Saturday, November 7, 2015

Reflections On Idaho And The Adirondacks

cowboy routeIt’s true. The mountains out west are bigger than the Adirondacks. I confirmed this when I went to Idaho last month to visit my son Nathan.

Nate used to work at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake, but he moved to Idaho last year (after a stint at the Middletown Times Herald-Record) to cover politics.

I never thought of traveling to Idaho before Nate relocated there, but I’m glad I went. It’s a gorgeous state with all sorts of opportunities for hiking, scrambling, rock climbing, and, in season, backcountry skiing.

Did I mention BASE jumping?

Nate lives in southern Idaho in Twin Falls, a small city on the Snake River, which over eons has carved a deep canyon. BASE jumpers from around the world travel to Twin Falls to parachute off the Perrine Bridge, which sits nearly 500 feet above the river. The bridge is not the highest in the nation, but Idaho is rather permissive when it comes to BASE jumping. Nate knows a guy who moved to Twin Falls just to jump off the bridge, sometimes 20 times a day. We stopped at the bridge one morning and watched two parachutists. Both landed safely, but that is not always the case.

To get to Twin Falls, my girlfriend Carol and I flew to Salt Lake City and rented a car. Soon after crossing from Utah into Idaho, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road so we could see the City of Rocks, a renowned rock-climbing area. All told, we would drive for 50 miles on dirt roads that day, much of it through federal land.

GraffitiCity of Rocks is a phantasmagorical landscape of granite peaks, cliffs, knobs, boulders, and slabs that enthralled pioneers passing through on wagon trains in the 19th century, many of whom wrote their names with (now fading) axle grease on the rocks. Today, most of the City of Rocks is part of a National Reserve, and the visitors are climbers, hikers, and mountain bikers.

A few days after our initial visit, Carol and I hired a pair of climbing guides from Sawtooth Mountain Guides. It was a raw, gray day – the chilliest of our stay. We spent the morning climbing at Castle Rocks State Park, which is next to City of Rocks but a little lower in elevation and hence just a tad more clement.

My guide, Drew Daly, led me up a classic route on Castle Rock – the main formation in the park – called Big Time, usually climbed in four short pitches. I haven’t climbed in all that many places, but Big Time ranks as one of the funnest routes I’ve done. The rock was clean (no lichen or moss) and littered with holds the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. When you drop a rock in a pond, it creates a kerplunk and a tiny wall of water and spray. Now imagine that spray frozen in granite. That’s what the holds reminded me of: petrified wavelets.

Window ArchAfter lunch we climbed at City of Rocks. Carol and her guide, Jonathan Preuss, went to Practice Rock to work on fundamentals while Drew and I climbed two routes at Elephant Rock. The one I liked better was Wheat Thin, established by Greg Lowe, the founder of Lowe Alpine, in the 1960s. We finished the day with a climb on Bath Rock known as Cowboy. It’s fairly vertical but easier than the others, given the abundance of big holds—including numerous “chicken heads.” These are rock knobs that stick out from the cliff. As he ascended, Drew tied nylon slings to several chicken heads and clipped the rope to the slings to protect him in case of a fall. This was the first time I had seen this technique. Indeed, I had never seen chicken heads before. When we got to the top of Cowboy, the sun peeked through the clouds and suffused City of Rocks in soft light.

Carol talusLater in the week, when Nate was working, Carol and I drove north to Stanley (population 63) in central Idaho at the base of the Sawtooths, perhaps the state’s best-known mountains. Fifty-seven peaks in the range exceed 10,000 feet. Stanley sits at 6,253 feet—higher than Mount Marcy.

Carol and I hoped to climb Alpine Peak, a 9,871-foot mountain that overlooks Sawtooth Lake. There is no trail to the summit. Most people climb it by hiking on trails to the lake and then scrambling up the west face. We planned a more adventurous route: we’d hike four miles on trail to Alpine Lake, scramble up a long talus slope to a ridge, then ascend the ridge to the summit.

It would have worked, but when we got to the ridge, we decided we didn’t have enough time to gain the summit. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic outing. We had lunch near two beautiful alpine lakes in a meadow below the summit. On the way back, we passed Sawtooth Lake (after scrambling down a somewhat treacherous scree slope) and walked out past towering peaks and granite spires bathed in late-afternoon light.

What struck me about the hike was the amount of open rock. In the Adirondacks, some hikers will bushwhack long distances to climb a rock slide; in the Sawtooths, every mountain sports open rock. The range is a scrambler’s paradise. Of course, you need to pick your routes carefully lest you get into rock-climbing terrain.

Inferno ConeOne other place we visited deserves mention: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Centuries ago, geological disturbances covered the region’s landscape in lava, which congealed into an undulating sea of black basalt. In places the basalt formed caves, tunnels, bulbous knobs, and other fantastic shapes. If anything, Craters of the Moon is more phantasmagorical than City of Rocks. One of the highlights of our day was climbing an immense heap of volcanic ash known as Inferno Cone.

Yes, Idaho is different from the Adirondacks, but not so different. In the Adirondack Park, the state owns roughly 45 percent of the land and has protected it as Forest Preserve. In Idaho, the federal government owns 63 percent of the land. In both the Adirondack Park and Idaho, the public land is split between Wilderness – where no motorized use is allowed – and other land classifications that allow a greater variety of recreation. On one of our hikes, we were passed by elk hunters riding up the trail on motorized dirt bikes.

As in the Adirondacks, some local residents in Idaho chafe at government restrictions on the use of public land. Some groups argue that federal lands should be managed by the state. Environmentalists find themselves fighting those who would open public lands to more exploitation, including logging, mining, and grazing.

Like our Forest Preserve, public lands in Idaho deserve protection. Hats off to those fighting the good fight. If we return to Idaho – something we hope to do – it will be to see more of the state’s natural wonders. We’ll check in on Nate, too.

Top photo by Jonathan Preuss: Phil Brown at City of Rocks.

Other photos by Phil Brown: pioneer graffiti at City of Rocks; Window Arch at City of Rocks; Carol Fox climbs over talus on Alpine Peak; Carol Fox and Nathan Brown ascend Inferno Cone at Craters of the Moon.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

3 Responses

  1. scottvanlaer says:

    I went down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness this year. It was great and agree on similarities. I was surprised how many private in holdings there were.

  2. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    Wonderful description of outdoor life in a great state. Hope you’ll write more travel pieces.

  3. Rod Young says:

    Nice article Phil. I’m from PA (and have spent many nights in the Adirondack backcountry) and my oldest son is a PhD candidate at the Univ. of Idaho. Just met up with him in August and did the Grand Sawtooth loop. Incredible mountain range.