Your Own Private Idaho

Sun Valley Backcountry
Page 7 of 7   |  
Skiing, Snowboarding in Idaho, Sun Valley
With terrain like this, lift tickets become a thing of the past: The Sun Valley backcountry. (Tim Neville)
How I Came to Know and Love the Backcountry
Long to join Tim in the backcountry wilderness far from the long lines and misguided daredevils tearing up your favorite slopes? Check out our guide to backcountry skiing.

Near the end of the trip we drive out past Sun Valley toward Galena Pass. I look up to the right and notice several sets of ski tracks running like braids down the side of a large hill. Runs at the resort are immaculate, long, and scenic, but the backcountry terrain around Ketchum dwarfs the resort if you’re willing to earn your turns by hiking into the mountains.

We’ve met up with Francie St. Onge, a spunky guide with Sun Valley Trekking, who’s going to show us the way to one of the company’s five huts deep in the backcountry. She’s picked the Tornak Hut for us, based at 8,400 feet in the Smokey Mountains, because the hut has an impressive array of ski areas around it. There we plan to spend the night and explore the area on skis in absolute solitude. Hopefully we’ll be making turns like the ones I spotted on that hill in just a few short hours.

We place skins on the bottom of our skis (two of us are on telemark skis, Heidi has a randonée binding on alpine skis). Like cat hair, skins are smooth one way and rough the other. They allow us to walk uphill in our skis and make the going much faster. It’s a steep climb out of the trailhead, but after a mile or so the terrain levels off to a more gradual climb. It takes us about three hours to cover the four miles and 1,400 vertical feet up to the hut.

Tornak is palatial. The hut is a simple structure made of a wooden frame draped with plastic walls. Inside we find a beefy Vermont woodstove that cranks out the heat within a matter of minutes of firing it up. There’s a table, bunks to sleep 14, games like Scrabble (“THONGS” for triple word score, baby!), a sink, large pots for melting snow—there is no running water—gas lamps, and all the wood you could ever need to keep warm. Best of all, there’s a wood-fired sauna and an open-air-but-private outhouse with a foam seat that’s eerily warm every time I check. All around is nothing but big, white snowcapped peaks and silence.

Most of the people who come to these huts do so on their own—that is, without a guide. If you plan to ski around the hut, it’s a good idea to be well versed in avalanche dangers, though getting to the hut itself poses little danger at all. The snow conditions at the moment are rather touchy. Francie makes us read the avalanche forecast for the area and the situation seems grim. Slide danger is “considerable” on slopes facing west to southeast, and it’s been terribly warm for the past week or so, meaning there’s a rotten layer that keeps getting loaded with heavy snow on top. Fortunately though, the Tornak hut has ample slopes that face due north. The snow on those slopes feels solid as Francie and I poke around outside. We have just enough time to do one run before heading back to the hut for the evening. Francie isn’t staying with us tonight and bids us farewell.

Around 5 p.m. I go start a fire in the sauna. It’ll take about 90 minutes for it to get good and hot in there. As I’ve never built a fire for a sauna, I’m unsure how much wood I should put in and how often I should stoke it. I opt on the side of “lots” and “often.” In the meantime we make dinner (salmon with cheese and crackers, pasta, brownies, and hot tea) and marvel at how warm it is inside the hut.

There’s a binder of topo maps lying on the table along with a numbered list of good runs to take from the hut. Reading from the molten glow of one of the lamps, we decide that tomorrow we’ll head out to a run called Chix O. It faces north and looks promising on the maps.

With dinner gone and the mess cleaned up, we head out to the sauna. We open up the door and a freight train of heat comes welling out. It’s so hellishly hot in there that neither of us can stand it for longer than two minutes. It’s so hot, in fact, that we bring in a bucket of snow and continually rub it over ourselves while leaving the door open. Finally I just run outside naked and lie in the snow.

That night I sleep like a baby, getting up occasionally to make sure the fire is still going. We wake up to overcast skies and light flurries. Time to get skiing. Heidi and I skin up along a ridge, turn left, and suddenly find a huge bowl of untracked snow only 20 minutes from the hut: Chix O. Both of us are a little nervous about skiing it, though we do a series of snow tests that show the conditions on the north-facing slope are actually quite solid. I take the first run, being conservative and skiing along a small ridge that is unlikely to slide in even the worst of conditions. Heidi blasts down to me, laying a perfect set of “S” curves next to my meandering tracks. Gradually our confidence increases and we skin back up to the top. She goes first this time, bouncing with a grace I’ll never match down the 500-foot shot. We skin back up. Down we go. Up. Down. Up. Down. This is what backcountry skiers call yo-yoing. It’s a hell of a lot more work than riding the lifts, but being out here, just the two of us, the skiing is 100 times more rewarding.

We ski back to the hut, tempted to stow away and just stay another night. Maybe even a week. It’s just too pretty up here. We’re like mountain hermits, but with no ambitions to start mailing letter bombs. I can picture growing an unruly beard. Ski all day. Chop wood in the evening. Sauna at night. There could be much worse fates.

Unfortunately, the Tornak hut is popular. We hear a knock on the door and are embarrassed to find the next day’s party—three guys and a gal—making their way up. We apologize for not being out (we’ve cleaned up and chopped enough wood to last them for a couple of days) and tell them that Chix O is a blast to ski.

Going back down to the car is considerably easier as we have tracks to follow and it’s mostly down. Just before getting back to the car we’re rewarded with a long, steep shot of bottomless snow. It’s beautiful as heaven out here, but it certainly isn’t quiet. By turn three I’m hootin’ and a hollerin’, flying down the slope and swearing I’ll never ride the lifts again. Idaho, you've done me good.

Access and Resources
Sun Valley Trekking (208-788-1966; can point you to one of five of their backcountry huts, or suggest a route that'll weave them together for a true backcountry experience. They also offer guides. All huts cost $30 per person per night. Bring your own food and sleeping bags. The huts are stocked with kitchen supplies, wood, toilet paper, and other communal gear.

Published: 15 Jan 2004 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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