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 sound echoes throughout the open bunkroom of the Wintertux Chalet, nestled deep within Idaho’
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
Above: The Wintertux crew enjoys a break from the clouds after a day blazing trail in Sawtooth National Forest. Right: Rob Aseltine sends it off a cornice. Opposite: Andrew Muse and Kicker, followed by Aseltine and Gru, set out for a ski.
Golden Retriever Kicker romps in the powder after a skin to the summit, then chases Muse down a mellow slope.
Bright green lichen coats the branches during the skin up from the Beaver Creek valley. Once at the hut, Gru claims a spot by the fire.