I am generally happy with any type of ski condition. My wife jokes saying that every time I come back from a ski tour I say, “that was incredible, that was the best tour I have ever done.” There is a lot of truth to that and good snow, bad snow, nice weather, poor weather and everything in between I just enjoy getting out. I think it’s important to preface this piece with that, but I believe I can confidently say given the company and the conditions we had, our tour from the Bench Hut, to the Silver Saddle, through the Monolith Valley and to the Bird Cage was one of the most spectacular tours I have been a part of.
The weather had given us fresh snow and when we popped our head from the hut to see only partly cloudy skies, we got excited to apply the sun screen and head out for a day of exploration. We had heard about this tour which would take us from the Bench Hut to the small Heyburn Saddle (aka The Pinch), over to the Silver Saddle, a beautiful high alpine saddle that sits between Heyburn and Peak 10,154 and down to the Monolith Valley. A group of us had done part of the tour earlier in the year but got turned around after poor weather. This particular day, we eyed doing the complete tour which would take us around the Monolith and down into what is called “The Bird Cage.” We planned the other two days of our Hut trip around this middle day, making sure we had a full day for the tour. In total, the tour is about 12 miles with approximately 6,000 feet of gain and loss; we had a strong group of 7 and while a big group, we are very close crew of friends and ski partners.
It was the standard route from the Hut to the Bench lake where we climbed to the Heyburn Saddle and around to the Silver Saddle. The views are exceptional from this vantage point. That day in particular, there was something very magical about the clouds moving in and out of these amazing mountains. The skiing down the Silver Saddle was so satisfying, I believe my wife asked “and why can’t we just stay here and run laps?” It was our first test piece of stability to give us an idea the conditions we would expect throughout the day. I am always amazed at how localized conditions can be in the Sawtooths; you might have an aspect that gets very affected by the wind during a storm but the same aspect just a few miles away gets no wind affect and skis great. We were lucky and had the later; just beautiful, stable speed pow all the way down from the Silver Saddle.
After skiing the Silver Saddle, you make a short traverse to the tucked away Monolith Valley. The Monolith itself is a wolf-tooth spire of Sawtooth Granite that rises above a small tucked-away valley not seen from the highway or the Redfish lake area. The valley is surrounded with the quintessential jagged Sawtooth pinnacles and the setting provides a special experience, well worth the effort to get there. As we flat tracked across the lake, I stumbled over my skis and almost fell several times looking at the surrounding peaks; I sometimes have to pinch myself that we live in such an amazing place.
I have spent some time in the Sawtooths during the summer and fall but I had never heard anyone talk about the Monolith Valley. I am sure there is some sort of summer trail and the Monolith itself looks like it would draw climbers but because it is tucked out of sight, I am not sure how many people get to see this incredible spot. Accessing it from the Bench Hut and being able to travel on snow is key. There is something special about winter travel in that It offers a completely different perspective than hiking on a trail or even exploring off-trail. With skins on your skis and snow on the ground the route options are so different and varied. Terrain that once seemed extremely unpleasant to travel on is now snow-covered and can be negotiated much easier.
Like sitting in the Champ de Mars on a spring day in Paris gazing up at the Eiffel Tower, the wonderment had to be put aside; we had more climbing to do if we were going to complete this loop. Up we went to a small saddle and what is called Coyote Rock. From here you crest onto a view of the Southern Sawtooths that is really spectacular with an excellent view of the Elephant’s Perch and surrounding peaks of the Redfish Lake drainage. You also get your first view of Braxon Peak, which up until now had been hidden by the Monolith. It was the perfect spot to take a much needed lunch break and refuel for the rest of our tour (in reality, my wife was at the point where in her words “it was time for a sandwich…now,” we just lucked out that it was a great spot).
We gained the alpine ridge separating the Monolith and Braxon and given the time, we opted out of climbing the extra 200 feet to the summit of Braxon (always something for another day) and toured over to the entrance to the “Bird Cage.” Looking down into this North-facing cirque, we were confident that the skiing was going to be worth the walk up. It was untracked and appeared to unaffected by the wind. Getting down into it requires a small rappel, down-climb or small rock jump but once down in it, you have, in my opinion, the perfect pitch for powder skiing all the way back down to Monolith Valley. After being on the ropes and getting into some new territory for everyone in the group, there hoots, cheers and poles up from each person as they dropped into their powder turns.
In our group we have a saying that “loops are always better,” and this one certainly did not disappoint. We climbed back up to the Pinch in some amazing afternoon light and were treated to incredible alpenglow on Heyburn. We got back to the Hut just in time for a beer* and an excellent meal.
*trip recommendation: bring a friend who doesn’t want to do this tour, carry their beer in and maybe you will be lucky enough to have them spend the hour needed to get the Bench Hut sauna hot and ready for your return.