Category Archives: Sawtooth Mountains

Sawtooth Kidhood 1955: Snowyside Mountain #1

My dad had climbed 9,363 foot Greylock Mountain in Atlanta when he was a kid.

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I have a photo of him sitting atop a radio tower on Shafer Butte, a mile above Boise, when he was in his twenties.

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He had something about getting up and looking around.

In the 1950s he found out that from Snowyside Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains you can see right through the clear waters to the bottom of fifty-two lakes. Yea, there were some “difficult spots” on the climb to the top. But from what he heard the peak was easily reach by following the ridge that rises from the Alice-Toxaway Loop Trail.

At 10,651 feet, Snowyside is the fifth highest peak in the Sawtooths. In 1955, when I was ten, our family of five broke camp at Toxaway Lake, loaded up the pack horses, and set out for the day’s adventure of checking out those fifty-two lakes.

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Mom and my little sister made it to where the faint trail up Snowyside’s ridge gave way to rocks, bigger rocks and then boulders. Mom never was comfortable with heights and my sister’s legs were too short to get over the increasingly large stones so they decided to hunker down out of the wind.

My big sister Vicky, dad, Flip the dog and I pushed on.

I remember approaching the top of several peaks only to have another, higher peak appear just ahead. Those jagged high points before Snowyside Peak were a source of great disappointment and consternation.

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Then we came to a vertical wall that stopped us. Dad considered a way around but the slopes were too steep and covered with dangerous scree. Yet looking through fifty-two lakes was calling and soon Dad was pushing from the bottom and Vicky and I managed to scramble past the obstacle. Dad was tall enough and reached the scramble spot on his own.

Unfortunately Flip was a dog who never did follow instructions. And, to be fair, his lack of opposable thumbs for scrambling made his lack of obedience mote, so poor Flip was left behind. We were sure he’d be in the same spot waiting our descent.

The wall turned out to be part of the final assent to the summit of Snowyside Mountain. Soon our eyes were watching the slope in front of us give way to every increasing open sky without another peak taunting “not yet you haven’t reached the top.”

And right there at the top of Snowyside Mountain was a slobbering, smiling, tail-wagging Flip imploring us to come look-see!

Sawtooth Kidhood 1957: Switchbacks #2

During the summer of 1957 our family found itself at the bottom of a long, steep slope of endless loose shale. It just kept getting more steep the further up it went.

I recognized the zig-zag pattern cut across and up the dangerous scree-covered slope from previous trails called “switchbacks.” But before I had only seen three or five or so zig-zags. These we did not bother to count. Fifty? Eighty? Five-hundred-eighty million gazillion????????

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We were mounted on the five horses my parents had rented from a dude ranch in Stanley Basin. I was twelve and my sisters were fourteen and ten.

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Mom and Dad explained the principles of shale and scree and gravity to us. They pointed out the horses had been over this dangerous scree many times. They pointed out the trail would get narrower and the horses would have only enough room for their hooves.

They pointed out if we spooked a horse it could step off the trail, slide the scree under its hooves, and we and the horses would be in an avalanche of rocks and horse and our own bodies.

I clearly remember how high up I was on that horse. How tiny the trail looked from up there. And how steep that slope of loose rocks was!

And I remember how the further up the switchbacks I rode the distance to the bottom of the slope grew to an endless potential of the horse and I rolling with tumbling rocks forever.

I don’t know if that dude ranch had to replace the crushed saddle horn I was hanging onto that day. I do remember Mom’s gentle laughter around the campfire that night as she observed, “I’ve never seen three kids sit so straight and so still for so long in my life!”

Sawtooth Kidhood 1957: Switchbacks #1

Most mountain trekking is on gentle slopes made difficult by uneven paths, stones, and fallen trees. But the trails are along ridges or following streams, with the steepness of the paths gaining a few feet in altitude for every ten or hundred of feet forward.

But when the trail reaches the spots between the streams and the ridges, where it is forced to climb to reach a pass between mountain tops, the gain in altitude exceeds the gain in forward movement.

Going straight up these climbs to the pass would have shoes and horses slipping backward and cause erosion where rushing rain and snowmelt follows where feet had trod.

Enter the switchback. The same as skiing back and forth across a slope to keep your speed in check, the switchback runs across the hill at a reasonable grade, then makes a 30 degree turn to run back across the hill. Repeat as many times as needed to reach the mountain’s ridge.

Between mountain peaks there are slopes covered with shale — the rock that has broken off the granite walls thanks to hot and cold and storms and lots of time.

These broken rocks stop sliding down the slope between mountain peaks when they reach their angle of repose, where any object sliding down a slope finds its unique spot where it no longer slides on the steepness of the slope.

The rocks are called shale and all together they are called scree.

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The rocks have found their place to stop sliding — but only barely. Just like an avalanche, any disturbance will get the scree moving down the slope and the larger the disturbance the more scree will get moving.

A larger disturbance like, say, a boy and a horse slipping off the narrow path of a switchback and tumbling onto the scree-covered slope.

Grandjean to Alpine Lake #5: Heartbroken

When we got back to Grandjean after days in the wilderness, a soda pop at the Grandjean Lodge was a real treat.

Then there was the business of unloading the horses and mule. They were glad to be home, free from the weight of being beasts of burden.

Our dog Flip was scurrying about, excited as ever, and happened behind the mule as it was being unpacked. For whatever reason, the mule chose that moment to get spooked and let out a good kick. Flip was so startled he ran back up the trail from whence we had come.

