Climbing Idaho's Ryan Peak
Editor’s note: Playing Outdoors writer Chadd Cripe spent four days in the new Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness with a crew from Idaho Public Television’s “Outdoor Idaho” show. He’s blogging about that experience this week at IdahoStatesman.com/playing-outdoors. This story is part of that blog series.
A man with no socks, a woman with two artificial knees and a wilderness newbie set out to climb the highest peak in Idaho’s rugged, isolated Boulder Mountains. The Boulders are best-known for the view of them you get from Ketchum or driving toward Galena summit. If you look north from town, or the Sun Valley Resort, they are right in front of you.
These are the hikers’ stories.
• • •
John Crancer, 61, already has fought off bladder cancer. Still, his body tries to stop him from continuing his quest to bring some of the most remote places in Idaho into the living rooms of TV viewers. Crancer, a producer for “Outdoor Idaho,” rode a horse to base camp last month for our visit to the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness — hoping to save his troublesome feet.
The next day, he joined us for the hike to Ryan Peak — a high spot on a ridge line that sits 11,714 feet above sea level.
Unfortunately, I’m getting old, but I’m not ready to give up going in the outdoors — there’s too much awesome stuff in Idaho. ... I couldn’t resist trying to make it to the top of Ryan.
John Crancer, “Outdoor Idaho” producer
The hike covered 2.35 miles and 2,902 feet of elevation gain one way from our base camp, largely without a trail. Crancer wasn’t sure how far he’d go.
His feet were a mess of cuts and bandages. He recently hiked to the top of Jerry Peak (10,010 feet) in sandals because his feet overheat when he wears shoes.
For the Ryan hike, he decided to try tennis shoes without socks. Still, he stopped to place his bare feet in every patch of snow on our route.
“It really helped that there were some strategically placed snowbanks, so I could cool my feet down,” he said.
He has spent two decades searching for the best visuals to tell stories about Idaho’s beautiful places and adventurous people. He was rewarded for his ascent of Ryan with one of the best views he’s found. The Boulders (including the impressive Glassford and Kent peaks), White Clouds (including famed Castle Peak), Lost River Range (including Borah Peak, the state’s highest point), Pioneers and Sawtooths were among the ranges visible from the summit.
“(The Boulders) are pretty impressive — especially that view,” Crancer said. “You’re in the heart of everything.”
• • •
Linda Olson of Boise, a longtime kayaker, hiker and skier, underwent surgery to replace both of her knees two years ago.
The 67-year-old still doesn’t feel like she’s as fit as she was but she climbed to the top of Ryan without the pain she would have experienced with her original knees.
“That just tells you how good the doctors are, that you could do something like that,” she said. “... Two years ago, before I had the knees, I couldn’t even hike anymore.”
The bigger problem for Olson was the trip down the mountain — a wickedly steep trail of decaying, sandy rock that required a technique somewhat like skiing. The artificial knees don’t have as much “spring,” she said, which makes downhill travel a challenge. Eventually, she tried descending in a seated position and lost control. Her pants got shredded.
“I’d hang onto a big boulder — 2 feet (across) — but ... the whole boulder was going,” she said. “And I thought, ‘This is dangerous.’ ”
• • •
I have a new best friend. Its name is lupine.
The small plant with purple flowers and incredible strength was the only thing that got me up the face of Ryan Peak to the ridge line where our final ascent began.
This was my first overnight trip into a wilderness area and my first attempt at climbing a mountain like Ryan. There is a trail to the top — but most of the people in our group of nine missed it. And by the end of the day, there was considerable debate about whether we’d have wanted to take it anyway (we did use it to descend).
We traveled as a group from our base camp to West Pass, the ridge that separates the more-trafficked Sun Valley side of the wilderness area from the rarely used north side. We scattered from there, largely because we spotted a mountain goat and everyone was trying to find the best angle for a photo. By the time I was done taking pictures, two of our hikers were walking a ridge near the actual trail — “It looks safer,” Bruce Reichert said as he headed that way — and the rest had started walking up the steep face of the mountain. I followed the larger group.
At first, it didn’t seem that daunting. But before long, I was walking on a steep slope partially covered with loose rock and worried I could become a human rockslide.
“Follow the lupine,” someone shouted at me from above.
So I did. Remarkably, a string of lupine plants are growing in all that loose rock most of the way up the mountain. So at times, I put two trekking poles in one hand and grabbed a lupine with the other to keep myself from falling. Other times, I stepped just above the plants, figuring if I slipped they’d provide enough resistance to keep me on my feet.
