With warm weather, blue skies and deep snowpacks still lingering in the high peaks of the American West, ski traverse season is in full swing from Washington to Wyoming. First Ascent’s Zach Crist, Wyatt Caldwell and Erik Leidecker—and a complementary crew of Sun Valley chargers—took advantage of the prime weather of the high season to head out for a long tour through Idaho’s historic Pioneer Range. What they found in their own wild backyard was some late spring pow, a 75-year old ski cabin and a historical connection to the Austrian expats and Tenth Mountain Division regulars who together created one of America’s oldest ski cultures. This is their story of the Pioneers. -EB EditorWords by Zach Crist, Images by Cody Doucette
When Sun Valley Resort opened in 1936, climbing up snow-covered slopes and sliding down them atop two wooden planks was a lofty pursuit, even for the most adventurous Americans. But the Nazi invasion of Europe radically accelerated the spread of mountain savvy as the worlds most experienced skiers were flushed from their village homes in the Alps. Several of them found their way to familiar territory in southern Idaho where they explored a dramatic alpine landscape, sewing the seeds of a nascent culture of American ski mountaineers. 75 years later, a small group of us thought we should pay tribute to those adventurous souls by way of a multi-day traverse through the, aptly named, Pioneer Mountains.
Hannes Schneider had established the worlds first ski school in St Anton, Austria, but in 1935 the Germans marched into town, seized his home and imprisoned him. His team of prodigal instructors quickly dispersed, escaping a similar fate by crossing borders on overnight trains with false documents in hand. Several of these men were recruited by Austrian dignitary, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, who was hired by Union Pacific Railroad to assemble a team of ski instructors for their new resort in Sun Valley. America’s first destination ski area became an immediate success after blending a cast of influential Hollywood guests with a small fraternity of elite ski mountaineers. Guests returned home on UPR’s ‘overnight express’ intoxicated with fantastic memories of climbing, skiing and partying in a mountain paradise.
Joined by my good buddies, Erik Leidecker, brothers Kitt and Cody Doucette and Yancy and Wyatt Caldwell, we drove ten minutes east of Sun Valley and started skinning our way to the Pioneer Cabin. Built in 1937 the classic old shack still provides decent shelter and phenomenal views of peaks named after the men who first explored them—several of whom later joined the 10th Mountain Division that successfully ambushed the Nazis on Riva Ridge, a bloody mountainside battle that is said to have reversed the momentum of World War II. In the following days we retraced some of the classic routes, the face of the Salzburger Spitzl and the west couloirs off Duncan Ridge before moving camp to the newly revamped Pio Hut, a Mongolian style yurt fully equipped with a kitchen, wood burning stove, eight bunks and a sauna.
We awoke in the lap of mountain luxury to temps in the mid 40′s. Our plan was to make use of a cache dropped by friends that would allow us three more days of climbing and skiing our way to the east. With some of the most Alps-like terrain in the lower 48, it’s no surprise that European ski mountaineers would have felt right at home in the Pios. Several summits reach over 11,000 feet and feature long, steep ramps offering mind-blowing descents, but a remarkable warming trend meant sharply increased hazard in terrain like this. Having anticipated the heat wave, we consumed as much food and alcohol as possible the previous night, partly to avoid an early exit with heavy packs, but mostly to celebrate these dramatic peaks and the men who forever changed the way Americans thought of winter recreation and life in the mountains.
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