Category Archives: Idaho

Snowshoe; also Scotchman

Snowshoe’s east face


Ticking off “ultra-prominence” peaks is sort of silly, but it does lead me to ranges I would not normally visit. The Cabinet Mountains, in far northwest Montana, are not especially high, with generally poor rock and only one small glacier, so I would normally skip them. However, they are home to Snowshoe Peak, one of Montana’s four ultras, so I took the time to visit on my way to Canada, and was pleasantly surprised. The range reminded me a bit of the Cascades, with U-shaped glacial valleys, crappy rock, savage bush-whacking, and even a bit of devil’s club. It also feels much more “redneck” than other parts of the state I have visited. Snowshoe Peak, Mine, and Lake were all named by some miner who spent several frustrating hours nearby repairing his snowshoe.

Snowshoe trail

Driving to the trailhead in the endless evening light, I missed the Leigh Lake turnoff, found an unexpected gated inholding, and ended up at the Snowshoe Mine site. I could have driven back to find the correct trailhead, but I thought (incorrectly) that SummitPost listed a route starting where I was parked, and I was tired of driving. So I settled in and read a bit, then tried to sleep while it was still light out.

Here endeth the trail

Expecting a short outing, I took my time in the morning, starting off around 6:30, which is really more like 5:30 or 6:00 this far west in the time zone. The Snowshoe Lake trail starts off promising enough, heading straight uphill along a pipe that was part of the old mine. Unfortunately, the trail peters out at the first lake, which is little more than a large mud-puddle. From there, a game trail with a few signs of human traffic heads north to a larger lake. I saw one of the white-tailed deer who maintain the trail as I wound through the brush.

Snowshoe, 7718, and lots of traversing

Any semblance of a trail ends in the bog near the upper lake. Embracing the suck, I continued north, eventually breaking out onto a plain of consolidated avalanche snow. Not sure of the best route, I climbed a steep chute west to a saddle, where I oriented myself and prepared for what looked like a long, frustrating traverse to Snowshoe. I followed goat trails through the krummholtz, finding a surprising cairn on 7718, and getting my first view of impressive Leigh Lake and its remaining icebergs.

Typical ledge terrain

After descending to a saddle, things became more complicated. The uplift rock rises to the south or southeast, so the holds are favorable either along the ridge or to the right. However, this means that ledges tend to lose elevation; also, the crumbly towers frustrate attempts to stay on the crest. I ended up splitting my time between the crest and ledges to the right, occasionally doing some 4th class climbing to surmount towers or regain the ridge. It was mostly pleasant climbing on surprisingly good rock, and I couldn’t complain about the view of Leigh Lake cirque, but the constant fight against downward-sloping ledges got old.

A Peak from Snowshoe

Where my ridge joined the standard Leigh Lake route the rock changed, and I found myself trying to follow goat paths through slightly-too-high cliff bands on the left side. After what felt like a few too many false summits, I finally reached the real one, where I was the first this year to sign the register. To the north, A Peak (yes, that’s its name) looked more impressive and just about as high; if I had not just suffered through so much ridge, I would have gone on to tag it.

Leigh Lake cirque

Retracing my route sounded miserable. There were a bunch of register entries mentioning the Leigh Lake route, so I decided to do that, then turn off my brain and hike/jog the road back to my car. After meandering back through the cliff bands, I found a cairn and a bit of trail, and started down the northeast ridge. The rock was not as good here, but the intermittent snow helped. I saw more cairns on the ridge, but lost whatever trail exists on the face, which was still mostly covered in snow.

East face from near Leigh Lake

Crossing a stream down near the lake, I found what I hoped was the start of a robust use trail. However, it faded and I lost it again above the lake outlet, and suffered what felt like a lot of wretched bush-whacking through woody berries and downward-sloping, slippery grass. I clearly need to up my bushwhack game before I get to the Cascades. Just as I emerged onto the real trail near a well-developed campsite, I met a man out for a dayhike, who I greeted with a nonsensical remark about brush. The trail was not in great shape, but at least it was easy to follow, and I was soon back on the road, with nothing but some tedium between me and my car.

