American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Sixth-Class Climbing in the Sawtooth Range

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  • Publication Year: 1950

Sixth-Class Climbing in the Sawtooth Range

Jack Schwabland

THAT part of the Sawtooth Range lying just west of the Stanley

Basin in central Idaho is a wonderful place for the advanced rock climber to practise his art. It is a land of beautiful scenery and spectacular granite peaks. Probably the best description of it was written by Robert Underhill after his exploratory trips in the early thirties. It was this acccount, and the ones by the Iowa Mountaineers of their 947 Outing,2 which first aroused our interest. The result was that 948 saw a party of climbers from the Seattle Mountaineers, with the addition of two members of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, making ascents in the area.3 We were quite successful in cleaning out the better first ascents on the Mount Heyburn massif, but three challenging spires to the west and south turned us back. Fred Beckey and I were members of that 948 party, and we determined at the time to go back the following summer. Our principal objective was 0,400-foot Big Baron Spire, a great, smooth shaft of granite with a summit block which overhung on all sides. Its sheer sides, rising almost directly from the western shores of Baron Lakes, had conspired with the elements to defeat us on our 948 attempt. Half a mile to the south was another climb we had failed on. Its summit block, grotesquely undercut on the northern edge, had the appearance of a giant hook. We named it Fishhook Spire (0,400 ft.), after a hailstorm drove us to cover when we were only 50 feet from the top. Our third objective was Underhill’s famed Red Finger (9988 ft.), a day’s journey to the south across the Payette River.

Thus it was that midnight of 6 August 949 found us, with the enthusiastic support of Pete Schoening, also a Seattle Mountaineer, driving toward Idaho. We stopped off at Sun Valley the next evening for our last fling at social life, then resumed our trip to Redfish Lake, arriving late at night. Most of the following day we devoted to organizing our supplies into loads that we were capable of carrying. During all our preparations the fishermen and assorted sightseers who were staying at the lake formed an amused and somewhat incredulous audience. We have not yet found a resort crowd that could take mountain climbers in its stride.

At three o’clock we finally got the shiny little launch loaded and started our six-mile jaunt up the lake. Our little knot of tourists had followed us down the dock; and, as we roared away, we could see them shaking their heads dubiously and waving goodbye. Forty minutes later we put-putted up to the dock at the inlet of Redfish Creek, where we eased under our heavy packs and started off on the trail to Alpine Lake, four and a half miles away.

The first three miles were very pleasant, with Redfish Creek splashing happily on our left and the afternoon sunlight glinting through the pine trees; but all that was forgotten on the 2000 feet of sunbaked switchbacks that followed. About half-way up, with sweat streaming from every pore, we began thinking about the futility of it all and wondering whether all those pitons and bolts were really necessary. But the thought of tearing our packs apart was even more repulsive than carrying them as they were, so we resolutely struggled on. It was soon evident that Pete was feeling somewhat frisky. Fred and I suggested that he run along and get dinner started at the lake. As he was getting on very well when we finally arrived, Fred and I busied ourselves with setting up a base camp and a reserve cache of food and equipment. After dinner we loaded up three-day packs and struck off on the two miles of trail to Baron Lakes, where our high camp for the assault on Big Baron Spire was to be located. It was full moonlight when we topped Alpine Ridge, and our peak looked very impressive in the cold half-light. We camped on the boulder-strewn ridge between the two lakes, full of high hopes for the morrow. Our sleep was broken shortly after midnight by a sudden rainstorm which forced us to scurry around and build a lean-to for protection. Apparently Sawtooth weather was repeating itself.

