Max Mackenzie flosses some meat about of the Sawtooths, in a line called What's Up Doc. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau
Max Mackenzie flosses some meat about of the Sawtooths, in a line called What's Up Doc. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Hunting Couloirs in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range

Options are just about endless from the Williams Peak Hut

Marquee Image: Max Mackenzie flosses some meat out of the Sawtooths, on a line called What’s Up Doc. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

I could tell you about the JC Couloir. How it was steeper than anything I'd skied in years, and how I wanted to vomit looking down the snug cornice entrance, and how I used an ice axe to lower myself through that cornice into the shady, firm 1,500-vertical-foot couloir in the middle of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.

I could tell you how Gary Mackenzie, Afro sprouting wildly from his helmet with maniac grin to match, skied it with a broken boot. Or how his brother, Max, all hairy and bearded, looked like a stunt double for the almighty Lord Himself. How Dorian Densmore, who prides himself on skiing weird lines from Wyoming to Argentina, dryly and sarcastically said, "Oh, this is awesome," as he lowered himself into the crux, left hand gripping the snow above him while his skis bowed disgustingly between rock and ice and nothing below but the breezes between his kneeses. Or how photographer Chris Figenshau slipped it like a Jedi and how Cody Barnhill actually made real turns, stamping the end of his run with an exasperated, "Mother fucker that was gnarly!"

Cody Barnhill keeps it clean in the Sawtooths. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

And that was the truth. As we booted up the gut, on day two of a four-day trip to the Williams Peak Hut, we renamed it to suit the less than desirable conditions—let's just say it rhymes with "Cheeses Hucking Rice." Though long, dramatic lines like the JC are why you come to the Sawtooths, which stacks couloirs like cards in a deck across its 40 miles, this particular one was memorable only for how bad it was—kind of like when Gary took an obligatory naked lap on the first day for forgetting his outerwear.

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But I'd rather tell you about how we stayed in the delightful yurts designed and developed by a local skier named Kirk Bachman, who as much as anyone is responsible for backcountry skiing in the Sawtooths. I'll tell you about the powder we skied in lines called KB's and Big Fatty, which lie within the shadows of dramatic rock towers and infiltrated my dreams for months afterward. How we paid a porter $160 to carry 50 pounds of food and a 12er for the five-mile skin to the yurt. We also schlepped two bottles of booze, another 12 pack, a bag of wine, and still ran out on day three. How the pit toilet had twin receptacles and a beautiful overlook of the Stanley valley—nothing like being miles from civilization, without wifi, and having a nice view from which to take a poop.

Guides are awesome because they laugh at all your jokes, cook a mean curry, and know exactly where the best snow is. But they also add $160 per person per day. So in lieu of professional expertise, we looked at the map, put on our skins, and started climbing. We figured the rest would take care of itself.

But I'll start by telling you how we elected not to hire a guide, even though none of us had skied this zone. Guides are awesome because they laugh at all your jokes, cook a mean curry, and know exactly where the best snow is. But they also add $160 per person per day. So in lieu of professional expertise, we looked at the map, put on our skins, and started climbing. We figured the rest would take care of itself.

The Williams Peak Hut is actually two yurts, erected side by side, at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness, which itself is within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area about 60 miles north of Ketchum. With snowmobiles prohibited, you must carry everything in on your back, leading to such life-or-death packing decisions like: Beer or this block of cheese? Beer or this bag of bagels? Beer or these extra batteries?

The hut is one of several shelters spread across the base of the range, and is the highest at 8,000 feet. Set at the foot of the Sawtooths' highest mountain, Thompson Peak (10,751 feet), and Williams Peak (10,636 feet), it is in prime location for ski touring. The Sawtooth Mountain Guides, which owns and operates the yurts, lists 41 descents within striking distance from the front door. Most are steep, narrow couloirs.

After a five-mile approach, the Williams Peak Hut sits in prime location for couloir hunting, and guitar chilling. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

The bounty of terrain compelled Bachman to establish Sawtooth Mountain Guides in 1985 and build the first Williams Peak yurt in 1988. A Driggs, Idaho, native, he moved to Stanley after college to guide Nordic tours in the Sawtooths. The skinny telemark gear people used at the time was inadequate to tackle the steep lines, but he knew it was only a matter of time as equipment improved and more people fled the resorts to seek wild snow.

"Every mountain range has a distinctive element relative to its geography," says Bauchman, who sold the business in 2013 but continues to ski and build yurts in the Stanley valley. "In the case of the Sawtooths, it's the jagged ridgelines and in every notch there tends to be a couloir. But there's also a preponderance of glades and a wide variety of terrain, from beginning to expert descents. That had a lot of appeal to me, especially the Williams Peak area."

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Which means the only thing you have to do in the morning—after you build a fire in the woodstove, melt snow for water, whip up a hot mess of bacon, tots, and eggs—is climb 1,600 vertical feet through a whitebark pine forest to the top of what's called Skier's Summit. From there, you stand perched between the two vast drainages of Williams and Thompson, with numerous ski lines in every direction and not another human for miles.

Snow blew in overnight, gracing us on day three with six inches of fresh under sunny skies. Having skied the Thompson zone the day before, we opted for the north-facing lines spilling off Williams.

