Taming the Elephant


I glance up at the darkening sky and feel the first raindrop of the day. I jam my hands and feet into a short, but slightly overhanging crack. I have a solid # 2 Camalot stuffed in for protection, just in case I slip, and I know all I must do is pull this move, and we’ll be on easy street. We’re 7 pitches up on Idaho’s Elephant’s Perch, one of the great rock-climbing walls in North America, sporting golden granite and airy climbs above sapphire lakes. It’s an imposing cliff; sheer vertical for over 1,000 feet. We’re obviously in no position to endure lightning and rain. Nor do I want to rappel down, as there are no fixed anchors, and I’d have to sacrifice lots of valuable gear.

Instead, I muster the strength left in my pumped out forearms, lock my hands in the crack above, jam my feet in below, and pull on through. Gravity sucks me left, but I arch my body right and push on up, hooting happily as I mantle into a low-angle groove. It’s slippery, but not strenuous, as I cruise up another 50 feet. Settling into the belay alcove above, I don’t mind (although Paul does, since he’s now in the crux) that light sprinkles are wetting the rock. We’ll move quickly now on the easier ground of the summit plateau. Our objective is “in the bag.” In the world of alpine rock climbing, what’s arguably even better than climbing the wall, is the warm glow of satisfaction when you know you have climbed the wall.

We’d left Salt Lake around 6 am on a warm, early September day, and road-rallied across Idaho’s Snake River Basin, a high desert covered by lava flows and sagebrush. This gave way to conifer forest and rising canyon walls as we passed through Sun Valley and wound up to Galena Summit, the watershed divide between the Wood and Salmon Rivers. We motored on to the rustic, log-constructed, Redfish Lake Lodge and sorted out our gear.

To significantly shorten our approach, we jumped aboard a jet boat with our packs for a pleasant, 5-mile glide down Redfish Lake. Spires soared above the deep green woods in front of us, getting us stoked for the goal ahead. The snow-fed creeks that drain from the jagged Sawtooth Mountains fill this deep, glacier-carved basin with cold, clear water. The shores have white sand and pebble beaches, composed of ground up granite, deposited over the centuries.

Shouldering our overnight packs, loaded with tent, stove, cook-kit, food, a 60-meter climbing rope, stoppers, cams, carabiners, nylon runners, rock shoes, helmets and more, we start up the Cramer Lakes Trail. Deeply-furrowed, 200′-tall Douglas Fir trees tower above the sandy trail and shade us from the bright autumn afternoon sun, but as we climb away from the lake, the views of pointy summits open up all around.

To our left the imposing Grand Mogul dominates the horizon. The Boyscout Couloir falling down its north face still holds snow from the big winter. It reminds us we’ll have to come back and ski it someday. Avalanches flushed us out of it in April, 2011.

After 2 easy miles, the trail comes near Cramer Creek. We cross it on logs to find the climber’s trail to Saddleback Lakes and the Perch. It follows stone cairns across nearly flat granite slabs, made so by the massive glaciers that sculpted these mountains over thousands of years.

Climbing steeply, we skirt the West Face of the Elephants Perch tower. It is a pluton of solid granite, much harder than the eroded pinnacles surrounding it. Because of this it’s dome-shaped, like Half Dome and the other granite domes of Yosemite. We marvel at the deepening, pinkish, golden-orange color of the southwest face as we dine at our scenic campsite along the lower Saddleback Lake. This is certainly an alpine climbers paradise. But we can’t help feeling anxious as we settle down to sleep under the Idaho stars, knowing the imposing challenge that will greet us on the morrow.

A casual start is in order, since its cool in September and the sun hits the SW-facing aspect late in the morning. We scramble up talus after crossing the creek below the lake, and down climb along a ledge at the base of the main wall. We pass by another party just starting up the “Fine Line,” a long, stout route. We talk briefly and continue until we find a chimney feature that matches the route description below the impossibly steep diamond known as the Elephants Ear. The Mountaineer’s Route will climb toward and then skirt left of this golden diamond via a series of 3 roofs.

The first shady chimney pitch leads to a second, but that gives way to a sunnier face of rock as we move up and left, making a “crux” mantle onto a small ledge. The autumn sun, filtered by smoke from forest fires, feels good on our cool skin and we continue up steep, but well-protected and solid stone. Pitch 3 features a superfine finger crack and ends at a hanging belay, right under the Golden Diamond. There’s already plenty of air below our feet, and now the exposure level increases even more as I lead out left to skirt the massive roof.

