One of my hiking buddies, Dave Thiel, is a Sawtooth Mountain chauvinist. He's a strong believer that the Sawtooths are one of the best places in the US to hike. He feels that the combination of scenery, accessibility, wilderness character, terrain and climate can't be beat. He points out that they have spectacular rocky peaks and beautiful mountain lakes. They are only a two and a half hour drive from Boise so even day trips are possible. There is very little development and a small trail population. The forests are fairly open and cross country travel is relatively easy. The weather is dependable during the summer from the beginning of July till as late as the end of October. I've traveled in lots of different mountain ranges and I have to admit that he has a point. I have lived in Idaho and hiked in the Sawtooths for over thirty years and I think of the Sawtooths as my home mountains.
Dave has had a favorite hike in the Sawtooths for many years. (Actually he has a new favorite hike based on a trip we did this summer but that is a subject for another post.) It is to an unnamed lake below Thompson Peak. He even refers to it as "Dave's Lake". He has hiked there many times and does the hike at least once every season. He and I did a day hike there together last summer. Dave's Lake is in a high cirque right below the impressive east face of Thompson Peak. Because of his many trips there, Dave has always wanted to climb Thompson Peak.
Thompson Peak is 10,751 feet high. It is the highest mountain in the Sawtooths. According to Idaho: A Climbing Guide, the standard route is third class. Just a scramble, not difficult technically. Still it is far from any trail and the route finding is somewhat difficult. So Dave was looking to partner with me to make an attempt on Thompson.
I climbed it many years ago. It was back in the early eighties when I spent a lot of my time every summer climbing in the Sawtooths. To be honest, it was so long ago that I am not even sure what year it was: 1981, 82 or 83. I did the climb with an old HP colleague named Greg Chandler. We backpacked into the high basin and camped above Dave's Lake. The next day we climbed to the saddle between Thompson Peak and nearby Williams Peak and from there went up the north ridge. We roped up for the last stretch to the summit. We got to the top but according to the guidebook hadn't found the easiest route. It didn't matter because in those days I was a lot more excited about technical climbing. Besides, this was before there were any guide books published about the Idaho mountains, or any internet trip reports to tell us the best route. All we had were topo maps and our own eye for a route. It was practically the Stone Age.
Dave and I had intended to climb Thompson ever since I had returned from Singapore but somehow had never actually put the trip together. Either one of us was traveling, or had out-of-town company, or couldn't get away for some reason. We thought it might be too late for this season but finally the stars were all aligned. We had the chance to get away and the weather was predicted to be good for several days. The climb was on!
I have to admit that the days when I did a lot of backpacking were a long time ago. The last backpacking trip I had done was five years ago when I did a solo three day loop through the Queens River country in the southern part of the Sawtooths. I had to do a lot of digging through boxes of old gear to get all the stuff that I needed ready. Dave was in a similar situation. It was even longer since he had been backpacking and he had a lot of gear he had bought that he hadn't tried out yet. The trip would be a good test for his new sleeping bag and high tech tent.
Wednesday morning we were off. Normally when we go to the Sawtooths for day trips it requires starting ridiculously early in the morning so that we have time to drive there, do our hike (both ways), and drive back by a reasonable time. For this trip we could get a lazy start. We only had to drive to Stanley, have lunch, then hike one way to camp. Neither of us are enthusiastic campers so we saw no advantage to getting to camp early. We just needed enough time to get our camp set up and have a light dinner. Neither of us bothered bringing anything to cook for dinner. We figured a cold snack was sufficient - we indulged in a big lunch in Stanley before starting out. Dave did bring his old backpacking stove along so that he could make hot tea. After all, he had a small flask of whiskey and he needed something that he could add a shot to in order to have a nightcap. For me, if I couldn't have Diet Pepsi or a nice Sauvignon Blanc then I would just get by with cold water.
The weather was glorious. We didn't see a cloud in the sky all day. The temperature was perfect too - probably about sixty so a tshirt was comfortable but you could hike hard without overheating and getting drenched with sweat. That's always a good thing when there is no shower waiting at the end of the day's hike. I thought that it might be cooler up in the mountains but when we reached the trailhead at Redfish Lake I left some of my extra warm clothes in the car to lighten my pack. Even with the excellent weather there was only one other car in the backpacker parking lot. On a normal weekend in the summer there would be thirty cars there. It looked like we had the mountains to ourselves.
