Operational Profile – Sun Valley Trekking (SVT)
Hailey, Idaho, Sept. 2017
- Overview, mission, purpose
Sun Valley Trekking operates six backcountry ski huts in the rugged and beautiful mountains of Central Idaho. Their business is to guide skiers to their backcountry huts for exceptional touring and downhill ski experiences. They consider themselves “purveyors of stoke” and their trips are super for advanced skiers and also great for intermediate skiers. All six huts are open in winter season and two, Coyote and Pioneer, are also open in summer. All amenities are provided at the hut; the hut renter brings only clothing, sleeping bag, emergency gear, and food.
SVT is continuing a long tradition of backcountry ski huts in this region that dates back to the 1930’s when Bavarian ski guides hired by the Sun Valley Resort established the first ski hut in the region as part of the formation of the Sun Valley Alpine Touring School in 1938. (See idahooutdoor.net and Ketchum Library for historical detail). The guides insisted that Alpine Touring should be taught in the mountains, not at the resort, and built Pioneer Cabin (an old mining cabin in Boulder Basin) and Owl Creek Cabin near Glaena. The remains of historic Pioneer Cabin are owned by the USFS and is very popular with day hikers who walk the Pioneer Cabin Trail to enjoy one of the best views in the mountains. SVT and two other companies — Sawtooth Mountain Guides (which operates Williams Peak Hut, just north of Fishook Hut) and Galena Lodge (operating six front country huts very near the lodge) — have built on the resurgence in the popularity of backcountry hut skiing in the 1970’s. In addition to its usual hut offerings, SVT offers a guided five day Nordic Traverse.
SVT specializes in two related areas: 1. Guiding in the region and well beyond, and 2. supporting self-guided backcountry ski mountaineering and touring through their huts. Their work divides about 50/50 between guiding and operating the ski huts. About 90% of their winter business is with downhill skiers who do alpine touring with skins to reach great downhill ski routes. The mountain ranges in central Idaho are exceptionally good ski territory because the snowpack is good, the terrain makes for comfortable skiing, and there is little avalanche danger. SVT provides the infrastructure to enable enjoyment of these advantages. They will help people choose the right hut for their skill level and interests, and provide both guided and unguided access to the huts. However first time ski users of the huts are required to have a guide for the first day.
- Huts and Shelters
SVT operates six huts overall. When SVT bought the business in 2000 all the huts were 18-20 years old and have all been rebuilt over the past 17 years.
The six huts include four in the mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley the “Sun Valley Huts”:
- Pioneer Yurt (24’ diameter yurt, capacity up to 16), is located at about 8,600’ in a bowl in the Hyndman Creek Basin of the Pioneer Mountains. The hut provides access to skiing on Hyndman Peak (12,009’), Cobb Peak (11,650’), Old Hyndman Peak (11,755’), and Peanut Peak (c. 9,600’).
- Tornak and Coyote are located high in the Smoky Mountains on the east fork of Baker Creek. These huts have commanding views of the Pioneer, Boulder and Smoky crests. Tornak is for intermediate to advanced skiers. Sited at 8,400’, it is a large wall tent sleeping up to 14 people, with a sauna. It was re-designed in 2007 to become the only backcountry ski hut to accommodate those in wheelchairs and with special needs. Coyote Yurt is situated at 8,700’ and comprises two huts sleeping up to 12 people comfortably, and includes a sauna. Tornak and Coyote Huts offer abundant downhill skiing, and also ski touring. Coyote also offers great single track mountain biking. Tornak can be connected to Coyote with a gradual 3.5 mile tour. Open in summer, Coyote offers offers options for hiking, biking and horseback riding..
- Boulder Yurts are located at 7,120’ are considered the most deluxe of the SVT huts, comprising a double yurt (connected by a framed annex) accommodating a total of up to 14 people. They have a large sauna. Located at a lower elevation it is popular with families.
The other two huts are in the rugged Sawtooth Mountains in the vicinity of Redfish Lake:
- Fishhook is a yurt plus a wall tent with a hot tub. Located at 6,800’, the Mongolian style yurt is connected to a wall tent by a lodge-pole pine framed walkway. This lower elevation hut offers fine downhill lines on Thompson and Willliams Peaks as well as touring and spectacular views.
