April 03, 2020 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Fire that Saved Sun Valley 

A Whistler backcountry skier tours the scorched earth of Central Idaho

click to flip through (4) STORY AND PHOTOS BY VINCE SHULEY - The Fire that Saved Sun Valley A Whistler backcountry skier tours the scorched earth of Central Idaho
  • Story and photos by Vince Shuley
  • The Fire that Saved Sun Valley A Whistler backcountry skier tours the scorched earth of Central Idaho

I shuffle forward in the skin track, pulling my neck-warmer up over my nose, the radiating sun my only reprieve against the bitter Idaho cold. Black husks of burned trees rise like porcupine quills out of the landscape, their shadows an endless series of light-and-dark stripes stretching over the glittering snow. Drawing in another deep breath, I top out on the slope, slightly less cold but still feeling the sting of icy, -30 Celsius air in my lungs.

From the ridgetop, our party—consisting of K2 athletes Anna Segal, Collin Collins, Tyler Ceccanti and filmmaker Jeff Thomas—gain a full view of the Smoky Mountains of Southern Idaho. To the west, the steeper and more jagged Sawtooth Range juts from the horizon. To the east, the Pioneers collide with the Boulder Mountains, rounding out the accessible backcountry areas surrounding the town of Ketchum and the historical ski resort of Sun Valley.

Leading our party is career mountain guide Joe St. Onge, a resident of nearby Hailey and owner of local outfitter Sun Valley Trekking. Having spent the majority of his career guiding in Central Idaho, St. Onge has seen many changes in the town and environment over the decades, both human-made and natural. But the biggest of those disruptions occurred in the last 13 years with the sweeping and destructive wildfires of Castle Rock and Beaver Creek, which tore through those valleys in 2007 and 2013, respectively. The aftermath of the burn is our ski-touring venue for this week.

"Both Castle Rock and Beaver Creek [fires] were started by lightning strikes," recalls St. Onge, pointing out the flashpoints just a few kilometres away from our current position. "They had to evacuate [parts of Hailey] in the middle of the night [during the Castle Rock fire]. We were busy putting soaker hoses on our roofs, then watched [the fire] creep up over the mountain. Like a volcano dripping lava over its edge, it was surreal. I was happy to be here for it, because I don't think I'll ever see that again. As destructive as it was, it was a pretty awesome experience."

A surprisingly beneficial aftereffect of the Castle Rock fire— which was hard for locals to comprehend when their town was threatened by a blazing inferno—is that the resulting burn of excess standing timber actually helped create a fire break for Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley from the fiercer, hotter Beaver Creek fire six years later. While it's taken a while to catch on (some local naysayers still refuse to acknowledge it), 2007's Castle Rock blaze is heralded as the fire that saved Sun Valley.

The return of backcountry culture

On a year of lean snowfall and less than 40 per cent of the usual snowpack at Sun Valley Resort, our excursion into the local backcountry is unexpectedly bountiful. After the 14-hour drive southeast from Whistler, snow continues to pound the highway and coat the mountain passes through Sawtooth National Recreation Area, north of Ketchum. Shiny trucks and rusty Subarus litter the pull-outs, fresh skin tracks slinking into the woods at every opportunity. The locals have wasted no time getting after it.

Approaching Ketchum, the landscape is a stark comparison, with barely enough snow to cover the Nordic tracks and snowmobile roads. These continental mountains are infamous for their distinct microclimates, with 30- to 40-centimetre storms dumping in one area and just a quarter of that falling a dozen kilometres away. Locals are in tune with the regional variances, monitoring the weather patterns like surfers eyeing swells. Our first day skiing at Galena Pass we catch just such a break. Stepping straight off the highway, we are soon yo-yoing laps within eyeshot of the pavement, the perfect warm-up for the week of self-propelled powder skiing ahead. The fires did little damage here, but natural avalanche cycles and storm-catching terrain have done their job of keeping the trees sparse and the skiing fast. Over the next few days, I began to see more clearly why locals like St. Onge choose to make their homes here. Reliable weather; five distinct mountain ranges, all with their own terrain character and weather systems; a network of yurts and huts that let you escape into the backcountry for multiple days at a time. Sun Valley will forever retain its reputation as the granddaddy of ski resorts in the American West, but it's the return of backcountry culture here that's fuelling the next wave of adventure tourism. And summer wildfires—for better or worse—are playing their part.

Early the next morning, we park at a highway pull-out near the Baker Creek Forest Service Road, the unrelenting cold snap dictating that we dress in every warm layer we were smart enough to bring to Idaho. Our destination is the Coyote Yurt, Sun Valley's flagship backcountry refuge here in the south Smoky Mountains.

