It had been snowing hard for most of the day, for most of the week for that matter. It was early April and we were nearing the apex of our climb on Mt. Heyburn, in the Sawtooth Range in Idaho. Our objective was the Petzoldt Couloir, a highly desirable and aesthetic line that drops from near the actual summit of the craggy Heybrurn, the ridge line itself reminds you of why the range is named for an implement to cut wood.
The weather would clear briefly, and we were hoping for some decent visibility for the descent. The climb had been a slog as we postholed and floundered up the couloir, often sinking to our waists. One technique that sometime helped was to plunge your ice axe into the snow under the foot of the person above you, so as to help them gain purchase. The results were debatable. The skiing however, was going to be memorable once we switched directions. Nearly 18 inches of fluff had accumulated on top of the crust underneath that we were now punching trough.
We had made a thorough pit assessment of the avalanche hazard, an several visual factors had shown that the instabilities had already slid in the couloir as well as the surrounding bowl.
At last our team of four had reached the col, and brief windows of clearing allowed us glimpses into the surrounding terrain. Breathtaking. The storm shortly redoubled her efforts, closing any chance of decent visibility for the descent.
The line dropped steeply off the col, and we sank deeply into the surprisingly soft spring powder. Once a rhythm was established, the skiing became friendly as we skied between islands of safety. As the slope mellowed, there was a shout from below, the lead in our group had triggered a slide. He was able to arrest, but was visibly shaken, the poor visibility didn’t reveal the extent. As we skied down to his position, we were all surprised to drop off a skid foot tall crown line, that reached nearly 50 yards across the slope, and ran for nearly 200 yards vertical down to on of the Bench Lakes below. It wasn’t storm snow that had slid, and the weak layer that we had witnessed earlier wasn’t the culprit either. Why here? Why now?
The team safe, we regrouped as we had had enough. The little light that was provided was fading, and we had a good bit of travel back to our refuge for the night at the Bench Hut above Redfish Lake, it was nearing 5 pm. We beat a hasty retreat for home where with warmth and dry shelter we could rest and refuel for another day tomorrow. This was our third day at the hut, with 2 more to go. We had only begun to scratch the surface of the terrain that the hut provides access to, and we had already racked up some fantastic lines. It had been snowing for two days straight now, and what we could determine from the forecast called for more tomorrow. With two feet of snow already piled on top of the hut, the quiet and solitude winter’s blanket provided made us feel as if we were a long ways from civilization. And what a great place to be!
Tomorrow we would venture to the daunting Boy Scout Couloir, a rare objective on the neighboring Grand Mogul. The big winter had filled in the notorious choke that usually made for difficult access to the upper couloir, but this winter, it was filled and skiable through the whole descent. Who would know when it would be in this condition again?
The big winter, with it’s big snows conspired against us again. It was snowing on and off throughout the morning as we made our way to the base of the might chute. The route finding was extraordinary, but TB led the way with the nose of a bloodhound. As we made our way up the apron, the precip increased in intensity, good skiing would await, but we were certainly leery as the chute narrowed, and spindrift avalanches began pouring down off the cliffs above us. We were able to duck under the cliffs and avoid the slides as we zigged and zagged quickly across the couloir. When we saw a decent sluff slide right down the middle of the chute, perhaps not enough to bury, but knock you off your feet, we had seen enough.
The skiing was great back down the lower chute, and across the aprons, but our main objective was foiled, and for the better. We don’t know when there will be another day, but there will be another day for us, and best to wait for it. We felt a long way from home.
A 1500 foot dawn-patrol shot above the hut the next day, packed, and out of the hut. Back to the car parked along Hwy 75, and 6 hours back to SLC for a midnight arrival. Weary, relieved, yet buzzing with anticipation of the next time.