January Ascent - Squaw Butte

January Ascent - Squaw Butte

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January Ascent - Squaw Butte
We got new snowshoes for Christmas and so it starts, wandering what they are capable of, if they can open terrain inaccesible without them. Squaw Butte is an 8 mile ridge extended from the North-South running Boise Mountains. From where I live in Eagle it looks like a stand-alone mountain and depending on the view quite prominent and steep. Looks can be deceiving.


For the last month it seems, we've been socked in with fog so thick it's disorienting. So the views of the mountains have been non-existent, nothing to make you feel that pull to get out and among them. We might as well be living in London Omaha versus the foothills of Boise, Idaho. I've been reading a few books about mountain climbing which I tend to do in winter for some odd reason. I'll have to say the pull to climb the mountains around here isn't as strong in summer for me in summer for whatever reason. It's something about overcoming the cold and fog and ice and snow, being in an element that seemingly doesn't want you there...that's appealing.

I never want to attempt to climb Everest, K2, McKinley... any of those mountains people regurlary die on. I'd like to see each of them and study their routes, their pathways to the top, but attempting them doesn't call me. However trying Killamanjaro in Africa with the family when the boys are old enough is quite alluring.

Saturday morning comes early, I've prepped the clothes, the snow shoes, water for the dogs, for me, made a PB&J, devised a way to strap the snowshoe bag to my day pack, load up Kyra and Koufax, the retreiver littermate duo, and drive out in the dark. A stop for coffee and gas and we chase beams of headlights through the thick fog while the Old 97's play.

Squaw Butte sits just north of the Idaho town of Emmett. Emmett has all the look and feel of small rural town but is over a pass called freezeout hill from Boise. Freezeout hill gets its name from wagons that used to pass over it and the pass would freeze and wheel brakes would lock up navigating down the hill into the town. They grow cherries there among other fruit. It's slightly redneck in places, slightly run down in others, there's a river, the Payette that runs through it...slowed in pace by the Black Canyon Dam built impressively in the 20's. Emmett has a place in my heart as it's where I got my first adult-owned dog, a Golden Lab named Hamlet that ascended many mountains with Dusti and I back in the day.

So we passed through the downtown of Emmett and it has the brick feel of a place like Ranger, Texas before it became the ghost town it is today. Over the river, to the right to the concrete hulk of the Black Canyon diversion dam, it is dimly lit in the night and looms out and above you like a reclaimed ghost. I know when we top the road by the dam to the left, we look for the blackened entrance to Spring Creek Road which will turn into Butte Road...both dirt and luckily hardened by the cold.  It rained, slushed, quasi-snowed in the valley on Friday so I'm hoping there will be plenty of snow on Squaw this morning in the present dark it's hard to tell what lays beyond the surface we drive upon.

Eventually we arrive and find a place wide enough to pull over and park in the snow. For some reason the mountains or anywhere that feels remote in the dark summons a primal fear that logic and reason doesn't really help to overcome. We get out and step on the hardening road as a headlamp beam cuts in the dark, the morning is not too cold, just right for this, but a present fear still lies there of what may be in the darkness. The dogs don't care a bit and go on their way to scents in the wind and buried in the snow.

Hiking to the start along a frozen once muddy dirt road, we arrive at a gated barbed wire fence. The trip reports on summit.org call out this entrance point is at the Long Hollow Creek runoff and it feels like you are illegally crossing over into a farmer's field but as in Idaho a simple fence and barbed wire doesn't necessarily designate private land, in fact about 80 percent or greater of the whole state is in public hands and accessible. That's one of the things I love about this place. So with my headlamp pointed we undo the gate reminded me of gates in West Texas near Ranger where my Mom grew up. The snow crunches and I contemplate putting on my showshoes I've lashed to the back of my day pack but as I only punch through the top layer of hard pack and frozen over snow, I continue on in the dark without them.

