For the long July 4th weekend, Haydar
and I decided to take a road trip out to the Sawtooths – a place neither of us had been before. We were enticed by the promise of beautiful solid granite, classic climbs, and few people. Armed with some awesome beta from Radek (rpc
), we eventually settled on a plan: we’d hike in from Redfish Lake to Warbonnet Peak, climb the South Face
on Warbonnet, then backtrack to the Saddleback Lakes area and climb the Mountaineers Route
on Elephants Perch – one of the 50 classic climbs in North America. I naively thought maybe we could fit a third climb into this four day weekend – what was I thinking?
Saturday, July 1 - Hiking in to Warbonnet
Crossing the scree field around Point 9761, heading to the pass above Warbonnet Lake. Our campsite at the Bead Lakes. Warbonnet is at the upper left of the photo.
We stumbled from our sleeping bags having slept only a few hours, drove the last mile to Stanley, and enjoyed a big breakfast at the only restaurant in town before heading to the Redfish Lodge. We paid the $6 each way (worth it!!) for the motorboat ride to the other side of the lake where we picked up the trail. Our packs were insanely heavy – a rope for each of us, a full climbing rack plus some doubles, a 4-season tent, ice axe, clothes, food – I think I even had a small child in mine. Fortunately the trail is quite level for the first few miles before the junction with the Alpine Lake trail. This is where the real climbing begins – switchback after switchback under the hot sun finally got us to Alpine Lake and our lunch spot. According to the map, we were almost there! We just had to go off-trail to a high pass and drop down the other side! How hard could that be?
Well … it was hard! A bit of bushwacking through the woods got us out on a boulder field and the climb up to the pass wasn’t so bad. Feeling victorious, we climbed the last few feet to the top to savor the view down to the lakes where we’d be camping. What we saw didn’t make sense – there were lakes down there, but not the right ones! In fact, there was another pass to our left, even higher, and to get there we had to cross a steep snowfield. With sore shoulders we grudgingly climbed down the other side of the pass and started traversing across the snow. Not a big fan of snow, I headed directly towards the scree slope which was already melted out, intending to climb this to the ridge and then follow the ridge to the pass. This was an incredibly bad idea. I have never been on such scary, unstable ground in my life. Every step rained down rocks on the snow below. It took an hour to climb the scree up to the pass, where we finally arrived sweating, shaking, and swearing.
And we still weren’t there! The other side was just as steep, with no apparent trail through the scree. We alternately stepped, slid, and skied down and across the slope, gradually losing elevation as we passed the Warbonnet Lakes, Feather Lakes, and finally found our way to the Bead Lakes. Tired and hungry, we tossed down our packs, set up our camp, and sat down to relax amid the clouds of mosquitos – mosquitos which were undoubtedly ecstatic and surprised to see actual human beings at the lake. They gorged themselves happily as Haydar and I were too tired to fight.
Sunday, July 2 - Warbonnet South Face
View of the South Face of Warbonnet from the col (Haydar's photo). Haydar leading the fun hand crack on P5 of Warbonnet South Face. Leading the summit pitch on Warbonnet. I am about to climb up the face to the arete (Haydar's photo). Haydar on the summit of Warbonnet. View from the summit of Warbonnet. Bead Lakes and our camp are directly below. Above them and to the left are the Feather Lakes, and then Warbonnet Lake.
We set the alarm for nice and early Sunday morning, but when it went off, it was dark, and cold, so we slept in another half hour. Climbing the 1000’ boulder field to the col between Warbonnet and Cirque Lake Tower was tiring, but soon we were racking up at the base of the climb. Fortunately we had a great description of the route, since the first two pitches are not obvious.
The first one climbs up a low 5th-class gully towards a belay tree, or a 5.7 lieback flake (Haydar took the flake, of course!). The pleasure of leading the second pitch fell to me. This pitch traverses behind a flake, which becomes a tunnel, and then ends up on a chockstone. Net elevation gain: -20 feet. Belaying Haydar up (down), I was swearing due to the rope drag while Haydar was swearing due to the tunnel. Kind of cool, but in a canyoneering way!
To make me feel better, Haydar gave me the 3rd pitch, which climbs up a short chimney (unprotectable move and a bit scary with a pack) and then a short fun 5.7 handcrack. I should have kept going, since the next pitch was only about 50 feet to the base of a handcrack – the best moves on the climb!
Haydar led this one in style, cruising the hand crack and then climbing the ridge to the notch near the summit. The summit of Warbonnet is awesome – a solid block of granite, overhanging on the north, with a sharp arete which is climbed from the south. Downclimbing from the notch, there was one committing move without pro onto a ledge, and then a piton and rusty bolt which are clipped on the way to the arete.
The climbing is easy but the exposure is awesome. This combined with the beautiful alpine scenery all around and the remote feel made this climb a lot of fun. We took turns belaying each other to the summit and taking pictures before rapping the route and hiking back to camp.
