Every year I plan at least one solo backpacking trip with the intent to climb a peak or two. This summer I decided to head back to my favorite mountain range in central Idaho: the Pioneers.
As usual, I get a late start. It’s after work on Friday, and by the time I leave Boise it’s after five. I drive a little faster than is advisable and arrive at the trailhead around 7:30. It is late, but luckily the days are still long. Even so, I will not reach Big Basin, my destination, by this evening. There are three cars parked at the trailhead, with one hiker camped for a next-day attempt on Hyndman. I chat with him for a few minutes and then up the trail I head.
The trail follows Hyndman creek and limbs gradually through sagebrush, stunted aspen and solitary pine trees. Eventually the face of Cobb peak comes into view. In the evening this face catches the last of the sun’s rays and gleams golden. The trail winds several miles and leads almost to the base of this east face. From here one can scan the rock gullies and plan a day of challenging scrambling …
… but this is not my destination. About a quarter mile short of this point a faint trail leads to the right. This not often followed trail crosses Hyndman creek and climbs into Big Basin. It is here that I encounter my first significant obstacle. The creek, when flowing quickly, is difficult to cross. And it is flowing quickly. I look at the creek (high), and I look at the sun (behind the ridge), and decide that this is a good location for my first camp. I set up my camp, enjoy a dinner of Oriental style chicken and rice and close my eyes as the first satellites begin to drift across the inky sky.
There are worse ways to wake up than on a soft sand bank next to a flowing creek. But I have a ways to go, so I eat a quick breakfast of oatmeal and tea and pack my gear. My first goal is to find a relatively easy crossing of the creek. After pushing through several willow thickets, I find a section of the creek which is slightly wider and slightly shallower. Having neglected to pack sandals, I am forced to cross barefoot. The water is every bit as cold as fresh snowmelt should be. I reach the other side and allow the feeling to return to my feet. From here the path is easy to follow. Although overgrown, it follows an old mining road that was made with some effort. I follow the road which cuts into a hillside and curves past the southern shoulder of Cobb peak and into Big Basin.
Big Basin is a high, windswept bowl that is bisected by a central ridge and guarded by peaks jutting almost 12,000’ high. One side of the ridge is a landscape of bare earth, rockfall and stunted tree growth; the other side one of high meadows, rockfall and stunted tree growth. Since I will be sleeping here, I opt for the meadowy side.
A common feature of much of the western side of the Pioneers is parallel bands of short cliffs. Picking my way through these cliffs, I spot a rocky draw leading up and to the left. It looks passable with my backpack, so I make my way to the mouth and begin clambering over the rocks. Here resides my favorite memory from the trip. The gully is rocky, but there is some moisture here. It is also wildflower season, and this gully is teeming. I spot wild columbine, death camas, corn lily, scarlet paintbrush, wild larkspur, daisies, bluebells. I cannot identify several small purple flowers, red stalky flowers, a large blooming yellow flower and the innumerable tiny white flowers. There are also a higher concentration of hummingbirds than I have ever before seen in the mountains. They zoom around me, some just curious, others convinced that I’ve arrived to steal their nectar. All too soon I reach the top of the gully, which opens into a tiny meadow, sitting above 10,000 feet.
The view from my high camp.
This, I decide, will be my high camp (a choice I will later regret).
A glance at my watch shows it to be after noon. Big Basin, surrounded as it is with peaks, has many choices for scrambling, and I had plans to summit at least two peaks over this weekend. I have yet to see a mountaintop, so waste little time in dropping my gear, loading my daypack with lunch, water and the essentials and heading out.
A rocky ramp leads directly to the ridge below Big Basin peak and here I am faced with a choice. Old Hyndman had caught my eye some years ago when I summited its taller sibling, so it remained my primary goal. Even though I stood only several hundred feet below the summit of Big Basin, I turn my attention to Old Hyndman, assuming that I can always tag Big Basin on the return trip (this will turn out to be another tactical error).
Big Basin peak from the central ridge.
Because of my decision to stay on the south side of the central ridge, I am now faced with and ascent of the ridge and a drop of about 100 vertical feet to the saddle below Old Hyndman. This does not dismay me much, as the rock is solid and the views are fantastic.
