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As we pull to the side of Highway 75, 10 minutes north of Ketchum, snowmobiles buzz on the distant hill like multicolored bees. One rider is idling not far from our parking spot with another machine at the ready: We’re headed out for an afternoon of guided snowmobile-assisted backcountry skiing with Sun Valley Guides. The man waiting removes his full-face helmet to reveal a soft smile. He’s our guide, former U.S. Ski Team member and skiercross pioneer Zach Crist.
“The snowmobile access is great,” Crist says later. The quick sled ride bumps clients “a layer deeper,” making for better snow, more vertical, and spending less time marching on the flats. When the goal is making sure the descent is as good as it gets, SKI’s Director of Photography, Keri Bascetta, and I don’t hesitate to saddle up and make quick work of the first foothill.
A longtime Ketchum local, Crist spent 15 years guiding with Sawtooth Backcountry Guides and Sun Valley Heli Skiing after leaving competitive skiing in the mid-2000s. He earned his AMGA certification and started a family, and last year, he started his own operation.
“The opportunity arose, and I thought ‘wow, there’s no way I couldn’t do this,’” he tells me on our ski tour. “I knew what the permit included in terms of terrain, and it’s an exclusive permit.”
The original Sun Valley guiding operation and hut system was founded in 1982 by Bob Jonas. Francie and Joe St. Onge took over the business in 2001 under the name of Sun Valley Trekking, but sold their guiding permit to Crist in 2018. “With the growing trend of backcountry skiing and the guiding industry in general, they were overwhelmed with six huts,” says Crist. “They kept the huts and sold the outfitting service to me.”
After a couple of sled laps, we leave the machines with a tail guide and ski into a different drainage. The forest seems deafeningly quiet as we transition to uphill mode. Crist cuts a mellow skin track up the hill and keeps an easy pace while mentioning that it took a long time to get his AMGA certification—“I was a pro skier and had a family”—but it was one of the wisest things he’s ever done. (He has four other AMGA-certified guides on the Sun Valley Guides staff as well.)
Following his ski tracks into perfect snow on the first and second pitch of our descent, I agree. Thanks to the sled bump, our final run feels twice as long as it should be, and we ski back to the car with tired legs and big smiles. Later on, Keri and I join Crist for après at his favorite Sun Valley haunt, Apple’s, where we chat about the rise of ski guiding in the United States.
Read more: Sun Valley, Idaho
“Having local knowledge is always worth seeking,” Crist tells me, explaining why paying for a guide to explore the backcountry of a mountainous state that ranks 44th in population density is a good idea. “Inevitably you’re going to have a much more interesting day in terms of quality of snow and terrain. Sure, guides keep people safe, but it’s much more in terms of an experience.”
When it comes to client satisfaction from his new operation, “every single day has been great, and no one has been disappointed.” SKI Magazine staff, included.
Twenty-three miles north of Ketchum is the backcountry skiing mecca of Galena Pass and the Alps-inspired Galena Lodge. Located just a few minutes from the pass’ summit, the Lodge draws in day-trippers for lunch or full-moon dinners with the exquisite ambience of the dining room, making it easy to eat high-quality food, drink draught beers and cocktails, and mostly stay in the backcountry just a little longer before returning to town. Those who don’t want to go back to town at all can make reservations to stay in one of the Lodge’s yurts overnight. The Lodge puts on fun events all year-long and can help orient first time visitors on where to go for backcountry turns.
Yurts Near Sun Valley
The intermediate and advanced skiing terrain is the biggest attraction to the famed Coyote Yurt, followed closely by great snow. The skiing includes the unique north-facing burned glades left by the Beaver Creek fire that raged in 2013 (and took the original Coyote Yurt with it). The rebuilt yurt is located 8,700 feet above sea level in the Smoky Mountains and, in addition to terrific skiing, offers phenomenal views of the Boulder and Pioneer mountain ranges.
Related: The Fire that Saved Sun Valley
One of the most popular yurts in the Sun Valley area, the Boulder Yurt is the easiest to access via a short 1.5-mile trail. The yurt is large enough to comfortably accommodate up to 14 guests, making it ideal for groups of mixed abilities or families anxious to get their kids out in the backcountry for a night. It’s also Sun Valley Guide’s top pick for a 7,120-foot-high yurt-cooked luxury dinner experience with the company’s experienced staff chef, Guy Robins.
Expert skiers anxious for big adventure should put a stay at the Pioneer Yurt high on their winter and spring wish lists. The striking mountain faces of the Pioneer Range visible from Sun Valley are that much closer and accessible from the yurt’s front door, providing ample opportunity to get into the gnar if conditions permit. Intermediate and advanced skiers still have plenty of terrain to explore from the yurt’s perch at 8,750 feet above sea level, as well.