Category Archives: Idaho

Thompson Peak

August 27, 2020.

Thompson from our camp

Photo album

People love superlatives: the highest, the farthest, the steepest, etc. When it comes to mountains, the highest ones always get all the attention. At this point in my life, I’m not that concerned with bagging the peaks that everyone knows about. But Thompson Peak, the highpoint of the Sawtooths, caught my attention for a few reasons. One, it has a non-technical route to the top. Two, it is located close enough to the road that you coul do it in one long day or two easier days. Three, compared to other well-known highpoints, this did not seem to attract a ton of foot traffic. And, since we had the opportunity to get up there on a weekday, I knew I had to go for it.

For the sanity of both myself and my partner, we decided to split up the climb into two days. We were in the Sawtooths for our first time anyways, and thought it would be cool to spend a night in the high country. I don’t regret that decision one bit.

Day 1: to camp, the hard way

5 mi. | 2440′ | 3:30 hr.

Since we didn’t have much ground to cover, our day began with a late get-up, breakfast fried rice and time packing up gear for one more overnight. After lugging around a bear canister for four days, I was thrilled to carry only a hang bag and a few items to get me through the night.

Into the Wilderness…

We started hiking at a casual 10-something am. After signing in at the trailhead (so cute!) we began hiking on the trail towards our camp. According to my research, much of the distance we’d cover was on trail. I settled into a comfortable walking pace behind LeeAnn.

The trail led up to, then just below, a ridgeline that taunted us with partial views for a good portion of the hike. I eagerly anticipated the big reveal. Which one was Thompson, I wondered. Craggy peaks reached toward the sky ahead of us, but as I was unfamiliar with the area, I couldn’t tell which was which.

As the trail ducked into the forest I obsessively checked the GPS on my phone for the point where we’d need to leave the trail. LeeAnn suggested that we’d find a good climber’s trail to get to the basin below our peak; my experience with climber’s trails taught me never to expect a good one. So, I got more and more anxious as our supposed trail failed to appear.

“I think we should just leave the trail here,” I said. I wasn’t psyched about it, but we’d walked a half a mile past the alleged junction. So, we thrashed headfirst into the woods, climbing over downed trees, traversing steep, grassy slopes and grabbing on to shrubs to help stay upright. We advanced at an agonizingly slow pace as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter.

“This sucks, no wonder more people don’t do this one,” I thought.

Our off-trail debacle

Our hairy traverse led us to even steeper slopes above an unnamed puddle and the only way to go was up. I picked a route up a somewhat stable talus slope interspersed with flowers, shrubs, and one heinous patch of alder. I’d occasionally come across a small stretch of trail-like passage that would disappear almost as quickly as it began.

On the other side of the boulders, something magical happened. I hopped onto one of those aforementioned trails, and…it kept going. Yahoo! We continued along the climber’s trail, faint in places, across a flat meadow, to more rock piles and eventually the lake just below Thompson Peak. The rocks dropped steeply into the lake and much of the surrounding terrain was exposed, rugged, and decidedly *not* flat. With a little bit of searching, however, we found a great little spot to pitch our tent among a small cluster of trees. We made it.

These things are basically designed to dry socks.

I hung our food while LeeAnn set up the tent, then we went for a quick dip in the lake. A couple who had just come down from the mountain sat at the lakeside and we chatted a bit. The mountain looked awfully daunting from this side.

That evening, gray clouds passed overhead. We waited for the first sign of a thunderstorm, the security of our tent just steps away. But, the rain never came. Our tent site was solidly sheltered from the wind, and we enjoyed a fantastic time in high camp without another human in sight.

Day 2: the climb

4.3 mi. | 1970′ 5:30 hr.


In the morning, a hazy sunrise quickly gave way to calm, blue skies. A perfect summit day! LeeAnn made pancakes for breakfast and we hit the trail just after 7 am.

Our climber’s trail disappeared almost immediately, so I did my best to read the landscape to choose the best route. I knew we had to spiral all the way around the mountain to end up at a couloir on the south side. According to my conversation with the couple at the lake the day prior, we wouldn’t have to cross any snow on the route, so I avoided snow patches as we walked.

The route took us up and across several alpine benches replete with cascading snowmelt creeks, thick patches of green vegetation and slabs of rock. If you close your eyes and envision an alpine paradise, you’ll picture exactly where we were. I smiled from ear to ear.

Well, the slab looked steeper in person.

Our first obstacle was a tall, yellow-gray rock slab that looked completely impassable from afar. But, as we approached, I found a weakness in the rock that offered up good hand holds and ledges. We put on our helmets and scurried up the slab. Next, we wove our way across a large, shaded bench system with some new obstacles to avoid: steep drops, icy ponds, flowing water, slick snowfields. It was like American Ninja Warrior, mountain series.

Chilly up here.

As we negotiated a path through these features, I remembered the other advice that couple had given me the day before: you’ll want to go high early, but stay low. We did just that, avoiding any unnecessary elevation gain that we’d need to downclimb later.

The next obstacle was one we’d conquered just a few days ago: a massive boulder field. All that we needed was patience and time. Most of this side of the mountain was shaded and breezy, so an extra layer helped, too. One foot after another, we plodded up and left to continue our spiral path towards Thompson’s south ridge.

I paused at the saddle, taking a moment to look at the new scenery that came into view from our high perch. The higher we climbed, the more peaks we saw. This was truly a mountain-lover’s destination.

Walking along the ridge, I envisioned the route ahead. It was never obvious until I got right to it. We found our couloir and scrambled up to the top; it was easier-going than the slab we surmounted earlier in the day.

At the top of the Sawtooths, we split a Kit Kat bar and read some of the many entries in the summit log. From the top, I pointed out an interesting lake that I wanted to check out on the way back down. I also wanted to tag an adjacent highpoint before returning to camp. So, we made a plan: LeeAnn would hike down to the lake, I’d go on my highpoint shenanigans and then join her at the lake.

We downclimbed to the saddle together, then went our separate ways. My goal was to traverse west, maintaining my elevation across the bouldery slope to the saddle near Mt. Carter. It was just over a quarter mile away. While Mt. Carter didn’t look all that interesting, I couldn’t get this close without tagging the top.

I shuffled across the boulders, making good time to the saddle. From that point, it was an easy walk up a broad ridge to the top. When I got there, tears began to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe the panoramic views. That subtle shift in perspective was everything; row after row after row of serrated ridges and peaks lay before me. Even in the haze, I felt a depth of perspective that I don’t get in the Cascades. We get basically one row of well-spaced volcanoes, with a smattering of rounded buttes all around. But there, from that summit, I felt incredibly small surrounded by hundreds of distinct, rocky spires. It was heaven.

Alpine wildflowers

While waiting for my InReach to send a check-in, I wandered around the large, open summit, making sure to look closely in all directions. Once I started down, I’d not see views like this for a very long time. I could have sat up there all day, but I knew LeeAnn would be waiting for me at the lake. I collected my things and began the descent.

Scree-skiing down from Carter, I aimed for the blue-green alpine lake that had grabbed my attention earlier that day. Sitting on a rock, writing in her journal, LeeAnn sat contently. I stopped to make a Del’s frozen lemonade with the glacier ice and my packet of dried lemon and sugar, something I had waited the entire trip to do.

Wouldn’t you go off route to check out this beauty?

Since the lake was off our original route, we charted a new course through the maze of obstacles between us and the rock slab.

