This is steep. No, this is really steep. Probably the steepest sustained pitch I have ever been on without a rope. Half stoked and totally terrified I continue, one foot in front of the other.
The boot pack surges up the narrow chute and I follow. Don't look down, I remind myself. Thankfully the banter between the five of us keeps my mind marginally occupied. Our guide, Marc Hanselman, is tractoring to the saddle, knocking down sugary sluff with each kick. We have been booting up the line for 30 minutes and I am finally able to see the ridge. There is a cornice the size of a school bus at the top. Appropriately, the line is called JC, short for Jesus Christ. For a moment I look up towards the ragged edges of the peak, then down to the valley floor. The pitch is probably 50-55 degrees, but it feels much steeper.
Marc climbs up and around the cornice, breaking trail for us to follow. On top, I peer over the edge. From the center of the ridgeline you can look down 1,500 feet on either side. It is not razor thin, but you certainly want to be paying attention as you transition to skiing. A fall comes with severe consequences.
My stomach has butterflies as I near the edge. I feel more comfortable with my skis on, boots clamped down tightly. The heights that come along with booting up a steep gully known as a couloir are always mentally draining for me, but I am here. Perched deep in the Sawtooth Mountains in southern Idaho to ski steep lines and hone my ski mountaineering skills, I think to myself, "Welcome to Chute School," as I slide over the edge.
Each spring Sawtooth Mountain Guides based in Stanley, Idaho, holds court over four days, teaching participants the craft of skiing couloirs in south central Idaho. They call it Ski Mountaineering Camp (aka Chute School). Some five miles up the track sit two cozy yurts, a blazing hot wood-fired sauna, and a two-hole backcountry toilet with a million-dollar view. The packing list for the trip means business; harness, ATC, ski crampons, ice axe ... You name a mountaineering apparatus, it's on the list. The conditions dictate the curriculum and we have lucked out with bluebird skies, moderate avalanche conditions and cold temperatures. We are not going to be rappelling into couloirs this trip because the snowpack is still too deep. But this isn't a problem; it only means more skiing.
We assemble into teams; ours consists of all Spokanites: John Stifter, Ryan Ricard and Jeff Oswalt. Our guide, Marc, is a Sun Valley native and has been guiding since 1999. He is an unassuming badass and we learn in short order that he probably has an extra lung and his legs are made of axe handles.
Marc beeps us in using his avalanche transceiver and we are off, weary from the previous day of touring. There is no shortage of terrain in the Sawtooths, but I would suggest a guide for your first outing. Much of what is seen from the valley floor looks un-skiable until you're tucked in the notch above the boot pack with a nervous stomach, about to drop in. ♦
Sawtooth Mountain Guides • Stanley, Idaho • 208-806-3063 • sawtoothguides.com