Deep in the Sawtooth Mountains of Central Idaho, with skis strapped to my back, an ice ax in one hand, and the faint taste of bile in my mouth, I stared down the Horstman Couloir and almost threw up. The Couloir, a 55-degree strip of snow wedged between two vertical rock walls, looked more like an elevator shaft than anything remotely related to a ski run. Imagine clicking into your bindings on top of the Empire State Building and launching yourself down a rock crevasse only 7 feet wide that ends on Park Avenue, two blocks away, but you can’t see where it ends because it’s so steep. Now add the fact that you’re 8 miles (as the crow flies!) from the nearest road, 60 miles from the nearest hospital and surrounded by 216,383 acres of unforgiving wilderness. Swallowing took a lot of effort…I was in way over my head.
There were six of us on that narrow ledge, fidgeting nervously in a sliver of sun 9900 feet above sea level. Glancing around at the rest of the group, I focused on their faces, anything to keep myself from looking down.
Cody, my twin brother, fellow backcountry big mountain rookie, and lifelong partner in crime and adventure was snapping photos and trying not to look puckered, but I knew him too well. The firm line of his lips, furrowed brow, and silent demeanor told me he was shitting his pants, just like me. Having traveled allover the world together, from the jungle-rivers of Ecuador to the beaches of Tasmania and remote islands in the south pacific, it was in these mountains that we shared our first adventures, cementing a bond that has kept us exploring. Erik Leidecker, our bombproof guide and co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, was calm as a Hindu cow. A visor pulled over his curly blond hair and dark sunglasses completed the impression of a bronze sculpture, totally in control as he enjoyed the view and set up a rope system anchored to a nearby tree. Static crackled over the radio, intermingled with the voice of Erik’s younger brother Matt, who was watching us through a 600mm camera lens across the valley,. Jamie Holman, one of Cody and my best friends, a third brother growing up, chewed contemplatively on a bagel, his chiseled face and jaw-line pointed directly at the sun with eyes closed in a serene expression that made me wonder what he was thinking about…maybe his unborn son and pregnant wife at home.
The Crist brothers, Zach, and Reggie, sat next to each other chatting coolly about snow conditions and possible avalanche slab locations in the couloir. Zach and Reggie were my childhood idols. Olympic athletes, X-games champions and ski film stars, every young skier in Sun Valley knew who Zach and Reggie Crist were. They lived the dream — getting paid to travel the world and ski, they were larger than life. As a young impressionable grommet I have vivid memories of watching them during the annual Warren Miller Film tearing apart perfect powder on cartoonishly steep lines down big mountains in Alaska, Argentina, France, and Greenland; or kayaking down huge, chaotic rivers in places like Nepal and Bhutan. They were always going someplace exotic and wild. Occasionally I would see them after one of their trips at Apple’s — an après ski bar at the base of the local mountain that sits below the ski team’s locker room — sipping beers with far off looks in their eyes and stories of adventure on their tongues. Decked out in the newest and best gear from their sponsors, their tan, smiling faces never seemed to age. To a 14-year-old ski racer, they were badass incarnate, and I wanted to be just like them.
Flash forward twelve years: I’m trying to keep my shit together on a knife-edged notch in a rock wall and act like my childhood idols’ peer as part of a band of brothers who had set out on a never- before-attempted route through the Sawtooth Mountains; nine days and eight nights in the wilderness, climbing and skiing 22,000 vertical feet and some of the steepest, most technical couloirs in North America while traversing 40 miles through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness Area. Wondering how the hell I ended up here, and screaming, “oh shit oh shit oooohshiiiit!” inside my skull while pretending I knew what the hell I was doing.
I watched as Zach clicked into his bindings, adjusted his goggles, and took two deep breaths. He looked over at me, gave a slight nod to tell me he’d see me at the bottom, then hopped over the edge and disappeared down the elevator shaft. My mind went numb. All I could think about were contour lines on a map so tight they looked solid black.
A topo-map can be very deceiving to the untrained eye. Sitting in a warm house back in Ketchum, Idaho during our team meetings in the months leading up to this trip, tracing the route we had drawn with my fingernail, mind-skiing the steep couloirs, it all looked so easy. “Well, you just walk right up here, traverse over here, climb up this, ski down, then up again and voila! We’re at camp!”
But now, from my elevated perch atop a very real, very steep couloir, looking back across the five days since we last saw another human being, down a freaking elevator shaft, and ahead to at least three more days of untracked peaks, I could say with some authority that easy had nothing to do with it.
