Long ago Sheri and I worked on doing all the Colorado 14ers. Once that was done, we did all the California 14ers too. Then Derek wanted to climb Denali and with that done I got more interested in the state highpoints. I had an old book on the highpoints, but now I was much more interested. Still, I was only interested in the “real” mountains, which were the peaks over 10,000 feet and a number of other exceptions, like Mount Washington in New Hampshire. But then Derek asked me why not do them all. I started to answer about how so many of them weren’t mountains at all, some not even hills. But he made me look at it a different way. It was an excuse to visit all fifty states and at least experience them in some superficial way. That struck me as a very worthwhile goal. Then I learned that my buddy Homie was interested in them and had taken a couple of eastern trips to bag handfuls at a time. When Alexander the Sometimes Great joined the Minions, I learned that he not only was a “high pointer”, but that he was almost done. A few years ago I set a goal of doing at least one high point each year, but last year I never got around to it. This year I had to make up for it.
The Big Four of high pointers are Denali, Rainier, Gannett, and Granite. They are the most remote and technical. I’ve now done all four of those with Derek. I’d been basically working my way through the highpoints from west to east and the two most western summits I didn’t have were Kings Peak in Utah and Borah Peak in Idaho. I devised this trip to do with Sheri, to start another list-checking quest. Even though Sheri wasn’t motivated to finish them all, she was all in for the remaining peaks.
Kings Peak is 13,528 feet tall and the highest remaining high point for me. It resides in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah — the highest and one of the few ranges in the lower 48 states oriented east-west. This peak lies a long way from any road. The usual access is from the north via the Henry Fork Trailhead and the peak is more than 13 miles away. We elected to do it as a multi-day backpacking trip. After driving 7 hours from our house in Colorado, we hit the trail around 1:30 p.m under threatening skis.
As we hiked the gradual, rolling, rocky trail, numerous riders on horseback passed us on their way out. At one point we caught a family hiking with two llamas. They were off the trail, barely, to let a group of riders by, but the horses were very nervous about the llamas. They balked, ears perked up, nostrils flared, then they’d canter by, causing Sheri and me to fade further off the trail to avoid being trampled. Another mile in another family was hiking out, but most weren’t carrying anything at all. This was because they hiked with four heavily-laden goats with huge horns. All the goats were just hiking free with no tether or leash or harness at all.
It started to rain on us around 4 p.m. and it quickly got really hard. Sheri asked if we should take shelter and I thought, “Why? We’ll still get wet,” but then she said we could get under the ground cloth we were carrying. I whipped it out and we dropped it over us. We sat on our packs and the rain pounded our tarp and it stuck to our backs. It was cold and miserable. I thought my tent’s rain fly could be set up without the tent and I pulled it out of my pack and found out that wasn’t the case. Now we huddled under both. Others hiked by us and one person remarked, “Hey, look at the tarp.” And then Sheri poked out her head. It wasn’t our proudest moment.
When the rain eased a bit, we packed up and continued on in a light rain. Our goal was to get to Dollar Lake, eight miles from the trailhead, but after five or six miles we burst from the trees into high tundra, just as the rain started again in earnest, accompanied this time by thunder and lightning. Going out into the open didn’t sound like a good idea. I found a semi-sheltered spot just a tiny ways off the trail and decided to throw up the tent, initially as a temporary shelter, until the rain passed by. We spent two nights there.
By the time the tent was up, we were wet and cold. Sheri had a rain cover on her pack, but I did not. Some of my gear was damp, but not too bad. We changed into dry clothes and got under our sleeping bags, but it was awhile before we were warm. It continued to rain for a couple more hours. Sheri got us some water and I cooked up dinner. Eventually two guys set up their tent about fifty yards away from us. By the time we left, there would be five separate parties and decided our spot was a good camp, though they were located well away from us.
The night was cold, below freezing judging from the frost on the bridges and the frozen puddles. I had only brought my lightest sleeping bag, which is really a quilt, with no enclosed bottom. We did have our down jackets and we wore all our clothing inside our bags and it was still cold. My feet were the worst off. They didn’t warm up until two hours into hiking
We left camp around 6:30 a.m., both of us hiking in our long pants and down jackets. In less than an hour we got to Dollar Lake, though we never saw it. The trails here avoid going directly to lakes. I don’t know why. I waited too long to get water and had to drop down to a still pond and dip water out of it. The only filter we had was a heavily clogged Be Free and it would have a solid hour of squeezing to get a liter out of it. Yet, I didn’t want to drink this water. Further up, we found a small drip coming from higher up and I dumped the water I had retrieved and replaced it from this drip. Still, we used the Be Free, with great effort.