As usual it took longer than we expected to get our packs ready. I was carrying an old-fashioned JanSport external frame backpack that I'd had for thirty years but good gear lasts and lasts. I used an old trick I had developed in my youth - instead of carrying my sleeping bag in a stuff sack I put it in my day pack which I then lashed to my frame pack. That way I would have the day pack with me for the summit climb instead of my main pack, but without having to carry an extra item. Unfortunately as we started out my pack was still heavier than I would have liked. Still, as we left I struck an intrepid pose for a photo at the trailhead.
There are three trails that leave from the Redfish Lake trailhead. The Bench Lake trail leads to a series of five alpine lakes. It's four miles each way and 1200 feet of elevation gain to the first lake. It's the standard day hike from Redfish Lake. The Fishhook Creek trail is only two miles long and basically flat. It leads to a meadow with a nice view of the Sawtooths. It is a good early season hike or an easy walk for people who aren't hikers. The Marshall Lake trail leads to ...wait for it... Marshall Lake and then continues north as the Alpine Way trail. Marshall Lake isn't that impressive and the Alpine Way just parallels the front of the range - not really very interesting or useful. So that trail gets very little traffic. But that was what we would use to approach Thompson Peak. There was a registration box at the beginning of the trail and we learned that the car belonged to the only other person who had signed in for the trail that day. She was on the short and easy Fishhook Creek trail. We were going towards Marshall Lake so we didn't expect that we would see anyone. That prediction turned out to be true - on a glorious two day trip we didn't see a single person. That's the Idaho wilderness.
After about half a mile the trails diverged and we began to climb the ridge out of the Fishhook Creek drainage. It was definitely late in the season. The ridge has a lot of aspen but they had already lost most of their leaves. In September this is one of the prettiest hikes in the Sawtooths when the aspens turn gold. Across the valley there are more stands of aspen on the foothills of the White Cloud Mountains. But most of the color was gone already. We still got beautiful views as we climbed higher onto the ridge. Unlike the Sawtooths, the White Clouds are hidden from the floor of the Stanley Valley by foothills to the west. But as we gained elevation we could see over the foothills to the light-colored group of peaks that give the range its name - the White Cloud Peaks. We could also see the isolated mountain of Castle Peak - one of the most impressive mountains in the state. Conservationists fought and won a major battle in the 1970's to prevent a huge open pit molybdenum mine from being dug in the heart of the White Clouds. Many years later it turned out to be the right decision. Although molybdenum is a major component of steel, the market has been depressed for the past several decades because of oversupply. And Dave and I still had our fantastic view, one that we both had enjoyed many times before on previous hikes. After about an hour we passed the Sawtooth Wilderness boundary. Now we were officially in the wilderness.
After about four miles of hiking we reached a shoulder of Williams Peak and split off from the trail on a climber's/hiker's track. This was not a maintained trail but rather a track worn by the boots of many hikers and climbers who had come before. It started with a VERY steep climb. Then the track traversed a steep hillside into the basin below Williams Peak. Although the track made it a lot easier, it was still not a maintained trail, not a reasonable grade, very narrow, quite slippery in places and was an awful lot of work. Especially with a heavy pack. After a long rising traverse there was another very steep uphill section. When we topped out on the slope Dave suggested that this was the best spot to camp so we dropped our packs for the night. I figured that with his many hikes into the basin Dave knew where we should camp. That, plus I was completely wasted after hauling a full pack across the traverse and up the steep climbs we had done since leaving the trail. It looked like a good camp spot to me!
Actually it was a really nice place to camp. There was a large flat area with the last trees and a small stream. We had two hours of light left and could have continued another three hundred feet higher to Dave's Lake but it wouldn't be nearly as nice a campspot. As soon as we stopped I changed into dry and warm clothes for the evening. We set up Dave's tent, had a few snacks, and watched the light of the sunset on the White Cloud Peaks across the valley. Soon a full moon rose to add to the picture. It was dark by seven thirty but we continued talking for another hour. It was actually surprisingly warm for the mountains in late October. The forecast for the low in Stanley was only twenty degrees, but I had found a website that gave a forecast low for 9000 feet on Thompson Peak of forty degrees. Since we were at 8700 feet that should be pretty close. With clear skies and very little wind there was an inversion. The cold air just rolled down from the high mountains into the valley and made it much colder down in Stanley than up where we were. So it was actually quite pleasant.
At 8:30 we climbed into the tent. At 8:36 Dave was snoring. Maybe I should have taken him up on his offer of some hot tea with a shot of whiskey. I didn't fall asleep till after 11:30 but in the meantime I was content just to lay there. I was really worn out after the hike up to camp with a full pack.
