Photo: Sawtooth Mountain, Indian Peaks Wilderness. Taken October 3, 2004
Every year I have a clan of nephew's and a niece that come to Colorado for the summer to stay with their dad (my brother-in-law, Steve). This year, I borrowed the oldest of the bunch, Chaz, for a weekend of hiking and climbing. As he recently turned 14, I felt it was time to introduce him to real camping and climbing. Chaz was thrilled. Of course, he already knew that Uncle Jason was cool. But how cool would it be to climb a mountain with him, while leaving the sister and brothers at home! I was equally excited, that he was looking forward to it. I began plotting my weekend getaway, keeping in mind that Chaz had never hiked more than a few miles. Nor had he ever climbed to the summit of a serious mountain. Having only a standard weekend to execute our adventure, I immediately looked to the IPW for something moderate. I noticed that the Middle Saint Vrain Trailhead was closer to the Continental Divide than any other trailhead on the Eastern slopes. From there, Buchanan Pass was only 2.8 miles. From the pass, the summit of Sawtooth Mountain was only .4 miles to the South. And so, the plan was in place. We could leave the trailhead for a very easy hike to Red Dear lake (along the way) for a quick & easy campsite. The next morning, we could get up early and make our attempt on Sawtooth Mountain.
The 4wd road to the trailhead was a bit more than the Subie could handle. Knowing this in advance, I borrowed Steve's truck for the duty. It worked out well. We got a late morning start and reached the trailhead around noon. The hike to Red Dear Lake was fairly flat with steepening terrain near the end. It was very hard to find a campsite that conformed to the wilderness regulations, which prohibit camping within 100 ft of water. The lake is basically the bottom of a bowl, with snowfields melting into it from all directions. We finally conceded that the 100 foot rule applied to permanent lakes, steams, creeks and such. With all of the melt water trickling through the area, camping close to the lake would have been impossible this time of the year, if following the 100 foot rule. We settled on a nice spot on a grassy bench a couple of hundred feet above the lake. Just above us, was a rock cliff band that had dozens of little water falls bleeding over it's rim from the snowy slopes above. Once settled, we quickly took our fishing poles to the lake for some fun trout fishing. The fish were jumping like mad. Chaz caught several, while I only caught one. This was amazing for me though, as I am NOT a fisherman by any means. We each kept one for a dinner appetizer. Fishing here was more exciting than any other place I've fished, mostly because they kept biting! We fished for several hours until we were so cold that we had to return to camp. Back at the campsite, I fired up the stove and we proceeded to prepare our catch. Neither Chaz or myself had ever done this before - and it showed! Rather than gutting our fish, we butchered them. They cooked up quite tasty nonetheless, and we got a heck of a laugh in the process. We cooked up some rammen noodles to top off our meal. By now, it was dark and Chaz was ready for sleep. A couple of miles with a fairly heavy pack was a new experience for him, and it showed, as he fell fast asleep in less than a few minutes.
The next morning would be the start of an awesome day. The sky was crystal clear. I made a batch of oatmeal that Chaz ultimately turned down. To my surprise, he does not like butter! His decision though, would haunt him later. I learned long ago, in the mountains, one eats what is available - end of story. We soon set off for our journey up Sawtooth. Taking the advise of a another climber on SummitPost.com, I opted for the more aesthetic East Ridge route. This route allowed for difficulties equal to that of the standard route from the pass, or as hard as fifth class. Moreover, it offered spectacular views of two basins while hiking the ridge. Being Chaz's first time, I kept the pace pretty slow. After a couple of hours, we gained the ridge proper. The wild flowers were in full bloom, and I could not quit taking pictures of them! Chaz's pace had slowed dramatically, and I new something was bothering him. As it turned out, his empty stomach was churning. He gagged over the Cliff Shot power gel I gave him. He said that was the worst thing he's ever tasted. So much for the power gel rejuvenation. He ate a granola bar, drank some water and rested a bit. This seemed to put some gas back in his tank.
Near the upper stretches of the ridge, the climbing became extremely fun, as we devoured fourth class terrain. This is what I wanted Chaz to get a taste of. Just as suspected, he liked scrambling on the rocks. The uppermost section of the ridge was the most challenging for him. For the hardest section of the day, I chose a line that would push his envelope just a tad more. With me spotting him, Chaz made a few airy moves on some exposed rock ledges that would hopefully stick in his mind for years to come. I crawled up behind him, and we walked to the summit together. Someone had taken the time to build a wind block out of rocks near the top. This provided for a nice retreat from the windy summit while we relaxed, ate some more food, and took in the panoramic views of the Continental Divide. I hoped that this would be a special momment for Chaz, as so many people in the world have no idea what it is like to stand on top of a high mountain. Especially so, after working so hard to get there. He did great.
The trek down was a casual stroll on a well established trail. We descended to Buchanan Pass, and followed the trail back to it's junction with Red Dear Lake. The day's effort had begun to wear on Chaz. As soon as we hit the junction, I blazed back to camp and broke down the tent for packing. By the time Chaz reached camp, I had the bulk of the work done. We lounged for a while in the sun before hitting the trail back to the truck. The 2 mile 4wd road back to civilization put a lot of spark back into Chaz's eyes. He urged me to go faster over every ditch and through stream crossing along the way. We had to stop and winch out a Jeep Wrangler that had stalled out in some deep water. I felt terrible for the guy, as he had his wife and 2 kids in the Jeep with him. We offered them a ride back to the ranger station, but they declined.
Back home, the family was all together for a cookout. Chaz was to worn out to show any real enthusiasm. Later that evening though, he told tall tales to his brothers about his precarious position way up on the rock ledges, and how one slip would have surely meant nothing but doom. This confirmed my hopes that he had a memorable time that weekend.