It seemed that we had hardly fallen asleep again when the sun was high in the sky and it was time to be off. As we traversed around Lower Baron Lake, we decided to try Fishhook first, more or less as a seasoning climb, and spend the rest of the day in a thorough reconnaissance of Big Baron. Accordingly, we angled to the left up a loose couloir which brought us up against Fishhook’s lower east face. Donning tennis shoes, we wiggled up a series of steep, dirt-filled chimneys to a tilted rock pile some hundred feet directly below the great overhang on the summit block. A short jam crack took us from the ridge crest to an extensive shelf leading around the other side of the mountain. From there we could see the only feasible route. A monster chockstone was wedged between the main block and a lesser block to the west; above this were what appeared to be minute holds and some rather inadequate cracks. I belayed from the lesser block while Pete gave Fred a shoulder stand from the chockstone. Fred appeared to be stymied for a moment. It was the sort of pitch you almost wanted to try to climb free, but didn’t quite think you’d make. We decided to give the pitch the benefit of the doubt and resort to direct aid. Fred gingerly stepped on top of Pete’s outstretched hands and managed to drive a spoon piton at the limit of his reach. It was only partially in, but seemed solid enough for tension, so Fred went up on it until he could reach another crack. Two more very insecure pitons, and he was able to hunch himself around onto a sloping ledge at the right, from where the route became easy. Pete and I swung rapidly up on the rope to find Fred reclining on a large slab. A quick shoulder stand put us on the exposed summit. We could see our boots almost straight down on the other side, 300 feet away. We could also see a number of good-looking spires immediately to the southeast. Three or four of them looked as if they would be good climbs.

We descended rapidly to our boots, went back down the couloir, and traversed beneath Big Baron for a closer look. We had no illusions about climbing it that day, but wanted to go as high as possible and find out what to expect. It seemed that our best route might be up the south ridge to a point below the summit monolith, which looked no more impossible there than anywhere else. We now faced the relatively minor problem of getting up on the south ridge. We decided to climb up on the ridge hump to the south in the hope of finding connecting ledges which would lead over to the ridge. It looked rather difficult from below, as did the 700 feet of the peak itself; but we hoped for the best. After several hundred feet of scrambling up loose rocks and ledges, we came upon a broad avenue of dirt leading off toward the notch separating the “hump” from the main peak. Toward the end of this highway we spied an overhanging rock where we cached our boots. A hundred feet away the dirt ledge ended in a system of narrow ledges and cracks. We climbed through them, mindful of the great exposure beneath us, then along a narrow dirt strip to a crumbling “V” gully which led up to the notch. The gully was full of rotten-looking cling holds, but they seemed secure enough as we climbed rapidly upward. From the notch we went out onto easy rocks on the west face, then up a series of slabby steps interspersed with narrow chimneys to the base of a smooth, steeply-pitched “V” crack. There we decided to rope up.

The initial overhang in the crack was by-passed by going left and cutting back on a tricky finger traverse. A second was turned by taking to the wall at the right. The rest of the crack went rather easily and put us high on the south ridge, just below the bulging summit block. A glance upward was sufficient to let us know we would have to look elsewhere for a route on it. We climbed out on a narrow ledge on the west face and then down a rather holdless slab to where we were pleasantly surprised to discover an ample sill cutting across the face. The exposure was terrific, but it looked as if we could get around to the other side of the summit monolith without much trouble. However, the ledge petered out around a blind corner, and we were left with overhangs above and below and another slick finger traverse in the middle. Beyond the traverse we climbed a steep wall, well broken with holds, then clambered through a jumble of loose boulders to an inclined ledge. We were now directly beneath the reddish mass of the huge summit block, which leaned out over us like a tired barn wall. We continued up the narrowing ledge to the edge of the block, then slithered around the corner on a large friction slab.

We found ourselves perched on the north shoulder of the peak with smooth walls plunging away beneath us on three sides and the summit soaring directly above, some 0 feet away. As we looked up at the great block, we could understand why the Iowa Mountaineers had dubbed it “Old Smoothie.” It was a magnificent piece of rock, resembling nothing so much as a monster egg standing on its end atop the rest of the mountain. It overhung all the way around; and, search as we might, we could not find a single crack or hold anywhere. Reluctantly, we hauled out our drills and bolts and prepared to do battle.

We decided to climb alongside the northwest corner, since that offered only 25 feet of overhang, followed by 35 feet of 75-degree slab, to a ridge where we hoped to find a hold or two. Pete mounted to our shoulders to drill the first hole—hurrying, because black clouds were rolling in from the southwest. Taking turns at drilling, we managed to place seven bolts4 up the overhang and just get over onto the great slab before the rocks started buzzing with static electricity and an ominous rumbling informed us the storm was at hand. We huddled under an overhang for more than an hour while lightning crackled about us and hail danced off the rocks. By the time the rock had dried enough to let us climb safely again, it was nearly dark. Leaving the hardware and one rope in place, we descended to camp, resolved to start early in the morning.

