making tracks

finding ourselves in the Pioneers

This is the account of a winter adventure to Pioneer Cabin from my youth. The trip was ill-conceived and planned, but a great lesson for four young men who set out for Pioneer Cabin from a parking lot near the Sun Valley Lodge on January 4, 1980. I wrote this shortly after our return in 1980.

It was the first night of the wane, yet the moon shone more brightly than it had the previous evening for it had been snowing then. Now, as I cracked the door open a bit wider, I could see the spine of the Pioneer Range laid bare and beautiful in the moonlight. It was surreal, as if the moon had, for one winter night, decided to focus all of its beautiful countenance on this frigid mountain range. The fury of the tempest had not abated, but the overcast had vanished, leaving only an occasional cloud to race past the silver moon.

I slowly and silently closed the door, momentarily resting my forehead on the frost-encrusted window mullion, feeling as if I had shut the door in the face of a beautiful woman. I returned to the ancient woodstove, refilling my cup from the simmering teapot. The wind shrieked eerily this enchanted night, the cabin creaking loudly at times as the cozy warmth of its interior and the sub-zero cold outside played havoc with its weathered wooden frame.

Silent smiles of wonder and encouragement passed around our circle of four. The flickering yellow light of candles accentuated the expressions on wind-chafed faces, and I noticed a strong feeling of companionship had grown out of our adventure. We had yet to learn that we were weathering one of the worst storms of the season.

We had not been denied good weather, rather had been lured by it to a point of no return. Tom and I arrived in Sun Valley shortly after 9:00 A.M. Friday, January 4, 1980. It was only a matter of minutes of stretching and bracing for the morning chill before we were strapping on the wood and rawhide that already seemed brittle from the cold trip north.

Snowshoes. Gangly, sometimes clumsy footgear that made me feel more like a frogman than a backpacker. But they made the going possible in impossible circumstances. We wanted to ski, of course, but we lacked the sufficient skills we knew would be necessary to make it to the cabin. Sacrificing speed for versatility, we hoped we had made the right decision. So off we went, with a feeling of a long struggle ahead, a feeling truer than we realized or anticipated.

We had barely covered three miles, perhaps less, and already we were having second thoughts about our intentions. Pioneer Cabin lay approximately eleven miles away, through some steep and snow-choked backcountry. We decided to stop, to wait for our companions Cary and Steve; let them decide for us. We occupied our time by amusing ourselves in the snow, attempting to build a snow cave, then an igloo. The most we could accomplish were several substantial piles of snow (adjacent to several holes in the snowcover) and more than a few soaking wet articles of clothing.

Less than a half hour into our ridiculous activity we were rescued as Cary and Steve came around a bend in the road and into view. They didn't even slow down as they inquired as to our intentions, turned and continued. Our minds made up for us, Tom and I shouldered our packs and followed them.

Tom follows me up Trail Creek Road after parking at the end of the plowed section.

We had planned to walk in the full moonlight to reach the cabin without making a snow camp. But when the sun set that evening we were exhausted, the weather had turned and it began to snow. Our stops came more frequently now, as the steep, monotonous switchbacks took their inevitable toll. Wet, cold, hungry, and very anxious, we finally stopped to light a fire and possibly rekindle our spirits. After evaluating the situation we agreed to stay a little while, rest up, and wait for the moon to make its appearance.

I laid my head in my hands and gazed into the fire as the gentle snow settled on my shoulders. I had almost dozed off, so at first I took it to be a dream:

"... So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter,
Fear that is within you now that seems to never end ..." 

But I was awake. I had heard it. I looked at Cary as a grin spread across his face, a small tape recorder in his hands playing Rhymes and Reasons. Steve groaned, then chuckled, causing snowflakes to topple from his hair. Tom barely stirred as he tried to sleep, huddled next to the meager fire on his snowshoes. I noted that the fire was disappearing into the snowpack, melting its way towards the frozen earth.

“I guess the question is, ‘Do we go on, or go back? And when?’” I'm not sure who finally said it out loud, but it had already been unsaid over and over for the last half hour.

More speculation followed. “I don't expect the snow to quit tonight...we'll have to stay here.”

