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Backcountry requires expert guide

Fri., April 3, 2009

The lifts stop turning this weekend. But a hearty, intelligent breed of skiers will keep on turning long after resorts shut down.

Until last weekend, 99 percent of my fun this season had been inbounds. But the opportunity for a real backcountry experience came my way.

I was eager to venture into the alpine wilderness, but not to die in an avalanche. Fortunately, I was in professional hands.

Scott Lewis has a Level II license with the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Board. He works full time for Peak Adventures, the snow cat skiing operation based in Cataldo. Lewis, 45, lives in Wallace and spends his free time skiing the cirques, bowls and ridges of the Bitterroot Range just outside his back door.

“If you’re not on your game and you’re not aware of what’s out there, you can get in trouble real easy,” he said. “In the last few years we’ve had three deaths back there, so it’s not a place to fool around.”

Lewis was talking about Stevens Peak, a popular backcountry destination a few miles southeast of Mullan. He let me join him on a trip there with one of his friends.

At the trailhead he made sure I knew how to operate an avalanche beacon. We went over search procedure and worked with the collapsible probe used to locate a body buried in snow.

When Lewis was satisfied with my grasp of the gravity of the situation, we stuck climbing skins on our skis and began the ascent. Lewis’ little red heeler, Ginger, followed behind in our tracks.

Before long we were climbing steep switchbacks. Once on a ridge, the Silver Valley sprawled out below. Looking northwest I could see runs at Silver Mountain about 15 miles away.

Our first summit on the route was West Willow Peak at about 6,300 feet. From there we looked east across a massive bowl at Stevens Peak. Clouds hid the 6,800-foot summit. Steep, tempting avalanche chutes fell out of the mist.

We looped around to approach the summit of Stevens Peak from its south flank. The scene was a no-man’s-land of stiff, cold wind, a scoured slope, gnarled trees and poor visibility. Ginger, impervious to the elements, rolled around contentedly in the snow.

Lewis had wanted to hit a steep line from the summit. Upon assessing the 20-foot high cornice that had formed, along with the flat light, he decided the risks outweighed the reward. We skied back down the ridge and dropped from a lower angle. Ginger burrowed through the snow behind us.

After five hours of climbing, I was dog tired. But the exotic terrain and deep powder was a rich, albeit brief payoff. We skied across a frozen lake, and then followed a creek back to the trailhead.

The route to Stevens Peak is accessible, but Lewis said it’s not for just anyone, even strong skiers.

“You need to serve your time apprentice-wise under knowledgeable people,” he said. “You’re going to hit all sorts of terrain and all kinds of snow conditions. Dropping into runs you’ve never done before, you have no idea what to expect.”

I expect to continue skiing this spring, if I can talk Lewis into letting me go. I should take an avalanche safety course next fall.

My column concludes for the season today, but you can check out my next trip, and more adventures at

Thanks for joining me. Have fun. Be safe.

Bill Jennings can be reached at

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