Three of us — and my new dog, Laddie — stood at the top of Sawtooth in the midst of the proposed wilderness last Saturday (August 28th), an internationally flavored group if there ever was one. Daniele Puccinelli is an Italian who lives in Switzerland visiting the US. Fellow hiker Kaca is from the Czech Republic, living in Canada and lining up to move to Portugal soon. Waiting below were Richard (from New York, New York); Gwen, a transplanted Brit living in Creston, and Chic, photographer extraordinaire and world traveler. And, of course, there was me, your basic Montanan/American with a little Russian dust still caught somewhere in my teeth.
It was a good and proper bushwhack, as Sawtooth always is, no matter how you go at it. We never got real lost, but there were moments of private concern on my part. Being the hike leader does have its bits of responsibility. And, I’ve been there before, so I know how sometimes a small error in judgment can lead to way too long in a tag alder patch.
In fact, I’ve been to Sawtooth so many times that when Daniele asked me how many times, I didn’t know. Still don’t. I’ve been unable to figure it out. Twice this summer. Not once last, dang it. Maybe 3 times the year before that. Like the ridges viewed from the top of said mountain, it all fades off into the distance.
My first attempt on Sawtooth was when I was 19, with my brother Chris. We didn’t make the top, but we did learn a lot. Cliffs are cliffs and just because things are growing out of them doesn’t make them not cliffs. Beargrass is slicker than . . . well, it’s pretty danged slick — especially when it’s growing out of a cliff. Everything is a lot farther away than it looks. And, ignorance is bliss. We made a couple of moves of the “don’t know what we are getting into” variety that turned out just fine. But, I don’t want to do them again, including our descent through a chimney from the top of Middle Mountain that I have looked into several times since and muttered, “we must have been nuts!”
I have since learned that we weren’t that far from finishing. Even though we were afraid we would have to walk out in the dark, we could have made it easily and still been back to the rig before twilight. (And the parking lot was a lot closer then that it is now.) I’ve also learned not to take the route we used for an approach, which keeps the cliff factor lower as well as the hawthorne and tag alder quotient to a minimum.
The first time I actually got to the top of the mountain was 10 years later, when I was 29, with two teenaged boys, a girlfriend and another dog entirely. The 600-foot-plus drop off the west side freaked me out entirely, especially when the dog got close to it.
It’s 30 years later, and not much has changed up there. It is still one of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen, with Scotchman poking its head over the ridge between Mike’s Peak and the Jonathan Crag and the Ross Creek and Blue Creek basins spread out below. Heron is still over there in the distance, a tiny group of miniature buildings surrounded by a huge amount of green.
Mostly what you can see from Sawtooth is other mountains, other members of the Scotchman Peaks, and when I was there 30 years ago, I hadn’t stood on any of them. I can’t say that anymore. I’ve stood on most of them. But the one I’ve stood on most is Sawtooth, and it probably always will be.
That big fall to the west doesn’t freak me out any more . . . even when the dog gets a little close. I think I’ve learned to trust the mountain — and dogs — a little more. And, myself, too.
Sawtooth can do that to a person, I think. I watched one young man climb it this summer (on my first trip) who was more freaked out by the exposure (“sketchy,” he called the approach) than I was on my first trip. But, at the end of the day, I think he learned a lot about himself and his abilities, and I think he had been underestimating himself.
The lesson then, of Sawtooth, might well be that we can do what we think we can’t if we just give it a try. That is the lesson of wilderness, too.
— Sandy Compton