Yurt Trips In The Sawtooths
It's fun to say, it's fun to stay. Yurts are where it's at.by Shawn Emery
There's nothing like a yurt trip to cap off a ski season. These annual rituals have lured me to mountain ranges throughout the West: Wasatch, Tushars, La Sals, Selkirks, Wallowas, Tetons, and last March to the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho.
Two friends and I bought three secluded nights in the Williams Peak yurt from Sawtooth Mountain Guides. The company, ran by Kirk Bachman and Erik Leidecker has operated the yurt since 1988. Founded in 1985, Sawtooth Mountain Guides is a full-service, year-round mountain guide service.We spent the night prior to our hike in a local Stanley hotel, complete with fake timber siding and walls thin enough to hear the rushing Salmon River. From our room window, we took in uninterrupted views of the ten thousand-plus foot peaks we would be skiing under for the next few days: Williams Peak, Mt. Heyburn, Thompson and Horstmann.
In the morning, we met our guide Sarah at the trailhead for the hike in. With 40-pound packs, we faced a 1400-foot vertical climb over four miles. Sarah, who received her ski guiding license in 2003, displayed a pleasant, confident demeanor - one that said, "Follow me. I know where I am going. You'll be safe." Since this was our group's first trip to the yurt, one of her jobs was to keep us from wandering off trail, where in sections, only faint, melting ski tracks remained. Her other duties were to point us to the best skiing.
Walks to yurts always seem to be long and grueling. There is a breaking-in period when your body settles into a rhythm of gliding and breathing. Your mind begins to focus on the rudimentary lifestyle you are about to experience: eat, sleep, hike, ski, repeat. Your pack settles on your body. Seldom-used muscles initially scream in revolt as they are forced to work hard.
Once we were out of the lower forested hills, our hike to the Williams Peak followed the Alpine Way Trail. The trail follows an arcing ridgeline with the meandering Fish Hook Creek to our left and far below. The exposure of the trail put us face-to-face with head-on views of classic-looking Sawtooth mountains: serrated ridgelines with hanging snowfields clinging to unbelievably vertical rock.
The well laid-out Williams Peak compound consists of one 16-foot diameter cooking/sleeping yurt with the basic cooking amenities, a second sleeping yurt, a dry sauna heated by a wood stove, and an outhouse with unparalleled views down to the Sawtooth Valley. Inspired by Mongolian nomads, yurts are circular, domed canvas tents supported by hand-hewn wooden poles. There is great skiing for nearly all abilities and conditions right at the doorsteps of Williams Peak Yurt. A larger group could spit up with one half heading for the expert upper slopes and the other poking around just a few hundred vertical feet above and below the yurt.
Heading into our trip, the National Weather Service bulletin for the elevations we were to ski was mostly sunny, highs in the mid 50s, lows near freezing. Basically warm, too warm for extended mornings of supportable and safe corn skiing - the smooth snow surface created by late-season freeze and thaw cycles. The first morning we headed for Skier's Summit, 1600 feet of vertical climbing from the Yurt. The run was a wide-open alley of great skiing that seemed endless. Following backcountry safety protocol, we skied one-by-one, against the backdrop of the 10,751-foot high Thompson Peak. After one additional short run, we worked our way down the slushy Jerry Garcia Bowl and Tortilla Flats to the yurt. Our aching muscles and hungry stomachs were revitalized with a sauna and a big dinner.
On day two, Sawtooth Mountain Guides' co-owner Erik met us at 7:30 a.m. He woke well before dawn to drive, then hike four miles in the dark - alone. That's dedication. He led us into the upper Marshall Lake Basin, opposite of Williams Peak. The tour to Marshall Lake from the yurt was a great walk. We passed through heavily wooded forests, and around a frozen lake bordered on one-side by skyscraper peaks. Halfway through the hike, I decided to take a break and the group went on without me. They skied out of sight. The silence of the wilderness was occasionally interrupted by slow slides washing through narrow rock funnels down the warming south face of Williams Peak. Lying back in the sun with my lunch, watching and hearing this show was as satisfying as a good ski run.
Erik and his staff are passionate about skiing and ensuring your trip is hassle free. Although skiing begins in December, spring skiing is a completely different experience. "With the arrival of a more stable spring snow pack, many descents not possible during the more hazardous winter months become possible," says Erik. The classic spring corn runs include the south faces of Williams Peak, Peak 10,084, Thompson Peak, and the north-facing couloirs off the Skiers Summit.
As we skied out on day three, a storm moved in with sleet hitting our faces sideways on the exposed Alpine Way Trail. Although we wanted to ski more, the bad weather was a sign that it was probably time to say goodbye. And time to scout another mountain range.
Sawtooth Mountain Guides is entering
its 20th season and continues to refine its services and facilities. For the
2004/2005 season a new 20-foot yurt is replacing the current 16-footer at Williams
Peak. Reservations are required for all of the yurts. Some groups book trips
a year in advance. You can contact Sawtooth Mountain Guides at:
P.O. Box 18 Stanley, Idaho 83278
Phone: (208) 774-3324
Fax (208) 774-3729
2004/2005 rates: $30.00/person/night
with 8 person minimum. Additional fees may apply if a guide needs to go with