Story by Erik Leidecker
On May 4, First Ascent ski guides Zach Crist, Kent McBride and I completed a seven-day ski-traverse of the Boulder and White Cloud ranges in central Idaho. A long, high, crisscrossing of Idaho’s big mountains had long been Zach’s brainchild, and we had been dubbing the trip the Idaho Haute Route, though I don’t think it resembles its counterpart in the Alps much at all.
The European Haute Route links trams, small towns, and well-equipped mountain huts. Our route took us through the heart of a proposed wilderness area, the fate of which rests in the hands of our legislative branch of our government. One of the controversies behind wilderness designation for this area is the closure of motorized access. Especially in the White Cloud range, it is still possible to access pristine alpine terrain via motorized vehicle (mainly motorcycles), and this user group is justifiably concerned about being shut out of some spectacular country. Although the vast majority of our trip was under our own power, we used snow machines for one food resupply and to shuffle expedition members in and out of the two main phases of the trip.
Despite having spent most of my life in the mountain of central Idaho, much of this terrain was new to me, and I was reminded again of just how exciting the backyard can be! As a result of above average late season snow fall, the White Clouds resembled the spiny faces of Alaska. Even though we were never more than 60 miles from home, there were times when that raw, edgy feeling of being deep and alone in the mountains seeped into our minds and tempered our decisions.
On the last day of the trip, we descended a small tributary of the Salmon River called Slate Creek to the news that both Osama Bin Laden, and prominent ski mountaineer Kip Garre had been killed while we were in the mountains. Although I don’t agree with the people who celebrated Bin Laden’s death, I have to confess that I couldn’t stop the muscles in my face from involuntarily making a smile. But although I never knew Kip Garre, our lives were very much in parallel, and smiling was definitely not my response.
The mountains are both sanctuary and executioner. Bin Laden probably hid out for years in the rugged terra incognito of central Asia. Kip Garre built his life in the mountains. They called to him and inspired him, just as they do for Zach, Kent, and me. But often, though they fill us with wonder, awe, and joy, they can also kill us. The trick is to walk that fine line.
Again in my life I’m reminded of Edward Abbey’s words, “Balance, that’s the secret … The best of both worlds.” In Desert Solitaire, Abbey was talking about the balance between civilization and wilderness. For me, his words almost always resonate as a nearly perfect mountain mantra.
I don’t go to the mountains for meaning or answers, but nonetheless there is learning. Oftentimes, the enrichment doesn’t come until later, like when you’re writing about an expedition. But from our Idaho Haute Route, I’ve learned once again about the importance of that ever-delicate tightrope walk that is our life in the mountains.
Of course, when you’re out there, you’re not thinking about sanctuary or execution, or quotes from famous writers!
One of the things I was thinking about, more often than I normally might on a spring ski traverse, was how to stay warm! Temperatures were unseasonably cold, and our kits were trimmed down to save volume in our small packs, as well as weight. “Fast and light is better than slow and bloated,” I tell my two daughters, though in this case I almost wished I brought a Mountain Guide Down Jacket over my more svelte Igniter. There’s that fine line again, in this case the compromise between a lighter pack and comfort in camp. On one night, it was so cold that even when I got in my sleeping bag I never really got warm.
Something else I was thinking about a lot was how I was going to keep my iPhone charged! On this trip I was experimenting with a mapping and GPS app, which really suck the life out of the iPhone battery. But the technology is truly remarkable. With one touch of the screen, I see our exact location on a detailed 7.5-minute series topographical map, the same I might otherwise carry. When in a white-out (which we sometimes were), all I needed to do was rotate the phone until our desired heading appeared on the map, look up to see what direction was in the field, and start moving! No compass bearings. No transferring coordinates from a GPS to a map. One of my guide training instructors said that someday we would carry digital maps that showed our exact location on the screen. I guess that future is now! (I kept my phone, as well as Kent’s and Zach’s charged with a Goal Zero solar panel and battery pack, which worked great).
It hit me many times throughout our trip how effective a testing ground these trips really are. In addition to using the phone to navigate for the first time, we had some prototype pieces with us, and when you use this gear in an environment where dependability really matters, the feedback and evaluation process is simple. When we reached the divide above the Chamberlain Basin, it was 6:30 p.m., snowing 2 inches an hour, and we still needed to descend into the basin and set up our light single-wall tents in a snow storm. A soft shell fabric that doesn’t wick well in these conditions will leave you cold and shivering. We returned to the world of R&D with legitimate product feedback as well as validation that gear we designed and built performs remarkably well when it really counts.
In the end, though, I realize the importance of a home base. In a few days I’ll be traveling to Europe for five weeks of guiding. I’m not a big globetrotter, but I’ve climbed and guided throughout the United States, North America, South America, and Europe. Maybe someday I’ll visit Asia, but then again maybe not. Chances to visit far off mountains will come and go, but having them at home, as a part of home, is truly a blessing.
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