Constructed in 1937, Pioneer Cabin has weathered the harsh environment of 9,600 feet of elevation on a windswept saddle in the Pioneer Range for over 80 years. The origin and history of the structure is rife with people of interest and world events that influenced the evolution of Pioneer Cabin, Sun Valley Company, the State of Idaho, and even the outcome of European battles of the second World War. Today, Pioneer Cabin stands as a monument to the tenacity and vision of many, as well as a de facto memorial to the veterans of the legendary 10th Mountain Division.
The information below is largely sourced from available books, periodicals, and online content. As a component of the history of Idaho ski mountaineering, there exists no better researched source than Basil Service, who has conducted dozens if not hundreds of interviews with those familiar. You can read and see his excellent account at his website, idahooutdoor.net.
origins and the Sun Valley Company
It is impossible to consider the history of Pioneer Cabin without an understanding of the dreams of one man and the origin of Sun Valley. Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman set out in the 1930’s to establish a ski resort and leverage the contemporary development of the chair lift. Until this point, skiing consisted of trudging up to high points with “skins” attached to the bottom of the skis, then removing them to ski down and if energy allowed, repeat the process. In 1935 Harriman charged Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to locate the ideal location for a resort and chair lifts. Nearly ready to give up, he eventually came across a mining town in central Idaho with a dead end rail spur: Ketchum. A site was located and plans laid for a winter 1937 resort opening.
The central Idaho location lay near the Pioneer Range, one of the highest in Idaho with incredible vistas and the attendant backcountry ski routes and opportunities. Seeing a secondary opportunity, Harriman not only committed to the Alpine Skiing School to teach resort visitors to ski the local slopes beneath the installed chair lifts, but also created the Alpine Touring School. Working the Forest Service, he established backcountry ski huts, including Pioneer Cabin. Another hut was constructed at the base of the Corral Creek train to Pioneer Cabin and named Saw Mill Hut. According to Basil Service, the site of Pioneer Cabin was selected by Charles Proctor and Alf Engen following the consideration of multiple locations.
The original instructors of the Alpine Touring School included Florian Haemmerle, Andy Hennig, and Victor Gottschalk, all transplants from Germany and Austria. Haemmerle was a German refugee and craftsman that had immigrated to New York as Europe deteriorated prior to World War II. According to an archived interview with his wife Beatrice, he entered a ski contest at Lake Placid shortly after his arrival and won it and others, attracting the attention of the ski coach at Dartmouth. After being hired as an assistant coach, Haemmerle soon found himself coaching another German transplant, Dick Durrance. As Harriman sought to round out his stable of ski instructors, he hired Haemmerle and after some initial friction with the Austrian instructors, was assigned to the new Alpine Touring School and Pioneer Cabin as a result.
The original cabin included amenities long since abandoned, including beautiful Pullman compartments for the bunk beds, comfortable mattresses and sleeping bags, a cast-iron range with cook and helpers for the gourmet meals, and expert guides in Haemmerle, Gottschalk, and Hennig. One of the first visitors was Dorice Taylor, who went on to author the definitive history of Sun Valley as the Director of Public Relations for Sun Valley Company.
Gottschalk and Hennig were sterling ski mountaineers with European first ascents to their credit and soon the mountains seen from Pioneer Cabin were covered in their ski tracks, as well as clients who were able and willing to keep up. Haemmerle was just as focused on his watercolor painting hobby, and many of his paintings are still hanging around the Wood River Valley and beyond.
World War II and the 10th Mountain Division
The war interrupted operations and prompted the enlistment of many Sun Valley instructors and staff in the famous 10th Mountain Division. The 10th was created to provide a specialized group of soldiers skilled in difficult winter and mountain environments. Ski instructors and guides from across the country were recruited. Haemmerle became a climbing and ski mountaineering instructor for the division, but did not serve overseas, having been given a military inoculation that left him hospitalized with Hepatitis. Hennig, Gottschalk, and others did serve in Europe and members of the 10th were highly decorated.
The Pioneer Range as seen from Pioneer Cabin became peppered with names and remembrances of those that served, including Salzburger Spitzl, Handwerk Peak, and Duncan Ridge. A unique spire on the ridge between Duncan and Goat Peak was named Florian's Nudl in honor of Haemmerle himself.
During the war, the Sun Valley Lodge was converted to a convalescent facility for soldiers and ceased resort operations. As strange as it may seem, the tiny community in central Idaho was heavily influenced by the distant operations of the war.
postwar and the celebrity era
Once the resort resumed operations, the golden years of Sun Valley ensued, attracting celebrities and political figures by the dozens. There were good and bad snow years, but lots of excitement. In 1948, Hennig authored the seminal book that includes original ski routes in and around Pioneer Cabin: Sun Valley Ski Guide. Four years later in 1952, avalanches claimed the other touring cabin (Owl Creek Cabin) and tragically, the life of Victor Gottschalk on Bald Mountain. The very snow that made Sun Valley famous was taking a toll. The Alpine Touring School was closed and Pioneer Cabin apparently abandoned.
The history at that point becomes muddled. Local authorities mention the collapse of the cabin in the 1960's and into the 1970's, with a local contractor taking the initiative to keep the structure sound along with other volunteers and the U.S. Forest Service. Pioneer Cabin became a well-kept secret, with few visitors other than those of us who happened to spot the words on the USGS topo maps and made the trek out of curiosity. My first visit happened in the fall of 1977 and there is nothing quite like one’s first visit. I was hooked.
I felt like I’d found buried treasure during that first visit. At the time, there was a fair amount of dead timber about, and woodcutting to stock the cabin was not only allowed, but encouraged. A 6-foot double-buck saw and a couple of axes were available to lay in wood, which my friends and I often did. What I assumed were the original mattresses were still there: heavy 4” thick pads with heavy green and red striped tick. The real treasure though, was the cast iron range.
The privy was much nearer to the cabin then, but famous for its view while “seated.” Just north of the cabin, a spring provided fresh water nearly year round with a small but steady flow.
In the early 1980's, while spending a leisurely afternoon at the cabin one fall, I heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. As my companion and I exited the cabin, the helicopter came into view over the saddle, obviously carrying something below it. Once landed, Forest Service personnel allowed us to see the cargo: a new wood stove. It was sad to see the original cast iron range be yanked to the door and kicked down the steps, crumpling into many pieces (why didn't I grab one?). But it was also a privilege to be involved in the replacement. The new stove we helped install has itself been recently replaced.
In more recent history (since I've been visiting), I've seen changes made and conditions both improve and deteriorate. The privy has been relocated further down the hill. The graffiti-covered walls have been repainted then recovered with a second generation of prose. The slogan on the reconstructed roof has been repainted several times over, but the cabin would not be the same without it: