Monday, April 14, 2008

Idaho Adventures: A Lesson Learned

In the book Deep Survival (click here for my review), Laurence Gonzales tells about how pleasurable memories sometimes cause us to make poor decisions. He tells about a group climbing down from Mount Hood, their heads filled with visions of the warm lodge, of enjoying a drink and a good meal in front of a roaring fire, who then decide to take a dangerous shortcut and end up in a disaster. This is such a tale from my past, only I was lucky.

Note on photos: The first photo is of the Boulder Mountains, taken from Highway 75, a few miles north of the camp. The hike I describe was on the other side of these mountains. The haze in the sky was from smoke. This was taken in 1988, the year not only of the Yellowstone fire, but of other large fires around the west. Before I left camp in September, the smoke had become so bad you often couldn't see the peaks of the mountains. The second photo is taken from West Pass, in the Boulder Mountains. Both photos are digital copies of slides (and the second one needs to be reshot as it's not as sharp as the slide.

Looking back, it was foolish. Out west, one should never try to climb high passes late in the afternoon during summer, but this summer had been so dry and without the usual afternoon storms so I didn’t give it much thought. I should have known better, especially hiking alone and cross-country. I should have stayed in at sulfur springs at the old Bowery mine, spending a lazy afternoon reading and napping, and then gotten up early in the morning and headed over the pass. But instead, I decided to get back early in order to spend Saturday night in Ketchum or maybe even head up north to the Saturday night shin-dig in Stanley. It seemed to be a good idea after a week of hiking. I could use a cold beer and something for dinner other than pasta. And it would be nice to hang out and talk to people. I hadn’t seen anyone while on this leg of the journey, so I decided to go ahead and make the pass which would allow me to get back to civilization early the next morning, in time to clean up and then head to town. But at around 9,000 feet, I found myself huddled in my sleeping bag under a tarp that’s weighed down with ice.

The storm came up quickly, not long after I left tree line. I still had a 1000 feet or so of vertical to cover when I first heard thunder. I made a hasty retreated downhill, to where the stubby trees began. Soon, lightning was popping all around the dusty mountains, dry from the summer’s drought. I pulled on my rain parka as the pelting drops began their assault, and then strung a line between two trees that were barely taller than me. I threw my tarp over the line, and quickly tied off the ends to rocks and logs as the nylon sheet flapped in the wind. When it was secure enough not to blow away, I climb inside, took off my rain jacket and pulled on a sweater and the put the jacket back over it. I slid on my rain pants to keep my legs warm and leaned up against my pack, watching lightning strikes making sure my stuff didn’t get wet in the blowing rain. Waiting, I ate a candy bar and wondered what I was doing this high up.

The storm didn’t last long, but when it was over I could hear more rumblings from behind the mountains so I set about making sure the tarp was secure and all my gear dry. Maybe fifteen minutes after the first storm had passed, the second one hit. In addition to rain, this time I was pelted me with sleet. I again retreated to my tarp, which was weighted down with accumulating ice. I was so cold that I pulled out my sleeping bag and covered it with a ground cloth and crawled inside. I quickly warmed up, but began to wonder about the danger of fire from all the lightning strikes. I’d planned to spend the week hiking in Yellowstone, but so much of that park was burning that I decided to stay in Idaho where I’d been directing a camp for the summer. This was my one week off. At least, I thought, we’re getting rain with this lightning, and even if a fire does occur, I shouldn’t have to worry too much as there isn’t not much to burn this high up.

After the second storm, I made my way over to a nearby stream and filled a pan with water for noodles. Coming back, I dug my stove out of my pack and fired it up. The roar of the burner drowned out any other noise as I boiled water. Before adding noodles, I poured off a cup for some tea, then added noodles and let it boil while I savored the tea. At this elevation, it seems to take forever to cook noodles. When they were done, I drained off the water, mixed in some powder milk and the package cheese mix and was soon devouring a pot full of macaroni and cheese.

I’d been hiking all week. The first four days had been in the Sawtooths. Then I came back to camp, picked up more provisions and had started this leg just north of Galena Summit, heading up the Grand Prize Gulch. Much of this leg would be cross country, as I hiked behind the Boulder Mountains and then over them and into the Wood River Valley, where I’d follow the East Branch of the Wood River back to camp. The day before I headed up Grand Prize Gulch till I crossed over the pass and dropped down to the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River, or at least I think that’s the name of the stream. It’s certainly not a very creative name, but most of the streams in this part of the country seem to have such names. It was also just a small creek. I followed it a few miles stopping to camp for the evening. I set up camp under lodgepole pines. After dinner, I sat around enjoying a cup of tea while watching the light fade from the valley. .