The route starts simply enough, a jeep road that's easy to follow, the dogs are happy in the dark, we trudge onwards and slightly upwards. Eventually we reach a steeper side slope where in the absence of snow and underbrush in the early Spring there's a clear trail to follow. Now, you have to guess. When you have to traverse upwards across the slope the snow conditions give you a good chance to kick steps into the snow and makes the going easy. I've been reading a couple of mountaineering books... Wade Davis' Into the Silence http://www.amazon.com/Into-Silence-Mallory-Conquest-Everest/dp/0375708154/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422195154&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=mallory+word+war+I , Peter Zuckerman's Buried in the Sky http://www.amazon.com/Buried-Sky-Extraordinary-Climbers-Deadliest-ebook/dp/B007HX899C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422195322&sr=8-1&keywords=peter+zuckerman+buried+in+the+sky and Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson http://www.amazon.com/Minus-Degrees-third-Text-Only/dp/B004MR5584/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1422195248&sr=8-3&keywords=minus+148+degrees.  Of the three Buried in the Sky is highly recommended and if you have the time and want a mix of WWI history and the first attempts at ascending Everest Into the Silence is a fascinating read about the great George Mallory and his cursed hold to be the first man to stand on top of the world which he may or may not have done.  So this bug to read disaster laden mountaineering books seems to hit me each winter and its one of the reasons why I started coming out to Squaw Butte last winter. Something about overcoming the weather to get out and among God's great creations is a call I can't seem to let go unanswered though I never aspire to tackle a mountain that regurlarly gets one killed. That type of lure just isn't there. And according to Davis' book when you get over 40 you are just too old for Everest. But not too old for Squaw I'm guessing.

We finally reach the area of the South-East Rib route I like to call the marsh. It may be the headwaters of Long Hollow Creek and when the snow starts to melt it gets imposibly mushy and difficult to cross unless you want to hike the steep hill to the right of it and follow the ridge up. Nevertheless this is the point where the route gets steeper and once you gain the next point or two, the rocks begin.

Going with two Golden Retrievers makes route finding a little more challenging through this section because you have to find a way that they can also navigate. They were proving fairly fearless as we went along with the only anxiety demonstrated in them when we reach a place they think I'll continue on and they won't be able to stick with me. However, I scramble a section and they usually can find a way to get up to the next ledge. The first place we find lends itself to some interesting winter scrambling. I call it the Koufax Steppe you know like the Hillary Steppe on Everest only slighlty less elevation and named after a dog or a great Dodgers' pitcher. So there's a pitch that requires some four point scrambling but before I begin I have to find a way to get the dogs up. Kyra, the sister dog, comes first. It's an easy lift to put her upon the section that's maybe 80 degrees or so, then I place her on the surface and grab her haunches and push and up she goes with ease. Next comes Koufax which is a little more of a challenge due to his size. Same technique gets him there but leaves me panting for air. I go next while they look on calmly from above. The pitch is filled with snow with rocks on either side and with gloves on I can scoop out the rocks looking for a few choice bombproof holds which I easily find. Next comes a little body leveraging with knees pushed into snow steps and eventually up I go. I think....man, it sure would be nice to have somebody to life me up and push my butt right up the mountain but I alas...I am no dog.

Somewhere along the way I get out the telescoping poles that go along with my snowshoes or at least what I assumed to be my snowshoes...more on that later. They prove invaluable. In places where I'd lose my footing I can rely on the poles, adjusting the length to meet the pitch of the mountains, to hold my weight. These poles will be a future standard for me. I assume they'll work equally well without snow and ice. We navigate a few more pitches until we arrive at the Kyra Steppe. This one's a little more precarious with slightly more consequence below if there's failed footing. to get to the steppe or K2-like bottleneck you have to scamble to a rock filled ledge of sorts and traverse across. I found myself being extra careful at this point because it becomes a matter of balance and footing. As the pitch of the mountain and rocks above could push your body away from the earth and if the footing or handholds aren't bombproof you'd probably find yourself taking a semi-nasty spill. We get to the steppe and embark on the dog lifts which puts them on another ledge with a maybe 25 foot drop on the other side. The dogs don't seem to mind and I worry that maybe they should carry a little more inherent fear of heights for their own safety. I go up and the next ledge is a dead-end of sorts. I could go onwards and upwards there by taking off the gloves and scrambling up the rocks but I realize there's no way I'm getting two 45 - 65 pound Golden Retrievers up the bare rocks. I take off the pack and look around.

Living in Boise we've been socked in by the inversion for perhaps the last month. A fog has trapped the valley with a high pressure system holding down the clouds against the foothills and low lands so its liberating to see the sun coming up, the sky and moon above, and the winter beauty looking across the valley to the Owyhees on the other side. The Boise Mountains ridgeline runs North-South and Shaw and More's stands above the rest only slightly and I dream of all the cars heading up Bogus Basin Road to have a perfect day of skiiling. We'll leave that adventure to another day.  The views though are simply beautiful and awe-aspiring. As the dogs sit nearby perfectly content with one of their tails dangling off the 25 or 30 foot drop just behind them.

