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.



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.

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.)

photo 4 mustang howard peak from wildhorse creek trail creek climbing mustang howard peak 2 climbing mustang howard peak 1 andrew dunning flaking ropesummit view from mustang peak wildhorse creek drainage old hyndman and hyndman peak from mustang howard peak wildhorse creek north face old hyndman wildhorse creek 1 image

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.

image_1 image_2 image_3 image_4 image_5 image_6 image_7

Skiing Leatherman Peak

After a couple failed attempts on some more technical lines recently (no thanks to our strange spring snowpack), we decided to keep it mellow for once and just climb and ski something simple. We had been spending a lot of time in the Lost Rivers this spring and so we decided Leatherman Peak was perfect. Leatherman Peak is the 2nd highest peak in Idaho behind Mt. Borah (which we have yet to do in winter/spring conditions), and its Northeast face rises 3000′ above the West Fork of the Pahsimeroi River.

The approach is simple and relatively short. We camped out the night before at the trailhead to Leatherman Pass. The skiing crew consisted of my brother Andrew, Parker Brown, and myself, while Jeremy hung back in camp to take photos.

We woke up at 1230am and had a small breakfast with some black tea. Luckily we woke up early enough to be able to justify groggily stumbling around camp for a little while before we finally hit the trail at 115. Trails are a rare thing for us, and we appreciated this one as we made better than expected time through the forest to the base of Leatherman and the beginning of the snow.

Still in total darkness, we began climbing up steep snow and rock with our headlamps on (only later, on the way back down, did we realize that we took an overly difficult route up this bottom section). I was feeling very strong, and we made good time as we progressed up the climber’s right side of the northeast face. Eventually, we gained the ridge, giving us a breathtaking view of neighboring White Cap peak basking in the golden morning sun. The views from this point on were absolutely spectacular as we watched the sun rise over the mountains and valleys behind us while the desert to the immediate west of the range was still dark in the shadows of the early morning hours.

We continued on in great climbing conditions, without the need for even a single axe, occasionally climbing over small rock sections. At 645, we reached the small summit, excited to be somewhere so cool so early in the morning! With a slight wind, the summit was just a little chilly as the sun’s pace of rising seemed to slow. Because of the size of the range compared to the desert 6000′ below, a tremendous shadow of the mountain projects halfway across the valley below, creating one of the most magnificent vistas I have ever seen.

After taking everything in both mentally and digitally, we started to make a plan for the descent. While the conditions were good for climbing on the way up, there was no freeze the night before, with the low only reaching 45 at the truck. The snow down low was mush even in the dark hours, and although the snow was mostly supportable on the way up, we knew it wouldn’t last long once the sun hit it. Rather than trying to wait to time it just right, we decided to drop right away and get headed back to camp.

The snow was good. We all agreed it was like a slightly icy Baldy groomer, which is better than it sounds. We all skied pretty high-speed almost non-stop, regrouping a couple times on the way down to give each other super stoked high fives. After skiing 3000′ to the meadow below, we put our shoes back on, strapped the skis back to the packs, and hiked slash jogged back to camp, arriving at 10am.

The rest of the day was spent lazing around and recouping, with plenty of hours of napping. At 6pm, Andrew and I woke up and decided we were going to hike back towards Leatherman Pass and try to climb the north face of White Cap peak. We spent a couple hours hiking back toward where we had just came from and then headed west toward Pass Lake, which would be our bivy spot. Upon arrival, after noticing the beauty of the still-frozen lake below the huge peaks in the evening light, we also noticed that all the routes looked very difficult, most being steep couloirs blocked by vertical rock at the bottom. The routes looked hard, especially considering the plan was to climb most of it in the dark. We decided instead to just enjoy the view, sleep in, and then head back to camp. A several minute long period of rockfall during the night, and plenty more in the morning, reassured us that we made the right choice. image_10 image_9 image_8 image_3 image_6 image_7 image_4 image_5 image_4 image_1 image_2 image image_8 image_7 image_6 image_5 image_9 image_2 image image_1

Sierra East Side

The end of May was a fun (and busy) couple of weeks. My brother Andrew and I left Idaho en route to Lake Tahoe, which has been our home for the past 4 years while we attended school at Sierra Nevada College. Now, after finishing classes in December, we were returning to participate in our graduation ceremony! It was a great time – awesome to see friends from school and hang with family while celebrating a pretty big milestone.

We didn’t spend much time at the Lake after graduation, as we headed down to the Bay Area to begin a 3-day, 225 mile bike ride from Sunol to Paso Robles with our Dad. It actually all went smoother than I expected and besides a sore butt after our first (90 mile) day, I felt strong for the entire ride. It was nice to experience via bike a gorgeous part of California that you would not usually see in a car as the route took all back roads.

After the ride, we left the Bay and headed for an old favorite spot – Yosemite’s Tioga Pass. Having just come from graduation and a road bike ride, we weren’t properly prepared for this unplanned stop. With plenty of snow left to play on, we found ourselves wishing we had brought ski and ice gear. Without crampons, there was no way to access most of the alpine rock routes, either. The trip ended up being more of a scenic tour as we enjoyed a sunset on the smooth granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows, camped in the van, and then proceeded back down the pass in the morning, where we then enjoyed views of the beautiful and strange Mono Lake. What looks like a desolate martian landscape is actually home to an extremely productive ecosystem of trillions of brine shrimp, algae, and millions of migratory birds.