Scotchman Peak

Things abruptly turned more redneck as I drove into Idaho, with a roadside quarry and a stack of rusting 1950s-era cars next to the road just past the border. Surprisingly, though, there is a nice trail up Scotchman Peak, reminiscent of the Washington “workout peaks” around Snoqualmie Pass. I had thought of doing this peak in the evening after Snowshoe, but I had had enough, so I saved it for the next morning. If you know roughly where to look, the trailhead is easy to find, with signs directing one to “Trail #65” from the forest road continuation of Main Street in Clark Fork. From the trailhead sign warning about mountain goats, a well-maintained trail climbs steadily to the summit, mostly in the woods.

Since I did this as a run, I did not carry a camera, but the views were partly obscured by clouds in any case. I managed about 3800 ft/hr on the meat of the climb, slower than I probably should be, but not far off expectations. The resident goats were waiting at the structure, and while they were clearly habituated, they were not aggressive, and moved out of the way for me to tag the summit and sign the register. As expected, there isn’t much Strava competition on this obscure peak, so I even nabbed the “record” on the descent, without taking the risks required to truly go fast.

Babel, She and He Devil

Devils from north of Babel

Devils from north of Babel


The Seven Devils are an odd little clump of mountains on the eastern side of Hell’s Canyon, the surprisingly-deep Snake River gorge separating Oregon from Central Idaho. Thanks to an amazingly well-maintained Forest Service road from the Idaho side reaching over 7,000 feet, all the peaks are easily accessible as dayhikes. She and He Devil are the co-equal regional highpoints bounded by enough deep valleys to give them over 5,000 feet of prominence; Tower of Babel was in the way.
First snow chute from trailhead

First snow chute from trailhead


Starting from the hiker parking, I passed through the mostly-empty campground, then wandered through the woods southwest toward a snow-chute. The summer trail passes near here, but was mostly covered by snow. After bypassing the steepest snow on some rocks, I followed bits of trail west, side-hilling to the higher north-south ridge.
Babel from approach

Babel from approach


I wasn’t sure exactly what was what, so I followed bits of use- and game-trail south along the ridge toward the obvious peak.
Crux gap before Babel

Crux gap before Babel

Where the ridge narrowed and steepened, things got surprisingly tricky thanks to multiple gendarmes and steep gashes. After some exploration on mossy but more-solid-than-it-looks rock reminiscent of the eastern Cascades, including some easy 5th-class downclimbing through one notch, I reached the summit of what I learned is Tower of Babel. From this vantage, She and He Devils were obvious to the west. Large summit cairns were clearly visible on some other nearby peaks, and no doubt it is possible to link up all seven “Devils” in a day, but I did not have the will.

After an extended moss-and-choss session, I reached the saddle with She Devil, from which cairns and bits of trail lead along the north side of the ridge to the broad summit.

He Devil from She Devil

He Devil from She Devil

The traverse to He Devil looked somewhat tricker. After causing myself some difficulty on another step in the ridge, I passed the inviting couloir down from the She/He saddle, and followed more choss and mossy 3rd class to a giant cairn on He Devil.
Summit of He Devil

Summit of He Devil


Like the other two peaks, its register showed it to be well-visited but, for some reason, almost never before July.
Hell's Canyon and Wallowas

Hell’s Canyon and Wallowas


Looking west, I could not quite see the Snake River in its gorge, which is slightly deeper and far less impressive than the Grand Canyon. Farther west, the snow-covered Wallowa Range, my next destination, was clearly visible. South and east lay many peaks in Idaho which looked higher than He Devil, but which probably fell short of 5,000 feet prominence by being connected to Borah by a high plateau.

After chickening out on a steeper couloir, I returned to the saddle and made a quick glissade north to the shore of a large lake. After an ascending traverse toward what seemed like the way back, I found a bit of a well-established trail, lost it again, and crossed my original north-south ridge somewhat south of the traverse back to Windy Saddle. From there, I retraced my steps, boot-skiing most of the way into the campground and returning to my solitary car at the trailhead.