- Nestled at 7,400’, Bench Hut is a large wall tent with a sauna. There is a beautiful five lakes tour one can do, but the big draw is prime downhill skiing right out the door. Bench Hut may be linked with Fishook Yurt or Williams Peak Yurt to make a Sawtooth Mountain hut-to-hut traverse.
The Yurts are manufactured by different companies: some by Pacific Yurts and some by the Colorado Yurt Company, all are erected on site by SVT. They have 4 bunk beds (i.e. a total of 8 queen-sized berths) with a maximum occupancy of 16 people. They are more comfortable with 8-10. The high ceiling and circular structure gives a sense of spaciousness. There is good light from 3 large windows in the yurt fabric and from a central circular dome window at the top of the roof.
The yurts are insulated with a material called “reflectix”, an R-9 reflective bubble insulation that effective in reflecting heat back into the yurt when the stove is going, rather than keeping the cold out. The floor boards have cracks between them which is handy for sweeping out the yurt, but SVT has stopped leaving these cracks to keep the huts warmer. This is hard to do when using a chainsaw for backcountry construction. The Wall Tents are constructed on site with a vinyl material pieces purchased in Idaho Falls.
Huts include a good-sized wood stove and ample wood supply. SVT provides 40 cords of wood annually by cutting standing dead trees per their USFS permit. Customers are nearly all good about splitting wood to leave the hut fully stocked for the next group.
- Amenities: sleeping, food/cooking/eating, resting
A porch sitting area with a log framed “portico” is great for outdoor dining and relaxing. Foldable chairs also provided.
The hut’s capacities for sleeping range from 14-20, but 8-10 people is more comfortable. Thick plastic-covered mattresses are provided. Make your own pillow with a stuff sack. Lower Bunks can double as couches with back support by folding mattress in half.
Wood stove and plentiful wood supply in the hut when you arrive. Matches, Kindling and newspaper are available for fire starting. There are lots of hatchets and mauls for splitting more to replenish wood and kindling supply when you leave.
Inside picnic table for eating with overhead lights.
Three burner propane stove, good food preparation table, ample pots and pans and dishes and silverware. Good setup for washing dishes with a 3 or 4 step process starting with gray water collection and ending in chlorine rinse. Paper towels, Chlorine and dish soap provided. Small BBQ provided.
Coolers for food storage (no refrigeration provided). Lightweight folding chairs, a selection of games, books and magazines, and ski maps.
All the huts have solar systems designed by GoalZero. The Goal Zero (goalzero.com) design includes:
- solar collector, battery for storage and for charging GPS devices, phones and other personal devices,
- 6-8 individually controlled lights sprinkled around the yurt to keep things comfortably well lit at night,
- a pair of small portable speakers that can be charged/operated on the battery and hooked up to a smart phone for music in the huts, and
- a rechargeable portable lantern.
There is ample solar battery operated lighting, with additional lighting options inside the hut including kerosene and battery operated lamps.
Lots of hooks and clotheslines for hanging clothes to dry.
SVT offers two options for optional food service: 1. On fully guided trips the food is hauled to the yurt and prepared by SVT staff, and 2. A self-guided option where SVT prepares the food for customers to pack in and cook themselves (SVT will also haul the food in for a fee) . Prices range from $8 for breakfast, $12 for lunch, to $15 for dinner, and also offers salads, soups, and dessert options.
One can hire a porter to or snowmobile to carry provisions to the huts, or there are options to be helicopter dropped at some of the yurts.
Cell reception available near some of the huts, but overall is spotty.
- Provisioning the huts
Three of the huts are accessible by vehicle in summer and for these three huts most of the winter provisioning is done in summer. For the other three huts human powered provisioning is done by staff hauling a tow sled.
- Each hut has a manual/binder with instructions. See pictures of many of the pages in Photo Gallery link here, which include:
- A welcome statement
- Solar power at the hut
- Instructions for summer and winter use
- Instructions for operation of Coleman lanterns
- Wood stove instructions
- Medical evacuation instructions and emergency phone numbers
- Hut departure checklist
- Quick reference for avalanche rescue
- Outhouse instructions
- A sketch map of the yurt area
- Description of some of the national and international guided trips provided by SVT
- A description of each hut
- Each hut has a manual/binder with instructions. See pictures of many of the pages in Photo Gallery link here, which include:
- Water and waste management
Water for drinking and cooking comes from snow melt in winter and from nearby creeks in summer. Snow melt on top of the wood stove is dispensed from a 5 gallon stainless steel pan with a spigot. There is no need to filter the snow melt. In summer creek water is transported in buckets from the nearby creek, and then filtered (insert photo) using a Katadyn gravity fed filter system.
