A collection of photos from a breathtaking tour of the Monolith Valley in February 2016.
It’s about 6pm on Friday, January 15th. The last
light of the sun is quickly disappearing and I’m starting to lose my ability to
discern the contours of the rolling meadows through which we’re traveling in
search of Pioneer Yurt, which sits in a forested Valley in the Pioneer
Mountains outside of Hailey, Idaho. 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.
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 and they decided a hut trip would be a great
time for a reunion.
After picking the New Yorkers up from the airport, and
backtracking for some forgotten skis, we finally got on the road to Sun Valley
at about 11:30 pm. 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 in Sun Valley
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.
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 12:30 pm.
Now I’ll jump back to 6pm on Friday at dusk when the thought
that we may not reach the hut that night crossed my mind for the first time. We’d
already been skinning for over five hours and we knew we should be getting
close to the yurt 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 0 ft 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 the 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 with the
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. Max and I could no longer see the four headlamps
behind us, and I knew I was running solely on adrenaline because I had started
feeling hungry over an hour before and had most definitely run out of fuel at
this point. My mind kept playing tricks on me, telling me that any distinguishable
shape in the distance was our yurt.
I heard Max yell something from ahead, but his voice just
trailed away with the wind. It had finally 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. Finally, squinting
my eyes in the blowing snow, I could make out something round and yurt-looking
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.
The 6 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, surely,
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 feeling 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. And 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!
The documenting of a trip to Tornak Hut in the Smoky Mountains of Idaho with siblings and good friends. This trip took place in January of 2014, a year when the snowpack was sadly thin. But we still managed to find beautiful views, cook delicious food, make good turns and laugh until our stomachs hurt.