Whap, whap, whap...
A familiar sound rouses me awake early in the morning. Kicker, a vibrant Golden Retriever, smacks his tail against the bedside, yearning for morning cuddles. The sounds echoes throughout the open bunkroom of the Wintertux Chalet, nestled deep within Idaho's rugged Sawtooth National Forest.
It’s still dark, but his stirring awakens my hesitant urge to voyage outside and visit the outhouse. My predicament isn’t new for hut trips: long days on the skin track followed by après brews and guzzling water before bed so that you can do it again the next day, leads to this. However, this time I find myself doing the pee-pee dance beside my bed, trying not to wake anyone else up, scrambling to find my hut shoes.
“Kicker took your slippers,” mumbles Keri Bascetta, our trip photographer, cozied up in her sleeping bag.
I stumble downstairs to find Kicker curled up with my slipper at the door. His tail is still wagging as I reclaim the lost slipper. I give him a pet on the forehead and clamor outside.
About 50 miles north of Sun Valley, the Wintertux Chalet is a spacious 1,200-square-foot cabin. Access to this quintessential log cabin is via a six-mile snowmobile ride or backcountry slog through the rolling bumpy trail that parallels Beaver Creek off Idaho’s Route 75. The location is nearly perfect for backcountry skiing. The combination of elevation (8,000 feet), abundance of accessible ski terrain, and backcountry skier traffic in Idaho being mostly (and surprisingly) hypothetical, results in a powder skiing hideaway far from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and lifts.
The aroma of bacon drifts from the kitchen as we stand around the crackling wood stove, waiting for our coffee to brew. Climbing skins, gloves, and jackets hang along the posts and beams nearby. Billed as a backcountry cabin, Wintertux is a fully functional log home that sits on two private mining claims, totaling 40 acres. It’s powered by solar panels, with all the amenities of daily mountain-town living—other than having to fetch water and use an outhouse. Our crew is a collection from the Wasatch Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, it turns out to be a Utah v. Colorado gang. Among the group are Andrew Muse and his energetic Golden Retriever, Kicker, and Rob Aseltine with his mischievous Black Lab, Gru.
With rumors of a backcountry snowpack not seen this deep since 1922, our group arrived to Wintertux only to endure a weather hiccup. The snowline crept above the cabin’s elevation overnight, though as we skinned up the steeper south-facing slopes adjacent to the creek, only a few inches of fresh snow awaited our arrival.
Muse and Aseltine wait patiently along the ridge with their pups in tow. The intense March sun is a stark contrast from the season’s long powder-drunk slumber; its rays so strong that it sends rollerballs tumbling down nearby slopes in a matter of seconds. The pups are getting anxious to drop. Gru’s whimpering excitement is relieved as he chases Aseltine downhill. Kicker stoically stands above, waiting for the cue that it's his turn. With the chuck of a snowball and an energetic calling of his name—“Kicker!”—Muse pushes off and Kicker speeds out ahead of him. They eventually reunite mid-slope, arcing and galloping down the hillside with Kicker’s bronze face caked in spring powder.
Following a quick snack and climb back towards the ridge, the fluctuating weather briefly returns to winter. Puffy flakes squall into the afternoon as we began to work the mini-golf zone of rolling pitches, ending the day by schussing the south-facing slopes we had skinned up in the morning. The mix of steeper open faces and dead pines is surprisingly good. We skate back to the hut under an alpenglow for après beers and après doggy biscuits, an odd mix that quickly seems perfectly natural. The peaks glow in white as the sun’s reflection casts hues of orange while the sky turns from blue to purple.
According to A History of Dogs in the Early Americas by Marion Schwartz, “dogs were the first animals to take up residence with people and the only animals found in human societies all over the world.” Primarily descending from wolves, they were the only domestic animal present among Native Americans, and were seen as both partners and protection. Schwartz further notes that our canine companions are “uniquely sensitive to the cultural attributes of the people with whom they live, and participate in the cultures of humans.”
These days skiing with your dog is simple pleasure, but it was borne of utility. History has shown that humans tracked into the wilderness with dogs as companions and guardians. They kept predators away and alerted their owners, but also provided a kinship and link to the wild. To bring a properly trained dog along for backcountry skiing is only natural, a primal happiness that only occurs when sliding down the mountains with friends. Or put another way, skiing with friends, whether two-legged or four-pawed, is the sweet center of skiing’s Tootsie Pop.
However, it takes time to train your dog to not step on your skis and watch out for sharp edges, as well as to stay in the skin track on the way up to conserve energy, and most importantly to be obedient at the top of a ridge. Chasing you down, well that’s the easy part for them, and the ultimate reward for the slog up.
