Field Agent: Nicole Jorgenson
Time Zone: Mountain
Location: Pioneer Mountains – Hailey, Idaho
Activity: Hut Trip – Backcountry Skiing
The last light of the sun is quickly disappearing. I’m starting to lose my ability to discern the contours of the rolling meadows through which we’re travelling in search of our objective: the Pioneer Yurt. We have no skin track to follow, a result of the area’s tendency to be swept by strong winds as well as recent snowfall. My mind begins racing through all kinds of emergency back-up plans, for fear that we just might not find the hut.
10:00PM Thursday: Backcountry Reunion
Let me back up a bit. At 10PM the night before, my brother, Kristo, and his friend Helen, landed in Boise – the two of them travelled that day from NYC, their current residence. Helen is an NYC native who was lucky to escape the city often and collect a plethora of outdoor and mountaineering experiences around the world. Kristo, who grew up in Boise, is one of those lumberjack-wannabe outdoor hipsters who loves snaring rabbits and living minimally in the outdoors but has somehow found himself co-founding a startup in NYC and thus currently lives vicariously through others’ adventures. My other brother, Matteo, still battling the throes of high school, is an extremely successful junior cyclist who puts my VO2 max to shame (or most of ours for that matter). On our way to the airport, Matteo and I picked up Colton, a good friend of ours who we met back in the day through riding bikes, and who is currently studying for medical school; Colton and Kristo are long time friends and adventure buddies. We all decided a hut trip would be a great time for a reunion.
11:30PM Thursday: Road to Sun Valley
After picking the New Yorkers up from the airport, and backtracking for some forgotten skis, we hit the road for Sun Valley. Of course, the drive took an hour longer than usual due to a storm that had just moved in, and the five of us finally arrived around 3am.
3:00AM Friday: Wake Up Call
We promptly dispersed to our respective beds and fell sound asleep. Our 7am wake up call came too soon, but we began organizing and packing gear at a pace much too sluggish for the long skin we had ahead of us.
7:00AM Friday: Crew, Coffee, Trailhead
The 6th member of our crew finally joined us shortly after we awoke. Max, another long-time friend, is a Montana State Snow Science student, and speed rider (look this up if you don’t know what it is – it’s badass), and is currently living in Sun Valley for the semester while nursing a back injury. Finally, our group was complete and we could straighten out any last gear and food details before heading to the trailhead. Of course, this process – which also necessitated a coffee stop at Java – took far longer than planned and we didn’t begin skinning until around 12:30pm.
6:00PM Friday: Dwindling Hope
For the first time, I thought we might not reach the hut. We had already been skinning for over five hours. The yurt should have been close if we were wandering in the right direction, but it was too dark to see anything in the distance and we were relying on a topo map with little ability to perceive our surroundings. Although Kristo and Helen are both active individuals, we all overestimated their ability to quickly adapt to the elevation after travelling from sea level such a short time before. Pioneer Yurt sits at 8,750 ft, relatively low when compared to many of the high alpine huts, but still quite a change for someone coming from sea-level overnight. The two of them had started moving slower, a result of the poor altitude adaptation. At this point Max and I decided to trudge ahead in hopes we could find the hut before it became pitch black, start a fire, and potentially drop our packs off to go help the others. Colton, Matteo, Kristo and Helen could follow our skin track in hopes that they had a warm hut waiting for them ahead. At this point we had turned on our headlamps, although I had to keep my face down because the wind was blowing the snow so hard. Eventually, Max and I could no longer see the four headlamps behind us. I was hungry, running on fumes and adrenaline. My mind kept playing tricks on me, telling me that any distinguishable shape in the distance was our yurt.
7:30PM Friday: Relief
I heard Max yell something from ahead, but his voice just trailed away with the wind. The trail had just started to flatten out after a good stretch of climbing. I flipped down my heel risers with some relief – I knew the hut sat in a valley, maybe we were actually nearing it. Squinting my eyes in the blowing snow, I could make out something round and hut-shaped in the distance. That was it! A flood of relief came over me. I knew that soon we would all be warm, fed and recovering from the day’s adventure.
9:00PM Friday: Decompression
The six of us were sprawled around the yurt, attempting to consume enough food and liquids before passing out for the night. The fire in the stove was producing a calming, crackling sound, and for a few moments we were all quiet, silently reflecting on the day. We were each exhausted, thankful, and maybe even a bit regretful for not having begun our day much earlier.
But why else do we venture out into the backcountry with friends if not in search of a fleeting sense of vulnerability and a more pure, human connection with our chosen partners? Those moments, sitting with my trip partners in a warm hut, thankful for each of their presence after a long day that tested each of our abilities for resilience and mental toughness, are some of my favorite moments of all time. The only way to create those moments is to find a way to bring everyone together despite differing schedules, physical distance, or individual life paths, and to venture into the backcountry where there is an absence of everything that differentiates us from one another.
The rest of our trip was filled with perfect powder skiing, beautiful views, and good company – definitely one to be remembered!