We found the downclimb easily, then roughly retraced our steps back to camp. I made one wrong turn that brought us to the top of some cliffs near the lake, but otherwise it was pretty smooth sailing.

The hike out

4.8 mi | 15′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Back at camp, we leisurely began breaking down and packing back up for the walk to the car.

“Hey, did you see a group of four people up there?” Hmmm…someone got separated from their friends.

I must have done a double-take when I looked up, seeing an older lady wearing a sun hat and carrying a fanny pack; she did not seem like the mountaineering type. How the hell did she get up here, I thought? Was I being too judgmental?

“No,” we replied, and then got to thinking. If this lady made it to this location, there had got to be a decent climber’s trail that breaks off the main hiking route. I was determined to find it in order to avoid the horrible off-trail route we took the day before.

Lo and behold, I FOUND IT. As we began to descend among the boulders, I caught some faint whispers of a trail. It was clear for a short while, then got a little confused among the rock jumble, then clear again. We had a trail for the whole walk out! I wanted to laugh cry.

Why does a grouse cross the trail?

All was right in the world again. No more thinking. It was an easy hike out. Along the way, we stopped for several minutes to watch a little family of grouse sauntering across the trail. Unlike every other grouse I’d seen in my life, they didn’t fly off as soon as I came close. Instead, they stopped, watched us for a little bit, then carried on with their business. They were fun to observe up close like that!

The Sawtooths captured my imagination with their lonely trails, endless peaks and pristine lakes. I am already planning a trip back…

White Clouds Loop: Day 4

August 24, 2020.

5.3 mi. | 1880′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Photo album

The stats for this entire loop are misleading. Five and a half miles with less than two thousand feet of elevation gain? We should have been able to knock that out in no time. But I would soon learn of the obstacles in our path to a quick and easy finish.

We awoke to a foreboding gloom. Wildfire smoke filled the air and our lungs. It was hard to breathe while eating breakfast; I was not looking forward to charging uphill with a heavy pack with that air quality. But, we had no choice.

Red, red sun.

I watched as the red sun rose over the craggy ridge to the east. A pika scrambled around the rocks, squeaking arbitrarily as it hurried about its business. We packed up camp and walked along the user trail alongside the lake. At the lake’s inlet, the trail disappeared. I followed the rough path in my notes, hopping over little streamlets and crashing through brush. We ended up in a broad bowl beneath steep ridges. The terrain was a combination of running water, bare rock and vegetation. The skies above sprinkled down rain, threatening to unleash torrents at any moment. In light of that, we stuck to the vegetation instead of wet, slippery rock.

Fortunately, big rains never came. We slowly made progress to the upper lakes basin. I mistakenly took a detour up to a pile of rocks that we ended up having to downclimb. But, there was an unexpected benefit: more goats. We would not have seen them had we stayed on course. At least, that’s how I justified my navigation error!

white clouds
Goat butts. For my upcoming animal butt identification book (half joking).

With the wind picking up, smoke filling the air and mysterious clouds overhead, I felt like we were on a doomed mission. Something was bound to happen. At the lakes basin, we found a quiet spot to have a snack and assess our route up. Where should we go? I looked around and nothing looked good. I checked the GPS points on my phone and those just left me more confused. We have to go up there? I thought. It looked so steep and loose.

It occurred to me that all the people we passed on this loop were traveling in the opposite direction. The reason: this awful pass. It looked far easier and more straightforward from the other direction. It didn’t matter now, since we weren’t going to backtrack the route that took us 3 days of walking.

And then, the real challenges began

I led us up into the first gully that led to the ridge. I asked LeeAnn to stay out of my fall line because of loose rock. It was very difficult to make any progress without sending rocks hurtling down below my feet. My heavy and bulky pack made it difficult to move upward, and breathing heavy smoke didn’t help, either. Instead of focusing on all the things that I hated in that present moment, I kept looking up and searching for markers of progress. Little patches of colorful flowers served as intermediate goals.

This was the easy part.

Eventually, we abandoned the gully for somewhat more solid terrain on the left side. We clambered over large, stable boulders interspersed with patches of loose soil. It was just as fun as it sounds.

At last, I reached the ridge. Bright, yellow blooms welcomed me to the next chapter of the route-finding debacle. Standing atop a jagged ridge, it was impossible to tell how far we could get without reaching an impassable cliff. We paused here again to check in with each other, get some calories down, and make a plan.

For what felt like an eternity, our travels looked like this: walk along the ridge, reach a barrier, downclimb, traverse scree, bail back up to the ridge, repeat. It was an impossible choice: the rocks on the ridge were much more solid but often led to dead-ends, and the terrain below the ridge was extremely loose, cluttered and difficult to walk on. Every choice was the wrong choice. I regretted coming up too soon.

This is fun. We’re having fun.

Nonetheless, we had to make it to Patterson Peak’s summit in order to cross into the Fourth of July Basin and complete the loop. Ultimately we did, but not without an inordinate amount of Type 2 Fun. At this point I wondered if LeeAnn would ever want to go hiking with me again.

The wind blew hard on top of the peak, and we both wanted to get the heck out of there. No time for celebrations, treats and rest, we had to descend. Every way down looked equally heinous. I did a double-take upon looking at the pre-recorded GPS points. “There’s no way we can follow that route!” I thought. Based on what we had just done, I had no intention of trying to follow another impossible ridge. “We’re going down,” I said.

The route down.

The skies threatened to dump rain again. We moved as quickly as we could atop loose talus and scree. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I put on long john bottoms for warmth and gaiters to keep the rocks out of my shoes. Even with the extra protection, I had to dump them out a few times on the way down.

I threw myself down at the un-named lake that indicated we’d reached the trail again. At last! No more thinking, no more wondering, no more agony. We can mindlessly put one foot in front of the other again! With our shoes and packs off, we laid on top of a large boulder to let the stress of the day melt off. The mental energy required to navigate difficult terrain cannot be understated.

My phone battery was nearly dead and would not take a charge from my battery pack, so I stowed it away and didn’t take any more pictures. We chatted the whole way back, enjoying the easy walking. At the trailhead I snapped one last picture and my phone died…for good. Great, I thought, no more pictures for the rest of the trip. No more podcasts or navigation apps or anything. This happened to me on another roadtrip. Such bad luck.

Back at the car, we pulled out cold bubbly water and crunchy snacks to celebrate the completion of the first leg of our journey. Tomorrow, we decided, we’d have to head into town to deal with the phone. Plans always change on trips like these, and between the two of us, I knew we’d figure something out.

Lessons learned

Although I meticulously planned out my food for the 4-day trip, I vastly overestimated how much I would eat. I came back out of the woods with a lot of extra weight that I didn’t need to carry. The bear canister itself took up most of the inside of my pack, too, so I think in the future I’ll only carry one if I absolutely need to.

The solar charger I carried didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but that was mostly because my phone wasn’t charging well. I should have used it only to charge the battery pack, a strategy I’d employ later on this trip.

I was baffled by how warm it stayed at night. I’m a cold sleeper, so I brought a warm bag, but I never really needed to zip it up. It doesn’t take up that much more space than a lighter bag, so I’m not sure I would have packed differently. I also never needed the hat and gloves I brought, but again I don’t think I would have felt better leaving them behind.