Diamond

Diamond from the valley

Diamond from the valley


The highpoint of the Lemhi Range in southeast Idaho (named for a Mormon prophet?), Diamond is one of Idaho’s three ultra-prominence peaks. It is also one of nine peaks in the state over 12,000 feet, making it popular with the locals. This part of Idaho is basically Nevada done right: “pines, not spines.” It shares Nevada’s basin-and-range topography (hence the ultra-prominence), but the flora are grass and low sage in the valleys and northern evergreens above instead of unpleasant spiny things and junipers.

After sleeping in the middle of nowhere, I finished the drive to the “trailhead” (i.e. “end of the road”), where I found one pickup truck already parked. The route up the east ridge is obvious, and travel would be easy even without occasional bits of use trail. The first part of the route is an easy hike through open terrain and sparse woods. Above this, the ridge turns to loose scree for a brief stretch, then narrows to some fun class 2-3 scrambling on mostly-solid rock. I passed two groups on the way up: a man with his two kids, and a group of five men, two of them packing pistols. In all my outings, this is only the second time I have encountered armed hikers, which I still find strange.

I met yet another group on the summit, three guys working on the Idaho 12-ers. They asked when I had started, and were surprised to learn that I had taken half as long as they had to reach the summit. I was also pleased to find that I am physically ready for my main objectives, as 4000+ feet in 2 hours is good for me when not consciously trying for speed.

After hanging out on the summit for a bit, I headed back down the ridge. With some hesitation, I asked one of the armed men why he was carrying a pistol, carefully avoiding a political discussion, especially after his throwaway line about having a Constitutional right to carry it. I learned that he saw nature in a way alien to me, inserting himself in the food chain: the pistol was to defend against the threat of bears and wolves, while he would carry a rifle or bow to hunt elk later in the season. With the exception of grizzly bears, I tend to see animals as scenery, not food or threats; I worry more about falling off things, or things falling on me.

Jogging the last bit, I was back at the car before noon, ready for the long drive to the other side of the state.

Regan Peak

Regan and Sawtooth Lake


Regan Peak is what you see on the other side of Sawtooth Lake, at the northern end of the Sawtooth wilderness. Since it was advertised as a 4th class scramble with a trail approach, I figured I could make it to the top and not get lost.

While getting ready at the trailhead, I saw a man walk by with a dog and a gun. Not a hunting dog and a rifle, but a pet dog and a medium-sized pistol. That’s legal, of course — even in national parks these days — but it hardly put me in a good mood towards my fellow man. I assume he was himself against his fellow hikers, since I doubt it would do much to a bear or an enraged elk, and he probably couldn’t brain a grouse with it for dinner.

Moving on, the trail was snow-free until just below Sawtooth Lake, where I was accosted by someone’s “friendly” dog. The snow was hard-packed in the morning, so I traveled quickly around the lake, and on to the second small lake beyond, where I believed the climbing started. It looked like I could crampon up a snowfield, then scramble along a minor ridge to the skyline.

Alas, beyond the snowfield I ended up on trouser-filling terrain consisting of loose rock, steep dirt, and small patches of snow. With much nervous sweating and swearing, I reached the skyline and found walk-up terrain on the other side. Figures.

There was a bit of a fun block-maze to the summit itself, but nothing too difficult. The register canister, a thin-sided aluminum thing, contained only a note from a previous climber that the original register had been stolen, so I signed the note, then looked for a different way down.

I made for the large snowfield that slanted directly back to Sawtooth Lake and, after a bit more loose rock and some treacherously steep and soft snow, had a nice plunge-step and glissade descent to the lake.

The Sawtooths

There’s a lot to be said for the Sawtooths: They have fairly good trail access, and since they are a desert range, there is little undergrowth to get in the way of bushwhacking. Not many visitors seem to venture beyond the trails, and many of the peaks have no easy route, providing awesome solitude.