Gray water from washing pots and pans is filtered with a sieve and solids are burned. Gray water is dumped at the “pee tree”.
Each of the huts has a pit toilet (see photo gallery). These are technically not composting toilets, though the essentially operate as such by adding beneficial bacteria and water to speed natural decomposition. Once a pit toilet is full it is buried and covered and a new pit is dug. Toilet paper is provided along with a bucket lined with a plastic bag in which toilet paper is collected and burned by hut users. Throwing toilet paper in the pit toilet is discouraged as it take a long time to decompose. Insert picture of toilet instructions.
People using the huts are encouraged to pee by the designated pee tree on one side of the yurt (and snow for drinking is collected from the opposite site of the yurt.
Hut users are instructed that all burnable waste should be burned in the wood stove and all other waste packed out by users.
The summer trails are maintained by USFS except for the trail to Pioneer Hut, which SVT maintains. SVT sets ski tracks for the trails to the huts, but does not guarantee that there will be track set at any given time. There are no trail markers beyond the occasional USFS signs and users need to have good map and compass skills, and/or GPS facility for wayfinding.
- Land Ownership/permits
The SVT guiding service is licensed by the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Board, and SVT huts operate under a special use permit issued by the USFS Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). The six huts are all located on USFS lands in the Ketchum District of the National Forest and in the SNRA. SVT works closely with both USFS entities, but the overall permit is administered by the SNRA.
The USFS special use permit is for 10 years and is up for renewal in 2018. Until 2008 SVT operated under 4 year permits and were required to take the yurts down and partially dismantle the sites at the end of each ski season and then put them back up. This was a lot of work but also left the site looking messy all summer and worse for the wear (vegetation trampling) with all the work of removal. In 2008 USFS allowed the yurts to remain in place year-round and allowed SVT to operate two huts in summer season: Pioneer and Coyote. The buildings are still classified as temporary structures because they can be removed at any time.
The USFS charges hut operators an annual site fee plus 3% of the gross receipts.
- Reservations, Marketing, Memberships
Reservations are by phone at the time of this writing, but SVT is implementing an online reservation system beginning September 2017. One can find out the availability of huts on an online calendar on the SVT website. People do not need to stop by the office before a trip; waivers, instructions and maps are provided online.
SVT does limited marketing. Beyond their web site, marketing includes: long time advertisers in Backcountry Magazine and Ascent, and word of mouth. 80% of their business is with repeat customers.
- Environmental Impacts
The vast majority of hut use is in winter, when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, so environmental impact is low. To my knowledge no formal measures of environmental impacts are made. The owners are very concerned about operating an environmentally responsible operation and they have had no complaints from USFS or others. The change in permitting allowing the structures to remain in place all year appears to have helped to lessen the environmental impact of moving the huts seasonally.
Note: In summer a flock of about 1,000 sheep graze the mountainsides in the area of Pioneer Hut. The grazing and vegetation trampling caused by this herd is orders of magnitude greater than the presence of a few hundred people (?) using the two huts each summer.
- Staff, Management, governance
Joe and Francie, the owners, are the only full-time, year-round employees. The hire a part-time office/reservations assistant for much of the year. Otherwise their staff is seasonal, comprising mainly 5 guides who work full-time in the winter and pitch in to do whatever needs to be done, including hut supply, firewood, cooking, etc.
- Transportation to trailhead
Except in case of guided trips, clients are responsible for getting themselves to and from the trailhead.
- Safety, Search and Rescue
On trips guided by SVT the SVT guides are the primary response team in case of emergencies. They have experienced few emergency situations over the years. For unguided trips Search and Rescue is provided by the local fire department and is reached by dialing 911. Joe recalls hearing about two 911 calls over the past year, but he is not always informed of Search and Rescue calls from SVT huts.
Liability insurance from Don Pacher In Lake George, N.Y. who is a leading insurer of mountain guides. Joe commented that SVT is probably under-insured, a lesson they learned when they lost a hut to forest fire several years ago.