Fortunately, I can keep most of my weight on good footholds and plug in solid cams and stopper protection as I undercling a flake. I keep my focus on each move and pro placement, fighting the anxiety that wells up in me if I look around, especially down! After passing three roofs, the line goes into a cozy, low-angle gully that’s easy to scramble up and set a belay.

Paul is well out of sight, and must trust that the grunt he hears from above, and the fact that the rope has come tight on him, means he’s on belay and safe to climb the daunting pitch. I keep pulling the slack through my Black Diamond ATC Guide friction device to maintain a solid belay. Soon I see a grin of relief flood Paul’s face as he vaults into the alcove. “Sweet pitch, eh?” I say. “Yeah!” He responds. “Just keep climbing and don’t look down! I’ve never been on a wall like this before.” It is a seriously steep and continuous cliff face, and we’re not even close to being done yet.

Pitch 5 involves face climbing and cracks with an “arête” on the left. This is French for “stop;” as in “where the rock stops and the sky begins.” Basically, it’s a sharp ridge. American climbers have adopted many French words into our lingo. The arête is intimidating, as being right on it gives one the full effect of 1,000′ or more of exposure, falling away vertically to the forest below. I slot a camming device into a 3/4-inch wide crack in the solid granite, clip it to the climbing rope, and move up and back right as Paul feeds rope out to me. A ramp feature of sorts provides easier climbing and leads to a sandy ledge in the shadow of the imposing Diamond.

The skies are leaden as I choose a face and corner system going up and slightly left away from the steep wall. Here there is a perfect finger crack, but not much for the feet. It feels harder than the grade mentioned in the guidebook, but I’m able to protect myself with cams and stoppers, and there’s no time to look for an easier way. I gamble on the left of two parallel cracks above a horizontal ledge, and after a few strenuous moves, I see the final, semi-tilted hand crack crux above. I find a miniature alcove/ledge just below it, and equalize three pieces of protection for a bombproof anchor. When Paul arrives, he comments on the difficult crack climbing, and wonders aloud,  “Where is the spacious belay ledge we’re supposed to be at?” “Didn’t find, it. This will have to do,” I respond. “And now we have one more hard section to go.” And go it does, just before the rain.

Beyond the crux, the final few pitches of class 4 scrambling on low-angle eroded granite slabs succumb quickly, despite being damp. We coil the rope and put it away as we scamper across the moonscape of the summit plateau. It’s fun to be untethered after 5 hours on a rope, and free to move at one’s own pace, and take one’s own line. There are many friendly ways.

After checking the airy view of Saddleback Lakes from a precarious, jutting point on the NE edge of the plateau, we scramble down a steepening and loosening descent gully. Luckily, its still plenty light. We locate a couple rappel anchors, and get the rope out again. Pulling our trusty 60 M Petzl cord cleanly, without a snag, after sliding down it the last cliff is a relief. Now we can really relax. We trot down the talus cone and swagger back into camp, proud summiteers!

We haven’t been there 5 minutes before I go fishing for a special catch in the lake: India Pale Ale I stashed last night. Canned beers never tasted so good! And they wash down the most delicious miso soup and dehydrated dinner we can remember.

Free if last night’s apprehension, and full of fatigue, we slumber deeply under the stars. The next morning brings renewed energy, and we break camp and descend to the lake after a nice talk with our only neighbors. We have mutual friends in the small Rocky Mountains climbing community. Over coffee, we trade stories from the previous days’ Elephant-sized ascents, on our respective Perch routes. Then we hustle down to the lakeside in time to catch the mid-day boat. Miss it and you’ll have a heartbreaking 5-mile slog along the shore!

Since we make it with time to spare, we dive into the crystal-clear water to rinse off the first layer of camping grime, and discover just how cold and refreshing snowmelt is. Our breath is gone immediately! But as we warm up on the sun-soaked wood of the dock, awaiting the return ride, a great feeling of cleansing rejuvenation filled our bodies. The only better one is the taste of a juicy burger and cold beer at the Redfish Lake Lodge. A fitting way to finish off a great Idaho wall climb.

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