Soak Up the Sawtooths

Skiing McGown Peak to get a taste of Idaho's jagged range

I sipped my cold beer and dangled my feet in the hot spring, a gem located right in the town of Stanley, Idaho. The current in Valley Creek flowed swiftly, full with frigid spring snowmelt from the Sawtooth Mountains in the distance. Everyone in our crew wore smiles, a result of the fun ski tour we went on this morning and the warmth of the hot spring. Evening light danced through the moisture in the air, illuminating the snowy peaks. The remaining snow in these mountains, now in the last week of May, is why I made the trip to Idaho in the spring.

HOW TO SKI THE SAWTOOTHS

When to go: Spring (April-May), keep an eye on the depth of the snowpack and go when avalanche danger has settled out.

Best recovery burger: Smiley Creek Lodge (Try their chocolate milkshakes, too).

Where to stay: Inlet Campground is good basecamp to ski McGown. Stop by the ranger station in Stanley for other recommendations.

Best way to aprés: An 18-pack of Rainier in the truck.

Alternative plan: Go earlier in the winter and stay at the Williams Peak Hut, a cozy spot that will shorten your daily approach to big lines. And of course, mid-winter means you might score in the snow department.

The Sawtooths are comparable to Wyoming’s Tetons, but you won’t find them on nearly as many postcards. Summer is tourist season down in the valley, home to the Salmon River, but if you venture into the Sawtooths, there are still unnamed climbing and ski lines behind every pointed summit. The combination of glaciers and gravity that formed these mountains served skiers well, leaving couloir after couloir situated in the rock, just begging to be skied.

McGown Peak is on the northern end of the range and served as the catalyst for my trip. The dramatic peak and its jagged, notched summit lie ominously and majestically above the blue waters of Stanley Lake. The highest and largest of the three couloirs situated on its north face is cut perfectly into the mountain, with its top entrance lying just below the summit and its steep, direct fall line running into the apron below. A year ago, while passing through the Sawtooths for the first time, I couldn’t take my eyes off of McGown and its North Couloir. I came back specifically to ski it.

The night before, my friend Jackson Bodtker and I rumbled along the dirt road leading to Stanley Lake in my Toyota Tundra. As McGown came into view, we stopped in the middle of the road to chat about our approach route. We were as giddy as two school girls at a Justin Bieber show. We set up our tent in the Inlet Campground, situated along the western shore of Stanley Lake. The evening light faded to a cold blue. We hoped the snow would freeze overnight. Morning dawned clear with rosy light illuminating the top of the peak, a good omen for the day to come.

McKenna Peterson and Mali Noyes, who both grew up in the nearby Sun Valley area, met us at the trailhead. Still in a dawn glow with very little sunlight, we strapped our skis to our packs before setting off on the well-established Stanley Lake Creek trail. The ground was dry and the plants were blooming. Our boots and skis were the only indication that winter still loomed above. One mile in, we took a left at the trail junction to head south on a smaller single track, where spring runoff added to the significance of the mandatory Stanley Lake Creek crossing. We continued on for about two miles, before reaching the drainage that Jackson and I decided was our best approach route and the end of a trail to follow. We headed west and up a 50-degree slope, a steep grade that made the dense bushwhack even more heinous.

Forever winter in Idaho's Sawtooths. PHOTO: Drew Petersen
Forever winter in Idaho’s Sawtooths. PHOTO: Drew Petersen

We reached the tree line around elevation 7,400. There was enough snow to transition out of hiking boots and onto skis. Skins got us to the base of the couloir, located in a cirque of impressive granite walls. Our crampons and ice axes proved necessary as we reached the upper pitches of the couloir. The slope jacked up, steeper and steeper, which was an exciting thought for the descent to come. When we topped out, snow started to fall and cold crystals drifted from the sky.

Thanks to the weather, we were in no rush to beat warming conditions, so we took our time transitioning at the summit. Jackson opened a can of Foster’s that we passed around while clouds swirled overhead. Periodically we caught views of the backside, toward the southwest and the interior of the Sawtooths. Couloirs like the one below us, along with open cirques and playful ridgelines, littered the landscape. The potential in these mountains could keep me coming back for a lifetime.

Jackson dropped in first, hop-turning the 50-degree entrance to the couloir. After skiing the initial 100 vertical feet, he turned uphill and said, “This is fucking steep.” Mali followed his lead, then I, then McKenna. Scratchy snow added to the pucker factor. Hop turn after hop turn, we descended through the towering walls of the granite-lined couloir. We regrouped at the lower pitches and followed our skin track back to the drainage. We continued on, hopping from snow patch to snow patch that lined the creek, until more willows and dirt than snow greeted our ski tips. Temperatures turned uncomfortably warm the lower we got, and by the time we took our skis off, it felt like summer had arrived.

All routes point down. PHOTO: Drew Petersen
All routes point down. PHOTO: Drew Petersen

Back at the car, we shotgunned beers before driving back out to the main road and toward Galena Pass. My eyes kept looking to the west, back to the Sawtooths. The Sickle Couloir, the most well-known objective in these mountains, which slices its way down Horstman Peak, was shrouded in clouds and winter.

The Sawtooths are among the mountains that I’ll ponder as I lie awake at night. This utopia of spring lines and hot springs is within a day’s drive of much of the west, and the trip can be done on the cheap. Camping and drinking beer out of the cooler is the way spring skiing should be, especially when coupled with descents of memorable, steep couloirs. So long as those lines don’t go anywhere, I’ll probably see you up there next spring, and the year after that too.

Marquee Photo: Drew Petersen