Never backpack alone. It’s the first rule of backpacking and that’s most likely why I broke it.
Working the summer at Redfish Lake Lodge in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho was an experience rich in memories and adventure. The most impactful was a solo backpack trip up Mt Heyburn.
A friend boated me up the inlet creek at the west end of the lake, where I headed up the creek to a point where I thought Mt. Heyburn looked more scalable than other areas. Once I mentally roughed out my route, I headed up the side of the steep south grade. I had a full backpack with sleeping bag, topographical area map, food, water, flashlight, batteries, knife and basic first aid elements.
The climb was long and arduous through the thickly forested base of the mountain. But, I was a studly young man standing at 6’4” and carrying 230 pounds, most of it muscle.
From the base of the mountain, it looked steep. Toward the middle, when it pitched upward more sharply, it seemed quite the challenge. At a couple of points, I wished that I had some technical rock climbing gear. But, I forged upward without gear or common sense. In one precarious situation, actually swinging on a tree root exposed in the mountainside from one ledge to another about 5 feet away. The fall, had I slipped or had the root snapped may have only been about 20 feet down, but the subsequent roll would have been at least a hundred. The intensity increased once I’d elevated above the tree line.
Near the top, I realized that it would be impossible to return down the way I came up. My only hope was that I could easily crest and cross the ridge and find my way back around the other side.
By the time I actually reached the point where I could climb no further without technical gear, I was on a ridge just below the peak of the mountain. The views were gloriously spectacular. In every direction, regardless of which way I looked, the view was something like the image on some inspirational poster meant to motivate brain-dead employees into one more productive day of work. But, there I was surrounded by the kind of beauty that brings one to their knees in awe and gratitude to an incomprehensibly creative God.
There was a tree that had been struck by lightning and split at half its height. The top half was lying horizontally on the ground loosely stabilized by the bottom half still growing from the hillside, just below the crest of the ridge. The ridge was no more than a foot or two wide so I knew my best place for sleep was against the tree. I carefully unrolled my North Face sleeping bag and laid it against the dead treetop. I ate my peanut butter, jelly and turkey sandwich and settled in for the cool, crisp night. The sky was crystal clear and so brightly lit with the plethora of stars made it almost seem not to be night at all.
As I began to doze off, I heard some small rocks falling nearby. I slowly and cautiously peeked from my bag not knowing if I was dreaming, if I would see a bear, or if it was the beginning of an avalanche. I raised my head in time to see a dark shadow bolt away from near the foot of my sleeping bag. The pounding of hooves on the rocks was almost as loud as the pounding of my heart in my chest. It took hours to eventually doze off. And, even then, the sun was up to cut the rest of my sleep short.
The next day, I woke, ate another sandwich, packed things up and started to look for a way down. There were very few options. In fact, there was really only one. I had to traverse the ridge, around some minarets and get to a huge snowfield covering a scree on the north side that I could walk down and eventually get to the bottom.
I navigated around the first minaret and as I was coming around the final corner, I saw a mountain goat with her baby. I immediately froze and watched; just peeking around a rock. They were near a crevasse that was narrow near the mountainside and widened as it went out. The adult would jump across a relatively wide part, then look back and wait for the little one to do the same. When the little one didn’t follow, the adult moved to a narrower part and jumped again. Finally, the little one jumped across after the adult. Once across, they moved out a bit further and tried again over a wider gap. It was fascinating. I watched several minutes and eventually they either heard or smelled me – either one of which would have been quite easy at that point.
They darted off and I continued toward the snowfield. After about two hours of carefully calculated foot and hand placements, I had finally covered a hundred yards or and could see the snow again. Closer now, I had a more accurate assessment of what it would take to get to it. I had to cross an open rock scree of about 50 yards or so. This was probably even more dangerous than any part of the climb the day before. The rock was large and loose. But at this point, I had no other choice but to continue. The closer I got too the snow, the more I realized that it was in fact ice, and it was far from smooth. It was a perfectly white, frozen solid, ice-cast – matching the exact contour of the football-sized rocks beneath it. But it was my safest and fastest way down to the bottom. I hefted my backpack over my head, sat down on the ice, lifted my feet and began sliding down the mountain. My speed quickly became an issue and I had to put my feet down in front of me in order to slow enough that pounding on my ass was at least somewhat bearable. After a few hundred yards, my butt and legs were cold beyond feeling. So the speed mattered less as the pain subsided – or more appropriately, was masked by the cold of the ice. My loose green, drawstring, chemical warfare pants were gathering above my knees as I continue my lengthy ice-slide.
Finally, after what seemed like 10 minutes, I was at the bottom of the field. I set down my pack and stood to stretch a bit. I reached down to grab behind my legs and stretch my back. “Ahhhh,” I moaned as I stood again. I reach for my pack and noticed that the palms of my hands were covered with blood. I looked down at the backs of my legs. My calves had been scrubbed raw through the skin by the ice. I couldn’t feel a thing. No pain. Nothing. I looked up the ice field and there they were, two completely straight, completely vertical red lines. For at least three-quarters of the slide, my legs had been donating blood to the ice bank. Since I hadn’t any feelings of pain, it seemed absolutely hysterical to me. I laughed harder than I could ever remember laughing. I stood there, looking up at the stripes… and laughing; looking down at my legs… and laughing; looking out and wondering where the hell I was… and laughing.
At the bottom, there was a mirror calm, tiny lake – almost rather to be called a large pond. I made my way through the brush and to the side of water’s edge, took off my shoes and rinsed my feet and legs.
After the amusement had passed, the reality of my situation began to set in. While I had a fairly good idea of where I was, I had no idea how long it would take me to get back to Redfish Lake.
I picked my way through the trees and around the north side, toward the east, where I knew there was an inlet creek to Redfish Lake. As I continued around bends and over foothills and through underbrush that was so thick as I traversed it, my feet rarely touched the ground, time was passing. I continued eating, but only as I felt my strength leaving. Resources were limited at this point, and I had to conserve – for what? I don’t know. But, it seemed the thing to do. The hours passed and the shadows grew. Finally, I found a creek. I wasn’t sure if this was the right one. But, I knew that if it wasn’t, it would lead to another, and possibly another, and possibly another; then maybe to either a river or a lake.
At this point, I was down to my last package of food – a large bag M&Ms! I ate a handful and started down the creek. The easiest way to progress at this point was directly in the water. At times, I removed my pack and carried it overhead. The near-freezing creek water was obviously ice runoff. This was a good thing as a few hours prior, the feeling had come back into my legs – and it was not a good feeling.
At about 6pm, I finally, emerged from the woods and discovered that it was in fact the inlet creek to Redfish Lake. Overjoyed, I immediately consumed the rest of the M&Ms and walked back to my cabin.