Season Update: Winter Finally Arrives

Andrew and Gordo on an early season tour near Banner Summit, which received significantly more snow in December than the surrounding areas.

Andrew and Gordo on an early season tour near Banner Summit, which received significantly more snow in December than the surrounding areas.

Although it is halfway through the ski season, winter didn’t arrive until last week. After skiing powder in September (my earliest turns ever), I was ready for winter. Little did I know at the time that there would be a four month wait for any significant snow to fall. Experiencing the warmest fall and driest first-half of the winter since moving to Idaho, it has been a frustrating start to the winter season.

Even by January, we were still hurting for snow.

Even by January, we were still hurting for snow.

The upside to the warm fall weather was that it allowed us to climb later than usual. After recovering from our exhausting trip to the Elephant’s Perch, I spent some time with my brother at the City of Rocks in November. We were hired to produce a short trailer for an upcoming climbing book, and over the course of three cold and snowy days at the City, we were able to get just enough climbing and filming done to make it work. By late November, outdoor rock climbing season was over.

Mill Valley, California.

Mill Valley, California.

After completing our short film project, I drove out to California to visit family for Thanksgiving. As much as I love living in the mountains of Idaho, it’s always nice to spend some time down in the lush, coastal environment of Northern California. With narrow, winding roads shaded by gigantic redwood trees, steep hillsides shrouded in morning fog, and the smell of coastal air, I’ve always found Mill Valley to be quiet and enchanting, especially considering its proximity to San Francisco. But after driving into the city and trying to stop to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge (which involves navigating through the thousands of cars and other people who want to do the same), I was quickly reminded of why I moved to the mountains.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.

Once back in Sun Valley, our ski season was experiencing a “failure to launch”. We aren’t used to a lot of snow here, hence Sun Valley’s ultra-advanced snowmaking system, but this was as bad as it gets. On Christmas day, the surrounding mountains were still nothing but a sea of brown. While the inbounds skiing was decent considering the conditions, the situation became more dire as January set in, and we were still without any significant snowfall.

The sun sets over an unseasonably dry Sun Valley, Idaho.

The sun sets over an unseasonably dry Sun Valley, Idaho.

On a positive note, the non-existent snowpack allowed access to some roadside ice on Trail Creek road, which is usually covered in snow during the winter. With plenty of experience using ice tools and crampons on steep snow but none on water ice, my friend Parker and I headed to Trail Creek to find some ice to climb. We found an easy flow just a few feet from the truck and set up a top rope. It took a climb or two to get the feel of it, and then we were both hooked. Excited to get on some steeper ice, we were bummed when a few weeks of warmer weather halted our plans.

Roadside ice climbing on Trail Creek road.

Roadside ice climbing on Trail Creek road.

A few small storms in January seemed to mostly miss Baldy but filled in the backcountry just enough to start taking out the snowmobile. A new toy for me, it took a few days of getting stuck to finally learn how to turn in powder. After making a tow-line out of a section of old climbing rope, we took our first snowmobile skiing outing. Using one snowmobile to take our crew of three ten miles out a drainage before we started skinning made us realize the potential of the snowmobile to access more remote areas for skiing.

Finally getting my turns down on the sled.

Finally getting my turns down on the sled.

It is now halfway through February and it is the first time it has actually felt like winter. A series of recent storms dropped several feet of snow on Baldy and even more up north. There is snow is town, the trees are skiable, and the big mountains are filled in. The avalanche danger is high, with new snow on top of an unstable base with multiple persistent weak layers creating potentially dangerous conditions. The skiing is great right now, but it’s going to be a while until we can safely get into some bigger terrain. Meanwhile, there are more storms on the way!

Finally back to where I want to be: skiing blower powder on a bluebird backcountry day.

Finally back to where I want to be: skiing blower powder on a bluebird backcountry day.

It's good to know my dog is as happy about the new snow as I am.

It’s good to know my dog is as happy about the new snow as I am.

Epic Adventure on the Elephant’s Perch: Late October Climb & Bivy on the Mountaineer’s Route (5.9 III).

