The First View
This was written for my English class at Boise State University....Hope you like it!
On August 12th 1805 Meriwether Lewis approached the continental divide having finally reached the source of the “mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.” Fully expecting to see an easy route down the Columbia River on the other side of the divide he was naturally quite surprised to see more “immence [sic] ranges of high mountains still to the West... their tops partially covered with snow” (Lewis 227). What he saw were the vast mountains of present day Idaho. Crossing these “most terrible mountains” (Gass 143) would be, for the Corps of Discovery, a daunting and miserable task. Now more than 200 years later these same mountains are intentionally sought out and conquered by climbers who view them as recreational opportunities and not as obstacles to be feared and avoided. For mountain climbers the “most terrible mountains” are now most enjoyable.
These are the Mountains Lewis and Clark saw when they crossed the Continental Divide.
Alpine Peak in the Sawtooths.
Mountaineering has it’s roots in the European Alps with British climbers being the most prominent participants in the early nineteenth century. In fact it can be said that the “British invented the modern sport of mountaineering” (Cleare 16). In reality the “sport” of mountaineering didn’t really exist until people started climbing mountains just for fun. Back then climbers usually needed some kind of scientific justification to make the trip to the top of a mountain but gradually more and more people caught on to the idea of climbing tall peaks for fun until in 1857 the first mountaineering club was founded as the Alpine Club of London (Cleare 16-17). Mountaineering in America however is much younger, not really catching on as a “mass sport” (Cleare 96) until around the early 1970s. Many of the peaks in the western United States were climbed by men such as miners, trappers, government surveyors, and of course Native Americans, none of which were interested in the “sport” of climbing. Idaho is no exception to the history of climbing as many of it’s highest peaks had first recorded summits by surveyors in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Baugher 14). One of these surveyors, T.M. Bannon, climbed more than 200 Idaho peaks during his career from 1889 to 1917, at least 100 of which were first ascents including Mount Borah, Idaho’s highest peak in 1912 (Baugher 15). It wouldn’t be until later in the twentieth century that climbing in Idaho and the United States as a whole would appeal to people for other than utilitarian reasons.
Why Do We Climb?
Standhope Peak over frozen Goat Lake.
So what is it about trudging up a large pile of rock that is so enjoyable and what kind of person does it take to find this attractive? These questions and many more can be answered simply by talking to the people who love this kind of outdoor recreation. Living in Boise, Idaho affords such an opportunity as there is a small and active group of mountain climbers in the community. Speaking with them has helped me to gain insight into the life, training, and mind set of the mountaineer.
In our constant search for entertainment there are those who seek to be entertained and those who seek to entertain themselves. I believe that mountain climbers fall into the category of those seeking to entertain themselves. We as humans grow and learn through challenging ourselves in different ways and if it were not so I believe life would stagnate and be less fulfilling. For a climber a mountain is the embodiment of challenge, a great puzzle to be solved. A few of these climbers have shared with me their reasons for climbing. According to Tom Lopez, Boise climber and author of the book Idaho: A Climbing Guide
“I think a lot of the people I’ve known and climbed with [climb for] thrill and the sense of danger. They’re risk takers... maybe the underlying thing would be just the challenge of putting you against the mountain.”
Dan Robbins, owner of Idahosummits.com
, agrees, “I think it’s the thrill of accomplishment to be able to get to the top of a peak or to over come fears.” Others have a story behind their reasons. Margo Lasky shared, “I drove to a community college every morning [in Washington State] and when I would reach the highpoint on the highway there, Mt. Rainier would be there greeting me, and that’s where I fell in love.” On a trip to Mount Borah after moving to Idaho she states, “When I got to the top I was so happy and shocked that I could have really done it that I was laughing and crying simultaneously. That’s when I became addicted. Fifty two peaks later, including all the 12ers.....I’m still usually mulling over my next ‘project’” (Lasky 1). I have found that once a person has tasted the thin air at the top of a mountain and experienced the challenge of getting there they are either instantly hooked or they never want to do it again. Those who are hooked and dedicate a part of their lives to the mountains often become as passionate as Margo, Tom, or Dan. This passion often carries over into another important aspect of the Idaho climbing scene: the internet.
Out of the Mountains and Onto the Internet
Iron Bog Creek in the Pioneers.
