“Nobody fondles a snowflake like Baldy.”
Bryant Dunn would know; the ski patrolman has seen almost every snowflake that has fallen on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain for the past 12 years. He says it fondly as we ride the four-seater Challenger chair at 7am; the sun isn’t up yet, and we’re the only ones on the lift. Right now, the mountain is all ours.
Dunn is used to private time on the mountain, but I’m not—the mountain crowds at Idaho’s most famous ski resort approach 3,000 a day. This is Ski Patrol 101. It’s not a class but a special guest experience offered by Sun Valley Resort: Hang with a ski patrolman two hours before the chairlifts open to the public, attend a morning patrol meeting, and hit the empty slopes before anyone else. It’s free with a lift ticket, but guests are chosen by lottery—and winners have to work a little.
By the time we reach the Sun Valley Ski Patrol cabin at just over 9,000 feet, the sun is rising over the Pioneer Mountains that surround Sun Valley. This ski village oozes notoriety—it boasted the first chairlifts in the world, and it was where Warren Miller camped out in the parking lot and began filming his fellow ski bums. Ernest Hemingway finished For Whom the Bell Tolls at the resort’s Sun Valley Lodge, then lived (and died) in Ketchum, a onetime mining burg that is now a resort town, nearly indistinguishable from Sun Valley Resort that abuts it. But for all its star power, little in southern Idaho can compete with the sunrise from atop Baldy.
Soldier runs the region’s only snowcat-skiing operation with a custom-made vehicle that can haul a dozen skiers into the untracked backcountry. For $275 a day, ski bums get access to terrain unmarked by lifts or grooming machines.
Inside the Ski Patrol cabin, the workday is under way for the patrolmen who stomp about in ski boots and unhook coffee mugs from nails on the walls. Tibetan prayer flags hang inside and out, and stickers on the metal lockers read “Haulin’ the Fallen Since 1936.” There’s a lot of gray hair on display; anyone with less than a decade of tenure on this patrol is basically still a rookie. “It’s the hardest job to get in Idaho,” says Dunn.
The morning patrol assembly is like a staff meeting anywhere: announcements, assignments, bad jokes. An avalanche dog named Syringa pads around, earning a tossed piece of breakfast burrito. There’s always at least one search-and-rescue dog on the mountain to dig for lost skiers, and they see action about once a year. The rest of the time, Syringa’s minder jokes, “they’re chick magnets.”
The meeting is dismissed, the patrolmen scatter, and Dunn leads me to the real highlight of Ski Patrol 101: Runs on the untracked powder and perfectly unspoiled corduroy of Bald Mountain. In an hour, we crisscross most of Baldy’s 2,000 acres. We straighten plastic poles gone askance and untangle the orange webbing that marks ski boundaries. As we cruise past the metal pipes that eject man-made snow during dry winters, Dunn smacks each with his ski pole to shake off the powder that fell overnight.
Dunn points out our only company, a solitary skier who has skinned up the mountain—hiked uphill on skis equipped with a sticky fabric—a lung-busting trek for just one preopening run. (Since Ketchum is notoriously thick with celebrities, on any given day Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Kennedy may have commanded early-morning lift access too.)
Ski Patrol 101 has proved to be wildly popular for the resort, along with a similar experience called Ride the Beast. There you can tag along inside snow groomers, the Zambonis of the ski hill, as they sweep up and down Baldy every evening, churning and compacting the snow for easier skiing. The snowcat drivers enjoy showing off their rides, 520-horsepower Prinoth Beast groomers.
Later in the day, while skiing with the rest of the hoi polloi during public hours, I brag to a chairlift seatmate, a Ketchum local, about my AM experience. Yes, he agrees, it’s ideal to get on the snow first—he once got to ski Sun Valley before opening with Clint Eastwood.
Celebrity is thick on the ground in southern Idaho, but Bruce Willis’s old mountain, Soldier, is as homey as Sun Valley is haute. It’s about 20 miles from Ketchum as the crow flies, but it takes almost an hour by highway through flat Idaho farmland. The movie star bought the struggling ski area in the ’90s, then donated it to a community nonprofit board in 2012.
“I learned to ski on this mountain,” says Russell Schiermeier, a local farmer and former board member. Schiermeier bounces his baby daughter in one arm while he shows off a lodge only twice the size of Sun Valley’s on-mountain ski patrol cabin, where the lunch specials are written on a whiteboard: pork pot roast and chili cheese nacho tots.
The two lifts are small and simple with chairs painted a rosy pink; one lift loads riders from within a barnlike base. On a weekday, there might be more lifties operating the lifts than skiers on the mountain. The 36 runs might as well be a private park: There’s a speedy open run under the chairlifts, plus a handful of more challenging blues and blacks that drop into the trees on the mountain’s backside. Those cruise back to the base in a scenic cat track that winds past fence posts and old farm equipment; it’s skiing as a Robert Frost poem. And for that king of the mountain feeling, Soldier lift tickets top out at $38 for adults (Sun Valley’s are $99).
But it gets even more private: Soldier runs the region’s only snowcat-skiing operation with a custom-made vehicle that can haul a dozen skiers into the untracked backcountry. For $275 a day, ski bums get access to terrain unmarked by lifts or grooming machines. On each ride back up to the backcountry yurt base, riders can screen the recordings they made on their helmet cameras by inserting SD cards into the snowcat’s 47-inch flat screen.
For all its big mountain terrain, Soldier retains the feel of a small-town municipal park; school buses are as popular in the parking lot as hybrid SUVs. Schiermeier’s mother, Kristi, now serves as general manager for the mountain, having met her husband on its slopes more than 35 years ago. They may not fondle snow here, exactly—but they do take care of it.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met.