It was 2 when we made it back to camp and we were baking in the sun, so we relaxed a bit and took a dip in the freezing Bead Lake. But there was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I couldn’t shake – somehow we were going to have to climb back up to the pass, re-cross the scary scree and steep snow, and back down the other side to get out of here. As much as we were enjoying hanging out by the lake, we both agreed that we wanted to get this torture done with sooner rather than later, so we packed up, shouldered our heavy packs, and began the death trudge.
This time we stayed higher above the lakes, which was better, but eventually we still had to climb the steep scree up to the pass. This was every bit as hard as I was imagining – one step forward, one slide back. My toes were burning and my lungs were burning as I tried to make progress against the sliding rocks, at one point falling and having to self-arrest with a ski pole. Beaten up and sweating, we finally made it to the pass and looked down at the other pass we had to cross. This time we stayed on the snow the whole way, which was much smarter and soon we were at the top of the second pass, looking down on Alpine Lake.
Somehow in the meantime the bright blue skies had turned gray, and we heard thunder in the distance. We quickly headed downhill towards the lake, searching for the trail that would take us to a camp site. Just as the skies opened and the rain started coming down, we made it to the lake and quickly set up camp. We rigged up a tarp system with an emergency blanket, ski poles, and ice axes, and we were able to keep dry while cooking and eating our dinner.
Monday, July 3 - Hiking to Elephants Perch
Morning at Alpine Lake
It rained all night, but the next morning the sky was blue and the sun shining. We slept in and had a lazy morning waiting for our things to dry in the sun before packing up and heading down the steep switchbacks back to the main trail. A few more miles and we were standing at the turn-off for the Elephants Perch trail – looking up at the impressive granite dome and looking forward to setting up camp underneath it.
The climbers trail up to the Saddleback Lakes was a butt-kicker – the description said “steep” and that is most definitely true! A ranger had told us to be careful of the “steep, overhanging snow” but we found only two snow patches which were easy to get past. The upper part of the trail was exhausting with a heavy pack, but we kept getting distracted by the granite looming above us, and the clear view of the Mountaineers Route. Haydar was scoping out the route and noticed several parties climbing it, while I was on a mission – I was not going to stop until I got to the lake and could throw down my pack! Finally we were there, and the scenery was breathtaking. The spot is popular with backpackers and hikers for good reason – 3 gorgeous mountain lakes nestled in a valley between jagged peaks and steep orange granite.
We picked out the ultimate campsite – one that would be on the cover of a magazine or an REI catalog, took a swim, and ate lunch. After relaxing a bit we checked out the base of the route and it looked awesome – in fact we couldn’t wait to climb it.
We watched jealously from camp as several parties summitted and came down the gully – the last group arriving well into the evening. We tried to get to bed early but neither of us was very tired, we were both excited about the climb, and I was stupidly sleeping outside amidst the mosquitos from hell, so neither of us slept much.
View of the Mountaineers Route from the trail below. The cobra's head, diamond, and triple roofs (end of P2) are visible. Haydar in the midst of his favorite leasure-time activity - sorting shiny metal gear!
Tuesday, July 4 - Elephants Perch, Mountaineers Route
Haydar climbing the beautiful handcrack on P2
The 5am alarm was much too early and woke us out of a sound sleep, but we wanted to get on the route early so that we could make it back in time for the 5pm boat back across the lake. We ate breakfast, hiked to the base of the route, and were starting up the first pitch a bit after 7. Even on the rock, the mosquitos just wouldn’t leave us alone! It was torture, belaying the first pitch as the little #&*%ers were feasting on my ankles. Haydar bravely led the first pitch – bravely because it involved chimney moves (not his favorite) and route-finding issues. Thinking that he was already past the crux of the pitch – a 5.8 mantle move out of the gully – he passed up the real mantle move and climbed too high. Some tricky downclimbing and a little bit of swearing got him past the real crux and to the belay tree. Hopefully the rest of the climb is better than this!
Fortunately, starting with the second pitch, the climb is fantastic! The second pitch climbs up past some old belay bolts and climbs a fun dihedral before traversing across a face on small ledges to a sweet splitter hand crack. I arrived at the belay bolts below the triple roofs sweating, completely out of gear, but grinning from the awesome pitch. “You’re going to love this, man!”, I radioed down to Haydar after putting him on belay.
The 3rd pitch was equally classic – Haydar climbed up towards the closest roof and then traversed around under the roofs towards the arete. Fortunately there are good gear placements around the corner of the roof because the moves are not hard but the exposure is thrilling. We both agreed that it reminded us of Lovers Leap climbing – steep but moderate climbing with awesome exposure, but with the added alpine scenery. Haydar led the pitch in style, disappearing around the arete while I belayed and watched the mosquitos devouring my ankle flesh. The pitch ends in a 3rd class gully which is unremarkable except for the fact that we were staring directly at the diamond – the cobra’s head far above us.