Many people feel so deeply for the mountains that when they are not there in person they seek escape through the internet and its various sites dedicated to mountaineering. The internet just happens to be central to the Idaho climbing community. Dan Robbins, as mentioned above, is the owner of Idahosummits.com
. He originally started the website to share his pictures and climbing stories with his friends and family but over time it has grown to be an important source of information for Idaho climbers and outdoor lovers in general. The current version of Idahosummits
has trip reports and photos containing valuable information on many mountains as well as a message board called the Idaho Outdoors Forum. The Forum is really the only place you will ever “see” the entire group of dedicated Idaho climbers in one place. Here the conversation ranges from discussion about the climbing conditions and gear to requests for climbing partners and everything in between. I remember first stumbling across Idahosummits
when I was a Jr. in high school. I was in a computer class and I was bored. Wanting a way to escape I decided to get on the internet and look for mountain pictures. What I found was Idahosummits
. From that day on my interest in Idaho’s mountains has grown into what it is now. Idahosummits
is of course not the only site dedicated climbing but it is one of the best sites more specifically about Idaho’s Mountains.
The current monster of the online climbing culture would probably have to be Summitpost.org
. This site brings professional and amateur climbers together from around the globe to engage in discussion and information sharing. It is probably one of the world’s largest sources of information on climbing and the world’s mountains. Here climbers can make profiles for themselves, sign summit registers of peaks they’ve climbed, upload photo’s and trip reports, and create pages for mountains and ranges. I have found that the Idaho climbers who associate on Idahosummits
often have a profile on Summitpost
as well. In this way Idaho’s mountains and the people who live here and climb them get a little world exposure. This exposure is good because of the uniqueness of Idaho’s community.
Your Own Private Idaho
The United States has many states with great mountains and climbers in all of them but I was wondering if there was anything that made an Idaho climber unique. When asking the various people I spoke with about this point I invariably got the same answer: “rugged”. Says Margo Lasky again, “Our stuff is hard and rugged and ‘out there’. You have to be committed just to get to the trailhead a lot of times”. While speaking to Dan Robbins he said, “We’re just more rugged here. If you fall and break your ankle..chances are you’re going to be alone unless you brought someone with you”. I believe this is true.
A Crowded Day on Mt. Hood.
I have not climbed nearly as many mountains as the people I have spoken to but I have yet to share an Idaho summit with someone I didn’t already bring with me! In Colorado, for one, you may be sharing a summit with 30 or 40 people. The trails will be nicer and the roads are much better (Robbins). Idaho however is a different story.
“The predominance of mountains is Idaho’s most consistent characteristic and the factor that prevents the state from developing into a homogenous community.Thanks to its formidable mountain barriers, Idaho has always consisted of parts– north, west, east, and south. The difficulty of Idaho’s terrain is underscored by the fact that until 1920 not even a dirt road connected northern and southern Idaho.” (Lopez 11) The difficulty of getting into the mountains of Idaho has always been a challenge. When Tom Lopez first came to Idaho he tried to find information on its mountains but there was none, unlike Colorado and California, so he decided to gather it himself and write Idaho: A Climbing Guide (Lopez Interview). This book has
become the staple reference to those who come here seeking for adventure in the mountains. Living in this kind of geography seems to make Idaho mountaineers more independent. “If you ask me what my least favorite experiences are I would have to say it would be experiences where there were more people” (Lopez Interview).
Tripod Peak from Smith's Ferry, ID.
Idaho is a state full of challenges and it seems to have the people to match them. In Colorado and California the biggest challenge is to climb all of their 14,000 ft. peaks (the “14ers”). Idaho has a similar challenge although it has no 14ers. It does, however, have nine 12ers (12,000 ft. peaks) and climbing them all in the shortest amount of time constitutes what is often considered Idaho’s greatest mountaineering challenge. Idaho’s most prolific and talented climbers almost always have this achievement under their belts. Even if they haven’t done it in record time they have at least finished the 12ers and move on to other challenges. Some like to make up their own challenges. Here Tom Lopez finds the idea of climbing the highpoint of each of Idaho’s dozens of mountain ranges an attractive one (Lopez Interview). I have also heard of people attempting to climb Idaho’s 11ers as well but as of yet I haven’t heard of anyone actually completing this enormous task. There are at least 108 peaks above 11,000 ft. in Idaho, including the 12ers and if we expand that to peaks above 10,000 ft. the number grows to 352 (Lopez 373-379)! In a state like Idaho the possibilities for testing one’s skill and endurance are nearly limitless.
The Ecomomy of Climbing
Sometimes those limits can be pushed too far though. Just by it’s nature climbing can become dangerous quickly without proper experience and training and even with these things accidents still happen. Climber John Platt shared an experience of his while climbing the Finger of Fate in the Sawtooths.
