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Hitting the Owyhee Slopes: Spring Skiing in the High Desert

The Owyhees mean lots of things to different people. From brown trout fishing, canyonland rafting, or high desert camping; it seems to provide an endless number of opportunities to experience the last vestiges of the wild west.

Skiing on the other hand, is one of the last things people would expect anyone to do in the southwest corner of Idaho. If you try to talk to anyone in the small community of Murphy, Idaho about it, they’ll just assume you’re lost and point you in the direction of the Sawtooth’s. Perhaps an exercise in futility, or perhaps the makings of a great adventure, skiing the Owyhees is certain to be a lot of both.

The sport of Ski Touring has recently seen a huge growth in popularity. A good outdoor friend of mine, Eric Stewart, introduced me to the concept with his frequent pictures of stunning scenery, and virgin snow hidden away from resort crowds. It didn’t take much convincing and I was already ditching my old set of skis and buying all the proper gear for the backcountry.

As both frequent floaters of the Owyhee river, we naturally bounced around the idea of skiing its snow peaked mountains in the spring. The Owyhees are sort of a bucket list item for local die-hard tourers, and 2019 was shaping up to be an excellent snow year after all, so what better time to ski seldom run slopes?

There are a few options for skiing in the Owyhee range. Hayden mountain being the tallest peak and most likely candidate, was immediately crossed off our list after I contacted the Owyhee Sheriff’s office and found out the Silver City road would be closed to all recreational access until Memorial Day. This effectively restricted entry to the entire Hayden and Silver City area. Most ski reports we’ve seen have had people going in early May, we decided to head out on the second week of April to ensure ample snow.

We settled on Quicksilver mountain. Unlike Hayden, this mountain is within striking distance of the open Triangle Road – only a 45 minute drive from Murphy. We also heard reports from a local backcountry skiing group that people have skied this area before. It was all the encouragement we needed.

The Quicksilver mountains can be seen from our camp at Toy Pass

To join our adventure was also had an expert backcountry skier and good friend of Eric, Robby Milo.  I am still new to the sport, so it is only reasonable I take along some more veteran enthusiasts, because mistakes where we are going can be costly. This is a lesson true for much of the Owyhees, and true for the sport of touring as well.

With a target in mind, we planned on spending a night at Toy Pass on the Triangle road, and from there heading out 6 miles on a UTV trail as close as we could get to the mountain, then hike up the rest from there. The drive to Toy pass on the Triangle road was a pleasant one, stunning views of the slopes we would be skiing the next day, with the valley floor blanketed by green pastures, and dotted by cattle. The road itself was in great condition, but in the Owyhees great can turn into bad in a matter of hours, especially with unpredictable rain squalls that produce impassible mires of the road.

At the top of the Pass we made camp just off the road for the night. The 4×4 trail from there is off limits to all large vehicles, but UTVs and motorbikes are still allowed. The use of a UTV is a requirement if you plan on having any time to ski, otherwise it’s a 12-mile round trip hike just to the base of Quicksilver. In the morning we loaded all our gear into the back of the Polaris and headed off on the winding 4×4 road. There were a few snow banks along the way which required some shoveling to traverse, and had we been a week earlier there would have likely still been snow covering everything, making the steep approaches unnecessarily dangerous.

As we neared the larger face of Quicksilver, we got a better view of the wide open snow banks that grace the side of the mountain. Quicksilver is actually three peaks, the middle being the tallest, each with their own unique snowy characteristics, and each with their own potential lines to ski.

At the end of the 4×4 road it was time to load up our ski gear on our packs, that’s something most ski touring enthusiasts aren’t accustomed to, you generally put skins on the bottom of your skis, and hike up the mountain sort of like a cross-country skier would. However, with no snow on the ground there is little choice but to pack everything up.