We hiked up to Gunsight Pass via two long, rocky switchbacks at a gentle angle. We caught a group of four women at the pass. Another party had passed us lower down and they were hiking the “direct” option across the slopes of the peak to the west. The regular trail dropped well down the other basin to circumvent this peak and come up the valley between it and Kings Peak. This shortcut went well until we got to the southern slopes. Then it was a pure talus traverse. Sheri does not like terrain like this. I can just walk right across it. I’ve probably done hundreds of miles of talus by this point in my life. I’m not as agile or bold as Derek, but I know what I’m doing on talus. Sheri has no confidence at all that she can balance on these rocks so she has to squat and grab hold of them. She moves at about one third of my usual pace and expends about three times the energy. She’d later say that her big, soft Hokas sucked and that she turned her ankle 129 times. This caused pain in her already injured knee. She hated this. I was already planning a new route back.
Once across the talus we did a fairly short climb up to Anderson Pass. From here it is a long 2nd/3rd class ridge to the summit. It gains another 900 feet from here, but the distance is great and seems to go on forever. All this boulder hopping wore on Sheri, as did the false summits, even though I assured her we had 500 vertical feet to go. Maybe 300 feet below the summit, I asked how she was doing, expecting the usual: I’m beat, but I’ll make it. Instead she broke down in tears and said, “This is too hard for me!” Too hard for her? I can’t remember ever hearing that from her. Sure some things are too hard for her and she declines to try them, like the LA Freeway or the Diamond. But I’ve never heard that from her on a non-technical mountain. We climbed Cotopaxi (19,348 feet) on our 5th day away from our sea-level home in San Jose, back in 1993. Near the summit she was stronger than I was. She’s done the 26-mile, 6000-foot roundtrip on Mt. Whitney in one day. And countless other hard peaks. Of course we’re both older now. The problem was just the length of the day and the length of the boulder hopping. It drained her.
Despite her fatigue she continued to the summit. What choice did she have? She’d come so far already. The summit is neat with a very steep west face. There is a sign at the summit, but no register. We were up there with three or four other teams and more on the way. Mostly we had hiked by ourselves, but seen other parties. Now we were clumped together a bit more. Three runners had come from the trailhead that day. This is a big outing for a single day, but quite doable...if you’re from Boulder. Kyle could do it and be back for a late breakfast. I could do and be back for a late dinner.
Sheri was glad to have made the top and thankful to sit down, rest, and eat. She wasn’t drinking enough because of our crappy filter and limited amount of water. I didn’t drink hardly anything at all, trying to save almost all of it for Sheri. She ate quite a bit here, saying she was so hungry, another phrase I don’t hear that often from her. After half an hour we started down.
It was slow going back to the pass, but then we picked up the trail and moved a bit quicker. Now Sheri wasn’t limited by the terrain as she was by fatigue and dehydration. I found a little trickle of water down and refilled our bottles, but it was still difficult for her to suck it out of our Be Free bottle.
From the summit, I had scoped out a route around the horrible talus traverse. I’d even thought about this route on the way in, but didn’t want to lose the elevation only to regain it again. But seeing how tough the talus was for Sheri, this was an easy decision. We dropped down on the regular trail until we were below the talus and then broke cross-country on grassy slopes until below the cairn that marked the end of the traverse. This cairn was six feet tall and I could see it from below. We did have to climb a couple hundred feet to get back on the shortcut route, but it was a huge time saver. We had been passed on the ridge descent by two young women and they had started the traverse at least ten minutes before we got down off the ridge. We then dropped two hundred feet below them and then re-climbed that vertical and ended up well in front of them. They wouldn’t re-pass us until miles later. Sheri appreciated the ease of this new route, but said she almost hurled on the climb back to the ridge. That’s a third phrase I never hear from her. I’m the hurler, not her.
I had been trying to move us along at a good pace because the sky was threatening another storm. The discomfort and cold of the day before was fresh on my mind and I wanted to make sure we at least got to Gunsight Pass before it hit. Sheri wasn’t moving that fast, but she was moving continuously. I’d get out ahead of her periodically and then wait for her to catch up, but start moving as soon as she got there. It wasn’t until we were down from the pass (taking a nice shortcut to lose altitude quicker) that I offered up little rest breaks to her. She took the first two offerings and then decided that she had to keep moving or she’d tighten up.
