Somewhere outside of Twin Falls, Idaho, my hands are balled into fists inside my thin cycling gloves—I am pulling roughly my own bodyweight in skiing and climbing gear, and there’s a headwind. There’s always a headwind.
My partner, Liz, our friend, JB, and I are nine days and some 200 miles into climbing, cycling and skiing through the Sawtooth Mountains. Tired, cold and beaten, we’re probably only a half hour’s drive from a hot meal, but our pedal strokes offer pitifully little progress. As my body alternately shivers and aches, all I can think is, “How the hell are we going to make it?”Ours is not a story easily explained by some misguided sense of adventure. Between the three if us, nobody owns a car, and we each have a love for simplicity, challenges, adventure, and most of all, skiing. At its core, bicycling can offer all of these things. As our friends hop behind the wheel, we slowly cross valleys and inch over passes, cars blasting past regularly. At times, like this moment outside of Twin Falls, when the rain turns to sleet and I can no longer feel my toes, it can be truly challenging. But passion is a volatile entity.
And it is our passion that drives us on to base of the Smoky Mountains’ third highest summit, 10,336-foot Norton Peak, for our first turns of the trip. Slipping out of our tennis shoes and finally leaving our bikes behind, my boots feel tight but comfortably familiar. As we thrash through deadfall and begin the ascent, my legs are light, happy to switch tasks and slide along after pedaling nearly 80 hours to reach these mountains. With a page torn from the gazetteer as our guide, we reach the summit and I stare down our intended line.
This summit is the culmination of a concept that was years in the making. No matter how long you’ve been skiing, the first turns of a line can still seem as intimidating as a beginner’s. This is where I’m meant to be, I tell myself. It really doesn’t matter if I tumble straight down this thing. I biked here, damnit! My first turns are nearly as wobbly as my first pedal strokes leaving Salt Lake, but I quickly find my balance, hop turning through a narrow choke. The three of us converge and gang ski back toward camp and our bikes, a chorus of hoots filling the valley.
A few days and more than a handful of bike miles later, we rise early from our camp beside Little Redfish Lake, our sights on a striking couloir splitting 10,229-foot Mt. Heyburn’s north side. With no idea whether or not the line will offer continuous skiing, we start up, wallowing through the soft snow. (Later, we learned that the couloir is named after pioneering Sawtooth climber Paul Petzoldt.) Reaching Silver Saddle, we are gifted with a view that our bikes can’t offer—the Sawtooth’s lie spread out below, Mt. Decker and the Grand Mogul to the south and Williams and Thompson to the north, looming large and proud over the Stanley Valley.
As we leap frog our way down the mountain, the unknown engulfs me. That morning we hadn’t known if the couloir was continuous, and not long before that, none of us even knew if this trip was possible. I worried that we wouldn’t be able to pedal the weight of all our gear up steep roads. I wondered if our bikes would hold up. Or if my body would break down under the relentless abuse. But slowly, one pedal stroke at a time, we made the dream a reality. Realization is a powerful thing.
I don’t know how many times the Sawtooth’s have been skied under bicycle power, but I doubt we were the first to do it, and I certainly hope we’re not the last. Perhaps our party biked the farthest, hauled the most weight, or traveled the slowest. Our mission did not seek quantity or conquest, but surrender and satisfaction. In total, we skied just three days, making two descents. Twenty-four days and some 600 miles after leaving SLC, we reached Boise, disheveled and accomplished. But superlatives and records are better left to the boastful—after all, the mountains don’t care how or why we got there, and it was luck more than skill that allowed us to ski them at all. In skiing, riding and in life, you get out what you put in.