When Averell Harriman was first designing Sun Valley in the 1930s, he didn’t originally plan on including alpine touring. At the last moment, however, Harriman had a change of heart and decided to construct two ski touring huts that would sustain the Alpine Touring School.
Harriman built two cabins–the Pioneer Cabin and the Saw Mill Hut (which is no longer)–but more importantly, he unintentionally laid the foundation for a backcountry guiding culture unlike anywhere else in the United States.
Backcountry guiding takes root in Sun Valley
Despite his initial hesitance to include alpine touring while developing "America's First Destination Ski Resort," as a shrewd businessman, Harriman quickly saw the value in sustaining a touring culture and went about hiring the seminal figure in the history of backcountry exploration in Sun Valley: Florian Haemmerle.
A German immigrant who came to America through Ellis Island to New York in the mid-1920s. A former German national ski champion, Haemmerle had trained skiers throughout Europe before becoming the ski coach at Dartmouth University. A hankering to move west brought Haemmerle to Sun Valley, and in 1938–two years after the construction of Sun Valley– Haemmerle was hired as the head of the Alpine Touring School and keeper of the Pioneer Cabins. He instantly began guiding clients looking to get away from the resort.
A young Florian Haemmerle looking as German as humanly possible. Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Haemmerle
“What made my dad different was that he was a little bit of a rebel,” Haemmerle's son Fritz, the mayor of the nearby town of Hailey, said. “He was definitely more of his own guy; he wasn’t into the Sun Valley scene. He felt more comfortable in the mountains.”
Unfortunately, just as Haemerle's outfit was gaining in popularity, and public demand was growing for guided backcountry tours, Haemmerle had to hang up his wooden telemark skis: World War II came calling.
With many of Sun Valley's ski instructors and staff members drafted into military service (Haemmerle himself was a veteran of the famous 10 th Mountain Division), Sun Valley shut down operations in 1942. When it reopened to the public in 1946, the Alpine Touring School was closed and Pioneer Cabin—along with alpine touring in the area—went into hibernation.
Florian Haemmerle (far right) leads a crew on an expedition through the Pioneer Mountain Range during the early 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Haemmerle
It would be decades until the backcountry movement took back off, but when it did, it returned in full force.
The dawn of a new age of touring
Some may call them adventure seekers or crazy mountain men, but to locals and die-hards, they were just Idaho skiers looking for the next nook and cranny. While the majority of skiers were on chairlifts in Sun Valley, Kirk Bachman was becoming one of the earlier trailblazers in Idaho by assisting with the rebirth of backcountry.
“I was around early enough where the whole backcountry skiing was taking hold in the 1970s,” Bachman said. “I moved to Stanley and worked for a guy named Joe Leonard.”
A skier overlooks the Pioneer Mountains. Photo: Courtesy of Joe St. Onge
Bachman built snow huts for Leonard Expeditions, and along with Leonard and Bob Jonas, who guided, the trio were on the forefront of exploring a sport that was having a resurrection. According to Bachman, Leonard was the initial guide who realized that Bachman could build backcountry huts to allow visitors to link together multi-day trips. Bachman, 63, claims to have built at least 50 huts and yurts in his lifetime.
While he was busy building out a network of backcountry huts, Bachman was also helping the evolution of touring gear, advancing the technology beyond Nordic skis and kick wax.
“My first pair of Nordic skis were wooden and skinny,” Bachman said. “The gear was rudimentary at best so I was at the position to see the evolution of the sport. I came in when telemark skiing was cool and that’s kind of where it all started and the industry really responded to it.”
Telemark skis laid dormant for decades, but when Bachman discovered Europeans had been using skins with glue he instantly began using lightweight telemark skis with glued skins, which was exactly the way Haemmerle toured the backcountry a generation earlier. Bachman’s excitement and discovery took him through the Sawtooths and then to Driggs where he spread what he was doing to fellow backcountry skiers.
When Leonard, Jonas and Bachman began exploring around Sun Valley, they had no intentions of becoming trailblazers; they just wanted to get away from the crowds and ski new terrain. But, speaking with current guides, they unknowingly influenced the entire generation of backcountry guides that operate in Sun Valley today.
Passing the torch
As the backcountry culture took root in the 1960s, the owner of Sun Valley at the time–Bill Janss–took notice and had an idea for how to revolutionize skiing in the backcountry.
"Janss looked out in 1966 and saw all the mountain ranges we're surrounded by–the Boulders, the Smokys, the Pioneers– and he said, 'How do I get there?' Tyler Ferris told TGR. "Well, he chartered a helicopter to take him out and go skiing, and that was the birth of Sun Valley Heli Ski."
Ferris is the current General Manager of Sun Valley Heli Ski, a born-and-bred Sun Valley local who has lived across the globe, but who always finds himself coming back to Sun Valley. He says the backcountry culture is a big reason why.
"When Janss started Sun Valley Heli Ski, that was the first heli skiing operation in the United States," Ferris said. "And he was given a special use permit by the Forest Service to operate across 750,000 acres of terrain, making it the largest in the country. What he was doing was unlike anywhere else in the U.S. at the time and I think that speaks to the spirit of exploration out here."
As the heli and backcountry culture grew, more and more guiding outfits began to pop up. Leonard Expeditions was eventually sold to Jonas who then turned it into Sun Valley Trekking. Now, Sun Valley Trekking is under the supervision of Joe St. Onge who is the Chief of Guiding Operations and oversees the company's network of six backcountry huts and yurts.
Skiers skin up the shoulder of Mount Heyburn above the Bench Hut. Photo: Courtesy of Joe St. Onge/Sun Valley Trekking
St. Onge is knee-deep in the culture of alpine touring and its history with Idaho. When asked about what drew other locals to guys like Bachman and Janss at the time, St. Onge is succinct in his response.
