Bench Hut 2020: Sawtooth Wilderness
Updated: Feb 19
Shout-out to Deltron 3030
The Sawtooth Mountains are aptly named. If the sky could be cut this would be the place to witness such a thing. Known for their aggressive couloirs and intimidating beauty this network of rock and ice is a luring mystery. Like a seasonal mating ground, backcountry skiers flock to this island of mountains to reconnect with their brethren and soar atop frozen crystals. In this case our flock consisted of fourteen rare and unique individuals steadfastly dedicated to the mission: Enjoy odd yet compelling company while isolated in the snowy playground of the Gods.
A lot was happening in the world between March 13th and 16th, 2020 but we were privy to none of it. When Holly, Quinn and I had left Jackson, WY, on the 13th to drive to Stanley, ID, news of COVID-19 was pouring in from Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. We listened to music and chatted excitedly about our upcoming hut trip in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Four days of solitude and skiing awaited us below the jagged steep peaks surrounding the Bench Lakes. NPR and the other world news outlets were out of mind with this wintery distraction on the horizon, a stark contrast to our return journey home just a few days later.
From the classic Idahoan hamlet of Stanley we drove 4.5 miles south to the turn-off for Redfish lake. There in the pull-out unfolded a gear explosion typical to this type of adventure. Since we had decided to pull in sleds the amount of superfluous items we could bring quickly piled up on our plastic steeds. Costumes, white elephant gifts, ten pounds of chocolate, and plastic bottles filled with liquor weighed us down. If you can bring extra why don’t you?
Approach to Bench Hut. Click the Image to view in GaiaGPS
Holly and I had acquired our sleds last minute and with some lengths of rope and a few carabiners we figured we were ready to rock. The first 2 miles of groomed road were a breeze and we gawked at the mountains in the distance, knowing we would soon be flying down them.
At the Redfish trailhead the path snaked off to the west and up onto a low bench. During this mellow 200 foot ascent we got our first glimpse of what awaited us on the trail ahead. Holly’s sled immediately slid sideways down the double fall-line into a tree well, flipped over, and spilled her load into the snow. Weighed down by the absurd amount we’d decided to haul she was unable to get her sled back on track without a helping hand. A telling premonition, we would begrudgingly have to endure about a dozen more of these tree traps before reaching our destination 3 miles up the ridge.
Awkwardly leashing our sleds along the bumpy trail we flirted with frustration. Quinn on the other hand, trudged happily along with his big pack and waited patiently for his struggling mule train to catch up. Unaccustomed to towing my gear my feet were soon screaming. Painful blisters were forming on my bunions, a result of prolonged abuse in their plastic prisons.
After about 2 miles of winding up the ridge we had gained the majority of our elevation and cruised along the flats towards the nearing peaks. Although it was a beautiful trek, I’ll admit I was relieved to hear the whooping and laughter coming from the hut as we navigated through the final lodgepole maze.
We embraced old friends and met new ones. Our group was fourteen in total, but judging by the smell you’d guess twice that much. It was a classic hut scene. Gear, food and random items were spread all over the small wooden shelter. Most folks were playing cards or napping while a few determined others were fetching snow for water and chopping wood for the evening’s heat. The maps came out and we started to plan and fantasize about our lines for the days to come. Petzoldt couloir, a steep north facing gash off of Mount Heyburn was a top priority. With a storm on the menu for the 15th we decided to attempt Petzoldt the following morning to avoid the danger any new snow might present.
Approach to Petzoldt from the Hut (upper right): Click to view in GaiaGPS
Restless from a night on a foreign pad surrounded by snores, the alpine start was a blessing. Five of us hit the trial close to dawn and headed over the small ridge between us and the Bench Lakes Basin. Descending the short pitch to the lake side we decided to keep our skins on. In true form I went first, full of confidence, and was surprised by a vicious snow snake. It was a great start to a big day, with new ski partners wondering what the hell I was doing with my face in the snow. I laughed it off and we began the climb to the upper lakes and the apron of the couloir.
Now that we were staring up the gut our couloir fantasies were taking shape. All we had to do now was wallow single file-up, waist deep in powder, for almost 1000 feet up the chute before we could ride our dreams back to the bottom. Luckily we had an ox with us. Quinn is quite the athletic specimen and he set the boot pack 90% of the way. It was impossible to get in front to relieve him even if we wanted to. I wasn’t complaining, I figured I’d save my legs for the jump turns on the way down.
Boot train up Petzoldt: Nearing the Pinch
About 100 feet from the top we reached a bottleneck and discovered an interesting situation. As a result of the lower than average snowpack, the pinch we had reached was barely 2 ski lengths wide and only 8-10 inches of snow covered the rocks below. Quinn began to climb past the pinch and was uncovering big patches of rock as he went. If we all climbed past that point the thin snow would slide off with the turns of the first skier, leaving the rest with a dangerous and exposed down climb.
