Backcountry skiing at the Bench Hut in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains
Despite the ridiculous outdoor adventure opportunities in Utah, it’s nice to get out and explore the mountains in neighboring states every now and then. The Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho is one such place, thanks to the dramatic Teton-esque rock spires that cap the peaks, creating a landscape to get lost in that the more rounded peaks in Utah fail to provide. So what can wandering Utahns do during winter months in Idaho? We decided backcountry skiing the open bowls and tight chutes of the Sawtooths from the Bench Hut was a stellar idea.
The Bench Hut is a tent-wall style hut located at 7,400 feet below the jagged teeth of Mount Heyburn. The hut allows skiers access to thousands of pristine acres primed for backcountry skiing. We arrived in Stanley in early March for a four day, three night stay where all we had to worry about was skiing, drinking, and eating like kings in the woods. It was a “bros and no hoes” kind of trip consisting of nine guys; eight skiers and one splitboarder.
Day 1. After staying the night in Stanley where we enjoyed soaking in natural hot springs and drinking beer in our rooms through the night (much to the displeasure of the snowmobilers in the room below us), we loaded up our packs for the ascent to the Bench Hut. The trail to the hut was an easy 1,200 foot skin over six miles on a ridge that rises up alongside Redfish Lake. Along the way, we got our first look at the incredible mountains we all lathered up the courage to ski.
Once at the Bench Hut, we unpacked and checked out the rustic ammenities before skinning up for a tour on The Triangle, a steep, treed slope just above the hut.
It soon became clear that it hadn’t snowed in Idaho for a while, resulting in previous parties’ ski tracks being mummified in the snow. Despite the variable conditions, it was awesome to ski at the end of the day and return to our temporary home as the sun set behind towers of stone.
Day 2. The second day in the Sawtooths, we split up into three groups. Our team, consisting of myself, Adam Symonds and Mason Diedrich, decided to try and ski the infamous Heyburn Couloir. After skinning up past Bench Lakes 4 and 5, we made our way up the bowl and soon found ourselves at the bottom of Heyburn.
Skis on packs, we booted up almost half way near where a rock-covered choke seemed the most menacing obstacle. At that moment, wet slide activity came tumbling down on us in the form of rollers and damp snow cascading from the bottom of the cliffs above. Heeding the avalanche warning signs, we skied out from there on dense slide debris and wind crust.
After exiting the Heyburn Couloir, we found good, soft powder in the bowl. In order to salvage the rest of the day, we skinned to the top of the ridge where the wind was howling and light snow came in sideways.
Aside from poking around a bit and taking pictures, we quickly put bindings into ski mode and made fluffy turns all the way down to Bench Lake 5 and called it day.
Day 3. On the third day, we comitted ourselves to seek out deep powder on north facing slopes. Instead we skied the Gunbarrel Couloir. Here’s how it happened. We ascended to the top of a ridge where a few groves of north-slope pines looked promising.
The skiing there was damn good, but along the way Gunbarrel caught our attention. Steven, from another party in our group, dug a pit at the top and found stable conditions, so some of us chose to end the trip in a big way and shot the Gunbarrel.
The protected snow inside Gunbarrel Couloir was soft and buttery. Steep hop turns at the top gave way to faster, wider turns in the mid-section until we could open it up on the apron where recrystalized powder, the best snow of the trip, was hiding.
We all knew it would be a long, steep, bushwhacking slog back to the hut from Fishhook, where we now found ourselves, but the skiing in Gunbarrel was totally worth it.
Day 4. Variable snow conditions did nothing to damper our enthusiasm for the terrain surrounding Bench Hut. When we packed everything up and turned our backs to the Sawtooths for our return trip to Utah, we left with smiles on our faces thanks to the good company, nice digs and splendid skiing.
About the Bench Hut: Bench is a wall tent built from trees grown in the surrounding area. The hut sleeps a maximum of 14 people, though 10 is a good number for groups who don’t want to have to share a bed. All the basic amenities are provided at the hut including two wood stoves, a two burner propane stove for cooking, pots, pans, tableware, lanterns, bunks with foam mattresses, books, cards, games and, my personal favorite, a wood fired sauna. The only thing skiers need to bring up to the hut along with ski gear and clothes is food and sleeping bags.
The Bench Hut is operated by Sun Valley Trekking. Check out their website for more information on rates, availability and guided expeditions.