When the snow melts, we start the process of prepping, repairing and improving the huts. This summer season, hutmeisters: Niels and Aysha are riding from hut-hut working on projects. We cut out the downed timber on the Fishhook Trail, so its is clear and smooth now. The following photos are from a recent trip into the Sawtooth with owner/guide/backcountry carpenter: Joe St.Onge. Sure is pretty out there!
Riding with the Pros at Coyote Yurts
“Are there rattle snakes here?” asked Jamie Goldman, a pro rider from Oregon I was charged with guiding.
“Never seen one on this side of Democrat Gulch” I said while pointing to the east, “but over there…”
I was pointing toward Lambs Gulch, a local favorite South Valley trail, where the year before an intrepid hiker photographed a rattle snake hibernacula. For those that don’t know, a hibernacula is basically a ball of writhing rattle snakes that congregate together, sometimes by the hundreds, to stay warm during the long winter months. The photograph made the local paper and led to horrific visions for those that frequent these trails. It wasn’t uncommon to see a normally tough mountain guy jump and shriek with visions of the hibernacula when a large cricket fluttered by.
All that silly fear was warranted, as I had once ridden over the middle of a basking rattle snake on that very trail, both the snake and I left shaking. But not over here on the new school flow trails recently built to maximize speed and stoke for local riders. While less than a mile away, I had never even seen a snake here nor heard any of the stories that were common on Lambs. Sometimes we fool ourselves to avoid fear.
It was about 2 minutes later, flying down the whoops, banks and rolls of the Centerline trail, when the telltale rattle caused me to veer off into the scrub. My bike went flying and I did my best to windmill my legs and arms to stay upright and avoid the snake I had just ridden over. Jamie, at full speed, just bunny hopped over the fanged reptile with grace and poise. It looked like he had rehearsed this move a hundred times.
This was the first day of a ten day mountain bike trip I was guiding. This wasn’t our normal bike guiding. We had three top pros, 2 camera men, a fully outfitted shuttle vehicle, a well-stocked yurt, big plans and lots of ice cold beer. It was the cameras and the pros that made the difference.
I have been a mountain guide now for 20 years. My focus has been on climbing and descending mountains, but typically on skis. For much of my adult life I have been too focused on these snowy environs to spend much time on bikes. Typically I would migrate to different hemispheres and higher altitudes/latitudes as soon as the snow began to melt. That all changed when my wife and I moved to Hailey to work as backcountry ski guides 13 years ago. The summers were so nice: flowers, clear running streams, lots of sunshine and miles upon miles of epic single track leading throughout the rugged mountains of Central Idaho. The biking I had done before was not the same. Mostly scrappy affairs involving skidding down too steep trails and doing my best to avoid getting injured. But here in Idaho it was different. The trails were buff. They climbed, curved and descended through enchanted landscapes that went on as far as you could. I was mesmerized by the flow and the potential. Suddenly, I became aware of the similarities between backcountry skiing and mountain biking and the fire they both stoked. I actually began to look forward to the non-snow months.
Now here I was, an unlikely bike guide. With all the mountain guiding I have done, I generally feel pretty comfortable taking people into harsh and consequential environments for fun. But typically my skill and experience outweighs that of my guests. I was not even close on this trip. We had Mark Weir, a long time racer and cross-country animal; Aaron Chase, the bike-handling wizard; and Jamie Goldman, big air phenomenon. We also had a duffel bag full of 50+ GoPro cameras and two dedicated pro photographers (we called them the GoProographers) and a mission to capture “the goods.” While my riding will never equal theirs, I did have a secret weapon. My advantage was an intimate knowledge of these mountains, trails and a sweet Yurt in the middle of it all.
32 years ago, Joe Leonard built the first dedicated backcountry ski yurt in the Sawtooth Mountains. Yurts have been used for millennia by herders on the steppes of Central Asia, but it wasn’t until Joe built one in the Sawtooth, that they were used to house thrill-seeking backcountry skiers. And the idea spread. A couple of years later, Bob Jonas and Sun Valley Trekking took over Joe Leonard’s yurts and built 5 more, strategically located to take advantage of the best the Idaho backcountry has to offer. But that ‘best’ was focused on powder skiing. Luckily, one of those ski yurts also happened to be at one of the premier trail junctions in the Idaho backcountry. The Coyote Yurt sits on a promontory ridge at 8700’ in the headwaters of the East Fork of Baker Creek. It is here, on the flanks of Fox Peak that some of Idaho’s most storied mountain bike trails meet — Easley Gulch, Oregon Gulch, Fox Peak, Warm Springs Ridge, Alden Gulch, Rooks Creek, and Osberg Ridge all make their high points here. But these aren’t the typical town rides, these trails are out there and most that have ridden them require a fair bit of energy, time and skill to do so. When folks do put in the time and energy, these trails afford the best of what Idaho backcountry riding has to offer. And there is a cool backcountry yurt for a base camp right there. Just last year, the Beaver Creek wild fire consumed the Coyote Yurts in its flaming hunger. The loss of this amazing backcountry yurt was profound and we quickly mobilized to rebuild. The result of the effort is one of the most aesthetic backcountry yurts ever, ready to stoke bikers.
