Somewhere in the middle of Idaho one of my favorite places is hiding from everyone in plain sight. The Sawtooth mountain range has somehow escaped the sprawling crowds that seem to invade every National Park, Recreation Area, Monument, and almost everywhere else we go in search of an escape from this very mass of humanity.
Is this lack of popularity what attracts me to it? It’s definitely part of it, but the Sawtooth certainly has the merit to stand on it’s own.
When I was a little kid we took a family vacation to Red Fish Lake Lodge. As a 7 year old I stood on the dock and looked at the skyline of jagged mountains in the distance as my father explained to me that was why they are called the Sawtooth. Somehow, I remembered that moment 15 years later and found my way back. Since then, it has become my go-to destination when I want to get away from the crowds.
Almost coincidentally, the Sawtooth Range is home to some great climbing and probably the best big-wall in Idaho, the Elephants Perch. The Perch is situated an easy 4-mile hike from the end of Red Fish Lake where this 1000-foot wall looms over the super picturesque Saddleback Lakes. This weekend, the classic “Mountaineers Route”, a 7 pitch 5.9, was our objective.
As we sat in the dining room at the Red Fish Lake Lodge, feasting on their breakfast buffet (worth every penny), our server asked us what we were going to do today. Mouths full and still half asleep we mumbled that we were headed to climb the Perch. Immediately, we got a look of skepticism, not a comforting way to start our trip. Most people make a trip out of it and camp out at the Saddleback Lakes for a night or two before or after attempting climbs on the perch. Here we were, distracted by this glorious breakfast, making zero progress towards the wall, let alone up it. I have been known to be a little overambitious at times…
We hopped on the shuttle boat to the far end of the lake with our bikes around 9:30, about two and a half hours after we planned to catch it. The bikes were our security blanket; if we missed the last shuttle boat back at 7pm we could, in theory, bike the 5-mile trail out which would make the prospect of missing the boat more bearable.
Once at the far end of the lake we quickly biked to the wilderness boundary. We had to stash the bikes here because someone in Washington DC once decided bicycles somehow disturb the wilderness. From the wilderness boundary it was a reasonably quick 3-mile hike to the base of the wall. Since we were just doing a day trip, we could make a direct scramble up the slabs at the bottom of the wall instead of following the “trail” all the way to the Saddleback Lakes and then traversing back across to the base of the route. By 12:30 we had stashed our backpacks, racked up, and were ready to get on the first pitch.
The first pitch was an easy and non-exposed climb up a ~5.5 crack system to a large belay ledge. We freed this first pitch with no issue in an attempt to make up a little time.
We had read that you could combine many of these pitches if you weren’t afraid of a little rope drag, so we opted to keep freeing partway up the second pitch in hopes we could combine the rest with the third pitch. Partway up this pitch there is an exposed 5.8 mantle move, which we decided was definitely where we wanted to rope up. You go from easy, non-exposed climbing, out around a corner into 200+ feet of exposure, and all of a sudden it hits you, you’re actually climbing. After the mantle you climb up past a tree (read: bush) and follow another crack leftward facing crack. You head up this crack for a few more feet and work your way over some blocks and come out onto a nice belay ledge. There were a few old fixed bolts here, and even though we had plenty of rope remaining I decided I was actually afraid of a “little” rope drag and we reconsidered combining the pitches.
We worked our way up some more slightly tougher climbing up the relatively steep crack system on the face beneath the “Triple Roofs” (pictured above) to another bolted anchor (with much newer, more trustworthy bolts).
From these anchors it was a leftward traversing pitch on underclings below the triple roofs until you could round the corner above them. The triple roofs themselves protected very well (with #1,2,and 3 cams), the tough part was finding long enough slings to mitigate rope drag as you rounded the corner. Once past the 3rd roof and around the corner, we quickly gained a 3rd class gully up to the base of the Diamond. It was nice to have some solid ground to stand on, even though anchor building in the gully here was kind of a task.
In my opinion the 5th pitch is the best pitch on this route. From my comfortable belay station at the base of the diamond I watched James lead up and to the left across a slabby 5.8 face, following the obvious features towards the skyline. You round a small corner to the left here and enjoy fun, exposed, climbing for another 50 feet before setting up a belay at the first obvious spot you find. We made the mistake of running this pitch about 20-30 feet too far which was the beginning of the debacle that was the next two pitches.
This is where things started to get interesting… With concerns about rope drag outweighing our concerns about timing we had abandoned the notion that we would combine any pitches, and figured we’d just play it safe and run nice short pitches and be careful not to miss belays or get off route.
The problem is … I’m really bad at estimating distance. Up to this point most pitches had been fairly obvious, if for no other reason than the fact that they would often round corners which made it necessary for rope drag or communication purposes for us to pitch it out in short segments which matches the “pitches” of the route. The last two pitches however were one larger face with several crack systems and several possible routes.
I started up the sixth pitch where I understood the route to be, the twin cracks in the photo above, on pretty easy 5.7 climbing with our exposure climbing towards 700 feet. In hindsight, we should have followed the crack diagonal to the right to a large comfortable belay station. To top this off, the middle of the 7th pitch is the crux of the entire route, an overhanging 5.9 hand jam in between blocks lodged in a wide crack.
