Autumn Equinox today. The new season is roaring like a lion in this part of the country. Chased out of the mountains this past Friday by drenching rain and the first snows. Snow accumulations of over a foot in the high peaks. Snowed right here in town. No problem! I’m doing recovery therapy. Lotsa’ eating and snoozing, reading by the fireplace. Twice a day in the hot tub, its jets unbraiding skeleton man’s tight muscles. Got a professional massage too. I’ve been a slug, brain not sparking. But I’m looking forward to Indian Summer’s frosty mornings and cool days come the first week of October to finish the trek. I’ll be going solo.
So, the Pioneers, the last leg of our Home Country Walk-About ! We entered the range at the Summit Creek trailhead, 2,000 feet above Sun Valley village on a natural bridge between the Boulder and Pioneer crests on Sept 8th. Long-time friends Frank & Birgitta Lamb and Mark Stewart plus the four-man crew of Idaho Public TV’s “Outdoor Idaho” show – Bruce, Peter, Jay and Terry – accompanied us. The OI guys came along the first day and next morning to shoot a llama trekking clip for their upcoming portrait of the Pioneers (scheduled for release this Dec 7th), which includes Pioneer mining history, sheep ranching, antelope, a horse packing trip, skiing and a mountain bike race through the range. Plus the solar eclipse filmed from Pioneer Cabin (This will be a helluva’ film story and perhaps the most spectacular solar eclipse shots taken in Idaho!!)
Sarah, after a day and morning on the trail, found that her tailbone, injured in the White Clouds, and bum knee still hobbled her, decided to end her participation in the trek. An easy decision especially since we’d done most of the remaining Pioneer route last summer (see blog entry # 2 in the archive). Mark left with her and Frank, feeling the altitude, joined them. Birgitta, who, with Frank, had spent the summer at sea level in her native Finland, trekked on with me. Not surprising. I visualize Birgitta’s bloodline among the Viking bands that led the exploration and charge in discovering and conquering new lands. We trailed llamas Bono, Timber and a new guy, Sully, a handsome young fellow whose dark rouge head fur, which surrounded his eyes, gave him the appearance of wearing a mask. Combined with regal manner, he seemed a creature from a Broadway musical.
The residents of Wood River Valley see the Pioneers every day, especially the triad of big peaks – Hyndman, Old Hyndman and Cobb. They’re pyramids in the Valley’s eastern sky that attract the eye of every skier on Sun Valley’s world famous Mt. Baldy. When crossing the Snake River Plain, they signal home for Valley residents. Old timers called them the “Three Sisters”. They’re also part of an alpine country that pulled me away from Baldy, made me realize that this great ski mountain is but a postage stamp size piece of winter. My first off-piste or backcountry ski ventures began in the Pioneers while based at Pioneer Cabin.
When railway magnate and statesman Averill Harriman founded Sun Valley in 1936, he wanted to replicate the ski experience that he and his wealthy Guilded Age pals knew in Europe. Sun Valley became the nation’s first destination ski resort. Harriman’s engineers built and installed the first ski lifts in the world on Baldy and nearby Dollar, Ruud and Proctor mountains. He brought with him a cadre of European ski instructors who also helped build mountain huts beyond the SV village proper. They and the 10th Mountain Division troopers who fought in WWII and became Sun Valley ski instructors after the War established the European tradition of alpine ski touring. Pioneer Cabin, built before the War, is the first and only remaining hut of an early backcountry ski era at Sun Valley that was eclipsed by a booming growth in lift-served skiing across the United States that started in the fifties.