“Those guys were getting after it,” St. Onge said.
A native of Boston, St. Onge came out west at the ripe age of 17 and never turned back.
South, Smokys to the West, the Pioneer Mountains to the East, the Boulders to the North and the Sawtooths to the Northwest.
“The first thing that inspired me was the mountains and landscape,” St. Onge said. “We’re surrounded by five mountain ranges in a small geographical area (the Smokys, Boulders, Pioneers, Soldiers and Sawtooths), and each range has a very different geology, ecology, climate, ski opportunity, and room for exploration. I lived and have skied all over the world, but when I got (to Sun Valley), I thought, 'Wow, this is unique.'”
“We have a 65-mile highway corridor from Bellevue to Stanley with world-class skiing on both sides,” St. Onge added.
While Jonas spawned Sun Valley Trekking, in 1985 Bachman founded and helped Sawtooth Mountain Guides become another major player in the guiding services. But beyond guiding, when talking to those within the Sun Valley community, it becomes clear that Bachman's greatest contribution to the area may have been his mentorship.
"Kirk Bachman was doing apprenticeships with high school kids in the area, teaching them every aspect of backcountry guiding," Ferris told TGR. "Bachman was critical in providing that mentorship and access to the skiers in Sun Valley who wanted to be just like him.
Operating across 750,000 acres, Sun Valley Heli Ski is the largest heli operation in the U.S. Photo: Courtesy of Bozo Cardozo/Sun Valley Heli Ski
One of those high school kids was Erik Leidecker, a close friend of Ferris. For years Leidecker worked at Sun Valley Heli Ski, but currently guides and co-owns Sawtooth Mountain Guides along with Chris and Sarah Lundy. Their entire business model centers around Bachman's spirit of tutelage, capitalizing on a collection of expert guides and apprentices to offer a level of perfectly tailored guiding to each guest so they can fully experience the Sun Valley backcountry culture.
“It's funny, after high school Erik went into backcountry guiding under Bachman, and I pursued a dream of racing in the World Cup," Ferris said. "I used to give him shit for it at the time. Well fast forward however many years later and I gave up my racing to go into backcountry and heli guiding. Sun Valley and the people who live here just have a way of doing that to you."
For his part, Lundy echoed Ferris' praise of Bachman
“Kirk took people in the backcountry when not a lot of people were doing it,” Lundy, who moved to Sun Valley after patrolling at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, Montana in the mid-90s specifically for the backcountry, told TGR. “His overall vision was taking the sport–which was a fringe sport at the time–and turning it into a business.”
The future is bright
From the time that Bachman discovered putting European skins on telemark skis to the current state of backcountry skiing, Sun Valley’s touring history continues to revolutionize the sport.
Silverton, Colorado native and Ketchum resident Cory Smith has been able to build upon the foundation that the forefathers of backcountry touring began.
Smith not only operates the privately run Wintertux Chalet, a 1,200-square foot, three-story cabin in the middle of the Sawtooths that operates as a sort of backcountry oasis, but also runs Idarado Media and Mountain Approach. Smith sees the future as hopefully connecting a yurt system that involves Sun Valley Trekking, Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Smith’s privately run Wintertux Chalet.
Wintertux (above) is a backcountry maven's paradise. Photo: Courtesy of Wintertux
“I think we need some routes to go hut to hut like some of the access trails in Europe, which would be a really fun experience,” Smith said. “The fact that you could possibly go from Joe St. Onge’s yurt to Sawtooth Mountain Guides to Wintertux. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Smith thinks the ubiquitous presence of backcountry videos on social media will only continue to grow the profile of the backcountry experience in Sun Valley.
“You see all these videos every time you pick up your phone and people are in the backcountry,” Smith said. “Video on internet has been pretty big in the last 15 years.”
A new generation
With a lush ski culture and a small town feel, it’s no wonder that the Ketchum/Sun Valley area has become home to some of the best skiers in the world. Between Bald Mountain and the lust for alpine touring sidecountry and backcountry, pro skiers like Banks Gilberti have plenty of terrain to play on.
Gilberti, 28, originally moved to Hailey when he was only 4 years old and cut his teeth as a young ripper at Baldy. And though he went away to Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, Gilberti had always called Sun Valley home.
When asked about what brings people back to Sun Valley, Gilberti and others point to its wide open spaces. Photo: Courtesy of Ray Gadd
After high school, Gilberti went on an odyssey across the nation that put him in places like Summit County, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Southern California. But Gilberti says there was always something missing. That feeling ultimately culminated during a 2013 film shoot back in Sun Valley that Gilberti said made him realize he needed to stay in town.
“That’s one reason why I love it so much,” Gilberti said. “When I first moved back everything was so nostalgic. The history is one part of the equation that makes this place so special to me. The locals and people who are still here skiing every day in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The stories of how skiing was and how it is a true culture here. I would love to go back and see what it was like in its prime. There’s history from every generation.”
That’s what a ski town is like for many locals, the love never ends, and in Sun Valley, it feels like you are let in on a secret that only a select few know which builds long-lasting friendships and bonds. If Bald Mountain doesn’t suite you, then there’s skiing in any other direction and always a group of friendly skiers to join.
Gilberti enjoying some quality alone time in the backcountry. Photo: Courtesy of Tal Roberts/Orage
Sun Valley’s backcountry culture is one-of-a-kind, with a history of the area that’s as deeply entrenched as anywhere in the country, but beyond that culture Gilberti said there's something more basic that keeps skiers coming back: the seclusion.
“Honestly, I just enjoy having my space out here."
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