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Give Me Shelter: 2003 Backcountry Guide

Features
posted: 08/20/2003
Your Own Private Idaho

Williams Peak doesn't look hospitable in the winter. Gaze up at it from the Sawtooth Valley floor and you'll see vertical rock-some of it well beyond vertical-and steep couloirs and headwalls marked with the broken icy blocks of avalanches. Its summit is 4,000 feet above you, and even though the crystalline air makes it look only a few miles away, it's a hard day's climb just to reach its lower slopes, especially on skis.

We-my students, Chris, Caitlin, Luke, Jeremy, and me, the professor-have the Williams Peak yurts to ourselves. It's an early April morning, but there's still a solid seven-foot snowpack with a few new inches on top. A blue thread of woodsmoke wisps from the chimney. We've slept in, dawdled over coffee. A walloping spring sun is threatening to turn the accumulation to a sticky mess, but by the time we work our way to the top of Thompson Peak, the tallest in the range at 10,776 feet, the snow will have melted into perfection: two inches of evenly textured corn on a lunch-tray base. In the meantime, we have 3,000 vertical feet of uphill ahead of us.

Yesterday, we skied in a mellow six miles from the Stanley ranger station. On the shoulder of Williams, the stale tracks of telemark skiers led to the yurts, and a sauna, and warm bunks. The tents are canvas-walled, wood-floored, each with a stove and winter's supply of kindling. Together, they can sleep 12, or 15 if everyone's extra friendly. Inside the main tent, bunks are spread out in a half-circle around a long dining table. The kitchen-wood stove, propane burners, cook's table-sits opposite them. Some skiers haul in elaborate ingredients for international menus, but we've gone cafeteria: Tuna surprise. Chile 'n' mac. Franks 'n' beans.

I've been here before, but my students are scaling Thompson for the first time. It's part reunion, part final exam, part reward. I taught them to tele on gentle slopes during last winter's Albertson College expedition in Stanley, when they weren't in biology classes. Now and then, I'd look up at the two highest points on the horizon and tell them, "If you get good at this, we'll ski that." They got good.

After early-winter storms, the yurts get buried in drifts, but you can find them by catching the glint of a skylight in the sun. If you want to ski the Sawtooths the easy way (no long traverses, no winter camping), it's the only way, and if it's not always effortless, it's always worth it.

When the conditions are right-like this late spring day, when the snow has stabilized-it's possible to ski from the yurt into the broad valley between Thompson and Williams. You can use ropes to clamber up chutes on either flank or just ski the big milky bowl between them. The jumbo talus slope that leads off the west side of Thompson is usually too rocky to ski until you get a hundred yards down. Williams is more consistently covered, with a 45-degree slope from the summit. Most people opt for days of laps on the moderate-angle slope right above the yurts, where an hour's climb will earn you 1,500 vertical feet of deep-powder skiing spread over a gradually widening 50-acre triangle that seldom gets skied out between storms. It's an area of rolls and knolls, rocky hoodoos, sudden drop-offs, and easy runouts, all on a southeast-facing aspect-which in very practical terms means that the results of a Rutschblock test can be extrapolated. If the block is stable, grab your beacon and go skiing.

But we're here to summit Thompson. We traverse into the valley that divides the two peaks, but we're distracted by a steep couloir below us. We look up to the peak, then down, and choose to surf 500 feet of raspy corn to a small lake at the bottom of a canyon.

Our climb is going to be longer now, but the descent was worth it. Above us, the canyon broadens into a huge bowl full of short steeps and long runouts. It's a corn-snow playground, roughened here and there by the brooken blocks of old avalanches running out of chutes. We resist the temptation for another plunge and pass it by.

An hour later, I'm at the headwall between the peaks, kicking a trail into the steep, south-facing slope that rises above it to the right. Vertical rock drops precipitously to the left. My students move confidently.

Caitlin, who weighs about 98 pounds, is fearless. "I have to be," she tells me. "I'm the girl."

I'm trying to trust my own teaching.

Another hour, and we're sitting in a melted-out meadow at the top of the snowfield that reaches up the west side of Thompson. Luke and Jeremy leave their skis and begin hiking the 400 feet of talus above us. Chris, Caitlin, and I lie in the sun and watch. I've been up there. Chris and Caitlin will save the summit for a summer day-they're here to ski. A few minutes later, Luke and Jeremy return. They're the first to summit this year, they report, triumphant. It's been a year of shifting, unstable snowpack; the Sawtooth Mountain guides occasionally lead people here in January and February, but the conditions weren't safe enough this season. Until now.

Skis back on, we find a thin shelf of snow that leads from the headwall to the slopes below. It's getting late in the day. The sun has lost its force. A cold wind is coming down off the peaks, freezing the top quarter inch of the snow. Our telemark turns crackle and pop and produce sprays of diamond shards. It takes just minutes to reach the shoulder, and then it's a quick hundred yards down to the woodsmoke wisping above the yurt. We gather around the stove, sitting on the bunks with cups of hot tea in our hands, scanning the day's pictures stored in Jeremy's camera.

Chris, Caitlin, and I reminisce about the wonder of sitting in a green meadow in the midst of a snowfield, napping at the top of the world.

"It wasn't the top," says Luke.

"Whatever," we say.

It hardly matters, when you're back safe in a yurt, warm in a world marked by rocks, snow, and ice. And the promise of another Sawtooth morning right out the front door.

MUST-KNOW

1) Bring a blankie. Temperatures vary inside the yurts, depending on who's tending the wood stove and whether there's a snow squall outside.
2) Stop by the liquor store and pick up an assortment of cute little sample bottles. Stuff them in the crannies of your pack.
3) When you enter the yurt, claim one of the bottom bunks near the stove so you get the toasty spot before it gets too crowded.
4) Pack a book-many huts and yurts have dog-eared libraries, but these don't.

THE DIRT
The Williams Peak yurts are part of the Sawtooth Hut System, operated in conjunction with Sun Valley Trekking. The owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Kirk Bachman, and his guides have skied the Sawtooths for decades. Experienced skiers can rent the yurts without a guide if the group leader has a Level 1 avy credential, but otherwise, they require guiding.
Damage: The yurts alone go for $30 a person, with an eight-person minimum.
Guiding: Fully guided tours, with meals included, are $150 per person per day with a three-person minimum; private tours (1-2 people) are $350-$400 per day.
Info: 208-774-3324, sawtoothguides.com

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