As soon as it was light enough to see, we were pushing up the lower slopes again. The preliminary third- and fourth-class rock climbing went rapidly, and we found ourselves huddled on the shoulder once again while the sun was still near the horizon. Although it was bitterly cold, the weather was beautiful, and we had high hopes of standing on the summit before sunset. The drilling took much longer now, as the drills were getting duller and duller with each hole. We took turns at this unpleasant chore. Each man would place two or three bolts while the second man belayed and the third sharpened the extra drills. Late in the morning I placed the 4th bolt just under the crest of the ridge, then dropped on tension to the shoulder. Fred replaced me on the rope and was hauled up to the highest bolt. By working up the sling and using his hands for balance, he succeeded in standing on the bolt and hauling himself astride the steeply pitched ridge. Fifteen feet away was a tilted depression where, it seemed, a man might stand. This “bowl” was the closest thing to a belay point on the whole summit block. Fred wormed over to it and put in a bolt for an anchor. He peered upward and saw that the arête above steepened again almost to the vertical. There appeared to be an occasional hold, but it still looked like a bolt job all the way. As he stood there debating his next move, the rock started buzzing again, and we could see black clouds boiling around Warbonnet Peak to the southwest. We had been so intent on the climb that we had not noticed the approaching storm. With the summit only 40 feet away, Fred had to retreat to the shoulder.

We held a council of war and determined to wait and try to finish the climb when the storm blew over. Hours passed by while hail and freezing rain soaked us to the skin and lightning flashed in the murky sky. Finally, we could see that it was getting dark, and we decided to make a run for camp while we still could. We skidded around the slabby corner and raced down the ledge toward the wall above the finger traverse. The rock was running with water, and every hold was packed with hail as we climbed down the wall. Pete started across the traverse just as the storm picked up in intensity. Lightning struck within 200 feet of us three times in quick succession. Pete reared back, blinded by the flashes, and it was several minutes before he could go on. We clawed our way across the traverse and practically threw ourselves down the ledges. As the storm increased in fury, we all wondered whether we were to get down alive. The “V” crack was a terrible thing with water sluicing down its twisting length and lightning knifing all around. Fred and I took tension from the rope while Pete half climbed, half fell as best he could. The remaining pitches were easier, but the lightning was still striking terrifyingly close. We kept going at top speed and did not stop until we were safely back in camp.

We were extremely conscious of the fatal accident on Bugaboo Spire the previous summer and thanked our lucky stars that we had escaped a similar fate. Later in the evening, as we were preparing dinner, the skies suddenly cleared. Our peak stood out with its rain-washed sides glistening in the last few rays of light. We reflected on the events of the past two days and wondered whether we were ever going to climb it.

The next day, the eleventh, dawned sparkling and clear. Our mood was one of grim determination as we started upward again. We climbed very slowly since both Pete and I were suffering hurts from our headlong retreat of the day before—Pete a wrenched shoulder and I a painful twist to a not-yet-healed ankle injury of the past skiing season. When we arrived once again on the shoulder, it was with the intention of remaining there until we planted our feet on Big Baron’s head. We decided to send both Fred and Pete up on the summit block—one to belay from the bowl while the other forced a route on the arête above. I was to advise from below and provide a quick means of escape in the event of another storm. Accordingly, the other two climbed the growing ladder of slings and bolts to the bowl, where Fred established an airy belay and Pete prepared to tackle the arête. A shoulder stand and two direct- aid bolts put him up the wall beyond the bowl and onto a sloping nick in the arête. Fred offered to lead from there, but Pete declined, stating that he felt fine. He rested for several minutes while I passed up a sharpened drill. Two more bolts above the nick, and Pete was clinging to a tiny projection only 5 feet from the top. Things were looking up. He announced that he was going to try to climb the rest of the way. We waited tensely as he inched his way up the terribly exposed arête, with only minute sloping holds on the left and nothing but friction on the blank right wall. He was out of Fred’s sight; but I, standing at the end of the shoulder, could see him as he swung himself over onto the summit and clasped his hands over his head in the victory sign. It was a magnificent piece of climbing, done, as it was, with his shoulder hurting at every move. He drove one last bolt, the 20th, into the summit for an anchor, then signalled Fred to come up. Since the weather in the southwest was starting to look mean again, we decided that I would have to forego the dubious pleasure of being hauled up on top. After hurriedly building a three-foot cairn, they rappelled down to the bowl. Fred was lowered down the route of ascent, to remove the karabiners and slings, while Pete came directly down the west side, spinning ’round and ’round as he rappelled down 60 feet of overhang. We climbed leisurely down to our boots, feeling quite satisfied with ourselves and with the world. Unbelievably, the weather stayed fair all day.