Named after Bachman, KB's is the first steep line off Skier's Summit. It was about two turns wide with a little rollover about halfway down obscuring the bottom of the couloir. Densmore dropped in with a hard ski cut right. The slope held, and he took it all the way with speed that surprised me. All we could see was smoke vapor in his wake. Max went next, fast and smooth owed to a lifetime of skiing powder in the Tetons. After I skied it, finding hard snow beneath the fresh, KB's had been sufficiently hacked. Barnhill, Gary, and Figenshau bootpacked higher up the ridge from Skier's Summit to the entrance of another couloir called Pinner. It started with a little cornice before plunging into a narrow ski-length choke.

Pick a couloir, any couloir. The long narrow slot in the middle is known as the JC, or as this group called it, JFC. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Barnhill jumped in first and sent a plume of slough cascading through the couloir. He chased after it, made several tight turns in the choke, and took the last 800 feet in just eight turns. Gary ripped it in much the same manner. After Figenshau joined us, we fueled up on tortilla sandwiches before skinning higher up into the Williams basin.

Aside from the terrain, one of the attractions to the Sawtooths is the little fanfare they receive. Though the Sickle Couloir (on Mount Horstman, a long day trip south from the Williams Peak Hut) shows up in online trip reports, the range's difficult access and remote location keep most lines relatively untouched. The various shelters (Sun Valley Trekking keeps two huts in the Sawtooths) are often booked solid throughout the winter, and most big lines are too distant from the trailhead for all but the most masochistic day-trippers. "If you do get beyond the main objectives, you don't know if you're making the first descent or the 100th," says Chris Lundy, co-owner and guide of SMG. "You have no idea how many people have been there. And there seems to be less of an ego because there's not as much going on."

Nothing motivates a skier quite like a wood-fired sauna. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

As we crested a small moraine at the base of Williams, those words rang true. Hidden from view below but now as plain as day stood Big Fatty. Appropriately named, the couloir was as wide as a country lane with no major obstructions. The greatest feature, however, was the enormous granite fang towering over the entire skier's right side of the couloir. In no rush, we sat on our skis and contemplated how long it would take to climb the couloir. We were tired. Barnhill's whiskey flask was empty. Brilliant silver clouds drifted behind Williams like ferns waving in the wind. Spindrift flew off the ridgeline, casting sparkles into the blue Idaho sky. I chewed some nuts.

A guide would've told us that Big Fatty gets skied regularly. But since there was no guide to inform us of such details, and since there were no tracks in it, we could only speculate. Densmore and Max clicked back into their bindings and began skinning toward the white wave. We were pretty sure it was going to be a first D. For us, anyway.

I could tell you that Big Fatty sucked. That Densmore and Max climbed all the way to the top and found rotten snow. That I choked on a nut and Gary singed his beard trying to light a spliff.

But that's not the truth. Densmore and Max skied Big Fatty so well and came back to our little safety meeting in the sun so fired up and covered in powder that the rest of us figured we had no choice but to follow suit. And so we did. Big Fatty delivered on the promise of the Sawtooths: a beautiful run in a majestic, far-off place.

Dorian Densmore slashes the top of Big Fatty. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

As the afternoon waned, we party-skied the mellow rollers back to the yurt, hungry for burritos and hoping that our beans that'd been soaking since our arrival would finally be ready for the pot. In the day's final sunlight, we sat on snow benches with our boots off, splitting the last three beers six ways into little mugs. "Next time," Barnhill said, "half the gear, twice the beer."

The next morning, we woke up to a foot of new snow. We lit the woodstove, melted snow for water, and ate the last of our food, which consisted of leftover beans, instant oatmeal, and walnuts we dipped individually into cream cheese.
The only thing left to do was skin back up Skier's Summit. The snow came down hard, disguising the well-worn skin track. Figenshau, a former Forest Service hotshot, wanted to get some artsy pow shots. Gary decided to prank Figenshau, who had climbed a big dead tree, by skiing naked through one of his photos. He got so excited that he missed the shot by at least 50 feet. And the rest of us laughed at his pasty white, frozen ass.

Next time, half the gear, twice the beer. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Details, Details

The four-day unguided trip to the Williams Peak Hut cost $260 per person, including food and a porter. Sawtooth Mountain Guides offers a range of options, from fully guided and catered trips to unguided.

Best Local Encounter:
By hiring a porter, you can bring more of the good stuff. But you also get an inside look at a vital role of the Sawtooth guide network. Porters act as aspirant guides or paid interns. Our porter, Skyler, hauled 50-pound loads up the five miles to the yurt several times a week for an entire season. It's his way of learning the ins and outs of the yurt and terrain, in hopes of one day being a guide. Just try to keep up.

Pro Tips:
Half the gear, twice the beer. One dosed cookie is enough for all the mice—save your doses. The yurts have bluetooth speakers, so bring a GoalZero solar panel to charge your phone during the day in order to play tunes at night. The yurts have an assortment of hut booties—no need to bring your own unless you have yellow toes. Keep that to yourself.

Don't Miss:
Williams Peak Hut has a wood-fired sauna. Embrace your inner old man and have a seat.

Season:
March offers the best chance for snow stability and powder. If you come in April, it's highly advised to bring ice axes and crampons to negotiate firm conditions during the melt/freeze cycle.

This story originally published in the February 2017 issue of POWDER (Vol. 45 Issue 6). Subscribe today.