It was a long way back to camp and it did rain on us some, but, try as it might, it could not develop into a real storm. We donned our jackets, but soon had them unzipped and the hoods off. Back at camp, I got us plenty of water and started brewing up some coffee and hot chocolate. It was only 3:30 p.m. so too early for dinner but we needed to hydrate and snack a bit. I also boiled up a few water bottles worth of liquid so that we didn’t have to use the filter. Sheri took a little nap and then the sun came out and the tent became hot. She hobbled down to the creek and iced her feet. I had originally thought we’d hike out this day, but I knew that was out before we had hit the summit.
We lounged around in the grass surrounding our tent. I was in shorts and nothing else. The grass was so soft that even I, with my wimpy feet, could walk around, gingerly, barefoot. We cooked dinner out here and enjoyed the views and the satisfaction of success.
It was so warm that evening that we had high hopes for a warmer night, but that was not to be. If anything it was colder. I first woke up to put on my long pants and down jacket. Then, around 4 a.m. my cold feet woke me up for the rest of the night. I got up to pee at 5 a.m. and retrieve our food bag. I did fall back asleep in spurts, but started making coffee at 6 a.m. We ate and packed up and were hiking around 7:15 a.m. Not in our down jackets this time, but in hats and gloves and my pile sweater. It had been so hot at home and even when I did a 15-hour day up in Rocky Mountain National Park, but I had a hard time imagining being this cold anywhere outside of Alaska or Siberia. Later in the trip we’d do some more backpacking into the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Those mountains are lower, but further north. I’d bring a bigger sleeping bag for that trip (actually, I would not).
That was my 16th state highpoint. The only remaining western highpoint is the next mountain on our list: Borah Peak.
After hiking out six miles on Monday morning, Sheri drove us to Borah Peak’s trailhead. She does almost all the driving on our trips. I navigate, handle the music, read articles to her, and write the trip report. I only take a turn behind the wheel when the drive is extra long and she needs a break, or if it is at night, despite my terrible night vision. Or on a 4WD road. Or bad weather. Basically, I drive all the junk, which is very few miles. It works for us.
My book tells me that Borah Peak is 5500 vertical feet in 6.8 miles…roundtrip. That makes the direct route on Green Mountain (above Boulder) look like a road race course. It’s more vertical than Longs Peak in half the mileage (via the Keyhole Route). The summit is at 12,662 feet and the only state high point above 9000 feet that I had left. Once you get out of the west, elevation isn’t an issue. The next highest is Guadalupe Peak, in Texas, at 8,749 feet.
My guidebook mentioned three camping sites at the trailhead. Three. With so few I wondered if they were ever not filled, but we decided to check them out anyway, since it would be a Monday night. And we got one. In fact, there are probably five sites here. Two were open, but the first one we went to didn’t have any ground that was flat. The only remaining site worked fine. It even had a picnic table. We set up the tent, made dinner and chatted with our neighbors who had just got down from the peak. One of the guys was 68 years old and he adventures 9 months a year. The other three he works with his wife. They have a two-person, tax-accounting company. Sounds like a sweet deal. His wife doesn’t come with him, though. That would suck. His goal is to run a marathon in every state, bike across the US (in pieces), do the state high points (he isn’t very far), and visit every country (even less far there). I love a guy with lists to check off. I’m that guy. He recently biked around Lake Michigan: 1200 miles! He brings all his own gear, pulls a trailer and camps. That is so cool. I want to be like this guy when I grow up.
We also met Caleb and Kylie, a father-daughter team, in the parking lot. They had never climbed a mountain before. This monster seemed like a bold choice for initiation. But, I like bold goals. They had set up their tent right there in the main parking lot, not in a campsite, which was open when they arrived. It was windy and they tied the tent to their car, but couldn’t make it work, so they brought it down and slept in their car. They didn’t look very fit and I didn’t think their chances were great.
We readied our packs the night before and set the alarm for 5:30, planning to start as soon as it was light enough to go without headlamps. This turned out to be about 6 a.m. Sheri led the way and set the pace, which was steady and sustainable. The trail is indeed steep and consistently so. We hiked up a wooded ridge, frequently without any switchbacks at all. When there were switchbacks, they were very short, tens of feet, and still steep. We caught the K’s (yeah, Caleb isn’t a K, but it was easier to say and to remember) after about 45 minutes. They had started at 5:30 a.m. and were stopping to attend to some hot spots on Kylie’s feet. I noticed Caleb was wearing jeans. My assessment of their chances dipped lower.
Sheri kept pounding up the trail. If we could average 1 mph, we’d do the roundtrip in under 7 hours. That seemed like a good goal. The 68-year-old guy had taken 13 hours. Our other neighbor had taken 11 hours. We did our first mile in 32 minutes and our second mile in 47 minutes and our third mile in 48 minutes. Only 0.4 miles to go, right? Wrong. At least according to my GPS, the trail isn’t 3.4 miles long, it’s at least four miles.