Even a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night wasn't bad. It really wasn't very cold out. The stars were spectacular, although not as much as they could have been since there was a full moon. Still, it was a lot more stars than I am used to seeing from in the city in Boise. At first Cygnus and Lyra were prominent overhead but then in the early morning hours they were replaced by my favorite constellation, Orion. The mountains looked surreal in the light of the full moon. It was quite a beautiful sight. I actually stayed outside for several minutes admiring the view rather than just making a quick dash back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
I was looking forward to sleeping in the next day. I knew that it didn't get light until sometime between 7:30 (still dark) and 8:00 (light). I figured that since it would be really cold in the morning we would stay in our sleeping bags until the sun hit our camp and warmed things up. We didn't expect a long day so sleeping in until it warmed up was no big deal. But I woke up before eight oclock and Dave was already up and had his stove going to make more tea. This time without the shot of whiskey I presumed. But it wasn't very cold. I didn't really have a good excuse for rolling over to go back to sleep. So I got up too.
I hadn't fallen asleep until late but we had been in our tent so long I still got quite a few hours of sleep. That was good as I was counting on a good rest. After hauling the packs up into the basin I had been pretty wasted the night before. A good nights sleep though would have me ready to run up the mountain. After the normal morning stuff (brush teeth, bathroom stop, change to hiking clothes, etc.) we were ready to go. We left camp at eight in the morning.
It was another gorgeous day with a beautiful blue sky. We hiked up the 300 vertical feet to Dave's Lake in about twenty minutes. We didn't stop but continued higher into the basin towards the headwall at the back of the basin. Now that I could see it, it looked quite steep and intimidating. It was the obstacle that we had to get over to reach the Thompson/Williams saddle and the correct route wasn't obvious. We swung wide to the right to avoid the cliffs around Dave's Lake and proceeded up.
After Dave's Lake I got my first indication that things were not good. It usually takes a bit to warm up when starting out hiking in the morning, but I was still dragging. Any uphill was tough. I was feeling just as gassed going uphill as I had felt when we got to camp at the end of the day yesterday. This was not good. We had a long way to go and a lot of elevation to gain. But I put my head down, went slowly and methodically, and kept going uphill.
Bad news. This was not working. I don't know if it was altitude, being out of shape, being overweight, or (d) all of the above, but I was not going well. I set an objective to reach the top of the slope we were on, just below the headwall, as my turn around point. When we got there I told Dave that I wasn't feeling well. I suggested that he go ahead to the peak while I go back to camp. He said that he would just explore the headwall so I stayed where I was while he went ahead. First he tried the left side but had to turn back. Then he went up the right side and was able to make it to the saddle. So we knew that the headwall could be surmounted and the saddle reached. From there the route circles 180 degrees around the mountain to a gully that proceeds up to the summit. But not this time. Sad words for a climber, maybe next year. It was a difficult decision. I wasn't completely finished but I knew that we had a long way to go to the summit, back again to camp, and then a long hard hike out with packs to the car. I felt that it was the right call to abort.
It was actually a lot of work to hike back down to Dave's Lake. The terrain was deceptive. It kept drawing you towards the lake but then cliff bands would block progress and we would have to climb back up and around to continue. That wasn't fair - we were supposed to be descending! On the way down I came across a large cairn with a brass plaque on it. It was dedicated to someone who "died here but also lived here". I looked it up after getting home and it was a memorial to a young woman who died in a fall on Thompson Peak in 1999. She had been working for the summer at Redfish Lake Lodge and went on a hiking trip with friends up Thompson Peak. She never came back. Sometimes turning around is the right thing to do.
We reached Dave's Lake, had a quick snack, and headed back to camp. We packed up our stuff, and now with heavy packs, headed back on the tough traverse back to the car. The traverse was difficult but going down hill it went quickly. In half an hour we were back at the trail. Then it was just a two hour slog back to the car. I was going slowly but I still beat Dave back to the car. He admitted when he got down that he was really tired too. I guess we are both getting old.
It was still two fantastic days in the mountains. It was also a chance to backpack again, something neither of us had done for a while. I was really disappointed to not make it to the summit, in fact not even to get really high on the mountain. I finished thinking that I really wanted to try again next year. Dave was saying that maybe he had been high on Thompson and wasn't all that excited about making it to the top anymore. We'll see what we can do next year. I'm determined to get up Thompson Peak and a couple of other mountains in the Sawtooths as well next year (Horstmann Peak, Mount Everly, Elk Peak).
Sadly on the way back we saw smoke from a forest fire that had started just that day north of Stanley. It obviously wasn't lightning, so some hunters must have been careless. Bummer.