Despite our struggles on Day 4, I don’t think I would have planned the trip any other way. Before leaving home, I gathered just enough information to allow me to navigate the route. I wanted to have just enough mystery to allow me to challenge my skills in a new-to-me area. I never felt like we were in a perilous situation; being uncomfortable, working hard, getting frustrated and solving problems are all essential parts to any adventure (in my humble opinion. I do not like having everything sorted out for me.

White Clouds Loop: Day 3

August 23, 2020.

8.4 mi. | 2340′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.

Just another day in paradise.

Photo album

Today’s objective: to visit as many lakes as we could to close the gap between our camp and the trailhead, so that the routefinding on day 4 could be minimized as much as possible. I knew we’d be tired from the previous day’s efforts, so I wasn’t too concerned about making crazy miles. I was excited to see the Boulder Chain Lakes and have several opportunities to get in the water and swim.

After a nice breakfast of dehydrated eggs and veggies, we left our glorious camp and hiked a boring 2.5 miles to the start of the Boulder Chain Lakes. Much of the trail was outside the wilderness and open to all kinds of uses. A parade of backpackers, horsepackers and dirt bike riders passed us, all traveling in the opposite direction. All men, too. It was a weird start to the day.

Boulder Chain Lakes

Once in the wilderness, we paused to admire each of the lakes. They were all beautiful, and all different. Many of the lakes had at least one group of campers staying there. We noticed how often the sites were very large and located right off the trail, not our style. Hoping to find a quiet spot away from people to enjoy our lunch break, we continued to Hourglass Lake before taking a real rest.

There we dropped our packs and changed into swimsuits. With overcast, breezy conditions, we didn’t stay in the water for very long. It was enough time to appreciate the clear water, the gnarled pine trees and the craggy peaks. Every step of the walk through the Boulder Chain was postcard-perfect. I could have spent days back there, finding all the best campsites and scrambling up to the highpoints on each ridgeline. All of the peaks in the area are over 10,000 feet tall and nearly all of them are nameless. But the lack of a name doesn’t make them any less impressive or scramble-worthy, as I would soon find out.

White Clouds Loop Boulder Chain Lakes
Hummock Lake and unnamed peaks.

On the next leg of the journey, we walked past several more lakes, each one more impressive than the last. Hummock, Scoop, Headwall. As we climbed up and out of the basin, additional lakes came into view. Hidden, Lonesome. It was an extraordinary place. Among the large talus slopes, we heard the familiar “meep!” of pika. Hardy wildflowers sprouted up from between the boulders, too. I could place some of them into categories: asters, saxifrage, buckwheat, but could not identify them any more accurately than that. They were all delicate and pretty; a stark contrast between the inhospitable terrain we were in.

We climbed up the steep, rocky headwall to Windy Devil Pass. The trail was remarkably well-built. I questioned whether “Windy” was pronounced WIN-DEE or WINE-DEE, since either pronunciation would make sense. We scaled the switchbacks easily and found ourselves on the top of the pass in no time. I’d been eyeing a possible highpoint scramble from the pass. To our left, less than a quarter mile away, was point 10,296. It wasn’t much, but it was something. We carried our water bottles and fanny packs and headed up the jumbled rocks to the top.

Me in the way of the spectacular view.

As I crested the summit of the no-name peak, I was awestruck. Below me, I could see the entire Boulder Chain. The green-blue waters rippled and sparkled in the breeze. All around us, rugged ridgelines hemmed us in. I wanted to sit there for hours. We pulled out some celebratory snacks and sat, quietly, letting the views imprint in our memories. I sat near my favorite flowers, delicate yellow buckwheat specked with red. Its coloration told me that summer was coming to an end, and the flowers were preparing to go dormant for the long, hard winter.

From our perch, we returned to the saddle and loaded up for the remainder of the day’s travels. We descended from the pass along the trail to an unnamed lake in order to begin the off-trail portion of the loop. I thought that, since so many people hiked the loop, we’d be able to follow a use path for most of the way. But, I didn’t want to count on that. Fortunately, the expansive alpine terrain made it pretty easy to see what was ahead. Without any sign of a footpath from the lake, we dropped straight down the hillside towards the next two lakes.

With names like Scree and Shallow Lakes, I assumed these would not make nice places to camp, so I had my mind set on blowing past them and continuing to the next one. But when we arrived at Shallow Lake, I questioned my decision. It was gorgeous. Thick, green vegetation grew right up to the lakeshore on one side; gray boulders tumbled into the lake on the other. And in the distance, Merriam Peak and the Serrate Ridge shot straight up into the smoky skies. This, too, could be a postcard image. Scree Lake was much the same, surrounded by flowers, trees and a gentle rock slope. It also appeared to see many fewer campers than the other lakes we’d passed. Oh well, we had some more time to kill today and I had a feeling that our last day would be a hard one. We pressed on.

White Clouds Loop Scree Lake
Scree Lake. Not what I expected.

The outlet of Scree Lake dropped sharply down a series of cliffs and waterfalls. Quiet Lake was only a quarter mile away, but 300 feet down. I really didn’t want to guess my way down these cliff faces, so I poked around in search of a trail. Happily, I found a path and we took it through the more complex, densely vegetated and vertical terrain between the two lakes.

Upon arriving at Quiet Lake, we skirted its western shores in search of a campsite. Much of the lakeshore was a jumble of exposed, treeless talus, with hardly a flat spot to be seen. Up ahead we saw a small crew of backpackers who’d already set up camp, We found a pocket of trees on a flattish plateau that we decided to call home. There was enough distance between us that we could hardly tell they were there (until they started a campfire, unbelievably, despite the fire restriction and smoke actively covering the region and good judgment).

We settled in just after 4:30 pm, so we had plenty of daylight to relax and enjoy our home for the evening. LeeAnn jumped in the lake again, I laid my Thermarest pad on a boulder and read my book. We both watched the pika running around on the rocks adjacent to our camp. They were so entertaining and cute!

After dinner, I poked around the rockpile in search of colorful lichen and flowers to photograph, but what I found was quite unexpected: wild raspberries! They were ripe and falling off their stems. I waved LeeAnn over to share in my discovery. This was a great after dinner activity; we slowly crept across the boulder field foraging for dessert. What a treat!


In the evening, the smoky skies produced another disappointing sunset. We retired to bed and tried not to roll off our mats as we slept on the hillside.

White Clouds Loop, day 2: Castle Peak

August 22, 2020.

9.9 mi | 3600′ ele. gain | 9:45 hr.

Photo album

This was the day we tackled Castle Peak. By the numbers, it was hardly that impressive as far as mountains go: 2700′ of elevation gain, albeit in under 2 miles one way.

We packed up camp and trekked back to the main Chamberlain Lakes basin, where we’d keep a look out for a way up the formidable south face of the peak. Along the way, I heard some rockfall and turned to look up at the cliffs above the creek. I knew what I was looking for, but wasn’t sure if I’d catch them in time. Ahh, there: mountain goats! A small group of very muscular goats walked in a line along the clifftop. We stopped to watch them until the last one disappeared into the trees. What a treat!


Castle Peak looked impossible from our hike in the previous day, but there had to be a breach in the wall. We stashed our packs in a cluster of trees between the lakes and the base of the mountain. A rock gully filled with colorful flowers traveled from our hiding spot towards the hillside, so we decided to follow this towards our goal.

The delightful little gully led us right to some steeper climbing; we’d found the start of the route. Boulders gave way to slabby climbing, ledges and more boulders. Eventually the gully became a little too slick and vertical for our liking, so we stepped right on to some gravel-covered slabs. It was probably safer but it didn’t feel much better, so we moved through this section as quickly as we could. Above that, we had thousands of feet of boulder-hopping to get to the ridge.