Back in May, my brother Andrew and I set a goal for ourselves: to climb the Elephant’s Perch by the end of the season. The Elephant’s Perch is a 9,870′ peak located in the Sawtooth Wilderness outside of Stanley, ID. While not the tallest alpine wall in Idaho, it is arguably the highest quality and most popular alpine rock face in the state. First climbed in 1963 by the accomplished mountaineer Fred Beckey and friends, there are now over 25 established routes on the Perch, ranging from 5.9 to 5.12. We would be climbing the 800′, 6-8 pitch Mountaineer’s Route (5.9 III). Several months ago climbing this route seemed like a lofty goal. I learned to rock climb almost 15 years ago while living in Los Angeles, exclusively climbing indoors — with the exception of one trip to Joshua Tree. With our adventure time in LA mostly limited to weekends, we pretty much gave up on climbing so we could have time to go to the river every weekend to kayak.

The Elephant's Perch.

The Elephant’s Perch.

After a ten year hiatus, I bought my first rope a year ago and began rock climbing at the many accessible top-roping spots in Lake Tahoe. I didn’t get much climbing in before winter arrived, so most of my recent rock climbing began in May on my first trip to the City of Rocks. Climbing my first ever lead on a 5.7 sport route at the City and finding it quite terrifying, our goal of climbing the Perch seemed very distant. Over the next six months Andrew and I made several more trips to the City of Rocks, Dierkes Lake, Cedar Creek, the Channel, the Lava Tubes, and several other local climbing spots. Making great progress, I was now confident climbing 5.11 on top rope, leading 5.10 sport routes, and leading up to 5.9 on trad gear. Two months ago I bought my first set of cams and successfully climbed a few easy alpine routes in the Pioneer mountains. After climbing all summer, we felt prepared for the Perch.

Enjoying some fishing on our rest day before the climb.

Enjoying some fishing on our rest day before the climb.

We decided to make this a laid-back trip: we would spend 3-4 days at Saddleback Lake at the base of the route, with plenty of time for preparation and rest before and after the climb. In summer months the approach to Saddleback Lake is short, as you can take a boat shuttle across Redfish Lake and shave 5 miles off the hike. Being mid-October, we had to start our hike from the Redfish Lake trailhead, bringing the approach to Saddleback Lake to roughly 10 miles. We hiked in on a Tuesday carrying heavy packs filled with climbing, camping, photo, and fishing gear. Arriving just before dark, we cooked up some Chicken Fajita and promptly crawled into our tent.

Lunch.

Lunch.

Waking up on Wednesday to what was supposed to be clear skies, we discovered overcast weather and cold temps. With clouds blocking the sun’s rays, it was hard to get out of the tent. Four packets of hot maple and brown sugar oatmeal and sitting next to a raging fire warmed us up. Just after noon the clouds broke and it warmed significantly. Still hungry, we decided to see if we could catch some lunch and headed to the lake. A hundred casts later and we had ourselves a couple of respectable trout. Andrew cooked them up “caveman style”, with a stick through their mouths and tails, right over the fire — seasoning them with a lemon herb mix and sea salt. Maybe it was because I was hungry, but they were the most delicious fish I’ve ever tasted. We spent the rest of the day lazing around, eating, and shooting video and photos of the gorgeous scenery that surrounded us.

We found lots of “needle ice” around our camp. This strange phenomenon occurs when the soil is warmer than the air, and subterranean liquid is brought to the surface via capillary action, freezing into needle-like columns. I had never seen this before — very cool.

We found lots of “needle ice” around our camp. This strange phenomenon occurs when the soil is warmer than the air, and subterranean liquid is brought to the surface via capillary action, freezing into needle-like columns. I had never seen this before — very cool.

Many times on the night before a climb, I find it hard to sleep. Sometimes I will peek out of my tent to look up at a monolithic silhouette of the mountain I am about to attempt, as if to confirm it is indeed as big and scary as I was imagining while attempting to sleep. Sometimes there are racing thoughts of everything that could go wrong, along with the hope that nothing will. This time it was different. I felt calm and confident and actually got a decent night’s sleep. Not bad for an insomniac the night before his biggest climb.

Enjoying some tea around the fire.

Enjoying some tea around the fire.

We got out of the tent the next morning at around 8AM to build a fire. Happy to see clear skies, we got the stove going to heat up some water for oatmeal. The high was forecast to be around 50 that day. With no wind, 50 degrees is plenty warm to climb. The problem is, it doesn’t reach that temperature until at least noon. The early hours of the day were in the 30’s. With sunset at around 7PM and with us wrongly estimating that the route would take 6 hours, we thought that if we got on the wall by 11AM, we would have enough time to complete the route — fully expecting to complete the downclimb in the dark. By the time we got to the base of the route, put on some layers, stacked the ropes, and racked up, it was closer to 11:30. I can’t imagine having started too much earlier, as it was very cold at the first belay, which was still in the shade.