Haydar leading around the roof at the beginning of P3 Looking back from the roof on P3 towards the belay (Haydar's photo) Looking down at nothing but air (and my shoe!) while making the move around the roof and onto the arete on P3
But the fun was not over – the 4th pitch climbed up the wall to the left of the diamond with fun cracks and face moves before entering a short dihedral with a fun roof-like exit move onto the arete. Again I used all of my pro on this pitch and was happy to find a flake to sling for a belay anchor. We were now looking down on the approach trail to the Saddleback Lakes far below, as well as a huge waterfall that we had only heard but not seen the day before. We could also see Alpine Lake and the high pass that we had crossed just two days earlier, and countless rugged peaks and spires.
Looking up P4 - a fun face climb to the arete and then a cool dihedral and small roof (Haydar's photo). Haydar climbing P4
Pitch 5 continues to climb up the left side of the diamond with some fun double-crack moves before ending below the crux of the route: 5.8+ finger cracks and wide cracks to the right of a roof.
We both really enjoyed this finger crack section – it was possible to step across and use the crack on the left as well so it felt easier to us than 5.9. The wide crack at the top was more awkward but still had some fun moves. It was here that I made my route finding mistake – I should have traversed left into an easier gully rather than continuing up the ever-expanding wide crack system. However, the pro on the left looked tough, so I continued up into what became an offwidth. I was out of large pro so I had to run out this section, finally running out of rope (and out of breath) just below the summit ridge. I was sure that Haydar would be swearing at me, as I have a reputation for making climbs harder than they have to be, but he climbed the pitch quickly, only remarking that the top “sucked”. I agreed!
Coming up P5 (Haydar's photo) Leading the fun finger crack on P6 - just below the roof and wide cracks (Haydar's photo)
The final pitch leads up into a boulderfield below the summit of Elephant’s Perch. We were both disappointed as it was an anticlimatic finish to the climb, and we weren’t sure how to get to the summit. We downclimbed a bit but it looked like we’d have to go very low, beneath some cliffs, and then climb back up a gully. Next we tried climbing up and crossing the slabs above some snowfields. This was also tough and required some fourth-class moves before we found a direct way up the slabs to the summit. The view from the top is impressive, overlooking the 3 Saddleback Lakes as well as the valley all the way back to Redfish Lake. There was no time for lunch or for relaxing, though – we had a boat to catch! We hiked down to the gully, put on our boots, and make it back to our perfect camp site at 3:15.
Looking down on the Saddleback Lakes from the summit of Elephants Perch
Epilogue - The death march down
There was no way we were going to make the 5pm boat back across the lake – we still had to pack up the camp, hike down the insanely steep climbers trail, and then trudge the ~2 miles back to the boat dock. Hmmmm. Or could we? The alternative – waiting for the 7pm boat – would mean skipping dinner and getting back to Portland after 5am – not an enticing option. Like fools, we decided to go for it. We packed up our camp, gulped down some water, and started the hike down a bit before 4.
Soon we were sliding our way down the climbers trail, knees absorbing the impact of every boulder, root, and downed tree in our path. Ski poles scraping against the rocks … helmet banging against my ice axe … it was more like a controlled fall than a hike. There was no time to admire the route from below, nor any time to talk. We were on a mission.
In a half hour we were crossing the creek to get to the main trail, but things didn’t look good – we still had 2 miles (?) to go and only 25 minutes. Worse, the trail back seems to be uphill as much as it is downhill. We started out walking fast, and soon we were jogging the downhills and cutting switchbacks like a couple of animals crazed by the sun. Sweat pouring from my forehead, I tried to ignore the pain and focus on the trail ahead. 15 minutes to go … 10 minutes to go … now it was 5 minutes to 5 and we could see the lake, still far below us! Could we do it? Why is the trail going along the lake instead of down to it? We knew it was now impossible but we kept going, trying to catch up to a guy ahead us on the trail. Covering the last quarter mile in a full run, we crashed onto the boat dock at 5:10, and were overjoyed to see the boat waiting for us – the person ahead of us knew we were coming.
Amazed at our luck, we stumbled into the boat as everyone moved to the side to give the crazy guys a wide berth. I dunked my head underwater, gave Haydar a high five, and we basked in the glory of a marathon finish. It turned out that the 3 other people in the boat with us, whom we had just caught up with, had climbed the route behind us, starting from the boat the same morning. They had skipped the summit and took a shortcut back down to the trail, but were impressed that we had taken down camp and made it back in time.
And then there was the long drive home …
Gear NotesWarbonnet – very little gear required! A handful of cams, especially in the 1”-2” range.
Elephant’s Perch – full rack, including doubles up to 2”. Used a #3 Camelot in several places, and a #3.5 in the wide crack on P6.