Learning how to survive steep stuff in the Sawtooths
Text and Photos by Aaron Teasdale
Nothing about a winter spent at the local ski hill has prepared me for the gut-twisting prospect of launching into thin air off a ridge in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. "Ridge" doesn't even do it justice—it's more like the cutting edge of a granite ax. As we nervously remove gear from our packs, Clark Corey, our guide, nods at the exposed face plummeting away behind us and says, "Don't drop anything down there or it's going 3,000 feet." Anxiety drowns our chuckles. Skiing that face would actually be the easy way down. Instead, I've climbed here with four other skiers and snowboarders to descend a couloir called Resurrection, a snow gully that plunges like an elevator shaft between rock cliffs. Couloirs are prized by ski mountaineers, and until three days ago I'd never skied one. In fact, this thin sliver of snow is worlds steeper than anything I've ever skied before, and falling here would mean a long and violent tumble. Which, it turns out, is precisely where I'm headed.
A four-day ski-mountaineering camp had seemed like such a great idea. Learn new skills! Ski beautiful mountains! I had grown up Nordic skiing in Minnesota—a nice, safe sport in a nice, safe place—and hadn't discovered backwoods skiing on alpine-style skis until recently. Backcountry skis (essentially light downhill skis with a binding that allows the heel to be freed for climbing and locked down for descending) were a revelation. Skiing off wild ridgelines in my hometown Bitterroot Mountains or threading through old-growth forest in Montana's Glacier National Park, I quickly realized, is one of the most thrilling outdoor adventures a person can have.
Unfortunately it can also kill you—a problem that I was committed to avoiding. Which is partially why I signed up for this camp: If I was going to ski big and steep things, I needed to learn to do it safely. But by the time camp rolled around at the end of April, I was starting to worry whether I, a 39-year-old father of two, could hang with 25-year-old, super-ripper ski bros. Had I seriously, even tragically, overreached?
We gathered in Stanley, Idaho, a remote aerie in the shadow of the Sawtooths, at the Sawtooth Mountain Guides shack. Kirk Bachman, the company's salty and soulful 56-year-old co-owner, who's been guiding in these mountains for more than 25 years without tragic incident, assured us that the skiing difficulty would follow a logical progression. "If you're not comfortable with something, we want to hear about it," he said. Then he kicked things off by teaching us how to build injured-skier evacuation sleds out of skis and how to perform an avalanche rescue using the beacons we all had strapped to our chests—information that I found simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting.
Snowfall cloaked the world as we skied six miles to the camp's base, the Williams Peak Yurt, which sits in a subalpine forest of fir and lodgepole pine on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. The snow and low clouds also concealed the sharp and severe Sawtooths—which was just as well, because it helped control my mounting panic.
After dumping our gear, we set out for an evening run up to a high point called Skier's Summit. On the way up, I chatted with Kurtis Stutz, a fiery 45-year-old electrical lineman from Bellevue, Idaho. I happily noted that he was older than me and also had kids.
"My wife says I'm having a midlife crisis and that's why I'm doing this," he said. "I told her, 'No, I just really love to ski steeps, ya know?'"
Our descent gave the guides a chance to assess our abilities on what Bachman called a "blue run." At the bottom, I lost my balance, let out a Whoooaaah!, pirouetted on one ski, and fell flat on my back. "Good start," I thought, unpacking the snow from my pants.
We got Going the next morning at 6 a.m., climbing back up to Skier's Summit, where we were treated to our first good look at the Sawtooths: towering spears of granite, equally beautiful and terrifying. At the top, Bachman tied a rope to a tree to show us how to belay a skier into a dangerous chute, but I couldn't take my eyes off the mountains across the valley. Cut into their faces were filaments of snow hanging between nearly vertical walls: couloirs. Were they really expecting us to ski those?