Birds woke me the next morning as the valley filled with light. The sun rays seemed muted a bit with so much dust in the air as well as smoke from the fire burning in Hell’s Canyon. After my usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, washed down with a pint of Tang, I continued hiking downstream. Soon, I came to a two-track road that hadn’t been used in at least a month as there were no tire tracks and it’d been a good month since the last rain. The road was probably built for mining, but I had a suspicion it was now only used occasional, mostly in the fall by hunters. I continued on the path heading for the hot sulfur springs at a place on the map called Bowery. I could smell the sulfur before I arrived. Once there, I shed my pack and took a leisurely lunch, eating crackers, with cheese and peanut butter while soaking in the creek at the point where the water from the hot springs mixed with and warmed the chilly creek water. After lunch, I explored the area. There was an old mine that drifted back into the hillside, from which flowed warm water. I took out my flashlight and walked a short ways into the mine before I thought better of that plan. Unlike most mines, that are quite cool, this one was warmed by the water. But the supporting timbers were rotted and exploring mines by oneself isn’t exactly a safe thing to do.

Afterward looking around the area, I packed my stuff back up and continued on, following West Pass Creek. A few miles upstream, I came to an old mining cabin. The roof had collapse and the logs were rotten. Looking around, I found a rusty shovel and a pile of old tin cans. I kept hiking and at about 3 PM, left the creek, cutting cross country, aiming for the saddle west of Ryan Peak. Tucked in under the high peaks, where they were shaded from the sun, were snow banks left over from winter. While climbing up a draw and breathing heavily, and surprised a large elk. The beast turned to look at me, allowing me a good view of his large rack, before fleeing. Climbing higher, the trees began to thin out and the slope became steeper. I began to zigzagging, crossing back and forth over a small stream of snow melt. The trees became shorter. In the draw, by the trickle of water, Indian paintbrush and lupine with their tiny purple flowers were growing.

That night, after I’d cleaned up for dinner, a third thunderstorm moved through the area. I went to bed early, reading till the lighted had faded from the sky, then falling asleep. I kept dreaming of fires and every time I woke, I’d looked around for flames and sniffed the air for smoke. I was relieved when morning arrived. Everything was fresh and clean, the dust had been purged away and sage scented the air. A cool light blew out of the north, gently flapping the tarp, helping it dry. I fixed myself a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal. After eating, I wrote of the yesterday’s adventures in my journal, read some Psalms, then packed up everything, shouldered my pack and continued the climb. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I took a break at the top of the pass, tanking up on water. Dropping down the south side of the saddle, I came to the trail to Ryan’s Peak and followed it as it zigzagged through the sage, down into the valley. I passed a few day hikers heading up to the peak and we exchanged greetings, but I didn’t stop until I was at upper stretch of my branch of the Wood River where I paused for a snack while watching a man with a fly rod cast into a pond behind a beaver dam. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. After a short rest, I continued on, walking the dirt road toward camp. I was surprised the ground was so dusty. When I got back early that afternoon, still in time to get to town for the evening, I discovered that although they could hear the storms and see the lightning the evening before, they didn’t receive a drop of rain.


  1. Have you ever thought of writing travel books? You could give Bryson a run for his money.

    Reading this, I could feel your adventure, and now we know where the name Sage came from.

  2. I agree with Scarlet. Your stories always delight, but I worry about you going into the wilderness by yourself. What would happen if you'd fall or get injured?

  3. Amazing Sage--your life could be 20 big screen movies :)

    Agree with both Scarlet and kenju--though I think you have great survival mechanisms

  4. Scarlet, yes, I've thought about it--I really want to write creative non-fiction that uses travel as the framework

    Kenju, I was 31 at the time. For some reason I was thinking about solo trips--especially those where I don't see another soul--I have another story to write that was from 2002 and I'll tell the story of being more careful and deciding not to do what I'd planned because of the risk (kids make you more careful, I think)

    Pia, thanks, I hope I have some good survivial skills, as for movies, the Wood River Valley was where they shot Pale Rider

    Karen, thanks.

  5. I can completely understand. I got caught up on top of a mountain once and learned my lesson the hard way. I'll make a note and blog that story in the near future.

  6. Enjoyed the late night read. I think you are spot on in a previous comment, kids do make you careful.