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Zach Crist and Team Explore Preservation Issues on the Boulder-White Cloud ‘Wilderness’ Traverse
Posted on June 10, 2011

Story by Zach Crist

While there’s no place like home with my family, adventure in the mountains is always calling. It presents an opportunity to connect with good friends in an inspirational setting, allowing me the chance to unplug from the daily distractions of cell phones, emails and … well … other people. Sometimes I like to call “time-out” on everyday life to refocus priorities and renew my appreciation for all that I’m blessed with. Inevitably, the trip comes to an end and the reentry process begins. After eight days of phenomenal climbing and skiing through central Idaho, we were high on life and hoping for a soft landing in the “civilized” world. Instead, it was a rude awakening from a wonderful dream.

The Boulder-White Cloud Mountains of Idaho are located immediately to the northeast of my hometown, Sun Valley. As someone who has spent the better part of life exploring wild and scenic, snow-covered places, it’s strange that I’ve spent more time getting to know mountains in far away places—especially since these peaks hold some of the most spectacular skiing I’ve ever seen. Lately I’ve become more interested in rediscovering my own backyard and, lucky for me, I live at the gateway to America’s Wilderness heartland.

Not much is known about the skiing in the Boulder-White Cloud Range and for good reason—it’s remote! Getting into position for one of the many classic descents typically requires the use of a snowmobile or lightweight touring equipment and reliable overnight gear. The largest remaining unprotected natural area in the lower 48, the Boulder-White Clouds have recently become the subject of much debate. Congress is currently deliberating over a Wilderness Bill that will determine the future management style and modes of recreation allowed. Signed into law, the area would be protected under the Wilderness designation, which inherently limits public access by outlawing mechanized use.

It seems every Idahoan has an opinion on the proposed Wilderness though few seem based on hard facts or relevant experience. Instead, they are aligned in reference to the type of adventure toys in their garage. As someone who owns and operates just about every recreational device known to the mountain universe, I’m sitting uncomfortably high on the fence when it comes to adding more public land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. With more than 9 million acres of roadless territory, Idaho has more de facto wilderness than any other state outside of Alaska, but much of it is unprotected from future “development.” As someone who has tremendous respect and appreciation for wild lands, I figured the only way off the fence was through the heart of the Boulder-White Clouds.

Who better to join me than longtime friends, Erik Leidecker and Kent McBride, who are both IFMGA Guides (the rough equivalent of a Ph.D. in Mountain Guiding). Ski mountaineering with Kent and Erik must be like navigating Gotham City with Batman and Robin. Beyond their ingenious tools and clever tricks that make challenging conditions enjoyable, they are two of the most genuine souls I know. Every expedition traveler knows that great guides are more than strong leaders. They dramatically improve safety and positive group chemistry, which can be the difference between a trip of a lifetime and one you’d rather not remember.

On the eighth and final day, we dropped out of the mountains and into thick timber searching for the Slate Creek Hot Springs. A fitting end to a phenomenal trip, we’d imagined soaking our tired bodies in hotpots, reflecting on an extraordinary journey. Erik motioned us in his direction when he’d located the contour line that matched the elevation of the spring, but as we emerged from the woods we instead found an abandoned mine.

It was as if we’d entered into another dimension from the unspoiled beauty of the Boulder-White Clouds to a forsaken place turned upside down by prospectors of an earlier age. The hillsides had been scoured by powerful hydraulics, old structures stood half-ruined by time, garbage was littered all about, and the large settling pond below was likely once full of toxic chemicals used to leach precious metals. We found the hot springs nearby, though it looked so unappealing that none of us even stopped to consider. Rather, we continued down the creek in silence, contemplating the potential future of this precious land without the protection it clearly deserves.

“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”—Terry Tempest Williams

Author: - Friday, June 10th, 2011

  1. Mike Jaquet

    Great piece, Zach. Certainly a tough issue to leave to the hands of politicians who AT MOST have either flown over this in a plane or reviewed mining maps. Designating it Wilderness the only safe bet to keep what we need out–miners, loggers–out. Possibly a compromise could be a permitting process to gain access, similar to a hunting tag or a permit to go down the Middle Fork. The State could limit access by vehicles to manage the traffic in and out of the Wilderness.

  2. Eric Grootveld

    Well written, and well reasoned. Thank you for taking the time to articulate your position; your piece was much more respectful and reasonable than many in this debate.

    I agree with you 100% that this amazing landscape needs to be protected. I just think that we’d have a better shot at protecting it if we can make allies out of some of the groups that are currently opposed to Wilderness designation. Blue Ribbon Coalition has proposed a “Back Country” designation that I think would be supported by a large majority of the people in the debate today.

    If the goal is preservation and protection from logging, mining, and development, I think we would have mountain bikers, snowmobilers, and yes, motorcycle and ATV riders in support of a protective designation if it did not exclude those user groups. I’d rather have a few motorcycles on the trail than an open-pit mine where the trail used to be. I’d hate to see NO protection because we’re busy fighting about who should be allowed in and who should not.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to address this tough, thorny issue with such care!


  3. Michael Hatch

    As an Idahoan that has spent a considerable amount of time in the White Clouds I appreciate the perspective and reasoning. It should be noted that the White Clouds and Boulder Mountains have considerable protection already afforded to them by their inclusion in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). All mining claims within the SNRA have been bought out or where extinguished with its creation. People might want to read up on Congressman Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA)to look into the details of the plan I offer this perspective: keep it wild and non-motorized. There have been wilderness areas established that have allowed the inclusion of mechanized travel like mountain bikes, but kept out the motorized use. Dangle a carrot out to the motorized crowd with the addition of several access points like Fourth of July and Germania Creek. Maybe not surprisingly this approach doesn’t deviate much from how the BWC’s are managed currently; you give the area Big W protection, knock out most of the motorized use, but still allow for popular mechanized travel. How does that carrot taste?

  4. Jon Maksik

    Fine piece, Zach, and eloquent testimony to why (even if most of us never get there) wilderness matters. I hope even those with mechanized garage toys will understand. It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, an uphill battle.

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