Since first riding my bike from the Coyote Yurt on these trails 13 years ago, I knew this was very special. Until recently, wolf and mountain lion tracks were more common than other bike tracks on the headwater trails. That has changed, and most locals and many visiting bikers are discovering this zone. The Forest Service recently retrofitted one of the backbone trails (Warm Springs Ridge, now known as the Osberg Ridge Trail) to provide 12 miles of high, remote single track bliss and a connector to a myriad of other trails. There is talk of building even more trails in this area in the future.
Ultimately, this trip was an opportunity to share what I consider to be among the best riding in the world with several very experienced and discerning riders. I was eager to see their reaction as we linked close to 200 miles of single track from our yurt home. The pure stoke we shared day after day of riding was a tremendously gratifying experience. But, upon reflection, the most remarkable thing about our adventure was the paradigm shift in my own perspective on biking. To watch these guys visualize and then ride a section of single track was truly awesome. And while these trails are familiar to me, the style that each would ride opened my eyes to how a bike can be ridden. Full commitment and ultimate skill were paired with a machine of engineered perfection in a land of splendor. Like a ski, the bike can be an instrument of art, linking landscapes in a fluid and poetic manner. I have witnessed what can be done, and now I have the inspiration to try to actualize it, if I can just avoid the snakes.
Still Skiing in the Pioneers!
Sawtooth Woodcut and Ski Fest
Sirens of Snow at the Coyote Yurts
Chainsaws and Peaks in the Pios
We are just back from a 3 day mission into the Pioneer Yurt with goal of supplying the yurt with cords of firewood and other supplies for the next season. We transitioned from snowmobiles to chainsaws to skis and alpine axes, cutting lots of wood and climbing and skiing some classics in the process. Conditions are spring like on the big peaks and skied great.
Wow, what a great 3 days of spring skiing at the new Coyote Yurts! Bob and Kate (from our local backcountry ski shop: the Elephant’s Perch) joined our Canadian friends, Bernard and Sheri, for an action packed 3 days exploring the new burn skiing around Coyote with Joe. Splitter blue sky days made for an amazing backdrop of peaks, powder, corn and shadow lined burn skiing. We barely scratched the surface of the new north facing burned timber skiing possible and we skied a lot!
Oh yeah, the new Yurts are awesome too!
Fat Bikes at Tornak Hut!
Last month we ran the 1st ever backcountry snow-bike hut trip to Tornak Hut. The low early season snow left many us searching for the powder stashes and scraping by, cracking the occasional joke about running snow bike trips instead of ski trips. That’s when serendipity hit and an old friend and one time guide with SVT suggested a fat bike hut trip for an upcoming article he was writing for the New York Times. Why not? We kept the plan was loose, made sure the participants were strong and unfortunately waited 3 days too long, biking in after 8″ of fresh Idaho powder fell. The biking conditions were perfect before the new snow, but good times were had even if the uphill biking was a bit tough with the fresh powder. This trip showed us that Fat Bike trips to the huts is both possible and FUN. So for those of you more inclined to pedal than skin: this is another great way to have an adventure in the Idaho backcountry!
You can check out the NYT article here:
From Famine to Feast, Ullr has come!
Wow. What a past 3 weeks it has been! Our mountains have received snow for 22 of the past 26 days. The snow totals are impressive, with the Sawtooth having received approximately 7′ over this period and the other mountains in our area receiving over 4-5′!
The relatively dry early winter left us craving deep powder, but also left us knowing that when/if it came we would be facing a difficult avalanche problem. This is currently our situation: We have very tricky and dangerous avalanche conditions in the backcountry which has the potential to linger for a long time. The plethora of new snow has fallen on a highly variable and extremely weak early season snow pack. This is a relatively unique stability scenario that should be treated with respect and caution. We are seeing many avalanches on most aspects and elevations and starting on relatively low slope angles. We are also seeing large avalanches triggered remotely from afar and running long distances. Skiers should be acutely aware of keeping slope angles less than 30 degrees and to stay away from run out zones (both large and small). This is a great time to hire a professional guide who is acutely aware of the current stability issues and well trained and experienced with navigating out of avalanche terrain. We are finding excellent ski conditions on safe terrain (see pics below)!
The skiing has been phenomenal. We have been too busy skiing the deep powder over the past few weeks to keep up on the blog posts, so we are posting a series of photos from the various mountain ranges, huts and tours we have been guiding over the past few weeks. Enjoy!
BBC Mountain Training in the Pioneers
Joe St.Onge, Patrick Graham and interns: Niels Meyer and Alisa Mcgowan have just returned from 7 days in the Pioneer Mountains on a winter mountaineering training with a production crew from the BBC. An action packed week focused on learning skills related to avalanche safety, forecasting and rescue as well as backcountry skiing and mountaineering skills. the Pioneer Yurt served as base camp and the team also put in a high camp at 10,500 for a alpine ascent of Hyndman Peak. Conditions included a generally low snowpack and wind affected snow with hazards related to widespread wind slabs. The less then optimal ski conditions were balanced by the phenomenal setting and wonderful crew from the BBC. We look forward to seeing the ambitious and sure to be amazing footage to be produced by this intrepid film crew over the next couple of years!