Pioneer Mountains Touring

Pioneer Mountains, Sawtooth National Forest

So far, the season’s been great, no complaints after a wreck like last year. But a cold snap in early January and heavy precip over mid-month weeks wreaked havoc on snow stability in the cascades. The bottom line… We have so much snow, it insists upon moving en mass. That rules out a lot of peaks, too many.

So, cornered in the lowlands, or tepid lift lines, we did what any good peaker would do, packed up the whole operation for greener pastures with no regard for human cost. The logistics were staggering. I’ll never forget the night David burned his couch to make room for stacked carbon copies. To speak of broken friendship. Regret beyond recompense. And worst of all, we carried a lingering sense of dread that every road led to financial ruin.

The day was unseasonably warm and wet in Seattle. Water rose in my basement as I locked the front door. Walking away, I wasn’t sure anything would be left when we got back…

Pioneer Yurt Trip near Sun Valley, Idaho

wrapping up affairs. cred: Brian Behrens

headed for greener pastures. cred: Andrew Powers

through these blades be Pios. cred: Andrew Powers

Our terrible purpose led us to Hailey, Idaho, where the mountains are high and the snow is dry. If you don’t know Hailey, maybe you’ve heard of Sun Valley, a resort town in south central. It’s a pretty upscale spot, but boy oh boy, there are mountains everywhere around there. We booked a yurt through our friends at Sun Valley Trekking for four nights in the Pioneer Mountains, just east of town.

Pioneer Yurt Trip near Sun Valley, Idaho

“What do you guys think, should we hit the airport in Hailey first?” Check that one off the list… cred: Brian Behrens

What we knew… The Pio yurt is high. At 8,700 feet, we had a good shot at consistently cold temps and a deep base. Towering peaks abound. Hyndman Peak (12,009′) is within striking distance in addition to a variety of closer, yet no less extreme objectives on adjacent peaks and ridges.

What we didn’t know… The Pios are notorious for high winds that shift dramatically over the course of a single storm. As we walked the streets of Ketchum, and rubbed shoulders with the good folks at Backwoods Mountain Sports and Lefty’s Bar and Grill, we quickly realized that commitment to high and exposed terrain had to be a game time decision. It’d be all-time or wind loading would trap us in the yurt. We had to get out there to find out.

Damn. Okay. Cred: Andrew Powers

Dreams carried us into the mountains… Only dreams could drive us out.

January 22nd, 2016

Duncan Ridge
Our first full day at the Pioneer Yurt was a bit of a leisurely one. A heavy snowstorm outside as well as an elevation adjustment were both contributing factors to this. We had received a tip that the tree skiing off of the south side of Duncan Ridge was good on stormy, low-vis days so we set off to scout out our new environment.

Tiff laying one down

Breaking trail in the two feet new snow that continued to fall made for slow going, but many hands made light work and with nine people in our group everybody got a turn on the snowplow. We topped out at 10,900 ft and rode the ridge back toward the yurt. Good, steep, open tree skiing with enough snow to bury a small SUV on a hard carve. We will revisit this zone again.

Eyeing our couloir from the bottom of Cobb

Cobb Peak
After lunch we were ready to do some more exploring. In anticipation of a future Cobb Peak attempt we thought it wise to preempt a skin track for later use.

From Duncan ridge we had eyed a short couloir of the north side of Cobb around 10,000 ft so again we set off, making itonly to about 9,200 ft before an unstable storm slab forced us to change plans and bail up into the valley below Hyndman. The snow continued to show no signs of stopping.

January 23rd, 2016

Cobb Peak, Comma Couloir
After approaching Cobb from the southwest we finally reached the south bowl and got a great vantage point on the ultimate objective – comma couloir.

Since we were short on time and had no previous beta on the winter route, we decided on a route that had us entering the couloir about 1/4 of the way up by traversing through the rocks to the west of the couloir proper. It looked achievable.

The bowl went from flat to steep quickly and soon we were setting a boot pack in waist deep powder on 35 degree powder. It was laboriously slow but fine safety-wise until we got to the traverse. It was a foot of powder over rocks everywhere. This was difficult to navigate as the snowboard boots were unable to track against the Rock and we kept slipping. Not to mention if you got caught in a slough here the snow would take you down 400-500 feet.

The clouds came in and out but there aint no stoppin Behrens

So we turned it around 1k shy of the summit and boarded down. If I could do it again under the same conditions, I would probably enter the couloir at its proper base. It’ll take longer but it may be doable. Ideally though you would hit this peak in the early spring once the base is a little more set in place. That would likely allow the traverse.

Big Basin toward Old Hyndman
Sam, Spencer and I left at dawn for a summit attempt on Old Hyndman. We got to within 500 feet of our objective after a long tour up valley. Turned around due to stability concerns on the couloirs below the peak.

Duncan Ridge, Night Ride
I think everybody had got after it super hard at this point and was probably pretty beat given that we were a few days in and feeling well acclimated. However that did not prevent us from taking advantage of the full moon and going for a midnight run.

Any clouds that may have lingered during the day from the storm were completely gone by sunset but even though it was clear the wind was kicking up snow creating a kind of haze around the moon that prevented it from illuminating the surrounding hills as brightly as it might normally. Regardless there was still plenty of light to see by when we stumbled out at 12:00am.

