Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tornak Hut near Sun Valley is one of my favorite backcountry huts in Idaho

Almost there ... the final climb to the hut.

Here's Steve skinning up the slope in the first couple miles.
Clear windows on one side make for fantastic views ...

The dining area inside the hut.

Todd Haylett and Paul Hilding hang out in the sunshine inside the hut.

Looking across to some north ski glades.
Peeling out to ski for the day.

Hiking up to the knob above the hut.

Mack Lyons and Paul Hilding on the trail.

Hi all,

We had the privilege of spending three days at the Tornak Hut north of Sun Valley on a sunny and warm March weekend. Most of our group of 7 brought Hawaiian shirts for the spring skiing occasion, and it was totally appropriate.

Tornak has been one of my favorite huts for a long time. It's owned and operated by Sun Valley Trekking, which has a total of six huts and yurts in the Smoky, Pioneer and Sawtooth Mountains. Since I make a point of doing yurt/hut trips every winter, I've had the privilege of staying at all of S.V. Trekking's huts and yurts over the years, and I can tell you that Tornak is positively deluxe! Think about trying to reserve it for a group of your friends next year.

The hut is a super-long double-wall tent. It's really spacious. It sleeps up to 14, but a party of 10 would be perfect. We had a party of 9 until two of our friends had to bail, so we went with 7. There is a wood stove on each end of the hut. One end is reserved for sleeping, and the other for cooking. The kitchen area is nice and roomy with a large dining table and chairs for hanging out, and a comfy space for cooking.

One entire side of the hut has clear plastic windows for looking at the Boulder Mountains from inside the hut. That's a great feature. Tornak also has one of the best saunas you'll find anywhere. We fit nearly all of our group in the sauna at once. It takes about 1.5 hours to get the stove in the sauna really cranking, and then you'll sweat away all of the impurities from your day of skiing, and then you can dive in the snow, towel off in the chilly evening air, whatever.

Tornak also has excellent skiing or snowshoeing terrain very close to the hut. It's located at 8,400 feet in a protected nook just below a saddle. After breakfast, you climb for 5 minutes to a little knob behind the hut, and marvel at a huge number of bowls that you can ski, depending on what aspects have the best snow. And then go for it!

Because we were there on a warm and sunny weekend, with highs in the upper 40s, we had to hit the east and south slopes as soon as the crust was softened by the morning sun. The west slopes warmed up a little later in the day. The north slopes still had good powder on them in the shade, but breaking trail in the deep, sugar-like snow was kind of a bear in places. That's the breaks.

Getting into Tornak is probably the biggest challenge. It's only four miles, but the climb features 1,400 vertical feet of gain. You park at Easley Hot Springs, about 10 miles north of Ketchum, ski over to a canyon, and start an abrupt climb up a steep slope. You feel the weight of your backpack right away. Several of our crew members got really bad blisters on the climbs.

After the first 30-45 minutes of climbing, the steepness moderates, and you follow a ridge to a snowmobile road, and then climb gradually for another 1.5 miles to the hut on the snowmo road. My friend Mark and I made it to the hut in less than 3 hours. I remember when I was younger we used to get in there in about 2 hours.

Because of the snowmobile road access, it's possible to have Sun Valley Trekking carry some of your gear or all of it to the hut via snowmobile. The hut also is a popular destination for people with disabilities because of the snowmobile access, and they've redone the floor in the hut, so it's nice and flat for moving around in a wheelchair inside. How cool!

A lot of folks in the Treasure Valley focus their attention on renting the Idaho City Park n' Ski yurts during the winter. I'm suggesting to the backcountry skiers/riders and snowshoers out there that you might try spreading your wings and consider the Sun Valley Trekking huts and yurts as well. They're popular, but they don't fill up as fast as the Idaho City yurts. I booked Tornak for my group last November.

Here's some quick perspective on the other SV Trekking huts/yurts:
  • The Boulder yurts are close to the highway, with decent skiing close by. Probably the best option of all of them for taking young kids or people who can't go very far. SV Trekking will bring a catered dinner to your door at this yurt.
  • The Pioneer yurt in the Pioneer Mountains is a long trek, about 7 miles if I recall. Snowmobile assist is available. Skiing terrain is somewhat limited because of west aspects next to the yurt. But if you look hard, you'll find good snow. Spectacular mountains, Hyndman and Cobb Peaks, loom above the yurt.
  • The Fishhook Yurt is an easy to get into from the turnoff on Idaho 75 to Redfish Lake. Another good option for kids and people who can't travel too far. You have to ski quite a ways to find good skiing above the Fishhook Yurt.
  • The Bench Lakes hut is about 5 miles from the same trailhead as Fishhook. It's a pretty tough climb in there, but once you're there, it's awesome. There is great skiing directly above the hut, more skiing on "the triangle" on a flank of Heyburn Peak, and more skiing above the upper Bench Lakes. SV Trekking reports that Bench has been redone, and now it sleeps 20. If it's anything like Tornak, it will be stellar.
  • Coyote Yurt is 7 miles in from the same trailhead as Tornak, so it's about 3 miles farther to go than Tornak. Snowmobile assist is available to carry some of your gear. That's a nice feature because it can be a long slog to Coyote. Once you're there, it's got great skiing all around the yurt.
If you'd like to reserve any these huts for winter or summer, contact Sun Valley Trekking. Guide service is available, and you also could put together a hut-to-hut trip in several locations.
- SS

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