Avoiding the vertical step in the gully

I fought to breathe in the high-altitude air that was also filled with smoke. At one point, I started counting my steps to give myself periodic breaks. It helped me zone out and move a little more efficiently, as well as provide me some opportunities to stop and enjoy the flowers that seemed to burst out from behind each rockpile.

Progress was slow, but we were moving in the right direction. Until we weren’t.

Prior to the trip, I dropped some pins on my mapping app based on a GPS track I’d found online, hoping to give me some guidance along the route. When the gully started breaking up and going in several different directions, my gut told me to go one way while my mapping app told me to go another. I tried to resolve the differences in my head, then chose to try and follow where the pin point was telling me to go. I just assumed there was a reason to cut way left, otherwise why would the track go that way? Me not seeing the route make sense just means I was missing something. I trusted my research.

I asked LeeAnn to sit tight as I investigated the possibilities. After some scrambling around, I decided it was a no-go and retreated to my lower position. That lost us some time and some energy; I should have trusted my instinct.

Which way now?

From that point, we went where my eyes led me. Up and slightly left, around a blocky feature, then off to the right out of the gully. I found a handful of cairns, none of which you could see from the others (useless) but at least that told me someone had been there before!

“We’re less than a Pilot Butte from the top!” I yelled down to LeeAnn. It was a very sloggy mountain, so I tried to keep team morale up a bit.

Once we reached the ridge, it was easy rock-hopping across to the west summit. On our way there, we came across a team of three women who were also seeking the top of Castle Peak. They stumbled across the summit register right after seeing us, which I thought was quite curious. The actual summit was just a couple bumps over, to the east, but the register was here. When I scouted the traverse to the true summit, I understood why. It would take some real care and routefinding to make it there in one piece. I didn’t have the time or energy for that, so I returned to the mini celebration and dug into my snack bag.

Summit! (well kinda)

Peanut butter cup brownie on a Pringle, oh heck yeah.

The descent was agonizingly slow and methodical as we clambered over all that loose rock again. We wanted to avoid the ball-bearing slab we ascended near the bottom, so I kept my eyes open for alternatives. Before reaching that awful section, I cut right onto the partly treed open slopes. Much to my surprise, I came across a climber’s trail and we took that basically all the way back to our backpacks.

We almost immediately retreated to the lake shore and jumped in the lake. It was the most refreshing dip of my lifetime. It was three in the afternoon.

With 6 more miles to cover, I knew we had to rally. Along the remaining hike, we’d have to climb up and over the shoulder of Castle Peak, another 800′ of vertical or so. I was not looking forward to it, but I felt energized by the chilly lake water. We put our heavy packs back on and started walking.

Again, we crossed paths with a few other groups but everyone was heading in the other direction. Are we just walking at the right speed to miss every traveler heading our way? Or does no one do the loop this way? These are some of the thoughts that bounced in my head as we marched up the hill.

The trail was well-switchbacked until we neared the top of the climb, then it pointed straight uphill. It was a slap in the face.

I counted my steps, gasping for air every so often, until I crested the top. LeeAnn was there waiting for me.

On the other side, indescribable beauty awaited us. Pink rocks tumbled down from the adjacent high point. Another side of Castle Peak showed herself, jagged ridges and streaks of color so different from the south side. I dropped over the ridge with mouth agape, just trying to take it all in. The hazy smoke made it difficult to capture the imagery with my phone, so I put it away and just kept walking. We enjoyed these views through several long switchbacks before being deposited into the trees for the remainder of the hike into camp.

The other side of the pass

I’d planned on making it to Baker Lake to spend the night, since that was the first lake we’d pass. It felt like it was just so far away. The hike was a grind; I had some sore spots on my back that kept rubbing against my pack with each step. My feet were achy enough that I stopped to switch into Crocs. I let LeeAnn go ahead and I walked at my own slow pace. My body hates carrying this much weight.

At the junction with Baker Lake Trail, I lamented that I’d stop at the very first campsite we found so I didn’t have to take another step. On the way in, we passed some cabin remains with a flat spot and a fire ring just behind it. “We could camp here?” LeeAnn said with an obvious question mark inflection. I knew she wasn’t that interested. “Let’s just go to the lake and see what’s there.”

When we got to the lake, we could tell that while people did camp there, it was not heavily trafficked. We climbed over several downed trees, crawled underneath one (not easy with a big pack and tired legs) and stopped many times in despair. She offered to drop her pack and run ahead to try and find something. I stood by and sulked, just wanting to be done with it for the day.

Somehow, magically, LeeAnn had found the most incredible campsite. It had a flat area for a tent, a custom wooden bench, running water to filter, a huckleberry patch and a short trail to the lake. And just like the night before, no one else was around. Huzzah! We made it!

By the time we made it to camp, it was far too late and cool to want to go for a swim, which worked out perfectly. The lake was marshy and encircled by grasses and reeds. But it provided a spectacular view of Castle Peak and the surrounding crags, a picture-perfect place to spend the night.

View from camp, not bad.

For dinner, I poured boiling water over the chili I made and dehydrated at home. We topped it with fresh tomatoes, cheese and crushed Pringles. At our mansion of a site, we dined on chili, sipped on backcountry cocktails and reveled in the big day we just had. I hoped to sleep well that night.

White Clouds Loop: Day 1

August 21, 2020.

10.3 mi. | 2350′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

Photo album

I’d read several articles and blogs describing the White Clouds Loop and it’s numerous variations. There is no way to loop around this wild mountain range on established trails; any way you looked at it, the route would be an adventure. The only thing I knew I had to change about the general loop was to add in a summit of Castle Peak. There was no way I’d hike all the way around the damn thing and not climb it. So, I decided on a counter-clockwise loop that put us in position to climb on day two. That would leave the easy trail hiking for the beginning and the potentially more challenging off-trail part for the end. But, I thought, we’d be oriented to this new place and warmed up by then.

At the Fourth of July Trailhead, we signed in to the quaint hiking log and then started up the trail. The skies were gloomy, as wildfire smoke was blowing in from as far away as Southern California. We just couldn’t avoid smoke on this trip.

The short hike in to Fourth of July Lake gave us time to acclimate to the weight on our backs. My partner carried the tent and the camp kitchen; I carried 4 days of food in a bear canister. Since we both like to eat real food on the trail, it was a heavy load. But I’d been preparing all summer for this. My body does not naturally like to carry weight for distance; I much prefer light and long dayhikes over heavy and short overnights. However, this loop would not be enjoyable (or possible!) for me in a day, so I took on the challenge to try something a little different.

From there, the trail descended past Washington Lake to the edge of a long- north-south mountain ridge and then climbed back up the other side. I’d read about a scramble passage up and over the ridge, but decided we’d stick to a longer hike on trail to have a saner day 1. Along the trail, we spotted numerous colorful wildflowers, which made the journey that much more interesting. I recognized some familiar favorites like buckwheat, cats-ear and paintbrush, but several other flowers were new to me. We paused occasionally to ooh and aah over the colors and stunning landscape. We had the whole day to get the camp and we were in no rush.