Erik had outlined it for us during those early meetings. Trips like this trek, a virgin traverse through unknown terrain over a large amount of distance, need to be planned meticulously and scheduled down to the minute. Using a topographical map, we drew a route, separating it into various legs divided by waypoints. A waypoint is usually located in easily recognizable locations: a clearing in the trees, the top of a peak, next to a creek. Then Erik explained how to analyze each leg for distance and ease of travel (elevation gained or lost, type of terrain, slope angle, snow aspect –the way in which a slope is facing– and potential hazards) using a system called Munter Units. Speaking slowly and simply Erik related the way it worked. “100 vertical meters (333 feet) of climbing equals one unit; a kilometer (1.6km=1 mile) of travel also equals one unit. These units are then converted into time. If you gain 1000 meters over 6 kilometers you travel a total of 16 units. If you’re gaining elevation divide the number of units by 4, and that is the amount of time it should take you during normal conditions, about 4 hours. Through thick timber or up steep terrain, you double the amount of time. If you’re descending you divide the number of units by 10. While these time values err on the conservative side, they, along with the waypoints, provide known quantities. In the backcountry equation, with so many unknowns and severe consequences for miscalculation, those few known variables are critical.”
Zach, the de-facto group comedian, immediately started joking about the use of Munter Units, claiming “I can only think in units now, give it to me in units,” whenever we used miles, vertical feet, or any such non Munter measurement in the mountains.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how often you look at the neatly folded topo-maps, calculate Munter Units, or analyze route plans. Nothing can prepare you for the day that squiggly little red line on the topo-map turns into sweating, grunting, groveling, gasping, wallowing climbs, and ass-puckering, leg-burning, teeth-chattering descents. Or when the little lists on bar napkins of gear like ice axes, sleeping bags, insulated mattress pads, helmets, tents, avalanche probes, boot crampons, ski crampons, shovels, stoves, freeze dried food, energy bars, granola, oatmeal, bagel sandwiches, harnesses and climbing skins become 40 pounds of weight on your back during those climbs and descents. Even sunscreen weighs something and every extra pound feels like it weighs five times as much when climbing at higher altitudes through deep snow.
Erik had warned us, everything counts. I always made fun of the people who count ounces on a backpacking trip, obsessed with the lightest gear money can buy. By 3 pm on the first day, as I swam through waist deep snow up the McGowen Coiloir, groveling in every aspect of the word, I wished I had fussed over every goddamn ounce in my pack. The hike had been tough, through thick timber and deep snow, up the couloir with the extra weight of skis strapped to my back, finally clawing up a cornice 4,000 feet above where we’d started. By the time I got there I was cursing everything from my headlamp to my extra layers. Then I saw the Sawtooth Mountain skyline spread out all around me, sparkling like gold in the sunshine of a late winter afternoon, and everything made sense again.
The first time I saw the Sawtooth Mountains, I was ten years old, my family had just moved from Wisconsin, and we were on our first camping trip in our new home state. I wasn’t a happy camper. Confused and pissed off about being uprooted from my friends and the familiarity of my life, I was convinced I hated Idaho. I literally dragged my feet up the trail in protest — until we reached the lake. Standing next to Cody and my dad on the edge of that crystal clear mountain lake, looking up at those jagged peaks, a serrated blade cutting into the bluest sky I had ever seen and stretching out in front of me for miles, awoke my soul.
As we stood there together in silent wonder, my body tingled with a sense of deja vu, as if I had been here before and was glad to see that nothing had changed. Cody looked over at me with bug-eyed excitement and said, “Now those are real mountains…” Looking back, I now realize what that deja-vu feeling was. The Sawtooth Mountains were the first place that made me feel small and insignificant. A tiny speck located within something far greater and more powerful than myself. It was a heavy realization for a self-centered 10 year-old, that strange, ancient mixture of fear, freedom, mystery, faith, and awe. A feeling that hasn’t lost any potency in 16 years or 4 millenia.
The Sawtooth Mountains became my church, my school and my playground, a spiritual center that would stand witness as I kicked and writhed through the maze of adolescence and young adulthood. They showed me the beauty of a summer sunset, all pinks and purples above the orange rocks, and the terror of an autumn storm; full of dark, turbulent violence…and that both sunset and storm were more magnificent when they happened in the same day. I fumbled through some of my first sexual encounters under their stars, and howled at a mountain moon made blurry by drink and drugs. I found out what I was made of on their peaks, and I lost a couple of friends to their avalanches, rivers and storms. I grew up in these mountains, but this was my first time skiing in them. I would never be able to look at their familiar skyline the same way again. It was a whole new world in the winter.
