If you have ever been anywhere with me, from the grocery store to the crag, you know that navigation is not my greatest talent. In fact, I could probably get lost in an empty room. So when my partner Al told me he had a crazy idea for taking on Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains over our Labor Day weekend, I knew that I was in for it. But I also knew that whatever plan he’d come up with, it would be doable. So before he even laid out the plan for climbing, summiting, and then hiking the expanse between the Elephant’s Perch and the Finger of Fate to summit again, I was game.
These two monoliths are separated by steep rocky ridges and a lot of wilderness. I let Al do all the way-finding on the trail, on route, and in the backcountry. I just made sure to bring the bear spray, continuously ask if any of the plants were poisonous, and lead any pitch that had an off-width or chimney section (you can’t get lost in a crack.. or can you?).
We drove up on a Friday afternoon and left the car at the Sawtooths Visitor Center. Grabbing our packs, both of ours a size women’s small, we headed for the dock at Redfish Lake Lodge to get ferried to the wilderness by motorboat. We just had to make it to the lakes at the base of the Perch by nightfall.
After hiking switchbacks in and out of the alpine summer sun, we finally came upon a gurgling spring that soon turned into Smoky-Mountain-esque waterfalls. The crisp air smelled like pine and blooming algae as we peered over the final rocks and down to a lake so blue it could be part of the sky. Above us, the Elephant’s Perch yawned in the twilight while shadows slowly covered the giant stone features that resemble a trunk and tusks.
We set up camp, cooked dinner and fell asleep, just a tad bit giddy to get up and take on our climb, Astro Elephant, the next day.
The route promised killer granite climbing, and it delivered. Al’s favorite pitch, the sixth, was a first-ascent-caliber route-finding quest. My favorite, the fifth pitch chimney offered a full-body workout. After reaching the summit several pitches later, we took in the view until we were shooed off the rock by grumbling tummies and chilly peak winds.
That night we fell asleep to the sounds of other campers slowly moving in around us, pitching tents, crushing beer cans, and spraying about the scrambles they’d take on the next day. We fell asleep quickly, knowing the wild was waiting for us.
When we woke up, we threw everything into our packs, and without really thinking we started out, looking up at the notch in the ridge that stood between us and the Finger of Fate. After plenty of snot-rocket sneezes, battles with pine trees, and inspiring anecdotes about backcountry ice-skaters, we passed a remote lake at the edge of the forest and were spit onto a slope of talus. Looking up now and then to see how near the notch was, we stumbled over piles of rocks and meandered around boulders until the channeled ridge-top breeze greeted us. We stood looking down on the next talus field we’d have to endure. Without any interruption by wildlife, we hiked on, crossing creeks, sliding down steep banks, and avoiding tripping on tangled brush.
We never had to carry more than a liter and a half of water thanks to the glacial creeks we followed the entire journey. As we got closer to the Finger of Fate, we followed what we assumed was once a river, according to Google Maps, and once we hiked high onto the ridge, it turned into a bubbling mountain stream accompanied by explosions of petite red, white and purple wildflowers.
After passing through the last notch of many, the Finger stood before us, alone as a breath-taking statue. The range tapered off around it, leaving the Finger of Fate to thrust skyward in its awesome lichen-covered-green glory. Below pooled another alpine lake, mirroring the Finger’s reflection. The lake spit small rainbow trout into the air as they hunted for dinner and glimmered in the remaining sunlight. The mountain wind made the air cool and brisk, but the lake was just too inviting to not immediately jump in. So I did.
We went to bed early with the Finger watching over us, snuggled in our one-man tent.
The next day we zeroed in on the last of our food, packed the rest of our snacks for the climb and headed toward the base of our route, Open Book. The granite titan gave us nothing but incredible climbing. Al screamed joyously about the splitter hand cracks. I grunted and whined my way up tenuous-but-well-worth-it off-widths. We climbed through shadowed tunnels, and topped-out on a pitch that rivaled any famous spire. After a couple of well-earned moments on the summit, we started our rappel, followed by a long hike out to the nearest road in the hopes of catching a ride back to my car, ten miles away.
At this time, I’d like to give a shout out to my man Dooley (Duley? Duely? Dewly?) who turned around to pick us up. He drove us all the way back to Redfish Lake. Not all heroes wear capes. Thanks for paying it forward.
At my car, we threw our packs in the trunk. We sat in the front seats and stared into the darkness. “I want a Whopper,” I said. And with that, the mission was set. We made a bee-line back to Twin Falls in search of a 24-hour BK.
As we scarfed down massive hamburgers at 1 a.m. in a Walmart parking lot, we noticed something stuck on the windshield of my car. Al grabbed it from under the wiper blade.
“Long live MUFA! – Nolan.”
The paper-bag-note was ceremoniously left on my dash. Friends from my original climbing crew from Wisconsin had also made their way to the Idaho wild that weekend to get in a dose of bushwhacking for themselves.
It’s funny how small our big world is. Even when you feel like you’re the only creature on Earth–wandering through the forest–perhaps only a mile or two away your college buddies are bushwhacking through their own adventure.
Sarah Schlaefke is a writer and self-proclaimed voice-for-nature from Chicago who was drawn to the west by bigger rocks. Since her move, she has fallen more in love with rock climbing and discovered skiing, mountain biking, and wakeboarding, all in her own backyard. When she’s not outside, you’ll find her crafting with repurposed materials, reading about sustainability, or cooking something full of colorful veggies. Sarah also works full-time at University of Utah educating her community about health and wellness.