I looked around me. We were on the seventh of the nine major switchbacks, within about two miles of the cabin. The moon was trying to peer down at the mountains, yet the clouds silently refused. Defiantly she left a shallow glow of light where she still hung to the east. It occurred to me that someone, somewhere must be contemplating her beauty under a clear sky. I wondered just how many people were looking at the moon at that moment; how many wolves were lovingly serenading her? As John Muir said, for every moment in time, somewhere there is a sunrise, and consequently a sunset. “The whole grand show is eternal.” Now, as the moon was just rising out to our east, it was setting as the sun rose in some far-off place. But here, in our corner of the wilderness there was little more than snow and darkness. We would travel no further this night.

The crackle of the fire, the gentleness of the snowfall; both were so relaxing. Soon the hour was late and the snow was growing thicker. Though we had not prepared for a night out, we knew then that we would not be denied one. We made hasty preparations at last. Cary and I climbed into the huge tree above our fire and cut some pine boughs, throwing them down to the others below who were constructing a bed, and shelter. We didn't feel good about that, but reasoned that this was an emergency. I silently thanked the ancient tree as I descended and slid the last few feet to the deepening snow.

Silent Night must have been inspired by a night such as the one we spent there, the four of us listening to snow flakes colliding with the earth. It seemed to last longer than the five hours that remained in it when we finally settled in. 

In the subsequent graying dawn I woke cold and shivering, my down sleeping bag damp and matted. I shook off the snow. It was obviously overcast, the wind just beginning to gather itself for the storm ahead, several snow flakes falling from the disturbed branches above us. The rest stirred, then rose. Someone finally asked the inevitable question and we discussed it. We were almost surely in for a storm, and had come about nine miles. Shelter was within comparatively easy reach. We agreed to go for it.

At last, the final slope. Beyond it lay the shelter that at this point would almost certainly save our lives. Cary led off again, then myself, Tom, and Steve. As we trudged across the open slope there was a sudden rumble, a deep creak and a shift. We froze in our tracks. Above us on the slope a huge crack had opened in a wide arc that stretched out of sight to both sides of us. In the freezing cold, I broke out in an immediate chilling sweat.

Cary again led off and I let him get a twenty-yard lead before I came on, Tom and Steve following similarly. Then, without warning, another creak, a rumble. My knees turned to water and I nearly collapsed. The image that came to me at that moment nearly caused me to nervously laugh out loud; I recalled the many times I had bravely related (to anyone bored enough to listen) that I would rather die in my beloved mountains as a victim of some courageous activity than in my sleep. Suddenly the prospect was relieved of any romantic qualities ... dying in my sleep would be just fine with me.

Tom warily advised us to loosen our packs to rid ourselves of them in case the slope did decide to let go. An age passed. We reached the top. Visibly shaken, without speaking, we trudged over the last little hump and gazed with what bordered on disbelief at the cabin. Our lives apparently spared for the moment—we had made it.

We recognized all the symptoms, finally. We were suffering severe dehydration. A common winter mistake had been made as we failed to drink enough liquids on the long arduous struggle up the trail. Meekly, we searched for wood. We built a fire and finally the melted snow provided tasteless, yet revitalizing water. With renewed spirits and energy we built up a small pile of firewood, finally closing the door in winter's bleak face.

The cabin windows were in sorry shape, some only tattered plastic that flapped coldly in the wind. We took off our frozen snowshoes and hung them in the rafters of the "spare" room. They would fail to thaw the entire period of time we inhabited the cabin. Sweeping out the snow and spreading the ember-scorched, tattered rugs on the floor, we took our shoes off and rubbed our feet until we could feel the warmth returning. At last, we could relax.

Passing the time as the storm rages outside.