As we approached the scrambling section, we spotted a huge group above us. Up until then, the only people we had seen were the K’s. This group, of about 20 people, was a scout troop. Unfortunately, we caught them right at the start of the crux, a section called Chicken-Out Ridge. We’d talked to a lady in the parking lot the previous day who said, she did chicken out. It is solid 3rd class with some serious exposure. We picked our way past the scouts when opportunity allowed. Sheri was nervous, but did well.
Chicken-Out Ridge ends with a steep, 15-foot down climb to a col, with hard snow. Thankfully, a knotted, fixed line eased the descent to the snow. I went first and spotted Sheri on the way down. The snow crossing was short, 10-15 steps, but very serious. A fall there would likely be fatal, but flat steps existed and I held Sheri’s hand across. Once on the other side, Sheri remained a bit nervous and needed me holding her hand for a while longer. Then the terrain became a trail again and she pushed on for the summit.
The final 900 vertical feet was class 2 and 3, but not very exposed, but a bit loose. We made the summit after 3h37m and were the first climbers on top. We had gone non-stop from trailhead to summit. And it wasn’t me driving that. It was Sheri. The only time I pushed the pace was guiding Sheri around all the Boy Scouts on Chicken-Out Ridge. Other than that, Sheri was always in the lead. We only spent 15 minutes on top because of threatening clouds. It had been cloudy all morning, but now they grew darker. We left the top just before the first of the Boy Scouts arrived. We passed them all on our descent and then were once again alone. Until the Chicken-Out Ridge, where we found, much to my surprise, was the K’s! We directed them to the proper route and passed by them just before they got to the fixed line. I’m sure they made it. I’m also sure they got very wet on the descent.
Once off the ridge, our pace picked up. We did the descent without stopping as well, making the roundtrip in 6h40m, just a bit under our goal of seven hours. The last 30 minutes or so was in the rain. We put on our shells, but barely needed them. Back at our campsite it was raining harder and everything was soaked. Sheri hopped in the car while I made her a hot coffee. She relaxed and fueled while I packed up our campsite. I wanted to get on the road quickly because we had a 2-hour drive to our next destination: Redfish Lake. We wanted to get a hotel so that we could shower and dry-out our gear before packing for our next backcountry trip.
We drove to Stanley, population 67, passing Clayton, population 7, without any cell service. Once there I started calling hotels, without any luck. Finally, I tried a lodge back the way we had come and booked a quaint, cozy cabin. We reversed course for twenty miles and had a great afternoon and evening. We drove back another 8 miles to a grill located at a gas station. We had great burgers and fries here. We liked it so much that we repeated the meal on our way home, three days later.
As long as we were driving all the way to Idaho, I wanted to sample some of the classic alpine climbing in the Sawtooth Mountains, especially the famed Elephant’s Perch. Sheri wasn’t interested in any honest rock climbing. Luckily, I had a friend, Ali G., who lived in Boise and had climbed on the Elephant’s Perch numerous times. Unluckily, Ali G. had a trip planned to Yosemite that same week. It was his first trip to the Valley and he was rightfully excited about it, despite the ridiculously dumb time to visit. At that time of year Yosemite Valley will seem more like Death Valley than the climbing Mecca that it is. I queried some of my other partners. Danny has a strict rule of not climbing outside the state of Colorado unless he’s with a climber of short stature (Hi, Ryan!). Tom was busy bagging peaks with his wife, just like me. Except his peaks weren’t my peaks. I queried Jon Oulton, up in Seattle, before realizing his drive would be as long as mine. I even queried the Brilly Goat, who also lived in Boise. He’s a young kid known for running up mountains, not climbing up them. He was tempted, itching for a good epic, but decided he needed to write a paper on the limits of human endurance, a subject about which he has lots of firsthand knowledge.
I was thinking seriously about rope soloing the Mountaineer’s Route on the Elephant’s Perch. It was rated 5.9, but the comments on MP.com indicated that it wasn’t very sustained. I thought I might be able to manage it. Then, on the goodbye scramble for Angela, 36 hours before leaving on my trip, I talked with David the Sometimes Great. He of state highpoint fame. I gave my pitch. He bit. He mentioned Baron’s Spire, the hardest summit in Idaho. I said we could probably get both and the hook was set. A day later he confirmed.
