The Sawtooth Mountains are a range of jagged remoteness with the highest concentration of 10,000-foot peaks in the lower 48 states. The couloir-laden peaks are centered on the small, isolated town of Stanley, Idaho, which is an epicenter of whitewater in the summers but becomes a starting point for backcountry skiers when the temperatures drop and the snows of winter arrive. Eddie Bauer First Ascent Guide Erik Leidecker is the co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, which operates a ski touring yurt system that sits in the middle of some of the best wilderness ski terrain in the lower 48. Yet the structures are not permanent and each fall prepping the huts for winter takes some serious guide manpower. This is his pre-seasonal report of what it takes to get them ready to go. –LYA editor
Words and Images by Erik Leidecker
In 1988, Sawtooth Mountain Guides owner Kirk Bachman set up a Mongolian style yurt on the broad flanks of the lower east ridge of Williams Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. The site, which today consists of two huts capable of sleeping up to 16 skiers, has become known as the Williams Peak Yurt and is home to some of the best ski terrain in North America.
Nomadic people of Mongolia first used yurts on the steppes of Central Asia nearly 3,000 years ago. In Idaho, Bachman pioneered their use for ski touring in the late seventies and continues to build them today. The alder lattice walls and hand-hewn rafters radiating from the center ring create a space that feels like actual architecture. And yet they are still semi-permanent structures. Each year in late spring, the yurts come down for the summer. Then in the fall, in what has become a prolonged ritual in anticipation of ski season, they go back up to service face shots, steep coulies and cozy nights for what totals hundreds of happy skiers over the course of a season.
The Williams Peak Yurt site consists of a sixteen-foot yurt with bunks and a woodstove, and a twenty-foot yurt with bunks, woodstove, dining table, and kitchen complete with propane stove, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, and a hand-cranked blender. Adjacent to the yurts, underneath big Douglas firs, are the sauna and outhouse. Guests need only carry light sleeping bags and food in addition to their normal ski touring equipment.
For 2012, the site was in serious need of 100,000-mile maintenance. The outhouse needed relocating, the sauna needed a remodel, and the smaller sixteen-foot “sleeping” yurt needed new bunks. So work started early this year. That is to say, the huts never completely came down for the summer. Left erected, the wood had a chance to really dry out during the warmer months. In September, the lattice and rafters received a fresh coat of oil and the summer guide intern dug a new outhouse hole, which was so impressively deep that it will guarantee him a job next year! Also, yurt-meister Bachman repaired the aging vinyl roof cover on “the 16” and replaced the wall cover on “the 20.”
Once the huts themselves were good to go, which was by mid-October, the annual wood-cutting party came next. 10 volunteers from the SMG “Golden Eagle Club” (members trade wood-cutting labor for hut rental fees) converged on the Williams Peak Yurt for a weekend of chainsaws, sawdust, and lots of ibuprofen. 8-10 cords is the seasonal benchmark and this year’s crew did not disappoint. Fortunately, one of the Golden Eagle clubbers brought his horses and packed in plenty of logger-friendly lager (PBR), as well as decking material for the new bunks. By the end of the trip the woodpile bulged, new solar-powered LED lamps illuminated the huts, and the checklist for the next trip grew shorter and shorter.
Two weeks later, a new crew consisting of SMG owners and guides returned for a one-night blitz to finish the furniture and renovate the sauna. Armed with an arsenal of cordless tool batteries, the work party was hugely successful and completed the tasks by two o’clock on the second day. Bunks with futon-style beds and a better-insulated and better-looking sauna now await visitors for the 2012-2013 winter.
Setting up the huts and cutting firewood is often hard, backbreaking work. And construction projects in the mountains pose unique challenges. The nearest outlet is 6 miles away, tools are often improvised, and the working conditions are frequently cold, snowy, and sometimes dangerous. On the flip side, however, the commute, a four-mile hike along the moraine above Fishhook Creek with views of Mt. Heyburn and Thompson, Williams, and Horstmann Peaks, never gets old. And of course the work is for a very noble cause—backcountry skiing. For every swing of the hammer during the fall, there will be an elegant powder turn in the winter. For every limb cut, there will be a snowy face shot. For every staple tacked, there will be a frosty exhale while breaking trail. And for every log stacked there will be a crackle in the stove at the end of another gorgeous day in the mountains.
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