A UTV works great for transporting all your gear as far as possible

It’s a strange feeling to be hiking up a bare rock face with sage brush and juniper all around you, with end the goal of skiing in mind, but in the Owyhees it’s simply to be expected this time of year. Snow, especially on the south eastern side rapidly disappears with the warmth of the spring sun.

We had a total of about 1,400ft – over two miles to climb, and with every step the expanse of the Owyhee range grew larger and larger. At this elevation the clouds would turn over themselves, folding like waves on the shore, all while the southern side of the range remained clear and sunny as far as one could see. Eventually we got to the ridge where we could see the Boise area and Snake River valley, and it was about this time moisture from the valley formed an even higher wall of clouds on the northern side. Forecasts for the day had mentioned thunderstorms in the valley. Standing atop a mountain while wearing metal-carbon skis on your back, isn’t exactly the best situation to be in when lighting is a potential, so we are all a little on edge.

Backcountry skiing sometimes means throwing your gear on your back, Robby Milo ascends south face

After reaching the crest, we could see the north side of the mountain was mostly free of clouds, and there were decent looking lines for us to ski. At this point in the day we didn’t need any convincing to remove our heavy skis from our packs. The snapping noise of your boots locking into your bindings is an adrenaline trigger for ski junkies, one we were happy to set off. From here we rode down a gradual slope till we dropped down into a bowl below the north peak. The snow was warmed just enough from the spring sun to give it a perfect consistency, and we made our first turns down what may have been virgin territory.

Not thirty seconds after reaching the bottom of our first run, the clouds rolled in completely obscuring our vision, and blocking Eric and my line of site with Robby, who had decided to skin further up the hill ahead of us. We were prepared and all had radios, but for some reasons we couldn’t get a response from Rob on our coms. Even with all the right equipment something is bound go wrong at some point, we were just lucky at that time nobody was in apparent danger.

Looking south over the peak of Quicksilver

We immediately back tracked our lines, which were very difficult to make out in the near whiteout conditions. We wanted to get out of the potential path of Robby, and any path of an avalanche; which was highly unlikely with the spring conditions at the time, but still a possibility. We figured we could head back to the top of the ridge, then follow our tracks back to where we had left some of our gear, assuming Robby would make his way back as well.

Eric taking a break on our skin track back up the hill, the clouds breaking slightly

Half an hour later we got radio contact from Robby and heard he was heading back up right behind us. When he emerged from the clouds and got close enough, I could make out a big smile on his face,  “Well I’m happy now, I’ve skied the Owyhees!” he said. We were all giddy with excitement in that moment, we were skiing the Owyhees, who in their right minds would be doing that?

We started heading back with the hope to get few more runs in. Eric and I did a measly run down the bowl from the middle peak to the south that was all but maybe 100ft in elevation. It beats walking I thought! We would have ideally liked to have gone down that huge face we saw earlier yesterday as we drove in, but it was still obscured by thick clouds and too risky.

Once we made it back to the south peak, we decided to make our last major run which covered most of the length of the mountain. There was a big cornice overhang that dropped around six feet, so we were cautious to stay clear of it, and work our way down the peak of the ridge, which was only partially covered by the clouds.

As we started working our turns down the mountain, we all enthusiastically squealed like little girls. The snow was perfect, we weren’t climbing up a hill, we were gliding down an enchanted blanket in the middle of the Idaho desert. Half way through the run the clouds magically parted revealing the Snake River valley below, it was a skier’s bliss.

Eric Stewart and Robby Millow emerge from the fog at the end of an Owyhee ski adventure

On the way out the weather started to take a turn for the worse, so I decide hike straight for the relative cover of the UTV, and cooler of beer with my name on it. Eric and Robby decided to make one final run on a snow bank winding through some Junipers down below. I had my feet kicked up and a beer cracked open when they appeared out of the mist back at the trailhead, all three of us completely satisfied with our choices for the day.

Skiing the Owyhees isn’t for everyone, it’s probably not even for most backcountry skiers, but I like it that way, it wouldn’t be wild if it was easy.