We met at the Redfish Lake boat ramp on Wednesday morning. I was going in loaded for comfort. Kings Peak had convinced me to man up either in my toughness to discomfort or to carrying a heavy pack. I opted for the latter. And then tried to sneak all the heavy climbing gear into DSG’s pack. Actually, it was so warm that I took my tiny sleeping bag once again. The only extra comfort I carried was our backpacking chair.
David arrived at exactly the same time as we did. I was asking a ranger about overnight parking when I noticed David in his 4Runner. We parked next to each other in the lot and divided up the climbing gear. I took our 9.8mm 70-meter rope and my jugging setup (we planned to attempt Baron’s Spire, which had a bolt ladder on it) and David carried the rack. His pack looked huge. He had to carry all this own gear, while I had Sheri to carry pretty much all the food.
We were headed for the Saddlebag Lakes below the absolutely awesome Elephant’s Perch. To get there, you can hike 5-6 miles around Redfish Lake or pay $17 for a roundtrip boat ride across the lake. We didn’t hesitate even a second before opting for the ride. Not only would it save us a lot of effort, but we all felt it was so cool to take a boat as part of the approach to a climb. I’ve always thought that the CMC Route on Mt. Moran, in the Tetons, was such an awesome adventure because you have to canoe over to the start of the trail.
Getting the boat was so easy. Just walk up at any time, pay your money, and less than 10 minutes later you’re speeding across the lake. On the other side, we pulled our heavy packs onto our backs and headed up the trail. We were chatting so much that I walked right past our turn to head up to the Saddlebag Lakes. In my defense, there is no sign or cairn or any indication that there is a trail there. The trail was listed on my Gaia maps and I figured there would be a sign. Nope. We backtracked and found a faint path leading into the dense jungle. We got to the river without trouble but there is no bridge there and it was extremely difficult to move up or down the banks because of incredibly dense vegetation and downed logs.
I found a dicey crossing a bit upstream, but it involved a tiny jump onto a rock with water running over it. Not that much water ran over the rock, but it was scary not knowing how slippery that rock would be. I went for it and made it across. I dropped my pack and reversed it (harder), thinking I’d take Sheri’s pack across, but my companions balked. It was too dicey for Sheri and for David with his enormous pack. They crossed halfway, on a log, a bit further downstream and then waded across. I went back across my leaping route with Sheri’s pack and then had to carry both packs through crazy, dense terrain where I was walking across wet logs four feet above the forest floor and couldn’t see the ground because of all the plants. I was fearful that a fall off the log would impale me on a stump or stick below. It was dangerous and as I was doing it, I thought, “I tell people never to do this.” I’ve got my huge pack on my back and Sheri’s over one shoulder. Sheri’s pack kept slipping off my shoulder and I carried it in the crook of my arm. Plus the plants were all wet. By the time I found the trail on the other side, I was wetter than David or Sheri.
Shortly after continuing on the trail we talked to a family coming out asking if we had crossed at the logs tied together. Nope. We didn’t see it. We didn’t see it on the way out either. We seemed to be the only party having trouble with this crossing. It was frustrating and an epic bushwhack on our way out, the next day.
The trail up to the Saddlebag Lakes is very steep and not maintained. It was mostly easy to follow, but a couple of times we seemed to wander off it only to find it again shortly. It was quite hot and this was a grunt. Just below the lakes we met a couple coming out that raved about their campsite, saying it was the best they’ve ever seen. They described just where it was and we hiked directly there. It was perched atop a 50-foot cliff right above the water. From inside our tent we had a view of the Elephant’s Perch. This area is incredibly beautiful. The lakes are crystal clear and lined with lush, green forests and white granite slabs and cliffs. Above loom alpine peaks and spires everywhere, most are angular and sharp, but the immense Elephant’s Perch is smooth, round, steep. It looks like a mini El Cap, though still huge. It towers a thousand feet over the lakes but our proximity to its base made it appear taller. With numerous vertical crack systems, it is not surprising that this monolith holds many established routes. The easiest route is the Mountaineer’s Route (7 pitches, 5.9). It being my first visit here, I wanted to climb this route. I wanted to increase my chances of success and get a feel for the place. I hope to return someday and try my hand at the more challenging routes.