The toughest stretch of the day lay straight ahead, as we had to climb up and over a pass to get into the Chamberlain Basin. The burned forest offered little protection from the heat of the sun. I let my partner scurry ahead as I slowly plodded one foot in front of the other, lungs starved from oxygen due to the altitude and smoke. I sang some songs in my head and used some mental trickery to help me get up to the top of the pass. Along the way I made friends with a little ground squirrel, who sat and posed for me. I kept reminding myself that it was all downhill from the pass.

When we reached 9800 feet, we stopped to look down into the gorgeous lake basin. Castle Peak stood like a beastly white monument on the other side. I’d seen so many pictures of this mountain during my research, but it was something else to see the real thing in front of my eyes. Truly a majestic peak, Castle Mountain dominates the landscape with its sharp angles, changing textures and contrasting color palette. Breathlessly, I tried to soak it all in. And I knew I’d picked a great place to explore for the next few days.

We ambled down the switchbacks that led to several lakes. The first one we passed had no name, but it looked like a great catcher-of-people. We held out as we walked by one more magnet lake that was sure to attract the weekend backpacker crowd, because we were in search of some solitude. Fortunately there were many other options for camping that would take us away from the small crowds that would sure to gather in this delightful alpine basin.

At camp

The lakes and creeks provided more than adequate camping opportunities; there were many disturbed sites. We chose a large, flat site on a small plateau that met our needs. After a brief dip in the lake, we set up camp and proceeded to unpack all the gear we’d need for the night. Then, there was just one more thing; huckleberries. Those things weren’t going to pick themselves! We wandered back down the trail with small containers and then found the fullest patch we could. We plopped our butts right in the middle of the patch and started pulling the teeniest, tiniest berries off the delicate plants. Huckleberries come in a variety of sizes, and the only ones we found growing out there were the miniscule ones. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. What else did we have to do, anyways?

Before the trip we divided up cooking responsibilities; that night, LeeAnn was tasked with making dinner. I wandered around looking for wildflowers and views while she cooked.

We feasted on yummy taco bowls topped with crunchy corn chips. Come on, why doesn’t everyone eat like this on backpacking trips!? Most people seem to do the freeze-dried meal thing, while others apparently still cook over wood fires in the backcountry. I was dismayed to find a massive fire pit at our campsite…with crumpled up aluminum foil inside. Garbage. Why do people insist on building big fires and then not picking up after themselves? Foil does not burn completely, it is trash left in the wilderness. I fished the foil out of the ashes and packed it out when we left the next morning. I am torn between wondering whether better education or better cultivation of a stewardship mindset is what will solve this problem. It’s hard to believe that the people who left their garbage behind just didn’t know that was not the right thing to do. It seems like they just didn’t care.

As the sun set, we snapped a few more photos and then disappeared into the tent. I prepared for a cold night, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I hardly needed to zip up my sleeping bag to find a comfortable temperature. I tossed and turned all night, anticipating the big climb in the morning.

White Clouds Loop: Day 0

August 20, 2020.

Photo album

I usually don’t write about the day before a trip starts, but there is a bit of a story here.

I’d spent months meticulously planning a trip to the Trinity Alps in Northern California, only to find out a week before that massive wildfires were threatening to smoke out my destination and ruin the entire plan. But I’d already arranged the time off and I had a travel partner ready to go with me. After a brief discussion, we decided to head towards Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains, and it was up to me to come up with a quick Plan B.

As much as I love to plan, I was sad to see this one go down the drain. But I snapped into action and ordered some books and maps online. I also reached out to my social media network to see if anyone had any suggestions for the area. My friend Matt reached out and recommended the White Clouds, a range of mountains right across the street from the more easily recognized Sawtooth Range. He sent me some photos and a GPX track of a loop through the range, encircling its highest peak. Intrigued, I did a little more internet sleuthing and used it as the centerpiece of my new Idaho itinerary. After exploring there, we’d check out the Sawtooths before heading back home.

It took the good part of the day to drive to our first destination, so LeeAnn and I hit the road early in order to find a place to camp before dark.

The drive across Oregon was more scenic than I’d remembered, and once we crossed into Idaho it was all new to me. We stopped at a riverside park to eat lunch and dangle our feet in the cool water. Then, I focused on driving straight through to the Fourth of July trailhead. I’d hoped to find camping along the road leading there.

Unfortunately, wildfire smoke from California had made its way into Idaho, obscuring clear views of most of the peaks. They stood mysteriously behind a wall of gray haze. As we drove up the gravel road towards tomorrow’s starting point, we saw many nice campsites, but most were already occupied.

Soon, the road entered a burnt out wasteland of charred trees and dust. We’d just about given up hope for a nice site when we discovered a little oasis of trees and greenery between the road and the creek. It ended up being the most glorious little campsite, with burbling water, pretty wildflowers, mountain views and perfect solitude. What’s the saying, when driving through hell, just keep going? Well, we did just that and landed a great place to spend the night.

With some time to kill before dinner, I crossed the creek, laid out on a beach towel and napped between reading portions of my book. I needed a little rest after all that driving. For dinner, we feasted on pork and soba noodle stir fry and ice cold beers. I was really excited to begin this grand adventure.

Twin Falls, Idaho and Bruneau Dunes

May 2- May 3, 2015.

As we said good bye to Utah, it was clear that we were on the tail end of the trip. Our route was looping us back towards home in the central Willamette Valley. We made a couple of short pit stops in the Twin Falls area along the gorgeous Snake River.

twin falls mapWhen I’m a passenger for long periods of time, I like to pore over the maps and guidebooks I’ve brought along so I can learn more about the area I’m driving through. On our way to Twin Falls, I noticed a curious symbol in the Gazeteer. Quietly tucked away, alongside the symbols for Information Center, campground, and boat launch was something that looked like a spaceship-car hybrid.

Soon, I would find out exactly what that symbol was all about.

Perrine Bridge

Our first real stop was the iconic Perrine Bridge, where BASE jumpers from all over the world come to take a leap. It’s one of the only places where it’s legal to do so without a permit. Just upstream from the bridge, the daredevil Evel Knievel tried to jump across the river in his “skycycle.” While he didn’t make the jump, he survived the crash with just a broken nose to show for it. And now, his unbelievable attempt is recorded forever in the Idaho Gazeteer with a spaceship-car hybrid marking the location of his jump. I thought, if I was a map-maker, what might I try to sneak into a map…?

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The bridge itself was beautiful. We walked to a viewpoint of the bridge, then stopped inside the Visitor’s Center, a modern building with big windows and interpretive signs about the area. There was a little gift shop as well as a wall full of pamphlets outlining nearby attractions. Lucky for us, there was also a little cart full of free ice cream cups from the folks at Coldstone Creamery. It was some sort of promotional thing, a delicious, delicious, promotional thing. Even without the ice cream, this would have been a worthwhile stop.

Caldron Linn

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There is one type of map symbol that always grabs my attention: Unique Natural Feature. This symbol looks like a fan with four blades (see above map) and it corresponds to a key in the front of the book that gives a name and a short description of the feature. One feature that I wanted to see on our drive through Twin Falls was called Caldron Linn. Or Cauldron Linn, depending on what you’re reading. It took some sleuthing to find driving directions to this place. Even the fact sheet at the Visitor’s Center said “inquire locally for directions.” It seemed weird that this place was right outside a major city and its whereabouts were sketchy. I really wanted to go there, and really hoped it wouldn’t be another Pillars of Rome situation.

We found the place without much trouble, although we definitely should not have driven down the last section of steep, scary dirt road. We arrived unscathed and tumbled out of the car to see what this was all about.

