It only takes a glance out your window to the West as you drive north from Stanley on Highway 21 to get a glimpse of the iconic Sawtooth ridgeline. At 9,860 feet, McGown Peak and neighboring Mystery Mountain dominate the landscape. While none of these peaks rise above 10,000 feet, this zone still provides incredible ski opportunities. There isn’t a yurt nearby so as with most of the range, winter access isn’t easy. It’ll take some effort to get in but you’ll likely have the area to yourself.
Powder days were few and far between in 2014; after a warm and dry winter by April we were tempted to put the skis away for the season. Yet Spring in the Sawtooths offers some of the best opportunities for adventuring into the steeper terrain, and if you catch a storm correctly you might just be rewarded with a late season powder day.
Early April a fast moving storm was set to hit the Sawtooths. Though it was uncertain how much snow it would actually drop, we had already been eyeing the North Couloir on McGown. The road to Stanley Lake, which is usually snow covered and only accessible by snow machine had thawed out, so we could expedite the approach by riding our bikes in at least four miles. Whether you access the McGown/Mystery Mountain area from Iron Creek or the Stanley Lake Road, mid-winter you are in for a lengthy flat track. The SNRA gates off both of these roads. Bikes are allowed until you reach the wilderness boundary. Waiting until the road is clear enough to ride makes for a really a slick way to go.
As anticipated the night before had provided unsettled spring weather and a quick moving snow storm that only dropped an inch of snow in the Sawtooth Valley. But after parking our bikes at the wilderness gate, we quickly experienced increasing amounts of snow as we gained elevation. Once out of the trees and around peak 9,115 you get a fantastic view of the Little and North McGown Couloirs. The snow continued getting deeper as we gained elevation and the wind hadn’t appeared to do blow with any significance. With what looked to be about a foot of new snow, we started to get excited about what we hope was going to be an excellent April day of powder skiing.
We were dealing with more snow than we anticipated so we took the time to access stability before we begun booting up the North Couloir. Our snow-pit tests showed no slab formation and stable conditions but the combination of a foot of new snow and a consistent pitch of 45 degrees in the couloir meant managing loose sluffs would be extremely important. As we started to boot, we also found the deep soft snow was slow and extremely challenging; on the other side of the coin, it was untracked and we knew the effort could pay off.
We wallowed and we wallowed up the shadowed couloir with 2-steps forward and 1-step back progress but eventually crested the col and into the sunshine. The top 20-30 feet of the North Couloir are very steep, maybe close to 50 degrees. We were happy to have brought a rope with us to build in a margin of safety for the first skier. The snow was deep and a loose sluff could easily knock you off your feet. A simple hip belay offered adequate and quick protection.
After a season of very noisy skiing, we were delivered the goods. The snow was deep and that almost forgotten feeling of quietly bouncing down a powdered slope come right back. In ski mountaineering it’s rare to get just perfect snow conditions. This day was one we remember forever. We made our way down the couloir and onto the apron before we talked about booting up the Little McGown.
The Little McGown Couloir is looker’s left of the North Couloir and while shorter than its bigger sibling, it offers some equally excellent skiing. Despite the unpleasant boot pack we knew we were in for, the climb was well worth the extra effort. The top of the Little McGown offers excellent views towards Mystery Mountain and the neighboring ridgeline. We enjoyed the sunshine and views before dropping in what might have been the best powder skiing of our season. The top of this couloir is much friendlier than the North Couloir, but after the first few turns it also steepens and chokes down as you reach the halfway mark of the descent.
As we excited onto the apron, we were all smiles. We had lucked out with a blue-bird day and deep untracked powder. This is an incredible area for future exploration when willing to put in the extra effort to get there or timed well in the Spring time.