For most people in Eastern Idaho, backcountry skiing only exists a few miles across the Idaho/Wyoming border on and around Teton Pass. Rightly so, the Tetons offer deep, soft snow and miles of terrain to explore. Touring in the Tetons is, by all standards, world-class; a mecca for the beginner and advanced alike. “The Pass” has a culture of dedicated enthusiasts who live for the plentiful winter storms that often bring deep, replenishing storm totals.
In contrast to “The Pass” and it being the focal point of really good backcountry skiing, are the Big Hole Mountains. Low elevation. Shallow snow depths. Small storm totals. Shorter season. Small vertical relief. BRUSHY! I could continue the list of characteristics but I think I’ve hit the key identifiers! As a result, most locals head to the more reliable and status building locations where it’s almost a guarantee of worthy skiing!
Few brave the possibilities of a less than perfect experience, forego the fame of skiing hero snow and king lines at the Pass, and head to the Big Holes. Yet for those who do, there are some areas of interest, one being the Kelly Canyon/Kelly Mountain location. Even less cool to the hardcore ski masses, Kelly’s is a laughable destination for most backcountry skiers. And to be completely honest, it doesn’t bother me one bit!
The most recognized touring location is Norm’s Hill on the east end of Kelly Mountain. This slope has been made famous, at least for Kelly Mountain backcountry skiing anyway, due to the IFSC warming hut conveniently located at the base of the slope. I have to say that i find it to be a unique and fun experience skiing a few soft and mellow laps followed by lunch next to the wood-burning stove inside the hut! Not to mention enjoying some strange looks from cross-country skiers as we skate past them with our fat down-hill skis trenching up the skate track!
Norm’s Hill is a gladed low angle northeast facing slope that boasts almost 500 vertical feet before mellowing drastically. You can drop in directly from the actual Kelly Mountain summit. Often the snow is soft and only lightly tracked up. You can access Norm’s Hill by leaving the resort boundary at the top of Lift 4 and skin southeast along the summit plateau to Rick Baugher’s yearly igloo at the true summit. Most return to the ski area via the Upper Hut Trail used by cross-country skiers.
The red line in the above photo marks the actual Forest Service boundary for the Kelly Canyon Ski Resort. The Pink line represents the “natural” ski area boundary with Moose Run to the west and Crystal Cruise and old Tube Park on the east. By natural, I mean the ski resort area known to most; created by natural terrain features and the lack of up hill mobility on alpine skis and snowboards. The eastern most terrain was added in the 90’s for possible future expansion and remains the official eastern boundary to this day. Could we be so lucky to see this expansion in our life time?!?!
Other interest lies to the west of the ski resort on the west rim of Moose. This terrain is much steeper, wind effected and poses the most probable location for skier triggered avalanches. Avalanches at Kelly Canyon are a laughable notion for many — but some of us see otherwise each year. All of the skiable terrain on the west rim boarders the Kelly Mountain Winter Closure Area. If you visit this side of the mountain, please familiarize yourself with the boundary lines.
One of my favorite locations is the Outer Limits Bowl in Hawley Gulch. Outer Limits is a moderately steep bowl-like feature offering just over 600′ of vertical, lightly gladed, and open terrain; perfect for yo-yo’ing. It holds southwest to northwest aspect terrain with the majority of it facing west. A typical approach is to ride lift 4 – then ski Crystal Cruise dropping east to the Y Junction and continue down FS Road #217 to the Poison Flats Trail, then around into Hawley Gulch. This takes about 20 minutes from the top of Lift 4 and is approximately one mile to the base of the bowl. Without a ski pass you can skin up to the Y Junction from the parking lot by following the cross-country ski trail up FS Road #218. Given the low elevation and westerly aspect, Outer Limits requires one to pay close attention to storms that will provide the best ski conditions. I could go into depth and make it easy for you, but that would take away from your trial and error aspect of skiing in the Big Holes!
If you want a location with high probability of hero snow and elevated status amongst friends and locals… head to The Pass! But if you are looking for an adventure close to home, Kelly’s can provide a low commitment / low hard-core scene experience. If you head out and ski tour at any of the Kelly Mountain locations this winter, please stop by the Kelly Canyon Ski Patrol building and let me, Heather, Turbo, or Steve Bohrer know what snow conditions you experienced! Better yet, stop by, let us know what you experienced and ski a few in-bounds runs with us!