Backcountry skiing, Guide service and Photography

Joe Leonard

Backcountry skiing, Guide service and Photography

You might say the Sawtooth Mountains are in my blood, I was born at our ranch on Deer Creek in 1939. Deer Creek drains into the Middle Fork of the Boise River and I spent my first 6 years on the ranch. Until 1957 I had never been to Stanley, that year I went there with a friend and was in awe of the beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains. I knew that some day I would live there.

I learned to ski at Bogus Basin out of Boise, Idaho. My two best friends, John Zapp and Ron Sergent, both became ski racers and eventually coaches. Ron Sergent was the coach of the United States Woman’s Olympic Team at the Sapporo Olympics in Japan. John Zapp coached the College of Idaho ski team and later the New Zealand Olympic Team. I, on the other hand, started backcountry skiing in Nevada and California in the sixties. In those days we were into winter climbing. Even though we were using alpine skis and skins, the skis worked better than snowshoes because of the ride out of the mountains.

Leonard First winter ascent Mt. ReganI moved back to Idaho in 1967. John and I began climbing together in the winter looking for first ascents of the major peaks in both the Sawtooth Mountains and the White Cloud Mountains. Norm Garrison, along with Ron Sergent, Bill Weaver joined us later and we managed to get a first winter ascent of Mt. Regan in the Sawtooths. John and I had bad luck on all of our early attempts of both Mt. Regan and Castle Peak in the White Cloud Mountains.

It was during that time that I became passionate about starting a backcountry skiing and climbing guide service. Norm, Ron, and Bill, decided to go for it and we started looking for a base to run the business from. John had decided to leave for New Zealand and began his new career as a Coach. Before we got started on our business adventure Ron was asked if he would coach the US Womens Olympic team, Bill Weaver also found better options. That left Norm and I to continue on. There are pictures of all of these people in the climbing gallery.

After being turned down by the owners of the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch we convinced the owners of Robinson Bar Ranch to lease us the ranch in the winter of 1971. In those days in the winter Stanley became a ghost town. Although a few snow machines showed up, there wasn’t much going on.

Norm and I named our new business NJ Ski Tours and opened our doors for business only to discover that touring ski’s were not available in the U.S. We knew that we would have to have skis, boots and poles available because very few people would have them. We finally found Norge Ski’s from Norway. They were fine skis made of wood. They also sold above the ankle boots, toe bindings and bamboo ski poles. Up until that time we had been cutting the edges off of wood alpine skis and attaching racing toe clamps on the skis and using cross country ski boots which weren’t very warm. We bought 40 pairs of skis, touring boots, bindings, and poles for less then $400.00.

Luck was with us this time. We found out about an auction at a foreclosed ranch in Indian Valley, Idaho. On the inventory they listed two set of horse drawn sleigh runners as items to be sold. The road into Robinson Ranch was the old stage coach road, narrow and steep and impossible to plow. The only way we could see to get into the ranch in winter months was to ski, or use horses and sleighs. We found a beautiful matched team of Clydesdale horses for sale in Challis, Idaho which we acquired, along with lessons and harness. We were set now all we needed was customers. Sun Valley, Idaho was a famous ski town with lots of money and only 85 miles away. Boise had a large population but it was 250 miles away.

But we were brave and optimistic and along with my first wife Bonnie, and our sons, Joey and Richard, we packed up in the fall and started the greatest adventure of our lives.

The first winter National Geographic was doing an article on Idaho and the photographer Dean Conger had heard about us and wanted to ski and climb with us. We knew at that moment we were on our way to fame and fortune.

Robinson Bar Ranch was a large facility with a lodge including 13 guest rooms and 7 cabins. If the business was going to be successful we were going to need a lot of help; cooks, maids, and several more just to help with all the needs of a ranch that had been closed in the winter since it was a stage stop in the 1800s. There was firewood to cut and lots of it. Wood was the only heat source for the entire facility. Nellie Bell, a double oven wood cook stove, three fireplaces, and numerous wood stoves. The ranch was on a hundred acres of land with several hot springs, a natural hot pool that maintained a average temperature year around of a 105 degrees. That perfect temperature was the same even when the ambient temperature outside was 20 or 30 degrees below zero. We had a very successful winter. Backcountry skiing had been a great success in Europe and it was time for the United States to adopt that wonderful sport.
When summer rolled around, the owners of the ranch asked my wife and I to run the ranch year around. We happily agreed. They had 27 head of horses, the ranch had been a great success for many years as a guest ranch.