It was steep enough at this point that descending our boot pack to an island of safety was risky. Deciding to transition right there in the pinch, we put on our skis one by one on a small ledge we had packed out. As the first skiers dropped to safety, small sloughs followed them down, confirming our suspicions. The ledge we were using to transition became smaller and smaller as each skier shaved it down. Will and I were the last two and were using our edges on rock to gain purchase. Waiting until we both had our skis on we hopped down the bottom of the pinch and joined the rest of our team waiting safely below.
Looking back up we saw the rock we had exposed reached all the way across the pinch! Thanks to the expert decision making of our team we had avoided a potentially scary scene. Heuristic traps are always present in the backcountry, and can be amplified when skiing with a group for the first time. I was proud of our decision to turn around, the summit never takes precedence over safety.
Riding the high of a fun and exhilarating line we decided to scoot over to a neighboring feature called… the Bat Cave! This novel line was created when a massive choke-stone came tumbling down the cliff face and wedged itself in a narrow gap in the rock. The enormous boulder was suspended far enough above the ground to inspire some creative skiers to boot up through the little tunnel and ski back down! We followed in their boot steps and were thrilled to be poking around in such an unusual winter scene.
The Bat Cave! Petzoldt is just to lookers right
Quinn once again pushed a little further and crested out on a tight band of snow at the higher opening of the cave. Holly and I were enticed by his guffaws at the scenery and joined him soon enough. From our perch we could see up and down the sheer cliff walls and out to the lakes and valley below. After precariously putting our skis on for the second time that day we slid back into the cave, traversing above an exposed drop of rock and ice. Joining the others in their little hide out we whooped with joy and sang the Batman theme song in unison as we made turns back into the sunlight.
Holly and I posing after climbing out the far side of the cave
Looking into the Bat Cave from the top: Will takes his first turns
As we party skied across the lakes and down towards the hut the day’s successes accompanied us. Back at base camp, the ritual of peeling off sweaty layers and socks was proceeded only by the pouring of drinks. The feeling of contented tiredness that permeates you after a day in the backcountry is difficult to explain to the unaccustomed. This is certainly a unique fatigue, one brought on by the cold smoke of the mountains and the loopy feeling that comes with burning 10,000 calories in a day.
Getting up for dinner was the hardest part of the day
The next morning, Holly and Quinn set out early to attempt the burley Boy Scout Couloir. The rest of us decided on a party tour over to the friendly Gun Barrel Couloir. With ample sunshine the past few days, we hoped the NW facing Gun Barrel sheltered a pocket of powder. The approach was hot and sweaty but we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Having broken trail I was graciously awarded the first drop. Caitlin Baird, a newly converted split boarder, followed behind surfing beautiful turns down her first couloir ever! The team gradually trickled down and we reunited in the sun to eat gummy worms and admire our snow farming.
That night was the highly anticipated white elephant gift exchange. Although what happens in the hut stays in the hut, I can say there were inflatable horse costumes, scandalous xmas themed undies, and plenty of socks in the mix. The next morning we begrudgingly packed our things and began the ski out. The snow had hardened over the last few days and the out track was a luge course. With heavy packs and sleds tied awkwardly to our backs, we rocketed around tight treed corners with wobbly legs. Down on the flats, we skated the 2 miles back to the cars. Farewells and hugs led to road trip recounts of our excursion and the consumption of left over chocolate.
Party ski on the way to Gun Barrel
Neither Holly or I regained service until we dropped out of the mountains. As I drove Holly’s phone began to blow up with news on COVID-19. There had been some dramatic developments during our foray into the Sawtooths, and now we were hearing about it all at once. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had closed for the season along with all restaurants, bars, and gyms. Domestic and international travel had been restricted and countless jobs had been lost.
The elation of our ski trip suddenly took a back seat. Personally, I hadn’t expected things to escalate so quickly during the long weekend. The reality of the longterm impacts this virus would have on our world and society became all the more clear. The texts started flowing in from friends who were leaving town due to lack of work. Plans were being canceled, hoarders were celebrating, and there was a nationwide shortage of ammunition. The only comic relief we had was news of the toilet paper crisis.
As we drove home to a changed world we reflected on our trip. Warm hugs and shared drinks could now mean exposure to a potentially deadly virus. Sharing tight quarters with large groups was now advised against for the safety of our communities. The sense of gratitude and fulfillment that always accompanies me after such adventures held a new strength. I felt lucky to have snuck into the Bench Hut in March of 2020. With our world in the midst of a pandemic, it feels selfish to be dreaming about returning to the hut already. Nonetheless, we must keep our hopes up and take advantage of our opportunities. We’ll hunker down In the meantime but rendezvous in the mountains as soon as we can!