Sofia Jaramillo worked in partnership Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.
My alarm buzzed at 6:30 am. It was still dark out as we got into our cars and drove from the Limelight Hotel in Sun Valley toward Galena pass. As we drove along Highway 75, the light slowly turned blue and we got our first glimpse of the jaw-dropping mountains surrounding us. We saw gigantic granite faces and rocky peaks in the Boulder Mountains and gentle slopes with densely treed forests in the Smoky Mountains.
When we arrived at Galena, we were met by our local guide, Tanner Haskins, from Sawtooth Mountain Guides. Although we were all expert riders, we decided to hire a guide because of avalanche danger and we didn’t have experience in this particular area. Sawtooth Mountain Guides provide a variety of guiding services near Ketchum including backcountry ski courses, hut rentals, and private guiding too. For this trip, we wanted to work with one of their guides who knew the area well and could show us around while keeping us safe.
After getting our gear ready, we walked less than a hundred feet and hopped on a trail next to the road. It was so cold we could see our breath as we sauntered up a snow-covered ridgeline. Light started to stream in from the east and our bodies warmed up. We could see dozens of peaks all around us and the top of Galena Pass lit up bright pink in a dramatic show.
With multiple mountain ranges nearby with various terrain options, Sun Valley offers something for all levels of backcountry skiers. You can find all types of skiing from uphill touring at Baldy for beginners to steep skiing in the Sawtooths for more advanced skiers.
When and Where to Go
If you have never tried backcountry skiing before, I highly recommend going for an uphill ski at Baldy. Sun Valley allows uphill travel on designated routes before 9am and after 4pm. This is an excellent option for anyone looking to try out backcountry skiing but isn’t ready to go out of bounds yet. But be warned, with over 3,000 ft. of elevation gain to the top, skinning up can be challenging. If it is your very first time, the Round House Restaurant is a good goal as its halfway up the mountain. Sun Valley provides more details about uphill travel and a map on their website.
There are five prominent mountain ranges close to Sun Valley: the Pioneers, the Boulders, the Smokys, the White Clouds and the Sawtooths. Each of them offers diverse terrain for backcountry skiing, from steep couloirs to low-angle glades. The snowpack in the Sun Valley area varies each year, but if you are looking for good snow or a decent base, plan your trip after mid-February. The later in the season you go, the safer the snowpack could be. There are many blogs and resources online to find specific routes to ski, but if you don’t see what you are looking for, give one of the local guiding services a call and they can suggest routes that fit your skill level.
Gear: What You Need and Where to Get It?
Before heading out for a ski, you will need to get some gear. The essential safety gear for backcountry riding includes an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. The transceiver, or beacon, is a device that is worn close to the body and transmits a radio signal. It is used to find people buried. A probe is a long collapsible pole used to poke into the snow to locate a buried person and the shovel is used to dig in the snow. All of these pieces of equipment are necessary to have when traveling in the backcountry.
Next, you will need ski equipment! Unfortunately, you can’t use regular skis or a regular snowboard in the backcountry unless you are boot-packing and strap your gear on your back. You will need skis or snowboards with special backcountry bindings on them that allow you to travel uphill. You will also need skins, which stick to the bottom of your skis or board and create the friction that lets you grip the snow as you move uphill.
If you don’t have ski equipment, there are a couple of options for rental gear in Ketchum. Backwoods Mountain Sports offers a backcountry package that includes skis, skis, and boots. They also rent beacons, shovels, and probes. If you are a snowboarder and looking to try out a splitboard check out the BoardBin. They offer a backcountry package that includes a splitboard, skins and poles.
Education & Safety
Before you go into the backcountry, there are some critical steps everyone must take first. The number one rule is “Know Before You Go.” It would be best if you first got educated on avalanche safety before traveling out in the backcountry. The best way to do this is by taking an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level 1 Avalanche Course.
There are many options for guiding services that offer this course throughout Idaho and I highly recommend Sawtooth Mountain Guides. I took my course with them when I first started backcountry skiing and thoroughly enjoyed my experience. In the three-day course, you will learn trip planning, safe travel techniques, resources for understanding avalanche terrain and weather, elements of avalanche rescue, and how to make decisions in the backcountry.
If taking an AIREE Level 1 is not accessible for you immediately, the next best thing to do is take one of the more basic avalanche courses. Sawtooth Mountain Guides offers the Sun Valley Intro to Backcountry Skiing and the Sawtooth Avalanche Center’s website has a calendar full of different avalanche education events throughout Idaho. If you don’t know which course to start with AIARE has a great guide to figure out what course might fit you best. Know Before you Go also offers a 1-hour online course that is great for understanding the very basics of what you need in the backcountry. The Sawtooth Avalanche Center is also a great resource to check before you head out because they have daily reports and weather observations.
Overall I learned three things that made me realize Sun Valley is the perfect place to backcountry ski. There is terrain for everyone. You can find all the gear you need at shops in town and the guiding services are top-notch.
It can take a while to feel comfortable in the backcountry, but it is one of the most rewarding outdoor activities once you do. There is nothing like a long day skinning and skiing in the mountains with your friends and Sun Valley is a great place to do it!
Feature image credited to Sofia Jaramillo.
Sofia Jaramillo is an outdoor adventure and documentary photographer based in Victor, Idaho. A few of her clients include National Geographic, The North Face, and Outside Magazine. To see more of her work go to www.sofiajaramillophoto.com or follow her on Instagram.
Published on December 14, 2021