Ascent of Sacajawea Peak on 2012-08-17

Climber: Kelsey Backen

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, August 17, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Sacajawea Peak
    Elevation:11936 ft / 3638 m

Ascent Trip Report

After bagging Borah, see part one and waiting around for my hiking partner for 30-40 minutes, I decided head down the trail and meet up with him. I had a feeling he wasn't doing so hot and when I finally came across him (~500 ft from the summit) he was admittedly tired. This is saying a lot because he is a tough-guy and something like that doesn't easily slip out. He informed me he didn't really care about going to the peak (Borah) any more but when I asked him about the remainder of our adventure he was hesitant to say (which I knew meant he didn't think he wanted to continue on). For a little background, here is what our Plan A looked like:

On our way to the Borah TH we stopped off at Elk Horn Creek to stash our mountain bikes for the return trip to my truck. Our plan was drive to the TH, hike Borah, decend to the ridge intersection with Sacajawea, traverse or climb Sacajawea, gain or stay on the ridge over to the northern side of Mt Idaho, climb Mt Idaho, then decent the south west ridge down Elk Horn Creek to our bikes, then ride back to the truck.

After a lengthy discussion with Brian about options and reality, I decided that I was going to have to go solo for the remainder of the trip. This was not wise, especially factoring in that we didn't have any way to communicate after we separated. My plan was for Brian to head back to the truck and relax until nightfall. If I hadn't returned to the truck by then I was going for the bikes. He would then drive over to the bikes and hopefully see me peddling in the dark to meet up with him (if I hadn't already got to him).

If you haven't figured it out by now I was new into this kind of extreme back country hiking and was fairly optimistic about my abilities to carry out Plan A. This optimism would lead me to push my limits in many ways and give me a more realistic point of view.

Brian and I separated and I began my gradual decent down the narrowing ridge to the saddle between Sacajawea and Chicken Out Ridge. The first half an hour went by fast and I was making incredible progress. I even started to get a little cocky. But as I continued the options began to dwindle as the SW side of the ridge got perilously steeper, though not to the sure-death degree that the NE side was. Route choosing became more difficult because I didn't think I wanted to down climb what I was being forced to up climb. This was my first encounter with Class 4 hiking (which I would define as class 3 scrambling steepness with exposure...which I would define as almost certain death if a mistake is made or a piece of rock gives away).

Now, I am not a "climber" and did not bring any climbing gear, so I did not know if by continuing I was going to get myself stuck with no option but a super sketchy down climb. I pressed on, wondering what was wrong with me. I was even forced to the NE side of the ridge, which gave me the "cat clinging from the branch" feeling for a good 10 seconds. A further annoyance (and demoralizer) was that the fin-like ridge kept surprising me with false summits. Each progressively thin and dangerous hump of the 500 foot approach from the low saddle on the SW ridge would make me think the battle was over, only to see that I was going to have to down climb a little over the opposite side and repeat the progress.

I had read one (yes, only one) successful report of a Sacajawea summit on and had read the peak size-up in Tom Lopez's book, so I knew it would be difficult. But I think doing it alone, along with the full realization of what would happen if I made a simple mistake, took it to a whole new level for me (emotionally). I was so relieved when I made the summit (3:15), less than 2 hours after bagging Borah.

By the way, there was no summit register...

I sat on the top for about a half an hour while I ate some food and drank some fluids. The next portion of the trip was the ~1000 foot decent off the SE ridge (southern aspect) of Sac, follow the top of the ridge once it levels out over to the N ridge of Mt Idaho. The initial 500' of scree was easy to descend as I sort of "rock-surfed" down. This hurt a bit (as my ankles were cut by the sharp scree) but was very quick. My leather gloves (new at the start of the trip) had already worn holes in all of the fingers of my left hand.

The difficulty came with traversing the scree so I then made for the rockier ridge. This was aggravating as I would end up climbing only to be faced with more down climbing. This is the first point in the journey when I felt exhausted. I finally made the flattish ridge (after hiking uphill on scree (loose talus) for ~200 feet elev). I turned to face Sac, took a picture and made a mental note, then traversed the E slope of the ridge to the saddle below the N ridge of Mt Idaho (another climb with little or no information on successful summit attempts). I made it there by 4:40.

I knew it was a class 4, and now that I was a the base of the 1000' climb, I didn't really feel like risking my life any more (now fully grasping what class 4 meant). After a half an hour of trying to figure out exactly which drainage I needed to descend to get to the bikes. I chose to descend the drainage SW of me (knowing it had water, of which I had just run out), even though I was 90% sure I needed to traverse Idaho to get to the ridge to the SE of me to get to Elk Horn Creek (my eventual extraction point). But looking at the extreme side-hilling I was going to have to do did not sit well with me, so I decided to take the wrong way home.

Hours later I would come to find out that the drainage I dropped ~1500 feet in to was called Birch Creek, and that Birch Creek actually came out from between two large mountains within a couple miles of my truck. Unfortunately, at that time of day and without a map I didn't realize that. All I knew was that I was following a stream that was increasing in size and cutting a deeper and steeper ravine as I descended toward the valley. It was bushwhacking at it's finest and I was completely beat up. I got to the point where I stopped caring about snags in my clothes or getting hit with branches. Almost everything I brought with me was damaged or broken, I was thirsty, and night was soon approaching.

I was scrambling to get out of the mountains before night fall, as all I had was a head lamp and the clothes I was wearing (t-shirt, shorts, hat, socks, bandanna, and shoes). If I was traveling at 1 mph in the light, I knew I would probably be going half that speed when it got dark. There was no trail and scarcely flat open land. Most of the time I was weaving around, over and under trees, crashing through scratchy brush, sliding down and climbing up steep loose/muddy banks to uncertain routes, and traversing the ever-growing stream on slippery and unbalanced rocks. At one point I was so thirsty and tired of the terrain that I figured I should just get into the creek and slide my way out.

I did bring a water filter and broke it out early on the decent to fill an empty Gatorade bottle I had with me, but didn't want to take the time to stop and fill it (or my 72 oz camel's pack) with the light dwindling. I needed to get out, but my thirst got too great, so every time I would find myself traversing the stream again I would go belly down and take a couple of refreshing gulps of water.

Needless to say I made it out (no "I Shouldn't Be Alive" episode after all) as the steepening sides of the surrounding mountains gave away to the more gradually sloped, sparser forested valley. I even found a trail. The creek went SW and I veered SE to go towards where I knew the bikes would be. I set my head lamp to flash (which eventually caught my worried hiking partners eye as he was doing laps between the bikes and the TH). He turned off the highway and accessed a power-line maintenance road, which I was actually walking on. I saw the headlights off in the distance but didn't know it was him until there was no doubt. I crawled into the passenger seat with three different drinks from the cooler in the back of the truck and told this story to him (in greater detail if you can imagine)

The total trip took me approximately 12 hours to cover approximately 13 miles and ascend approximately 5700 vertical feet. If you want your butt kicked, go to the Lost River Range and take on the chain of seven 12,000 ft peaks. That's what I plan on doing some day. ;)
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:500 ft / 152 m
    Grade/Class:Class 3 and 4
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Stream Ford, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy
Nice day to be in the high mountains
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:500 ft / 152 m
    Distance:0.5 mi / 0.8 km
    Route:Traverse ridge NW of Sacajawea from Chick Out Ri
    Start Trailhead:Low Saddle Between Chicken Out and Sacajawea  11436 ft / 3485 m
    Time:1 Hours 
Descent Statistics

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