Famous Potatoes—Idaho’s state slogan is proudly printed on the bottom of its license plate. As the razor-sharp spires of the majestic Sawtooth Mountains came into view from Idaho State Highway 21, I couldn’t help but think ‘why potatoes?’ Surely Idaho’s spectacular scenery is more worthy of vehicular mention than a spud.
But many folks that don’t pursue a life in the outdoors think that’s just what Idaho is—farmland and potatoes. Many folks don’t realize the 43rd state is home to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (the largest designated wilderness area in the Lower 48), dramatic mountain ranges, epic rivers, and diverse ecosystems. Within these natural realms, some of the finest granite in the country awaits adventurous climbers—that’s what brought us to the Gem State.
During a 2014 trip to the climb the Grand Teton with my climbing partner Chris Bailey, I made a detour to the Sawtooths and backpacked to the Saddleback Lakes—a series of three that collect snowmelt in a hanging valley above Red Fish Creek Canyon. These deep, turquoise lakes are photogenically situated beneath the Elephant’s Perch—a 1,000-foot tall golden granite dome considered by many to be Idaho’s best piece of stone. While I was only able to admire the pristine vertical cracks, flakes, and stemming corners of the Perch from its base, I vowed that I would return one day and stand on its summit.
Two years later, it was time to make our climbing pilgrimage to the Perch. Chris and I had been planning our trip since spring—we had all our ducks in a row, and his girlfriend Schyler would be joining to embrace the wilderness. We left our home state of West Virginia during an early September heat wave, packed with zero-degree bags, technical layers, and all the gear we could cram into our packs.
With eight days to climb, we planned a whirlwind excursion with four days to do two or three routes—weather dependent—on the Perch, and four days of cragging at City of Rocks National Preserve. As we cruised on the ferry across the glassy surface of Redfish Lake, the familiar spires of Grand Mogul Peak triumphantly stood watch over the lake as if it were the Gates of Argonath, guarding the wilderness beyond its granitic gates.
The west face of the Perch suddenly appeared as we climbed the steep climber’s trail out of Redfish Creek Canyon toward the hanging valley. By the time we reached middle Saddleback Lake and set up camp, the golden granite was bathed in fiery alpenglow. At an elevation of 9,870 feet, the Perch is the lower summit of larger Saddleback Peak, and it rests northeast from the Goat Perch—these two massifs enclose the hanging valley that contains the Saddleback Lakes system, which ends with a cascading tumble down massive granite slabs on its way to the canyon below.
Notoriously challenging with old school grades and difficult routes established by prolific first ascentionist Fred Beckey, we became intimate with the Perch on Mountaineer’s Route (Grade III 5.9). This seven-pitch classic is the easiest technical route that ascends the brilliant southwest face. As we tied in and racked up, the rising sun cast a mythic glow upon the vertical sea of granite, illuminating the hand cracks and perfect stemming corners that awaited our hands and gear. With some memorable pitches—the exposed arête following the hand traverse under the triple overhangs of pitch 4, and the delightful hand crack of the crux pitch 6, our intro to the Perch had us smiling all the way up the route which finishes on the west face just shy of the true summit. We unroped for the easy fourth-class scramble to the top, taking in the view of our camp and Saddleback Lakes while light snow fell from the steel blue sky.
Although worn from the previous days’ activity of the approach and Mountaineer’s Route, we took advantage of the sunny weather and geared up for Astro Elephant (Grade IV 5.10-). Although listed as one grade harder than Mountaineer’s Route, I was unpleasantly surprised as I struggled my way on lead through the initial crux pitch. With nine full-value pitches to go, the weight of the route set in—should I have lobbied for a rest day? Chris continued up the route through some consistent face climbing and a jaw-dropping “5.8” (ha!) bomb bay chimney. As our physical and mental fortitude dwindled, we got off route late in the day searching for the seventh pitch—something that seems to have stymied previous parties. We climbed through a steep V-slot on a fixed cam and lowered off a nut to get back on route, adding some uncertainty to the adventure. With the final rays of light fading, we stood safe upon the summit, and euphoria rushed in as we admired the alpine kingdom that lay under our twilight triumph. I have never been happier to be on top of a mountain.
Tired and sore, we left Stanley and cruised south on Idaho State Highway 75, traveling past the headwaters of the Salmon River, referred to as the River of No Return from older times when boats could navigate down its rough rapids but not make the return trip. We watched the mountains of Sun Valley disappear into dusk as we transitioned into southern Idaho’s expansive high desert. Next stop: four days of cragging on the ancient granite spires at City of Rocks.
During the sport climbing craze of the 1980s, The City was home to some of the most difficult routes in the country, many established by training fanatic and iconic first ascentionist Tony Yaniro. As the bolting craze moved on to areas like Oregon’s Smith Rock and Kentucky’s increasingly popular Red River Gorge, the frantic development of The City’s sport scene faded into obscurity. The area remains popular today, but mostly for its variety of stellar traditional routes and bold sport lines left over from the Yaniro days.
Psyched from our success on the Perch, we were hungry to plug gear in The City’s classic cracks. We began our assault on the traditional tick list. Rye Crisp (5.8), Batwings (5.8+), Bloody Fingers (5.10a), and Thin Slice (5.10a) delivered as promised by the owner of the gear shop in Sun Valley’s central town of Ketchum.
All campsites in The City were full, so we headed east into the one-horse town of Almo and set up shop on BLM land to the south. The tantalizing scent of juniper smoke snaked skyward as the Milky Way stretched across the valley to the east, a great cosmic archway that linked the two mountain ranges in the distance. A few other groups camped nearby, hidden from sight among the junipers and rendered speechless from the grandiose scene above.
On our final day, blast by a cold wind and under the threat of an increasingly dark sky, we hoofed it over a few gates and along a buck and rail fence to the Private Idaho formation—a 50-foot tower that triumphantly stands alone amidst cow pies and sage brush in an active pasture, high above the taller concentrated formations of The City below.
While Private Idaho is home to just two short sport routes on its west face, the quality of those lines and the rock’s position are highly unique to The City. With campfire tales of climbers forced to the route’s initial ledge as an angry bull paced below, the fenced-in formation exudes an undeniable aura of 10-gallon hats and whiskey gun slingers.
I had unfinished business from a 2012 attempt on White Line Fever (5.11a PG13), a consistent sport route with a bouldery and unprotected start that climbs like the familiar sandstone routes in West Virginia’s New River Gorge. Fueled by a warm-up swig of whiskey and fresh beta, I mustered up some Western grit and raced my way up the overhanging face.
As I hung one-armed from the top and clipped my rope into the chains, I gazed out through the open pasture to the wide valley that cradles the cartoonish shapes of spires in The City down below. Perhaps it was the rush of the wind, or maybe the whiskey, but I became enveloped by the sublimely raw feeling unique to the massive landscapes and wild attitudes of the great American West.
With nearly 63 percent of its 83,642 square miles designated as federal public land, Idaho can’t be beat for wilderness adventure. Add to that a sparse population of just 1.6 million, and solitude is almost guaranteed if desired. As we made our way back to Boise with worn fingertips and bruised egos, I smiled as we passed car after car bearing Idaho plates. Famous Potatoes, indeed.