We called and called. And called some more.

We waited and called.

Flip was not coming back.

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Dad had to be at work the next day, so, reluctantly, we packed up the car, waited some more, and drove the hundred slow, winding miles to Boise.

Four days later we got a call from the Lodge saying they had Flip.

They had seen him three times before that. He would get as far as the edge of the lodge property and look around, then head back up the trail.  Each time he was a little slower to run away when the folks at Grandjean started to approach.

Finally Flip was so tired and torn up and famished he let the folks at Grandjean get hold of him. He had been kept in the lodge ever since. He was eating but he was broken hearted.

The folks at Grandjean figured Flip had run back and fourth four times, covering the entire trail we had been camping on for days, in a desperate effort to find us.

So he laid in the lodge at Grandjean, without the energy or will to move. But they were keeping him inside just to make sure he didn’t head up the trail once again.

Two days after the call, Flip was languid on the floor when an ear perked up. In seconds his head was off the floor, aiming for a better listen. And suddenly he was on his feet, barking and whining and dancing and jumping and wild with joy.

It was another ten minutes before the humans could hear the deep throaty V-8 engine of my Dad’s Cadillac driving up the road. But they knew it was coming.

When the green car was well in sight, they let Flip out the door. As he tore past them and out the gate and onto the road his tail was wagging so hard his back legs had trouble continuing to hit the dirt.

Our dad had trouble getting the car door open and then trouble getting out of the car because he was being so jumped on and face-licked by the world’s most joyful soul.

Grandjean to Alpine Lake #4: Strangers Indeed!

Visiting the Sawtooth Wilderness Area today is as awe-inspiring and rigorous as ever. It is also something of a social event with regular exchanges of howdy-dos with strangers on the trails.

When horse packing in the 1950s, any interaction with other people in the Sawtooths was a rare event, indeed.

We once did come across another family out exploring the trails. It was so unusual we became friends and several times drove to Sunnyslope, overlooking the Snake River near Marsing, to visit.

There were only two other times we met another person during the eight treks we took in the Sawtooths. Both times they were men leading long strings of pack mules.

The U. S. Forest Service builds and maintains the trails in the Sawtooth Mountains and it is a constant job. In the spring it takes a surge of saws to open the trails through the winter’s accumulation of downed trees and areas damaged by avalanche and flood. All summer it requires regular clearing of trees blown and blasted down by wind and lightening.

Just how modern trail maintainers travel I don’t know. But the wilderness area is motor free, so I would not be surprised if long lines of mules still carry the tools and supplies needed to keep the wilderness wild while still open to human traffic.

During our horse camping trips in the 1950s, one string of mules was spied in the distance, working its way across a scree of loose stones.

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On another trip, a string of mules caught up to us from behind. After a few pleasantries the forest ranger said he had been watching our tracks for most of the day. He had also been watching the prints of very large paws that had been following us for miles. The paw prints of a large lion, known hereabouts as a cougar.

And here I thought I was the only one noticing how pungent sweating horses can get!

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Grandjean to Alpine Lake #3: A Cool Dip

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For all the majestic beauty of the walk up Payette River and Baron Creek, the highlight of the trek (at least from this story teller’s point of view) was when we reached Little Baron Lake. It was getting late and we were ready to make camp.

Those who know mountain treks know that, yes, it is high altitude and you have to pack to stay warm on very cold nights. But the atmosphere is thin, the sun is direct, and walking uphill sure makes mountains hot during the day.

It had been a long, hot day on the trail by the time we reached Little Baron Lake and the clear waters of the lake were the most inviting vision you can imagine. As soon as Mom and Dad agreed on a camping spot and stopped to make camp, my two sisters went running to the lake, looking for the perfect place to get on a rock with a deep hole beside it.

Within seconds of agreeing on the proper, safe rock, off came their clothes and in they jumped, one right after the other.

And just like that they levitated right back out!

One hint to just how cold a Sawtooth lake can be on a hot August day might have been the glistening white glacier on the other side of the lake. A glacier that came right down into the beautiful, inviting water.

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Grandjean to Alpine #2: Baron Creek

 

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The good folks at Sawtooth Lodge were more than happy to rent us two horses and the gear to pack up our iron skillets, canned food, blankets, Coleman stove, and whatever it takes to keep a family of five clothed and reasonably comfortable for a week. And we kids once again found ourselves watching Mom and Dad balancing pack boxes and cinching the whole kit and caboodle high on the backs of those huge beasts.

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I remember the long, long walk up the south fork of Payette River and Baron Creek. They are narrow valleys with steep slopes rising above tree line to towering granite peaks. Every time we stopped and looked back the valleys seemed more immense, an expanding crevice opening into the distance.

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On the steep slopes between the towering stone tops of the mountains and the base of the valleys were all variety of growth. Scrub pine barely hanging on at tree line gave way to aspen and brush with open spaces of grasses and moss. Areas of grey stones lay where they had tumbled from on high. Slicing through the vegetation were avalanche trails. Only low brush grew in the avalanche trails, saved by remaining under snowpack while the power of sliding snow roared above.

Mom spotted a bear with her cubs on our side of the valley, but a goodly distance from us. She and Dad seemed to agree this was a good opportunity to point out “a goodly distance” is just the right place for spotting bears in the wild.

They got no argument from me.

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