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Unplugged and On Skis in the Lower 48’s Largest Wilderness

[Trip Report] Unplugged and On Skis in the Lower 48’s Largest Wilderness

The plane sputtered (like small planes do) as we lifted from the Boise airport, soaring north above the rolling hills of the city. I’d departed Bozeman far too late after meetings and a dinner party, arriving in Boise in time for a one-hour nap in the airport parking lot. Relief hit as we coasted in the air, leaving the bustling world behind and entering the wild landscapes of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

There is nothing quite like a bird’s eye view of a wild landscape — ultimate eye candy.

The Middle Fork Lodge is an in-holding nestled in the middle of the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River snakes alongside beautifully renovated, yet quaint, buildings. Turquoise pools of natural hot spring water welcome visitors. The silence and views are divine.

Our crew was excited to bring along ski touring gear and explore the glisse potential of nearby terrain. We had three days, and ample energy and motivation.

That afternoon we split into two groups and headed out for our first tour above the lodge. Ski conditions were marginal, but the wildness more than made up for the sandwich of crusts. With any luck we’d time our tour just right and have a touch of corn on the descent.

My group made our way up a hill just above the lodge with phenomenal views of the river below. Along the way we spotted numerous tracks; mule deer, elk, and possibly a bobcat, among other smaller critters. We skinned until the slope became too steep, and switched to booting up the variable crusty snow. As we topped out on our intended knoll we realized this was one of those places where each ridgeline goes on and on — you think you are reaching the summit, only to realize there is yet another one ahead, and then another. The vastness of the place began to trickle in.

We found decent corn snow and even a touch of leeward powder for some turns towards the river below, marveling in the beauty.

We decided to ski as a larger group on the second day and explore some terrain to the south of the lodge (with north facing aspects, that might hold nice snow). Tricky snow made for a variable ascent alternating between skinning on firm snow and boot-packing. Despite the marginal conditions camaraderie was high, and conversation meaningful. As a group there was a deep appreciation for wildness and wilderness — a kindred mindset instantly connecting us all.

From the top of Scarface Mountain the views were spectacular. How could they not be with 50 miles of wildness surrounding us in every direction? We parted ways again, one group headed for the hot springs, another for an adventure ski (unknown conditions, questionable exit, and high bushwhack potential).

Each afternoon returning to the lodge was a bit surreal. A hot soak, a delicious meal, and incredible company made me feel like I was in Never Never Land. “Where am I?” I kept thinking to myself, “Is this real?”

Our final day was forecasted to be rainy. I could hear the pitter-patter of raindrops as I awoke. We decided we ought to try to ski anyway, because well, why not? There are a lot of things in life worse than skiing in the rain. And when you have hot springs to come back to you have absolutely no reason to complain. As we made our way higher and higher, climbing up and out of the isothermal snow, the surface began to firm up and become coated with an increasingly deep layer of snow. Slowly we climbed into winter, cresting a windy ridgeline, and eventually finding ourselves on top of a small peak with 4 – 6” of fresh powder! Our perseverance was rewarded (kind of) as some of us surfed above the crust and others broke through to challenging isothermal snow. But it was still fun, and beautiful! We returned to the lodge for another delightful and insightful evening.

It was such a treat to be surrounded by a group of like-minded people — celebrating and sharing skiing in such a unique place. Quality time with WWA Executive Director, Mark Menlove, and fellow ambassador Forrest McCarthy, with whom I’d conversed but never shared the skin track with, was wonderful. I felt so honored to listen and learn from everyone around me, and from the wilderness.

It’s important to remember to unplug and to re-center; to remember why we do the work we do, and why we must protect wild places like the Frank Church Wilderness.