What We're Made Of, Winter

What We’re Made Of: Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Mountain Huts

All manner of people have explored the Idaho wilderness, for as long as it’s been there, but two companies, Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Mountain Huts, are two of the longest-running backcountry businesses in the Wood River Valley. An accredited mountain guide service, Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG) has been around for over 30 years, providing summer and winter backcountry guiding services. Sun Valley Mountain Huts (SVMH), formerly known as Sun Valley Trekking, owns some of the country’s oldest and most diverse backcountry hut system, with six huts in five Idaho mountain ranges.

Sawtooth Mountain Guides

The History

Founded in 1985, Sawtooth Mountain Guides is the brainchild of outdoor enthusiast Kirk Bachman, who began exploring local ski and climbing terrain in the area in the early ’70s. When Kirk started SMG in the mid-’80s, it was primarily as a climbing guide service, though he soon added ski guiding on to the company and also built and established some of the first North American yurts as backcountry ski huts in the Sawtooths. This included the Williams Peak Hut, which the company established in 1988 as a winter base for local at-risk youth programs and continues to operate today for both guided and non-guided backcountry touring groups.

Erik Leidecker, one of the co-owners of SMG, began working with SMG in December 1992, while attending Dartmouth College, and went on to purchase half of the company from Kirk in 2002. In 2013, long-time local guides and avalanche professionals Chris and Sara Lundy purchased Kirk’s half of the ownership, which Niels Meyer then bought in 2021. Both Niels and Erik still guide part-time today, bringing years of guiding experience and certifications in various aspects of outdoor guiding and safety.

SMG Today

With the perspective of having been with the company, as well as being an owner, for over two decades, Erik has seen incremental growth in outdoor recreation—particularly in backcountry skiing and avalanche education, and especially during COVID. Now Erik and Niels are navigating this post-Covid existence, which has seen a correction to this extreme growth and a plateauing for the business. “The foundation—the bones of the business—is strong,” says Erik. “We’re looking for that balance between growth and sustainability. Covid was nuts and wasn’t sustainable.”

SMG has responded to this growing demand over the years by increasing guided offerings and bringing on more employees. The roster for SMG is currently around 25 employees, though this changes often due to the dynamic nature of staffing and employing guides. SMG only employs one person full time (their office manager) as there are no guides who are exclusively with the company. (Most guides will work for multiple local companies, guide independently, or travel to guide in addition to working for SMG). Regardless of how often they guide for SMG, as part of the company’s AMGA accreditation, SMG is required to have multiple AMGA-certified guides on staff and encourages their staff to pursue AMGA certification. 

What really sets SMG apart, says Leidecker, “is the collective wisdom, experience, and passion of the staff for both the guiding craft and the guest experience.”

The Trips

SMG offers an extensive catalog of summer and winter educational programs, guided and non-guided yurt trips, and small-ratio, custom guiding that includes ski touring, climbing, hiking, and backpacking.

For educational programs, SMG offers many skills courses, such as Introduction to Backcountry for skiing and splitboarding and Plastic to Granite, an introduction to outdoor rock climbing. SMG also offers a full slate of Avalanche Education. Climbing trips range in terms of experience and take climbers to locations like City of Rocks, Mount Borah, and the Elephant’s Perch. Ski trips range from easily accessible powder slopes and chutes on Galena and Banner Summits to more rugged areas like the Sawtooth Range. Hiking trips can range from a day trip to an alpine lake to multi-day backpacking.

The Future of SMG

It’s the natural beauty and wildness of the Sawtooths that originally inspired SMG founder Kirk Bachman to found his company, and it’s in preserving that same beauty and wildness that SMG operates. “We really live in a spectacular place,” says Erik. “Our geographic isolation makes this area harder to get to and we have fewer people in the mountains. This, combined with our awesome seasonal recreation and alpine wilderness, is what keeps me here.”

As the company goes forward, and navigates a post-Covid world, SMG works to maintain and cultivate the wildness and spirit of adventure in this place, whether that’s by keeping groups small or just managing the company’s growth. What was important to Kirk, and remains important to Erik and the rest of SMG, is “adventure in the spirit of wilderness, or as Kirk called it ‘quiet pioneering.’ The area, at least for climbing and ski touring, doesn’t have guidebooks the way a lot of other areas do. It’s this culture of going out and doing your thing and being satisfied with the essence of the experience that SMG was built upon.

Sun Valley Mountain Huts

The History

Sun Valley Trekking was established in 1982, making it one of North America’s oldest and most distinctive backcountry hut systems (and guiding service). It all started with a local outfitter, Joe Leonard, who began to explore the ski possibilities of the Sawtooth backcountry in the early ’70s. After building some primitive huts in the Sawtooths and White Clouds, a guest, who had just returned from Mongolia, suggested he build a yurt (which are traditional Mongolian structures). Joe eventually installed two original, purpose-built backcountry ski huts in Iron Creek, in the Sawtooths. In 1982, Bob Jonas, the founder of SVT, took over Joe’s original permits and moved those two yurts to the current locations of the Bench Hut Yurt and the Fishhook Yurt—the oldest backcountry ski hut in Idaho.

Bob also instigated the guiding portion of SVT to help those who wanted to explore the Idaho backcountry. His desire to allow skiers access to bigger peaks and deeper powder in the high country led him to add more huts, building the original structures for the Tornak, Coyote, and Boulder Yurts. In 2000, Bob sold the company to Joe and Francie St. Onge, trained backcountry guides with experience working in the Intermountain West, Alaska, and internationally.

Joe and Francie with their daughter

Sun Valley Mountain Huts Today

Much has changed since Joe and Francie took over SVT over 20 years ago. Many of the original huts have been torn down and rebuilt. And after years of building a world-class guiding service, the business split into two businesses: the huts and the guide service. Eventually, the volume of work grew to such a point that Joe and Francie felt they were truly managing two separate entities and made the decision to sell the guiding service to local ski legend Zach Crist in 2018, which became Sun Valley Guides, while Joe and Francie’s business became Sun Valley Mountain Huts.

SVMH employs a core group of five backcountry guides who work for the company on a part-time basis to provide hut orientations, portering, and snowmobile cargo services. Guides also help run in supplies and do maintenance on the huts, such as cleaning the stove pipes, replacing solar batteries, caulking leaking hot tubs, and cutting about 50 cords of firewood each year.

Joe and Francie

The Huts

Today, SVMH owns six backcountry huts in five different mountain ranges in Idaho: Fishhook, Bench, Tornak, Coyote, Boulder, and Pioneer, which was acquired from Sun Valley Heli Ski in 2007. Each of these huts/yurts is handcrafted with materials sourced on site, building with native pine, milling boards by hand, and using the natural surroundings to influence the making of the structure. Each of the huts serves as a base camp for backcountry adventures as well as a classroom for different outdoor and environmental education programs.

The St. Onges say that their clientele is mostly made up of local and regional customers, who value the solitude of our wilderness, whether that’s through booking an annual hut trip, going day-skiing with friends, or taking avalanche courses in the backcountry. Two huts are also open in the summer, making for an incredible way to access harder-to-reach hiking, mountain biking, and overall adventuring.

Joe and Francie have, like Erik, seen a dramatic increase in the interest in the backcountry in the last several decades, with touring equipment advancements making it that much more accessible. “When we took over, Sun Valley Trekking was a small business that had a loyal following,” says Francie. “What hasn’t changed is the loyal skiers who started out going to yurts with their parents 30 years ago and are now taking their own children on backcountry hut trips. The adventure, the powder, the group bonding, the sauna or hot tub all make the backcountry hut experience one of the most fun things you can do with friends or family.”

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