Shhhh..... Don't jinx it!
Lately I've been coming to the conclusion that you should not talk about a hike/climb/summit attempt before the accomplishment happens. It's almost as though there are some invisible entities or gremlins that follow the passioned outdoor folks around, waiting at the slightest sound of a trip happening. Then, miraculously the trip is cancelled for whatever reasons. Car breaks down, caused by the gremlins. Buddy backs out on you, caused by the gremlins. You catch a cold... guess what? Yup, caused by the gremlins.
It seems this year the gremlins have really taken their toll on me. And the more I looked forward to a trip, the more suddenly it was snatched away from me. So most recently I concocted a crazy plan in my head and briefly mentioned it. However, not much else was ever mentioned about the trip. The wild idea of summiting McGown Peak had crossed my mind more than once. In fact, the family and I had attempted a McGown summit earlier in the year only to be snubbed by the mountain. A freak hail storm with pea sized pellets had pelted us while the sounds of crackling thunder reminded us how insignificant we were in the wild.
Better yet, I thought it would be a great attempt at getting my g-friend on top of a Sawtooth summit! Since I wanted to do this as a dayhike, my method of madness was rather straightforward. Thinking on the side of logic I felt the Stanley lake area would offer the quickest arrival time from Nampa (my town), while McGown Peak would offer a nice approach with decent views of the Sawtooth Range. In hindsight after comparing the specs we probably would have had a shot at bagging Thompson Peak (tallest in Sawtooth Range), but I erred on the side of caution and stuck with my gut feeling on the best 'chance' to make a summit.
Arriving at Stanley lake by 7:30 a.m. requires a 3-hour drive from Nampa passing through a nice, curvy mountain pass between Idaho City and Lowman. I actually despise the drive, but mostly between this area and it's even worse while traveling in the dark. During the day it's not so much the scenery as much as it is the twisting and turning, which usually results in a fair amount of dog vomit if I bring the pooches. Thankfully this trip they voted to stay home, and I was thankful for that. This particular time we were both rather tired from the lack of sleep, and we were pushing 4 hours at best. In my mind I was wishing for a Red Bull, but that is against my hiking agenda. (I've found that I perform much better when I have no energy drinks until after the hike and am well hydrated beforehand).
Before long we were in the Stanley valley and the colors of the early morning were bragging to us with their blue-orange hue. Almost as if Mother Nature was a true B.S.U. fan for gameday. (GO BRONCOS!) It was a cool morning, with a slight fog hovering over the top of the lake. The sun was just coming over the horizon of the Whitecloud mountains to the East, and McGown Peak and its surrounding mountains were starting to really shine against the contrast of the dim forest. While signing into the hikers' log, I could see there was at least one other party that had the same plans as we did, but we would not see anyone until the saddle where the cross-country hiking began. Following the 'dragon-trail' for the first mile revealed some spectacular views of McGown Peak and the surround peaks. Once on this trail, you will understand why we call it the 'dragon trail'. If you look closely at the path, there's some type of material underneath the rocks which, I assume, is to keep the pebbles in their place since the area allows Mountain Biking. I caught myself on several occasions gawking at the beauty, almost tripping over my feet.
Coming to the fork in the road, we headed left which is the beginning of the Alpine Way Trail. Following this trail, we traveled through a plethora of fall colors, which we both commented on. It was so surreal, but I took several pictures to validate my claims. I have never seen so much contrast with the reds against the yellows, with a small dash of green against a blue sky. Stuff that dreams are made of for sure! Soon we came to the creek crossing, which did not go by without incident. Cakes wasn't able to jump quite far enough, resulting in a soggy foot for a good portion of the day. From here we followed the trail passed a couple switchbacks which allowed us to get high up on the opposing ridge of McGown.
Once at the saddle we took a small break to hydrate and grab a bite to eat. I was almost positive this was the area we needed to break trail and start following the ridgeline to the upper basin, but was not 100% sure. Thankfully an older gentleman and his daughter came along the trail behind us and confirmed my thoughts. Phew! I probed the question of whether a trail existed along the ridge, but he didn't think there was.
'As long as you stick to the edge of the ridge, you'll be ok.'
Soon the conversation died and they parted ways, then we chowed a little more. I reached down to pick up my pack and was startled when I turned around. At first the only thing that registered in my mind was:
'big, black, four-legged creature'
But after the adrenaline jolt subsided I saw it was just the biggest, tallest, thickest Doberman I have ever laid eyes on. For a moment I was thinking this thing HAD to be a freak of nature, but after closer inspection I saw it was simply just a fat old dog. Following behind him were two older ladies who were probably in their early 50's. After some trail conversation it was found they were hiking to Sawtooth Lake. Once they said where their destination was, I just kind of shut up and nonchalantly shook my head in agreement with everything that was said. Fortunately for me I know the area pretty well, but unfortunately for the lady's Sawtooth Lake was back the way they had come. Obviously a wrong turn was taken, but Cakes and I chuckled at the fact they would forever remember Stanley Lake as Sawtooth Lake.
After packing back up, we started uphill through the downed timber and rough underbrush. Thankfully it wasn't too long and we found a faint trail on the East side of the ridge, which sidehills the ridge until reaching a flat area. Having the trail sure helped speed things up a little, and I'm sure glad it was there.
