(April 18th, 2020)
Bell Mountain, one of the prominent peaks in Idaho’s incredibly remote Lemhi Range, was a sight to behold as we watched the sun rise from the Little Lost River Highway, which wasn’t much more than a two lane road that eventually turned to dirt. The prominence of Bell was actually quite intimidating, right on par with the jaggedness of the Grand Teton or it’s little cousin, Teewinot Mountain, in my home Teton Range. I had never been to the Lemhi’s before. The only thing I knew about the range was they received very little snow, were home to two of the tallest peaks in Idaho and were one of the most wild places in the lower 48. I ended up dubbing the zone “Little Alaska,” a name earned by the incredible ski lines on either side the Little Lost River Valley and the fact of there being no grocery stores, or really any place to spend a dollar, for what had to be nearly 100 miles. In this land, large wildlife, jaw dropping peaks, cacti and a few hardcore ranchers rule supreme.
Technically considered part of the Idaho desert, I didn’t see any reasonable ski descent off the summit of Bell, which looked craggy, rock studded and a week away from being a summer climbing destination. A few patches of snow dotted the west face, but hardly enough to assure me we’d be able to ski off the summit. My partner, Drew Grasso, talked about a couloir on the south side which he hoped to descend, and with his decade of experience skiing the backcountry of Idaho, I put my faith in his hands. Based on our view from the highway, I wasn’t surprised to see the ground completely bare. Our plan was to ascend the west ridge all the way to the base of the west face. From there we would ascend one of the three prominent couloirs to the summit. With boots and skis on my back, we started up the west ridge at approximately 7:00 AM, hiking directly up the sagebrush laden hillside behind our car.
After a steep initial push, the west ridge turns to a gentle slope, providing a long but relatively easy approach through a thick pine forest. Bear tracks littered the snow and dirt alike, criss-crossing our path and keeping us on guard. Some trenches were absolutely massive, suggesting the furry creatures of the Lemhi’s might be larger than those of our Tetons. Eventually we transitioned to skis, at which time I carelessly slipped on a patch of ice, wrenching my knee while trying to recover balance. Luckily, my locked out binding eventually submitted to the pressure, releasing the toe my boot just before irreperable damage could be done. Nonetheless, the pain was throbbing as I regained my composure and came to my feet. True reality of ski mountaineering #1: Approaches often take much longer than estimated, and often include slipping on refrozen snow, trudging through a breakable crust and occasionally walking on dirt trails with large, hungry bears lurking nearby, carrying your skis.
I continued along slowly, taking care not to repeat the incident, and occasioanlly switching to walking for added traction. Eventually we reached the highpoint on the ridge, where we stopped for a snack, skinned for a few minutes longer and eventually switched over to crampons as the terrain got more technical. The stability provided by crampons seemed to torque my knee less than slipping on skins, and I was happy to move quickly and efficently with little pain atop the firm snow. After roughly two hours of monkeying along a well featured ridge, we finally reached the base of west face, staring directly up three obvious summit couloirs. On the face, which was positioned perfectly to bake in the afternoon sun, the snowpack ranged from a scant 6 inch depth to a hardly more encouraging foot. Implementing ice axes, we booted directly up the ridge, moved into the couloir, and continued connecting patches of snow towards the summit. Reconvening at the halfway point at a uniquely a uniquely steep spot, I heard a “click” from up ahead. I turned my head just in time to see Drew’s splitboard binding bounce right past me and into the chute below, careening off rock walls and tumbling several hundred feet. True reality of ski mountaineering #2: Well, I don’t have a concrete statement to put here, but I lost a ski in the Southwest Couloir of the Middle Teton a month ago after it ejected prematurely and rocketed off a cliff, and once left an ice axe at the base of Mount Wister. Point is, you never, ever, ever know what is going to happen in the mountains, and it’s often best to expect the unexpected.
We both stood in shock as the binding rolled out of sight, ultimately settling a few hundred feet below at the bottom of the couloir. Drew aptly dropped his pack and immediately took off on a steep retrieval mission into the belly of the beast. Luckily the binding came to a halt only a few hundred feet below, and within fifteen minutes he was back by my side strapping the integral piece of plastic directly to his backpack. Upward we went, forgetting about the mishap and redirecting our attention to the final 500 feet ahead. At points the snow got as steep as 50 degrees, and other sections included some tricky rock maneuvers, but eventually we topped out on the summit of 11,612 foot Bell Mountain beneath a bright blue mid-spring sky.
The summit was incredibly beautiful, a narrow, shark fin style strip of snow with extreme vertical relief on either side. We sat down for a leisurely lunch before poking around the south and north side of the mountain, looking for either of the two couloirs Drew had scouted. Unfortunately, the south couloir looked as scantily clad as the west face and the north couloir… well… we couldn’t quite verify it even existed. Opting for our ascent route strictly out of familiarity, we began the arduous descent, skis on our back, all the way to the bottom of the West Face. True reality of ski mountaineering #3: Sometimes you don’t even get to ski. From the base of the west face we decided to ski north into an uncertain but promising north facing bowl. I dropped first, making a few excellent powder turns and pulling up on an outcropping to scout the rollover below. Cliffs. Big cliffs. True reality of ski mountaineering #4: Sometimes you ski up to an unavoidable cliff band, and have to boot-pack the trail of shame back to where you started. We continued to retrace our steps until eventually finding a visibly continuous north facing line into the valley below. Judging by my turns on the face before, we expected 2000 feet of soft skiing to the drainage. What we recieved was exactly the opposite. The “snow” was a harrowing and nearly un-skiable punch crust, much like parking an incredibly thin sheet of ice on a few inches of sugar, on a solid base of rocks. True reality of ski mountaineering #5: Sometimes you climb for hours to ski the worst snow of your life.
Ultimately the trip was grand success, as nobody got hurt, we made it off the mountain before nightfall and we tagged the summit of one of Idaho’s most prominent peaks, all in approximately 12 hours! Skiing aside, the day couldn’t have went any better. The last few miles were a combination of meadow skipping, tree hopping, creek dodging and dirt road walking to the car, where we fired up the stove for supper and eventually trudged the full two and a half hours back to Teton Valley. Exhausted but inspired, I curled into my bed thinking of the next adventure I’ll have in the Lemhi Range… however, I’ll probably wait until summer!
P.S. Right after taking off my shoes and socks, I stepped on small cactus, inheriting a dozen needles in the arch of my foot. Luckily, they were quite small and easily removed. Mother nature really pulled out all the stops today!
A Spiritual Take
Gratitude. After a twisted knee, gear malfunction, a brutal ski descent and an exhausting climb up and down the west face of Bell Mountain, it would have been easy to adopt a sour attitude while bushwhacking over creek beds, climbing over dead-fall and skiing on mushy mashed potatoes back to the car. However, when I looked back at the serene peak standing nearly 5000 feet overhead, pitted against a backdrop of early sunset crimson, I couldn’t help but smile. As I said above, we returned safe, healthy, and experienced breathtaking views atop a peak of massive prominence in one of Idaho’s most beautiful and desolate mountain ranges. Right as frustration over the terrible ski conditions began to bubble up, I said to Drew, “let’s finish this off with grace.” I am not sure where those words came from, but the majesty of Bell Mountain demanded appreciation, surrender and gratitude. Any day in the mountains is a good day, and to think anything negative is a disservice to the wonderful gifts mother nature has to offer, no matter the trials and tribulations. Plus, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger… at least that’s what I’ve been told.
A special thanks to Icelantic Skis for supporting me with… awesome skis! To check out the Natural 101, the ultralight touring machine I used for this journey, head on over to icelanticskis.com