Sunday, August 23, 2015


Returning to the ole USA after my adventures in Canada, I had intended to meet Josh, one of my former NOLS instructors in Glacier National Park for a few days of backpacking. If you haven't been keeping up with western news, Glacier (and most of the west it seems) is on fire. Just driving thru the park to meet Josh I was choking on smoke; my eyes and nose were stinging. Even if we could have gotten a permit (we couldn't) it would have been decidedly unhealthy to breathe that stuff for 4 days. And I can only hold my breath for about 30 seconds so Glacier was out.

Glacier National Park after the Reynolds Creek Fire. Too bad.
A little bummed but we quickly came up with a new plan. We did some rock climbing outside of Missoula, MT (detailed in future post; doesn't fit my "Idaho" theme!) and then travelled to the base of Mt. Borah, Idaho's tallest peak. Josh has climbed a number of state high points, including Alaska (Denali), Washington (Mt. Rainier), and Wyoming (Gannet Peak). He wanted to add Idaho's to the list. I wanted to try myself at the highest elevation I've yet attempted. 

We woke early to climb by headlamp in the cool of the morning. It was a steep 5,200ft in 4 miles. We made it past the infamous "Chickenout Ridge" and to the top in about four hours, a solid effort that we were pretty proud of. Some other guy beat us to the summit for the day, but he cheated and camped halfway up. 

Josh taking a page from my playbook and enjoying a PBJ on the summit of Idaho's tallest mountain 
Being a Saturday, we passed hordes of peak baggers coming up as we were going down. They had all bogged down on Chickenout Ridge, so Josh and I scampered like mountain goats on thin-but-solid holds around them. Based on the amount of trepidation we saw the average hiker exhibit on Chickenout Ridge, then I propose our bypass be henceforth known as "Shityourpants Ledge" and don't recommend it for beginners. 

Josh and I parted ways after Mt. Borah and I continued south and west to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A modern misnomer, as the craters in Idaho were formed by volcanic activity and the craters on the moon were mostly formed by impacts, but NASA did send Apollo astronauts to the monument to study geology before we knew better. 

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Spacesuit not required. 
Two and a half hours north of Craters is the picturesque mountain town of Stanley, Idaho. In an instant it became one of my favorite places in America. The stunning backdrop of the Sawtooth Mountains, sagebrush cattle ranches, and authentic Western charm from the dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. And with a year round population of only 67, there was none of the commercial tackiness that mars other wilderness or park gateway communities. 

Stanley, Idaho
I planned to scramble up the three highest peaks in the Sawtooth Range on an aggressive five day solo backpacking trip that would involve plenty of off trail navigation. Aside from some smoky haze blowing in from wildfires to the west (thankfully nothing in the Sawtooths was burning) I had an absolutely perfect extended forecast so I opted to pack light and used my bivy sack in lieu of my tent. 

First up was the range's monarch, Thompson Peak at 10,761ft. I enjoyed a beautiful alpine campsite and a star filled sky after a 7 mile approach hike. In the morning I made quick work of the 1,200ft yet to go and savored the views from up top, obscured slightly by the lingering smoke. 

Camped below Thompson Peak. And before all you LNTers go batshit crazy on me, that campsite was already impacted!
Smoky views from Thompson Peak
I've been doing my best to represent West Virginia on my trip! 
I descended quickly and caught the shuttle boat across Redfish Lake to begin making my way toward Mt Cramer and Decker Peak. I secretly hoped that this boat ride would go better than the last time I used a boat to access the mountains, which led to one of my more difficult and ultimately abandoned climbing trips

From the dock I hiked along Redfish Creek, underneath the towering granite faces of Mt. Heyburn, the Grand Mogul, Elephant's Perch, The Temple, and Mt. Braxton - impressive and rugged mountains that go a long way to earning the Sawtooths their name. Perhaps I can return with a partner to climb some of the more technical routes. I camped below Mt. Cramer, the second highest mountain in the range, alongside Cramer Lakes in one of the most impressive basins I've ever been in. I think the smoky haze lent itself to an extra vivid red as I watched the sun go down with the peak reflected in its namesake lake. The pretty waterfall dumping into the lake was an added bonus. 

Plotting future climbing trips...
The Temple, Sawtooths Wilderness
Sevy Peak, The Arrowhead, and Mt Cramer viewed from Middle Cramer Lake, Sawtooths Wilderness
Smoky view from Mt Cramer. You can see the lake I camped at previously in the shadows on the far right
Getting from Mt. Cramer to Decker Peak involved A LOT of bushwacking. I was treated to a few alpine lakes that most folks don't get to see, but I also wandered into a few swamps. And tore my favorite pants. I really pushed myself on the final morning of the trip while climbing Decker Peak; I didn't have to save anymore energy for another mountain. I made the top, 1,300ft above camp in 50 minutes! The smoke still occupied the valleys and made the views a little fuzzy. 

Unknown lake, Sawtooths Wilderness
Bushwacking along Decker Creek
Three for three! Atop Decker Peak, the third highest mountain in the Sawtooth Range
All three highest Sawtooths climbed, I made it back into Stanley for some hard earned pizza, beer, and bluegrass music. Despite it's diminutive size, Stanley has an impressive community of adventurers, outfitters, and guides, which naturally lends itself to a number of choice venues and saloons. 

Enjoying a brew in Stanley along the Salmon River
I didn't stay out too late, as the wildfire smoke finally blew off late that afternoon once I was already back in town and I wanted to get up early to hike partway back up Mt. Thompson to a place where I knew the sunrise would be spectacular against the eastern faces of the Sawtooths. I wasn't disappointed. 

Fishhook Creek Ridge, Sawtooth Mountians. Thompson Peak on far right. 

1 comment:

  1. Great write up and beautiful country. Glad to live here!