Beyond the Glittering Lights
The tradition of backcountry skiing in Sun Valley
Put a man on a frozen Idaho sheep ranch and what will he see?
In February 1936, one man clearly saw what no one else did. He imagined an elegant resort, magical contraptions carrying people up mountains and steaming hot outdoor pools sprinkled with movie stars. He saw a destination and a town, a community that would outlive a nation-crushing economic depression. And this fantastical place he would raise from the earth in 10 months.
That was William Averell Harriman’s vision. But true vision isn’t just the ability to dream on a different scale from others, it’s the ability to execute that dream. Harriman—diplomat, politician, and captain of industry—delivered that million-dollar destination ski resort, the nation’s first, four days before Christmas.
Still, Harriman wanted more.
(Left to right): The approach to the Boulder Yurt with Boulder Mountains in the backdrop; The newly built Bench Hut in the Sawtooth Range; Mike Tremberth cooking in the Pioneer Yurt.
He had a second, less well-known vision. In that inaugural winter, Harriman looked beyond the glittering lights and people giving life to the resort he had just built. He looked beyond the reaches of his modified banana-conveyor-turned-chairlift. Out there were still bigger mountains—steep and white—and as wild as he had ever seen. There, too, Harriman thought, his guests could ski. Certainly in Europe there was a tradition of backcountry ski touring but, in the spring of 1937, there was nothing of the sort in America.
That summer, Harriman had workers drive equipment and supplies up the Corral Creek road near Sun Valley as far as they could get, approximately four miles. Then came the slog of materials—wood, tools, bedding, stoves, curtains—hauled 2,400 vertical feet and four miles up to an elevation of 9,442 feet. Like the resort, the construction of what was to be called the Pioneer Cabin was fast and sturdy.
(Left to right): Eric Rogers splitting wood at the Boulder Yurt;
Ski touring to Pioneer Cabin in the Pioneers (1956).
Now, with a touring cabin in place, Harriman needed experts to guide his budding Sun Valley Alpine Touring Ski School. Hans Hauser, the first director of the Sun Valley Ski School, recruited Florian Haemmerle, a Bavarian and an expert in the Arlberg skiing technique. Haemmerle had been an assistant coach of the Dartmouth Ski Team, which churned out a wealth of Hall of Fame skiers, including Charlie Proctor (for whom Proctor Mountain is named, see a profile of his daughter, Peggy, on page 74), Walter Prager, David Bradley and Dick Durrance (for whom Durrance Peak is named).
Haemmerle was handsome, passionate about the mountains, and, as his friend David Bradley wrote in 1939, a man of “irresistible good humor.” Haemmerle was also an accomplished watercolorist; he frequently carried his painting supplies to the cabin to paint the wonderland he found there. His Bavarian-style mural work also graced the walls of the Challenger Inn (now Sun Valley Inn) and various homes in Sun Valley.
“Flokie,” as he was affectionately called, led Sun Valley’s first backcountry hut trip in the spring of 1938, leading Harriman’s sister, Mary, along with Phez Taylor and his wife, Dorice, who would later become a well-known publicist for the resort.
(Left to right): Boulder Basin ski touring in the 1950’s, where the Shah of Iran first skied Sun Valley; Christopher Cook enjoying some fresh powder in the Pioneers; Ski school director Friedl Pfeifer, 1939.
David Bradley, surgeon, writer, and champion ski racer, described the Pioneer Cabin and environs in a 1939 account published in The Valley Sun. “Its icy threshold opens into a cozy two-room hut with bunks and sleeping bags for eight, and a kitchen lay-out that seemed to expect all visitors to be Paul Bunyans. From the inside—amid the smell of drying mittens and frying steak—the threshold opens out upon a great glaciated amphitheater, deeply gouged, barren, dusted over with snow, and dominated by Goat Mountain and the spectacular battlements of Mt. Hyndman. We were all alone there … that night we skied under a full moon. Everything was light up there. White clouds running pell-mell over the rocky summits of the Hyndman range. The air itself seemed luminous…”
By the spring of 1939, the touring business was flourishing. Friedl Pfeifer had become the head of the ski school, and he added the tenth member to the school: Andreas (Andy) Hennig, an Austrian mountain climber and ski racer. Hennig and Haemmerle not only guided folks up to the Pioneer Cabin area, they also spent much of that spring exploring the peaks and terrain nearby. Many of the names they assigned to the peaks stand today: Salzburger Spitzl (named for Hans Hauser’s home town), Florian’s Nudl (for Haemmerle), as well as Handwerk and Duncan peaks (Ted Handwerk and Jonathan Duncan were Sun Valley staff members who were killed in Italy fighting with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.)
