Trip Report: Elephant's Perch via Mountaineer's Route, 5.9 III

Mountain: Elephant's Perch 9,670', Sawtooth Mountains, ID
Route: Mountaineer's Route, 5.9, grade III, 7 pitches.

The graceful sweep of the Elephant's Perch. Photo: Tom Gattiker.

Gear Notes:
  • 60 m, 8.9 mm single rated rope. A 60 m rope was perfect for doing it in 7 pitches. 
  • Cams: double rack .3-3, single #4. I think we used doubles of every color on at least one pitch. Only placed the #4 to get it off of my harness. A .2 and .1 could be nice in a few places.
  • Nuts: mostly placed finger sized pieces, but small nuts were fairly crucial for one anchor. 
Before I had ever plugged a cam into rock, I knew that I was going to climb the Elephants Perch some day. The reason that I could be so certain was that it combines far too many of my reasons for living--pristine alpine valleys, the Idaho wilderness, spending time in nearby Stanley, adventurous climbing--for me to not find my way to it eventually. 

The plan was for Rachel, a talented artist and the love of my life, and I to hike into the lakes at the base of the Perch for a two night trip. My good buddy Colton "Two-Step" Turner would join us whenever he could get off the river, and the two of us would climb the route together. For reasons that she would rather me not disclose, Rachel had to drop off the trip at the last second. That left just me and Colton "Tongue Turner" Turner on the trip, and we opted for a one-night strike mission. 


Colton, always finding a way to make a trip extra rad, rode all the way from Stanley to Redfish Lodge after meeting Rachel and I at our camp along the Salmon River.


One former local, one real local.

No matter how many times I take it, the boat shuttle across Redfish is one of the highlights of every trip.  Mt. Heyburn, which Colton and I climbed in 2022, dominates the right skyline throughout the ride. I kept reminding myself of how much more terrain we had to cover to climb that thing car-to-car than it would be to climb the Perch with an overnight stop.


Colton getting those final fried calories in on the boat. Heyburn is the peak in between him and the captain.

We caught the perfect time to be hiking up Redfish;Creek, right at golden hour. Walking up this way always brings memories of a childhood full of family backpacking trips rushing back.



The social trail up to the Saddleback Lakes, which sit right at the base of the Perch, departs the main trail at a creek crossing. Colton went first and dutifully posed for a few photos. 



When it was my turn to cross the log, the real adventure began. As I leaned over to plant my trekking pole in the creek, my water bottle escaped from my side pocket and landed in the current. As it began to flow downstream, I hustled to the bank and started sprinting down the granite slabs that line the creek. Luckily, the bottle soon hit a large pool and eddied out of the main current. I ran to edge, stripped off everything I had on below the waist [picture not included] and started wading into the freezing creek. Just then, my bottle got sucked back into the main flow right above a big pourover, forcing me to dive after it. I snagged it just in time and was left feeling pleasantly soggy for the rest of the hike. Victory!


Google Earth simulation. Red is the approach, blue is the descent gully.

From there, we moseyed up towards the Saddleback Lakes, where we were planning to spend the night. I was moving slowly due to some knee issues, but Colton was kind enough to not completely dust me. 

We arrived at the first of the Saddlebacks and found a flat, sandy spot amongst the boulders to set up our bivy. 

One freeze-dried meal and a funny-looking cigarette later...

Sunset arrived and did not disappoint. What a piece of rock!



We woke up at 6:00 AM to find that some crafty rodent had claimed our toilet paper to make it's nest, but was kind enough to leave our granola bars alone. After a quick breakfast, we started up towards the Perch, aiming for the point near where the descent gully meets the scree field. From our spot near the lake, the approach to the Perch is shorter than most roadside crags. We traversed right, along the base of the wall, until a group starting up one of the big boy routes near the center of the Perch told us that we had gone too high to reach the base of the Mountaineer's Route. Initially, we worried that we would have to backtrack to the lake in order to find a passage through the granite slabs, but fairly quickly we spotted a way to downclimb and continue traversing. 

This route has a few common variations to how parties break up the pitches, but we did it more-or-less the way the SummitPost description lays out. This meant 7 pitches, many of which used almost all of our 60 m rope. 

