Chasing Summer’s Tail Climbing in Idaho’s Sawtooths and Castle Rocks
By Michael Lanza
In the dead-calm, 30-degree, predawn chill of a fall morning, our headlamp beams bore into the enveloping darkness on a trail through lodgepole pine forest in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Stars salt what we can see of the sky through the trees. We’re not saying much, a little tired after having driven out here too late last night to camp, and not slept quite enough before rising at 5 a.m.
But then, it’s probably wise of us to hoard our energy in reserve, given the day laid out before us: at least 14 miles of hiking, with roughly two of those miles off-trail and nearly 4,000 feet of up and down, plus a couple pitches of rock climbing to a summit neither of us has stood on before. Then we’ll drive three hours home in the dark.
If it seems like a lot to pack into 24 hours, well, we’re a little desperate. This could be the last day of summer-like weather in the mountains this year, and my friend Chip Roser and I are determined to make the most of it, climbing one of the most prominent and distinctive peaks in the Sawtooths, 10,229-foot Mount Heyburn.
Within an hour, the eastern sky begins to light up. Not long after that, shafts of sunlight abruptly slice through the White Cloud Mountains across the Sawtooth Valley. The air starts to warm, but we still pass through little terrain depressions where cold air has pooled overnight; the temperature plunging several degrees in the space of a few steps feels like jumping into an icy lake filled with air instead of water.
We reach the first of the Bench Lakes to see its flat surface offering a razor-sharp mirror image of a jagged line of dawn-lit mountains. The maintained trail disappears, and we start following a faint footpath marked with occasional cairns through the woods to the highest Bench Lake at just over 8,600 feet, where the forest ends. From there, we commence a long, tedious slog up steep slopes of scree so loose that we frequently slide downhill several inches for every step up. At the base of cliffs, we scramble up exposed slabs, the valley slowly falling away far below us.
Finally, some four hours after we began walking, Chip and I stand on a ledge in Heyburn’s shadow and a biting wind, craning our necks up at a wide, jagged cleft called the Stur Chimney leading straight up more than 100 feet to the top of the cliff. It looks like the mountain was sliced gills to tail with a dull knife. That cleft is what we intend to climb.
This happens to me every autumn—this infection with an urgent sense that summer has broken into a full sprint, running away from me, and I have to grab and hold on one last time before summer makes her final exit. I watch the forecast closely, because I know that sometime in late September or early October, the weather will shift overnight, slamming the door on summer in the mountains.
This feeling has no basis in logic. As is the case every year, I got out enough this summer to be content: rock climbing for two long weekends in June, dayhiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and trekking hut-to-hut in Norway in July, two family backpacking trips in August and another backpacking trip with friends in September. I cram enough adventures into a typical summer to get a little burnt out on the constant packing, unpacking, and traveling. I reach a point where I feel an overwhelming desire to just stay home.
That lasts for maybe a week.
Then, invariably, September strolls past like supermodels on a runway, one gorgeous day after another, and I quietly lament that I’m spending my weekends doing everything but heading into the mountains. I start combing the family calendar for the slightest opening, even just one little date square that has nothing written inside it. I drop not-very-subtle hints to my wife that “I might try to fit in a day of climbing while the weather’s good.” She sees me increasingly behaving like a bull in the chute as a rodeo cowboy gets in position to ride it, and finally tells me, “Yes, go ahead, pleeeease.”
So I troll around for a friend who agrees that it would be a tragedy beyond words to spend what could be the last warm, sunny weekend day of the year sleeping in and staying home—a friend who agrees on the moral imperative of going out full bore from morning dark to evening dark in the mountains. I thank my good fortune to have many sensible friends who think like I do.
“You think I can get up this thing?” Chip asks me.
“Yes,” I tell him, though I’m really not sure. But he looks a little anxious, so this seems like an important time to be supportive and positive rather than sounding skeptical.
Chip has never actually rock climbed before, a detail that would make our plan to climb Heyburn ambitious and arguably unrealistic. The sensation of being very high off the ground and barely hanging on by your fingers and the balls of your feet can stir uncomfortable emotions in anyone, but especially someone doing it for the first time. But not having another partner available today, I was willing to overlook that fact.
Actually, I’ve done much backcountry skiing, trail running, and mountain biking with Chip. In fact, while hiking past the Bench Lakes, we were remarking on how very different it looks compared to when we were both in this same area with four other friends just five months ago, backcountry skiing. Chip is very fit and capable, and I do think he’ll get up this climb, no problem. I’ve read various descriptions of it that rated it between 5.4 and 5.7—roughly a beginner-level technical difficulty. (Afterward, I’ll decide based on my 20-plus years of climbing that there’s a little 5.6 climbing in there, though most of it is easier than that.) Besides, if he can’t get all the way up it, the route is short enough for us to get off of it easily.
As a climber, I can’t truthfully describe the Stur Chimney as a thing of beauty. While there is some fun, easy climbing in there on mostly solid rock, the chimney is a scary minefield of sloping ledges littered with loose rocks—some of them pretty big—all ready to let gravity drop them clattering and exploding down the chimney. Even being careful, you really can’t avoid sending stones raining down. A party of four of five climbers that shows up after us wisely waits for us to top out and rappel back before beginning the climb themselves.
But the climb goes quickly in two short pitches, even with a beginner on the bottom end of the rope. Before long, we’re standing at the top of the route, on a small ledge with vertical walls plunging away beneath us. The Sawtooths fan out for miles, a vast junkyard of jagged spires and geologic upheaval. I scramble to the tippy-top of the highest point of granite up here, Heyburn’s dizzying summit, big enough for just one person to stand on at a time.