Jamie Holman was the first to ski McGowen, neither of us had ever skied a proper backcountry couloir until this moment, shit we had never even climbed one until five minutes before, but it didn’t seem to bother Jamie at all. He quickly put on his gear, got the “all clear” from Erik, dropped in, and made about 8 turns, ripping it to shreds as he nuked down the 50 degree, 1,000-foot pitch in less than a minute like a man possessed. Erik let out a whistle and said, “holy shit…look at Holman go.”
“If he didn’t fuck up his knee, he’d be blowing minds right now as a pro.” Zach said. He had been a teammate of Jamie’s during the 1999-2000 season and saw him crash in a skier-cross race, tearing every major ligament and absolutely shredding the meniscus and cartilage. A prominent surgeon in Vail who had worked on every type of athlete said it was one of the worst knee injuries he’d ever seen. The first time I saw Jamie after his crash he was lying on his bed with his leg strapped into a “perpetual motion” machine and a grimace of pain on his face. Weighing close to 215 pounds of solid muscle before the crash, when he could finally walk again he weighed less than 180. It took Jamie a full two years to get back on skis in earnest, two years full of excruciating rehab and frustratingly slow progress but I didn’t hear him complain once.
Jamie has a different type of relationship with fear than most everybody else, as in he doesn’t really seem to feel it. The more intense a situation is, the more relaxed he becomes. I remember hanging out with him when we were younger and always feeling like a pussy because I got scared on the top of a 50-foot bridge we were about to jump off, or above a class V rapid in my kayak. Then I started hanging out with other kids and realized it wasn’t that I was a pussy, it’s just that Holman was never afraid.
When he reached the bottom of the couloir he radioed up to us out of breath, “It was just so good…so good I…I couldn’t stop.” After his performance, for the rest of us skiing McGowen was fairly anti-climactic. When I dropped in, the buttery smooth snow caught me perfectly and even though I made twice as many turns and it took me four times as long to reach the bottom as Holman they were some of my best turns of the year. We all got some unbelievable turns, a great way to start the trip, but nobody skied it with quite the same flair or dare I say, pizzazz, as Jamie Holman. By the time we reached our first night’s camp the sun had already dropped behind the mountains surrounding our campsite, a small frozen lake at the top of a basin surrounded by perfect skiing. The only one with enough energy left to ski was Matt Leidecker, an exploit he would become famous for over the next week, and ski he did, probably climbing and skiing an extra 1,000 vertical feet that evening like some sort of enduro-crazed superhuman. He Capped the day off with a moonlight ski from the top while the rest of us couldn’t crawl into our sleeping bags fast enough.You know those super heroes who turn into animals? The Leidecker Brothers would most certainly be Mountain Goats.
The Leideckers are as comfortable climbing as they are skiing, and have spent the greater part of twenty years exploring Idaho’s backcountry on foot, at the end of ropes, in rafts, and on skis. Both of them are over six feet, and with their curly hair, dark brown faces and light blue eyes they remind me of the original skiers and mountain men from Scandanavia and Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s. Both Erik and Matt grew up on the Sun Valley Ski Team with Zach and Reggie, but while the Crist boys pursued the U.S Ski team and the Olympics, Matt and Erik headed to the East Coast, ski racing collegiately for Middlebury and Dartmouth respectively. Fresh out of college and craving the big mountains he left out west, Erik took a job as a guide for Sun Valley Heli-Skiing in the winter and worked as a climbing guide in the summer to support his mountain lifestyle. Matt followed in his footsteps, working as a heli-ski guide in the winter and raft guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon in the summer. Their path was well away from the limelight as they quietly built a reputation for themselves as some of the best guides in the mountains of Idaho. Erik eventually climbed the guiding pyramid to its pinnacle as an International Mountain Guides Association (IMGA) certified guide, one of only 40 in the United States, and co-owner of a successful guiding operation and outdoor outfitter in the Sawtooth Mountains, Sawtooth Mountain Guides. If a Leidecker says something in the mountains, you’d damn well better listen.
Erik was serious about smooth, efficient transitions. When traveling through the mountains you are constantly in hostile territory and every minute counts. Every extra second spent fucking about with your pack, your climbing skins, your clothes, your tent and your gear, is dangerous.
We…need…to…go… Erik said impatiently as Cody, Jamie, Zach and I sluggishly loaded up our packs the morning after our first night camped in the snow.