The Finger of Fate
While climbing down he accidentally dislodged a rock which fell and hit his companion Tom on the head. “I heard it bounce down the chimney towards Tom, clack-clack-clack and then a dull thud. I could hear Tom curse, then softly moan.” After descending down to Tom “I asked him if he was OK. He looked up and lifted his hand to show his hand and head soaked in blood.... I think he got a mild concussion.... The worst part of this? It was mosquito season, and as we ever-so-slowly walked the miles back to Decker Flats, they feasted on his bloody head” (Platt). Sometimes things don’t turn out so “nicely” though. On Mount Borah, for example, there have been at least three fatalities due to avalanches and falls, and all of them were experienced climbers (Lopez 271).
Training and experience are vital elements in the sport of mountaineering but another essential ingredient is proper equipment. True, for some mountains very little is required for a successful climb. For example, when a friend of mine and I climbed an 11,000 ft. peak in south-central Idaho together, he had nothing more than a pair of running shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt and had no problem making it to the top. But as the degree of technicality increases the essential role of proper equipment becomes greater. Common sense dictates that scaling a smooth, overhanging face of rock naturally requires more expensive equipment that is vital to keep you alive, whereas you probably won’t die if you trip on the trail and fall during a day hike. The need for proper equipment is determined by three factors: technicality of the climb, weather of the area, and the length of the climb (Robbins Interview). Outdoor gear can be quite expensive and
depending on the factors mentioned above it can be expensive to varying degrees. Tom Lopez told me that the two most basic and essential things needed for climbing is a good pair of boots and some Gore-Tex rain gear. After that you can get by less stuff in most places. However, the price of involvement in mountaineering soars when you start climbing mountains like Denali and Rainier because your life often depends on your equipment (Lopez Interview). Another factor climbers must take into consideration, especially in today’s world, is the cost of transportation to and from the mountains. The best way to deal with this issue is simply by climbing with other people. The more people you have in your group the more ways you can split the cost of gas.
Related to the cost of gas is the distance one must drive in order to reach the mountains. The closer you are the less, of course, it will cost and Idaho is fortunately blessed with many towns and cities near excellent climbing. When I asked whether Boise was an ideal city with regards to climbing opportunities I got conflicting results. Tom Lopez doesn’t think Boise is in an ideal location as most of Idaho’s higher mountains are a two to three hour drive to the east. He says, “Having made that drive hundreds of times I’m kinda tired of it.” Even if it’s not ideal he still thinks it has its benefits. “The foothills are great for hiking and there’s good rock climbing out at the Black Cliffs.” He also mentioned that Boise is located in a good spot to get access to some of Oregon’s mountains and that another upside to living here is the availability of climbing equipment in the area. But overall he told me that he thinks Idaho Falls is the most ideally situated town in Idaho because it’s close to the Lost River Range, Lemhis, Beaverheads, and the Tetons the Wind Rivers in Wyoming. It is also large enough that there is a decent amount of gear available (Lopez Interview). When asked the same question about Boise’s location being ideal Dan Robbins replied, “Definitely” and went on to praise the city's location as reasonably near Idaho’s major mountain ranges (Robbins Interview). As far as northern Idaho goes I got one vote for Moscow being the best city for climbing there. It’s relatively close to the Selkirk Mountains as well as some decent climbing in Montana and Washington (Lopez Interview).
No matter where you live in Idaho you’re sure to find someone who has ventured into Idaho’s vast “sea of mountains” (Lopez 11) in search of thrill, challenge, or solitude. Idaho’s climbers are an individual group of self-proclaimed rugged characters. As Lewis and Clark found out, the mountains of Idaho can shove some pretty miserable experiences upon us if unprepared, but as the state’s climbers have shared with me, some very fun and memorable experiences can be had in the mountains as well. In fact it can become as much a part of who they are as any other everyday aspect of their lives. As long as there are people and mountains in Idaho, there will always be those who will not be content unless they can stand on top of them.
Now, if only the Corps of Discovery had had some good hiking boots and Gore-Tex jackets as Tom Lopez prescribed, perhaps they would have enjoyed Idaho in 1805 as much as its mountaineers do now!
Baugher, Rick, and Tom Lopez ed. “The Pioneering Alpine Surveyors.” Idaho: A Climbing Guide. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000. 13-15.
Clark, William, Meriwether Lewis, and Anthony Brandt, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark.
Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2002.
Cleare, John. Mountains. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1975
Gass, Patrick. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Ed. Gary E. Moulton. Vol. 10
“The Journals of Patrick Gass. May 14, 1804- September 23, 1806." Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. 143. 13 vols.
Lasky, Margo. “Interesting Answers.” E-mail to the author. 10 Oct. 2008.
Lopez, Tom. Idaho: A Climbing Guide. 2nd ed. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000.
Lopez, Tom. Personal interview. 3 Oct. 2008.
Platt, John. “Accident.” E-mail to author. 14 Oct. 2008.
Robbins, Dan. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2008.