The description was something like “a raging fury of churning water that cast early explorers to their deaths as they attempted foolishly to travel downriver.” That’s absolutely not a quote but that’s what I was picturing in my mind as we walked towards the river. Funny, we couldn’t even hear any rushing water.

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The river was eerily low, which made for a mediocre waterfall but gave us an interesting look at the rocks that are usually covered by water. The bleached white rock looked like a jumble of dinosaur bones piled up on shore. Water pooled in cavities that were bored down into the rock by a more vigorous flow in times past. Lizards sunned on the rock and birds chattered away in the sagebrush. While I was sad that I didn’t get to see the river in its most dramatic state, I still enjoyed the diversion and adventure off the main road.

Shoshone Falls

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I should not have expected anything different on our next waterfall stop. But, Shoshone Falls was nicknamed the Niagara of the West, so it had a bit more credibility than our little Cauldron. We stopped at the falls around lunch time, eager to get out of the car and have a nice little picnic. During our visit to this oversold attraction, the water levels were pretty low, and so it was a pretty disappointing stop. The falls were pretty, but they didn’t earn their nickname and certainly didn’t need to command the crowds that were swirling around us. We got our obligatory couples photo and ducked out of there.

The nearby park was also overrun with visitors but we found a spot on the grass where we could lay out our picnic spread and stretch our legs a bit. Today felt like a lot of driving. It was nice to just hang out and not feel like we had to get somewhere fast. We wanted to experience the last stop of the day after dark, so we were in no rush to get there.

Bruneau Dunes

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By the time we rolled in to Bruneau Dunes, nearly all the campsites were taken. There were just a handful left in the Equestrian Camp just outside the main park, so we took it. Like Great Basin National Park, Bruneau Dunes boasted of its spectacular night sky program. They even had an observatory with a huge telescope that was open to the public on the weekends. So, we set up camp, made dinner and waited for the sun to go down.

When we finally made it over to the observatory, there were a bunch of people milling around. We got there late. It was dark, we didn’t know what was going on, and it took us a while to figure out how to pay. We dutifully stood in line to wait for our turn to look through the telescopes that were set up outside. Then, we waited in the longest line, the one at the big telescope, just to see a fuzzy cluster of stars half a zillion miles away. Yawn.

What I really wanted to do was hike the dunes under a starlit sky. So we grabbed our backpacks out of the car and set off on what we hoped was the trail we wanted, angling for the dunes.

When I planned this in my head, I imagined it would be like our night hike in Death Valley. But as I am noticing now, my images of reality don’t always match actual reality.

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The Bruneau Dunes are an interesting phenomenon. They sit in the center of a semicircular basin, with winds blowing pretty evenly from all sides so they don’t move very much. At the foot of the 400-foot high dunes is a pair of lakes that formed only a few decades ago, after the water table rose due to changes in irrigation practices nearby. At the edge of the lakes, as one might guess, was a tangle of shrubs, grasses, trees, and other water-loving vegetation. That made finding our way to and from the dunes extra challenging.

Once we broke free of the plant life, we began hiking straight up the steep side of one of the big dunes. Right foot forward, slide back, left foot, slide… and on and on. At one point the dune ridge got so steep we had to crawl and monkey walk sideways just to keep going. It was exhausting work. In daylight, perhaps, we could have found a better route. But, we did the best we could.

Clouds covered large patches of sky for most of the night. Occasionally the moonlight would break through a gap in the clouds.

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After we walked the entire length of the ridge, we happily ran down the side of the dune and headed for the lake. That was the best part. The worst part was trying to navigate a braided mess of user trails leading every which way through the thick, lakeside vegetation. Eventually we stumbled out on the other side of the water and made our way to a road that led back to the car. Mission accomplished.

In the morning we took a quick drive through of the park to see what it looked like in daylight. It was very pretty, and the dunes were scarred with mobs of tourists hauling their children and sand-boards up the hills. Glad we did the park by night.

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Next up: Eastern Oregon. The grand parks tour was coming, sadly, to a close.

Rock Climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho

June 16-June 23, 2012.

School’s out! It was time to hit the rock. I was able to spend 8 days climbing and hiking in this beautiful park. It was my first trip there, and so I hit many of the classics. It took a few days to warm up to granite slab climbing, which is much unlike what there is to climb in Oregon.

I took some pictures on this trip, and I also went for a hike.

My favorites:

Lost ArrowBloody Fingers (5.10a)—WOW. Here’s a climb that lives up to its reputation. A strenuous start leads to sweet hand and finger jams above. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, the crack disappears into a friction slab with some minor stress-inducing moves to the top. Very enjoyable route. We toproped it; I think it would be a scary lead down below. Trad.

Classic Route on the Lost Arrow (5.7)—I was glad Tom led the first pitch, because it would have been very heady for me. The second pitch was exciting on lead as well with an airy step around the corner to reach the slab. I bootied an old #1 Camalot from the upper crack. In fact, I wasn’t even expecting an upper crack but it came in handy to protect the so-called runout finish. Great views from the top followed by a nice free rappel make this a definite classic. Trad.

Columbian CrackColumbian Crack (5.7)—If you asked me while I was leading this, I wouldn’t have but it on my favorites list but in hindsight I think it was a stellar route. It begins in a wide to narrow chimney, then you pop up onto a block before stepping into the crack. Minimal crack skills are required since there are holds and ledges all over the face. Scary runout on top unless you bring the right gear (duh)–think, WIDE.

Double Trouble (5.8)—Slab to hand crack to chimney. Varied and enjoyable, albeit soft for an 8. It was nice to finally get some crack moves in as they are pretty hard to find in the moderates here. Trad.

Night Vision (5.9)—Really interesting opening sequence made me think and grunt a bit. With the right counterbalancing and body position, you can get up to the more straightforward slab. Toprope.

SinocraniumSinocranium (5.8)—Super fun, 5 pitch bolted multipitch route on Stinefell’s Dome. Most of the slab is easier than 5.7, with one 5.8 pitch that follows a dike full of quartzite crystals. There are a ton of bolts, so you can skip some to make things more interesting. This was definitely worth the hike. Sport.

Raindance (5.7)—This very well bolted route has a traversing lower pitch and a long slab for the upper pitch. It was an excellent introduction to the type of climbing here. I really enjoyed the second pitch. Sport.

Snack Break (5.9)—This is a very sparsely bolted route with a spicy opening sequence. There was a lot of reaching up and feeling around for jugs that weren’t visible. Mixed.

Snack Break Direct (5.8)—Same feeling as Snack Break, but considerably easier. Mixed.

White FlakeTennish Anyone? (5.10a)—Easy lower half gives way to some thoughtful, balancey slab moves on the upper half. Enjoyable route with very minimal 10 climbing. Mixed?

Triple Roofs (5.7)—The roofs aren’t the hard part. My crux came much higher, and it took a long time to commit to the moves to bypass it. This one made me think! There were a couple of bolts that may or may not have been for this route; I clipped one somewhere below the large roof. Trad.

Wheat Thin (5.7)—Followed Nate up this mellow flake/crack. Pretty straightforward and fun! Trad.

White Flake (5.8)—This would be my favorite climb if it wasn’t for the strange, smooth bowl in the middle of the route beneath the triangular rock. I had no idea what to do or how to protect it, so I stepped left onto the adjacent sport route and clipped a bolt before delicately traversing back right. The white flake at the top of the climb provides fun climbing, and I was so happy to jam my hands into a great crack at the top. Spectacular route! Trad.

