With intimate knowledge of the simultaneously serene and treacherous backcountry paradise surrounding Sun Valley, a winter guide is capable of taking a client to new heights. Matt Furber tracks down some of the area's luckiest workers to get a glimpse into life atop a snow-covered world.
To be on top of a mountain peak in winter, a person is sometimes required to exceed previous physical and psychological boundaries. A winter guide helps take clients in and out of their comfort zones while relieving some of the pressure associated with pushing one's limits outdoors.
Managing navigation, equipment, skiing or boarding technique, and snow safety is essential for anyone who tackles backcountry snow adventures, but having an expert on hand allows everyone to breathe a little easier.
Guiding services on public land such as the Sawtooth National Forest are regulated by the federal government, which dictates how many commercial guides can work an area. Three winter guiding services traverse the backcountry surrounding Sun Valley, employing about a dozen guides plus apprentices. The skills they possess help would-be winter adventurers suck the marrow out of winter.
One of those guides is Idaho native Sara Lundy, 36. She was turned on to winter adventure by her college professor John Rember, who hails from her home of Stanley at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains north of the Wood River Valley. Rember encouraged Lundy to become a tail guide, an apprentice who follows a lead guide to learn the craft. "My early guide training was very much through mentoring and tail guiding," Lundy said. "The guides I've worked with have years and years and miles and miles of experience. The knowledge and skills they've passed along is unequivocally educational."
Lundy's education as a guide has come from the local knowledge of a tight-knit guiding community, one which takes pride in passing along its intimate knowledge of the area to a select group of people. Lundy has learned from the expertise of Sawtooth Mountain Guides founder Kirk Bachman and co-owner Erik Leidecker (who is also Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides operations manager), as well as Joe and Francie St. Onge, co-owners of Sun Valley Trekking. "Joe and Francie gave me the opportunity to get some miles under my belt going out with their weekly groups," Lundy said. "And Erik's commitment to guiding and participation in international guide training, not only inspired me to take my guiding to the next level, but has really encouraged a higher level of professionalism and training throughout the entire guiding community in our area."
This January brings a milestone in Lundy's career. She and her husband, Chris, are buying out her mentor Kirk Bachman's share of Sawtooth Mountain Guides and becoming co-owners in the company that guides north of Galena Summit.
South of the summit, Joe St. Onge's company Sun Valley Trekking helps winter enthusiasts reach their nirvana through guiding and providing dozens of backcountry bunks in six different yurts it built in the area. "My job is about delivering stoke," he said. "There's nothing quite like watching your guests' eyes light up after a truly euphoric experience gliding down a mountain deep in the backcountry," St. Onge said.
A professional mountain guide for 20 years now, St. Onge was turned on to the career as a teenager. "As a high school student I went on a trip with some mountain guides in Utah," he said. "I remember asking my guides, 'You do this for a living?' and they smiled back with a big grin. It was then I knew what I wanted to do with my life."
After attending Prescott College in Arizona, which specializes in training outdoor guides and teachers, St. Onge skipped graduation for a job interview and was hired by the American Alpine Institute. "My experience at AAI was phenomenal, traveling the world while working with some of the best mountain guides in the country," he said. "In 2000, after working for AAI for eight years, Francie and I moved to Sun Valley because of the mountains, the community and particularly the backcountry skiing."
Like his counterparts who have dedicated their lives to backcountry skiing and riding, St. Onge was drawn to this area by the phenomenal ski potential surrounding Sun Valley. Marc Hanselman, on the other hand, was born into that potential. He took his first breath at Moritz Hospital in Sun Valley, and his career as a guide has taken him through all the local outfitters. This October, on his honeymoon, Hanselman stopped off in Sëlva in Italy's Val Gardena.
Serendipitously, they stayed at the Sun Valley Hotel. "It turns out the founder was Hans Nogler, a ski instructor in Sun Valley in the '40s," Hanselman said. "The family had some great photos of him and Sun Valley's early days." Such is the life of the guide. Stories merge in the mountains and traditions carry on.
Hanselman works year-round as a mountain guide. In the summer he takes clients rock and alpine climbing; in the winter, ice climbing, backcountry skiing and helicopter skiing consume his days. Hanselman's grandparents owned the Knob Hill Trailer Park in Ketchum, where the Knob Hill Inn is today, and he grew up hunting, fishing and skiing every nook and cranny of this land. "I always had an interest in climbing as a child," he said. "It was through the outdoor program at the Community School that I got exposed to backpacking, climbing and even backcountry skiing." A summer interning with Sawtooth Mountain Guides during college in Boulder, Colorado, introduced him to a way to make a career out of his passion for climbing and the mountains.
In 1999, Hanselman returned to the valley to work for Sawtooth Mountain Guides, between stints teaching English in Japan. In 2004, he took his first American Mountain Guides Association course. Over the next seven years, six courses and five exams in rock climbing and alpine and ski mountaineering disciplines gained him the rare accolade of International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations guide. There are still fewer than 100 IFMGA guides in the United States. When Hanselman got his certification he was number 76.
"I love that I get to spend my working days in the mountains, and I get to share that with others," he said. "There are days where it all just clicks and the weather is beautiful, the snow is perfect and you're just smiling. I tell myself to soak it in. This is my job! There are other times where I am challenged by any number of factors—terrain, conditions, the clients themselves—but to persevere and utilize my training, experience and instinct and be rewarded in the end with a summit, a good run and happy clients … this is also what I love."
At 53, William "Bozo" Cardozo came by his experience on a different arc. His training is more akin to that of Nogler, Florian Haemmerle and the Austrian ski instructors who pioneered backcountry skiing during the early years of Sun Valley. These men laid the foundations to Pioneer Cabin and the now defunct Owl Creek Cabin in the Smoky Mountains south of Galena.
"I've been a heli-ski and touring guide for 29 years," said Cardozo, who is also a woodworker and created the bow tips for the new Bow Bridge pedestrian link over the Big Wood River in Hailey. "I also have worked kids trips for the Community School for about as long, mostly on the river. I grew up in an elite group of kayak racers. When I quit that I dove hard into rock climbing." Heading west from his home in New Hampshire in pursuit of different adventures, he knew he wanted to ski, and ended up securing a position on the ski patrol in Alta, Utah.
After falling in love, Cardozo settled in Sun Valley where he found his helicopter-skiing job. "I've been here ever since. I'm in the old-guy club of people who don't have a lot of paperwork behind their qualifications." If ever there was a career where experience counts over paperwork, guiding is that, and Cardozo has given freely of his experience on the rare occasions when things fall apart for people in the backcountry.
The guides are often asked to recall their hairiest misadventures, but there's a code that seems akin to doctor/patient privilege. "There are some failed client machismo stories, and lots of good times," Cardozo said, relenting a little. "Incredible days with incredible skiers, and incredible days with people who were out of their comfort zone and had their minds blown."
One thing all four guides share is a firm belief that the mountains here are perfect for backcountry adventures. Whether one enjoys mellow glade skiing in the Smoky Mountains, steep couloirs in the Sawtooths or giant peaks in the Pioneers, the variety, amount and aesthetic of skiing in central Idaho is astounding, they say, and for anyone who is uncertain, they will be happy to show off the terrain.
"Backcountry skiing is distinctive in that no two days are the same," St. Onge said. "The snow is constantly changing and with that, the stability, safety and ski quality. That, combined with the fact that we are not following preset routes, allows the guide to create an experience each day that is unique and ephemeral. I think of guiding a ski tour as art or sculpture. The best guide can choose terrain and set aesthetic tracks, up and down, that link together an ever-varied mountain landscape. The end result can be a beautiful experience."