Endless games of “Crazy Eights” whiled away the afternoon, with an occasional glance out the door window. 18" icicles hung from eaves that were bare only a few hours earlier, the roof being of only meager insulating value. Yet as long as an ember glowed in the old stove we were cozy warm. The wind and clouds seemed ignorant of our presence—or totally infuriated by it. We had left tracks where they were not permitted, journeyed where man was not allowed to go. We were intruders, strangers, as if in a foreign land without passports. And prisoners of it all. We wondered a lot and worried a little that afternoon and evening. We didn't know when or how we would be leaving, and the storm outside was a constant, sobering reminder. I wrote in my journal that afternoon:

We can't move from here until the storm does. We're beginning to wonder if we may be coming out in a rescue helicopter. That's a rather unique thought, yet not entirely impossible. The wind is really whipping things up outside and I believe this may be the worst storm of the winter. There is really no question as to our survival now that we have shelter, but just when we'll be back home is a big question. Tom and Steve believe this has been the biggest physical and psychological challenge of their lives. The challenge has been extreme and so far we have met up to it. But we cannot challenge it in turn, or nature herself will most certainly rise to that challenge and soundly, silently beat us.

Darkness brought dinner and candlelight, a crackling fire and the moon. It was almost a travesty. For all I knew I was a permanent prisoner of the Pioneer Range, yet I was as happy as I had ever been in my life. I got up and went to the door, a cup steaming in my hand. The picture outside was dreamlike. The moon was casting a shadow of Hyndman and Duncan at my very feet, even through the sparse clouds and spindrift. A spirit was here. The earth had never been so alive as at this moment. The moon rose over the mountains, the curtain of clouds was drawn apart and I was blinded by the silver moon as it greeted the Pioneers and vowed that the storm was finally over. I turned and sipped at the cocoa, but is was cold...

The shivering woke me up, then Tom, cursing. Cary and Steve were coughing. The stove had burned through the night, but now at 5:00 AM, the fire was out and it was frigid in the cabin. And smoky. Tom had the burner plates off and was attempting to build the fire, but the wood was stubbornly damp and his only reward was the smoke that was rapidly filling the cabin. Finally, with the windows open and then the door, the smoke began to clear. I got up as Tom stoked the fire. I closed the door and windows and drew myself up close to the stove as it gradually warmed. I wrote in my journal as the rest dozed off for a brief interlude before the dawn:

We still don't know when we're leaving, though it's beautifully clear outside and the wind has subsided a little. I looked outside a moment ago and all the mountains are visible in the bright moonlight. This is really sort of an honor, to be allowed to witness all this in winter's ferocity... 

Sunrise at Pioneer Cabin, January 6, 1980
Morning alpenglow illuminates the summits of Salzburger Spitzl and the twin summits of Goat Peak.

Soon the sun was up, turning the frozen landscape a million shades of orange, and finally blue. The icicles hanging silently in the dawn appeared as golden candles, waiting to dry in the morning sun. I snatched one down and prodded Tom with it. Soon the rest were up and discussing our situation. It was obvious that the best choice was to leave in the cold, clear morning. In minutes, the cabin was a bustle of activity as we prepared for our departure.

I stepped to the threshold in my snowshoes. The air was so crisp I felt I could grab a handful and break it in my hands. Sliding down the steps to the snow, I began moving immediately to keep my feet active and, hopefully, warm. Cary and Steve came out and finally Tom as he closed the door behind him. The moon was still visible over the Boulder Mountains to the west in the early morning sun and reassured us.

Now, the entire world around us was completely different than it had been the day before. Yesterday it had been a gray, savage world; now it was blue and friendly. The slope that had cracked under our weight soon lay before us. We chose a lower more stable route this time, and spread out over 200 yards. Contrasting to the previous day, the few creaks we heard seemed only to be the snow settling, for no cracks appeared in the snow. We were on our way home.

Steve leaves the cabin after the storm has moved through. We decide to head for home.
Cary and Steve on the saddle as we begin the long road home. Below, we contemplate crossing the "avalanche" slope that nearly slid the day prior.
Tom contemplates the long way home in the winter wonderland the storm had manufactured overnight.

After about nine miles and nine hours in the cold, we saw a skier ahead. He seemed baffled. We were breaking a nine-inch deep trail towards the road. Other skiers out on this pleasant Sunday afternoon spoke amiably with us, some looking on wistfully as we pointed up to an exposed ridge we had descended early that morning. All the trials and tribulations were forgotten at once as a somewhat elderly couple assured us over and over that they were so envious of our weekend adventure.

There, amid the last footsteps of our trip to the Pioneer Range, we found the answers we were perhaps looking for ... and we continued home.

A complete set of scanned slides from this trip can be viewed here. Please excuse the poor quality :-(