Mountaineering in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

sawtooth mountains backpacking

Now 41, Chris Lundy moved from Minnesota to Montana when he was 18, primarily for the skiing. He studied Environmental Engineering at Montana State in Bozeman, Montana, while working summers as a river guide on 6-day wilderness trips on the Salmon River. He says he remembers distinctly one of his customer saying to him, “You’d better enjoy this now because you can’t do it forever,” and thinking, “Why not?” He eventually earned a master’s degree in Snow Science and was Director of the Avalanche Center in Sun Valley, Idaho, for two years. Three and a half years ago Chris and his wife Sara, a ski guide, purchased a half interest in the 31-year-old Sawtooth Mountain Guides,  a Sawtooth Mountains backpacking, backcountry skiing and mountaineering outfitter based in Stanley, Idaho. He talked to Brown’s Guides about how Sawtooth Wilderness Guides can help a visitor experience the Sawtooth Wilderness for the first time.

Set the stage. Where are you?

It’s pretty easy when you live in Montana, the “Big Sky” state, to think you’re in the center of the world from an outdoors standpoint, but when I got here I thought, “Oh, my God, this is amazing!” Central Idaho has more public land and wilderness than anywhere outside of Alaska.

Your mailing address is Stanley, Idaho. Population 60?

Stanley is surrounded on all sides by three different wilderness areas: the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, which is the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower forty-eight, the Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness, and the Sawtooth Wilderness. The Sawtooth Mountains are the pinnacle of this and provides the most dramatic skyline. You can hike for a couple of miles and be in mountains where there’s something like 400 alpine lakes and the number of peaks is staggering. The Salmon River flows through the valley where Stanley sits. There are five or six river guides and a couple of trail riding outfits based in Stanley, but we’re the only mountaineering outfitter.

And it’s called the Salmon River because?

It has the largest run of salmon in the lower forty-eight. Salmon swim all the way from the Pacific Ocean, traveling 900 miles upstream and working their way through several dams before they spawn.

Give us your elevator pitch for Sawtooth Mountain Guides

We’re a full year-round mountain guide service. In the summer we do rock climbing, mountaineering, peak scrambling, camping, hiking, backpacking, fishing. Almost half of what we do in summer is entry level rock climbing with families – non-intimidating climbing where people learn the basic skills using climbing shoes, helmets, and harnesses tied to a rope on belay – all gear that we furnish. One thing that has become popular is “porter” trips where porters transport equipment so that the guests don’t carry much more than a day pack even though it may be a multi-day trip. In the winter months, we do backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, and avalanche education. There’s an educational component to what we do all year long.

What’s the difference between rock climbing and peak scrambling?

Rock climbing is more about the movements and skills of getting up a rock face. Sometimes that rock face may lead you somewhere and sometimes you are just getting to the top of a climb. Peak scrambling is getting to the summit of a mountain any way you can.

Any peaks you recommend scrambling?

One popular with our guests is Mount Borah, at twelve thousand six hundred and sixty-seven feet, the highest peak in Idaho, about a two-hour drive from Stanley.

Let’s say I’ve got a family with a thirteen-year-old that I want to introduce to the Sawtooth Mountains in three days. Give me an agenda.

The first day you’ll spend a half-day rafting or kayaking on the Salmon River with one of the six rafting companies based in Stanley. That afternoon you take a five-mile boat shuttle across Redfish Lake, quite an amazing experience in itself. Hike two and a half miles to our Canyon Camp fully equipped with tents, sleeping bags and pads and cooking gear and spend the night there. All you have to carry in is your food and clothing. The second day you hike a half-mile to an introductory rock climbing venue and learn the basic skills of rock climbing – this is fun non-intimidating rock climbing where you get all the fundamentals. Then come back to relax around camp, maybe do a little swimming in the creek. The next day you hike up to a beautiful Alpine lake, take in the scenery and maybe do a little fishing. Then hike all the way back and have the boat shuttle pick you up and bring you out. For three days that’s a pretty amazing experience and a good sampling of what the Sawtooths have to offer.

What’s the difference between backcountry skiing and cross country skiing?

Backcountry skiing is the fastest growing aspect of skiing, especially in the west. You’re hiking uphill on skis. You use alpine touring equipment. The heels come free for going up and you put skins on the bottoms of your skis for traction. If the terrain gets especially steep you may take off your skis and strap them on your backpack and use an ice ax and rope to get to the top. Then at the top of the run you lock your bindings down, buckle up your boots, take the skins off your skis and then you’re headed downhill on equipment that has almost as much control as slalom downhill alpine equipment. By comparison, cross country skiing would be like hiking on level ground.

I’m familiar with hut-to-hut systems in Colorado and Maine, but yurts?

The Sawtooth Mountain Guides’ yurts are different from huts in that they can be taken down and moved if needed, although in practical application, ours stay up all year. The Forest Service doesn’t allow permanent structures on public land. They’re very comfortable: wood heat, bunk beds, cooking on wood stoves. It’s a five-mile approach. Once you’re there you have skiing right out the back door. They’re extremely popular and usually booked most nights through the winter.

Compare the Sawtooth experience with an experience in a national park

National parks are set up and mandated to provide an experience for people. That means you have welcome centers, interpretive areas, printed maps and brochures, paved roads, some type of planned and managed agenda. The National Forests (like Sawtooth) mandate is to protect the forest, so you have to figure out the experience on your own or have someone like us do it for you.

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