If you've done some mountain climbing and scrambling you know how deflating it can be to reach a point where you have to traverse or head back down losing elevation you've worked so hard to gain. But traversing down is the rational choice and this point and it proves even trickier to gain good footing. A few innocent slips along the way and we find ourselves about 150 feet elevation backtracked and find a safer way to make the summit push. We push on and this part of the hike seems much longer than anticipated...and much steeper. The snow grows softer the further up we go so I'm in my non-waterproof Patagonia hikers http://www.rei.com/product/810814/patagonia-drifter-ac-hiking-shoes-mens and they seem to be holding up fine even with more postholing. I think more about the snowshoes dangling off my back. We finally gain the top ridge and there's a flatter walk to get to higher ground. I'm not sure exactly where the high point is up there but I've always been happy to trounce around a few radio towers before heading back down Coyote Couilour. I believe there's a lookout if you take the ridge Northwards and that may be the true higher point up there but when you gain the top ridge the wind picks up drastically and I've never wanted to wander around long enough to find the lookout. From other reports though its sounds like its well worth it which I'll save that experience for future adventures.





So its high time for the snowshoes and putting them on with the high winds and sans gloves proves more challenging than anticipated. It's my first time to use showshoes for any length of time and on anything other than established flat trails up by McCall's Ponderosa State Park. I place the showshoes on the ground and they look awefully small. They turn out to be my wife's bless her heart so are more difficult to get into than reasonably they should be. On they go though and travel now becomes magically easy. With the poles I float on top of the snow and now the dogs look surprised with me as I easily keep up.

We head across and on top of a field of underbrush that now only the very tops of the bushes reach the surface of snow. With the smaller surface shoes they break through the surface occasionally but never in such a way that I would consider postholing. The snowshoes are simply magic mountain juju and I wonder why I didn't try them out earlier.

From the top the view is resplendent. Emmett lies in fog hidden below but the fog breaks like a coastal surge reavealing Black Canyon Dam an it's frozen backup below. From the valley Squaw appears as this slighly looming island of a mountain but from on top you realize it's just a continuation of a North South ridge that runs all the way up to McCall and beyond. To the West you can make out the more dramatic peaks of the Oregon Wallawas, North of there I think I can makeout some of the Seven Devils. Further South the Owyhees look impressive and inviting though they so rarely visited and climbed. I think I can make out the Trinities to the East and South.. Lucky Peak and the larger Idaho City peaks beyond. Not sure if you can make up the Sawtooths but its fun to imagine you can. This is what it's all about, the feeling of reaching the high ground and getting a perspective of the land. Better church than any I've been in.

So with small snowshoes on we head down Coyote Couilour and without the exprience I question how they might perform heading downhill. Not sure what the grade is but it's pretty decent. Traversing with snowshoes on a pitch...not so much. Any underbrush and tight trees...not so much. Rocks...again, not designed for that. But heading straight down again, magic. The shoes slide slightly at first and then grab solid I only slipped slightly once or twice going back down the 2.5 - 3 miles but it was the easiest going back down Squaw that i've experienced especially compared to going back down on dry land. I try glissading a few times and it just seems like fun folly not too doable.

The way back down is fairly non-eventful except for reading a patch or two of blood on the snow where there's a few patches of animal fur around. I pick up the fur to examine it, darkish gray to light gray and on the ends white. I guess coyote but would widly imagine wolf which I know isn't true. I study the scene to imagine what happened and take a picture and confer with my Veterinarian father-in-law for an expert opinion. He thinks it was deer fur and a hungry coyote or two latched on to a leg with the deer getting away to live for another day. He also informs me that what I pictured to be elk bugling from sounds we heard on Squaw was most likely cows in the valley below. I know I'm a neophyte in these there hills and am glad to learn from those with much greater experience.

The snowshoes don't come off until we hit the frozen road again and walking becomes more comfortable though I wished I had some crampons for the ice that built up on the road. At least it would make me feel one more step closer to Everest. We see a lone woman running along the road and I greet her with envy while Kyra greets her with paws. The dogs find a bone and carry it like a treasure back to the car. I love Idaho and I love this experience, all of it.


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