My boots and body were still stiff from the cold night, I was generally disorganized, and nothing was happening quickly. Matt and Erik had been waiting patiently while the rest of us screwed around packing up our tent and gear. They knew we needed to cover roughly 18 units through variable and exposed terrain that included a 9,800-foot summit before lunchtime, and that today was going to be a scorcher, increasing the avalanche hazard exponentially as the day wore on, and their patience was wearing thin. We had set a departure time of 8am as the absolute latest we could leave camp that morning. When 8am came and went, Matt just shrugged his shoulders and started moving. We all got the point, get your shit together and get going…NOW.
By ten that morning, the sun was brutal and things were starting to get interesting. When the hot sun hits soft, powdery snow, the top layers heat up and get heavy with moisture. The heavy top layers then pull apart from the colder, lighter layers below and that’s when avalanches start to rumble. The first things to slide are usually steep rock walls covered in snow and the large cornices above those walls. The Sawtooths just so happen to be full of steep rock walls and our route that day took us under some of the biggest by absolute necessity. There simply was no other way.
After climbing the un-named peak, crossing giant wolf tracks and a burnt-out section of forest with some of the worst snow of the trip, we crested the southeastern ridge above Sawtooth Lake about halfway through the day. Well behind schedule, we could hear a steady rumble of avalanches cascading down the rock faces surrounding the lake. It’s called shedding, and it sounds like rolling thunder, looks like waterfalls and turns the mountains into a living, constantly shifting organism, as beautiful as it is deadly.
Struggling clumsily with my climbing skins, water bottle, and sun hat I heard a loud roar, then Zach yell, “Holy shit!” A cornice had broken off the south-facing wall 300 yards away and we all watched in stunned silence as large blocks of snow and ice poured down the rock face onto the apron below. “I’m not worried about those,” Erik said tensely, “What concerns me is that one right there,” and pointed at an overhanging 30-foot cornice dripping wet with disaster and malice above the steep slope we had to ski down. We had to move and we had to do it quickly. As I skied down, the snow congealing into large snowballs beneath my skis and the rolling thunder of avalanches all around me, I heard Matt give a warning yell and looked up just in time to see a wet loose slide rip off below him. A Wet-Loose slide resembles a pile of liquid cement moving slowly down the hill that will take anything in their path along with it no matter where they end up, often smashing into trees or dumping over cliffs. Cranking a quick turn the other way, I watched as the slide gurgled past me and buried a group of small trees.
On the lake below, Erik was visibly stressed as he reemphasized the importance of transitions. Slow, inefficient transitions had put us all in danger. During the next climb, while I sweated under the 2 o’clock sun that cooked the mountains like an oven full of tinfoil, I thought about the importance of transitions. Smooth, efficient transitions were definitely something I needed to work on.
The campsite we found that night was an absolute gem. Nestled high in a hanging valley, we pitched our tents at the base of a flawless 40-degree ramp of snow that was the last piece of any mountain around to get sun, with a view that stretched from one end of the Sawtooth Valley to the other. I was exhausted from the long day but couldn’t pass up a chance to ski that ramp and glide right to my tent.
The turns were effortless, the snow sparkled purple in the fading flight and any trace of weariness in my body disappeared. Those sixteen turns were everything that is good about skiing, the wind in your face, surrounded by nature, weightlessness coming in gasps between each turn, gliding down the slope as your skis penetrate the soft snow, sending puffs of the crystalline clouds rising up to tickle your face and turn a simple sport into a spiritual experience. That night, as we gathered around our Jet-Boil stoves melting snow for drinking water and recounting our perfect turns, Erik reminded us, “tomorrow is a big day…our biggest day, with the most exposure, it’s the crux of this entire trip. No flap-dicking around tomorrow, we need to be gone by 7. Get some sleep.” I could tell by the urgency in his voice that tomorrow made him nervous, and if Erik Leidecker is nervous, shit, I didn’t even want to think about it.
On our skis by 6:45, we gained the first micro saddle just as the misty light of dawn allowed us to turn off our headlamps. We were standing about 800 feet above a frozen lake, the slope of rock solid, bulletproof ice covered with avalanche debris.
“This isn’t skiing, boys,” Erik said with a grin. “This is pure survival.” Then he took off, scraping along the snow and making a noise that sounded like squeaky chalk. Side slipping and chattering my way down the icy slope I felt like a total beginner, hunched over my skis like Quasimodo, praying to God my edges would hold.