After setting up camp, eating some lunch and relaxing, David and I trekked over to the base of the Perch to make sure we could find the route and a good way to get there. Halfway up the talus below the wall we ran into a couple taking shade by a big boulder. We asked them if they had climbed the route and the guy told us about bailing. Then, after some introspection, he says, “Can I ask a favor of you guys?” I was expecting him to ask to team up with us or retrieve gear he left or something like that, but he says, “I’ve been climbing for 15 years and this (referring to the woman at his side) is the love of my life. She’s only been climbing a year, but she’s done 5.9 at Indian Creek. We got up to that mantle move (this is prominently marked on the topo and is either on the first or second pitch, depending upon how you string them, and is rated 5.8) it wigged me out. I got by it and belayed hanging below the tree up there. When my lady got up there, she climbed too high and was looking at a huge fall, pendulum.” He goes on and on and then talks about the 5.9 2-foot roof on an upper pitch and how with no fixed anchors he wouldn’t be able to retreat and on and on. He was mentally torn up by rappelling off from that tree (basically one pitch up the route). He said that he climbs 5.12 at Indian Creek but he seemed very inexperienced at multi-pitch trad climbing and especially stressed about how his girlfriend would do and what would happen if she couldn’t get up the route. David said he was forlorn, bearing his soul to us. Watching him wrestle those inner demons, I sympathized. I’ve been through that before. Probably most climbers have. He also seemed to be embarrassed, as he said, “We made friends with other campers down at the lake and they were so excited for us to go climb this thing and now…” Hey, sometimes climbs are too tough, or too long, or too dangerous (we’d run into this ourselves in a couple of days).
This is part of what makes climbing great: the unknown, the adventure. If you knew you were going to make it, then there isn’t any adventure. Adventure is a two-sided coin, though. It’s type-two fun. Climbing like this is a strange thing for most people to understand. Most people recreate for fun, but trad climbers sometimes specifically seek out situations that will stress them greatly, mentally and physically. While this stress is happening, it is most definitely not fun. Yet, we do it over and over. I do it less and less these days, which is why I was going for the Mountaineer’s Route on this trip. I was mainly on a trip with Sheri and I didn’t want to risk any epics with her along. Plus, I didn’t know David very well. He could fall apart under pressure. I didn’t know. Just kidding, if suspected that David wasn’t solid I wouldn’t have been here with him, but this would be the first time we’d ever roped up together. In truth, I didn’t know him well.
We found the start of the route easily, though we couldn’t identify the mantle move, at least with any confidence. Walking back to camp, we discussed logistics. Since this route was my idea, I wanted the crux 5.9 pitches, though I wasn’t dogmatic about it. That gave David the first pitch and likely the, now more concerning, mantle move. We traversed around the shore of the lake and I was surprised and delighted to spot a couple of frogs. Amphibians are rare in the alpine. I guess these frogs hibernate all winter. Frogs are cool.
The next morning, as I drank my coffee, I watched headlamps bob and weave up the slopes to the base of the Perch. I assumed they were going for our route and hoped they were either fast or would let us pass. I rarely climb for speed alone, but I always like to move efficiently and at my pace. Who doesn’t? Getting stuck waiting behind slow and inefficient partners is frustrating. Nowadays it seems that more climbers are willing to let faster climbers move through. I wasn’t that concerned. We left camp at 6 a.m.
It took a little more than 20 minutes to get to the base and David was leading the first pitch by 6:35. The most challenging aspect of climbing with David, was feeding the rope out fast enough. He sped up the first hundred feet of this route like he was in a Tour stage, not placing a single piece. Yes, the climbing was easy, but, dang, I wondered if he’d be bored belaying me. David ran out 200 feet of our 230-foot (70-meter) rope. I was soon on belay and moving upwards.
I got the famous “Mantle Move” and was a bit surprised. The beta had said that the move was easier if you moved left before you tried the mantle. Moving left is the obvious thing to do and if you do so, there isn’t even a mantle to be done. Footholds and handholds abound and I felt the climbing was about 5.6. Perhaps that rating isn’t fair, though, as I didn’t lead it. David thought it was 5.7. It was barely worth a pause, let alone any consternation. Right after this move was probably the crux of the first pitch with maybe a move or two of 5.7 jamming.
I led the second pitch up to a two-bolt belay on a small stance below a big roof. This pitch was generally easy, but I felt there was a short section (3 or 4 feet) that was probably 5.8. It took me a couple of tries to figure it out. David led the next pitch, going up to the roof and traversing left underneath it. This was easy as well, with handholds and footholds, and probably 5.7 at best. Above the roof the climbing becomes very easy, 4th class, and David burned up my belay device.
The next pitch was the first 5.9 pitch. I did some reach-y face climbing out to the left to gain easy cracks near the arete and then climbed up them into I could step right into a right-facing dihedral at a relaxed angle. The “2-foot roof” couldn’t really be called a roof, since the terrain never even became vertical, let along overhanging. I ran out 160 feet of rope or so and belayed on a good ledge. I never encountered anything harder than 5.7. I wondered if we were on route, but I knew we were.