We double up on snowmobiles and take off down the Baker Creek drainage, but only get about 10 minutes in before pulling over for a brief respite from the wind chill. Turning onto the east fork of Baker Creek Road and winding up the switchbacks, the wake of the Beaver Creek fire is evident all around us. Fields of branchless, blackened lodgepole blanket the slope, the occasional toasted husks of old-growth whitebark pines looming over like scarecrows in a crop field.

The Coyote Yurt is actually the second structure to occupy this ridgetop perch—the first perished in the Beaver Creek fire six years ago. St. Onge recalls the day he attempted to save it, or at least save as much of it as he could.

"I got the call from Forest Services saying they were closing down the whole Baker Creek drainage, I had to beg for the access to go in," he says. "I drove up with a smokejumper firefighter from California and piled whatever I could fit into the truck. The whole drive was enveloped in this haze of smoke, you couldn't see where the fire was or what direction it was heading in." Escaping back down the road with solar chargers, gas stoves and a pile of other loose equipment, St. Onge was already coming to terms with the loss of his prized backcountry shelter. But the yurt could be rebuilt. He, his family and staff were all safely evacuated. The fire was under control—at least for the moment—and there was no immediate threat to the nearby residents' property or the towns' infrastructure. Sun Valley Resort had dutifully turned on their snowmaking guns to increase the humidity to stem the encroaching blaze. The wooden fuel expended during the Castle Rock fire six years earlier had left a healthy buffer around the town. The communities of Ketchum and Hailey had dodged a fiery bullet.

For the greater good

Seated around the pine dining table of the since-rebuilt Coyote Yurt, St. Onge explains that, despite the loss he endured that summer of 2013, in hindsight it was for the greater good. Not just for protecting against future wildfires, but bettering the winter ski experience in Blaine County. "Ultimately, we needed it. We had too dense a forest and tons of bark beetle. In the long run, it's going to be a good thing," he says. "From a skier's perspective, this has been like a gold mine. The forests here are typically a little too tight for good tree skiing, especially on the heavily forested northern aspects. With the fires coming through here it's opened up all the northern slopes, creating ski terrain where it didn't exist previously."

As the tired skiers peel off to their bunks for the night, a storm rolls in, the first snowfall since we arrived. Rising for coffee and a hot breakfast, St. Onge rallies the team and leads us out towards the Alden Gulch, about an hour skin from the yurt. While only 10 centimetres dropped overnight, the wind has blown over a foot of fresh onto the northern aspects of the gulch. We take turns dropping in and leapfrog down the slopes, while Thomas milks as many shots as he can amidst the deepest snow of the trip. Segal, Collins and Ceccanti are all attempting to outdo each other with the size of their respective powder clouds, the perfectly spaced trees allowing playful turns while still anchoring the slope safely from potential slides. I weave through the scorched trees and duck under deadfall, threading through the tight gaps without a single worry of coniferous branches tearing open my outerwear. Despite everyone's exhaustion, the skin back to the yurt is alive with chat about the deepest turns of the week.

The storm clears by the next morning, the crew rising groggily to shoot at first light. The sun peeks over the Pioneer Range, bathing treed ridges in a soft orange glow. St. Onge drops in, leading our group as the drone swoops overhead, the buzz of propellers drowned out by ecstatic hoots and hollers. After breakfast, I stand outside with St. Onge admiring the panoramic view of the five mountain ranges, coffee in hand. He points at them one by one, describing the five other huts and yurts he operates. While our skiing this week mostly took place at treeline here in the Smoky Mountains, I can see formidable couloirs in the Sawtooths, basins and alpine bowls in the Boulder-White Clouds and big mountain faces in the Pioneers. It takes effort to reach these shelters, either by putting in a solid day of skinning or organizing a snowmobile shuttle, but staring at the sweeping terrain in front of me, I'd be remiss if I didn't return to make that effort.

On the drive back to Ketchum, I ride shotgun with St. Onge before he heads back into the hills to work another guided trip. After almost 20 years of ski touring in these mountains, he's learned to accept—and even embrace—the destructive beauty of wildfires near his home and in his backcountry tenure.

"In many ways [the fire] was a blessing, but a blessing that came with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, quite literally," he says. "The Coyote Yurt is better than the old one and now we have even more to ski than we could before the burn. If I could magically go back and alter the course of history in the last 10 years, would I change it? No, absolutely not. But if you asked me that the day before I found out the yurt burned down, I probably would have said yes."

Global weather changes have forced skiers all around the world to adapt, evolve and endure in order to keep their sport alive. But with the grit and determination of stewards like St. Onge and communities like Ketchum and Hailey, skiing in Central Idaho seems to be in good hands.

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