Season Update: Winter Finally Arrives

Andrew and Gordo on an early season tour near Banner Summit, which received significantly more snow in December than the surrounding areas.

Andrew and Gordo on an early season tour near Banner Summit, which received significantly more snow in December than the surrounding areas.

Although it is halfway through the ski season, winter didn’t arrive until last week. After skiing powder in September (my earliest turns ever), I was ready for winter. Little did I know at the time that there would be a four month wait for any significant snow to fall. Experiencing the warmest fall and driest first-half of the winter since moving to Idaho, it has been a frustrating start to the winter season.

Even by January, we were still hurting for snow.

Even by January, we were still hurting for snow.

The upside to the warm fall weather was that it allowed us to climb later than usual. After recovering from our exhausting trip to the Elephant’s Perch, I spent some time with my brother at the City of Rocks in November. We were hired to produce a short trailer for an upcoming climbing book, and over the course of three cold and snowy days at the City, we were able to get just enough climbing and filming done to make it work. By late November, outdoor rock climbing season was over.

Mill Valley, California.

Mill Valley, California.

After completing our short film project, I drove out to California to visit family for Thanksgiving. As much as I love living in the mountains of Idaho, it’s always nice to spend some time down in the lush, coastal environment of Northern California. With narrow, winding roads shaded by gigantic redwood trees, steep hillsides shrouded in morning fog, and the smell of coastal air, I’ve always found Mill Valley to be quiet and enchanting, especially considering its proximity to San Francisco. But after driving into the city and trying to stop to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge (which involves navigating through the thousands of cars and other people who want to do the same), I was quickly reminded of why I moved to the mountains.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.

Once back in Sun Valley, our ski season was experiencing a “failure to launch”. We aren’t used to a lot of snow here, hence Sun Valley’s ultra-advanced snowmaking system, but this was as bad as it gets. On Christmas day, the surrounding mountains were still nothing but a sea of brown. While the inbounds skiing was decent considering the conditions, the situation became more dire as January set in, and we were still without any significant snowfall.

The sun sets over an unseasonably dry Sun Valley, Idaho.

The sun sets over an unseasonably dry Sun Valley, Idaho.

On a positive note, the non-existent snowpack allowed access to some roadside ice on Trail Creek road, which is usually covered in snow during the winter. With plenty of experience using ice tools and crampons on steep snow but none on water ice, my friend Parker and I headed to Trail Creek to find some ice to climb. We found an easy flow just a few feet from the truck and set up a top rope. It took a climb or two to get the feel of it, and then we were both hooked. Excited to get on some steeper ice, we were bummed when a few weeks of warmer weather halted our plans.

Roadside ice climbing on Trail Creek road.

Roadside ice climbing on Trail Creek road.

A few small storms in January seemed to mostly miss Baldy but filled in the backcountry just enough to start taking out the snowmobile. A new toy for me, it took a few days of getting stuck to finally learn how to turn in powder. After making a tow-line out of a section of old climbing rope, we took our first snowmobile skiing outing. Using one snowmobile to take our crew of three ten miles out a drainage before we started skinning made us realize the potential of the snowmobile to access more remote areas for skiing.

Finally getting my turns down on the sled.

Finally getting my turns down on the sled.

It is now halfway through February and it is the first time it has actually felt like winter. A series of recent storms dropped several feet of snow on Baldy and even more up north. There is snow is town, the trees are skiable, and the big mountains are filled in. The avalanche danger is high, with new snow on top of an unstable base with multiple persistent weak layers creating potentially dangerous conditions. The skiing is great right now, but it’s going to be a while until we can safely get into some bigger terrain. Meanwhile, there are more storms on the way!

Finally back to where I want to be: skiing blower powder on a bluebird backcountry day.

Finally back to where I want to be: skiing blower powder on a bluebird backcountry day.

It's good to know my dog is as happy about the new snow as I am.

It’s good to know my dog is as happy about the new snow as I am.

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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.

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