I worked my way up the “6th” pitch, the holds quickly ran out and I ended up about 5 feet left of and just below the crux, having dead ended into a featureless roof. I was 5 feet from where I wanted to be, and about 50 feet above my last legitimately good piece of gear. So close to solid holds, but having no way of bridging this five foot gap safely.
Talking with the guys at “The Elephants Perch”, a climbing shop in Ketchum, I vaguely remembered a traverse to the right on thin hands right below the crux if you ended up in the position I currently found myself in. So, in search of this traverse I down climbed, cleaning a couple of super sketchy nuts as I went. I never found the traverse.
I got back down to my last solid cam placement and started back up following a seam to the right that did in fact lead to the crux. At this point I had been climbing this pitch for probably between 20 and 30 minutes and was not feeling super confident. I got up to the crux and placed a pretty solid #2 cam between a couple of blocks. This was a big relief because I was running low on appropriate gear for this size crack and had run out the 40 or so feet below with only a nut placement that I felt moderately uncomfortable with. The move at the crux isn’t necessarily hard, it’s mostly awkward. Your feet are underneath and in front of you with a couple parallel vertical cracks towards your right that you can hand and fist jam or even grab hold of on the outside. Farther out from the wall on the right there is the top of a dihedral that you can get your feet onto, but this forces your body in a direction that isn’t conducive to the hand jam you are trying to support, but is necessary for you to be able to reach up higher. From here you need to pull yourself up over the overhang. Somewhere between getting my feet onto the dihedral and reaching for the upper handholds one of my feet slipped and I found myself in the air, 600 feet off the ground, praying that the cam I had placed was as solid as it looked. The fall wasn’t far, but with rope stretch it was probably 15-20 feet, and was the first real fall I’ve taken on gear, multiple pitches off the deck. I was VERY shaken. I knew there was no realistic way we were going to descend from here and that I had to just shake it off and make that move. I went back up and with a little more adrenaline made the move with no issue.
Above here the slope flattened out a good amount and opened up into a big wide crack with third and fourth class climbing above me to a large ledge that marked the top of the route. I setup a sturdy belay station using every last piece of appropriate gear I had and James began to follow. As soon as James started following up this pitch a small squall moved in and it started at first raining, and then snowing on us.
Back in Ketchum, the day before, the guys at “The Elephants Perch” had also mentioned a large loose looking/feeling block in the final pitch, and told us that while it looked sketchy, they had pulled on it as hard as they could and it didn’t budge and that we probably didn’t need to worry about it. The block in question was probably 1 foot wide at the top, 2-3 feet wide at the bottom, about 4 feet tall, and between 1 and 3 feet deep. I thought about it as I lead up and tried to be a little extra careful in putting my weight on it, not totally trusting it’s sturdiness.
James was about ½ way up the pitch when I heard that same block let loose and felt a sharp tug on the rope. Now, from my belay I couldn’t see anything, I just heard the block crashing down 700 feet into the forest below, praying that no one else was down there. At this point all I knew was that James was still on the rope, but had no idea what had just transpired below. Panicked, I let out a couple shouts and didn’t hear any answer. Finally, what seemed like a minute later, (although, I’m sure it was closer to 5 seconds) I heard him respond. He was fine, in a rush to make it up because of the inbound snowstorm he had put all of his weight on that rock and ripped the several hundred pound behemoth lose from the wall. Somehow, miraculously, it had pulled out between him and the wall barely even brushing him on its way down.
James followed up the rest of the route and over the crux with no problem and joined me in my slopey belay crack. We knew we were within striking distance of the top and were thoroughly ready to get off this route. He threw me back on belay for the remaining scramble and we topped out a moment later.
The view from the top of the route was breathtaking, as was the exposure.
From the top of the route it was a pretty easy traverse across some wet slabs to the opposite side of the formation. From here we down climbed into a gully that we followed back down 700 vertical feet towards the Saddleback Lakes. The potential routes on this side looked like some of the best rock we’d seen anywhere on the formation with hundreds of vertical feet of perfect granite. At the bottom of this gully we made one final rappel. From here, it was a five-minute hike back to where we had stashed our bags.
At this point we knew that we had no hope of making the last shuttle boat of the night at 7pm. Mostly because … it was already after 7 pm. We rapped back down the slabs that we had scrambled up on the approach and as quickly as we could we headed back down the trail towards the lake. We arrived at the Redfish Inlet Transfer Camp just before 10 pm as the last of the daylight faded. We sat on the dock, eating the last of our food, thoroughly not looking forward to our five-mile “bike” back to the car in the dark. As soon as we started biking back towards the other end of the lake it became immediately apparent that we would be unable to negotiate the narrow hillside trail, let alone the switchbacks, on bike in the dark. Defeated, we walked our bikes the next three miles up the hill. Once we gained the crest we were able to begin the ride downhill, slowly and carefully navigating by headlamp. By the time we arrived back at the car it was almost 1 am, we were toast, and in no mood to make the three hour drive back to Twin Falls. But despite our fatigue, we were stoked, the perch was ours.