Sawtooth Jewels: Backpacking to Alice, Hell Roaring, and Imogene Lakes
By Michael Lanza
We sit on the bank of Pettit Lake Creek and remove our boots and socks to ford it. It’s the third week in June, and winter is just winding down in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The creek barrels downhill, barking and bursting with snowmelt. My friends Chip and Jan Roser are already partway across, moving carefully over the rocky bed. At the opposite bank, Chip turns around and shouts to us, “It’s freezing.”
It’s certainly very close to freezing, anyway—this creek was snow just a little while ago. In fact, if this water was only a few degrees colder, we could walk across its surface without getting wet.
Nate, my 13-year-old son, steps into the creek, and immediately—almost instinctively—turns around and steps back up onto dry land, his eyes wide. A shiver rips through his body and rattles the words that squeak from his mouth as if each word is a complete sentence: “It’s. Really. Cold.” His voice and eyes telegraph a clear message: He doesn’t want to step back into that water.
I just nod, giving him a moment to contemplate on his own the even less-appealing idea that our overnight hike to Alice Lake—one of the prettiest and most beloved jewels of the Sawtooths—won’t happen without us getting to the other side of this frigid, 20-foot-wide stream. It was Nate who suggested we backpack to Alice Lake, for reasons that go back half of his short lifetime.
I watch his face reveal his thoughts as his expression shifts from shock to dread, resignation, and then determination, all within about a minute. Then I tell him, “You can do this. We’ll get across it quickly.” Chip comes back over to take Nate’s pack for him, and the three of us, using poles for balance, start across. It is foot-numbing, brain-freezing cold. At midstream, the water rises above my knees and up Nate’s thighs. I remind him to step carefully and not rush in this pushy current. “Oh my god, it’s freezing,” he says, gasping the words.
And then we’re across. Nate all but leaps onto dry ground, bends over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily, and shakes the chill from his body like a dog shaking off water, laughing at how painfully cold that was. Pain is funny after you’ve survived it.
We’ve come here to backpack overnight to Alice Lake, and possibly hike above Alice to Twin Lakes and the 9,200-foot pass separating this valley from that of Toxaway Lake, because Nate wanted to return to the scene of an event from seven years ago. When he was six, he and I backpacked the 18-mile Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake loop in late summer, taking three days—our second “boy trip“ together, the name Nate gave years ago to our annual father-son adventures.
Now, he recalls that first, big backpacking trip together only in fragmented and foggy pieces of a six-year-old boy’s memory, like the reassembled shards of a shattered mirror reflecting a broken, partial image. A frigid creek ford did not pose enough of an obstacle to keep him from wanting to revisit that special place in memory.
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Beyond the ford of Pettit Lake Creek, our uphill hike to Alice Lake turns less exciting, though not devoid of smaller challenges. At around 8,000 feet, still below Alice, we encounter nearly continuous snow cover in the forest. Between short, sun-warmed segments of open trail, we walk long stretches over densely consolidated but melting, mushy snow two or three feet deep, stepping over the knee-deep postholes of previous hikers. We follow the trail around a pond reflecting the sharp arrowhead of 9,901-foot El Capitan jutting into the sky.
By early evening, a few hours after leaving the trailhead, we reach the lake and find two patches of open ground for our tents, where direct sunlight slashing through gaps in the tree canopy has melted away the snow.
At almost 8,600 feet, Alice Lake, about three-quarters of a mile long, remains mostly frozen today—officially the first day of summer, although the mountains appear oblivious to the calendar. But open water at our end offers a flawless reflection of a row of jagged, snowy mountains. Cotton-ball clouds dapple a sky as deeply blue as the ocean. The water is so clear that rocks on the lake bottom look as sharp and as close as words on the page of a book in your hands.
It’s a view that makes for great photos—and perhaps helps jog the memory of a teenage boy from a time when he was a small boy.
I remember pieces of that first trip here with Nate, like the unrestrained, convulsive laughter that erupted from him each time he hoisted a rock as large as he could lift overhead and slam-dunked it into Alice Lake; he couldn’t get tired of the baritone splash it created, as if it surprised him each time. We’d stopped at Alice’s shore expressly for the purpose of bombing the water with rocks, after camping the night before a bit shy of the lake. As a thunderstorm rapidly approached on the first afternoon of that long-ago trip, I had hurriedly erected the tent moments before the bruised and blackened sky tore open. Torrential rain and loud, tent-rattling gusts, accompanied by the percussion of thunder, pounded our thin, nylon walls so loudly that my little boy slithered his sleeping bag up very close to mine.
Tonight, we get friendlier weather than that night below Alice Lake seven years ago: It’s clear and windy but not cold. The four of us relax around the campsite, Nate joining in our adult conversations, as I recall he and I engaging in a serious debate, seven years ago, over which dinosaurs would emerge victorious in head-to-head battles. It being the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m., when the wind calms and the temperature drops quickly.
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Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Divide
Early the next morning, Chip and I strike out on a short hike as Nate and Jan sleep in; my son still appreciates his sleep as much as he did as a first-grader, and Jan may just be smarter than us. We head up the trail toward the Alice Lake-Toxaway Lake Divide, the 9,200-foot pass between these two valleys. The sun, though still low, shines warmly from a cloudless, cerulean sky. The overnight temp dropped into the high 30s, firming up the snow, making for easy walking. A couple of times, we lose the trail, hidden beneath the snow cover, but eventually regain it and reach the pass.
Around us unfolds a mountain landscape barely beginning to emerge from winter on this summer solstice. White covers almost all that we can see. The Twin Lakes, just 300 feet higher than Alice, remain completely locked in ice. When we made plans for this weekend, we’d thought we might hike 10,651-foot Snowyside Peak above the pass, fifth highest among more than 40 peaks that rise above 10,000 feet in the Sawtooths. But that will wait for another time. We make a quick descent back to camp to have breakfast with Nate and Jan.
By late morning, the four of us shoulder our backpacks for the hike out. Falling behind Chip and Jan, Nate and I find a logjam below Alice Lake that we walk across easily to avoid one boots-off, feet-numbing ford of the creek that we see other backpackers making. Even better, down lower, we will find a user trail along the northwest side of Pettit Lake Creek that allows us to avoid the frigid crossing that started this trip.
But before we get down that far, as we’re hiking through pine forest about 30 minutes below Alice Lake, below the snow line, I stop beside a small clearing amid the trees just off the trail—an established campsite. And I immediately realize what I’m looking at. “This is it,” I tell Nate. “This is where we camped that first night.”
He instantly knows what I’m talking about: our boy trip when he was six. I’m sure he’d have walked right past this spot without remembering it. But he agrees I’m correct, and strolls around the big patch of packed dirt, smiling and chattering on about how special that trip was, as I imagine him searching his memory for elusive fragments of those few days half his lifetime ago.
Then Nate tells me: “I love our boy trips together.” I agree enthusiastically, even as I know that it will be many years before Nate understands how much I enjoy these trips.
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