Quite a view as I descend toward the saddle.
The rock changes character as I make my way from the saddle to the east face of Old Hyndman. Below, it is dominated by reddish-brown volcanic, but as I ascend the rock becomes a brilliant white. The face, which below appears formidable, reveals its secret as you near. Cutting across the center is a dike of dark rock which makes for an easy ascent, almost a rock staircase. Once I pass this section, it is an easy scramble to the top. The day is beautiful, the sky, clear blue. Only small puffs of cloud drift across my vision, but now a cold breeze picks up and I do not linger for long. I retreat to the rock field below the face and sit in the lee of a boulder to eat lunch.
As soon as I feel re-energized, I step carefully back down to the saddle, where I take a break to scan the slopes with my binoculars searching for mountain goats. Success! I spot six goats: two youngsters and four mature. They blend with the mountainside almost completely; I only spot them by following the clatter of loosened stones. I enjoy this sight for a while and then continue up to the central ridge, stopping several times along the way to check on the goats’ progress. I finally make it back to the top of the ridge and decide that the view in front of me to Big Basin peak would be a fantastic picture. So, I put down my backpack, open it, remove my food, remove my water, remove my jacket, remove my binoculars, remove my fleece. Wait a minute. Where’s my camera! SHIT!! I’ve left it somewhere on the damn mountain! Where did I last have it? At the top? Did I take it out when I was looking for goats? How could I do this?!? This is one of my fears. I JUST bought this camera, and told myself over and over ‘make sure you put it away’. And now it’s gone!! Alright, I can retrace my steps. I stumble back over the ridge and down the slope, hurrying. I hop over boulders, slide down slopes. I’m being careless. And this is when I knock loose a several hundred pound rock which rolls toward me … I instinctively block it with my forearm and it slides off of me and cracks into the rock in front of me, hitting with enough force to break it in two. Ok. That’s a reminder. Is the camera really worth me crushing myself? I continue, but carefully. I look anywhere that seems like someplace I might have stopped. Did I watch the goats from here? Was that a place I set my backpack? Did I get a drink of water at this ledge? Nothing. Everything is so similar that I cannot tell if I even came over this exact ground. I reach the saddle and no luck. Did I leave it at the very top? I’ve just about given up. The grey of the rocks matches the grey of the camera case. But I won’t give up completely until I’ve searched this peak all the way to the top. I climb the slope leading to the east face. Did I eat lunch here? Maybe … and then I see it. A tiny grey beacon in a sea of white rock. I’m so happy to see the camera that I could kiss it. And I do.
I carefully pack the camera away and trudge back down to the saddle and up and over the ridge. I consider making the trip to the top of Big Basin peak, but I am absolutely beat. Besides, there’s always tomorrow.
By this time, the cold breeze has picked up some, and is now a cold wind. I pick my way down to the meadow and camp. The breeze is strong, but I am convinced that it will die down overnight. I unpack my gear and set up my tent in the howling wind. I light my stove in the howling wind. I eat my dinner in the howling wind. I press snow against my bruised and bloody arm in the howling wind. As the light fades I crawl into my bag, envisioning a deep sleep …
… during the night the wind, if anything, picks up. Periodic gusts cocoon the tent around me, making it impossible to get more than a half an hour of sleep at a time. I knew that a weak cold front was scheduled to come through this weekend, but I didn’t expect this! As soon as dawn breaks, I decide to cut my losses. The wind is not strong enough to be dangerous, but the lack of sleep combined with the previous day’s exertion make me unwilling to do more than journey back to my bed. I quickly pack up my gear and head down the gully. Only to find peaceful serenity. It seems that I was oriented at the top of a funnel. The winds, which were strong enough at altitude, were accelerated through my little camp. Had I not been greedy for peaks, I would have camped lower and found the sleep I needed.
The rest of the walk out was uneventful.
So, was the trip a success? The answer is a resounding yes. Things did not go according to plan; I did not summit the peaks as planned. But, it was my first trip to a beautiful place where I saw no one else. I lost something precious to me and found it again. It was a great adventure. I couldn’t have planned it any better.