And the rest:

Adolescent Homosapien/Homosexual (5.7)—I hated the opening chimney, which colored the rest of the route for me. It was incredibly windy and I was stressed out the whole time. I’d forgotten the beta for a “difficult to protect upper crux” so it took me a while to work through that. Not my best effort. Trad.

Cruel Shoes (5.7)—I wanted to do Dikes of Gastonia but my partners preferred this route. Nothing special, just another long, well-protected slab with remarkably uncomfortable belay stations. Sport.

Eastside Groove (5.6)—A not-so-memorable climb on the east side of Bath Rock. Trad.

Finer Niner (5.9)—This route is a bit contrived, but we did the best we could. The roof move is excellent and not that difficult, and the rest of the route is much easier. Sport.

Fledgling (5.7)—A really awkward leaning crack led to more interesting, but easier climbing on top. I was not happy with the bottom. Trad.

Fred Rasmussen (5.8)—This climb seemed to only go about 40 feet, unless we missed something. Too short to be much fun. Trad.

Funky Bolt (5.9)—I really wanted to like this one. I don’t know if my feet were trashed by this route or before I started, but my feet were in raging pain by the end. The sequence at the “funky bolt” was really reachy and stressful, even when following. The anchor is a ton of slings wrapped around a gigantic horn. Trad.

Pure Pleasure on the rightIntruding Dike (5.7)—Maybe because this was my first gear lead at the City, or because of the lousy walk-off, this was not one of my favorites. I wished I had more than one 0.5 Camalot. Trad.

Pure Pleasure (5.6)—Longish slab leads to a shortish crack. A reasonable warm-up if you’re in the area. The coolest part was exploring the window arch and algae-filled potholes above the top of the climb. Trad with one bolt.

Theater of Shadows (5.7)—I thought this was so easy and devoid of interesting moves that it was a waste. I’d never recommend it to anyone besides a first time climber who wanted to get on a multi-pitch. Yawn. Sport.

Too Much Fun (5.8)—The tricky move at the start for “short people” was definitely the crux for me. I had to deadpoint to an undercling before being able to reach up to a jug. It was good, but not sure what all the fuss is about this route. Sport.

Twist and Crawl (5.8)—Long, runout start. Tom put a big cam in a horizontal crack before the first bolt. Slab climbing leads to a crack at the top. We climbed this route to set a TR on Bloody Fingers. Mixed.

Overall, I must say I was a little intimidated by the City. I did not push my climbing grade at all, since I felt humbled by several 5.7 leads. Climbing on granite is a different experience, and I felt like I improved my footwork considerably over the course of the trip. I was happy for the opportunity to place a lot of gear and travel to a new destination. Back in Portland, I’m already sick of the weather and desperately missing Idaho’s sunshine.

Granite Mountain Ridge, Idaho

June 21, 2012.

Flaming Rock TH > Banana Crag Turnoff > Granite Mountain Ridge, somewhere > gully northeast of Granite and back

8-9 miles? | 2000′ ele. gain? | 8 hours

I needed a Jess day. I had been climbing in the park for 5 days and I just wanted to go for a walk. Bingham’s City of Rocks climbing guide book included some hike suggestions in the introduction. The Granite Mountain ridgewalk appealed to me most, and I’d been ogling the distant skyline since I arrived at camp. There would be some bushwhacking involved, but I was sure the wide open views would make that easy enough to manage.

I set out from our campsite, adjacent to the Flaming Rock trailhead, around 8:30 in the morning. It was already warm and I knew it would be a hot day. I covered the trails quickly, stopping to photograph the pretty wildflowers and stay hydrated. When I arrived at a sign pointing to Beef Jello/Banana Crag, I knew I’d be saying adieu to trails for a while. I stayed on the climber’s path as long as it lasted, then followed a faint trail through the forest. Even though it angled northwest (instead of northeast, towards the ridge), I patiently followed the path. Eventually I figured I was heading too far west and picked through the forest. Soon after I came across a well-worn trail that was too good to be true. I had no idea how popular this hike was, so again I put my faith in this trail. It became obvious that it was taking me to another pass leading to a totally different part of the park. I got out my compass, scoured my surroundings for a break in the trees, and changed my direction.

I know I’ve learned my “no bushwhacking in shorts” lesson before, but for some odd reason I thought the desert would be kinder to my legs. This was not the case. Although the area reported an average of 12 inches of rain each year, the understory was remarkably dense. Every leaf, branch, thorn and bristle was razor sharp. Branches grew in tangled mats that were hard to avoid or brush out of the way. I knew I’d be donating a lot of blood today.

As I meandered along the ill-defined ridge, I savored the views south to the inner workings of the park and north to Graham Peak. My path alternated between navigating through the brushy forest and working my way up to rocky viewpoints. I did not feel like I was doing a ridge walk. Every pile of rocks I scrambled up on top just gave me a great view of how much elevation I’d have to lose to get to the next saddle. It was smarter to stay low and avoid the only enjoyable part of the walk. It was miserable. And now it was very hot.

At some point, I distinctly remember feeling close to the summit block of this beast. I also remember feeling even more closed in by dense trees, crumbly rock, and shrubs. Ugh. I trudged on at a snail’s pace, snapping all the face-high branches and ducking below the limbs that were too big. I’d climb up on some rocks that would dead end, then drop back into the unruly orchard from hell. This happened to me several times before I finally came to the summit block.

So I thought. I got to the top of this thing, and there was a large gap between the pile I was on and the true summit. Crap. I downclimbed to a few other points that left me with some very exposed 4th class scrambling to get just another 15-20 vertical feet to the top. Alone, this was not happening. The slab on the north side leading to the summmit looked promising, 5.0 or just a bit more, but it was really long and also exposed. A fall would certainly leave me dead at the bottom of the face. No thanks. Frustrated, but accepting of my non-summit, I ambled off to a flat and windy lunch spot where I sat and rested, drank lemonade, and ate lots of food.

The guidebook suggested finishing the ridge by descending Granite Mountain’s summit and walking around the north side of Stinefell’s Dome to connect with the climbing trail that led back down to the valley. I had scoped out this descent just a couple of days earlier so I knew the way. But I was SO done with bushwhacking that I wanted to get to open sagebrush country as quickly as possible. I began to follow the ridge east until I found an obvious gully leading downhill. I thrashed my way through the gully, which had some nice open areas and some really tight spots, until I popped out right onto a trail. Hoorah!

The sun was brutally hot here, with little breeze and no shade for miles. I didn’t care. I needed time to lick my wounds. Walking was incredibly easy now; I could let my brain and body run on autopilot for a while. Wanting to make a loop out of the whole ordeal, I chose different trails for the return trip for a change of scenery. I enjoyed looking at the cactus blooms the most, and was excited to find a rock that looked like a giant chickadee.

I kept an eye on my water supply, which was running low. I was overheating big time. Just about a mile from the trailhead, I plopped on the ground under a shade tree and recovered a bit before the last uphill stretch back to camp. There were lots of ups and downs on this trip, which was very tiring.

Stepping into camp marked the end of a long day. I was happy to take off my socks and shoes, scrub up with some soap and water, do crossword puzzles and watch birds fly among the trees. I wouldn’t exactly recommend this hike to anyone, for any reason, unless perhaps the entire ridge is covered with 20 feet of snow. Live and learn. The trails were great, but trekking off trail required some serious willpower. Next time, Granite Mountain, I’ll take the short way up and bring a partner with a rope.