It took my Bernese Mountain Dog—an equal lover of fresh pow as the other dogs (and who unfortunately missed this trip due to my travel schedule) a couple times to really get a handle on it. Dogs’ pure joy as they shamelessly roll in the snow and romp around like kids tends to bring life into perspective—there’s nothing else going on except skiing and being in the mountains, and maybe that peanut butter biscuit in your pocket.
The following morning, Gru and Kicker are lounging around the cabin floor. Tuckered out from the full schedule of skiing yesterday, it's a rest day for them. The shallow refreeze overnight was met with a warm morning sun, and after window-shopping a line from the cabin’s back porch it is time to gain some elevation before it softens into mush. Photographer Bascetta and I set our sights on the broad and steep faces a couple ridges behind the cabin while Muse and Aseltine keep the pups close to home in an effort to conserve their energy for the next day’s adventure.
Bright green lichen clings to the trees on our route from the Beaver Creek valley. Perfectly spaced glades spill away towards our right as we gain a sub-ridge. Below us the Smoky Mountains open up across the horizon and the cabin slowly becomes a speck in the distance. Birds chirp and a red squirrel squeals, warning others of our presence.
Cornices the size of school buses crown the ridge that I vaguely saw from the cabin’s window. The hut’s potential is in full view; one could easily ski several slopes and connect adjoining valleys without having to cross a track or ski the same slope twice. After a couple jaunts back and forth trying to gain a perspective into the cirque, I’m able to find a sneaky entrance onto the broad alpine face. Throughout the upper reaches of these mountains, mini-spines flank the rock features. Caked in snow—a product of the season’s deep snowpack—they are primed for skiing.
I ski-cut the upper section of the slope before entering the high ramp and arcing into the bowl. Bascetta follows suit, and we then roll over the first alpine bench into the sub-alpine, skiing fast whipped-cream powder before the final pitch, after which the snow turns to chowder. It's a worthy run, but before celebrating we have to contour around the forest and negotiate the stream crossing—returning to our up-track seems more reasonable than breaking trail in the lower-elevation manky snow. However, spring’s early surge is retreating. Dark clouds approach, and it seems our cold storm is finally brewing.
The highly anticipated cool down and squalls of snow dissipate throughout the night under a clear Milky Way-lit sky. Muse yelps “stars!” after the 5 a.m. alarm awakens the cabin’s skiers and mutts. Kicker and Gru scamper upstairs. Tails wagging, wool socks hanging out of their mouths, they sense the excitement. (One quickly learns that a consequence of skiing with dogs is an ongoing scavenger hunt for random articles of soft clothing.)
Skinning away from the warm and cozy confines of the hut, our headlamps bob and glow as the star-lit sky fades into the early morning. Kicker is jacked up, and begins bounding ahead with me. Upon reaching the first meadow above the cabin he begins to growl. The prior day Bascetta and I had seen various wildlife tracks. Perhaps it was spring’s early arrival. Either way Kicker’s growl stops me in my tracks. I call him to heel at my side and calm him down, and I scan the scene. There’s nothing as quiet and still and breathlessly inspiring as the early morning wilderness. It’s why we do what we do. With a few fox tracks and scat in sight, it seems benign, and I continue skinning while Kicker, tail wagging, circles back to Muse.
We return to the knoll from earlier in the week, where four inches of snow sit atop a crust on the north, and a breakable crust on the south—which we figure will soften after sunrise. Setting the skinner back up the ridge and eventually switching to boot packing, we cut ourselves an entrance up a small cornice and have a summit party with the pups. The sun has just risen, illuminating the gorgeous Sawtooth National Forest and Smoky and Boulder mountains—alpine peaks with sparsely treed bowls looming in every direction, just begging to be skied.
Within a couple minutes Gru and Kicker are launching off the cornice onto the slope below. Chasing with spiraling tails, they leap after their companions. Muse opens up the line with Kicker, settling into the trees halfway down the crux for the rest of us to catch up.
Clouds are filtering in and out, but with a window of light, I punch it down the center to the flats and then down the next steep pitch that carries me to Beaver Creek. The southfacing line falls away below the horizon with a consistent pitch. The sun has warmed the underlining crust making for smooth turns, each one peeling a bit of diamond dust off the surface. It isn’t the deepest snow, but just enough to make the skiing feel like winter again.
As the sun begins warming the snow, the spring weather is again battling winter’s grip upon the mountains. No one seems to mind the sudden deep chill in the Sawtooth’s most memorable winter to date. Especially the dogs, who, like us, played all day in the snow, bracketed by sleeping like bricks in this beautiful mountain cabin—without a care in the world, except maybe where to hide some socks and slippers.
Freelance writer Erme Catino grew up skiing on the East Coast but succumbed to the lure of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains five years ago. He settled in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where he lives with his wife and their Bernese Mountain Dog, Mansfield.