How spooky was it? I lost a sweatshirt on my way up. It was about 15 feet behind me when I realized it was missing — and I decided to leave it there. I didn’t think I could go that far down without sliding down the mountainside.
Olson faced a similar internal debate.
“It got so steep,” she said. “I considered going back, but I thought, ‘I don’t want to go back down.’ So there didn’t seem to be a choice — the only way was to go up.”
Eventually, I ran out of lupines and had to scramble up the hill without their help. And that was just the first half of the climb.
The second half, about a 600-foot elevation gain along the ridge that dropped off severely on both sides, forced me, Crancer and Olson to overcome our issues with heights — particularly in such an exposed location. The presence of a sometimes-clear, sometimes-faint trail eased the tension.
All three of us made it — along with five other members of our party — signed the register and loitered on the peak to eat snacks, take photos and marvel at the journey. We were just the fifth group to sign in this year.
The view was as breathtaking as the effort required to get there.
“It was worth it,” Crancer said. “Absolutely worth it.”
• • •
Some notes that didn’t make the newspaper version of this story:
▪ Ryan is considered the easiest climb of the Boulders’ big three (Glassford and Kent are the others) but it was still an incredible challenge. The trail might have been a safer route to the top but likely would have required more effort because of its sandy nature. Several people in our group said they’d rather climb the face of the peak again. I’m not sure I would.
▪ Bald Mountain, the Sun Valley Resort’s ski area, was visible from Ryan, too. Ketchum was the only town we could see in any direction.
▪ Bruce Reichert on the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness: “It takes my breath away — literally. ... This is a very amazing wilderness. I think it’s the wild child of the trinity of new wilderness areas.”
▪ The West Pass Creek trail faded about where our base camp was located. We played peek-a-boo with it all week from camp to the top of West Pass. This was a problem right from the start on the day we climbed Ryan. “We’re going to spend more time looking at maps than hiking,” Dan King said a few minutes into the journey, when we weren’t sure where to cross the creek. “Sometimes you just have to go by instinct.”
▪ Videographer Jay Krajic did the hike while carrying a TV camera and, for most of the way, a tripod. It’s the sixth time he’s climbed a major peak with TV gear, including Borah.
“I like a challenge,” Krajic said. “That was brutal today. I was cursing up that slope — that was a nasty slope.”
Krajic first saw Ryan Peak from a trail near the North Fork of the Big Lost River about 15 years ago (photo below). He never imagined he’d climb it.
“There was snow everywhere,” he said. “I was looking up at this big peak and it was just completely snow-covered. And I just thought, ‘OK, there’s a big mountain. Good for it. There’s no way I’m ever going to the top of that thing. And lo and behold, here we are.”
He compared the summit to Borah’s.
“The view is amazing,” Krajic said. “I did Borah last August. I think this is a better view. The Lost River Range is kind of set aside by itself. It’s not surrounded so intensely by mountains. You’re looking right into the White Clouds (here), the Boulders are right next to you, the Pioneers are right over there, you can see the Lost River Range. It’s prettier here. The colors — look at the colors right there (a red-and-white slope). Everything’s just so much closer.”
▪ There was debate at the summit about how to get off the mountain. Only Krajic and Reichert took the trail for the ascent and they didn’t have glowing words to say about it. But I was adamant that I didn’t want to go back down the way I came up — even with help from the lupine.
The first group that departed chose Reichert’s route. I was in the second group. We surveyed our options — the route the others took requires a spooky ridge walk to get to the descent — but you couldn’t even see the hillside I came up while looking down, that’s how steep it was.
We opted for the trail. And what we found was loose rock that is devolving into sand. For most of the way down, we sort of skied, sliding till we stopped in the rock — sometimes with rock up to our ankles — and then starting again (photo below). A few spots were hard and slick, and that’s where it got a little scary.
But we all made it down.
Back at camp, we traded horror stories about the hike.
Rick Gerrard, who was the first one up and the first one back to camp, told everyone who asked about the descent: “That was the worst trail I’ve hiked in my life.”
‘Outdoor Idaho’ special airs Dec. 4
“Outdoor Idaho” on Idaho Public Television will air its special on Idaho’s three new wilderness areas Dec. 4. The hour-long episode is called “Beyond the White Clouds.”
The next new episode of “Outdoor Idaho” airs Oct. 13. “The Outfitters” tells the stories of some of the people who lead Idahoans into the wilderness and will include footage from the Hemingway-Boulders trip.