Trip the White Fantastic: Backcountry Hut-to-Hut Skiing in Idaho's Sawtooth National

By Elizabeth Zektick

Idaho's natural beauty begs exploration—and in winter there's more to the state than the already impressive 16,000 skiable acres embraced by the 16 front-line commercial ski lodges. With the exception of Alaska, Idaho has more wild land than any other U.S. state, giving you 16 million acres of backcountry to play with. If isolation is your objective, this understated Rocky Mountain wilderness has the edge on its sister states: a population of 1.3 million (compared to Colorado's 4.5 million) combined with accessible recreation areas and decidedly milder winters make for a superior uninhabited outdoor escape.

And for that escape, look no further than Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a 754,000-acre Eden of trails, 10,000-foot-plus peaks, and alpine lakes that sits in the even bigger enclave of 2.1-million-acre Sawtooth National Forest. And during wintertime, it's all yours.

Sawtooth Mountain Guides (www.sawtoothguides.com), one of the most experienced climbing, trekking, and backcountry ski outfitters in the Sawtooth region, specializes in a broad range of mountain activities, from rock climbing to fly-fishing to hut-to-hut skiing. Operated by Kirk Bachman, an American Mountain Guides Association-certified alpine and ski mountaineering guide, and recent partner Erik Leidecker, SMG leads three- to four-day backcountry ski trips into the spectacular Sawtooth wilderness. Rates start at $320 per person per day for multi-day guided ski trips, dropping down to $125 per person for groups of four or more.

This year-round mountain guide service has been leading excursions since the '70s and its guides know the surrounding area like the backs of their hands. Such dedication led Bachman to introduce and construct the first Sawtooth Hut System—a network of Mongolian-style shelters called yurts. The yurts, which can comfortably accommodate as many as 15 people, are set on top of wooden platforms and contain bunks, kitchens, and propane stoves. Jointly operated with fellow Sawtooth NRA outfitter, Sun Valley Trekking, the system comprises three separate yurts—Williams Peak, Fishhook Yurt, and Bench Lakes—in an approximately 15-mile circuit at the doorstep of some of the state's best—and least-discovered—backcountry powder stashes.

The Sawtooth terrain is remarkably varied: the "little ski area that rocks," according to SMG's Bachman, will provide some challenging—and scenic—backcountry for the extremist, but the six-mile trail to the first yurt, the 7,900-foot-high Williams Peak Yurt, is a climb gradual enough for intermediate skiers. Both groups will doubtless be satisfied by what they can access from any of the huts, where a bit of searching can yield both mellow and hardcore terrain, running the gamut from powder-filled bowls to big-mountain drops to gentler glade skiing. If you're a beginner skier looking for something a little less intense or would prefer a simpler day trip, check out Sun Valley Trekking (www.svtrek.com), which operates various trips that run $50 per half-day or $85 for a full day.

Meanwhile, if you'd rather test your skills without a guide, Bachman says, you better make sure you know what you're doing. If you've never skied backcountry like the Sawtooths before, be aware that this is avalanche terrain, so don't even think about heading into the backcountry without adequate avalanche training—which SMG happens to specialize in—and the proper equipment. The yurts in the Sawtooth Hut System can be rented to private parties of eight or more at $30 per person per night. Both the SMG and Sun Valley Guides websites conveniently list up-to-date schedules of availability, but if you're interested, call quickly—Bachman says that winter weekends are typically gone by the end of the summer.

Published: 11 Nov 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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