Constructed in 1937, Pioneer Cabin has weathered the harsh environment of 9,460 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 and the Sun Valley Alpine Touring School.
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. You can also download a more comprehensive history I've compiled as a PDF (more suitable for printing than this page)..
origins and the Sun Valley Company
It is impossible to consider the history of Pioneer Cabin without an understanding of the vision of one man and the origin of Sun Valley. Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman set out in the 1930’s to establish the first destination ski resort in the United States. In the course of the development, Harriman was able to leverage Union Pacific engineers in the development of the chair lift, which is roughly based on machines that loaded bananas onto ships in South America. 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 1936 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. Sun Valley established backcountry ski huts, including Pioneer Cabin. Another hut was constructed at the base of the Corral Creek trail to Pioneer Cabin and named Sawmill Hut. According to Basil Service, the site of Pioneer Cabin was selected by Charles Proctor and Alf Engen following the consideration of multiple locations. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect site than that chosen. A third hut was built on Owl Creek in the Smoky Mountains northwest of Sun Valley in a location that was far less desirable...and ultimately more dangerous.
You can see more of those early photos here, courtesy of the Ketchum Community Library.
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 Bavarian refugee, artist, and craftsman who had immigrated to New York as Europe deteriorated prior to World War II. According to an archived interview with his wife Beatrice (Bebe), 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 was quite small and consisted of one room (see early photos above), but included amenities long since abandoned such as 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. The cabin size was doubled in 1938, one year after the original cabin construction. One of the first visitors was Dorice Taylor, who went on to author an authoritative history of Sun Valley as the Director of Public Relations for Sun Valley Company. In her account of that first trip, she noted that "the cabin was so new that no matter how far from it we went for snow to melt for tea, we still had to strain out the sawdust."
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. One of my most prized possessions is an oil painting of a rustic cabin simply signed FLORIAN.
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, especially in the invasion of Italy by the Allies in the latter stages of the war.
The Pioneer Range as seen from Pioneer Cabin became peppered with names and remembrances of those that served, including Salzburger Spitzl, (Ted) Handwerk Peak, and (Jonathan) 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. In 1949 an avalanche destroyed the other touring cabin at Owl Creek. And tragically in 1952, another avalanche took the life of Victor Gottschalk on Bald Mountain whose body was located by his devastated friend, Florian Haemmerle. The very snow that made Sun Valley famous was taking a toll. The Alpine Touring School was closed and Pioneer Cabin became something of an afterthought. Helicopter skiing was coming into vogue and long slogs into the backcountry to ski were less and less attractive.
A 1971 article in the Idaho Statesman describes a visit to a decrepit cabin:
Inside, pots and pans dating back to when the cabin was built hang on the wall above one of the two old wood burning stoves. Three bunk beds, one in the main room and two in the smaller adjoining room provide sleeping space for six.
The red and white checkered drapes now are torn and hang in shreds around the windows. Gray and black woolen blankets, with “Union Pacific Overland Route” printed on them, found their way to the mountain retreat from a Pullman car, probably soon after the cabin was built.
the last fifty years
Sometime in the early seventies (as near as I can tell), someone painted a theme on the roof and that person still allegedly lives down in the Wood River Valley. Since then the cabin was reroofed and the theme repainted. It's still there, crystal clear and an unmistakable identifier. More about that below.
Over the years, the cabin has been adopted by some of those that care about its preservation. A local contractor has done a lot of work and just recently in 2018 a group got together and gave the cabin a makeover which will aid in the preservation. They restored the front porch to it's original configuration, reworked the front door, and did a significant amount of drainage, foundation, and site work. You can read more about that here. One of the most welcome additions for me personally are the mattress pads, carefully rolled and hanging on hooks in the "back room."
I first visited Pioneer Cabin in 1978 and estimate I've made around 40 trips. That was nearly 45 years ago as I write this, and I'm stunned at times to recognize that while Pioneer Cabin is just about 85 years old, I've been visiting for 45 of those 85 years: I've been an eye witness to over half of the history.
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. (I still have a scar from that saw.) 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 back room stove had been removed, but the original kitchen range remained.
The privy was much nearer to the cabin then (it's been relocated at least three times from the original location north of the cabin), 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. My friends and I would wash our hair and "bathe" in that ice cold, brain freezing water at times.
In the early 1980's, while spending a leisurely autumn afternoon at the cabin, 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 rather unceremoniously 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: