When you drive over Galena Pass and enter the Sawtooth Valley, it is hard to miss the uniquely shaped Finger of Fate as it juts out from the landscape. The shape of “the finger” formed from thousands of years of glacial erosion, leaving behind a beautiful pinnacle of Sawtooth granite! The climbing history of the Sawtooths is pretty secretive, but the Finger of Fate was first climbed in 1958 by Louis Stur and Jerry Fuller. Since then, many have adventured out there to test their skills on this iconic mountain. There are at least six routes found on the finger, ranging from 5.6-5.11. The most popular route is the Open Book (III 5.8), which is the obvious dihedral that is on the north face.
A couple of weeks ago I got a text from my friend Shawn, who is a part-time SMG guide and author of Geology Underfoot of Southern Idaho (shameless plug - go pick up a copy!). He was wondering if I was interested in going up the Finger of Fate. As I read it on my phone, my memory flashed back to struggling up the off-width cracks found in the first couple of pitches of the Open Book. It didn’t take long for me to quickly pull up my calendar and lock down a date. Ever since I last rapped off the summit block, I couldn’t wait to get back there and have a cleaner send.
Shawn and I separated our gear between the two of us, trying to make our packs as light as possible. The Hell Roaring trail is a mellow walk for the first 3 miles. Then, it ramps up in the last 2 miles with about 1700’ of “off trail” hiking along beautiful kettle ponds filled with clear, turquoise water. Once we reached the base of the climb, we hung our packs on an old White Bark Pine, and racked up. Shawn started off with the first pitch. WARNING BETA SPRAY DOWN: It consists of nice 5.7 finger to hand sized cracks and finishes with about 15’ of insecure off-width crack (5.8) climbing. As you move through that section, there is a nice diagonal ledge on climber’s left where you can slowly walk your feet up. It provides easy stemming until, ultimately, you must fully commit to jamming your body into the crack until something holds!
I led the next pitch which begins with more off-width (5.8) for another 20’. This is where I struggled the first time on this route, so I was waiting for the climb to get awkward and difficult. Luckily, that never happened, which means that my climbing must have improved from those early days of suffering through crack climbing. I first learned to climb in the Northeast on the wet metamorphic schist of Vermont, where there are less cracks and more face holds to crimp your way up. I felt great moving through the rest of the pitch, which turns into large blocks stacked on top of each other, until I was just about to run out of rope. The third and fourth pitches (depending on how you define pitches) provide easy climbing through a cool tunnel and then spits you out onto 4th class terrain below the summit.
The last two pitches are just as good as the beginning of the climb. They yield perfect twin hand cracks with good jams or laybacks, depending on which style you prefer. Then, after a 25’ foot section of slab climbing, most continue to tunnel their way under the summit block and around the corner. This can be done with some creative gear placements to avoid your rope getting snagged and pulling you off the mountain. Lastly, is perhaps the most terrifying move of the whole climb. It is the infamous mantle onto the summit block with only an old pin to prevent you from swinging off into space. In fact, there is a lot of evidence of people rapping off before attempting this last move. After summiting, you’ll notice that the summit block is maybe 15’ wide and has a metal can bolted to the rock with a summit registry inside. Finally, after taking in the summit views, a few careful rappels will get you back down to the ground for the long descent out of the mystic world called the Sawtooths.
In my opinion, what makes the Open Book such a great climb is the wide spectrum of climbing styles it demands. It has it all... off-width cracks, stemming chimney moves, airy finger/fist cracks, mantles to make you thankful to be alive, run out slab, and belly crawling under a huge detached block. It definitely keeps a climber thinking and using their skills. I can appreciate this climb even more now after having struggled on it a few years back before my crack climbing skills were polished. Not only is this climb fun and dynamic for climbers, but it provides the breath-taking views and peaceful natural backdrop that the Sawtooths are known for.
I woke up this morning, barely able to stand, let alone walk over to the coffee maker. The morning ritual seems almost automatic on most mornings, but this one was a struggle. Yesterday I ran in the Standhope Ultra Challenge 60k... I had run it once before about three years ago. The pain seemed all too familiar.
