My Own Private Idaho

Into the Sawtooths!

If this country has a hidden gem it must be Idaho

I have this theory that hiking uphill isn’t any more tiring than hiking on flat ground. Uphill takes a different set of muscles, but once your “ups” are in shape, you should be able to climb as readily as strolling. I’ve been trying to convince myself of this idea for years and after a decade of daily hikes, I’m beginning to believe it. Driving west from the Tetons through Victor and Driggs, I decided to test my theory on Borah Peak, the highest mountain in Idaho and one of the steepest hikes around.

Home sweet home at Borah Peak

Home sweet home at Borah Peak

The trail up Borah Peak gains over 5,300 feet of elevation in under 3.5 miles up to the summit at 12,662 feet. That’s steeeeeeeep! No switchbacks. The narrow, rocky path just arrows straight up the mountain. I camped at the trailhead the night before and got some disappointing beta from a woman coming down the mountain with her golden retriever: the crux at Chicken Out Ridge wasn’t passable to dogs. Having left Dio in the camper for my last big hike at Death Canyon (which is in Tetons National Park, no dogs allowed) I didn’t want to leave him behind again. So I decided to do it anyway, with Dio, and deal with the dog unfriendly obstacle when I got up there. If I couldn’t summit, then oh well, I’d still enjoy the hike.

The way up Borah Peak gains 5,300 feet of elevation in under 3.5 miles. That's steeeeeep!

The way up Borah Peak.

At 4am, I was awoken by a gaggle of boy scouts assembling right outside my trailer, getting ready to head up the mountain. When I got up at 6 another gaggle of women was gathered at the trailhead. Apparently Borah is a popular group hike. The ladies invited me to join them but I declined. I’m not one for hiking in herds. I took Bowie for an easy stroll around the base of the mountain, fed him breakfast, got him settled back in the trailer (he’s not a morning dog and he’s usually more than happy to go back to bed) and Dio and I headed up by 6:30.

Right from the start, the trail was steep and I spent the first half mile visualizing away the dull early morning ache out of my legs, the burn sifting down to my feet and out my soles, leaving an invisible trail of fatigued particles in my wake. My legs felt stronger with every step and soon I was cruising. I’m not really a fast hiker, just a smooth and steady one; I seldom need to rest. The path was so steep that my heels rarely touched the ground, my toes and arches carrying all my weight up the mountain, a precarious position, and yet it felt so good. I soon caught up to the group of women and left them behind, puffing in my wake. Not everybody subscribes to my uphill theory.

Dio chickening out on Chicken Out Ridge

Dio chickening out on Chicken Out Ridge

We passed maybe a dozen straggling boyscouts on the way up the flank of the mountain and then caught the whole troop just below Chicken Out Ridge, a steep, narrow class 3 section just before the final ridge line to the summit. The kids were nervous and the ridge reeked of fear. Dio caught the scent and started fretting and shaking, despite the warming sun. I scouted out the class 3 section above and found it hand-over-foot steep, with deadly drop offs on both sides. I can handle exposure but I wasn’t going to make Dio do it if he didn’t want to. Looking back at him, crouched nervously on a ledge, I said, “Do you want to go down?” and he turned back down the trail, tail wagging in relief, decision made. Dogs don’t get summit fever. To them, the sides of mountains are just as intriguing as the tops.

On our way back down Borah

On our way back down Borah

If the ridge had been quiet, I could have laid down my jacket and poured a bowl of water and told Dio to wait there for me – he’s very used to waiting for me at the bottom of rock walls while I’m climbing – but I wasn’t going to leave him untended with so many people coming up the mountain. So I took a good long look at the final half-mile to the summit, savoring the enticing upward pull and then turned downhill. Once I was safely past the scouts I started skating down the mountain, giving in to gravity, balancing on the outside edges of my heels like a downhill skier, my stabilizers pushed to their limits, my legs strong and sure. Uphill I cruise, downhill I fly.

