Words and photos by Dirk Collins
Location: Lemhi Mountain Range, Central Idaho (220 miles west of Stio HQ)
Dates: October 19 – 21, 2018
This is a story about Stio Ambassador Brittany Mumma and Dirk Collins and their scout mission to the Lemhi Range in Idaho. During the week, Britt and Dirk run a production company. Between projects they fit creative adventures into their life to stay connected to the natural environment they love. With a gap in their schedules, they traveled 4 hours west of their home to scout if a full traverse of the Lemhi Range would be possible at a later date. Below, Dirk Collins recounts his attempt at penetrating the wild and unruly terrain of the Lemhi Mountains.
Rising from the volcanic desert of the Snake River Plain, the Lemhi Mountains form a rugged barrier of peaks extending North East for approximately 120 miles. Unlike, nearby sister ranges, there are no low passes crossing the Lemhi’s. They are tall and consistently unforgiving. With few roads penetrating into the range and hundreds of square miles of wide open protected and private land surrounding the range, these little-known mountains are difficult to access and escape from.
For several years, the main range of the Lemhi’s has intrigued me. Its roughly 80-mile-long ridge dominates the skyline and looms out the window as you drive north and climb from the sage desert near Mud Lake and into the remote mountains toward Salmon, Idaho. While the major peaks in the range see climbers each year, it is the thought of hiking and running the entire ridge that has captured my imagination.
Without question, this is a sizable traverse. The route starts around 6,400 feet and tops out over 12,000 with the majority of the ridge averaging around 10,000 feet. With no trail, more than 45,000 feet of ascending, close to 50,000 feet of descending the approximately 80 miles of difficult hiking and scrambling the Lemhi crossing is formidable. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that there is little access to water on the ridge and a serious amount of “nobody’s coming to get you” if you have a problem.
With a few spare days between other travel and work, Brittany Mumma and I decided to take the opportunity and push into the Lemhi’s for a quick scout mission to see if this idea of linking the ridge was even possible or an ill-conceived objective. If the scout mission revealed what I imagined to be possible, we could return and attempt to link the entire route.
Good intentions for an early departure from Jackson soon became, “hopefully we are walking before dark.” A late start to the drive, a stop for provisions and a couple of dead-end roads in route to our starting point soon had us arriving at the trail head roughly an hour before dusk. Our 60-hour window was now 48.
Hastily departing from the truck, the trail immediately turned into a relatively steep climb along a hunters two-track. Winding through rocky outcroppings and stands of conifers, it felt good to finally be in these mountains. As darkness fell, we crest a ridge and stepped into a meadow where six large bull elk turned to look at us cautiously before sprinting downhill. Finding camp by headlamp, we settled into a spot 2,000 feet above the valley. Bright stars, cool temps and a warm fire brought day one to a close.
Waking to an icy frost coating the tent, the second day started cold and early. With the sun breaking the eastern sky we began working our way through steep timber and a cliff band scramble that lead to the next bench on the ridge with a valley view.
The warmth of the morning sun and some easy walking helped us make good time across a large bench before hitting the snow line – where progress slowed. Knee deep snow, a steep treed face and deadfall provided for some good entertainment but grounded the forward momentum to a slower pace.
The dense trees, snow and variable terrain were leading to a heightened desire to get above tree line as soon as possible. Pushing upward over the forth mid-elevation summit of the morning we came across a long plateau and another mile of very thick lodge pole and down trees covered with a foot of snow. Thus far the Lemhi had been consistent – in a difficult way.
By mid-morning and finally above tree line, the pace had picked up and we were moving through snow patches on a wind-blown ridge. Stands of Bristle Cone Pines hulked over like contorted ghosts battered by centuries of wind, rain, sun and snow. Moving through the ancient trees we came across mountain lion and bear tracks in the early season snow.
A long scree ridge led to the summit of Sheephorn Peak, putting us on top of our first high peak of the ridge. Now at over 10,000 feet, the ridge stretched out further than we could see. Bell Mountain and Diamond Peak stood prominent on the distant skyline – two of the highest summits in the range.