Late in the afternoon we bestirred ourselves enough to move camp back to Alpine Lake. Since Pete announced that he was feeling better, it was decided that he and Fred would make the long cross-country trek over to Red Finger on the morrow while I stayed at the lake and gave my swollen ankle a rest. It was dark and overcast in the morning when they, loaded down with all the ropes and hardware they could carry, climbed up the rockslide and over the pass to the south. The lovely little Packrat Lakes were by-passed on the left, and a long, dusty rockslide climbed to the summit of Mount Reward, where Harry King and I had stood at the high point of last summer’s rain-drenched attempt. Directly across the Payette River from Reward stood the Rakes, with the granite shaft of their western summit, Red Finger, dominating the country for miles around. The climbers dropped some 3500 feet on long scree and grass slopes, following Drop Creek to its junction with the Payette, which they forded in hip-deep water. They traversed along the other side of the river and followed Fall Creek upstream for two miles by a network of game trails. Camp was made in a clump of fir trees beside the creek. A band of deer kept them company during the night.

The morning of the 3th was brilliantly clear again; but, having thoroughly learned the value of an early start in this country, they were up and away before dawn. Their route lay for half a mile up the creek valley and then up 500 feet of grassy hillside to two beautiful hidden lakes. Red Finger reared some 000 feet above and looked more discouraging by the minute. After a welcome drink from a small snow patch at the last pines, the party climbed through granite and heather benches to the base of the peak. While Pete went over to the East Peak to take pictures, Fred went on ahead, scrambling up the northwest ridge. He arrived without trouble at the cairn marking the high point of Underhill’s 934 attempt and there settled down to a careful scrutiny of the summit tower. It was only 60 feet high but looked hopeless from all sides. He was confronted by a blank wall with overhanging edges. The easiest way would have been to throw a rope over the top, but this was impossible since there was no way to fasten the rope on the other side. Since the left-hand side of the tower obviously could not be done, it looked like either another “Big Baron type” of bolt job up the front face or an attempt to climb the very nasty-looking overhanging crack around the corner to the right. Pete arrived at this time and exclaimed in dismay at the proposed route; but, since there appeared to be no better choice, they decided to give it a try.