The Elephant's Perch and the "Beckey Tree."

The Elephant’s Perch and the “Beckey Tree.”

We didn’t start our first real belay until after two easy chimney moves. Andrew moved through one chimney without placing any pro, found a stance, and belayed me up. We did this again and then started climbing with protection at a point just below an intimidating mantle move. More of a mental crux than anything, I would have preferred to have at least warmed up first. Past the mantle the climbing was easy going, and we continued up to the top of pitch 1, setting up a belay next to a couple of prehistoric bolts. Pitch 2 steepened and was a fun cruiser up a beautiful splitter crack to the only two legitimate bolts on the route.

Approaching the base of the Mountaineer's Route.

Approaching the base of the Mountaineer’s Route.

Pitch 3 was fun and exposed. Above the bolts at our belay are a series of roofs that you skirt left of before heading up, around, and into a 3rd class gully. It would have gone smoothly if not for the first of our rope issues. Having not wanted to lead P3 after coming up P2, we decided to do the “pancake flip” method rather than re-stack our ropes (this was our first climb on a new set of half ropes — doubling the amount of rope we had to deal with). It seemed to work until Andrew got about 10m above me and the ropes ended up in a tangle. Trying to untangle 120 meters of ropes got tiring and frustrating. Andrew downclimbed back to me to help sort out the mess. After a quick re-stack, we got moving again and luckily had no issues with rope drag at the roofs. The nature of this pitch was such that communication was impossible. With the tugging on the rope from above signaling it was time for me to climb, I broke down the anchor and climbed around the corner and into the 3rd class gully. It was refreshing to stand on somewhat solid ground, although we were both growing increasingly concerned about our slow progress on the route. Looking at the topo and route photos, we still had a long way to go. We must have both been anxious, because we couldn’t eat more than a few bites of candy and didn’t talk much in the gully.

Andrew below pitch 2, with the triple roofs looming in the background.

Andrew below pitch 2, with the triple roofs looming in the background.

While reading online about the route, many people talked about pitch 2’s splitter being the highlight of the climb. Pitch 2 was fun, but pitch 4 was the highlight for me. After leaving the gully, pitch 4 gains an indistinct arête leading to a semi-hanging belay below the final crux. The exposure after climbing out of the gully was immense, looking down a near-featureless vertical face 700 feet to the ground. Maybe it was because we were in a rush at this point, but I felt surprisingly comfortable with the exposure. I feel most comfortable while climbing. It’s the sitting around in a hanging belay not making progress that makes me uncomfortable. Continuing up pitch 4, the crack features were fantastic and varied — from laybacks and the occasional jam to a very fun double-crack tower feature that was a bit hollow sounding. I made quick work of the pitch and helped Andrew mentally prepare for the crux: a short overhang that looked intimidating, especially considering at this point we were in a race to reach the top before the diminishing daylight turned to cold and darkness.

Andrew starting up pitch 2.

Andrew starting up pitch 2.

Our pitch 5 belay, which consisted of two nuts and a hex triple-equalized with a cordelette, was plenty secure but the most exposed. While the belay was on a less steep part of the slope, ten feet behind me lay a 700 foot drop into the abyss. I couldn’t help but look behind me occasionally, then back at my anchor, and then up at Andrew, who was taking his time making quality placements below the crux. I found my mind wandering, imagining among other things what it would be like to fall 700 feet off the wall. What would it feel like? I wondered. What would you think about during those few seconds of free fall? For that matter, how many seconds would it take to hit the ground? I started to do some math in my head, calculating how long that drop would be, before I snapped myself out of it. Seconds later, I heard a subtle “whoosh” as I saw the rope moving through carabiners in front of me. Without thinking I pulled my right hand down and locked the rope through my belay device. At the same time I heard my brother yell, “FALLING, FALLING.” Already weighting my semi-hanging belay anchor, I braced for the catch, which luckily was smoother than expected. I couldn’t see my brother at this point and called up to see if he was okay. “I’m good. I’m all good.” He sounded surprised. On easy terrain 15 feet below the crux, he had taken his hands off the wall to blow on them for warmth. Thinking his feet were secure, the fall was totally unexpected. The fall was on a fixed cam that he had clipped into. Luckily it held. At this point the sun was dropping fast, and I tried to psych my brother up for the crux, subtly reminding him we were quickly running out of time.

