Contemplating Preservation in the Idaho ‘Wilderness’
Traversing Idaho's Boulder-White Cloud Mountains with Zach Crist
(Ed’s note: This story first appeared on blog.firstascent.com.)
By Zach Crist
While there’s no place like home with my family, adventure in the mountains is always calling. It presents an opportunity to connect with good friends in an inspirational setting, allowing me the chance to unplug from the daily distractions of cell phones, emails and, well, other people.
Sometimes I like to call “time-out” on everyday life to refocus priorities and renew my appreciation for all that I’m blessed with. Inevitably, the trip comes to an end and the reentry process begins. After eight days of phenomenal climbing and skiing through central Idaho, we were high on life and hoping for a soft landing in the “civilized” world. Instead, it was a rude awakening from a wonderful dream.
The Boulder-White Cloud Mountains of Idaho are located immediately to the northeast of my hometown, Sun Valley. As someone who has spent the better part of life exploring wild and scenic, snow-covered places, it’s strange that I’ve spent more time getting to know mountains in far away places—especially since these peaks hold some of the most spectacular skiing I’ve ever seen. Lately I’ve become more interested in rediscovering my own backyard and, lucky for me, I live at the gateway to America’s Wilderness heartland.
Not much is known about the skiing in the Boulder-White Cloud Range and for good reason—it’s remote! Getting into position for one of the many classic descents typically requires the use of a snowmobile or lightweight touring equipment and reliable overnight gear. The largest remaining unprotected natural area in the lower 48, the Boulder-White Clouds have recently become the subject of much debate. Congress is currently deliberating over a Wilderness Bill that will determine the future management style and modes of recreation allowed. Signed into law, the area would be protected under the Wilderness designation, which inherently limits public access by outlawing mechanized use.
It seems every Idahoan has an opinion on the proposed Wilderness though few seem based on hard facts or relevant experience. Instead, they are aligned in reference to the type of adventure toys in their garage. As someone who owns and operates just about every recreational device known to the mountain universe, I’m sitting uncomfortably high on the fence when it comes to adding more public land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. With more than nine million acres of roadless territory, Idaho has more de facto wilderness than any other state outside of Alaska, but much of it is unprotected from future “development.” As someone who has tremendous respect and appreciation for wild lands, I figured the only way off the fence was through the heart of the Boulder-White Clouds.
Who better to join me than longtime friends, Erik Leidecker and Kent McBride, who are both IFMGA Guides (the rough equivalent of a Ph.D. in mountain guiding). Ski mountaineering with Kent and Erik must be like navigating Gotham City with Batman and Robin. Beyond their ingenious tools and clever tricks that make challenging conditions enjoyable, they are two of the most genuine souls I know. Every expedition traveler knows that great guides are more than strong leaders. They dramatically improve safety and positive group chemistry, which can be the difference between a trip of a lifetime and one you’d rather not remember.
On the eighth and final day, we dropped out of the mountains and into thick timber searching for the Slate Creek Hot Springs. A fitting end to a phenomenal trip, we’d imagined soaking our tired bodies in hotpots, reflecting on an extraordinary journey. Erik motioned us in his direction when he’d located the contour line that matched the elevation of the spring, but as we emerged from the woods we instead found an abandoned mine. It was as if we’d entered into another dimension from the unspoiled beauty of the Boulder-White Clouds to a forsaken place turned upside down by prospectors of an earlier age. The hillsides had been scoured by powerful hydraulics, old structures stood half-ruined by time, garbage was littered all about and the large settling pond below was likely once full of toxic chemicals used to leach precious metals. We found the hot springs nearby, though it looked so unappealing that none of us even stopped to consider. Rather, we continued down the creek in silence, contemplating the potential future of this precious land without the protection it clearly deserves.
“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” – Terry Tempest Williams
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