When we reached the lake, Erik looked up the slope we had to climb, every bit as icy as the one we’d come down, and said sternly, “Put your ski crampons on and let’s go — the East and Southern slopes have already been baking for an hour.” I attached my ski crampons to my bindings, knowing that just having to put on ski crampons means that any slip or fall would send me all the way to the bottom.
The next three hours were hell. The snow kept changing, so every step was a struggle; we would have to take our skis off and boot-pack, then put our skis and crampons back on, then take them off again as we crawled across large boulders of avalanche-chunder and finally up a steep slope where the snow was so sugary we kept post-holing up to our waists. It took twice as long to reach the ridge as we’d planned. Now we were behind schedule, looking down a sloppy south-facing slope with recent evidence of large cornices breaking off the cliffs above and crashing into the basin below. There would be no time for a leisurely lunch today. It was go time.
Growing up in a small town like Ketchum, everyone knows each other, for better or for worse. Gossip spreads like a late summer wildfire around town and getting away with anything as a teenager, especially a teenager who happens to have an identical twin brother, was damn near impossible. For this reason, along with the fact that Cody and I happened to be on the more mischievous side of things, we were easily recognizable from the minute we showed up in town. Even though we had never met the Crist brothers, their reputation was widespread and we began getting compared to them.
When Cody and I found out just who these Crist brothers were; Olympians, X-games Champions, Warren Miller Film stars, top tier kayakers, surfers, and all around bad-asses, we encouraged the comparisons any way we could. Being compared to the legendary Crist brothers was a boost to our fragile, puberty-addled egos no matter where it came from, so we took it and tried our hardest to live up to the comparison.
Although they were well out of high school by the time we got there, we heard stories about their prowess on the soccer field, the house parties they used to throw, their general shenanigans, all of course inflated by the passage of time. There was even an award given at every graduation ceremony in Zach’s name to the student whose consistent, un-ashamed tardiness, performed with a certain amount of aplomb, reminded the faculty of Zach Crist. I actually think Holman won it for our class of ’99.
After seeing Holman ski, they helped him get sponsored by the same company they rode for and through him we got to know them. Occasionally we would see Zach and Reggie around Santa Barbara while going to school there, they’d invite us to some outrageous party at an old college friend’s house, or take us surfing to some out of the way location we’d never heard about. The more we got to know them and our relationship shifted from them being childhood idols to our mentors and friends, the more we admired the lifestyle they led.
At home in Sun Valley they were the nucleus of the hottest skiers in town. If you could keep up with those guys, and the name of their game was high speed, non-stop runs down every part of the mountain, especially during powder days, you were worthy. I tried more than a few times, believe me, usually blowing up halfway down and cartwheeling, ending up in a snowy heap and losing track of them for the rest of the day. After Cody and I quit ski racing our one goal was to get strong enough and ski fast enough to keep up with those guys.
Eventually we did, and so began the process of earning their respect. Putting in our time with the older crew entailed a fair amount of hazing, but it definitely had its rewards. A whole group of older ladies got to know us and considered us “cute” enough to take home once in a while. We got invited on a heli-ski trip and tested our mettle with them in the dreamscape of Southeastern Alaska. Then Zach invited us on this Sawtooth trip, a virgin traverse through our home mountains.
After three days in the wilderness we arrived at the William’s Peak Yurt –a semi-permanent structure that looks like a cross between a canvas teepee and a snow cave erected every fall by Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG) and taken down every spring– at the base of Mt. Williams, the Sawtooth range’s tallest peak. Basking in the relative luxury of a wood burning stove, basic kitchen, and cold Pabst Blue Ribbon beer that Clark and Hatch, guides and porters for SMG, had drug in on a sled up the seven mile trail, the yurt felt like a five star hotel. Sun burnt and exhausted, we cracked the beers and compared sunburns while our wet gear dried above the warm stove.
After holding our collective breath for three days through unknown terrain and some dicey situations we were all able to relax and prepare for the next part of the trip, setting our sights on some of the biggest and steepest couloirs that the Sawtooths offered. Reggie would be joining us the next day, and the Horstman Couloir was clearly visible from the wooden deck of the William’s Peak Yurt. Just looking at it through binoculars gave me butterflies. It was so small, the thinnest strip of white imaginable cutting through an enormous black wall of rock. The idea that in two days I’d be standing on top of that thing with my brother, best friend and childhood idols was surreal. A nervous smile spread across my face as I grabbed another Pabst from the snow and mumbled a quiet thank you to the mountains for making it all possible.
