Scenes from Idaho's rugged Boulder Mountains
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 final piece in a four-part blog series detailing that trip.
On our fourth and final day in the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness, I saw my first person outside of our group.
There were three people sightings in our first three days, but I didn’t see any of them.
We had packed up our camp, left the gear for the outfitter and started a long hike out to the Ketchum-area trailhead on the south end of the wilderness area — the opposite end from where our journey began.
As we reached West Pass — the 10,060-foot ridge that splits the wilderness into two distinct parts — we discovered three hikers preparing lunch. They had camped the night before and planned to climb Kent Peak (11,664 feet) that day. Kent is Ryan Peak’s more challenging but slightly shorter neighbor.
Hannah Beane of Ketchum, one of the hikers, said this was her fourth visit to West Pass and the first time she had encountered a person outside her group.
“I love the solitude,” Beane said. “I feel like this is what the real Idaho is all about. ... You really feel like this wilderness is your own when you travel back here.”
Sometimes, that can be a scary proposition.
On our third day in the wilderness, five of us set out to explore further the U-shaped valley we found on our first day. It was a short walk —but a grueling one. Without a trail other than those made by mountain goats, we covered more than 600 vertical feet in about six-tenths of a mile.
Then we surveyed our options.
Plan A was to follow some vegetation, including trees, as high as we could toward the north ridge line. Then it would be a scramble on loose rock to the top.
Plan B was to boulder-hop our way toward a saddle in the northwest corner. From the valley, it seemed doable because most of the rock we could see was large and relatively stable.
We chose Plan B and began our ascent. The first half of the hike wasn’t bad. The rock didn’t slide too much and there was an outcropping to grab for support. I went “four-wheel drive” for a while, climbing on all fours.
That put us on a plateau — and showed us that we were much farther from the saddle than we thought. Below us was an almost-lake and several patches of snow that were feeding it. In front of us was a wall of loose rock, much like what we dealt with the day before at Ryan Peak.
Dan King — our off-trail explorer — decided to climb to the rock wall to our right, hug that wall for a while, then climb a rock face to the peak. He was rewarded with spectacular views toward Glassford Peak and was able to walk the ridge to the saddle.
Rick Gerrard followed King for a while, then moved back into the field of scree to climb to the saddle.
And Jay Krajic and Tim Tower went right up the middle of the scree. The final 100 feet or so was incredibly slow climbing. They had to take time to plan each step to avoid sliding down the mountain.
I tried what I thought was the safest route — up the drainage where the snowmelt poured down to the pond, then a steep climb along another rock wall to the saddle. But about two-thirds of the way there, I decided it was too risky and backed off (the last straw was when one dislodged rock tumbled down the hill at great speed, hit another rock and shattered into a bunch of pieces). I second-guessed my decision while I watched the others reach the top — but also thought about what we’d have to do if one of them got injured.
It’s an unsettling thought.
“When I go into a wilderness area, my expectations are I’m on my own,” said Peter Morrill, the former general manager of Idaho Public Television and a volunteer videographer for “Outdoor Idaho.” “That’s part of the delightfulness of being in a wilderness area. It challenges you to use all of your senses, all of your skills.”
When we returned to camp that night, we confirmed an off-and-on decision to leave the wilderness a day early. We had decided that Glassford was too far away and Kent too challenging to climb and had explored the area surrounding our camp enough to satisfy everyone.
The next morning, we set out for West Pass — where we met Beane, Toby Citret and Jeff Emerson. It was a 1.2-mile hike with 1,248 feet of elevation gain to get there.
After chatting with the hiking group, we began a long descent toward Sun Valley and got our first glimpse of the south side of the wilderness area. It was greener with more open views and the trail dropped into a valley walled off by Kent and Ibex peaks. We saw a single mountain goat — and the leading theory was it was the same goat we’d seen two days earlier at Ryan, not far away.
The trail was far better on the south side of the pass. It was still steep, and at times it was nothing but loose rock, but at least it was visible at all times.
“Wow, this is big country,” Bruce Reichert, the host of “Outdoor Idaho,” said as we dropped into the valley. “I don’t want to leave. This is my favorite side — helped, I’m sure, by the fact I’m going downhill.”
The trail from West Pass to the North Fork of the Big Wood River followed a creek with some beautiful waterfall sections that didn’t have a name on any of our maps. A left turn at the North Fork led us to the trailhead, which is at the end of a dirt road near the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Visitor Center off Highway 75, a few miles north of Ketchum.
The hike from West Pass to the trailhead covered 4.7 miles and 3,174 feet of elevation loss.
The severity of the slope limits use even with the greater population and better quality trail on the south side of the wilderness. According to the registration papers at the trailhead, 27 groups entered the wilderness during the most recent seven-day span. And many of those headed to the Amber Lakes off of the West Fork North Fork trail, a milder hike to an area that is barely within the wilderness boundary.
“West Pass doesn’t get used as much just because there’s a ton of elevation gain to get up here,” Beane said. “Amber Lakes is used a lot. That’s one of the really cool things out here. Because there’s a lot of diversity, you can be in an area really close to a super popular hike and not see anyone because you’ve chosen something really difficult.”
That’s easy to do in the Hemingway-Boulders, as we learned during our four-day stay. It takes experience (or experienced friends — thanks, guys!), resolve and route-finding skills to enjoy what Reichert called the “wild child” of Idaho’s three new wilderness areas.
“I’ve been most impressed with the soaring mountains here,” Morrill said. “The mountains are incredibly rocky, incredibly rough and it really feels very much like a wilderness area. ... When you come here, expect great challenges physically but, if you’re up to the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views.”