Sawtooth Mountains

You can see why they call them the Sawtooth Mountains

On our trip to the US this summer we did spend five days in Boise. While we were there I wanted to visit the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho. They were my old stomping grounds for hiking, my home mountains for the many years that I had lived in Boise. Last year Sandy and I had planned to go up for an overnight in Stanley and a day or two of hiking. Summer weather in the Sawtooths is pretty dependable so it seemed like a safe bet. But last summer the wildfires in the west were so bad that most of the Idaho mountains were in a haze. That didn't seem like it would be much fun - no views and breathing more smoke than in a crowded bar. So we had cancelled our hotel and skipped the hikes. But this year the weather and the smoke situation looked good so I really wanted to get up there.

Sandy had already made arrangements for a quilt shop hop with some friends so I had an open day to go to the mountains. I thought it would be fun to hike with someone so I called on an old friend from my days at hp, Jim Brusseau. He offered to drive so I didn't have to battle with Sandy to see who would get the rental car. Jim took early retirement from hp a few years before I did. Yeah, that makes him even older than me. He has been doing a variety of interesting jobs since then. During the winter he works as a ski instructor up at Bogus Basin Ski Resort. A few years ago he spent two summers working on fire crew for the US Forest Service. Since most of the people who do that job are college students working for the summer, he claims to have the distinction of being the oldest rookie fire crew member in the history of the Forest Service. This summer he works for Cascade Raft Company, an outfitter which runs whitewater raft trips on the South Fork of the Payette River. I just don't know how he manages to come up with these gigs.

Maybe I should have brought my ice axe and crampons

Fortunately the rafters were able to do without Jim for a day so he picked me up bright and early at the hotel. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny but not too hot. It would be even better up in the mountains. It was a lot of fun to drive up to the Sawtooths again. I had made that drive so many times and it is always beautiful. Up along the South Fork of the Payette River, through Lowman and over to the west side of the Sawtooths. Then a long curve around the Sawtooth Wilderness to reach the trailheads on the east side of the mountains near the town of Stanley. It takes two and a half to three hours to drive to the trailhead. It was fun as we got a chance to talk and catch up on what we had been doing the past year. I hadn't seen Jim since the summer before when I had visited Boise. We also passed the time with some friendly competitions, you know how guys are. Like seeing who missed working at hp the least. That was a tough one. Or who was more disgusted with the Bush Adminstration. Even tougher. I think we ended up in a tie.

One of my favorite places in the whole world

The hike we did was to Sawtooth Lake. It is my standard hike in the Sawtooths. I have probably done that hike at least fifteen times, more than any other hike. That's unusual because I don't repeat many hikes. This was a nostalgic trip for me. By contrast Jim had been in Idaho for many years and hiked a lot but had never done this hike. It is about ten miles round trip and about 1800 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. A hard workout but not too bad. At about 8600 feet Sawtooth Lake is unusually large for a lake along the crest of the Sawtooths. Mt. Regan is over 10,000 feet and it's spectacular east face dominates the lake. Years ago I had climbed the east face with my old climbing partner, Brian Breckenridge. It is an easy technical climb but one of the hardest I have done in the Sawtooths. We needed ice axes and ropes and had to rappel off the summit block. A gentler slope goes up the backside of Alpine Peak from the lake. I had actually climbed that mountain with my dog Binzer (climbers often disdainfully refer to the easiest route up the backside of a mountain as the "dog route"). I have done numerous hikes and climbs around Sawtooth Lake. It is one of the most beautiful places in Idaho and one of my favorite places in all the mountains I have been to around the world.

There was a full parking lot, about 15 cars, at the trail head. Or to be more precise, the transfer camp. Only in the Sawtooths do they call trailheads "transfer camps". I guess it comes from years ago when that was the place you switched from cars to horses. Somebody was probably too cheap to change the signs so they are still called transfer camps. We started from the Iron Creek Transfer Camp. Although the parking lot was full we only saw a few parties on the trail. The trail followed Iron Creek and rose gradually through forest for the first few miles. It came out in a high basin where there is a stream crossing. Usually the stream is pretty low and you can easily cross on rocks and various logs in the water. But Jim said it had been a cool and wet spring followed by about two weeks of really hot weather (this was July 8). The stream had a lot of water flowing. There was a pile of logs for crossing but they weren't far out of the water. They were unsteady, wet and slippery. Hiking is fun! We spent quite a while studying them but it didn't seem to be getting any easier. Finally we just went for it and made it across.

Jim looking just like he used to at hp. Or was it the Forest Service? Or the Marine Corps?

After the stream crossing there is a big hill to climb to reach a ridge overlooking Alpine Lake. Or one Alpine Lake. There are three Alpine Lakes that I know of in the Sawtooths. This one up Iron Creek. One up Redfish Creek. And one up Alturas Lake Creek. I guess the people who named the features in the Sawtooths weren't too imaginative. The view of the lake is partially obscured by the trees so we kept on going. The last mile gains 600 feet to Sawtooth Lake. Just short of the lake we hit snow. The trail disappeared in spots but since I had been up there so many times I knew where we were going. And the snow wasn't really a problem except for crossing the outlet of Sawtooth Lake where it overhung the streamsides. We decided to go a ways to get around it rather than risk breaking through and breaking a leg. But we reached the lake and settled in for lunch at my favorite spot facing the East Face of Mt. Regan.

Nice hat, dude

It was a nice hike back down facing out towards the Stanley Valley. I was a little worried about the stream crossing we had to make on the way back though. When we reached the stream there were two hikers on the other side. They were about twentyish and had big backpacks on and were studying the large flow in the creek with the same concern that we had when we had gotten there earlier on our way up. As we were approaching they shouted over to ask us if it was as hard to cross as it looked. Without answering I just kept going and zoomed right across without even breaking stride. Jim did the same right behind me. As we walked down the trail I said over my shoulder "no, it's not too bad". Two old guys are never going to agonize over a problem when they have a chance to show someone up! As we disappeared down the trail we heard them mumbling something about it being a lot harder with full backpacks.

Then it was back to the car. We stopped and had a pizza at Sawtooth Luce's in Stanley. Pizza tastes even better after a hike. After a while the waitress did stop coming by to ask if I wanted refills on my Coke though. Then it was back to Boise. An absolutely wonderful day in the mountains.

Additional pictures

That's Stanley waaaaaaaay down there in the valley