Meanwhile, Mike Hatch, Bachman's 34-year-old lead guide, was at the end of Bachman's rope, cutting across the top of a chute that dropped away between rock walls below us. Avalanche danger typically lessens in spring, when warmer temperatures bond the snowpack's weak layers—which is why this camp is held at the end of April. But dangerous slides can still happen, especially at the exposed top of a mountain, where winds compact the snow into heavy slabs. Controlled skiing across the upper ridge of a slab can break it loose, sending an avalanche harmlessly down through the rock walls below. But getting caught in one could be the last thing you ever do—hence the rope.
The snow proved stable. "Who wants to ski this?" asked Bachman.
I looked down the steep, rock-choked shaft. There were no safety nets, no doctors waiting at the bottom. We were 8 miles from the nearest road and another 60 miles from the nearest hospital. It occurred to me that the guides were using this as an opportunity to separate the advanced skiers from the, uh, not so advanced.
"If there's a mellower option, I'll take it," I offered. Happily, Stutz and Lindsey Clark, a gregarious 32-year-old product designer from Oregon, were also looking for something less perilous to start on, so I wasn't the only wuss. Bachman led us down the ridge to an 800-vertical-foot avalanche path. It was steep, but wide and rock-free. Bachman made a ski cut across the top of the slope, and I watched as the slough he kicked loose picked up more and more snow until it was flowing around trees and building into a proper, low-grade avalanche that ran hundreds of feet down the slope.
I was awed. It may not have been huge, but it was the biggest avalanche I'd ever seen. Bachman explained that the slide was from the six inches of snow that had fallen during our ski-in the day before. As long as we skied carefully and stayed in the areas where the snow had already slid, he said, we would be fine.
Stutz offered to go first. "Hey, watch your slough!" yelled Bachman, as Stutz jumped in and kicked off more loose snow in an unskied patch. "Pull off to the side!"
Stutz, a former college ski racer, didn't hear and charged gung ho down the slope. By the time his slough hit him from behind, it was another avalanche. Once the snow stopped moving, he struggled to his feet with only a single ski. Bachman sent me down to help him find his other one.
"Sorry, man," Stutz said when I reached him. "Don't worry about it," I said. "Let's just find your other ski." We spent more than an hour fruitlessly stabbing the avalanche debris with our poles before we gave up.
"Here's a good lesson on slough," Bachman said. "You gotta pull to the side and let it go." He helped Stutz back to the yurt and then skied on to Stanley for another pair of skis.
Two hours later, I was high on a comb ridge peering over the edge of a 400-foot cliff with Clark and Corey, the guide. Everywhere was scarp and rock. What the heck could we ski here? I wondered, as a squall moved in. Corey led us to a notch in the granite spine and, lo, below us was a seam of snow between rock faces. Clouds had closed in, and the gray of the sky merged with the white of the snow, leaving only pinnacles of rock and a toss of whitebark pines visible around us. While we braced against 30-mile-per-hour winds, Corey dropped in first, showing us the way into the white void below.
Then it was just Clark and me, standing there on a wind-blasted mountain ridge.
"Remember to keep your hands in front of you and your chest pointed downhill," she said.
"Yeah, thanks." It was exactly what my eight-year-old's ski instructor had been telling him all winter. And as I'd learned, it really helps.
My first turns were cautious, and I paused to let a cascade of slough pass. I fell onto my hip momentarily on another turn, and then spotted Corey through the blowing snow and skied over to where he was waiting just below and outside the couloir, at the foot of the cliff we'd peered over minutes before.
"Avalanche!" Clark cried after making two turns into the chute above us. A shallow slab of snow had broken loose beneath her; it flowed like a river 10 feet in front of my skis. I waited tensely, half expecting the slide to spread and the snow to slip out from under me. Corey, who knew how these things work, stood behind me unfazed. I took his cue and tried to play it cool as the slide passed.
Twenty minutes later, we stood at the edge of a much- lower-elevation forest, looking back up at our tracks. "How steep do you think that was?" I asked. "Steep enough to make you feel like you were being pulled down by the bottom of your stomach!" Clark yelled through sideways-blowing snow.