The views from high in the Lemhi’s are incredible. To the west, the entire Lost River Range fills the skyline with Idaho’s highest peak, Mt. Bora, rising proudly over the rest. To the northwest, the upper reaches of the Lemhi’s, to the East the Beaverhead Mountains and to the South, the desert and Snake River Plain. It is an impressive stretch of country.
The claustrophobic feeling of the lower forest had given way to the high alpine, that when mixed with the views and warmth of the sun renewed our excitement. As the entire ridge extended to the south, seventy miles of ridge could be seen rising and falling from 10,000 to 12,000 feet.
From across a plateau on the next summit we could see a large cairn coming into view. As we got nearer it was apparent that it was large and quite old. We hadn’t seen a single sign of people since starting and it felt strange to come across such a prominent sign of human visitors in a place so remote.
Several miles of fun walking on steep ridges and goat trials kept spirits high and it was nice to be traveling over dry ground after spending most of the day in snow with cold, wet feet. The views and the terrain continued to dazzle into the late afternoon and as the sun crept closer to the western horizon we began thinking of the next day’s plan. The weather was deteriorating as predicted and expected to get worse the following day. We could see down the ridge for several miles and the conversation turned to how far can we go and what is the best place to bail out of the range and back toward the road the following morning. Depending on where one bailed the walk was either somewhat difficult or very difficult.
We built camp in a low saddle after traversing over two more summits on the ridge and made plans for the next day. An early morning start climbing to the next peak at 10,000 feet would lead into a sharp ridge that turned toward the valley and appeared to descend to an old mining road. Once we hit this road we could follow it down canyon to a ranch road that would lead to the highway where we could hitch hike back to our starting point.
Our tent was pitched under a stand of pines where both early and late sun would hit the camp. Wet and cold from a long day we watched the sun descend over Mt. Bora and the Lost River Range while making dinner and starting a fire. With the temps dropping quickly, the warmth of the fire was a welcome addition to camp. We could see a few stars flickering between the passing clouds as darkness took hold of the night. It had been a good 24 hours in the mountains.
As we settled in for a chilly night I found myself looking forward to the next phase of building the Lemhi Ridge traverse puzzle and linking it all together in one long walk.
It started damp and cold. The temps dipped into the teens overnight and neither of us slept well, but as day broke we started making moves. It is always fun wiggling your feet into frozen running shoes with cold, numb hands. The wind and light rain made for a somewhat miserable start, but it felt good to be moving and shedding the chill that had set in since leaving our sleeping bags.
As we descended from the knife ridge leading from the peak, our route meandered through pillars of orange rock that rose like fins from a dinosaur back. Continuing down a series of cliff bands made for fun scrambling but eventually we ended up in terrain that was impassable without a rope and technical gear. Plan A evolved to Plan B and soon we were scrambling down the finger chutes through exposure in steep complex terrain. Carefully linking ledges through no fall zones, we reached a series of rugged moraine benches that led us back into dense timber and wet ground along a creek bottom. Laughing about how burly the morning had been we reached the mining road by mid-morning.
The old road, that was really no more than a steep, rough two track, led down along the creek, passing through a series of old cabins that appeared to be from the early 1900’s. I couldn’t help but wonder about who these people were and how tough they had to have been living off the land in this scenic but unforgiving environment. It must have been a remarkable time to be alive, but one with serious consequences if something went wrong.
After a few miles of easy walking the trees gave way to sage brush and open ranch land. The trail soon turned into a dirt road and within an hour we were at the highway and hitchhiking. After several vehicles passed, wondering what we were doing out here in the middle of nowhere, a familiar looking truck appeared cresting a hill. As the truck got closer I could see it was my dad, who knew we would be coming out of the mountains today and decided to take a drive and see if we needed a ride. After a few laughs we pulled into the small town of Leadore for a cold beer and a burger at the only bar in town.
In the end, it felt like we only scratched the surface of a dense, unchartered and complicated range, but we did get a decent taste of what the Lemhi Range has to offer – beautiful, rugged country that few people venture into. It was clear that linking this ridge would be an ongoing puzzle that will take a few more attempts to complete.