Over breakfast, Sandy Compton casually mentions that the distance to the Sawtooth summit is just 2.5 miles, as a swallow flies. So I figure, with my limited understanding of off-trail hiking, that our route should be no more than 4.5. We meet Kate, Celeste, Annie and Cary at 7:55am mountain time. We wait a while for two no-shows before driving up the rugged road to the East Fork of Blue Creek. At 9:15 we turn straight into the forest instead of taking the established trail.
This is a wave year for Bear Grass and we move from wild ginger forest floors to huckleberry fields to Bear Grass meadows. Up the cliff we go, through the holes in the Alder until we reach 24-hour pass, around 1pm. Lunch is enjoyed just above a snow field still clinging to the north side of the mountain. Flies disguised as bumblebees, hummingbirds and a Clark’s Nutcracker keep an eye on us while Laddie the trail dog keeps an eye on everyone’s food.
Now we start up the face of Middle Mountain by way of a rocky slope. About four years ago, I had a traumatic experience in the high Andes of Peru where I got off trail and had to find my way home in the dark, cold night. Some environments trigger emotional trauma from this and two-thirds up this rock slide, I look back, realize I need to take a break, and suddenly break into tear. My body shakes as I listen to the clambering feet above me, kicking down the talus. I knew this might happen, and so does Sandy, who caringly checks in and encourages me to be strong.
We drop into the saddle between Middle and Sawtooth, where we leave our packs to ease the final ascent. Suddenly the ridge narrows and a semi-circle chute drops straight down to our left. The air it forces up offers a welcome breeze before navigating through some ancient spruce, bent by time and the elements, up a little ridge, until the sky opens into a 360 panorama of the Bull River, Scotchman Peaks and the Cabinet Mountain wilderness. We pause to appreciate this magical place while Sandy points at stuff, confidently naming every peak in sight.
After retrieving our packs we make down a stunning slope – a slippery waterfall of bear grass. We hop some boulders around a small forest below where the South Fork of Ross Creek springs from the mountains. We’ve been taking it easy, feeling like we have plenty of daylight left. It’s true, we do, but at this point no-one but Sandy knows what lies ahead. His turning up an elk trail that goes back up the hill seems like an improvisation, but we follow our leader because he’s the only one who knows the way. After 200 yards he decides he doesn’t like the elk trail and starts right down a 100% slope. Questions to where this leads us are tactfully deflected.
“There is a trail below us.”
And there is, but first we are surprised by a serious cliff which climbing down takes us about an hour, feeling like three. OK, Annie did it in two minutes. I watch Sandy make his way down while I am desperately clinging to the planet’s face to keep from sliding down. I’m scared he’ll fall, which, at this point, doesn’t seem unlikely. Once I see him make it I feel assured that I can too, but he sends us one chute to the north and I begin to panic. Celeste and I are together and cautiously clamber up, sending rocks down in freefall, taking too long to make a sound as they hit the ground. She is going faster than I am and coming alongside. I look at her.
“I can not be the last in line.”
She sees tears in my white face and for the next half hour she stays close to keep me calm, reminding me to breathe.
At the other chute, Carey is already going down, casually calling out how easy it is. Well, I can’t see anything or anyone beyond the ridge, so I’ll see it before I believe it. We need to sit absolutely still, and when a rock starts going, you yell “ROCK!” as they go flying past people’s heads. I want to throw my pack, but my camera would break. After Kate, it’s my turn. I’m going to move very, very, slowly, letting someone tell me exactly where to put my foot next. Breathing deeply, I shuffle toward the abyss while Celeste is telling me I’m doing great as Carey gives directions from below. Sandy is standing close, trying to catch my eye. I’m not looking at you. I defiantly think. You got us into this mess and you know how hard this is for me. As I squeeze by him, he asks
“Are you all right?”
I plant my butt next to Kate’s under an overhang in the shade and out of rock’s way. Everyone is sharing sweets. I retrieve a Snickers from my pack. It’s Sandy’s. I’m going to eat the whole damn thing. I think to myself. Serves him right to get me into that mess. I’m still chewing when I notice something move from the corner of my eye. Celeste’s trekking poles are like a champion’s spears as they sail down 70 feet. It’s followed closely by her pack and when I look at Kate I realize she is anticipating her friend will plummet down next. Her eyes are wide open and she’s stopped chewing.
“Celeste said she’d throw her pack down.” I report to Kate’s great relief.
She breathes out and continues to eat.
I’ve calmed down enough I will look at Sandy again. He observes me in anticipation of a barrage of very naughty words in a raised voice with arms flying.
“That was not funny.”
I say with a straight face, because I mean it more than anything I’ve said this month.
“I know. I’m very, very sorry.”
He means it, also, which is good.
We cross the creek onto the East Fork Meadow, where I had imagined earlier that we would have a break and pick some berries. The mountains’ shadow now envelops us, offering cooler air and a rushed sense of excitement over what we just did. We stand in a line, looking back at the cliff, and let a joint sense of accomplishment settle into us. Now we can move on. I know the way back from here, and know we are at least another two hours, four talus slopes, three alder tunnels, two smaller cliffs, and one stream crossing away from the cars. We move as fast as we can on sore feet and tired legs, after just being scared sh*tless. At least some of us were. Sandy and I are last to limp out of the forest, just before complete darkness. I look at him sideways and smile. I feel invigorated. He smiles back.
“Sandy, that was hard.”
“Why, yes. Sawtooth is the longest day hike in the Scotchmans.”
Well, that explains a lot.
12 miles and 12 hours after setting off we reward ourselves with a beer and I can barely stand upright. I come from a flat country, you know. Five of us cram into my Montero. The dark road is filled with potholes, so I drive slowly to make sure everyone is comfortable. It also helps me hold my beer.
“No-one take off their shoes!” Kate thoughtfully demands.
It’s At the dry creek bed, I hand my Big Sky IPA to Sandy.
“Hold my beer and watch this.” (chuckles from the back seat) and skillfully bounce across the boulders. 20 minutes later we are nearly to our rendezvous place. I crush the empty can with one hand and throw it on the floor. I wish I could burp really loudly right now.
“Couldn’t you crush it against your forehead?” Kate asks.
“Next time.” I say. “I take integration into a local culture very seriously.”
The following day I see Celeste at the Scotchman Peaks open house in Clark Fork. We have a new level of respect and appreciation for each other.
“What’d you have for dinner last night?” she asks.
“Crisps and Whiskey.” I truthfully report.
The day offered stunning photography moments, but after the summit my settings got jumbled and the best picture came out at the lowest quality.
“You know what that means, right?” Sandy asks when he sees my droopy face.
I look straight at him because I know exactly what he’s going to say next.
“You will have to go back.”