- Use, demographics, trends, occupancy rates
Joe says the primary demographic is men and women 20 – 50 years old, experienced backcountry skiers, who are super active and very physically fit. These include professionals (probably the majority) and dirt-bag skiers. They Most often rent the huts in friend groups, but families also frequent the huts. While people do come from around the USA and some from Europe, 80% of the clientele is regional (Mountain West), in particular from Salt Lake City, Boise and Missoula.
About 70% of their hut clientele do not use guiding services and rarely select the food service option. About 30% choose guided trips with food service provided. .
The majority of their business is with repeat customers, some of whom re-visit their favorite huts, others cycle through the six huts over time sampling the skiing at each one.
Winter occupancy runs about 70%. Bench Hut in the Sawtooths runs at about 90% occupancy.
Summer occupancy for the two open yurts tends to run about 40%.
- Business model/economics
Privately owned and operated, SVT is a family business. The SVT office/headquarters is an addition to the family home in Hailey, ID, which is very convenient for a family operated business. The business operated at a loss the first 12 years it was owned by Joe and Francie. They are now able to make living from the operation, but wonder about its sustainability over future generations. Operating and managing the huts involves long hours and hard physical labor. Joe and Francie are in the business as a lifestyle choice and have no plans to sell or change.
As with other private hut operators Joe says you can make a living but will never get rich operating a small hut system. [Large full service hut systems such as AMC huts and many European huts sleep and serve 40-80 people operate with economies of scale that change the profitability equation.]. Joe knows that with his skills he could be making more money than he does operating the huts, but it is choice he embraces. However he wonders at times how much longer he can go on with the hard physical labor such as digging outhouses, cutting and splitting wood, and hauling provisions. He speculates that perhaps a community-operated non-profit business model may be more sustainable in the long run. The Sun Valley area may be the sort of community (wealthy, super focused on outdoor recreation and skiing in particular) that might be able to support such an entity, which would be something like the Tenth Mountain Division.
- Partnerships and Educational activities
SVT has a long history of working with college groups (Prescott College , Johnson State College in VT, U of Vermont, and others) and with the Community School in Ketchum. The focus of the work is on backcountry skiing and winter ecology. The Community School, a private school which has an Environmental Studies program, has been bringing high school and middle school students to the huts for approximately 25 years. SVT provides the lodging and the college and Community School groups provide the educational programming.
- Founders story
The predecessor to SVT, Leonard Enterprises, was founded in the late 1970’s by Joe Leonard, who operated the first huts (need to get more detail on the early years) for 6-8 years before selling the operation to Bob Jonas in DATE?. Jonas changed the name to Sun Valley Trekking and operated for 18 years before selling to 28 year old Joe St. Onge in Nov. 2000.
- Lessons learned by owners
- This is a labor of love
- SVT is a purveyor of pure mountain stoke
- Running a hut system like this is a very difficult undertaking rife with challenges.
- It requires wearing many, many different hats and a wide range of skills.
- It is financially difficult, but doable.
- Belief in a land ethic is critical.
- Challenges and opportunities
- Myriad challenges, including:
- Hard physical labor
- Endless Logistical details
- Political dimensions: relations with USFS and with community
- Succession planning
- “Are as vast as the mountains around us” – Joe.
- Haven’t begun to achieve the potential to open up the beauty of the surrounding landscapes.
- Potential for more huts:
- SVT operates two huts in the Sawtooth Mountains and Sawtooth Mountain Guides operates one hut in that area. This provides the potential to link all three for a Nordic Traverse.
- The five central Idaho mountains are already populated with 11 huts (6 with SVT, 4 with Galena Lodge, 1 with Sawtooth Mountain Guide) and knitting them together could create a remarkable Nordic ski traverse. Interpolating an additional four huts on the route from Ketchum to Stanley, for example, could create a hut system spanning five mountain ranges in the region. A common reservation system could help with this, but is not under discussion.
- Room for growth (occupancy) in both summer and winter.
- Increased engagement with public schools for environmental education.
- Finding the right balance with getting lots of people into the back country and making sure they have the skills to handle it.
- Written by Sam Demas with information provided by Joe and Francie St. Onge. Wording borrowed liberally from SVT web site and documentation. Reviewed for accuracy with Joe and edited accordingly by Sam.
[Talked with Joe and Francie for over two hours at SVT headquarters on August 31 and then on the phone. First draft completed while staying at Pioneer Hut and Fishook Hut, experiences of mountain bliss. September 2017.]