With its high deserts, martian lakes, ghost towns, and snowy peaks, California’s Eastern Sierra is one of the most treasured spots in the state.

image_4 image_1 image_7 image_6 image image_3 image_5

City of Rocks

Fed up with the delicate spring snow conditions, we decided to take a few days off and experience a different realm – vertical rock! Having lived in Idaho for 10 years now, I’ve always heard of the City of Rocks but have never been. I used to rock climb when I was much younger and am only now getting back into it as I expand my knowledge and experience of my main interest, which is climbing and skiing in the alpine environment.

It is no wonder that this area was designated as a National Reserve – the City of Rocks is truly magical. While the rocks have nowhere near the height or grandeur of a place like Yosemite Valley, the quality and quantity of routes here will excite any climber or mountain lover. Even for people who like to stay on the ground, City of Rocks provides some of the most beautiful, interesting, and unique views in the whole state.

After staying for a couple days, we realized we did much more hiking than climbing as we tried to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the City. We spent some time top roping a few short and easy 5.9’s, and then spent a full day practicing our leading skills on a 5.6, which was my first lead on rock.

As soon as Saturday rolled around, every camping spot in the Reserve was taken and the popular climbing routes started having lines, so we packed up and headed out! Although I’ve heard about the scorching summer heat at the City, I will definitely be back here soon!image photo 3 photo 2 image_4 photo 1 image_6 image_5photo 5image_3 image_2 image_7 photo 4image_1

Attempt on Summit Creek Peak

After scoping some cool lines in the vicinity of the Trail Creek road during our last trip over the pass, we decided to make an attempt on Summit Creek peak via a steep, semi-technical climbing route followed by a mellow ski descent back down (on the route picture, red is up; green is down).

The day before the attempt, we headed off from the van in the late afternoon with very heavy packs filled with plenty of climbing and ski gear. We made it to (very mushy) snow within 30 minutes and skinned for another 2 hours or so to reach camp at about 8400′ in the basin below Summit Creek peak. Luckily we found some freshly melted out ground for the tent, which we promptly set up and crawled into after a quick dinner.

When our alarm went off at 4am we quickly fired up the stove to heat some water for our oatmeal, which we quickly consumed before hitting the snow. At 430am the snow felt good and hard near camp – things were looking good!

However, not 30 minutes later as we headed up a steeper slope into the higher basin did things begin to change. As we got on to the deeper snowpack, we realized only the top 4 inches or so was frozen solid – a result of the slow transformation process (no thanks to the recent high nighttime lows) of our layered, faceted winter snowpack into a solid spring/summer snowpack. While skinning we began to collapse through this top layer and found ourselves swimming in feet of sugar – hardly the type of snow we were looking for to climb a near 50 degree snow line.

Conditions continued to deteriorate to the point where we could make almost no upward progress through the snow. With the sun shining bright and beginning to heat things up, we decided to abort. We clicked into our bindings and skied carefully back to the tent.

Wanting to make the most of our failed mission, we decided to practice our roped climbing and anchor skills by climbing a short couloir near camp. After that, we packed up and skied one of the most unenjoyable sections of snow back towards the car. 55+ pound packs and skiing through pine bough covered snow with patches of dirt every couple hundred feet is no fun. After a rough final stream crossing, we finally made it back to the van!


Skiing the Sickle Couloir

This Wednesday, Irie extraordinaire Danny Walton, Parker Brown, and I headed out from Redfish Lake to the Fishhook Yurt (courtesy of Sun Valley Trekking) in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains for a successful attempt at an Idaho Classic: The Sickle Couloir on Horstmann Peak (10,475′).

Thursday morning, after skinning a few miles while gaining some 2000 vertical feet, we arrived in Horstmann Peak’s awe-inspiring northeast cirque where we were granted gorgeous views all around and a look at our final objective. We skinned as high as we could, then pulled out the tools and began the 1000+ foot climb to the top of the couloir.

Conditions were excellent: 8-10″ of dense spring powder with a supportable layer underneath. We kept a steady pace and were 3/4’s of the way to the top when we heard a “3-2-1 dropping” from above. A group of 5 from Jackson had come up from the other side and dropped in on our untracked line. Oh well. They beat us to it – we should have been up earlier!

After waiting for the group to pass we continued up the last couple hundred feet to the top. This section constricts quite a bit and gets very steep – around 55 degrees. The group that scraped off a lot of the fresh snow actually provided us with perfect climbing conditions to get to the top of this very steep section. A little behind schedule, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the top, and after some water and a snack, promptly clicked into our bindings, buckled our boots, and dropped in on one of steepest lines I’ve skied.

The pucker factor was high – the first few hundred feet consisted of controlled hop-turn slip, hop-turn slip, hop-turn slip. You don’t want to take a fall up here. Once we were through the crux, we opened it up and enjoyed blower powder all the way to the bottom of the cirque.

After another short break to catch our breath, we wasted no time skiing down to the yurt to quickly pack our gear and head back to the trailhead via a mostly flat, half-melted skin track. It had been a 9 mile, 11 hour day by the time we got back to the van. The waiting IPAs were a very welcomed treat. photo 2photo 3photo 7photo 1photo 8photo 5photo 4photo 6