The next day was a stationary one, meaning that we would return to the William’s Peak yurt after skiing the Thompson Peak couloirs, a series of six different north facing “coolies” with names like Resurrection, Jésus, and dos Equis that all drop down to the same un-named lake, a perfect training ground for bigger objectives like the Horstman. With no distance to cover our packs were light and skiing became the focus.
Skiing steep couloirs deep in the backcountry is all about survival. Every turn has consequences, and staying in control is critical. The go-to technique is called pedal-hopping, more commonly known simply as hop-turns or jump-turns, which involves initiating the turn by jumping off the snow, keeping your body facing down the hill while turning your skis 180 degrees in the air, and landing with your weight on the uphill ski, which should be perpendicular to the slope. Then regain control (easier said than done) and quickly do it again. At their very best, hop turns are an elegant, gravity-taming dance in which the skier maintains control the entire time. In my case, they resembled a barely controlled fall.
By the end of the day, not a single couloir was left untracked. Inspired by the light loads we were carrying and the security of the Yurt close by we skied over 5,000 vertical feet and everyone got some great turns. The only real scare came on the last run of the day when Matt lost a ski on his first turn in Jésus, the narrowest and steepest of all the Thompson Couloirs. Matt kept his wits about him though and as he started to tumble he immediately dove towards the cliff, somersaulted once and righted himself in a cat-like maneuver, ending up standing 25 feet below his ski. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to catch my breath. One second I was convinced Matt was going to tumble down the entire thing and the next thing I knew he was brushing the snow off his jacket before casually hiking up to retrieve his ski
Recounting the fall Matt chuckled, “That was a bad spot to fall.”
“No shit” Erik chimed in. Matt laughed off his brothers comment and proceeded, to recount the fall in a clinical almost scientific way. “I knew I had to stop really quickly before my momentum built up and I lost my bearings, so I just committed to the somersault and hoped I could stand up after it…pretty lucky I guess.” I nodded as if that was the obvious thing to do when you blew a shoe at the top of a gnarly couloir, dive head first toward a rock wall, roll, and stand up with one ski still on while brushing the snow off non-chalantly. Note to self in case of falling: commit to the somersault and try not to lose your bearings.
Early on in the trip, Erik looked at me, Jamie, Cody, and Zach and made the motion of packing a snowball with his hands. This became the established symbol for getting your “shit” together, whether it was your gear, your mental state, or your life in general. The idea of packing your proverbial shit-snowball tightly morphed into numerous metaphors for all our lives as we walked through the mountains and especially during the route-planning meeting for the Horstman Couloir.
The trip plan for climbing and skiing the Horstman Couloir was daunting. Roughly 20 units through thick timber and ultimately up the steep couloir itself, we were looking at a 13-hour round trip on paper. The weather was perfect, the avalanche conditions had stabilized, we all felt strong, and Reggie had shown up the night before so the decision was made to go for it. Trying to fall asleep that night was a challenge. This trip was a dream come true for me; I was on an adventure with my childhood heroes, led by Erik and Matt, sharing it all with my best friend Jamie and twin brother Cody. Now I was about to climb and ski one of the crown jewels of the Sawtooth range with them, a place that had awoken my soul and shaped so much of my life. My emotions oscillated wildly between 6-year-old Christmas Eve excitement and paralyzing anxiety, fear and insecurity that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t belong next to my childhood heroes and would let them down somehow. After three hours of fitful sleep I heard Erik get up and start making coffee. It was time to go.
Packing my mental and physical snowball was difficult in the cold pre-dawn darkness. I couldn’t eat much and was totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the day when I remembered something my dad had told me on a long hike 14 years ago. “Don’t think about how far you have to go, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there.”
With that in mind I put on my pack and started walking, not thinking about anything except the click-clack of my boots against my bindings and the steel guitar sliding of my climbing skins over the snow. As we emerged from a cluster of trees into an open meadow, the sun’s first rays hit the top of Horstman Mountain, bathing its beautifully frightening face in pink alpenglow set against an indigo sky still speckled with stars, sending that familiar tingle of how small and insignificant I was in comparison and reminding us all why we work multiple jobs and barely scrape by just to keep living in the mountains. You do what it takes, because that blue sky, that deep, three-dimensional blue behind the sparkling white of winter framed by evergreens that takes your breath away, is as addicting as crack and God rolled together into one heady doobie.
