Inside Idaho’s Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness
Editor’s note: Playing Outdoors writer Chadd Cripe last month joined the crew from “Outdoor Idaho” on a journey into the rarely explored Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. This is the second of a four-part blog series detailing that trip. The third part, about climbing Ryan Peak, will appear in Wednesday’s newspaper.
Previously: Part I: ‘It’s gonna hurt’
Michael Scott, co-owner of White Cloud Outfitters in Challis, arrived this morning (July 24) to pack our gear for the trek to our wilderness base camp. He couldn’t drive the road to the trailhead with a horse trailer, so the horses walked 3 miles just to collect our stuff.
Scott brought seven horses and one mule — five animals to carry our supplies (estimated at 740 pounds), two to carry Scott and assistant Dan Wagner and one to carry a member of our party with foot problems (more on that in the third installment).
Scott needed a one-time permit to operate in the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness. He operates here most of the year but doesn’t have a permit for summer recreation — no one does, he said.
He applied with the U.S. Forest Service three years ago but hasn’t received an answer, he said.
Scott hopes to offer trips into the Boulders to reduce congestion in the more popular White Clouds, which is rich with alpine lakes.
“How much nicer is it to disperse use into a place that’s not getting it?” he said.
We got a sense of just how little use the Hemingway-Boulders gets — and particularly from the north side — by looking at the check-in sheet at our trailhead.
We were the eighth party to sign the sheet since June 6 — and the first in a week.
“It’s some of the wildest country in here,” Scott said. “You’ll see the trails aren’t big highways like what exists over in Little Boulder and Big Boulder (in the White Clouds), where you can’t park a vehicle at the trailhead. Here, you don’t see anybody. Very, very little use in this area here. That’s probably one of the neatest things about it.”
The area primarily is used for hunting, Scott said. Peak-baggers and backpackers use it, too, but often start from the Sun Valley side to the south.
“It’s not targeted, I feel, because there’s not a lot of high-mountain lakes in here that really attract the people,” he said. “Your diehard backpackers, they like to come into this kind of country because of the solitude and what it offers in that respect. You’re not with the hordes of Boy Scouts that are over in the lake chains. Everywhere you go on the other side, it’s a lot of people.
“There are places you can get away from people.”
In fact, the only people we saw during our hike to base camp were those in our party — a total of nine — and the two outfitters.
After we all watched the outfitters pack the gear — including a 90-pound cooler — we started the day with a refreshing (positive spin) creek crossing. The water in West Pass Creek was stunningly cold.
After a second creek crossing about a half-mile from the trailhead, I retired my water shoes and switched to hiking shoes. Quickly, we were able to see Glassford Peak — the 11,602-foot behemoth that we discussed climbing on our way to base camp and now have decided likely is out of our reach for this trip.
We’re not alone.
“It looks like it’s right there, but it’s so far back there,” said Betsy Mizell, a community engagement associate for the Idaho Conservation League in Ketchum. “It teases me.”
At 2.4 miles, the trail was washed out by a creek and a large log crossed the trail. Scott removed the log with his crosscut saw (no chainsaws allowed in the wilderness) and the horses marched on.
At 2.7 miles, a wide creek ran through the trail. A well-placed log allowed for a balance-beam crossing for the humans.
At 2.76 miles (and 727 feet of elevation gain), we reached the turn toward the West Pass Creek valley that would be our home for the rest of the trip. The trail wasn’t visible but a cairn (stack of rocks) marked the spot to turn.
Instead of turning, a few of us stayed on the old mining road toward Falling Star Mine. The side trip added less than a mile to our trip and was well worth the effort. An old A-frame building — perhaps used for storage — caught the eye first. But the real treat was the mine entrance. The floor of the tunnel is covered with a thick layer of ice.
Tim Tower, the chief financial officer at Idaho Public Television and a volunteer photographer for this trip, and I walked into the mine about 15 yards or so to take photos. The rock on the side walls was so soft that it crumbled in our hands.
We returned to the trail toward base camp, a 1.4-mile trip with 677 feet of elevation gain (so the total hike from the parking area to base camp was 4.16 miles). Along the way, we were treated to gorgeous views of the impressive, red ridge line that runs along the eastern edge of the Hemingway-Boulders, many small waterfalls in the creek and wildflowers of red, yellow, white, purple and orange. Twice, the trail — which was in surprisingly good shape, perhaps because the horses plowed the way — turned from dirt into a field of stones.
I tried to capture the beauty and grandeur of the area in photographs — but I’m not a good enough photographer for that. The base of the ridge line was one massive field of loose rock (scree).
Our base camp was set up on the opposite side of the creek from the trail, on an incredible, sloping meadow. The creek, losing elevation so fast that there were tiny waterfalls everywhere, rushed past our tents. The valley descended to the northwest, from where we came. To the east was the red, 10,000-foot-plus ridge line. To the west were more jagged, red mountains.
And to the south was West Pass — a 10,060-foot ridge that we know we are going to have to cross at least twice this week.
Base camp is at 8,812 feet.
After we got settled, a small group of us set off into the rock face to the west to explore. We climbed 666 feet in 0.53 miles, fighting through rocks and brush, and discovered an amazing, U-shaped valley we didn’t even know was there.
Bruce Reichert, the longtime host of “Outdoor Idaho,” was making his first visit to this part of the state.
“The Sawtooths are rugged, but this has a little more spookiness to it,” he said as we soaked in the views from high above our base camp. “There’s nobody to save your butt. They wouldn’t even know how to get here.”
Added Peter Morrill, the former general manager of Idaho Public Television and a volunteer videographer on this trip: “You do feel more isolated up here.”
Dan King of Boise, a volunteer who has joined several “Outdoor Idaho” trips, also made the spontaneous climb.
“This is the kind of stuff I like — not sitting at camp,” King said.
He also is a first-time visitor to this area.
“Gorgeous,” he said of our hike. “If I would have known about it, I probably would have been here sooner.”
The lack of lakes may keep some away, King said, but the lack of people is a draw for him.
“I try to go where there isn’t anybody,” he said. “And then you also know they don’t have the same photos, because if you pull off the side of the road, everybody’s got that one shot. You’re not going to do any better than anyone else. This just gives you a different angle that’s something that maybe they haven’t seen before.
“... I take photos as a hobby. I show my friends — a lot of them appreciate seeing what I do. A lot of them can’t get up here, so it’s kind of rewarding to show them the beautiful country that we live in.”
At dinner, there was much debate about Monday’s itinerary. The big issue was how to get video and photos from the top of Ryan Peak, the highest mountain in the Boulders at 11,714 feet, with “good light.”
The verdict: We’ll begin our climb mid-morning, take our time and leave a couple people behind to get shots near sunset.
For me, it will be the highest peak I’ve hiked. Can’t wait.
Coming Wednesday: Climbing Ryan Peak.