While Jeff Creamer is a bit of a wunderkind packrafter (he’s never really paddled a hardshell boat before, yet has paddled some of the most difficult whitewater in the West) by his own admission his skiing is not necessarily up to the level of his paddling. But his obsessive map researching and subsequent good route development capabilities are definitely class 5, and he’s a bloodhound on CalTopo, which I can only begin to decipher. Jeff was the common thread for the Sensational Seven doing the traverse of the Sawtooth Range, and it quickly became clear that all of us had done enough trips with Jeff to have faith that the route he put together through this complex range would be good. Jeff himself chastised us a little, saying “you guys should really double check me; some of my routes are terrible!” but we were ready to mount up and trudge through the mountains on the route that he put together.
Generally speaking our Sawtooth traverse route went south to north, starting from Pettit Lake just off of highway 75 that runs between Sun Valley, over Galena Summit, and up to Stanley, quickly went into the meat of the mountains where it turned north and went over maybe a dozen passes and across Sawtooth Lake before cutting a little west as the jaggedy peaks faded a bit. Then finally down and out Swamp Creek to highway 21 that is the link between Stanley, Lowman, and the Payette rivers north of Boise. Going north meant that typically we’d be skiing up the sunny sides and skiing down the north sides that “might” harbor some old/thin powder. But we didn’t care much; this trip was not about the turn potential; it was about using the most efficient way to travel through a great range without relying on trails. And if we got some turns…..all the better!
When set a date far in advance and a buncha folks commit to it, you commit to the weather that is happening at that time, and the good news is that we had nice, stable high pressure conditions in the forecast. The bad news was that it was progged to be “colder than normal.” Gaack. As I mentioned in the previous post, Stanley is a damn cold place anyway, and we were going to be high above it, so it was going to be cold….but only when the sun was down. Sure enough, after a few flurries in the first hour of shuffling it cleared up, and we had the weather that would bless us for the entire trip: cold nights and warm days. We found that upon arriving at our camps we had to pound out a tent spot in the mushy snow that was catching the evening shade so that it would set up quickly, do the same with a path from the spot to the “kitchen” (a nicely dug out series of “benches” and “tables” in the snow, mostly done and then overseen by Jeff) and then try to minimize walking around in the adjacent mushy snow to keep from postholing. We tried to camp low enough that there was a bit of wood and of course fires were our best friend; they started out on the top of the snow and eventually become nice deep fire pits about the time we’d fade and leave the comfortable heat of the fire for our chillier tents.
Mostly….we shuffled on our skis. Up and down, steep and flat, we wiggled our way through the aptly-named Sawtooths.
Not far into the traverse we saw a lone skin track that was done since the last snowstorm, passed the lone traveler’s camps periodically, and if we moved off the track in the woods we’d eventually find ourselves back on it. I joked that Jeff had been bullshitting us that he had come up with the route and had actually worked with his “buddy” to map it out, and to our crew the phantom ahead became “Jeff’s Buddy.” Regardless of who came up with the route, it was fantastic; Ashley and I had backpacked through part of the zone a couple of years ago and on this trip we were able to bisect that loop, and in doing so were more directly in the heart of those craggy peaks, with huge views up towards Thompson, Heyburn, Williams, and Baron peaks among many others, and down long drainages towards the Elephant’s Perch, Redfish Lake to the east and the upper reaches of the Queens, Boise, and South Fork Payette rivers to the west.
Seven people on a challenging adventure is a lot, but Jeff had assembled a very strong and worthy crew; we were not in a hurry but made good time, everyone was strong, had good gear, was totally self-sufficient, didn’t complain, were both able to opine yet be open to suggestions/options, and over long days of shuffling be both interested and interesting to chat with. I had chosen to do the entire trip on a pair of Voile Hyper Vector BC’s in a short 164; my SLC pal Colter has used these many times on Sierra traverses and some years ago based on his success with the fish scales he “cut the cord” on bringing skins, which was tempting, but morning crusts that lasted a long time due to the cold temps loomed large for me and when it came down to it I did bring (skinny) skins, which worked out just fine. Mike and SoCal Brian also brought Voile BC skis, but the rest of the crew had “regular” skis and skins, and of course, everyone did just fine with their gear of choice.
And we did get some actual skiing! As expected, the north faces had plenty of quite-old powder, but old powder is still powder!
Of course, there was plenty of deafening sliding on hard morning crusts, and a handful of our “descents” were staying as high as we could on the sides of some drainages to maintain traversing downhill momentum in lieu of bottoming out and recommencing shuffling.
As expected, the Sawtooths has more than it’s share of Great Snags:
There were some that were even worthy of worship!
This Great Snag seemed to have finally – and recently – fallen as a function of its own weight.
After 4.5 days of skiing through the Sawtooths we emerged at highway 21, and while the “regular” ski guys were able to skate a dead flat couple of miles to the west to meet Marsh Creek and our boats, we BC ski shufflers followed behind (the fish scales don’t enable skating at all).
We arrived at a little tiny creek that was supposedly going to float our boats and whisk us off to far-off lands downstream, which in turn was adjacent to a plowed-out turnout in the highway, where we were surprised to meet our lovely support crew of Mike’s Jenny:
There was an enormous highway-side gear explosion:
At that point we were losing two key members of the team: Allen had to get back to work since he was finishing up a two week vacation, but he provided a not only great serenade for us as we unpacked, packed, and repacked:
And SoCal Brian had fallen on a slick morning crust and re-injured a shoulder, and paddling was out of the question for him.
But here’s the crew in all its glory:
Ready to embark on the 2nd phase of the trip: down the river!
To be continued, again….. (I got carried away; what a surprise).