Dan Buckley gathered the members of the Great Rift Expedition together last Monday, the fourth day of their 62-mile hike, to see if they wanted to continue exploration of one of Idaho's least-traveled landscapes.
The trip to commemorate Robert "Two-Gun" Limbert's expedition, which led to the creation of Craters of the Moon National Monument, had been harder than they had expected.
Buckley, superintendent of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, wanted to know if the five men and one woman wanted to go past the point of no return.
Their feet were battered and bruised from hiking on the untrailed and uneven lava rock. One member of the expedition compared it to walking all day on a Stairmaster. Deep cracks and crevasses big enough to swallow a man are everywhere.
"You get tired, you lose your focus and you have a dangerous situation," said Brian Bean, 60, the owner of the Lava Lake Land and Sheep Co.
The wind had blown continuously, with gusts up to 50 miles per hour along with rain and snow. Several members of the party had cuts and bruises on their hands from falling while carrying 45- to 60-pound packs weighted down with water.
"We were going into territory that nobody had ever been in before," Buckley said. "We have no written or oral history of people going into these areas, so we really didn't know what to expect."
Bean, the oldest member of the team, says Buckley told them that once they entered the Craters of the Moon lava flows - the largest of several the expedition would cross - they would be committed for a long hike out.
"We said we were all in," Bean recalls.
FOLLOWING IN BIG FOOTSTEPS
The team finished the historic trip in twilight at 8 p.m. Thursday. They were following a tradition of national park expeditions that goes all the way back to the 1870 Washburn Expedition into Yellowstone.
Limbert, a naturalist, photographer, guide explorer, performer and Idaho promoter, had explored the Great Rift area between Arco and Rupert several times before his June 1921 trip, which was sponsored by the Idaho Statesman. The trip resulted in his publication of an account and photos in National Geographic magazine.
"I offer this as a plea not only to the people of Idaho, but to the entire nation, that they may have a new national park or monument in many respects the equal and in some easily the peer of many of the 45 now within our boundaries," Limbert wrote in the Idaho Statesman.
He called the area "a vast expanse, silent, dead, except for an occasional bird, a country with cold volcanic mountains, a riot of color and fantastic shape so unearthly as to make one believe himself on another planet."
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated it a national monument, calling it "Idaho's National Park." President Bill Clinton expanded the monument in 2001 after several visits by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Even as Buckley's team was following Limbert, it was blazing a new path not only of adventure but of science and geography.
Eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago created the lava flows that make up Craters of the Moon. The lava rose from the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks that stretches 52 miles south from the monument headquarters.
The flows cover 618 square miles, including the smaller Wapi and Kings Bowl lava fields formed 2,000 years ago.
Native Shoshone traveled through parts of the area, as have Limbert and other explorers, hunters and park employees. But much of the region has never been explored - a rarity for a 21st century American landscape. The Great Rift Expedition discovered more than 15 caves, archaeological sites and natural and scenic features.
Botanist Mike Mancuso, of Boise, a member of Buckley's team, counted more than 30 plants of the more than 700 known to exist in the monument, including Hood's phlox, desert parsley, Beckwith's violet, yellow bells and Dagger pod.
"The thing that really struck me was the incredible abundance of moss and lichens on the lava," Mancuso said. "I wasn't expecting that."
The other team members were Ted Stout, Craters' chief of interpretation; Sun Valley photographer Craig Wolfrom; and Allison Konkowski, a Student Conservation Association intern at the monument.
Konkowski, 24, was one of the hardiest of the hikers. Even though the maps show little elevation change, there are places where you can drop 20 feet in a step if you aren't watching. The uneven landscape made it hard to keep track of the other hikers.
"It's definitely a mental thing," she said.
The other goal of the trip was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
In 1970, Craters of the Moon became the first National Park Service unit to have a wilderness designated within it. Several members of the team think Congress should protect the Great Rift Wilderness Study area as wilderness, which would have a mostly symbolic effect within the monument but ensure no future motorized development.
"It's unfinished business," Mancuso said.
The team found few signs of humanity in the area. Mancuso noted the lack of cigarette butts. A Mickey Mouse birthday balloon was found among the lavas, having drifted into the area. So were several .50-caliber casings from World War II-era fighter pilots practice-firing above the monument.
Mancuso said he gained respect for what Limbert had done more than 90 years ago.
"We had radios," he said. "It's a little different game now. But it's still very wild, and you depend on your own resources to get through."