By Ben Olson
You know it’s going to be a good time when the biggest question of the day is whether to pack along two cans of beer or three. These are the important questions Cadie and I asked ourselves while packing our gear in the parking lot at Schweitzer on May 8. It was a ghost town up there, the ski season having ended a month prior.
A few hardy souls wandered about in the blowing groppel as we strapped snowboards to our backpacks and took the first of many steps required to reach the top of South Bowl for an activity that is uniquely local in Sandpoint: hiking up Schweitzer to ski down an untouched powder run in May.
It’s not every year that you can get away with such a plan so far from the close of ski season. Conditions have to be just right for good snow — namely cool temperatures at elevations so the rain we get in the valley falls as snow on the mountain tops.
Most people who know what they’re doing will skin up the hill. Skins are strips of fabric that attach to the bottom of skis to give traction while climbing up an incline. Without skins you’re subject to post-holing and sliding with every step if the conditions aren’t right. But it’s still doable — you just run the risk of tramping down the skin path with your bootsteps (sorry, guys).
The first time you hike Schweitzer post-season, it seems impossible. The top of the triple seems like it’s miles and miles away when you’re looking up from the bottom. Never before has a chairlift seemed so appealing. The best tactic is to put your head down and do it. We stopped at every chair tower to catch our breath, then peeled off to follow the old Chair 1 line through the trees.
About 40 minutes later, we reached the top of the Basin Express lift, firmly in the midst of a mountain wonderland. Fresh snow had fallen recently, then the wind swept it clean across the runs on South Bowl. Everything looked fresh and new, with only a couple of tracks marring the untouched alpine glory. It’s rare to see our home ski hill in this untrampled state.
As we prepared to make the final push up the ridge to the summit, we watched a lone skier make his run down Face. His turns were neat and orderly, equal-sized as he grew closer and closer to us from such great heights. When he reached the bottom of the Triple, Cadie let out a howl that must’ve been heard across the entire quiet mountain. We heard him howl in return and left him to finish the run in peace as we turned back to the climb.
We had every kind of weather imaginable that day, none of it lasting more than 10 minutes before transitioning to something else. We had rain down low, gropple, light hail, sunshine, wind, snow, blizzarding snow, calm and finally sun as we reached the shack at the top of the Triple to sit and share a couple beers overlooking the glory that is our home. I was glad I brought three tallboys, because Cadie only brought two of hers. Sharing is caring.
With a clear view spanning from Canada to Montana and points south, it’s really one hell of a fine place to drink a beer before barreling down the mountain.
After lubricating our brains, it was time to square away our packs, strap on the snowboards and let gravity do its thing. The snow was excellent, especially for mid-May. It was soft on top, a bit harder underneath but we felt no bottom digging in. There’s just something spiritual about an untracked mountain before you. I imagine great explorers feel the same thing when they stand before an undiscovered corner of the Earth. It’s so beautiful it almost feels bad blemishing the perfection with our tracks. Almost.
It’s important to mention that there are risks when skiing in the backcountry, and Schweitzer post-season is very much considered backcountry. If you get caught in a slide or get buried somehow, there will be no ski patrol to rescue you. Always prepare yourselves with the knowledge and equipment required to adventure safely in the backcountry. The Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center is an excellent local organization tasked with educating backcountry skiers and snowboarders on safety in the backcountry. Visit idahopanhandleavalanche.org for more information on this group.
With hoops and hollers, Cadie and I made our way down Face with wide, swooping turns in the spring powder. We looped around Midway and ducked into lower Sam’s Alley and gently made our way the long way back to the village. On any given day in winter, we’ll take a dozen or more runs and enjoy every one of them, but there’s something special about taking one run after more than an hour of effort to get there. You earn every turn you make.
At the bottom, we high-fived, hugged and kissed one another, both of us breathless after such an epic run. Peering back up at the summit, now shrouded by ominous black clouds, I said farewell to this special mountain where I’ve spent the majority of my winters recreating.
It was one hell of a last run.
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