Me coming up the beautiful crack on pitch 2.

Me coming up the beautiful crack on pitch 2.

As I repeatedly glanced behind me to check the sun’s location in the sky, Andrew continued on, placing a good amount of protection before pulling through the short crux move. It was reassuring to have him back in my line of sight. We both would have flown up this section if the move was on a single-pitch sport route. However, when leading on gear almost 800 feet off the ground, you take your time making quality placements and finding solid holds. As Andrew tried to pull his way up and over a small overhang on a finger-sized crack, he took another fall. Not quite as dramatic as the first one, it was scary nonetheless. We were running out of time. I shouted up for him to move right to a fist sized crack, which is where he should have been. When he finally pulled over the crux, I was relieved that the hardest part was over…or so I thought. Less than ten feet above, his upward progress was blocked when the rope became stuck in a crack. We both attempted to whip the rope out of the crack, to no avail. As this was happening, I looked behind me to see the sun making its final foray behind the massive spires of the Sawtooths. I looked up to see the last bit of light fade off of the wall like a wave retreating from the shore. I knew we only had minutes until it was dark.

Here I am trying to untangle our mess of ropes at the top of pitch 2.

Here I am trying to untangle our mess of ropes at the top of pitch 2.

Above, Andrew made a solid placement, pulled through enough slack to downclimb to the problematic crack, and extended a placement with a longer runner to solve our rope issue. He flew back up, climbed another ten feet, and set up a belay. I climbed up to him as fast as I could, cleaning our gear on the way. Knowing the last pitch was easy fifth-class climbing, I left a couple nuts in the rock as I thought being able to see what I was climbing was more important than losing a couple pieces of gear, as I didn’t have the time to pull out my nut tool and bang them out of the rock. The nuts I left behind were hand-me-downs from my stepdad – 70’s era Chouinard pieces. Having been in service for 30+ years, we felt like we got our money’s worth. Perhaps we will get them back next summer.

After climbing out of the gully on pitch 4, the exposure increased drastically.

After climbing out of the gully on pitch 4, the exposure increased drastically.

When I reached Andrew at the belay, he handed me some gear. I took the lead and probably climbed faster than I have ever climbed. After about 150 feet of no-pro low fifth-class climbing, I reached flat ground, found a stance, and brought Andrew up on hip belay. At this point I was overcome with a huge feeling of relief. Still unaware that we would be spending the night up high, we were simply happy to be off the wall. As we caught our breath and started organizing gear, I looked out and enjoyed one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever experienced in my years in the mountains. The post-sunset twilight was filled with beautiful blues, reds, and purples, with snow-capped, craggy peaks silhouetted against a clear but darkening sky. It was a much-needed moment of calm after a couple intense hours.

Halfway up the route, looking south.

Halfway up the route, looking south.

This brief moment of calm ended quickly when I scrambled up another 20 feet to look for the route to the descent gully. Glowing in the twilight, I discovered a beautiful but dangerous scene. In summer months this 4th class slope of rocks and slabs would easily be crossable in the dark. Now it was covered in 2 feet of snow, with our vision limited to the 20-foot beam of our headlamps. It seemed impossible. We spent 20 minutes scrambling around, looking up, looking down, looking for any way to safely make the crossing. I looked at my brother and said, “I think we’re bivying tonight.” Glad to have packed an emergency bivy sack and regretting my decision to keep our packs light by not bringing a sleeping bag, I looked for a spot to hunker down.

Arriving at the top of the route in near darkness.

Arriving at the top of the route in near darkness.

Seeing what we thought was a tree 150 feet below us, I slung a runner around a rock and tied off a single rope, put a knot in the end, and threw it into the darkness. While I brushed snow off some rocks and laid our other rope out to use as a pad in preparation for our luxury accommodations for the night, my brother rappelled down to find some wood for a fire. Over the next hour Andrew collected a backpack full of wood. I made a small fire pit and tried to get our home for the night as comfortable as possible. Using a klemheist hitch to help ascend our fixed line, Andrew eventually returned, exhausted. With branches and sticks protruding every which way from his backpack, he was looking more like a scarecrow than a person.

The view from our bivy the next morning, looking towards Redfish lake.

The view from our bivy the next morning, looking towards Redfish lake.