The Lost River Range from the flank of Borah Peak

The Lost River Range from the flank of Borah Peak

Borah Peak isn’t going anywhere and I’m sure I’ll take another dog-free crack at it someday. Ultimately, I think it was a good exercise for me to turn back from a summit I knew I had in the bag. Dio’s right: To really love the mountains you have to love the sides too, not just the tops.

First look at the Sawtooths coming into Stanley, ID

First look at the Sawtooths coming into Stanley, ID

From Borah I headed west into the Sawtooth Mountains. I camped near Stanley at a sweet free site and took an easy evening stroll with both dogs up Iron Creek to the wilderness boundary. The next morning was drizzly and misty, but I’m a firm believer that there’s no bad weather, only bad gear. I suited up in my raingear and Dio and I hiked up Iron Creek to Sawtooth Lake. I had my eye on Alpine Peak, a class 2-3 scramble, but I wasn’t going to tackle that much loose scree in the rain. Sometimes, in the mountains, you have to be satisfied to just look up at the summits and scheme for another day.

Heading into the Sawtooth Wilderness on the Iron Creek trail

Heading into the Sawtooth Wilderness on the Iron Creek trail

The Sawtooths! I see how they got the name.

The Sawtooths! I see how they got the name.

Spring melt along the trail to Sawtooth Lake

Spring melt along the trail to Sawtooth Lake

Thirsty D.O.G.

Thirsty D.O.G.

Nice backcountry campsite at Sawtooth Lake

Nice backcountry campsite at Sawtooth Lake

All raingeared up! Remember, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.

All raingeared up! Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. That’s Alpine Peak behind me.

Sawtooth Lake, Alpine Peak & Wildflowers

Sawtooth Lake, Alpine Peak & Wildflowers

Self Portrait at Sawtooth Lake

Sawtooth Self Portrait

On to Oregon!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently traveling the backroads from New Mexico to Alaska, writing and living out of a tiny Teardrop camper. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to My Own Private Idaho

  1. These images are just mind boggling…

    Incredible landscape and beautiful images… the feel of freedom that you experience is beyond my imagination…

    Hat’s off to your adventure spirit… :)

  2. Patty Marten says:

    Here is another hike to add to your “bucket list”…..i love reading her posts. She is living and working out of her teardrop with TWO dogs! I too love Idaho and was fortunate enough to love there (Sun Valley/Ketchum) when i was private cheffing. I am so happy for you as you begin this next adventure in Richmond. Sending you lots of love and kisses, Grandma

  3. Lisa Westfall says:

    Gorgeous place. Beautiful photos! And I learned a new word today thanks to you, Beta “Definition of beta, a climbing slang word that means information about a route.”

  4. hobopals says:

    Oh, how I love Stanley…or any place in the middle and north in Idaho. I think the Sawtooths are the prettiest range in the lower 48. Stanley had a population of 69 when we started going there every summer and when I went in 2010 it was changed to 100. Can’t beat the scenery. Hope it stays relatively unknown (most people seem to pass the south end going somewhere else). Thanks for the post and for bringing back some good memories of the area.

  5. marathonsam says:

    Those photos are SPECTACULAR. Stanley is so cool! I love the stark beauty of the Sawtooths. I would rather hike uphill than downhill ANY time. Downhill seems like it should be easier, but after a few miles my quads start screamin’ for mercy- uphill walking uses all of the BIG strong muscles in your legs, rather than relying on the smaller stabilizers.

  6. I drove through Idaho before on a road trip and I couldn’t believe how gorgeous the state was! Looking forward to seeing your entries from Oregon!

  7. Mike says:

    Wow ! spectacular countryside and photos

  8. outstanding photos. There is so much beauty in the world.

  9. Great photos and great adventures! Will have to check this out, although we are currently not in shape to do some of the hikes you have done. But we are looking forward to seeing some beautiful new country and getting the hiking legs working again. Best to you, Carol

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