Harriman added a second hut to the backcountry program in the summer of 1940—this one at Owl Creek, 18 miles north of Sun Valley and four miles to the west of the highway. From here, Haemmerle, Hennig and a third backcountry instructor, Victor Gottschalk, toured folks through an expanse of terrain up and around Silver and Bromaghin peaks.
(Left to right): Skiers admiring their lines on Mt. Heyburn; The “Fun Meter” inside the Bench Hut.
But it was only a matter of time before World War II interrupted this idyllic life of exploring the backcountry of Sun Valley. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Haemmerle joined the 87th Mountain Division, which, ultimately, became a regiment of the now famous 10th Mountain Division. He taught recruits the basics of skiing and climbing. By 1943, Haemmerle was training Army Rangers how to rock climb—skills that were eventually instrumental during the storming of Normandy and the ensuing scaling of the 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, west of Omaha Beach. Hennig, for his part, also joined the 10th Mountain Division and served in the Italian campaign.
All at once, the luster of Sun Valley dimmed with the mood of a nation at war. With Harriman’s blessing, the nation’s first destination ski resort closed in 1942 to serve as a Naval hospital for the troops. It wasn’t until December 21, 1946, that Sun Valley would re-open its doors for business.
Moved by the beauty and solitude there, Harriman immediately demanded that resort manager, Pat Rogers, make available Jeeps to transport skiers to this area, further expanding the backcountry terrain available to his guests. Skiers would use old mining buildings there for overnight stays. While the accommodations were not as luxurious as the cabins at Owl Creek or Pioneer, it was, nonetheless, a convenient bivouac spot in the backcountry.
As one of his legacies, Hennig documented many of the ski routes and areas that he, Haemmerle and Gottschalk explored in a 1948 publication, “Sun Valley Ski Guide.” The guide was the first publication of its kind in the U.S. and detailed car access to trailheads, ski routes, photographs of cabins and peaks. It is still valued by backcountry enthusiasts as a historical gem.
This first era of backcountry skiing ended rather abruptly in 1952. It was the year an avalanche screamed down Lookout Bowl on Bald Mountain, killing Gottschalk and his ski school class. That same winter, an avalanche from Bromaghin Peak destroyed the Owl Creek cabin. While ski touring continued sporadically, the program lost momentum. The growth of lift-accessed skiing on Bald Mountain grabbed the attention of skiers through most of the ’50s and ’60s.
It was 20 years later that a man named Joe Leonard took up the torch of backcountry skiing in the area. Leonard, now 73 and living in Taos, New Mexico, operated Leonard Expeditions from Robinson Bar Ranch near Stanley. Leonard recalls that he began running ski trips in the White Cloud Mountains using wall tents in 1971. One of his first guests was a National Geographic photographer, Dean Conger, who had recently been to Mongolia for an assignment and had stayed in traditional Mongolian yurts there. “Conger,” says Leonard, “…was not impressed with the wall tents.” When Conger returned home, he sent Leonard drawings of the traditional Mongolian structures.
In 1975, Robinson Bar Ranch changed hands, so Leonard moved his operation and established two Mongolian-style yurts for backcountry travel. One was located up Iron Creek near Stanley, with which he could do tours to Sawtooth Lake and climbing trips on Mt. Regan. He established a second yurt near Goat Creek for skiing the bowls of Williams Peak, also in the Stanley area.
Leonard’s yurts were made with a wooden, accordion-like wall structure wrapped in trucking tarps. (The walls could be collapsed and carried on a skier’s back). The roofs were insulated with Polarguard®, a material typically used for sleeping bags. Leonard says that the yurts served him well, failing only twice over the years: once when a bear got inside and managed to claw his way out through the sky light dome; the other time when a 6-foot snowstorm collapsed a structure.
Bob Jonas, a Sun Valley native, bought the business from Leonard in 1982, renaming it Sun Valley Trekking. Jonas moved Leonard’s two yurts to areas near Redfish Lake (now called Bench yurt and Fishhook yurt). Jonas then went on to build two more yurts—Boulder and Coyote—as well as a hut, Tornak—all located farther south in the Prairie Creek and Baker Creek areas. Jonas operated the business for nearly 19 years, selling to current owners Joe and Francie St. Onge. The St. Onges added a sixth yurt to the system when they purchased what they call the Pioneer yurt from Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides, Inc. It is reached by traveling out the East Fork of the Big Wood River, then up Hyndman Creek.