Still warm from our movement, we decided not to start a fire until we needed it. Ten years ago my dad bought me and my brother lightweight emergency bivy sacks. Having never even taken one out of its stuff sack, we usually brought one of them with us on extended outings, just in case. The sack is essentially a glorified space blanket, but slightly more durable, sewn into a sleeping bag shape. We laid our second rope down on the rock for insulation and both carefully crawled into the sack. Within minutes we were surprisingly warm. Not surprisingly, sharing a sack with another person while on top of a pile of rocks is not very comfortable. Realizing we were in for nothing more than a cold night, we were able to somewhat relax, talk, process, and laugh. At this point our biggest concern was that we would be late for our Friday night start-worrying-about-us deadline that we set with family and friends before heading out. We planned to get up at first light, make the traverse to the descent gully, and get to Stanley as soon as possible to check in via cell phone.

Me and Andrew in the morning after emerging from our bivy sack, ready to get off the mountain.

Me and Andrew in the morning after emerging from our bivy sack, ready to get off the mountain.

A few hours later the temperature dropped and we were not only uncomfortable, but uncomfortable and very cold. Andrew’s feet were wet from his wood gathering escapade and were starting to get numb. Having spent an unexpected night out in the winter over ten years ago with him that resulted in nerve damage to my toes, I helped him warm up his feet and suggested he put his now-diminished hand warmers into his shoes. At this point we decided it was time to start a fire. Sadly, our mostly green wood didn’t turn into the fire we had hoped, but 30 minutes of desperately blowing to keep the small flames going warmed us up just enough that we stayed comfortable for another couple hours. Having only brought a liter each of water on the route, and down to a 1/2 liter total at the beginning of the night, we took one small sip each every hour or so. After what seemed like days, and a total of maybe five minutes of sleep, light began to fill the sky. We hopped out of “bed,” packed up our bivy, coiled our ropes, and spent about 20 minutes analyzing the slope to choose our route to the descent gully. Seeing it in the daylight, we were happy with our decision not to cross it in the dark.

Sunrise view looking Southwest from our bivy site.

Sunrise view looking Southwest from our bivy site.

We chose our route. We planned to downclimb about 200 feet, cross a flatter snow slope, and then head up through rocky 4th class terrain. With a mix of slippery wet rock, powder snow, and ice, we short-roped and simul-climbed through the terrain, occasionally setting up a hip belay on steeper rock sections for added protection. With Andrew a little banged up both mentally and physically from leading the majority of the route the day before, I led the way through the maze of snow and rock. The sun’s rays were rapidly getting stronger, and climbing in all our layers, it was great to experience warmth again.

Cold and ready to get moving in the morning.

Cold and ready to get moving in the morning.

Finally reaching the descent gully, we downclimbed, careful not to trip and take a tumble in our exhausted state. At the bottom of the gully, only one obstacle remained until we were safely back at camp: a short rappel. Never one to trust old gear, I cut a length of webbing, backed up the rappel, and descended, experiencing a massive sense of relief that we were finally safe and on solid ground. Andrew followed, I coiled the rope, and we headed back to camp.

On the snow-covered traverse on the way to the descent gully.

On the snow-covered traverse on the way to the descent gully.

We were very happy to have two liters of water waiting for us. We drank, refilled, drank some more, and then ate an entire block of cheese, a half-pound of bacon, two packs of ramen, some jerky, and a couple Clif bars. While it would have been nice to crawl into the tent and sleep for 24 hours straight, we had to get back to Stanley as quickly as possible to assure our family that we were okay. After breaking camp, we hoisted our packs onto our backs and headed towards Redfish lake. When we reached the south end of the lake, we stopped by the docks, hoping a boat would be there that could give us a ride back across. Of course, there wasn’t. We filled up our waters, ate a quick snack, and headed up the switchbacks — finally reaching the trailhead parking lot a few hours later. Completely sore and fully exhausted, we hopped into Old Betsy and headed North on Highway 75, Stanley bound for burgers and cell service.

Andrew follows me through snowy terrain.

Andrew follows me through snowy terrain.

If you look closely, you can see our route through the snow. Our bivy site was in the small notch just left of center in the top of the photo.

If you look closely, you can see our route through the snow. Our bivy site was in the small notch just left of center in the top of the photo.

Just before the final rappel back to camp.

Just before the final rappel back to camp.

The always beautiful Sawtooth valley a few miles from the car.

