(this article first appeared in the Idaho Outdoor Journal in 2012)
by Mike McLaskey
REDFISH LAKE, Idaho — Whether it’s the excitement, the physical and mental challenges, or maybe just the spectacular views, few sports rival rock climbing. The Sawtooth Range in Central Idaho has arguably some of the world’s most beautiful mountains, provides a variety of climbs from beginner to expert, ranging from the challenging Super Slabs to the dangerous Baron Spire.
Since 1985, Sawtooth Mountain Guides began offering outdoor adventures that include alpine lake fishing, mountaineering and rock climbing from their headquarters in Stanley. With more than 12 years of climbing experience and ten as a guide, Ryan Jung is one of Sawtooth Mountain Guides’ climbing experts. He conducts a variety of climbs throughout the week and has scaled the Super Slabs more than 80 times.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Jung hands two students harnesses and climbing shoes to try on before they take the shuttle across Redfish Lake to Little Redfish Creek.
At the creek mouth, they grab their gear and hike two miles, climbing roughly 1,000 feet before reaching the base of the Super Slabs. During the hike, Jung acts as a nature guide, pointing out various plants such as heart-shaped arnica, Oregon grape and wild huckleberries.
The Super Slabs extend more than 600 vertical feet and are a favorite for experienced climbers and beginners alike. This beginner’s climb rates a 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System, but given the size and varying surface features of the slabs, different routes rated up to 5.11 are possible.
Once the students store their gear, the fun begins. “We’re going to work on some basic moves first,” Jung says. “I’ll show you rope and belaying skills and while we move, remember to keep your knees bent and your nose over your toes.”
Jung watches his students closely as they take their first steps on the Super Slabs. He encourages them to side-step like a mountain goat, as the path to the top is rarely a straight line.
The course is a multi-pitched climb. A pitch is a section of a climb between belaying stations. The most difficult pitch of a climb is where it gets its decimal value on the Yosemite Decimal System. Each pitch begins and ends at a belay station. A belay station is an anchor point, typically secured by hammering metal bolts into the rock wall.
To belay means to protect a climber by preventing their rope from slipping, and typically involves a belaying device.
On the Super Slabs the anchor points are two stainless steel expansion bolts that can each handle nearly 6,000 pounds of force. The two bolts suspend climbing straps from which Jung can belay the beginners. “One can skip the second strap but it’s better to be safe in case of equipment failure,” he said.
The first pitch is a simple grade for an experienced climber, and Jung walks up to the first belay station and anchors the ropes. “On belay,” he hollers down at his students, which means that in the event of a fall, they’re tethered. As the climber advances, the belayer takes the slack out of the line, locking off the rope so that if the climber falls, they will stop where the line slack ends.
The students use their hands to balance themselves on the glacially polished granite. There are few hand- or foot-holds, so they must trust the friction of their feet. After the first pitch, the pair joins their instructor on a small ledge—to their relief.
To get them into the meat of the program, Jung has one of the students belay him to the next station named Dish Belay because of its resemblance to a dinner dish. In all, there are seven pitches on the Super Slabs beginner climb, with the fifth pitch being the most difficult, according to Jung.
“We call it the Crux,” he says. The Crux is nearly vertical with one large crack running through it. At points, the crack fades into the granite and climbers must use the friction in their fingertips and the pads of their feet to keep moving.
“Rhythm is one of the most important parts of climbing,” Jung says. “Climbers lose most of their energy when they’re sitting still trying to find their next hold. You should only think about the next move, instead of worrying about the next 20 or 30 feet.”
Even though neither of the students have rock climbed before, they both did well, and neither one fell. Even if they had, the safety devices deployed at critical junctures prevents falls of more than a couple of feet.
After their safe return to base camp, Jung discusses how more experienced climbers will sometimes forgo safety equipment to add to the difficulty of a climb. For the beginner, this may seem foolhardy, but to the experienced climber, this can represent more of a challenge.
“Climbing is a metaphor for life,” Jung says. “Sometimes you are put in uncomfortable situations and all you can do is focus on what you have to do at the moment and then act accordingly despite your fear and anxiety.”
Edmund Hillary said something similar: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
For more information contact:
Sawtooth Mountain Guides
250 Niece Ave – Stanley Town Square
PO Box 18
Stanley, ID 83278