It had been steep. It had been a little scary. But it had also been a lot of fun. I was starting to think that maybe I could do this.
"We're going to have to reconfigure our plans for tomorrow," Hatch told the group as we inhaled chips and salsa in the yurt that evening. "We're not going to be slaying any dragons out there, 'cause we're setting off slides." The advanced group had also set off a surface slide. "So far they're not enough to bury you, but they could take you for a ride into trees or over a cliff."
Corey was more sanguine. "It's manageable," he said. "It's shallow, isolated pockets, typically caused by wind at the top of the couloirs. So as long as we're careful and heads-up, with good communication up top and exit strategies, we should be in good shape."
NPR played on the yurt radio the next morning, and breakfast conversation turned to politics and the nature of wealth. We agreed that true wealth doesn't involve money; it comes from our experiences in the outdoors. Bachman smiled and said, "We've solved a lot of the world's problems up here at the yurt."
Soon we were slogging up the valley beneath Williams Peak and Thompson Peak, the latter, at 10,751 feet, the highest in the Sawtooths. Clark was huffing as I passed her. "I'm not an endurance athlete," she said. "I'll be surviving today." My legs were heavy with fatigue as well. At our side, a spiked arete extended off Williams Peak like a giant dimetrodon fin, its creases lined with slivers of hanging snow—the same couloirs I'd ogled incredulously the day before. Each one was, in theory, skiable, but gazing up at them, Clark and I simultaneously said, "That looks terrifying."
After an hour of hurling ourselves down a steep slope with our ice axes for self-arrest training (i.e., learning how to break a bad fall), we broke for lunch at the base of a sun-drenched rock. All eyes were on the array of couloirs across the basin. David Hewett, a 41-year-old bartender and world traveler from New York, pointed to a gaspingly steep, narrow, and high couloir at the top named Resurrection and said, "I want to ski that."
The guides suggested we ski What's Up Doc, a wider couloir beautifully studded with rock spires. It was more extreme than anything I'd ever attempted but, unlike Resurrection, did not make me tremble just looking at it. We traversed one by one across an avalanche zone to the couloir's base. Stutz skied up while I was affixing climbing skins (which provide traction for ascending), his eyes locked on the couloir, repeating, "I can do this. I can do this."
Hatch led the way, climbing toward the sun that reflected intensely off the snow and cliffs. As the rock walls closed in and we entered the couloir proper, it became too steep to skin. So, we strapped our skis to our packs and booted up the steps Hatch kicked in for us. Excitement flushed the heaviness from my legs.
The mood became decidedly more tense at the top. I took in the view and ducked into the shade of a rock wall to lock my boots and bindings into descent mode. Hatch made radio contact with Bachman, who was observing from across the basin, then went first, quickly dropping out of view. After Clark's husband, Erik, it was my turn. While tightening my pack straps, I asked Stutz how he was doing. "If this doesn't go well," he said gruffly, "I'm never skiing a couloir again."
Hewett took my picture, and I forced a smile while making a bad joke about losing bladder control. He laughed in a relaxed way. I laughed in a clenched way. I felt like I was about to jump out of a plane. Corey told me to make a couple of ski cuts across the top and watch for slough. His calmness quelled my butterflies.
"Ready?" he asked.
I nodded—this was it—and went. I cut across the top of the couloir and watched the slough slide away, but it didn't amass like it had yesterday. I started jumping into my turns, steady and controlled. The snow was smooth, pillowy, knee-deep powder, and I started skiing more aggressively, springing into that ecstatic feeling of weightlessness at every turn. I danced down the mountain, slicing through sunny patches and spraying snow onto the granite wall. Jubilation coursed through me as I realized, I've got this!
Near the bottom I rocketed through my rolling cloud of slough and let out a full-throated, adrenaline-fueled Woohoo!—a yell fit for wild mountains.