David followed, confirming my thoughts on the rating. He then led a short 5.7 pitch into the second 5.9 pitch, which actually did feel like 5.9 to me. It even had a runout wide section that would have held my attention on lead. David cruised it and by the time I joined him, he had already changed into his scrambling shoes. We supposedly had a few more 5th class pitches, so I led upwards for a bit to make sure it was easy. I stopped atop a huge block and I changed shoes and we packed up the gear. We scrambled a few more hundred feet to the summit. The climb had taken us three hours from the base of the route to the very summit. Mercifully we did almost the entire route in the shade. Once in the sun, we started to bake.
The descent was easy and straightforward, with a single rappel, and we were back in camp at 10:30 a.m. Sheri hiked over and met us where we crossed over the outlet of the lake. What a fun romp. The climbing is really good. The position is excellent. The views are extraordinary. The rock quality was bulletproof (though there were some loose blocks, but nothing out of the ordinary for an alpine climb). It was the perfect introduction to Sawtooth climbing. David and I had meshed well together with a similar desire of efficiency.
We lounged around camp for a bit, drinking and eating and resting. We were moving our camp that afternoon up to Alpine Lake to position ourselves for an attempt on Baron’s Spire the next day. We shouldered our packs at noon and started down the steep trail, hoping to find the tied-log bridge, which we didn’t. I found a log that went all the way across and went over and dropped my pack. I came back for Sheri’s pack and thought she might be able to walk the log, but she wasn’t confident. She ended up scooting across it on her butt. So, the crossing went okay, but then we fought the worst bushwhack I’ve done in a long time. We only had to go maybe two hundred yards, but it was nearly impenetrable in most spots and finding a way to progress was difficult. It took us an hour to do the last mile to the official trail (Trail 101).
It was really hot now and we were drained from our battle. We had to climb three miles to Alpine Lake. We broke it up into two sections, taking a break at the trail junction just 1.2 miles up the trail. The final switchbacks up to the lake seemed interminable and we were all beyond ready to stop and camp. We took the first flat campsite, a huge area with at least spotted areas of shade, which we chased the rest of the afternoon. Before we even put up the tents, we went swimming in the lake. Swimming is perhaps an overstatement. David dove right in but got out quickly. Sheri waded into her knees and I knew she’d go no further. I was the only interesting prospect. Would I or wouldn’t I? I stood knee deep for quite awhile before diving in. Truth be told, I knew I was going in. Heck, David went in, so the ironclad rules of masculinity demanded that I match him. Unfortunately, Sheri didn’t get it on video, but as I recall now, I think I did a perfect one-and-half slicing through the crystal clear water with nary a ripple. By the time I dove the shores were lined with other campers all cheering me on. Upon emerging from the water, as gracefully as a penguin shooting out of the ocean and landing on their feet upon an ice floe, the spectators thrust me upon their shoulders and… Well, you get the point. Suffice to say it was quite something.
We drank as much fluids as we could, trying to hydrate for our big day tomorrow. We ate early and Sheri retired to the tent at 7. I got in at 8 and David resisted until 9.
The next morning we were hiking at 5 a.m. We had to climb 800 feet up to the pass and then drop 700 feet down the other side to the beautiful Baron Lakes. There are three of these, just like the Saddlebag Lakes. Right at the pass we spotted our objective: Baron’s Spire, AKA Old Smoothie. This is a huge, stunning spire which is supposedly one of the toughest summits to attain in Idaho. The gigantic 120-foot tall summit block overhangs on all sides and is only breached by an ancient, Fred Becky bolt ladder. We planned to attempt the easiest route, the Southeast Face, which was four pitches of 5.9 climbing up a ledgy platform, leading to blocky, ledge-y terrain which we’d scramble over to the base of the bolt ladder.
The hike up from the Baron Lakes to the base of the route was very steep and we weaved our way around cliffs and slabs, finally picking up a cairn-marked climber’s trail. David had been dreaming about climbing this spire for over a decade. I only knew it existed for less than a week. Hence, he got the bolt-ladder pitch and hence the first pitch off the ground. This was an interesting pitch. It wasn’t very steep, but it was burly, wide, and awkward. Despite the wide nature of a lot of the climbing, large cams were not required. David’s done enough desert climbing to have developed solid wide-crack skills and wasn’t deterred in the least. I went to school on his choices and had an easier and less scary time when I followed the pitch.
