“Side country” skiing at Soldier Mountain in Fairfield, Idaho
The Owyhees mean lots of things to different people. From brown trout fishing to canyonland rafting or high desert camping, it seems to provide an endless number of opportunities to experience the last vestiges of the wild west.
Skiing, on the other hand, is one of the last things people would expect anyone to do in the southwest corner of Idaho. If you try to talk to anyone in the small community of Murphy about it, they’ll just assume you’re lost and point you in the direction of the Sawtooths. Perhaps an exercise in futility, or perhaps the makings of a great adventure, skiing the Owyhees is certain to be a lot of both.
The sport of ski touring, where skiers traverse the backcountry before heading downhill, has recently seen a huge growth in popularity. A good outdoor friend of mine, Eric Stewart, introduced me to the concept with his frequent pictures of stunning scenery, and virgin snow hidden away from resort crowds.
It didn’t take much convincing before I was ditching my old set of skis and buying all the proper gear for the backcountry.
As frequent floaters of the Owyhee River, we both naturally bounced around the idea of skiing its snow-peaked mountains in the spring. The Owyhees are sort of a bucket list item for local die-hard tourers, and 2019 was shaping up to be an excellent snow year after all, so what better time to ski seldom-run slopes?
There are a few options for skiing in the Owyhee range. Hayden Peak, being the tallest mountain in the range and most likely candidate for skiing, was immediately crossed off our list after I contacted the Owyhee Sheriff’s office and found out the Silver City road would be closed to all recreational access until Memorial Day. This effectively restricted entry to the entire Hayden and Silver City area.
Most ski reports we’ve seen have had people going in early May, so we decided to head out on the second week of April to ensure ample snow. We settled on Quicksilver Mountain. Unlike Hayden, this mountain is within striking distance of the open Triangle Road — only a 45-minute drive from Murphy.
We also heard reports from a local backcountry skiing group that people have skied this area before. It was all the encouragement we needed.
Robby Milo, an expert backcountry skier and good friend of Eric, tagged along on our adventure. I am still new to the sport, so it is only reasonable I take along some more veteran enthusiasts, because mistakes where we are going can be costly. This is a lesson true for much of the Owyhees, and true for the sport of touring as well.
With a target in mind, we planned on spending a night at Toy Pass on the Triangle Road, and from there heading out 6 miles on a UTV trail as close as we could get to the mountain, then hiking up the rest from there.
The drive to Toy Pass on the Triangle Road was a pleasant one, stunning views of the slopes we would be skiing the next day, with the valley floor blanketed by green pastures and dotted by cattle. The road itself was in great condition, but in the Owyhees great can turn into bad in a matter of hours, especially with unpredictable rain squalls that produce impassible mires of the road.
At the top of the pass we made camp just off the road for the night. The 4x4 trail from there is off limits to all large vehicles, but UTVs and motorbikes are still allowed. The use of a UTV is a requirement if you plan on having any time to ski, otherwise it’s a 12-mile round trip hike just to the base of Quicksilver.
In the morning we loaded all our gear into the back of the Polaris and headed off on the winding 4x4 road. There were a few snow banks along the way which required some shoveling to traverse, and had we been a week earlier there would have likely still been snow covering everything, making the steep approaches unnecessarily dangerous.
As we neared the larger face of Quicksilver, we got a better view of the wide open snow banks that grace the side of the mountain. Quicksilver is actually three peaks, the middle being the tallest, each with their own unique snowy characteristics, and each with their own potential lines to ski.
At the end of the 4x4 road, we loaded up our ski gear on our packs. That’s something most ski touring enthusiasts aren’t accustomed to — you generally put skins on the bottom of your skis and hike up the mountain sort of like a cross-country skier would. However, with no snow on the ground, there is little choice but to pack everything up.
It’s a strange feeling to be hiking up a bare rock face with sagebrush and juniper all around you, with the end goal of skiing in mind. But in the Owyhees it’s simply to be expected this time of year. Snow, especially on the southeastern side of the mountains, rapidly disappears in the warmth of the spring sun.
We had a total of about 1,400 feet to climb over two miles, and with every step the expanse of the Owyhee range grew larger and larger. At this elevation, the clouds would turn over themselves, folding like waves on the shore, all while the southern side of the range remained clear and sunny as far as one could see.
Eventually we got to the ridge where we could see the Boise area and Snake River Valley, and it was about this time moisture from the valley formed an even higher wall of clouds on the northern side.
Forecasts for the day had mentioned thunderstorms in the valley. Standing atop a mountain while wearing metal-carbon skis on your back isn’t exactly the best situation to be in when lighting is a possibility, so we were all a little on edge.
After reaching the crest, we could see the north side of the mountain was mostly free of clouds, and there were decent looking lines for us to ski. We didn’t need any convincing to remove our heavy skis from our packs.
The snapping noise of your boots locking into your bindings is an adrenaline trigger for ski junkies. From the mountain crest, we rode down a gradual slope till we dropped down into a bowl below the north peak.
The snow was warmed just enough from the spring sun to give it a perfect consistency, and we made our first turns down what may have been virgin territory. Not thirty seconds after reaching the bottom of our first run, the clouds rolled in completely, obscuring our vision and blocking Eric and my lines of sight with Robby, who had decided to skin further up the hill ahead of us.
We were prepared and all had radios, but for some reason we couldn’t get a response from Rob on our radios. Even with all the right equipment, something is bound go wrong at some point. We were just lucky at that time nobody was in apparent danger.
We immediately back tracked our lines, which were very difficult to make out in the near-whiteout conditions. We wanted to get out of Robby’s potential path, and the path of a possible avalanche (though one was highly unlikely in the spring conditions).
We figured we could head back to the top of the ridge, then follow our tracks back to where we had left some of our gear, assuming Robby would make his way back as well. Half an hour later, we got radio contact from Robby and heard he was heading back up right behind us.
When he emerged from the clouds and got close enough, I could make out a big smile on his face, “Well I’m happy now, I’ve skied the Owyhees!” he said.
We were all giddy with excitement in that moment. We were skiing the Owyhees — who in their right minds would be doing that?
We started heading back with the hope to get few more runs in. Eric and I did a measly run down the bowl from the middle peak to the south that was all but maybe 100 feet in elevation. We would have liked to have gone down the huge face we saw as we drove in the day before, but it was still obscured by thick clouds.
Once we made it back to the south peak, we decided to make our last major run, which covered most of the length of the mountain. There was a big cornice overhang that dropped around six feet, so we were cautious to stay clear of it, and work our way down the peak of the ridge, which was only partially covered by the clouds.
As we started working our turns down the mountain, we all enthusiastically squealed like little girls. The snow was perfect, we weren’t climbing up a hill, we were gliding down an enchanted blanket in the middle of the Idaho desert.
Halfway through the run the clouds magically parted revealing the Snake River valley below. It was a skier’s bliss.