home to an extremely productive ecosystem of trillions of brine shrimp, algae, and millions of migratory birds.

With its high deserts, martian lakes, ghost towns, and snowy peaks, California’s Eastern Sierra is one of the most treasured spots in the state.

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City of Rocks

Fed up with the delicate spring snow conditions, we decided to take a few days off and experience a different realm – vertical rock! Having lived in Idaho for 10 years now, I’ve always heard of the City of Rocks but have never been. I used to rock climb when I was much younger and am only now getting back into it as I expand my knowledge and experience of my main interest, which is climbing and skiing in the alpine environment.

It is no wonder that this area was designated as a National Reserve – the City of Rocks is truly magical. While the rocks have nowhere near the height or grandeur of a place like Yosemite Valley, the quality and quantity of routes here will excite any climber or mountain lover. Even for people who like to stay on the ground, City of Rocks provides some of the most beautiful, interesting, and unique views in the whole state.

After staying for a couple days, we realized we did much more hiking than climbing as we tried to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the City. We spent some time top roping a few short and easy 5.9’s, and then spent a full day practicing our leading skills on a 5.6, which was my first lead on rock.

As soon as Saturday rolled around, every camping spot in the Reserve was taken and the popular climbing routes started having lines, so we packed up and headed out! Although I’ve heard about the scorching summer heat at the City, I will definitely be back here soon!image photo 3 photo 2 image_4 photo 1 image_6 image_5photo 5image_3 image_2 image_7 photo 4image_1

Attempt on Summit Creek Peak

After scoping some cool lines in the vicinity of the Trail Creek road during our last trip over the pass, we decided to make an attempt on Summit Creek peak via a steep, semi-technical climbing route followed by a mellow ski descent back down (on the route picture, red is up; green is down).

The day before the attempt, we headed off from the van in the late afternoon with very heavy packs filled with plenty of climbing and ski gear. We made it to (very mushy) snow within 30 minutes and skinned for another 2 hours or so to reach camp at about 8400′ in the basin below Summit Creek peak. Luckily we found some freshly melted out ground for the tent, which we promptly set up and crawled into after a quick dinner.

When our alarm went off at 4am we quickly fired up the stove to heat some water for our oatmeal, which we quickly consumed before hitting the snow. At 430am the snow felt good and hard near camp – things were looking good!

However, not 30 minutes later as we headed up a steeper slope into the higher basin did things begin to change. As we got on to the deeper snowpack, we realized only the top 4 inches or so was frozen solid – a result of the slow transformation process (no thanks to the recent high nighttime lows) of our layered, faceted winter snowpack into a solid spring/summer snowpack. While skinning we began to collapse through this top layer and found ourselves swimming in feet of sugar – hardly the type of snow we were looking for to climb a near 50 degree snow line.

Conditions continued to deteriorate to the point where we could make almost no upward progress through the snow. With the sun shining bright and beginning to heat things up, we decided to abort. We clicked into our bindings and skied carefully back to the tent.

Wanting to make the most of our failed mission, we decided to practice our roped climbing and anchor skills by climbing a short couloir near camp. After that, we packed up and skied one of the most unenjoyable sections of snow back towards the car. 55+ pound packs and skiing through pine bough covered snow with patches of dirt every couple hundred feet is no fun. After a rough final stream crossing, we finally made it back to the van!


May 1 – Trail Creek Road Open!

One of my favorite times of the year in Sun Valley is late Spring. The temps are increasing, the winter snowpack is turning to corn, and the dirt roads start opening! Thanks to an unusually low snowpack this year, Trail Creek road (which heads Northeast from Sun Valley toward Mackay) opened earlier than usual, providing early access to one of our favorite ski and climbing playgrounds. On May 1st, my buddy Jeremy (jeremylato.com) and I made the first voyage of the season over the pass to check out how the goods were looking!


Skiing the Sickle Couloir

This Wednesday, Irie extraordinaire Danny Walton, Parker Brown, and I headed out from Redfish Lake to the Fishhook Yurt (courtesy of Sun Valley Trekking) in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains for a successful attempt at an Idaho Classic: The Sickle Couloir on Horstmann Peak (10,475′).

Thursday morning, after skinning a few miles while gaining some 2000 vertical feet, we arrived in Horstmann Peak’s awe-inspiring northeast cirque where we were granted gorgeous views all around and a look at our final objective. We skinned as high as we could, then pulled out the tools and began the 1000+ foot climb to the top of the couloir.

Conditions were excellent: 8-10″ of dense spring powder with a supportable layer underneath. We kept a steady pace and were 3/4’s of the way to the top when we heard a “3-2-1 dropping” from above. A group of 5 from Jackson had come up from the other side and dropped in on our untracked line. Oh well. They beat us to it – we should have been up earlier!

After waiting for the group to pass we continued up the last couple hundred feet to the top. This section constricts quite a bit and gets very steep – around 55 degrees. The group that scraped off a lot of the fresh snow actually provided us with perfect climbing conditions to get to the top of this very steep section. A little behind schedule, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the top, and after some water and a snack, promptly clicked into our bindings, buckled our boots, and dropped in on one of steepest lines I’ve skied.

The pucker factor was high – the first few hundred feet consisted of controlled hop-turn slip, hop-turn slip, hop-turn slip. You don’t want to take a fall up here. Once we were through the crux, we opened it up and enjoyed blower powder all the way to the bottom of the cirque.

After another short break to catch our breath, we wasted no time skiing down to the yurt to quickly pack our gear and head back to the trailhead via a mostly flat, half-melted skin track. It had been a 9 mile, 11 hour day by the time we got back to the van. The waiting IPAs were a very welcomed treat. photo 2photo 3photo 7photo 1photo 8photo 5photo 4photo 6