A rope-length traverse was made over considerable exposure to the notch on the north corner of the peak. Fred anchored to a piton, and the climb began. Pete led off with a traverse to the right on a doubtful-looking flake which was attached to the under side of the overhang. Fifteen feet of this, with exposure such that a plumb line would have dropped a clean 500 feet from his heels, took him within reach of an overhanging offset crack that appeared to lead somewhere. The crack proved to be possible, so long as enough hardware was available, but was undoubtedly one of the more nerve-shattering routes. It was composed of a crumbling granitic rubble which took several direct-aid pitons in one place at one time to be even reasonably safe. Fifteen feet of this, over the space of an hour, convinced Pete that he wanted a rest. Accordingly, he lowered himself back to the notch, and Fred took over. He hammered in a giant angle piton behind a loose chockstone, hoping it would act as a wedge and tighten everything up. Above this, the crack being absolutely smooth and rather useless for a way, Fred drilled a hole and drove in a solid-sounding bolt. This had a decidedly reassuring effect on his jangled nerves, since the drop was still 500 feet and the quality of the pitons below him was such that any kind of fall would have made them all pop out like buttons from a shirt. Pete took over the lead at this point and managed to place two pitons above the bolt before the crack ran out again and he had to resort to a bolt of his own. Drilling had become sheer drudgery by this time, for the drills were so dull as to be almost useless. After the lead changed again, Fred jammed a horizontal piton far back into the crack and then placed another bolt as high as he could reach. By standing high in the sling, he could see above the overhang and into the smooth-walled three-inch crack above. It looked as if a fresh man might be able to force it. Pete volunteered and jammed his way to the end of the crack, arriving exhausted at a welcome belay niche. Fred came all the way up on tension from above, thus falling heir to the fatiguing job of removing the iron. With a shoulder stand from the belay niche, Fred led up a difficult twelve-foot jam crack— and the summit was theirs. It was uncomfortably crowded with both of them on it at once, but there were enough loose rocks to build a cairn. Pete spied a lone eagle feather lying on the highest rock and triumphantly claimed it for his own. They both agreed he had earned it.

With the ascent of Red Finger, all the main objectives of the trip had been realized; but Fred still wanted to climb the Grand Aiguille. Time was running out, and they started back almost immediately. As a tribute to Red Finger’s breath-stopping exposure, they used three slings on their rappel from the summit. The descent to camp was made rapidly, and they were back across the Payette and up to 8500 feet on Drop Creek by nightfall. The next morning they clambered back over Reward and dropped down to Packrat Lakes, where they took time out to make a third ascent of Packrat Peak. They found it a pleasant third- and fourth-class scramble on good granite. Twenty-eight lakes could be counted from its summit.

By late afternoon they reached Alpine Lake, where they found most of the supplies gone and a note of explanation from me. I had come to the conclusion that my ankle was useless for any serious climbing in the near future and had packed up everything superfluous and limped out to Redfish Lodge and social life. Fred and Pete packed up all I had left and trudged down to the upper end of Redfish Lake, whence they planned to scale the Grand Aiguille in the morning. As a gesture of friendship, Fred decided to hike around the lake to the lodge to tell me of their plans in case I could go with them. He arrived just in time to join me at a beach party I was having with a couple of heartening samples of the unattached females who infested the place. I reluctantly informed him that I would not be able to climb in the morning, but that I would be glad to row him back in order to save him the five-mile walk. Thus, 4.30 A. M. found us sleepily stroking a rowboat up the lake. Unearthly yodels as we rounded the point informed us that Pete was up and had breakfast ready. An hour later they started off, while I hitched a ride back on the ever-present tourist launch.

Pete and Fred showed up at the lodge shortly after noon, their second ascent completed in record time. They reported a spectacular fourth- and fifth-class climb on good rock, the crux of which was a vertical crack jammed with overhanging chockstones. Pete added to his souvenirs a piece of rope left by Jack and Dick Durrance on their attempt.5 Since it was an uncomfortably hot day, they wasted no time on the peak but hustled right back to join me at the beach. During that afternoon and all of the following day, we explored the entertainment possibilities of the area and found them very good indeed. On the evening of the 6th we loaded everything into the car and once more bade farewell to the kindly, but still amused, people at the resort.

1 R. L. M. Underhill, “The Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho,” Appalachia, XXI (Dec. 937), 5-23.

2 Joan Cox, “Sawtooth Saga,” and M. F. Meier, “Sawtooth Mountaineering,” Iowa Climber, II (Summer 948), 5 ff. and 7 ff.

3 W. V. Graham Matthews, “New Conquests in the Idaho Sawtooths,” Appalachia, XXVII (Dec. 948), 78-85.

4 We used both expansion and contraction bolts on the climb. The latter seemed to be infinitely more reliable and considerably stronger. We therefore used them every third or fourth time we needed a bolt on the routine climbing, and exclusively on the dangerous pitches. We were handicapped by having only a limited number of these contraction bolts and a great surplus of the second-choice expansion bolts,

5 R. and J. Durrance, “The Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho,” Appalachia, XXIII (June 940), 03-4.

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