A couple inches of new snow lay in the parking lot of the Sawtooth National Forest’s Stanley Ranger Station as we arrived to meet our guide Matt Scrivner. Sawtooth Mountain Guides requires the hiring of a guide for first-time visitors to the Williams Peak Hut, and we all agreed that this was a good idea. For one, the guide ensures that you find the hut; additionally they provide a hut orientation and go over maps recommending runs, tours, and places you may want to avoid under particular conditions. If you’re lucky, they may even carry in an extra beer or two.
As we loaded our packs with food and beverage large, wet flakes of snow began to fall. Although snow was in the forecast, little did we know then that it would continue, with only short breaks, for the next 48 hours.
The route into the hut gains about 1,700 feet of elevation over five miles, passing through mixed conifer forest and aspen groves, and ending in a beautiful subalpine setting surrounded with majestic granite peaks. In our pre-trip planning we discussed the pros and cons of towing a sled or two. After receiving conflicting advice ranging from “really hard to deal with and unpleasant” to “no problem at all,” we decided to take turns towing one sled loaded with about 50 lbs. of gear. In the end, I think our experience was somewhere in the middle. There are only a few, relatively short, steep pitches along the route and although there is a lot of side hilling, the sled actually tracked really well. Still, Sawtooth Mountain Guides does offer a porter service for $160 per 50-lb. load, which we did take advantage of for a mid-trip resupply of beer, and next time my vote will be for two porter trips and no sled. This was a ski vacation after all and not some light-and-fast alpine siege.
After our orientation and Matt’s departure, we all cracked a beer and toasted our arrival. Although fairly exhausted from hauling in heavy packs and the sled, a few of us decided to snag a quick run on Tortilla Flats above the hut. We were all smiles upon our return to the yurt.
Our crew consisted of six friends from Missoula, MT: Byron, Chad, Dan, Eric, Jim, and myself.
Williams Peak “Hut” actually consists of two yurts and a wood fired sauna. The main 20-ft. yurt has a well-stocked kitchen and circular table in its center. Eric and I were on deck for preparing dinner that first evening. I wanted to try a meal I was recently introduced to named a Glory Bowl, after a snow bowl at Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson, BC, Canada. This is a nutritious vegetarian meal weighing in with 779 calories per serving. However, having a couple of hard-core carnivores in the crew (read: Byron and Chad), I knew better than to bring tofu to the hut, and so I substituted with smoked salmon.
On day two we awoke to around a foot of new snow and more coming down. We were all pretty excited to hit the slopes. After a breakfast of oatmeal, dried fruit, and strong coffee, we busted out a few chores (dishes and snow removal) and geared up. Our plan was to head towards Skier’s Summit and have a look at conditions. The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center listed the hazard as considerable (natural avalanches possible; human-triggered avalanches likely) in their advisory for the day. Our primary avalanche concern had switched from the deep slab instability problem the Sawtooths had been dealing with since February to the 1- to 4-foot deep wind slabs that had been developing in the current storm cycle.
I think all of us were feeling the previous day as we took off from the hut. Backcountry skinning is a Zen-like activity where one searches for balance in the rhythm of binding, breath, and heartbeat while drifting off to some inner place.
Our approach to the ridge gaining Skier’s Summit required navigating a particularly large wind-loaded slope. The slope had an obvious wind slab on top of an ice crust. Although our stability tests indicated low energy and no propagation, we were able to get some snow moving on a small test slope. Things just didn’t feel right and with plenty of fresh tracks to be had on non-wind loaded terrain we decided to bail on the summit for the day.
After a full day of laps above the hut, we headed towards the comfort of the wood stove. Interestingly, it was the “old guys” in the crew—Dan, Jim, and myself—who decided they had one more in them and skied a run below the hut named the Toilet Bowl.
The yurt life goes well beyond the skiing—meals, card games, drinking, story telling, and camaraderie all have a part in making it the great experience it is. For our second dinner Eric whipped up an excellent elk stroganoff dish using dehydrated ingredients to save on weight. We played hearts well into the night and put a pretty good dent in our beer supply.
This was not a crew looking to log as much vertical per day as possible and this was evident during our morning routine of quietly sipping coffee while reading from the Hut’s large magazine selection, which ranged from the expected titles of Powder and Backcountry to more sophisticated periodicals like The New Yorker and Economist. However, after the glorious turns down the Toilet Bowl the evening before, Dan and I snuck out for a morning run (yes that’s right, the old guys again).
Day three brought some blue sky and sunshine into the mix so we decided it was a perfect time for a tour to Marshall Lake. After descending a hillside of thick trees, one reaches the lake and is awarded with spectacular views of the north face of Williams Peak.
We made some turns in the Marshall drainage and headed back to the hut where Jim and Dan prepared the quintessential Montana backcountry dish: elk burritos!
Our last day on the mountain brought more snow, skinning, and turns. Byron and Chad had saved pork chops, mashed potatoes, and spinach for our final dinner at the hut. We spent the evening playing cards; finishing off the remaining whiskey, beer, and wine; and relaxing in the sauna. It rained that night, yes rain at 8,000 feet, and turned to snow in the morning. We had the wood piles stocked, trails shoveled out, and yurts cleaned up by around 11:00 and made our way back to the ranger station and trucks.
A big thanks to Sawtooth Mountain Guides for the stellar accommodations! Looking forward to next year boys!