It's 70 degrees and pouring rain as our truck cruises across Idaho's high desert. Our conversation has halted, replaced by a what-the-hell-are-we-doing silence as our vehicle is intermittently jostled by gusts of wind in the downpour. Even using the generous calculation of temps decreasing by five degrees for every thousand feet, my math still puts the freezing level somewhere around 13,000 feet, above the highest peaks of Idaho's Pioneer Mountains. We signed up for an adventure, but there's a fine line between daring and stupid, and this mission may be headed toward the latter.
Driving and riding shotgun are husband and wife team Jess McMillan and Eric Seymour, two people who understand better than most that the reward in journeys like the one at hand is measured in the adventure itself, not the quality of turns that the trip produces. Born and raised in Jackson, Wyoming, Jess gained notoriety on the big mountain competition circuit and more recently the silver screen. Wyoming through and through, Jess is tough yet easy going, a clear prerequisite for the uncertainty that we're headed into. Although he arrived late to the ski world, Eric is no stranger to dirt roads leading into remote mountain ranges. A professional kayaker for years, he gained hard-earned experience on trips to rivers throughout North and South America. Above all, these two don't need an ironclad plan with guaranteed good conditions; an idea is good enough for them.
The idea is straightforward enough: access one of Idaho's most spectacularly named mountains and iconic ski descents, The Devil's Bedstead, from the recently plowed Trail Creek Road. Connecting the Sun Valley area to rural Idaho, Trail Creek may provide some of the best, under-the-radar access to backcountry terrain in the West. Unlike the widely publicized openings of Colorado's Independence Pass or Montana's Bear Tooth Pass, Trail Creek Pass opens with little fanfare. Providing access to the Pioneer Mountains to the east and south, as well as the Boulder Mountains to the north and west, it's not uncommon for the dirt road to have ten-foot snow banks near the summit when the road opens.
After passing through endless wheel-lines of central Idaho's farm country, we finally make a left turn onto Trail Creek. The afternoon thunderstorms have abated and, while still warm, the high temperatures have relented somewhat. If Jess and Eric are concerned with the fact that we haven't seen much snow-let alone anything skiable-they aren't saying anything. The pavement gives way to a washboard dirt road and the mountains finally reveal themselves--large headwalls, winding couloirs, and finally, the massive north face of the Devil's Bedstead.
At 11,865 feet, the Bedstead begs to be skied. Its northeast and northwest ridge terminate in a near-perfect summit pyramid, forming a steep and exposed north face that eventually terminates in a series of gullies and couloirs. Winter has been rough around these parts. While some mid-winter storms boosted a snowpack that was on a record-low pace, the year still ended well below average.
Waking up the following morning, conditions were the first thing on my mind. A shallow snowpack is one thing, a shallow snowpack that doesn't freeze overnight is quite another. The layer of ice that formed on our water quickly clams those fears, and we kick the morning into high gear in the darkness.
Proper route-finding on the way to the Bedstead can mean the difference between a mellow 1,500-foot hike to the snowline through open forest and a full-on, pre-dawn sufferfest through dead fall and overgrowth. We luck out and find the former, and are skinning on rock-hard snow before the sun hits us, the punctures from our poles leaving the only evidence of our travel.
By the time we reach the basin at the foot of the 2,500-foot face, the entire slope is glistening in the day's first light. Our concerns quickly shift from the snow being too soft to too firm as we swap out skins for crampons. Knowing we're well ahead of the day's heat, we scale back our pace and enjoy the easy climbing provided by the deep freeze. As we gain elevation, the rest of central Idaho's mountain ranges, with their seemingly limitless ski potential, come into view. Despite the lackluster snow year, there's no shortage of terrain in every direction.
As we kick in the last steps to the summit, we begin to feel the day's heat, which is set to exceed 70 degrees in the valleys. After a leisurely lunch on the summit, we decide it's better to err on the early side and deal with firm snow up high rather than wait for the highest parts of the mountain to corn up and potentially expose ourselves to massive wet slides lower on the face.
Despite what feels like scorching heat, we are way too early. We may as well be skiing at night the snow is so firm, with no signs of softening as we move down the face. It's comically difficult skiing and we're laughing out loud the entire way down the face. I suppose at either end of the snow-quality spectrum there's laughter, at least for this crew. The snow is so firm that we're afraid our molars might chatter out if we get going too fast. By the time we get to the lower third of the face, the hard-as-granite snow finally gives way to corn and we're able to salvage a handful of enviable turns. Opening up larger turns into the basin, we look back up and see that the face has the same sheen as it did hours ago when we started. In the less-generous, midday light we collectively laugh: It looks nothing short of miserable, but we'd all do it again in a heartbeat.
Although bad weather would dampen our plans for further exploits along Trail Creek Road, we returned to the pavement feeling completely content. Early in my skiing career, in response to kids complaining about tough snow, I had a coach tell me that, "There's no bad snow, just bad skiers." A little later on I heard that, "The best skier is the one having the most fun." By my reasoning then, if you're having fun you're a good skier, and thus there's no bad snow. The trick is to measure quality in terms of how much fun you're having, not how good the turns are.