Last Summit of the Year
I spent the first part of the day on Slab Butte and arriving back at the trailhead at about 2 pm considered my options. I could head home and waste a few hours of daylight or I could rush up the road and try to fit one more mountain before winter settled in. It was late October and I certainly wouldn’t have another opportunity. However, making another attempt with only a few hours of daylight left meant getting home late and my flabby body was already pretty shot. I decided to at least head up the road to Fisher Saddle and see how things felt.
I had researched the south peak of Bruin Mountain and the ridge from the saddle looked like a quick and easy hike at less than two miles cross country with only a little being very steep. I drove up the road thinking I was just going to see what it looked like, but deep down, I knew if I was driving up the road that I was going to park and start hiking – just to feel it out some more. The last bit of road closely paralleled the ridge for some distance to the saddle and not wanting to walk along the road I turned around and found a wide spot to park where the route and road separated some. It was a simple short walk to the ridge that forms the divide between the sources of French Creek and creek. French Creek is a glacially carved U-shaped valley headed by the steep cliffs of the south Bruin Mountain. A bit to the north on the connecting ridge and across a small hanging valley was the slightly higher, pyramid-shaped north peak of Bruin Mountain.
The walk along the ridge was open and almost level making for good time. Soon however it became very steep and I really started feeling it as I picked my way up 600 feet through granite ledges and numerous spots of snow. My knee started to feel fatigue and soon sharp pressure pains on the inside of the joint. This was nothing new, but I usually got it at the end of the hike while heading down. I started to question if I should be where I was late in the day, but kept the looking at the map, which told me it would be an easy hike and scramble. Finally I came to the top of the spur ridge that connected to the summit mass from the southeast. The open stunted subalpine forest became a denser stunted forest of whitebark pine over open soil with very little vegetation. It appeared perhaps this was an area used by elk to bed down. This made sense as it seemed to be a protected position that gave them good visibility and early detection of approaching predators. It felt so good to be walking on horizontal ground, but I no longer felt strong at all.
The climb of the summit started soon after the ridge turned slightly to the northwest. Here I got some good views down across the rugged east face into the hanging valley that is a Research Natural Area. Most of the way from here to the summit I would be hopping on very large black lichen encrusted granite boulders. Sometimes this was easy stepping, but sometimes the arrangement of the rocks left me no choice but to jump distances that I barely had strength for, often to reach awkward positions. Other times I had to pick my way through or over the larger boulders. Slowly I began to fade and hit a wall and wondered if I would make it even though the summit was in sight and seemingly only a little higher than my position. I knew I would make it, but felt like a wimp for running out of steam so easily. But I had to remind myself that I’m an old fat guy and this was the second mountain of the short late October day. As I limped to the top of the ridge my heart sank as I looked ahead to see yet a further rise that was higher than where I was standing. What should have been an easy 10 minutes of boulder hopping probably took me 20, but I finally made it.
This mountain is a broad lenticular shaped ridge that falls off huge cliffs to the north that leave that aspect and the ground below shaded yearlong. As a result yearlong snow packs and adjacent plant communities close to true alpine vegetation can be found. This is a rather remarkable occurrence for the relatively low elevation of 8,000 to 8,500 feet. To the north the connecting ridge between the two peaks looked doable, but getting off the south peak would be dicey. It would probably be better to do the north peak from the north via Hazard Lakes. Beyond these large blue lakes I could look across the Salmon River Canyon to the Slate Creek Mountains and the Gospel Hump area. To the east I could see into the spectacular glacially carved peaks of the Lick Creek Mountains and determined to get into them sometime soon. To the south I could see down the Long Valley well past McCall. The surprising view was to the west where in the late afternoon light, I could make out the silhouette of Big Lookout Mountain in Oregon and even the faintest outline of the Elkhorns beyond. I took some time to enjoy the view and rest, though I was too shot to rejuvenate much. I just wanted to stop walking and be done, but had the return hike to complete.
Heading out was tough and my knee really gave me troubles. I compensated by keeping more weight on my other leg and sort of hoping by when the afflicted limb held my weight. This worked OK for a while until both legs became worn out. Instead of retracing my route down the dividing ridge, I jumped of the slope of the southeast aspect, hoping to hit the road sooner and find easier going. This worked but that road was much further down the hill than I had anticipated. But it was finally a thankful sight and the pickup even more so when I reached it.
It was still light when I drove out of the mountains. The domed peaks of the Lick Creek Mountains glowed orange in the late sun and I again committed myself to making them some day. It had been quite a day having done two 8,000+ foot peaks as well as drive for six hours. But it was a good way to finish the year.