The view from the cabin is a dramatic alpine panorama matching any that I’ve seen including my own home ranges, Alaska, Canada, Europe and the Himalaya. It’s no surprise that someone among the many inspired by the view would paint “The Higher You Get, The Higher You Get” in white capital letters across the Cabin roof. Birgitta and I arrived at the Cabin just as a rain storm was breaking. Being inside triggered a flood of memory. I had not overnighted since the early sixties during a spring ski trip into the surrounding peaks. The walls and virtually every place you can write or carve upon inside cabin is covered by signatures. I began searching for testimony of my own visit over fifty years before, but in vain. If we had left our names, they were obliterated by the succession of visitor inscriptions through time, few deeper than the 1990’s. One room of the two-room cabin had been white washed this summer, this new canvass already crowded with 2017 signatures, feelings and epithets from folks all over the nation and world. When the rain stopped, I exited the cabin and climbed the rocky dome to the south, remembered our 1960’s descents off the dome, two young couples frolicking in the sunny morning. Thought of the 10th Mt Division ski instructors I taught with on Baldy and Dollar Mts. The Easter Bowl avalanche that fateful spring day in 1952 that claimed one of those guys. The day a young father and his two boys got off the old wooden chairlift at the top of Baldy and looked down Easter Bowl. He wanted to ski the Bowl, his boys wanted to go the other way. I looked West. Saw Baldy, my Baldy of countless descents. Saw the farthermost outline of mountains in the West where we began this trek the second week of July. Turned, admired the awesome crowns of the Pio in the fading light. Looked into the darkening sky and saw forever.
Back in the cabin, Birgitta and I skimmed through the messages in the stack of wire-bound Pioneer Cabin journals – all full and none predating this new century. “Most of it inane,” declared Birgitta, who was done after reading one log. I set the stack aside too. Only the words on the cabin’s roof and two other passages caused me pause. One, about Time, is pictured here. It was inked on the bunk upon which I slept. The other words, “The Pursuit is Happiness”, were embossed on the cover of Birgitta’s personal journal, which she placed on top of the journal pile. Before leaving next morning, Birgitta ripped her own pages out, tore most up and threw them in the wood stove, made the first entry in the new journal then cleaned-up our half of the two-room cabin, the side with the stove and crude furnishings - wooden table, benches and shelves, all smooth and worn except the metal-framed bunks which are new. We slept that night, amongst the scurrying of mice and the louder noise of a packrat at work the Cabin’s single door propped wide open. In the morning, Birgitta left the first entry in the new Pioneer Cabin log, a terse, but diplomatic piece about keeping the place clean. We hauled out two llama packs full of trash. My entry was about Pioneer Cabin’s place in Sun Valley backcountry ski history, the fact that backcountry skiing, the new siren, is very much alive today. Sawtooth Mt. Guides operates one hut in the Sawtooth. Sun Valley Trekking Company, of which I’m the founder and former owner, operates 6 backcountry huts. Two in the Sawtooth, three in the Smoky and one in the Pioneer, the latter, the Pioneer Yurt, Birgitta’s and my final destination for this leg of the Pioneer Trek.
Next morning we dropped, quite literally, down the steep switch-back trail to the North Fork of Hyndman Creek. On a slope next to a narrow quartz slot that carried the creek’s cascading waters, Birgitta dictated thoughts on her cell phone for an hour while the boys rested on their legs in that classic sphinx position. I found a route through a wedge of timber beyond the slot. Had to cut only one log along the game trail I followed to a high picturesque meadow I now call ‘Meadow Lake’. What remains of the lake I knew when I first rambled this part of the Pioneers is a shallow pond, its edges trampled by grazing sheep seeking water. It looked like any old stock pond down in the low country. At least the sheep were gone. We’d not be inundated by a tide of a 1,000 woolies or barking guard dogs like we were our third night at another ‘pristine’ high alpine meadow. Unlike the wilderness ranges of the Sawtooth, Middle Fork of the Salmon, White Cloud, Jerry Peak and Boulder, the spectacular alpine country of the Pioneer is managed by the Forest Service for Multiple Use. Sheep grazing in the high meadows is allowed early in the autumn.
That evening the boys were on their feet, watching elk cows and calves who had come to water at the pond. They were especially alert to the coyotes calling and yipping as they ringed the meadow when darkness fell. And Timber, who was sleeping, sphinx position, next to my tent mewed pathetically when the heavens burst open at 4 AM next day, a drenching rain that was preceded by incredible bursts of lightning and ground shaking claps of thunder. I could not sleep, awed by the spectacle and thinking of Meadow Lake flooding. The rain continued through the next morning. Finally convinced it was an all-day event, we collapsed and packed camp and trekked off. By the time we made it to the Pioneer Yurt our boots gushed water and the llamas thick coats looked like wet mops. We were grateful to have the yurt as shelter that night to dry out, but for the llamas, the fireworks of another deluge broke. Early next morning, wet snow falling, we saddled and packed shivering llamas. Both llamas and their packers kept a brisk pace all the way to the trailhead.