The always beautiful Sawtooth valley a few miles from the car.

Let the season begin: Early season skiing in Idaho’s Pioneer mountains

Yesterday, my brother and I beat our previous record for first ski day of the season by 5 days. Having last skied in June, it’s nice to be back on snow after only 3 months off. Although, to be honest, we were enjoying the summer weather just fine, and still had some alpine climbing to be done. That being said, there’s never a bad time to ski powder.

Phi Kappa Peak is a 10,516′ mountain located in the Pioneer mountains of Idaho. For years it has been my go-to spot for early season skiing. Starting 9 years ago, I discovered that you can take an old mining road literally to the base of the mountain. About halfway up its North face, there is a wide gully whose surface is very fine scree. This gully’s position on the mountain, combined with its smooth surface, means it can snow a minimal amount and still fill in nicely, with no large rocks underneath. This creates the perfect environment for early season skiing, and yesterday was no exception.

Usually we just boot-pack up this line, but this time we were able to skin up to a couple hundred feet below the summit, where we then dropped our gear and scrambled to the top. The scenery from the summit is unreal – a 360 degree view of the entire Pioneer range, with the Lost Rivers and Boulders looming in the distance. The summit provides one of the best views of my favorite mountain in the range – the Devil’s Bedstead.

After we down-climbed and were back at our gear, I had to make a second run up to the summit when I realized I had left my helmet on top. After a quick up-and-down, we put on our skis and  began the descent. We had never skied from this high on the mountain before. The first few hundred feet weren’t great as we carefully navigated rocks and wind slabs. Once we worked our way down to the magic gully, it was game on. My brother and I took turns shredding and photographing each other. The conditions were as good as they can get for early season, and we yelled out in joy as we linked several perfect powder turns. As I like to do in moments like these, we took a minute to look around, appreciate the immense beauty surrounding us, and be thankful for how blessed we are to be able to do what we do.

Below the gully, things got a little interesting as the terrain consisted of 10″ of snow on rocks. Surprisingly, we were able to carefully zig-zag ski through this section without too much trouble, never having to remove our skis until we made it down the road and back to the van. We quickly threw in our gear, changed, and cranked on the heater. A few minutes down the road, our mellow was a little harshed when we discovered the van had a flat tire. We hopped out, jacked up the van, threw on the spare, and fifteen minutes later we were back on the road, heading directly for beer and chicken wings.

As you can see, the snow was excellent.

As you can see, the snow was excellent.

We stopped a little bit short of the end of the road when things started getting deeper.

We stopped the van a little bit short of the end of the road when things started getting deeper. From here, we skinned.

Andrew skins along the road to the Base of Phi Kappa.

Andrew skins along the road to the Base of Phi Kappa.

Starting to get higher on the mountain.

Starting to get higher on the mountain.

We skinned a little bit further than this and then ditched some gear before hitting the summit.

We skinned a little bit further than this and then ditched some gear before hitting the summit.

Andrew on the summit. The Devil's Bedstead provides a perfect backdrop.

Andrew on the summit. The Devil’s Bedstead provides a perfect backdrop.

Just enjoying myself in one of my favorite spots.

Just enjoying myself in one of my favorite spots.

Andrew down-climbs from the summit.

Andrew down-climbs from the summit.

Taking in the scenery before I begin the descent.

Taking in the scenery before I begin the descent.

The slow and shallow upper half of the descent.

The slow and shallow upper half of the descent.

And the fun begins.

And the fun begins.

I still can't believe we got this good of snow in September.

I still can’t believe we got this good of snow in September.

20" of snow on smooth shale equals smooth sailing.

20″ of snow on smooth shale equals smooth sailing.

Its always fun to look up and admire your shred marks.

Its always fun to look up and admire your shred marks.

If skiing is art, this is the canvas.

If skiing is art, this is the canvas.

What a phenomenal day.

What a phenomenal day.

Driving home satisfied.

Driving home satisfied.

Idaho Alpine: Climbing ‘Sky Pilot’ (5.8 III) on Peak 11,280′ in the Pioneer Range

Yesterday, my brother and I completed our first big alpine rock climb: ‘Sky Pilot’ on Peak 11,280. Located Northeast of Sun Valley in the Pioneer mountains, Sky Pilot follows a prominent arête up the towering north side of the unnamed mountain. Since seeing a picture of the 2000 foot rock face earlier this summer, I wanted to climb it.