It was 5am, Sam and I were driving up trail creek. The early morning and drive was nothing new to me. I have been guiding on Borah and up in the Sawtooths most of the summer, so I have became accustomed to early mornings and long drives. The race began with Ben Blessing playing the national anthem on his trombone. I was wondering if there was anyone in the campground confused by the strange noises in the middle of nowhere. We all took off and I mean TOOK OFF. There was a large crew moving quickly up towards summit creek. I looked down at my watch to see what my heart rate was... 167 bpm. What the fuck!? Is this thing even working right now, it didn't feel like I was pushing it that hard. Over the last year, I became obsessed with watching my heart rate and would never go above 143. But this was race day, I didn't research where I should be... oh well I don't want to fall too far behind.
I settled in with a small pack, as we all began to naturally segregate away from the others. As we crawled our way up Summit Creek, I could feel the person behind me leaching on and my energy being sucked away to them. Its funny the thoughts that go through your head when you are pushing yourself for 9 hours straight. I didn't like the feeling and became angry for no good reason. As we descended down the hill, we all started to talk, and I realized that he was pretty chill. I hated myself for feeling those previous thoughts... we are all out here to test ourselves and have a good time. I've come to realize that people who run these "ultras" are interesting people. We are all corky and a little crazy inside. You have to be to put your body through so much pain.
My goals for this race were to break 9 hours (my previous time was 9:35:26) and be top 10 overall. I need to have goals to keep myself motivated to crush it or I'll just give in. The last time I ran the 60k was in 2016, I had a big training season with lots of runs. It was followed by a large taper, due to a busy guiding season. It is a huge challenge to fit long workout runs into an already physically demanding profession. During the race I went out too hard and crumbled on the next two big climbs. So this race I took it down a notch and was able to hang on through those hard climbs.
Overall I was really satisfied how things went this year and plan to change the training plan next time to maybe even (dare I say it) break 8 hrs?!
I've come to realize with these huge missions in the mountains, it is important to have guidelines for success. Here are some thoughts:
When it comes down to it, you must have the will to suffer and live on. If you possess that, anything can be overcome!
Sam and I were on our second day of five day long traverse across all of the nine 12,000’ peaks of Idaho. They fall within three different mountain ranges and involve car shuttles and long drives to connect them this time of year. The previous day we were able to summit Diamond Peak (12,202’) in the Lemhi range and Lost River Peak (12,078’) in the Lost River range. We didn’t get into camp until around 10pm and get to sleep until 11pm. We decided to sleep in until 6am, so we would have more energy for the next day which included tagging Mount Breitenbach, Donaldson, and Church. We acknowledged that by leaving later in the morning (instead of waking up at 4am), we would be more exposed to the solar input of the snowpack during the middle of the day while skinning up southerly aspects.
As we moved through the day, our bodies were feeling decent, but I mentally felt exhausted. This was the result of stormy conditions and challenging decision making from the previous day. We skied off Lost River Peak in the dark with headlamps and found our previous ski line (Squiggly Wiggly) was guarded by a massive cornice. Although the chance of this releasing at that moment was highly unlikely, I wasn’t ready to accept that risk of being in a tight couloir and directly in the line of fire. So we decided to put skins on and climb higher on the ridge to where we remembered some couloirs that went free without cliffs in them. I felt like we were Mary and Joseph (prepare for weird reference) being denied an inn to stay in for the night, as we moved from couloir to couloir until we finally found that barn to lay our heads down… anyways it was a long day.
Back to the second day… we moved up through Dry Creek and noticed the winds were sending lots of spindrift over the walls of the rock faces around us. We talked about how wind slabs would be a concern as we moved up into higher terrain and that the blue skies would eventually trigger some loose wet avalanches. As we approached our first climb to Mount Breitenbach, we could see the face was looking more barren than last year. It was because it had ripped out in the late February cycle, probably as a D3 deep persistent slab. This was evident with the large debris piles at the base with a month’s snow sitting on top of them.
We were able to skin the whole way up the face. We triggered a few small wind slabs that were mid slope and failed 3-5” down x 10’ wide. The hard part about traversing through the Lost River range is that it’s nearly impossible to stay out of avalanche terrain, unless you stick only to ridgelines, which then makes no sense to be carrying skis. We were able to make it to the summit of Breitenbach (12,140’) without significant problems. I looked around for signs of recent avalanches, thinking there must be something out there with the 4-8” of light density snow and moderate to strong NW winds. I saw nothing. After digging out the summit registry, we descended the west face of Breitenbach in epic powder conditions.