The route we had chosen was a good one, with firm snow in the trees and sturdy snow bridges over the numerous creeks, and we made it to the bottom of the couloir way ahead of schedule. Climbing steep couloirs takes a certain amount of patience and technique, sometimes all you can do is put your head down and grovel. In deep snow it’s like climbing up a steep set of stairs made out of loose sand, and that’s when you’re not breaking trail. The only guys with any real experience were Erik and Matt, the rest of us, Zach and Reggie included, were complete rookies. About halfway up the couloir the nervous chatter had stopped completely as we all focused on the task at hand. Staring no further than two steps in front of me with my head down and grunting occasionally, I heard Erik shout from above “SLUFF!!!!”
A small section of snow had released above us but was gaining momentum and size quickly. I stared at it for a second like an optical illusion, frozen as I tried to figure out just what to do. It didn’t look that big, but when I saw Zach jump to one side and had a body to compare it to the decision was an easy one…get the hell out of the way, which we all did in quick succession. By the time it reached Holman at the end of the line, it was a full-fledged avalanche capable of burying someone or carrying them all the way to the bottom. The silence got even thicker after that.
Looking up a couloir isn’t usually that bad (they always look wider and less steep from below), but the Horstman was different. I didn’t have to look down to realize how steep the thing was, I could tell just by how close the slope in front of me was to my eyes. The entire couloir existed in the “no-fall” zone, meaning any fall equaled injury at the very least, unless you got really lucky.
After 2 and half hours of wallowing, we reached the top and I looked down. That’s when I almost threw up. I tried to eat something but it was pointless, managing to get only a few bites down out of sheer willpower. Since the whole trip had been Zach’s idea, it was unanimously decided he would be the guinea pig and go first. There were some possible Erik had noticed climbing up that needed to be taken care of (in other words, knocked loose) by Zach.
When he disappeared it was my turn to start getting ready. We would wait to hear from him when he reached a safe zone or from Matt if something happened. Basically you were totally on your own once you dropped into the couloir. My heart rate was skyrocketing, with a distinct roaring in my ears from adrenaline. I tried to focus on keeping my movements smooth and controlled as I strapped the ice ax to my pack, buckled the flaps, put it on and extended my poles before knocking the snow off my boots and clicking into my bindings. As I bent over to clear the snow off my boots, I almost tipped over. When I finally had my skis on I actually felt a bit more comfortable and gazed down the couloir, visualizing each turn I would make.
Zach’s voice crackled over the radio, out of breath and stoked as he relayed the snow conditions.
“I had a couple little ones (slough avalanches) release on me so it should be pretty clear — the snow is kind of chalky up top, then gets super smooth about halfway down. Fucking radical!”
Erik smiled stoically and said, “whenever you’re ready, Kitt.”
I’ve never been one to wait very long on top of something like a cliff, a bridge, or as I found out, a couloir. If I’m going to go, I go within a few seconds of getting the “all clear.” My first turn I went airborne for way longer than I had expected, probably traveling 10 feet before my edges caught, my hip bounced off the snow, and I watched a pile of slough roll down beneath me. Each turn took every ounce of my focus and ability, my breaths started coming in ragged gasps, as I would often go for two or three turns without remembering to breathe. When I hit the smooth snow halfway down and the couloir widened to a luxurious 14 feet I started to let loose a little, reveling in the weightlessness between steep turns through soft, deep snow. Rocketing on to the apron below the couloir with the realization that I had made it set me off and I started screaming at the top of my lungs while carving large arcs through the perfect snow. Coming to a stop next to Zach with my legs on fire and head absolutely roaring I saw him snap a picture of my face. Grinning wildly, he looked at me and asked, “How was that!?”
“Fucking scared the shit out of me!” I screamed.
“Radical, huh? Kitt, that was as full-on as it gets, and you ripped the shit out of it! I’m proud of you, man.” Then he gave me a high five and a hug.
I was floating. Zach doesn’t give compliments out easily; you have to really earn them. Overwhelmed and out of breath, I closed my eyes in an attempt to sear the emotional and physical memory into my brain forever although I doubt I had to. That one’s going to be with me a long time.
Reggie came next and I watched him ski as I caught my breath. While Zach’s skiing is smooth to the point of effortless, Reggie is like a bull in a china store. He brutalizes the snow with raw strength and power, all 200-plus pounds of him bending the mountain to his will with a certain blend of confidence and recklessness that he’s honed in the big mountains and perfect snow of Alaska. It was obvious watching him ski that he’d come straight from there, where he’d been working on a film project and as a guide for the last three weeks. While the Crists might have been rookies climbing the couloir, they certainly weren’t when it came to skiing down.