Route, looking down
After hiking along this small section, we were soon below the headwall that led up to the upper basin. I was getting giddy at this point since we were really making some progress, and it probably helped that the terrain was absolutely stunning. Looking toward the upward climb I could see all sorts of boulders and rocks we would have to traverse over. To our right was a small creek which was fed by the ponds in the upper basin. Actually, there were even a couple of cool waterfalls in this area which fed the creek. I can imagine these are mini torrents of water in the Springtime. It would be interesting to see the area under a different season. We took our time going through this area, snapping pictures and exploring by a small waterfall, which from our perspective appeared it was coming out of the rocks. Of course upon closer inspection it was found this was not the case, but it was interesting regardless.
After meandering along a path we stumbled across, we were soon climbing our way into the upper basin. From looking at other trip reports and maps, I knew there were a couple of bodies of water up here. However once we reached the top all we found was a small pond and some dried up lake beds. It appeared everything had dried up during the summer, but there was still a small creek running through, feeding the waterfalls we had seen below. We took another small breather to fill up some water bottles, then started along the way.
It's amazing how when you first enter an alpine cirque the feeling that overcomes oneself. Especially if it's your first visit to the area and the only information you have was acquired through reading books, looking over maps, and surfing the internet. To our right we could see the 'crux' of our climb with the backside of McGown showing us her beauty. Wide slabs of steep granite make up most of the eastern flank of the mountainside while loose, pebble-sized scree made up the southern face. After a few pictures, we made our way to the base of the mountain. Occasionally we would hear whoops and hollering, but a scan of the mountainside would show nothing. We stood there for a few minutes, then could see a couple younger guys making their way down the scree. It was nice to be able to find them and watch what route they took as it reassured me where we needed to go. Soon the terrain broke out of the treeline and we were making the climb towards the top.
I have not climbed many peaks. In fact I have less than a dozen under my belt so experience is not on my side. I basically try to use a lot of common sense, while safety is the number one goal. Two of us were going up, so I'll be damned if two of us don't come down. This particular area was the worse area I have ever climbed. Small, pebble-sized scree was inhibiting our ability to gain much elevation while the amount of exertion we were putting forth was second to none. Cakes was having the roughest time since she would take three steps forward and slide two steps back. There were several small trails that led up the slope we were climbing, however none of them offered any real advantage over the other.
Once about 2/3's up the face, we could see two more people heading back down. After getting closer, we could see it was the older gentleman and his daughter whom we had talked with earlier. They made a line over to us and we talked a little more. I asked about their route and he told me they had followed the ridgeline up to the summit block. Of course by now I was taking his words with a grain of salt since he had stated no trails existed from our saddle we had met them on. Oh well. We wished them happy trails and continued our clawing and scratching to the top. It was certainly getting closer, and before long I could see the ridgeline next to the summitblock.
Reaching the Summit!
Our McGown 'Splattski' shot
For me, reaching a summit is always an exhilirating feeling. A long, hard hike followed by a couple hours of scrambling puts a real sense of accomplishment in your mind, no matter who you are. A goal is set in your mind days, weeks, and sometimes months beforehand and to have that moment finally upon you is unbelievable. It's even more of a great feeling when you are able to share that moment, the moment you reach the very top, with someone you love. There isn't really anything in the world that can top the feeling I feel, and I'm almost positive anyone who has done the same can agree with my thoughts.
It was now around 2:45 and we had been on the trail for roughly 7 hours and the summit was now before us. There is a small cairn on top of the ridge which is a marker for the series of somewhat exposed ridges you have to climb over and around. This section was actually a nice change from the scree-hell we had been forced to climb up for the past 2 hours, but the change was not one to welcome lightly. There are very good foot and handholds and the route to reach the top is rather straightforward. After 15 minutes of careful maneuvering, we could finally see the register. The clouds were starting to form and the wind was picking up, blowing strong gusts every so often. I crawled up to the top, grabbed the register, and moved back down where I had sat Cakes down. We rummaged through the register, seeing a notebook, some pens and pencils, and a couple other small little trinkets past visitors had left for whoever would brave the same torture. After we both signed the register, we sat around soaking in the views, taking pictures, and even some video clips. I have to admit this daytrip was a highlight of my year, and will always remain a special memory in my heart.
Looking South/Southeast from McGown Summit
The Icing on Top of the Cake!
How can you NOT love a Sawtooth Sunset?!?
After making it down to the car by 7:30 p.m., the only thing we could think of was getting to town for an ice cold beverage and a snack for the drive home. After driving into Stanley, I pulled up to the Mountain Village Grocery Store. I looked at the 'open hours' sign when pulling up, it said 8:00 p.m. Startled, I looked at my clock.
After grabbing a bag of chips, a Gatorade, and a Redbull we were on our way. I had noticed a ton of people snapping pictures near the gas station, but it wasn't until I was heading back home on HWY 21 that I noticed this freakin' BEAUT of a view Clark!
McGown Topo Map
approx 3200 ft
approx 12 hours
3.5 hours sleep
4:00 a.m. wake-up
3 hour drive
12 hour hike
3 hour drive
1:30 a.m. sleepy time