On the other hand, they are not far above treeline, so much of the approach can be in the forest. Also, they have a nasty mosquito season, which seems to occur exactly when I timed my visit.

The Sawtooth Wilderness

The Sawtooth Wilderness get a few things very right. For example, the trailheads allowing dogs also have a supply of leashes (cords with a loop at one end). Most people break the rules because they are lazy, not malicious: they left their leashes in the car or at home. Pieces of cord cost almost nothing, and make it easy for everyone to choose to do the right thing.

However, it’s among the most annoying National Forest Wildernesses I have visited. The popular campgrounds, and even some picnic areas, have been franchised out, so you now pay up to $16 for a campsite (picnic table, fire ring, shared outhouse), or $5 for a few picnic tables together. Things are better outside the Redfish Lake area, but still not great.

The developed trails are built for pack animals, with absurd near-horizontal switchbacks that eat up miles to gain relatively little elevation. I prefer not to cut switchbacks, but it was impossible to resist in many places.

Finally, note that while it no longer requires fording the creek, the upper Hell-roaring Creek trailhead is thoroughly hosed. A survey turned up that the parking area was about 200 yards into the designated wilderness area. The easy solution would have been to redraw the line. What actually happened was: they closed off the road a whole mile before the wilderness boundary, and have temporarily provided parking for perhaps 4-5 vehicles. Parking won’t be an issue — I found a slot in the woods — but the extra road-hike is a pain.

Stanley logistics

Stanley’s not bad for a town of 100 people. The library has free, donation-supported wireless and a small selection of current magazines. The Chamber of Commerce has a sparkling public bathroom, friendly staff, and some genuinely useful information.

Mount Borah

Informational sign


I’m not really a high-pointer, but when I realized that both tagging Borah and visiting the Sawtooths would only cost me about 200 driving miles, I couldn’t resist the chance.

Some farmer with a herd of maundering insomniac cows decided it was a great idea to turn them loose near the trailhead; I never knew there were so many ways to say “moo,” or that some cows are nocturnal. I still managed to get an early-ish start, and blasted the super-steep trail to treeline. I got a clear view of the rest of the route where it first levels out at the ridge: a long, slowly-climbing “C” curving south. I also got a face-full of miserable wind.

I tried to strike up a conversation with a friendly high-pointer from Chicago, but the wind made it too frustrating, so I gave up and moved on. The use trail through the talus was mostly clear of snow, and where it crossed snow-patches there was a good boot-pack. I tried to drown out the wind with loud, angry music, but I still wasn’t loving life.

While “chicken-out ridge” was slow class 3, the climb was much easier above that. I managed to lose the trail, but it didn’t really matter, since it was only marginally better than climbing the mixture of talus and rock ribs.

The summit has quite a view of the weirdly-striated rock of the Lost River range. It is also quite a sight, with no fewer than three American flags, a deer skull, an ammo box, and a piece of Christmas kitsch. Truly, this is the most patriotic mountain in the most patriotic state in the most patriotic nation on earth.

I thought I might do something really cool and tag Horstmann in the Sawtooths in the afternoon, but a combination of bushwhacking and total unfamiliarity with the area left me with a long, hot walk. Oh, well.

Seismic note

Borah rose seven feet in a 1983 earthquake, which also left an unvegetated stripe separating the valley floor from the range. I seem to have a knack for running across unexpected recent earthquake sites.

Ascent rate

The Borah trail is incredibly direct — 5100 feet in about 3.5 miles — so I also thought I might be able to put in a good ascent rate. My 2:49 was pretty disappointing — I had hoped for sub-2:30 or even sub-2:15 — but I think I lost most of the time talking to an actual high-pointer and putzing around on the ridge and talus. My split from the trailhead (7,500′) was about 1:10 to where the climb first levels out between tree-line and 11,300′ (“chicken-out ridge”), so I was probably managing close to 3,000′. I won’t be winning any races, but that’s good for me.