After about 15 minutes on top, we begin the long descent. Much later, in the trailhead parking lot at 6:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours after we started a day of almost constant movement, Chip says, “Too bad we can’t stick around for a few more days of this.”
Yea, I agree. But already, I’m thinking about when I might get another chance before summer makes its curtain call.
Fast forward almost three weeks, to mid-October. I’m at Castle Rocks State Park in south-central Idaho, next to the more-famous City of Rocks National Reserve. It’s chilly, in the high 40s, but the sun feels warm and has already warmed up the granite south face of Castle Rock. I’m belaying my friend Kate Ryan, who’s leading the start of the most popular climb here, a four-pitch route named Big Time.
The forecast promises warmth and sunshine today, a Thursday, and for cold, wet weather, including snow at this elevation (and in the City of Rocks, which is higher), by this weekend. Summer appears to be granting us one last, unexpected visit. We’re the only people here.
Just as I’m about to start up the route, I hear someone walk up the trail—and I know who it is before I even turn around: another friend, Hannah North, who lives nearby and knew we were coming. I clip one end of her rope to my harness so that she can follow me.
At the top of the first two pitches, Hannah tells us she just got home late last night from five days in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—chasing the tail of summer down there, too. But she couldn’t pass up the opportunity get in a possible last day of climbing before the good weather shuts down for the year.
By afternoon, we’re down to T-shirts in the warm sun. We climb some routes we’ve done many times but still enjoy, then move on three more challenging routes that neither Kate nor I have been on before. (Hannah has climbed just about everything here.) For several hours, we bask in the simple physical harmony of moving gymnastically up this park’s immaculate granite, and it feels like the middle of June instead of the fleeting last nice days of autumn.
Once those last, glorious days of summer have passed, of course, I always wish I could have squeezed in a few more of them. But I’m satisfied with however many rejuvenating little adventures I manage to fit in. Meanwhile, I’ll scheme about next summer, and wait patiently.
And fortunately, ski season is just around the corner.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR rock climbers with at least intermediate lead-climbing and route-finding skills. The Stur Chimney on Mt. Heyburn is not technically difficult, but the abundant loose rock poses a serious hazard. Castle Rocks State Park and the City of Rocks National Reserve have routes for climbers of all ability levels.
Make It Happen
Season The high passes of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains generally become mostly snow-free and passable by the first half of July, and the hiking and climbing season extends into late September or early October. The climbing season at the City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park runs from mid-spring to mid-autumn, with June and September the best months; mid-summer can be very hot (though you can climb in the shade), and May and October wetter and cooler.
To climb Mt. Heyburn, from the Bench Lakes Trailhead, follow the Bench Lakes Trail for 4.5 miles to the first of the Bench Lakes. Continue on a sometimes faint but cairned use path 1.5 miles to the uppermost Bench Lake. Hike off-trail around the south shore of the lake and up the steep scree in the cirque across the lake, to the saddle north of Heyburn; from there, ascend more loose scree until you’re just below the west face of Heyburn, where the Stur Chimney comes into view. There’s a rough climber trail most of the way from the upper Bench Lake, and some exposed scrambling (some people may want a belay) is required to reach the base of the chimney. The Stur Chimney is generally climbed in two pitches of 40 to 60 feet each, to avoid rope drag, and descended in two rappels to avoid getting the rope snagged. The chimney has a lot of loose rock on ledges; do not attempt to climb it if there’s another party on the route.
Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks National Reserve have hundreds of high-quality routes, traditional and sport (bolted), on excellent granite, in a wide range of grades from beginner-level to very difficult, with a large number of moderate routes (5.7 to 5.10). Most are one pitch and many have bolted top anchors, though there are some multi-pitch routes, too. A single 60-meter rope will get you off most multi-pitch routes and can be used to top-rope many single-pitch routes.
Getting There The climb of Mt. Heyburn begins at the Bench Lakes Trailhead, at the east end of Redfish Lake. From Stanley, Idaho, drive five miles south if ID 75, turn west onto Redfish Lake Road, and continue two miles to the large dirt parking lot for backpackers; cross the road to the north to the trailhead. The entrance to Castle Rocks State Park is on the Elba-Almo Road, about 20 miles south of ID 77, on the north side of Almo, Idaho.
Maps Earthwalk Press Sawtooth Wilderness Hiking Map and Guide, $9.95, available in outdoor-gear retail stores in Boise, Stanley, and Ketchum, and online, including at rei.com.
Guidebook Castle Rocks Idaho—A Climber’s Guide, by Dave Bingham, $14.95, available in local stores in Almo and online.
Camping There is abundant camping at Redfish Lake and along ID 75 south of Stanley. The best camping near Castle Rocks State Park is at the City of Rocks National Reserve. There is also the Smoky Mountain Campground outside Almo, which has RV and tent sites. Reserve campsites for either at (888) 922-6743, reserveamerica.com.
Contact Sawtooth National Recreation Area (208) 727-5000 in Ketchum, (208) 774-3000 in Stanley, fs.usda.gov/sawtooth. Castle Rocks State Park, (208) 824-5901, parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/castle-rocks. City of Rocks National Reserve, (208) 824-5519, nps.gov/ciro. The Idaho Trails Association helps maintain Sawtooth Mountains trails, idahotrailsassociation.org.