The next pitch went up a nice corner with a good crack. Steep, but not vertical, it was continuous and had me breathing hard in a couple of sections. I solved the first crux via liebacking until I could get a good hand jam and place some gear. A small roof further up had me baffled for a bit. I had to down climb out of a false start before I noticed some tiny footholds that proved the key for me. At the top of the pitch I was supposed to “step right” to a ledge. When I got up there, this step right was more like a fifteen-foot traverse with no gear. It looked improbable and I thought the possibilities looked better higher up. Wrong. I had to downclimb a bit and back clean a piece. I inched out to the right and found some good footholds. I got out to a small arete and was able to reach way into a wide crack and place a completely tipped-out #3 Camalot. I did a few dicey moves up the arete and was able to step across to a good ledge.
David followed rather quickly, deflating my efforts just a bit. He did comment that it was “big boy climbing,” though. The ground above offered many options. David selected a middle crack and chimneyed up a bit to some loose blocks, pulled on them and got to a pure chimney section. After little deliberation, he launched up the unprotected chimney. It was a pure back-knee chimney of about twenty feet. David climbed it in less than a minute. This was probably 5.8 climbing, 5.7 if in Yosemite. Following this section I suspended the pack I was wearing beneath me on a sling.
The next pitch was rated 5.9 and continued up the corner I climbed on the second pitch, but it was really just a short little boulder problem that was about ten feet of real climbing, after an easier introduction and then I was on the blocky ledge. This pitch seemed easier than 5.9 and couldn’t have taken much more than five minutes. Once on the ledge, I could immediately see there was rubble everywhere, but I didn’t study it closely. I could see a slanting ledge above and well to the right of me that would lead to the bolt ladder. I slapped in some gear and brought David up.
We decided to stay roped for the next scrambling pitch because it looked dicey. David set off and immediately balked. It wasn’t just dicey. Going the obvious, direct route was a suicidal path of completely loose rubble. Studying things more closely, we could see the rubble covered all the terrain below, which was our rappel route. While David probed another way to gain the traverse ledge, I started doing the calculations of how we’d rap our ascent route. We’d found one rappel anchor at the top of the second pitch, but it didn’t go down the corner that we’d climbed. We only had our one 70-meter rope and descending the other side could leave us hanging in space. I figured we’d have to leave a cam for an anchor to get down that pitch. Expensive, but we’d get down safely.
In the meantime, David had climbed half a pitch and set up a belay. When I joined him, we quickly came to agreement that continuing onwards was far too dangerous. We wouldn’t get the summit today. That’s okay. Just like the Forlorn Fellow over at the Perch, we made the decision to retreat and return to fight another day. I led the way down, selecting horns to sling. We made it down in four rappels, using the one at the top of the second pitch and leaving three slings of our own, along with three biners. The first rappel, from atop pitch 4.5, got me down to just below the “5.9” climbing. I then had to downclimb the 4th class terrain to the block ledges atop pitch three. I found another spike of rock to sling here and it got us down to the top of the second pitch. I looked over the side and thought the rope might reach a ledge with a huge tree below. I took the jugs with me, just in case I had to reverse back up the rope. The last sling was around a branch of this huge tree and that put us on the ground.
We were back at our packs at 11:30 a.m. We ate and drank while we packed up and then got down. Down the slope and then back up to the pass and back down to our campsite where we found Sheri reading her book. We got there around 1:30 p.m. We were very dehydrated and Sheri squeezed fresh water from our filter until we were sated. We cooked up a dehydrated meal for a late lunch and to lighten the packs. We started the 6-mile hike out to the boat dock at 3:15 p.m. We had a 7 p.m. pickup time and knew it would be easy to make. We got there at 5:30 p.m. and David went for another swim. We thought we’d be hanging out for 90 minutes when I boat pulled up and unloaded some climbers. What timing! We hopped on board and ten minutes later we were at the other side.
While we didn’t get Baron’s Spire, we’d had a great first taste of the Sawtooth Range — such a beautiful place with so many compelling climbing objectives. We all hope to return someday. We all drove back to the gas station burger place and stuffed ourselves. Then we met up again at David’s sleeping spot on a lonely gravel road near Borah Peak. Sheri and I were driving at 6 a.m. the next morning, Saturday morning, while David slept some more. He was headed to the Tetons and then to Wild Iris. His trip started with this adventure while ours was ending with it.
It was great getting to know David better. He’s a very solid, safe, efficient, fast climber. We share a lot of the same type of climbing objectives. The only problem is that David now knows how much Sheri spoils me. She is such a great supporter of my adventures. Being with her and still climbing cool routes is the ideal vacation for me. As long as she’s game for more, we’ll continue with it.