As soon as we decided we were ready for the climb, the massive Beaver Creek fire started nearby and for weeks we were unable to do much outdoors due to the smoke. Once the smoke cleared, our only concern was thunderstorms. A few days ago, upon seeing a forecast for calm winds and blue skies for the coming weekend, we decided to go for it. With minimal beta other than “follow the arête”, we headed out with a little too much gear and drove to the “trailhead”.

The route is fairly straightforward. Starting at the old Wildhorse mine, the approach begins by climbing off trail for 1000 feet to reach an upper basin. Another mile or so of easier terrain leads to the base of the North face of Peak 11,280.

There are multiple options for gaining the arête. We followed the obvious left-facing couloir (which was snow-free) about halfway up and started climbing from there. We found this first move to be one of the more difficult on the climb, and ran out almost an entire pitch on one cam, although it was easy fifth class other than one 5.7 move right off the bat. I’m sure an easier option existed.

The route is beautiful. The exposure once on the arête is captivating. Throughout most of the route, the rock was good quality, and protection was easy to find and place. As expected on any alpine climb, loose blocks were encountered, but the route was stable for the most part.

We ended up pitching it out only for about 7 pitches; the rest we short-roped or simul-climbed. There were several 5.6 sections, all of which protected nicely and have very fun moves with great exposure. Low fifth class and fourth class terrain connected the steeper pitches. There are great belay ledges the entire way, many with a large, safe horn or boulder to sling for a belay.

Gear wise, we were over-equipped. We brought a lightweight single rope, 13 cams, 4 hexes, 7 nuts, and plenty of slings and webbing. Cams were the most frequently used pro, mostly in the 1″ range. Nuts and hexes were used, although I would leave my big sizes of hexes and cams at home next time. Several cams in the 1″ range, a hex or two, and a couple nuts would be more than enough gear. We never placed more than 3-4 pieces per pitch.

The climb itself took 6 hours, including a lunch break. It could be done faster, but we enjoyed ourselves and took our time. The approach took about 2 hours. After summiting, we descended the south side, followed the steep basin down to the creek (which we quickly bathed in while crossing), and then followed the road back to our car for a round trip of 11 hours. It was a long, fun day. We have our eyes on some other alpine routes, but I would love to be back on this one before the snow flies.

Peak 11,280’s North Face. Sky Pilot follows the prominent arête.

My brother Andrew enjoying a nice lead on mellow 5th class about 3/4 of the way up.

If you look closely you can see Andrew!

Yours truly enjoying the exposure.

Andrew flashes a peace sign as we near the summit.

Andrew looking pretty decked out in all his gear.

This 5.6 pitch on the upper part of the climb was probably the best!

Here I am just taking it all in. Feeling lucky and blessed.

Celebrating our accomplishment!

Peak 11,280 casting a giant shadow on the valley below.

Andrew enjoying his surroundings on the descent.

On the descent we were provided with this awesome view of Goat peak’s impressive NE ridge. This route may have been climbed in the 70’s, but I am not sure. Anybody have more info?

This view of Old Hyndman’s North face is truly spectacular. I LOVE the Wildhorse creek drainage.

Our route in red.

Climbing NW Face of Mustang (Howard) Peak in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains

Wow, what a fun climb! A couple of days ago Jeremy, Andrew, and I climbed the northwest face of Mustang peak in the Pioneer Mountains. Not officially named on any map, Mustang peak is also known as Howard peak. Accessible via Wildhorse Creek, the face rises almost 3000′ feet from the valley below. Viewed from afar, this is a beautiful and dramatic peak that looks harder to climb than it is.

We originally wanted to climb the north ridge – the obvious ridge line on the left side of the face. After looking for some beta online, it appeared that the north ridge was an easier route than the northwest face, so we changed plans and decided on the NW face, taking a route similar to one found online but more to the left on the lower part of the mountain.

The approach was very easy – you are able to park within a mile of the base. We made quick work of the bottom half of the mountain and enjoyed the high quality rock as we scrambled higher while the route steepened. Near the top, we pulled out the rope and ended up climbing 3 pitches of easy 5th class – probably 5.4 at the most.

Overall, the route was simple, straightforward, and really fun! The rock quality was as excellent as the views! After enjoying the summit vista and adding our names to the “register” (which consisted of a medicine bottle with a small piece of paper and a pencil in it, to which we attached a red piece of webbing in an effort to make it more visible), we descended the southwest face, said hello to a scraggly mountain goat, hopped back on the trail, and jogged back to the car, with a round trip of about 6 hours. We will definitely be back to this mountain to explore more routes.