Once at the base, we scrambled up  ~25 ft to a small ledge with several young pine trees and tied in. I took the first lead, opting to start up the slabs to the left of the gulley, although I think many folks climb the gulley. I was enjoying the chill, mid-5th class start to the day and decided to bypass the first possible belay ledge and keep going through the first 5.8 section. Finding exactly how to get to the 5.8 mantle ledge was a bit of a head-scratcher this early in the morning. Eventually I figured it out. The only casualty was the antenna of my walkie-talkie, which got yanked off during some mild chimney groveling. I built an anchor about 20 feet above the small pine tree with rap tat, once I was almost out of rope. The only hiccup as Colton followed the pitch was that he couldn't clean a nut that I had placed, and we had to leave it. If you're reading this Colton, I still haven't gotten over it, you bastard!

I took off on the second pitch and cut left fairly soon. I found a ledge with a single bolt that looked like Jim Bridwell made it while high on airplane-fuel-soaked weed back in 1977, but hey, I still clipped it. Stepping off the ledge, I continued up a slabby dihedral to a narrow ledge, then across the ledge and up a fun crack section with good jams. The roof section that had looked so intimidating from far away was now just ahead, and looking far more manageable. I brought Colton up on two bolts, which were thankfully the more modern variety. 

As an apology for the lack of photos recently, enjoy this free foot pic.

By this point I was getting a bit nervous about time, as it had taken us around 2.5 hrs to do these two pitches and we still had most of the route to do. Mostly, I was concerned about missing the 7:00 PM boat ride back across Redfish, and then Rachel spending another night by herself, or worse: with Sanjay keeping her company. But Colton was his usual encouraging self, and we decided to keep pushing onwards. 

He took the next turn on lead, which begins with a traverse underneath a huge roof. The main challenge here is rope drag (and exposure!), but he dealt with it beautifully. Soon it was my turn to follow, and boy oh boy, this pitch is epic! It's not that often that I catch myself breaking out in a completely involuntary grin while climbing, but this one absolutely did it. The roof traverse is a series of undercling jugs with good feet, and then even more great holds as you pull out onto the arete with hundreds of feet of air under your butt. I'm kicking myself now for not taking more photos. 

Colton's belay at the top of P3. P4 continues off to the left.

Pitch 4, my turn to lead again. I backtracked down the ramp a bit and then carefully started up the slabs to our left. The highlight of this pitch was at the top, where you get huge holds on either side of this pillar-like rock that sits inside a dihedral. 


Looking out towards Braxon Peak from partway up P4.

Colton took pitch 5, which started out straightforward enough but then got surprisingly delicate and balance-y at the top. There are a variety of cracks though, and there might be an easier option to the left or right. When I arrived at the semi-hanging belay we were both a bit spooked by the mostly flaring and/or small gear placements for the anchor. After a bit of re-engineering using some of the gear off of my harness, we declared it super good enough and started thinking about the crux pitch ahead. 

Glad to be back in some real mountains, not those silly Oregon volcanos. 

Finally, it was my turn to lead the 5.9 crux pitch, which involves an undercling traverse immediately off the belay into a short liebacking section. Luckily, the mungiest rock on the whole route comes in those undercling pockets that you need to place gear in, but I managed to get two decent pieces in and fire the lieback. I thought I was in the clear a few moves later, but just then, my sweaty, sweaty right hand slipped off the hold and my right foot peeled off its smear. Just as my brain began to envision a worst-case scenario of a gear-ripping fall and taking a factor 2 onto the anchor, my hand caught another hold and I was able to stay on. Pulling through that onto more secure holds was a hell of a feeling. The rest of the pitch passed without incident, and then Colton followed it cleanly. 

Colton took the last short pitch up to the top, where we soaked in the views (magnificent) and drank some water (much needed). We had been on the rock for about 6.75 hrs. 



Woohoo!

This route ends below the true summit of the Perch, which you can access with a bit more scrambling. We opted not to tag the summit due to time constraints. Instead, we traversed around the backside, dropping elevation a bit and then regaining it to the saddle east of the Perch. We found the descent gully without any trouble (its the first gully-looking thing south-east of the formation, don't go too far). After the rappel at the bottom we were just a few hundred feet of scrambling above our stashed gear near the lake. 

We made good time on the hike out, but the crossing of the creek once again gave us trouble. Colton was hustling across the logs when all of a sudden, his feet went right, his upper body went left, and he ended up laying across the log with his legs in the creek and the rope, sitting on top of his pack, dipped in the the water as well. Good thing I sprung for the dry-treated version. 

Lil buddy. 

We didn't miss the boat home, and were soon reunited with Rachel at the Redfish Lodge. As Colton and I learned last year after climbing Heyburn, the climb isn't over until you are inside the lodge bar spraying down anyone who will listen with stories of climbing glory, so we headed inside for some much-deserved drinks. 

The more he drinks, the better my stories get. 


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