We had stayed up by drinking whiskey which served a double purpose of keeping us warm in the single digit temps. We chose the ridge because by now we were familiar with the zone and it sat sheltered at the end of the valley where the wind was sending most of the snow. So a group of 12 set off into the night to ride waist deep pow.
Cred: Charlie Coultas

January 24th, 2016

9920 & The Peanut
Looking for a bit of a cool down from the previous days Cobb Peak, we headed out in front of the hut for some casual turns. We had eyed a southwest facing slope from The Peanut the day before that desperately needed some turns on it. We were happy to oblige. A few teams had been up this direction on other days in various capacities but had always rode back in the direction of the hut.

The weather was sunny, and fairly warm at this point and the skin up was quick despite having to break a new trail. By far the nicest day we had on the trip and the turns down the backside also fell into that category as well. From there we split up the tree line on the back side of The Peanut topping out on it, for a run back to the hut on a face that also insisted on being skied, despite the obvious wind scouring that had occurred the previous day. The fact that we opted for a clearly inferior run due a primal urge to put tracks down this particular aspect, while perfectly deep turns sat only 200 yards away speaks to just how good we got it in Idaho.

Stevens Pass Movies

Jim Hill Mountain, Lanham Lake

What happens when 6 peakers commit to a moderate Saturday tour off Highway 2? We weigh accessibility, snow stability and snow quality to select a suitable tour for the day. We had the following constraints to work with:

  • Somewhere on Highway 2
  • Moderate avalanche risk
  • No new snow in the last 5 days
  • Sunny conditions over preceding days
  • Solid base
  • Calm weather

We chose Jim Hill Mountain for the following reasons:

  • Accessible from Stevens Pass Nordic Center via Lanham Lake
  • Northern aspect (snow less likely to be sun effected)
  • 3500 feet and 10 miles (good distance for Jan daylight)

The results were solid. Major takeaways for those doing the tour:

  • Go left at Lanham Lake to ascend the eastern slope of the valley and gain the ridge at 5500 feet.
  • Travel quickly to allow time for laps on the upper bowls.
  • On the descent, traverse right (north) along the ridge to avoid getting cliffed out.
  • See map for additional context

Here’s the play by play…

08:40 am – Stevens Pass Nordic Center Parking lot

David questions the quality of snow given parking lot temperature, ~32 F.

Jim Hill Mountain

David discusses the route with Tim and Whitney in the parking lot

09:00 am – Lanham Lake Trail

We set out from the Nordic Center through the woods. The trail is well marked and well traveled. We don’t do much route finding. The route climbs gradually toward Lanham Lake along the west side of the drainage.

10:05 am – Lanham Lake

We arrive at the lake, eat a quick snack and follow the skin track across the lake continuing up the valley. Visibility is poor, but we see the lower slopes of Jim Hill ahead.

Jim Hill Mountain

The crew crosses Lanham Lake

10:35 am – Upper Valley, Lanham Lake

We stop to consider route options. The existing skin track doesn’t head “up” the way we expect it to. We question whether or not we went to far up valley. From Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes Washington, we know the route ascends the valley’s eastern slope and gains the ridge at 5500 feet. After several minutes of discussion, we cut back and across that slope.

Jim Hill Mountain

We approach the head of the valley and start to question our route. In retrospect, we should have started climbing the ridge at the lake.

12:05 pm – Almost to the ridge

We pay dearly for our navigational error at the lake. Sam sets a fierce skin track to get us back to the standard route. The trees are tight and the hillside steep. Ultimately we boot up a 150m section to get through the worst of it. Brian steps on a submerged tree and drops 4 feet into the snow. Go left at the lake, you’ll burn a lot less energy.

01:00 pm – On the Ridge

Things go faster once we connect with a skin track that climbs moderately toward the ridge. Up on the ridge, we approach the bottom of the cloud layer. We entertain the idea that we might break through.

Skinning on the ridge, seeking the sun

01:15 pm – On the Ridge, 6,200 feet

We have  a decision to make… We’re on the ridge facing south towards Jim Hill. To our left, is a bowl with tracks and people descending toward Henry Creek (the other ascent route). We see a saddle that provides access to a ridge that leads to Jim Hill. However to reach this, we need to traverse/descend into the bowl, then climb to the saddle.

To our right is a continuation of the ridge that we’re already on. There’s a saddle just west of the peak. If we can get to that saddle, we will boot the last two hundred feet to the peak, enjoy the views and descend.

We decide to head right. There’s another group behind us that heads left.

01:30 pm – Jim Hill Mountain, 6,400 feet

The ridge terminates in the upper slopes of Jim Hill Mountain. Sam and I survey the bowl below the peak and immediately notice the debris of a large slide.

A slide path under Jim Hill Mountain (left)

We see another debris field further up the bowl, under the saddle to the right of Jim Hill. We’re in a safe place, so we wait for the group and study the terrain. We see evidence of wind affected snow close to the ridge line. NWAC listed wind slab as a potential risk for the day and this confirms that there’s high risk on the terrain ahead. After discussion with the group, we decide to descend the same way we came up.

Making the call to turn around. It’s cold in the shade

02:15 pm – Dropping off the Ridge

We hug the ridge on the way down as we drop towards Lanham Lake. We find many open powder pockets in the trees.

Whitney grinning ear to ear

David makes the white fly

The trees are quite dense in places, and the terrain is steep. We proceed with caution and stick together. 2,000 feet of deep powder turns to the lake before conditions turn crusty.

03:40 pm – Back at the Car

Overall, it was a great day. We considered terrain carefully and made turns in deep, dry snow. With more knowledge and time to explore, you could access some excellent terrain. We’ll be back.