Kudos to those who, upon glancing at the title, caught the allusion to Tom Hornbein's excellent account of the 1963 American Mount Everest expedition. Unfortunately, the account of my own ascent of Leatherman Peak--a grand summit to be certain--lacks somewhat the epic nature of Hornbein's narrative.
Living in Missoula, MT has its advantages. The valley is surrounded by numeruous mountain ranges that offer stellar hiking/climbing within a short drive. However, the grass is always greener elsehwere, and I found myself continually drawn (during my college tenure) far to the south, toward the peaks of eastern Idaho...most prominently, the Lost River Range. One weekend, on a spur of the moment decision, I drove the 300 something miles down and climbed Mount Borah. Having thus whetted my appetite, I returned to the Lost Rivers a year later, with the intent to climb Leatherman.
Sawmill Gulch seemed to offer the most logical approach to the peak--on the map at least--so that is route I took, reaching the western base of the Lost Rivers late in the afternoon. The road from the highway is exceedingly rough, like driving up an old streambed, and I didn't get too far up it before having to stop, well below even the lower treeline. Having brought along a pack with tent and sleeping bag, I figured this would cut time off the ascent tomorrow (and give me something to do in the hours before the sun went down) so off I went with the infernal sun beating down and grasshoppers clacking around by the hundreds.
As anyone interested in climbing the Lost Rivers should, I had armed myself with a copy of Tom Lopez's guide and memorized the access description, bearing particularly in mind Lopez's note that the trail up Sawmill Gulch takes off uphill in a patch of trees "at the first switchback." The trail was not as obvious as I had hoped. What defines a swicthback versus a mere bend in the road is also a puzzle more academic than practical. In summation, I followed the old road to its terminus, several hundred feet up the hill to the south of Sawmill Gulch at the entrance to an old mine. Cursing my confusion and lack of vigilance, I backtracked down the road and bespied a tiny man-made pile of limestone at the head of what seemed to be an elk path in the woods at the first bend in the road. Voila, the trail.
Concerned about hiking in the dark up a valley I had only seen on a map, I made camp as best I could in the bottom of the gulch, practically on top of a mound inhabited by restless chipmunks that skurried about all night outside the tent right below my ear. My decision to haul a pack with me had thus saved me about a mile's easy walk from my car. This pathetic campsite was my reward.
Gray light crept in around 6:00, and off I went. I hadn't slept much anyway, thanks to the rodents. The trail up Sawmill Guclh is pretty hard to follow and very faint in spots. Fortunately, following the path is not really necessary: the terrain more or less guides you up to the pass. Sawmill Pass itself is an enchanting place: a broad series of meadows intersperced with Whitebark pine and meandering streams--yes, actual flowing water at the end of September! Packing in this way would almost be worth it just to camp there. From Sawmill Pass, the trail sidehills to the left up to Leatherman Pass, a far more desolate saddle.
Leatherman Peak looks pretty scary from Leatherman Pass, all dark and gloomy in the shade of early morning. From here, the west ridge above looks incredibly steep, rocky, and loose--a pretty accurate view. Of course, the view looking up the ridge toward the peak is grossly foreshortened...the summit is a LONG way up! There is a white band of quartzite streaked across the slope that looks to be about halfway up the ridge from the pass. From the summit, you see the truth: that band is almost right at the bottom of the slope.
I did not follow the ridge all the way. There are steps and notches and rotten little walls that interfere with progress. Rather, the route, which takes a degree of attention to follow, winds around gullies and ledges to the left side (north) of the ridge. The rock is of course simply atrocious. I was glad no one else was below me on the route...if they were, I would have killed them. My every move it seemed (particularly on the decent) was attended by a shower of rockfall, and any pitch involving even slight exposure was made absolutely hair-raising by the rock's instability. How fortunate there was not more than a skiff of snow in the shady places. That would have made things supremely interesting.
Overall, I'd rate the route nothing harder than a class 3, but it's a delicate class 3 to be sure.
Somehow I clawed my way to the summit. Looking out over the Lost River Valley is like looking out of an airplane--the green circular patterns of central-pivot irrigation are interesting to behold from the top of a high mountain. The view south along the crest toward Bad Rock Peak and Mount Church is even more tremendous. Only the prospect of the loose, aggravating descent took the edge of my momentary enthusiasm.
On the way down I ripped a big hole in the seat of my pants.