Skiing goals for some people are about making the U.S. Ski Team. For others, it is about not crashing in a tandem Telemark race or scoring the most points for the best Hawaiian Nationals costume. Off piste, the big achievement is a backcountry expedition in search of spring corn, late powder and the call of the wild. The venue is a time-honored tradition of traveling through the high country on what is known in Europe as an "haute route" traverse. What is the draw of backcountry travel in winter? Look to ski guides for answers.
"Skiing is the easiest way to cross the Sawtooth Mountains," says Sun Valley Trekking owner Joe St. Onge. That is, if Mother Nature sets up conditions for sliding as opposed to plodding. In the best-case scenario, mountain slopes are anchored with safe corn and powder snow rather than loaded with avalanche hang fire. Such travel is rapidly becoming popular, and for competitive types, "Rondo races" smack of the old ways and may even be the future of ski racing. At the very least, backcountry skiing is certainly reaching new heights.
A positive attitude is to be expected from a man dedicated to the pursuit of powder. But in an initial description of a nine-day spring Sawtooth adventure when precipitation vacillated between snow and rain, St. Onge makes the idea of spending more than a week sleeping in the cold positively unappealing. Yet, something inexplicable appears behind St. Onge's big ready smile as he discusses ski adventures and the guiding career he shares with his wife, Francie, Sun Valley Trekking co-owners Scott and Carrie Douglas and a cadre of other guides and itinerant ski bums. Words fail to explain St. Onge's odd visage. At first blush, the secret pleasures of the winter backcountry remain a mystery.
The idea of the traverse is to stay right at tree line--above 8,000 feet—cruising the highest alpine terrain from point A to point B, St. Onge explains. Traveling through the watersheds of the Payette and Boise rivers, contact with alpine flora and fauna and an immersion in alpine ecology are at the very least compelling, if not spiritually awakening. Following one of St. Onge's pre-planned routes allows time each day for rest and relaxation or bagging peaks in the quest for perfect extracurricular tracks.
The Sawtooth Traverse is akin to any of the most famous routes in Europe or the Sierras except that there are no huts. In a fashion, modern equipment like a satellite telephone aside, a haute route ski tour in Idaho is a throwback to the origins of skiing, primarily because it is absolutely rustic. Sun Valley Trekking operates six backcountry huts in the Smoky, Sawtooth and Pioneer mountains, but for the purposes of a Sawtooth trip, accommodations are arranged under the stars in the pure fallen snow. The adventure is the vision of Sun Valley Trekking founder and willing consultant, Ketchum's Bob Jonas.
Listening to St. Onge's explanations of the route finding and map study that goes into planning food caches--two en route to help keep packs light--and other logistics far in advance of the trip, St. Onge's special look is still inexplicable. Perhaps interviewing a client will give a clue in the quest to understand the appeal of winter camping.
"I've skied Europe and most of this country in one place or another," says Will Prior, a 72-year-old local who migrates to Colorado with his ski buddies with winter camping gear each spring for "corn camp." He joined a party of 10 skiers to complete a Sawtooth Traverse lead by Francie and Joe St. Onge in April 2006. "I started backcountry skiing 20 or 25 years ago. The first really good (traverse) was the length of the Sierra Nevada from (Mt.) Whitney to Matterhorn Peak. That took four trips of six days each. Nine days in the Sawtooths was equally a grand experience. There is nobody around. It goes over passes that are a tough go in the summer. It is great to be in wilderness and do it in one fell swoop."
Hearing from Prior how effortless the trip seemed and what good operators Joe and Francie are ("technically very proficient"), it is still necessary to dig deeper to get to the bottom of that look on Joe's face. Maybe it was simply the weather on Prior's trip.
"Francie called it "srain," St. Onge says, laughing as he explains that high temperatures on day one of Prior's trip gave everyone at least a bit of consternation about how the trip might unfold. But, the weather wasn't it either. The group chose to forge ahead and bear with a little wetness, resting in the knowledge that the snowpack was one of the best Idaho had to offer in recent years. Prior's party was indeed to be rewarded with some excellent powder skiing followed by remarkable corn skiing and finally a 50-degree spring day for the final 10-mile ski out to Petit Lake on the last day of the journey.
"There is something that is so satisfying about jumping in your car for about 45 minutes and disappearing into one of the great ski mountain ranges and not seeing a soul, partially because it's not easily accessible for everyone. You've got to want it," St. Onge says.
With that comment and a sudden memory of St. Onge's recent health concerns, a light bulb goes off and the backcountry secret gives up the ghost. It is all about the "powder pod" on Bald Mountain and the fact that Prior's trip had taken three years to put together.
As St. Onge continues to describe the technical skill and decision-making that goes into pulling off such a trip, reality hits like a ton of bricks with the cementing feel of being under a heap of avalanche debris. When one is not too dense to pick up on what is blatantly obvious, the key to enjoying backcountry winter becomes starkly apparent.
A wave of clarity precedes St. Onge's next sentence that finally clarifies his general countenance and why completing an "haute route" traverse is so important to a skier's complete experience.
"At one point, I thought I was going to lose my leg," St. Onge says, explaining the complications of an osteotomy, an operation he endured in which a surgeon cut bone in his leg to realign it. Since a childhood injury, the leg shot off at a crazy angle and was rapidly deteriorating, causing St. Onge profound discomfort. The fix laid him up for a year and a half. For an international mountain guide, having the use of both legs is critical.
To be able to ski that winter, St. Onge rigged up a sit-ski. His vehicle was affectionately named the "powder pod" because, flanked by friends who acted as his personal "storm troopers" on a powder day, St. Onge would literally disappear like a seed as he blasted through deep snow. The storm troopers had to keep up with him to keep track of him. Even though his helmet acted as a type of snorkel, accomplices had to make sure he didn't drown. As St. Onge said, you've got to want it.
As with snow, there is always more to the story than meets the eye. From the look of him and listening to St. Onge describe the Sawtooth Traverse, you'd never know he had been through any ordeal except that his manner is somehow brighter.
Adventure and exploration are the epitome of his work, which academically is to study the origins of landscapes and the connection to humanity.
"The great explorers of history have been geographers," St. Onge says, explaining part of his motivation for guiding the Sawtooth Traverse. "That's the point--to be out there. You can't just jaunt back out to the trailhead. There's a huge commitment factor."
Healing his own body was a major endeavor, but preparation is always the biggest chore in the guiding business. The keys to the success of a haute route trip are hot brews at 7 a.m., three to six miles of skiing a day and getting to the next camp by 3 p.m., St. Onge says. Pacing typically breaks down into group A and group B with the ultra-marathoners breaking trail.
"The route is planned in such a way that you have time to explore--follow your bliss, whatever that may be," St. Onge says. "You hike in two hours and you see few signs of people. Immediately, you feel different. It takes a couple of days to leave the village behind. But, two or three miles from the trailhead, in the wilderness, it's like going home."