(The first photo below, of me on the last pitch, was taken by Jeremy (www.jeremylato.com). All other photos taken by me.)

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Turned back again…

Yet another unsuccessful attempt. A few weeks ago, Andrew, Parker, and I attempted to climb and ski what is possibly a new route on the north face of Mt. Breitenbach – Idaho’s 5th highest peak and the 4th highest in the Lost River Range. I’ve been looking at this line for a long time. In the route photo, which is not mine, but from SummitPost.org, you can see the line we wanted to take, although we only made it to the red mark.

After leaving the truck at 445am, which was much too late of a start, we made our way up a somewhat lengthy approach to the snowfields below the wishbone couloir. Things were already starting to heat up. There were old wet slides everywhere and runnels in the couloirs so we decided to leave skis and just go for the climb, and either walk down the other side, or walk down/rappel however far we make it up the route. We made it up the first several hundred feet with no issues, and made it to the base of the two couloirs. The original plan was to climb the looker’s right side couloir, but upon arrival, the left seemed like a more straightforward choice.

We made it about a third of the way up the couloir in a running belay and started to notice more and more small snow and rock debris coming down the couloir. The snow was still solid in the shady couloir but the sunlight outside the walls was hot. Just as we were discussing whether to continue up or retreat based on our late start and lack of clear descent route, a basketball-sized rock came barreling off the cliffs above and landed in the snow about 20 feet behind us, where we had just been climbing through. We decided that rockfall hazard was increasing quickly with the heat and that a fast retreat was probably our best option.

We remained in a sort of swinging running belay as we down climbed, always leaving at least one snow stake in for the steep section until we were out of the couloir, where we then simply walked down through the 1-3 foot deep mushy snow. Exhausted, we napped for an hour or so while listening to the soothing sounds of rockfall on the face. We woke up to the reality that we still had to make it back to the truck. The hike back was somewhat brutal, probably due to the heavy packs with both ski and climbing equipment. Although disappointed we didn’t make it to the top via this route, it was satisfying getting back to camp knowing we had nothing planned for the rest of the day. We hope to return to complete this route, hopefully within a couple of weeks!image_1 image_6 image_5 photo 2 photo 3

Bushwhacking and snow bivying in the Boulders

This was an interesting trip. Having climbed and skied Ryan Peak’s north face last June, we got a great view of the north couloir on its neighboring peak, Kent. This was a low snow year so we thought there was a chance the couloir might not have snow in it. Rather than try to ski it, we decided just to bring gear to climb it if it was doable and walk off the other side to get back.

There was a slight chance of precipitation that night but as Andrew and I were leaving the truck at the far reaches of the North Fork Big Lost River Road, the weather looked nice so we just brought sleeping bags and pads, which is what we usually do when the weather is good.

We began the trail-less trek to the base of Kent Peak’s north face, and after about an hour of slow-speed tree hurdles we made it out of the trees and into the bigger and steeper than expected valley. From here we traversed steep slopes towards the base of the couloir, encountering a mountain goat along the way. Eventually we made it to snow, and tromped our way up to some small patches of rock right below the north couloir, which was disappointingly lacking enough snow for a good climb (and definitely wasn’t skiable!).

Bummed we won’t be climbing but enjoying the view and appreciating the fact that we didn’t have to wake up at 3, we laid our pads on the rocks (no, it wasn’t comfortable) and got into our sleeping bags as we prepared dinner, noticing the wind picking up and clouds moving in. As we went to sleep while it began to lightly snow, we joked about how exposed we were, with no tent, surrounded by snow and rocks, at 10,000′. We laughed and then tightened up our sleeping bags, going into mummy mode.

When I woke up an hour later, there was a mini blizzard outside, with snow blowing sideways all around us. Still warm, and glad this precipitation didn’t arrive in the form of rain, I burrowed back into my bag and tried to get back to sleep on my super comfortable rock mattress. It continued snowing and at one point there was about a half inch of snow on top of everything, including us. Somehow, we stay dry and mostly warm through the night, and woke up to blue skies! The walk out always seems longer than the walk in, but we made it back to the truck in a couple of hours. I can’t wait to come back earlier next year and ski this one.

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