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Summer Skiing in the Sawtooths

So this is why they invented chairlifts


When a boulder the size of a spare tire barreled toward me in the middle of the night, near the top of Alpine Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains, I knew Peter was wrong; this ski trip was not for beginners.

I'd never done a trip like this before and had no idea what to expect, but my highly energetic friend Peter Kurst had been working on me for months. Any skill level can do it, he said. No backcountry gear needed, he said. It will be fun, he said.

So I loaded my backpack with the necessities and a collection of just-add-water food. Only one thing left: skis and boots.

These skis and boots are no lightweight marvel of backcountry technology. They've never even touched snow outside of a ski resort, and they doubled the weight of my pack; fully-loaded: 40 pounds--a third of my body weight. A quick Google search highly recommends keeping your pack at a quarter of your body weight and maybe after some pretty serious conditioning, you can get it up to a third. Conditioning? Hah. But Peter insisted: you'll be fine.

Saturday morning, July 12, the plan: to meet on my street at 7:30 a.m. This is when I met Emily Thompson, my new next door neighbor who also got talked into the trip by Peter. She moved to Boise only a week ago from Tennessee--mercifully, without skis.

On the ride, she told me about what brought her here: the end of a decade-long relationship and the need for a complete change. She picked Idaho sight-unseen.

As we drove my dusty Subaru along the South Fork of the Payette River, she said, "I am so glad to be in this car right now. This is exactly where I need to be."

At the Iron Creek Trailhead, we headed toward Sawtooth Lake. I had no idea what the trail would be like, but tried not to be intimidated hiking behind Tyson Stellrecht--owner of Backcountry Pursuit--and his employee, Abe Traven.

The first two miles of the hike weren't so bad. Marcy, my Chinese Shar Pei/German Shepherd mix, trotted alongside with her own pack, full. We came into an open valley surrounded by jagged peaks and cut through by a roaring sweet-water stream. A waterfall cascaded from the top of one peak, down the full length of the mountain.

The third mile got worse. And the fourth. The last mile tested the limits of my strength. Switchback after brutal switchback in the the upper 80-degree, rarified air--40 pounds digging into my shoulders. The majority of the 2,000-foot elevation gain took place in that final mile.

Four hours later, we made it to Sawtooth Lake and dropped our packs. I felt the wonderful weightlessness for mere minutes before Tyson said, "OK, ready to go ski?"

By then, I'd developed a deep hatred for my skis. So far, none of this felt very beginner-friendly.

"That's why we came up here, right?" he said.

So we started boot packing up the snowy North-facing chute of Mount Regan. Kick in twice, take a step, kick in twice, another step--the worst stair-stepper ever. A waterfall ran along the rocks beside us, contrasting my pain with the beauty of this place.

We put on our skis sideways and I went first, cruising through the slushy, easy snow. Marcy ran after me, free of her backpack.

It took 10 turns and barely three minutes to get to the bottom after the half-hour hike up, but skiing in shorts in July in 80-degree weather in the Sawtooths was, well, pretty cool. I felt stoked, like I was finally starring in a Warren Miller movie.

I was feeling pretty accomplished when Tyson said, "OK, let's go again."

Not believing myself capable, I did it again. Back in camp, I looked at our neat lines down the most-photographed mountain in Idaho.

We sat in happy tiredness, watching the clouds change colors over the lake as the sun set, passing Nalgenes full wine and whisky. When it got dark, Peter said, "You ready for some moonlight skiing?"

I looked at Emily, already asleep on her Therm-a-Rest, and longed for my own.

"This is why you came," Tyson said. "If you're going to write a story about it, you need to experience the whole thing."

Once again, I pulled on my pack and we started side trekking up to Alpine Peak at 10:30 p.m. Target elevation: 9,871 feet. I reached a whole new level of exhaustion.

Only 150 feet separated us from the summit of the pyramid-shaped peak; 150 feet of loose shale on a 40-degree pitch. We dumped our gear and I took my first step on the shale field, only to feel the rocks collapse beneath me. I knew I was done. Springing tears of exhaustion, I apologized and told them to go on without me. Marcy leaned against me, uncertain and unsteady.

Peter, ever the truest friend, decided right then he didn't need to summit the mountain either, and stayed with me. It took the others 45 minutes of scrambling up the scree field, cussing.

We sat in the absolute mountain silence, watching stars reflect in the lake almost 1,500 feet below us. The super moon filled the valley with pale light and dark shadows. I had reached my own summit, amazed at the physical strength I found. I thought of Emily, and her new life in our wild state. I was surprised when Peter said it was 1:30 a.m.

Abe and Tyson started down the shale field after their summit, Abe taking a cautious route along the ridge and Tyson starting directly down toward us. That's when he lost his footing.

"Rock!" Abe shouted, and I saw that boulder the size a tire flying toward me. I was up and scrambling away when I saw it bounce 10 feet from me. More rocks were falling and Peter and I ran out of the way. Suddenly I had no trouble getting across the shale. I'm not sure I'd ever felt so scared in my life.

Tyson apologized over and over as we put on our skis, sobered by the near-miss. But it was time to ski. We skied almost 1,000 vertical feet by moonlight (and for me, headlamp). When the snow stopped, we systematically strapped our skis on our backs, and hiked back down. At 3 a.m., I slid into my sleeping bag and slept.

When I woke the next morning, muscles I didn't even know I had ached. Even my lungs hurt. Marcy's legs shook and she licked her paws nonstop. The hike out was a journey much easier than the day before, with lighter packs, downhill trekking and thoughts of real food back in Boise.

"Peter, this trip was definitely not for beginners," I said at the end.

"Yeah?" Peter said. "Well, you did it."

And so maybe he was right.