Opinion » The Outsider

A Sun Valley with extra Ketchum, please



I'll admit that prior to three weeks ago, I didn't know a whole lot about Idaho. I've since learned that the northern U.S. state produces almost one third of the potatoes grown in the country and its governor is a 10-gallon hat-wearing Republican named C.L. "Butch" Otter. But I didn't travel to Idaho to peruse its vast plains of farming and agriculture or investigate partisan politics, I came to explore the mountains.

The resort town of Sun Valley has a storied past. It was the first destination ski resort to open in the U.S. in 1936, the brainchild of Union Pacific Railroad chairman W. Averell Harriman in an effort to increase ridership on his passenger trains in the western states. Being far too busy himself to find the ideal location and hoping to create a resort on par with those of the European Alps, Harriman — a lifelong skier — sent an Austrian in his stead to scout the mountains of the northwest. Count Felix Schaffgotsch gladly accepted the task, his instructions from Harriman read as follows:

"A place close to Union Pacific tracks but far enough from a city to prevent it being overrun by weekend skiers arriving in their automobiles... A valley with sun pouring in, a dry climate with not too much snow, and yet enough for skiing..."

As I sat in the passenger seat of our rented F150 rolling over another mountain pass in Sawtooth National Forest, the last line of Harriman's instructions repeated in my head.

...Not too much snow, and yet enough for skiing.

Like much of lower U.S., Sun Valley has had rough year with snowfall, but the last 48 hours have coated a fresh layer of powder on these peaks, miraculously just in time for our arrival. Roadside vehicles started to appear at every available pullout, nearby skin tracks slinking into the adjacent forested slopes. The local Idahoans had wasted no time getting after it.

I'd been warned about the outrageously cold temperatures. While I brought every expedition piece of apparel that I owned, nothing had prepared me for the -29 C reading that greeted us in the carpark off Highway 75, about 20 minutes north of our accomodation in Ketchum. I'd never been so comfortable letting a truck idle as I pulled on my ski boots inside the vehicle, heater cranked to maximum. We climb aboard our next shuttle, doubling on snowmobiles for the next 20 kilometres of logging roads into the Fox Creek drainage. A slight gap between my goggles and my bundled face causes a slow but sure icing on the interior of my lens, thankful that my sledmate Tyler is in full control of the machine's throttle.

Arriving at our staging zone, we basked in the sun's radiation as we geared up for our day of ski touring. The prominence of the peaks around me are not as grandiose as that of my beloved Coast Mountains, but playful features coupled with a forest burned from wildfire in recent years set a mountain scene I had never witnessed before. The cold added an additional spring to my step as I shuffled to the top of the slope. On the descent we weaved through scorched trees, the fresh powder kicking up above our shoulders with every turn. I ducked under deadfall, threading the needle without worry of coniferous branches impeding my speed or tearing open my outerwear. I forgot about the cold, at least for a few minutes, as the beauty of the Idaho backcountry sank in.

"I first came up here from Utah, and Bald Mountain (Sun Valley's resort mountain) felt like an East Coast ski hill," said Joe St. Onge, chief guide of Sun Valley Trekking and our chaperone for the week. "But my opinion has changed a lot since then. Bald Mountain is world class for what it is, which is 3,000-foot (1,000-metre) fall line runs on perfect corduroy. But it's in the wrong place. It goes back all the way to the Austrian guides who were brought to be the ski instructors in the '30s. They said 'we should be up there!' while they were pointing to the Boulder Mountains and the Pioneers. Within two years they had built ski huts in those ranges."

Since moving to Sun Valley, St. Onge has built a network of yurts in the mountains around Ketchum (only temporary structures are allowed on U.S. Forestry land by law) and has seen increased demand as the backcountry arm of the ski industry continues to grow. He's in right place at the right time, too. Ketchum bustles with activity in both summer and winter, a young culture coalescing with generations of heritage and tradition. It's a warmth that easily eclipses Idaho's winter cold.

Vince Shuley left his heart in Sun Valley. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince.

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