What a bonus. Here it was the end of October with all indications that winter had arrived in the high country two weeks previous, yet after a week of unpredicted and unseasonably warm weather, it looked like I could stuff in one more summit before winter surely had to be here. With the short days and being limited to a day trip, I had to select something reasonable close and accessible yet worthwhile. Slab Butte fit the bill. I had first seen it a year earlier from Granite Mountain and was impressed by its massive rock jutting into the sky on end. Still, it wasn’t high on my wish list, yet it was a good match for the circumstances.
I had envisioned climbing the southwest ridge from Goose Lake since I was familiar with that side, but upon studying the map and air photos, it appeared the east side might be faster. It certainly was the more spectacular of the two sides. The mountain forms a huge lens of granite arcing above the divide between the Fisher Creek and Goose Creek basins. It is not the tallest mountain in this western most sub-range of the Salmon River Mountains, but it’s one of the higher points in its vicinity. There are two small lakes, one on either side and the heavy lichens on the granite give much of the mountain a black look. From the north and south, the narrow lens cuts an impressive knifelike view. The more I looked into this mountain, the more I liked it.
It was dark when I left home for the three hour drive. The sky was clear and it was bitterly cold. As the world lightened up, I could see a landscape covered in heavy hoar frost and ice. I hope I brought adequate cloths. It turned out that the maps I had were sorely outdated for the present road system, but thanks to photos on terraserver, I was able to piece together the best way to reach the starting point. I found the road barricaded earlier than where I intended to start, but it only added a few minutes each way to the hike.
My planned route turned out not to matter much. Heading anywhere in the direction of the mountain, which was generally visible along most the way would have got me there, but my planned route through particular meadows and slopes at least kept me in the know of exactly where I was and how far I had come. The most difficult thing about the hike was the cold. The earth cracked and crunched under my feet and cold air hurt the lungs. Eventually the huge meadows gave way to forests of fir and dead whitebark pine and the easy uphill stroll required some scrambling over some rock ledges, but nothing significant.
Soon I popped out of the forest to the small unnamed lake at the east foot of Slab Butte. The air was still and the surface formed a perfect mirror reflecting the glowing vertical ramparts of the mountain and the encircling ridge. Snow on the north shaded slopes added to the splendor. It was definitely time to stop and take some pictures. As I walked the shore with my camera I was startled by a whoosh in the water at my feet; startled by the sudden sound, but also at the thought that this small and shallow pond could possibly hold fish. The bottom was visible throughout and the surface small. Surely it had to be something else living in the water, but I had no idea what it could be.
I hiked around the south side of the small lake and climbed up through the rocky slope to the ridge 500 feet above the lake. The fall colors here in the crisp air and stupendous views to the higher mountains in the east made the climb enjoyable and fast. Soon I was on the narrow ridge at the south foot of the summit mound. Or I should say south end of the razor edge. The summit ridge formed a huge fin only a few feet thick and composed of giant granite slabs on end. Travel around the east side was impossible on the vertical fractured rock and the top impassable in some areas. I picked my way around the west brim of the ridge through giant bounders and jutting blocks most of the way toward the summit.
Finally I reached the top and found it to be a flat table a few feet wide and several feet long. It was the only level place on the mountain other than the lakes on the lower flanks. Given the late season, the west side of the mountain was still in shadow and very cold and frosty. The west side, set perpendicular to the sun’s rays was actually quite warm and pleasant in the late morning. The views were great in every direction and the air clear. The most distracting thing was the occasional startling rifle shot to be endured while climbing in hunting season.
I proceeded to the north and picked a large couloir on the east side to descend because the rocks beyond on the ridge got even uglier. The couloir split in two branches near the top and I took the first or southern are. This was a very steep, but relatively safe scramble down because though the mountain was generally vertical, the couloir walls and adjacent slopes had numerous small ledges that acted like small stairs. These ledges were due to the vertical plate-like nature of the granite and were formed by the broken edges. Near the bottom a huge plate shaped boulder blocked the grove, but it was fairly easy to work around it. Soon I reached to bottom of the solid granite mass and then descended the long talus slope to the north side of the lake.
It was well after lunch now so I stopped to eat. While enjoying the view and sunshine as I ate I noticed a strange, leathery, waxy fern growing in the rocks. It turned out to be Bridges’s cliff-brake (Pellaea bridgesonii), which is disjunct in a small area in these mountains from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California and Nevada. This little blue-green fern was an exciting find and I spent a lot of time taking pictures and making some collection notes. The herbarium at the University will be glad to have this. Next I walked by the lake and found one more surprise. The sun was high now and I could see into the shallow water and found it full of big fat trout. They were cruising around eating anything floating on the water they could find. If I had a pole, I could’ve had a limit in minutes. Obviously they are planted in this lake seasonally as a put and take fishery because they could never survive winter here. These must have been the last survivors of the fishing season. It was doubtful anyone would get up here before winter so these fat fish would sadly be wasted.
The walk back to the parking area was uneventful and easy on the open slopes. The meadows appeared to full of a variety of cured dead forbs that must have put on quite a wildflower display in the summer. There were also some aspen groves, but they were devoid of leaves in this late season. I picked up the pace toying with the idea of trying to fit one more summit hike in. The late fall days are short, but I still had nearly half of this day left and didn’t want to head home just yet. I reached the truck and decided to at least heat up the road a few more miles to Fischer Saddle and then see how much time and strength I still had. On the map, the south peak of Bruin Mountain seemed like an easy hike up and if it wasn’t choked with slow to negotiate brush, I may try to get yet one more summit in 2006.