The hows, wheres, and whys of skiing with your dog.
First, a disclaimer of sorts: While Kicker and Gru don't have backcountry training as you'd see with patrol dogs, their owners are experienced backcountry skiers with avy safety training. The dogs have been well trained off snow and have had countless experiences on snow with their owners in preparation for this story.
Speaking of training, dogs should master basic commands, including sit, stay, heel, walk, and come, before going into the backcountry. Untrained dogs can get too excited jumping towards their owner while in motion on skis, and the sharp edges of skis or boards are the biggest threat to a dog's safety. If possible, always ski with a partner. Having someone to stay back and keep the dog under control while the other skis is helpful. Tune into your dog's cues; they can tire easily in the cold and at altitude. Keep the dog's paws free of ice and snow. Use a chest harness so you can help them out of sticky situations more easily and without having to tug at the neck. It may seem obvious, but pick up your dog's poop. And finally, be prepared to leave your canine companion at home. Sometimes the stars don't align, and your dog will be safer—and happier—to lay by the fire.
The Wintertux Chalet is just 50 miles north of Ketchum, Idaho, in Sawtooth National Forest. It's open year-round; winter access is by snowmobile, snowshoeing, or skinning. Backcountry experience is required. The three-story hut is 1,200 square feet with one big bedroom upstairs, a fully stocked kitchen, and a comfortable living area with a woodstove. The chalet sleeps 10 comfortably, with a maximum of two dogs with an added fee. Nightly rates are $375 per night (two-night minimum); weekly rate is $2,500. Find more info at wintertux.com.
full view; one could easily ski several slopes and connect adjoining valleys without having to cross a track or ski the same slope twice. After a couple jaunts back and forth trying to gain a perspective into the cirque, I’m able to find a sneaky entrance onto the broad alpine face. Throughout the upper reaches of these mountains, mini-spines flank the rock features. Caked in snow—a product of the season’s deep snowpack—they are primed for skiing.
I ski-cut the upper section of the slope before entering the high ramp and arcing into the bowl. Bascetta follows suit, and we then roll over the first alpine bench into the sub-alpine, skiing fast whipped-cream powder before the final pitch, after which the snow turns to chowder. It's a worthy run, but before celebrating we have to contour around the forest and negotiate the stream crossing—returning to our up-track seems more reasonable than breaking trail in the lower-elevation manky snow. However, spring’s early surge is retreating. Dark clouds approach, and it seems our cold storm is finally brewing.
The highly anticipated cool down and squalls of snow dissipate throughout the night under a clear Milky Way-lit sky. Muse yelps “stars!” after the 5 a.m. alarm awakens the cabin’s skiers and mutts. Kicker and Gru scamper upstairs. Tails wagging, wool socks hanging out of their mouths, they sense the excitement. (One quickly learns that a consequence of skiing with dogs is an ongoing scavenger hunt for random articles of soft clothing.)
Skinning away from the warm and cozy confines of the hut, our headlamps bob and glow as the star-lit sky fades into the early morning. Kicker is jacked up, and begins bounding ahead with me. Upon reaching the first meadow above the cabin he begins to growl. The prior day Bascetta and I had seen various wildlife tracks. Perhaps it was spring’s early arrival. Either way Kicker’s growl stops me in my tracks. I call him to heel at my side and calm him down, and I scan the scene. There’s nothing as quiet and still and breathlessly inspiring as the early morning wilderness. It’s why we do what we do. With a few fox tracks and scat in sight, it seems benign, and I continue skinning while Kicker, tail wagging, circles back to Muse.
We return to the knoll from earlier in the week, where four inches of snow sit atop a crust on the north, and a
breakable crust on the south—which we figure will soften after sunrise. Setting the skinner back up the ridge and eventually switching to boot packing, we cut ourselves an entrance up a small cornice and have a summit party with the pups. The sun has just risen, illuminating the gorgeous Sawtooth National Forest and Smoky and Boulder mountains—alpine peaks with sparsely treed bowls looming in every direction, just begging to be skied.
Within a couple minutes Gru and Kicker are launching off the cornice onto the slope below. Chasing with spiraling tails, they leap after their companions. Muse opens up the line with Kicker, settling into the trees halfway down the crux for the rest of us to catch up.
Clouds are filtering in and out, but with a window of light, I punch it down the center to the flats and then down the next steep pitch that carries me to Beaver Creek. The southfacing line falls away below the horizon with a consistent pitch. The sun has warmed the underlining crust making for smooth turns, each one peeling a bit of diamond dust off the surface. It isn’t the deepest snow, but just enough to make the skiing feel like winter again.
As the sun begins warming the snow, the spring weather is again battling winter’s grip upon the mountains. No one seems to mind the sudden deep chill in the Sawtooth’s most memorable winter to date. Especially the dogs, who, like us, played all day in the snow, bracketed by sleeping like bricks in this beautiful mountain cabin—without a care in the world, except maybe where to hide some socks and slippers.
Who can resist a face like that? Gru knows that his owner, Aseltine, cannot. Bottom: The two revel in great powder conditions during their Wintertux adventure.
Clockwise from left: Kicker is right at home on the sled; Aseltine and Gru get after it in Sawtooth National Forest; the future is bright for adventure dogs Kicker and Gru; Muse gets air time, Kicker approves; Wintertux is solar-powered thanks to Goal...
The Wintertux hut is open year-round, accessed by high-clearance vehicles or ATVs in the summer and skis or snowmobiles in the winter. Right: Two very good boys.