Hells Canyon Overnight Adventure

November 23-24, 2006.

I planned an overnight trip to Hells Canyon, in the northeast corner of Oregon. Much of the area is inaccessible due to snow, so my starting point was the Hells Canyon Reservoir TH, at about 1700 ft. My goal was to find McGraw Cabin by following the Reservoir trail 2 miles to the junction with Old McGraw Creek Route, which is now mostly destroyed and impossible to follow. I figured it would be easy enough to navigate just 2 more miles to the cabin, located right there, near the creek.

Of course, I forgot the golden rule of hiking, which is: Nothing is “just” that simple and if something looks like it’s “right there”, it really isn’t.

I carried enough food and gear to last several nights, in case I decided to stay longer. Weather reports looked grim, so I was prepared for cold, rain and snow. All I had for navigation was a sketch map from a guidebook and a detailed description of the route. I set out along the Snake River, beginning a little before 10 am on a beautiful Thanksgiving morning.

I’m not used to carrying a heavy pack so every step felt like death. After the first half mile or so, the weight seemed to ease up and I became more comfortable moving along the trail. After 45 minutes I reached the mouth of McGraw Creek. I crossed the debris and picked up the old trail at the other side of the canyon. After a few tenths of a mile, the bushwhack begins. Although my guidebook had described the route perfectly up to this point, it now left me with “the January 1, 1997 waterspout obliterated most of the trail for the next 1.2 miles. If you continue your hike through this very rough area you will be able to climb out of the north side of the creekbed for the last time about 1.6 miles from the junction…” Great, I have 1.2 miles to figure out for myself.

Orienting myself was easy, since the creek was at the base of the canyon, the main canyon and the Snake River were behind me, and I knew the cabin would be on the northern wall on my right hand side, just up ahead. Getting lost was not an issue. But after about an hour of picking my way along the streambed I got really frustrated and decided to head up the canyon wall. I knew I needed to gain some elevation, and climbing looked far more interesting than navigating slimy pebbles. So I ascended.

Along the way, I traversed some sketchy talus slopes, dislodged my fair share of rocks and mud, and came across some interesting shells and bones. Although the top never seemed to get any closer, I had made it about halfway up the canyon and soaked in some amazing views. At one point, however, I realized that the higher I climbed, the more I’d have to descend, since I obviously hadn’t gone far enough into the canyon to reach the cabin. Climbing was the easy part; going down looked scary as hell.

I tossed down my pack atop one of the slanted rock ledges and scrambled up a bit to get a better view. It looked like more of the same for miles and miles. Suddenly it occurred to me, however, that if I was a homesteader looking to build a cabin, wouldn’t I find a flat spot close to the stream? Duh, I wasn’t going to find a cabin up here. I’d have to keep moving forward along the stream and be on the lookout for flat, grassy terrain.

Although I’d been moving for hours, I was traveling extraordinarily slowly, and I probably wasn’t even a mile into the canyon when I’d taken my little detour. Patience, I decided was key, and I carefully made my way back down the crumbly rock slopes to the creekbed.

Amazingly, not far up the creek I came across a Wilderness sign and regained the old trail for a couple of yards before it became washed out again. Moving slowly, I proceeded on, stopping to investigate interesting looking rocks and following countless animal paths. One of these such paths seemed to lead up a gentle, grassy slope, which I decided would be my last hoorah. If I couldn’t see the cabin from the top of this hill, I’d make camp somewhere and figure out a plan for tomorrow.

Climbing that tiny hill was excruciating. Once at the top, I looked all around for some sign of the cabin. Nothing. How could I have failed so miserably? I noticed a distinct path crossing the hilltop and disappearing in the distance. I assumed it was another elk highway, since I’d followed so many of them today. There was much more evidence of wildlife here than of humans. But upon closer investigation I noticed that along this path was an old piece of machinery…a mower? Like the one described in the guidebook? Bingo. I’d found a way to the cabin. I followed the deep muck on this well-traveled pathway, my boots picking up pounds of mud with each step, until at last I caught a glimpse of my destination.

The cabin is in a deteriorated state, just off a gently rushing portion of the McGraw Creek. A barbed wire fence stands between the cabin and the trail but it doesn’t enclose the entire area so its purpose is unclear. Bits of plastic and other human trash are scattered about the area, so apparently it’s not as difficult to find as I’d first thought. I set up my tent just up the trail from the cabin, in a flat area close to some trees and the creek. It was about 3:30pm.

I’d borrowed the tent and some other gear from a friend, so it took some time to get the tent and rainfly assembled properly. I got myself situated and comfortable, then attempted to get the stove going. The stove was also a borrowed item, and I could not for the life of me get it to work. After about 30 minutes of fighting with it, I ended up with a leaking can of fuel and no way to attach the canister to the stove. I set the fuel can away from the tent, tossed the stove aside, and munched on cold food for dinner. A cheese sandwich, sliced deli turkey, and cold water. Happy Thanksgiving.

The darkness swept in while I was engaged in combat with the stove, so I quickly set up my bedding and cozied up in my down bag. Ready for bed, I checked my watch. It was only 6pm. Goodnight!

The next morning, I awoke to light snowfall and temperatures just above freezing. I was warm and comfortable all night, and it looked like I wouldn’t have to battle cold today either. I packed up and took off at 8 am across the grassy bench, hoping to descend the same way I came up, on that rolling hillside. Of course, I picked the wrong way to go down and reached a fairly sheer drop that I didn’t want to take chances with. I climbed back up to the bench and found another, more tame way down.Once back at the creek, I attempted to follow the path of least resistance, which turned out to be much harder than I thought. I’d avoided much of the creek during my canyon wall detour yesterday, so I didn’t realize how difficult the return trip would be. I was cut up by thorns and branches, lost my balance several times on smooth, mossy rocks, and angrily fumbled around obstacles like huge trees, water cascading into deep pools, and steep drops in the landscape. Several times I announced victory to the canyon… “You win!! What do you want from me? Can I get one freebie step, please?” Every move was complicated. My pack got caught on everything and threw off my center of balance. I had no way to tell how far I’d gone, so it was easy to get discouraged.

All that work was producing lots of heat and at one point I just had to stop and de-layer. As I was changing out of my fleece pants I looked ahead and thought, “No way, there’s the Snake River!” I blinked, looked again, and decided I was losing it. I hadn’t gotten that far yet, all I was seeing was another twist in the canyon. Keep pressing on and hang in there, I’ll see it soon.

Shortly after that wardrobe adjustment, I looked up again and confirmed that I was, in fact, staring at the Snake River. Finally, the end of this godforsaken canyon was in sight. Overjoyed, I continued along the bank of the creek, caught up with the old trail, and made my way back to the easily traveled Hells Canyon Reservoir Trail. Today, it took me only 3 hours to travel the 2(+) miles from the cabin to the Snake River as opposed to 4.75 hours it took yesterday.

Each trip into the backcountry, on or off trail, is a great learning experience. Although the traveling was very rough at times I had a fantastic journey, saw lots of unique things, and expressed a big part of myself that must remain dormant in the daily 9-5 lifestyle. Would I trek back along this route to the cabin? Absolutely not, but would I go back to Hells Canyon? Yessir. There’s much to be seen there. More research, better maps, and perhaps a willing companion would make another trip to the area very worthwhile.

The drive alone was stunning. I managed to take some pictures from the car 🙂