Our entire group made it down safely and it was Erik himself who had the widest smile of us all, the Horstman Couloir, the most dangerous and exposed part of the entire trip was behind us, everybody was safe and it was time for a celebration. Our rock solid guide could finally relax, if just for a little while. I barely remember the trek back to the yurt, I was so buzzed with adrenaline and lost in vivid memories of climbing and skiing the couloir. When we got back to the yurt we mixed up a batch of Yurtaritas –a cocktail made with tequila, lemon-lime Gatorade powder, and beer, mixed together in a bucket full of fresh snow—and toasted each other and the Horstman Couloir. Reggie said goodbye and went to meet his wife. Such Reggie style; jet in From Alaska, show up at some random backcountry yurt, ski the gnarliest line of the trip, and then ski out to your pregnant wife for a night or two with plans of coming back just two days later.
The next day we were back on the move, headed toward the Heyburn Couloir.
Packing our gear that morning, feeling like seasoned veterans, playful banter filled the air as we laughed and joked with one another. It was a beautiful day, the avalanche conditions had stabilized, and we had reached that point in the trip where everyone knew what was expected of them and was comfortable with one another.
After a long but relatively easy hike, we reached the Heyburn Coulior and were rewarded with some of the best snow of the trip. As I sat on the frozen lake, gazing up at our tracks in and around the Heyburn Couloir, and basking in the beautiful high alpine sunshine with my boots off and bare feet kicked up in front of me I watched Erik ski the last pitch. His form was elegant, making the same radius turn the whole way down with no wasted movement or effort. Without Erik, this trip would never have happened. He provided the experience, knowledge, and wherewithal to put the whole expedition together. I think he got a little embarrassed about how many times I said thank you to him that evening in camp before he left.
Later that evening Reggie returned with his wife Laura and another friend in tow, along with plenty of contraband and booze and the party began in earnest. It had been an intense week. We’d skied five big league couloirs, traveled 40 miles over unknown and unforgiving terrain, climbed 22,000 vertical feet and laid down a new route through the Northern Sawtooth Mountains. With one more day of mellow corn skiing in front of us, it was time to let loose a little.
The next morning we woke up slowly, and after a few runs around camp we made our way back down to the road, where Erik had left Matt’s van. We all piled in and drove to the town of Stanley, where SMG’s headquarters are, every one of us staring out the window at the mountains in reflective silence. After a quick lunch of cheeseburgers and fries at Mountain Village Restaurant we said our goodbyes. Looking into everyone’s eyes as I said goodbye, I could tell how special this trip had been. We all knew it was one of those trips that separate time into before and after. Cody and I threw our gear in the back of his truck, climbed into the seats and turned onto highway 75 driving past the Sawtooth range once more on our way back to Ketchum. “What a life we lead…” Cody said, as much to himself as to me, his words drifting away into a dream and eyes settling into a trance on the road ahead and the mountains beyond as the truck followed the familiar curves of the Galena Summit road. So many adventures with one another had begun and ended on this stretch of road, just the two of us, riding side by side through the mountains and life. So much of who we were as individuals and brothers was found in these mountains. A place we had left the petty competitions of twin siblings behind and found something so much deeper in the companionship of simply being with one another.
Everything made sense for those few precious moments in that car beside my brother and I was as comfortable in my skin as I had ever been. On the other side of Galena summit the real world was waiting for us. Families, jobs, financial pressures, new babies, wives, children and girlfriends were all tightly packed beneath those timeless mountains. Any member of the crew will tell you, growing up in the mountains is a blessing and a curse. Actually, more like a relationship with all its compromises, sacrifices, headaches, and rewards. The more you fall in love with the mountains, the harder they are to leave, and the longer you stay the more you’re willing to sacrifice to keep on staying.
This time around the mountains looked different to me. I could see the Horstman Couloir clearly from the highway, William’s peak set next to Thompson in the far distance and Mount Heyburn rose up above Redfish Lake, just as they always had, but my eyes were different. Everywhere I looked I saw potential ski lines, and even after nine days in the Sawtooths I knew we had barely scratched the surface. For every couloir I had skied, 10 more lay untracked. I looked to the east across the Sawtooth Valley and saw the White Cloud Mountains, with a perfect couloir snaking down from a large pyramid called Castle Peak. “It’s mind blowing,” I said to Cody, pointing up at Castle Peak, “it’s just limitless, isn’t it — everywhere you look there’s more lines to ski.”