Death March: Whitecloud Mountains - Central Idaho

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My hiking buddy Erik and I launched from Fourth of July Lake trailhead for a week at high altitude in the Whiteclouds. We followed the trail past Fourth of July Lake and Patterson Peak, which together are classically beautiful and the subject of numerous photographs, then over the pass to Washington Lake. At Washington we took a hard left and headed over the west ridge of Castle Peak as a shortcut into the upper Chamberlain Basin. We crossed the ridge without event, but on the way down the other side Erik lost his footing, fell, and started to bounce his way down the chute toward me. He called out - I turned around, wanting to help, but unable, as gravity was carrying to and past me faster than I could position and perhaps brace myself to try and break or slow his fall. I watched helplessly, and in wonder, as he bounced on his front, then on his backpack, then to front, and so on, down the chute toward an eighty or hundred foot cliff. On his last bounce before going over the edge, his pack jammed in a rock, with he still strapped to it, saving him from certain ...

I climbed over to him, carefully unstrapped him from the pack, and pulled him up. We assessed his injuries, which were relatively minor, and collected what we could find of his stuff - broken fishing rod, broken eye glasses, and so on. We soberly and carefully climbed down the rest of the way to the big lake at the upper end of the Chamberlain basin. At the lake, and without a word, we each set our packs down and pulled out pocket Bibles, neither of which knew the other was carrying, and with only a little conversation, silently acknowledged our heretofore un-discussed religion.

After more silence I assembled my fishing rod, and cast out into the lake. Erik, now rod-less, followed and watched on. A nice 10 or 12 inch trout took the lure and fought about as I reeled it to shore. Then, out of the deep, a much larger fish came and bit the tail off the one I was reeling in. This, plus the events on the mountain, made fishing too strange; I pulled in my gear; we set camp, and lay silent in our sleeping bags, and eventually went to sleep.

The next day was new and we headed north. We crossed over rugged terrain into the Quiet and Noisy Lakes area, below Serrate Ridge. We had momentum, so we kept going, into the Little Boulder Chain, and then further north into the Big Boulder Chain, camping between Cove and Sapphire Lakes. We hardly knew what to do - we were deep into the range now - and way ahead of schedule. But then the weather decomposed. That night our little camp in the last little patch of trees at timberline above Cove Lake we found ourselves IN a serious storm. As it approached we stoked our fire - so that perhaps at least we might find some hot coals after the inevitable rain.

Oddly, the torrential rain that followed thunder and lightning (at close proximity) didn’t put out our fire … in fact the fire managed to spread, so by midnight after two hours of rain, the fire had followed pitch-filled logs to our equipment, and food. In emergency mode we beat the fire back, moved surviving equipment and goods, and returned to our now wet sleeping bags.

By morning the rains had stopped and we assessed the damage. Only minor things had perished in the fire. But all we had remaining was soaked.

Sunrise on He Devil

The weather was indeterminate. If it cleared we could dry out our things and continue our trek; if it resumed raining, the trip would be miserable at best, and dangerous at least, with the threat of hypothermia. We set a turnaround time for 10 am. Our truck was only 5 miles by `air' away, but over several mountain ridges, the upper thousand feet or so of which were still be hammered by storm. So we waited patiently by our loaded packs until 10; if it was promising to be clear, we'd stay; if indeterminate, we'd head out.

Time came and the weather wouldn't promise, so we donned our packs and headed out. We dropped (cross country) to Walker Lake, down to Big Boulder Creek, hit the trail, and took the trails all around the east side of the range, past Frog Lake, below the Little Boulder Chain, past Baker Lake, below Castle Lake and Castle Peak, then into the Chamberlain drainage. We stopped only once, not because we had to, but because it was right … the rest of the time eating on the trail with food stuffed in outer pockets. Our packs were 50-lb dry weight - with an undetermined amount of added weight from the soaking.

As we came around the east end of Castle Peak at dusk we noticed the opportunity to chop a mile or so off the trail by dropping straight over the edge into the Washington drainage. It would be critical to hit the trail as it traversed toward home - to miss it would put us in the bottom of Washington Creek after dark, with wet bags. As dark went to darker I realized we probably missed the trail, and before it got too late, stopped, and directed us back upward in search. We were coming down an avalanche cleared mountain side, so the trail was annually obliterated. We found it and pressed on, up to Washington Lake, over the divide to Fourth of July, and then to the truck. It had become a death march, the last several miles by trail and one flashlight.

So in a bit over twelve hours we covered some twenty-eight miles, climbing a total of 5000 vertical feet, and losing 6000. And the worst part of all was sleeping in the hard bed of the pickup afterward.


ManOfTheFall's picture

Good read, thanks!!!!!

Good read, thanks!!!!!

numbnutz's picture

great story, thanks for

great story, thanks for sharing