August 26, 2020.
10.5 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.
I’d been stalking the Sawtooth hiking group on Facebook for the week before my trip to learn all that I could from people hiking there this year. Visitation was sharply on the rise, tourists from all over the country packing the trails and doing the dumb stuff tourists are wont to do. Undeterred, I continued planning my trip, hoping to find some hidden gems that would be beyond the reach of the average “let’s backpack around some lakes” visitor. Note: there’s nothing wrong if that’s your style, it’s just not my style.
After consulting my usual references online I came up with Imogene Peak, one of a zillion highpoints in the Sawtooths. We could reach this one in a day without taking the boat shuttle, which I wanted to avoid because of COVID. It looked like a hard slog, but that’s what we were looking for.
Thunderstorms and wind raced over our dispersed campsites the previous two evenings and more were predicted for this day. At least we didn’t have any driving to do; we scouted a campsite sandwiched between the horrible 4×4 road to the proper trailhead and a footpath leading from the weenie trailhead. Onward!
After a mile or so of walking, we encountered Yellow Belly Lake. It was perfectly quiet and still, much unlike the heavily developed lakes we passed on the previous day. It would make the perfect spot for an afternoon swim, I thought. But we had some ground to cover.
Not too far beyond the lake, we left the trail and headed straight into a marshy flat. Narrow rivulets cut across the earth in seemingly every direction; we had to watch every step. The tall grasses and thick shrubs were soaking wet from the evening rains. Before long, my shoes and clothes were saturated with water. I counted on the sun to dry me off later.
Once we navigated out of the flats, the climbing began. The terrain moved upward in a hurry. We scrambled up and over rocks, downed trees, shrubs and scree, trying to avoid the thickest vegetation. I was astonished to find a shiny blue object stuck in the rocks partway up the inhospitable slopes: a party balloon. Of course, this balloon must have blown in there from somewhere far away, but I was still disgusted to have to pick this trash up from the wilderness. Balloons blow.
At last, I began to see fewer trees and more blue skies. We’d reached the boulder field! From there, according to my notes, we’d just pick our way along the open ridge to the summit.
Not so fast, said the formidable Sawtooths, with a devious grin.
We reached the highpoint of the boulders within our view, which allowed us to scout out the next part of the route. The ridge was completely impassable. Our path lay straight ahead: a couple thousand vertical feet of boulder-hopping, all the way to the top.
Undeterred, we sat and dried out our feet while eating snacks. So far, the weather was holding. It was breezy but sunny and clear.
For the next two hours, we picked our way up the extensive boulder field. Some of the rocks were enormous, and their size gave no indication of their stability. Often, the largest boulders were the ones that tipped under bodyweight, while the smaller rocks stayed put. It took all of our mental focus to stay upright as we clambered toward the summit.
I kept looking back and overhead at the gray clouds that swirled around us. Would we get caught in a storm? How long would it last? Were we in any danger? The two of us discussed our options and decided to choose a route close to the trees so that we could seek refuge quickly if needed. I felt like I’d be ready to retreat at the sound of thunder or a flash of lightning. But, if the previous two storms taught us anything, I expected this one would come down around 6 pm. We had hours to spare.
With slowness and care, we proceeded up the east face of the mountain, joining the ridge just below the summit. A faint user path spiraled up to the top.
Ah, nothing beats the joy of reaching a mountain top! The wind blew, the clouds threatened, so we didn’t spend much time there. I opened the summit canister and read the three entries in the log from this year. With so many other peaks to choose from, it’s no wonder this one doesn’t make most people’s short list. There was hardly any room to write in the log so I tore a piece of my printed beta and shoved it into the canister before we left.
The hike down seemed to take just as long as the hike up. Every boulder, it seemed, wanted to kill us. I made it almost all the way down before I slammed my knee and lower leg into a sharp rock. Bleeding but not seriously hurt, I tried to remain focus and move slowly enough to not make any stupid mistakes. I felt like I was stepping from one balance board to another in an endless obstacle course. I do enjoy a bit of boulder-hopping but this was really over the top.
As I nursed my wounds, I noticed the incredibly beautiful crystals and patterns and colors in the rocks that I hadn’t paid attention to on the way up. Even when you retrace your route, there’s something new to discover.
The return hike was unremarkable, except for the last couple of miles. The wind picked up and faint rumbles of thunder began to spread through the air. LeeAnn was stressing that the rain fly was hanging on a clothesline to dry and she wanted to hustle back to camp to get it on the tent. I wanted to jump in the lake. So, I handed her the car keys and she bombed down the trail. I spied an opening to the lake and changed into my swimsuit. I didn’t stay long, but just taking that moment to wash off the sweat and dust of the day made me feel renewed. I decided to shove my clothes in my bag and meander back to camp barefoot.
It had been quite some time since I’d done any barefoot hiking, so my feet were pretty tender. I let myself slow down and take all the time in the world to saunter the last mile to camp. While I dearly love having LeeAnn as a hiking buddy, I was starting to yearn for some alone time. Finding the balance between solitude and companionship has always been a challenge for me.
When I reached camp, the tent fly was secure and LeeAnn was rinsing off in the creek. The rain hadn’t come yet, but it was only a matter of time…
We finished off the night with dinner and camp margaritas: tequila + lemon lime drink mix + water, salt on the rim!