Stutz came next, making tight, cautious turns and stopping often to rest and compose himself. He too let out a whoop when he skied up to us. We skied out of the basin a half hour later, couloirs looming overhead. I stared up at Resurrection, which suddenly looked slightly less terrifying. I turned to Bachman, who had become a ski-mountaineering father figure, and said, "Do you think I could ski Resurrection?"
He said he thought I could, and seemed to mean it. I smiled all the way back to the yurt.
The next morning, as we stuffed ourselves with oatmeal and nuts, Bachman informed us that Hewett and Brent Hutchenson, the hard-charging snowboarders who had been laying down the trip's most advanced lines, would go with Corey to ski Resurrection, "because they've really been getting after it." The rest of us, he said, would do a loop through a neighboring basin and work on rope and belaying skills.
It took a few minutes for the disappointment to sink in. After my success on What's Up Doc, I was ready for more. That was when it hit me: I could ski Resurrection. I wanted to ski Resurrection. I needed to ski Resurrection.
I explained my newfound need to Bachman. He could see how badly I wanted this. The past three days had transformed me into a couloir junkie. He acquiesced with a smile, and I rushed off to prepare my gear.
Which is how I arrived atop this ax-blade ridge at 10,080 feet. I'm about to ski the kind of thing you see pictures of people skiing in magazines and say, "That's crazy." Except after three days in this camp it also seems doable.
Corey buries his ax in the snow as a deadman (or anchor point) and tethers himself to it with mountaineer's webbing. Hunkering down in a solid stance on the lip of the couloir, he runs a rope around his waist and says he's ready to belay us. Hewett clips the rope to the harness around his waist and drops in first. After carving smoothly down the scoured, 55-degree top section, he unclips and glides over to a safe zone behind a rock.
Now it's my turn. I quickly tighten my boots and clip the rope's carabiner to my harness, my heart beating in my ears. A charge surges through me. Then I leap down the elevator shaft.
My first few turns are good—tight, precise—as I spin my skis 180 degrees in the air with each jump. The rock walls rise up a few feet away on either side, so there's no room for error. This is as close as I ever hope to come to "you fall, you die" terrain. Then, in my excitement, I overdo a turn, stub the toe of a ski, and pitch forward. An image of the plummeting chute and rock walls below flashes through my head. For the first time in my life I enter that state of mind described by accident survivors where everything slows down. Every cell in my body goes into alarm mode, and one thought consumes me: Stop your fall.
Now plunging headfirst, I quickly flip over, swinging my legs down with force, attempting to dig my edges into the snow and ice under me. But then I realize that somehow my legs have completely crossed. Before I have time to comprehend how catastrophic this is, I come to a sudden stop.
I feel the yank of the rope on my harness—I forgot I was on belay. Corey has just saved me. This is why you hire guides.
Corey is peering over the edge. "I'm OK!" I yell while de-pretzeling myself. It takes a minute for my pulse to stop redlining.
A couple of weak-kneed turns later, I'm through the steep upper section. I unrope, ski over to a sheltered zone, and steady myself.
The rest of Resurrection passes without major incident, though I do not ski it as gracefully as I imagine I skied What's Up Doc. I stop often to rest my burning legs. The others carve down with inspiring power and elegance to a flurry of high fives at the bottom. Our smiles outshine the sun. I point out tracks left in the snow by mountain goats, and Hewett says, "Well, there's four more here today."
Skiing through the woods on our way out from the yurts that afternoon—at once exhausted and invigorated—I think about Hatch saying we wouldn't be slaying dragons. Except I think we did—the one called fear. I came to these mountains afraid, but I'm leaving them a ski mountaineer.
I stop on a gentle ridge where the forest opens to a view of the Sawtooths, and I study the peaks, looking for the routes we skied. Everywhere are more lines that I wouldn't have considered, or even recognized as possible, just a few days ago. But now that I've learned to dance in the high alpine, there's a whole new world to ski.
Aaron Teasdale is a writer and photographer based in Missoula, Montana. See more of his work at aaronteasdale.com.