Big smiles and big miles in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho
Here’s the latest trip report from a mad trio of new ultra light hikers. This is my first season as an ultralight hiker, and it’s been an amazing transition. After 35 plus years of lugging a pack and then a pack filled with climbing gear, it’s been a true liberation of my spirit! This method and mindset has allowed me in one year to do things I truly thought were long past my reach. Enough waxing poetic, on with the trip report!
Brian, Pete, and I were intent on getting in one last romp thru the Sawtooths. I put the plan together based on one single question; just what, where, and how fast could we go if we had light loads? I had the knowledge of where to go, how spectacular it was, but I also knew how hard access, and the terrain was. Nevertheless, I put it out to the other two crazies and we decided to go for it. I’m going to give the actual descriptions of where we went, and where some of these “secret” routes are located. Typical backpackers will never try these routes, so I feel safe in spilling some of my hard-earned secrets.
I took my first Sawtooth trip in 1978, and over the years I’ve wandered pretty exclusivley through the range. Still to this day there is nothing that beats the boat shuttle across Redfish Lake. Huge, brilliantly clear water, with peaks towering all around it, it’s the best and most fun 5 miles of non-hiking that your $8 can buy! We were hiking around a crazy schedule of work that Brian had. So we were leaving Boise at 2:00 PM, driving to Stanley as quickly as possible to catch the shuttle across Redfish. Our return was just as abstract; two days later we needed to be back at our truck before noon to be back in Boise by 3 PM! Kind of like a two-day trip over a three-day window?
Our first goal was to get across the lake, then hike up to Alpine Lake where we would really start to wander. From Redfish Lake it’s about 5 ½ miles to Alpine on a good trail. A mile and a half before the lake 20 switchbacks take you up and to the lake proper. Stepping off the boat at 5:30PM we bombed down the trail, full of energy, never stopping until we hit the lake just under two hours later. A quick break for water and a bar and we left the trail to the south, headed for Upper Redfish Lake basin. We were chasing the sun to get up into the higher basin, over a rock and talus filled pass, and down the other side before nightfall. We were off trail now, and wouldn’t hit another trail for two days. We hiked fast, but never so fast that we couldn’t hold a conversation. We hit the first of the Upper Redfish lakes just before dark, and settled in. I had made my first gram weenie style stoves, and for this trip was trying out a Heine pot set up. My base weight with fishing gear was right at 10.9 lbs. I was still “heavy” on two fronts. I was using an SMD Starlite, which was over kill, but light years ahead of my older packs, and an SMD Lunar Duo, which I wanted for the ability to bring my wife, or son on other trips. I left the stays out of my Starlite, and I was using a GG thinlite pad in the back panel. The pack has performed brilliantly all summer for me. We all brewed up for dinner, and relaxed. Tomorrow would be a full on day where we hoped to traverse and travel some pretty serious country.
Up relatively early, we could hardly eat because the fish were rising like crazy everywhere in the lake. We caught fish on almost every cast. It was stupid with fish. Once you get off trail in the Sawtooths, the fishing is pretty much incredible. Beautiful Cutthroat Trout, their brilliant colors flashing hit our ultra light spinning gear and Petes flies. I had brought my ultra light spin set up, as its fast to fish, but was really wishing I had brought my fly set up after helping Pete catch a couple right off the bat.
We made ourselves move on, fishing the second lake, but finding only small fish (8-10”). Next stop was Lake Kathryn, tucked into a cirque above the Upper Redfish basin.
We scrambled up and then traversed a granite-studded ridge to another gem of a lake, Lake Kathryn. More fish rising everywhere. We fished a portion of the lake until we were under a low spot in the ridge to the west, and then headed up to traverse the ridge and drop into the Packrat Lake drainage. Packrat sits in one of two drainages in the Sawtooths that is entirely without trails. It’s one of the most remote spots in the range. We had to climb and traverse talus and scree before we finally topped out only to find we had steep cliffs below. Traversing south on the ridge we finally found a wild spot to slide and ski the scree down until we could begin to hike back north to the lake. Packrat was filled with more hungry trout, and we fished for about a half-hour, catching fish up to 15”. Time to move again! We hiked down the outlet stream to Oreamnos, only to laugh as about a million 6-8” trout swarmed everything that hit the water.
Hiking back up to Packrat we started up one of the hidden passes I had hiked years before. It was hidden because it was just nuts to think it was usable to cut across one drain and into another. It went by what I think is the highest lake in the range at about 9400’. It’s nothing but huge talus, and scary granite slabs where you can get in lots of trouble if you aren’t watching where you’re going. Slogging up and thru the pass is nothing short of spectacular.
One minute you’re surrounded by granite spires, and then the next, the entire Goat Creek drainage is under your feet.
The Grand Teton of the Sawtooths, Warbonnet Peak sits over this drain, flanked by the Verita Spires, Blue Rock Dome, and a host of other granite formations that you could spend a lifetime climbing on. In addition to the climbing, the upper basin holds 8 lakes, with most offering more incredible fishing. We needed to drop down to Blue Rock Dome, then turn back up the drain to finally get to a camp under the final pass that splits the Warbonnet lakes from acccess back to Redfish canyon.
This would leave us one hard pass for the morning, and then an additional ten miles to make it back to the car. We had foregone the shuttle across the lake because they didn’t have a pick up time that meshed with our schedule. So we had to hike the length of the lake instead of ride.
Camping in the Warbonnet area is truly inspiring. The granite formations tower on all sides and everywhere you look brings more ooohs and aaahhhs. You truly cannot take a poor picture! But with these rewards come the risks. There is no easy way into or out of the Warbonnet area. It’s reached only by a wicked and treacherous ridge and pass that is followed by a steep and loose descent into it. It sure keeps the riff raff out!
It was cold, but no frost greeted us early the next morning. We were up, packed, and climbing with the sun up the steep loose face.
The high pass to the east gave us an eagle eye view of the Baron lakes, and of Big Baron Spire to the north. We found a braided goat use trail, and we plowed up to the ridgeline. Traversing across a steep hanging scree and talus slope brought us to a point high above Alpine Lake, where we initially started. None of this terrain is for the faint of heart! We descended to the lake, completing a full clockwise loop of travel over the last two days. Only 10 miles to go! We blazed out and were back at the car with a total hiking time of 4 hours from camp. What an amazing hike! I would never have thought that we could cover that kind of ground off trail in the Sawtooths. It used to take us a day and a half just to get our climbing camp into Warbonnet, and here we just backtracked it in 4 hours!
I can only say that taking a lightweight approach has changed my whole outlook on hiking. At an age (I’m 50, trying to keep up with these two youngsters!) when many are giving up on multi-day hiking, I’m planning more and longer adventures.