Skiing in the Sawtooths: An Adventure to Remember

Skinning in to the Sawtooths’ Bench Hut from Idaho’s Highway 75 starts with a trek across miles of flats. Sounds unexciting, but it’s the most tantalizing possible intro to a yurt trip. The famously jagged peaks you’ll be skiing the next few days await calmly in full view, off in the distance, beckoning your exploration.

Every time you slide a ski forward, you’re just a bit closer to the fantastic snow-covered rockscape ahead. You have plenty of time to fantasize about ski lines darting between the cliff bands ahead. The upper heights of the Sawtooths are perched far above the tree line, leaving their wonders and dangers in full view.

Recently, a group of seven ski compadres proposed a yurt trip to explore this glorious terrain. As the only person in the group who’d been to the Bench Hut before, I leapt at the chance to go again.

On our skin across the flats to the hut, I felt like the sibling who’d peeked at the Christmas presents before they were opened. I knew what we were all in store for, and I couldn’t wait to see everyone’s faces as they beheld this landscape in all its majesty.

Cozying Up

While the approach to the Bench Hut boasts remarkable vistas of rough-cut ridgelines, the hut itself is tucked into a peaceful tree-encircled meadow on the mountainside above Redfish Lake.

The hut bears all things necessary for blissful hours: a wood stove, kitchen, bunk beds, Cards Against Humanity, and no cell reception.

We unloaded our heavy packs and called dibs on the choicest bunkbeds. After a celebratory round of whiskey, we made ourselves familiar with the hut. Somebody figured out the GoalZero solar power for the lamps, another gathered a few pots of snow to melt for drinking water, and somebody else started a fire in the stove. (I re-tested the whiskey supply for quality assurance.)

Under the evening lamplight after a hearty pasta dinner, we studied our topo maps and discussed touring options for the next day. It hadn’t snowed in a while, but that didn’t matter. In mountains as stunning as this, you're hard pressed to find a bad day.

Greg, Jamon, Brian, and Cimarron settle in with maps and whiskey
Greg, Jamon, Brian, and Cimarron settle in with maps and whiskey Beth Lopez

On the Up and Up

For our first day, we chose to ascend the classic Thumb face of Mount Heyburn. Heyburn’s sharp silhouette rises to 10,154 feet, its velvet snowfields inlaid with crusted jewels of dark rock cliffs. Narrow fins of rock punch upward from its ridgelines like spikes on a dragon’s back.

Snow coverage was a little low as we made our way up the mountain’s flanks. We debated the best line of descent on the cliff-studded snowfield sweeping below The Thumb.

The snowfield is skiable from top to bottom with decent coverage, but with the coverage so thin, we only ascended as far as we could. Our line was steep, Styrofoam-y, and gorgeous. Two members of our party skied halfway down first, and waited for me to come next.

Fueled by exhilaration, I carved fast GS turns down the firm snowpack—which was a blast—until I hit an unexpected icy patch and my edges slid out from under me at full speed. I slid completely out of control down the slope, ricocheting off a pine tree, losing a ski, and continuing to slide another 200 feet before finally snagging a ski edge into the snow to grind to a stop just a few feet above a large cliff.

This fall could have seriously injured or killed me. Thankfully, the only injuries I sustained were an ice-scraped back and wounded pride. The incident lowered my bravado from that day forward. Skiing fast: awesome. Skiing at top speed in a no-fall zone without a Whippet: stupid as hell. If I’d been critically injured, cell reception was miles away. A rescue would have been a major undertaking.

For the low price of losing a little skin off my back, I gained a renewed respect for the mountains and a reminder that being a responsible member of the party means avoiding needless incidents.

Beer Tastes Better at Altitude

A day of mountain adventure is perfectly complemented by a night in a yurt, and our evenings in the Bench Hut were well suited for stretching, refueling, and giggling like kids at camp. With our muscles worn into sedation and beer lifting our spirits to ever-higher altitudes, every joke was funny. Every calorie was delicious. Everyone was best friends.

It’s surprisingly tough to drink too much after such a day: By 9 or 10pm, everyone is tuckered enough to crash into a deep sleep, cocooned in their fluffy down sleeping bags. You always get enough sleep to feel stellar in the morning.

Recipe for a good time
Recipe for a good time Beth Lopez

The Gift of Storm Skiing

We awoke on day two to a fresh blanket of new snow from an overnight storm. It was still nuking hard when we got up. Knowing a new layer of heavy snow rested on an aged weak layer, we skinned up a safe ridgeline. Even with all our caution, the first member of the party to drop down, Brian, chose a slightly steeper line and managed to kick off a slab avalanche. He darted out before it whipped through the trees. It was a very short slide path, but the crown was deep enough to command respect.

After that, we dialed up our caution even more and lapped the lowest-angle tree slopes we could find. The little slide had been a poignant reminder that even a low level of risk is amplified when the group is far from help. In the Wasatch, it feels like you can speed-dial search and rescue and have help arrive before you’ve even gotten off the phone with the dispatcher. On a remote hut trip, not so much.

Mount Heyburn says hello through a break in the clouds
Mount Heyburn says hello through a break in the clouds Beth Lopez

Breaking Through the Clouds

Our last hut day was a gift from the mountain gods. After another night of heavy snow, the clouds broke mid-morning. We’d just reached the top of a mellow 30-degree slope above our hut, and suddenly the sky cleared to blue. Mount Heyburn presented itself above the mist, and the surrounding rock-studded peaks took their place in the landscape.

We whooped through powder lap after powder lap directly above our hut, stopping in for snacks and running back out like kids to their playground. After lunch, we faced our fate: it was time to tidy up the yurt and start skinning back to the cars. For the trek across the lovely flats between Redfish Lake and the highway, we couldn’t help but look back every few minutes at the mountains we were leaving behind.

Our drive home was peaceful and contemplative, with just a bit of David Bowie on the stereo. Clad in long johns, we stopped to gobble some burgers in Hailey, then glided silently down the highway south to Salt Lake, a Subaru stuffed with unshowered skiers bound together by shared adventures.

Written by Beth Lopez

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