Today, in their 12th year of operation, the St. Onges have a rapidly growing business guiding people into the backcountry. Joe St. Onge says that on a typical hut trip folks will ski to one of their yurts in two to five hours. They might have lunch at the yurt then spend the afternoon skiing powder slopes in the area. Dinner is at the yurt, which is prepared in a fully equipped, albeit backcountry, kitchen. Five of their six yurts boast wood-fired saunas; their Fishhook yurt has a wood-fired hot tub. A following day would be spent exploring the ski terrain nearby. After a second night in the yurt, the group might ski out.
With Sun Valley Trekking’s six huts in place, as well as a hut at Williams Peak operated by Sawtooth Mountain Guides, a second backcountry skiing service, there are today opportunities for hut-to-hut, multi-day trekking. For instance, one might go from the Bench to Fishhook to Williams Peak yurts in the Sawtooth Range area, or from the Tornak to Coyote yurt in the Smoky Mountains.
St. Onge says that some skiers simply rent out the huts like they would a hotel room. Others will hire a guide with the hut. The advantage of the guide, says St. Onge, is that the guides “always know where the best snow is, where there will be no tracks and favorable weather…Most people on their own don’t have the time and knowledge base for that.” A second consideration is safety. He notes that the central Idaho mountains have a “particularly finicky snowpack that requires a lot of expertise to safely manage.”
Perhaps a subtlety of guiding, though an aspect that St. Onge is clearly passionate about, is “tour planning.” “No two tours are ever the same,” he says. “We’re not following trails. It’s a blank canvas out there in the mountains every day, and we’re trying to link up the different terrain features in an aesthetic way, keeping in mind safety, the snow quality, group skills and dynamics, and their goals.”
Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG), headed up by Erik Leidecker and Kirk Bachman, also lead backcountry ski tours, primarily in the Galena area, around Copper Mountain, northwest of Stanley, and out of their Williams Peak yurt.
Backcountry guide, Tom Boley, who has guided for both companies, points out that SMG has developed an excellent spring ski mountaineering program. The company offers guided trips to some of the steep couloirs and chutes in the Sawtooth range, all close to the town of Stanley. Leidecker and Bachman also offer an alpine mountaineering camp, which provides not only ski touring based out of their Williams Peak yurt, but also clinics in snow climbing, ice axe use, rope work, route selection and group management. In addition, SMG holds classes in evaluating avalanche and other mountain hazards.
For those not inclined to the remote backcountry experience, the Galena area is a skiing option with easily accessible yurts and tamer touring terrain. Galena Lodge rents out the yurts to the public and will even deliver meals. Of course, miles and miles of powder skiing is accessible from here as well, including the bowls and ridges descending Galena Peak.
While the growth in popularity of backcountry skiing owes much to having two responsible and competent guiding services available, credit is also due to advances in touring equipment. In Haemmerle and Hennig’s day, actual sealskins attached to the bottom of hickory wood skis were used to provide climbing traction (the skins were removed for the downhill skiing). Leather straps secured boots to skis.
Today, sealskin has been replaced with easy-to-apply nylon or mohair skins. Then there are alpine touring skis that have a free-heel binding enabling efficient uphill climbing, as well as a lock-down feature for the downhill. In addition, the newest touring boots are comfortable, warm, and allow flex when a skier is going uphill. Snowboarders, too, have new options: boards that split in two to create climbing skis. Also popular with snowboarders now are “approach skis,” like the Ketchum-based MTNApproach skis, that are hinged skis which can be used to climb, then are folded up to fit into a standard backcountry backpack.
Without a doubt, the yurts and cabins and ski equipment have improved over the years. But little else about the Sun Valley backcountry has changed since Haemmerle’s first ascent to what would become Pioneer Cabin. What he, Andy Hennig, Victor Gottschalk and countless guests now long passed beheld 74 years ago is exactly what we behold today: vast basins of snow, peaks ringing the horizon, solitude filling great valleys. These are places of both permanence and promise. While storms roll in and out—a fresh world created each time—the terrain seems wholly indifferent. Changes, if any, are subtle and glacial in pace. Still, these are not dead places. Rather, the steadfast beauty inspires life. Those who behold it cannot help but come away stronger.