When we got to the bottom, we transitioned to go up our normal ascent path of Mount Donaldson via the Southeast bowl to the Northeast ridge. We noted how we felt like we were traveling across the Sahara desert. The winds calmed down in that basin and it was accelerating the solar input on those bowls. There were loose wet slides coming down the Fishbone couloirs off Donaldson, so it seemed to make sense to stay away from that hazard. It also allowed us to avoid the slopes that were starting to take solar gain from the sun in the SW part of the sky. We saw a recent D1 pocket rip out from behind a rib, mid way up the skinner’s left. It looked like a cross loaded feature and verified our thoughts on the possibility of wind slabs. We discussed our plan for attack was to avoid getting close to the ribs (to avoid cross loaded wind slabs) and stay on the planar and fattest part of the slope. It also was the lowest angle approach to the ridge, varying from 30-40°, the steepest part was the last 200’ vertical.
When I’m out on these personal trips, I’m willing to take on more risk. That risk includes skiing steeper and more consequential terrain (such as skiing above cliffs, steep couloirs, and traveling in big basins). That’s not to say I’m ready to die in the mountains, I’m just accepting that it is a dangerous place and things can happen out there. I’m willing to put myself in it for the personal growth that comes from completing endeavors that seem nearly impossible on the drawing board. Whereas when I’m working as a mountain guide, I’m not willing to put my guests into that type of terrain without having very good stability in the snowpack and using the application of ropes to lower exposure over complex terrain.
Sam started up the SE bowl, setting a beautiful skintrack with gradual switch backs, avoiding the ribs to each side of us. We were feeling hot and tired, the previous day was starting to present itself in the form of fatigue. I did a couple of pole pokes and felt various layers in the upper pack with basal facets or depth hoar at the bottom. The snowpack seemed typical for the Lost Rivers, which is notorious for shallow snow and depth hoar. Height of snow was 100-120cm (anyone notice where this is going?). As we approached the ridgeline, I gave Sam even more space between us. The snow didn’t feel like it was wind loaded, it was moist (2-3”) and was sitting on top of some sort of melt/freeze crust.
Sam was about 20’ below the ridge, when I heard it… the familiar sound that makes the hair stand up on your back. WHUMPF. It sounded like two collapses, one sounded like a deep rumbling, while the other was lighter and more shallow. I instantly dropped to my knees to punch the toe pieces out of being locked. I managed to get my right ski off. Remember we were ascending, this is the worse situation to be in when caught in an avalanche, because you are the most vulnerable when going up. I teach in my avalanche courses to minimize exposure on the uphill where we spend most of our time ski touring. This lowers the chance of being caught in an avalanche - but we didn’t have those safer options.
I saw the slope fracture and shatter like a pane of glass all around me. I remember saying to myself, this is it, this thing is breaking to the ground. If you want to live, you have to do everything you can to fight to stay on top. You're not going out like this. Adrenaline filled my body as I started to pick up speed and accelerated down the slope. I was lying face down with my left ski still attached and trying to drag me down, deeper into the debris. I started doing push ups off the blocks of snow to try and stay as close as I could to the top of the debris. It felt like being on a water slide, I could feel all the undulations of the mountain as I was carried over them. With the debris being as hard as it was, I didn’t experience any choking from snow getting pushed down my throat. As I felt the debris start to slow down, I forced myself to work harder in order to increase my chances of coming out on top. It worked. As I tried to pull myself out of the snow, my right arm was stuck. I jerked it until it became free, leaving my glove stuck in the snow. I still had my left ski attached to me and had to unbuckle my pack to get turned over. My initial thoughts were, what if that sympathetically released the Fishbone Couloirs and I was right in their path. I looked around, all was still. My next thought was, is Sam ok? I quickly looked upslope and saw he was able to self arrest and stay on top of the upper bed surface. He was glissading down to his skis and I signaled up that I was ok. I double checked myself to confirm that I wasn’t injured by feeling my arms and legs for bumps, knowing that I was still filled with adrenaline and that sometimes injuries go unnoticed.
We then compiled a plan for getting out of there. Jones Creek was the most obvious escape route. It is known for a heinous exit, lots of bushwhacking and would put us away from our car. Luckily we had a team tracking our every move. Sam became a member of the Gauge 20 Running team, who helped him train for this project. Paul Lind, the lead coach of Gauge 20, lives in Challis and was messaged via inReach that we would need an extraction. Then we skied down looking for my other ski which was near the surface of the snow, 30’ below where I came to rest. Having the second ski would make the exit out Jones a lot easier, compared to the alternative which would require me to switch the one ski between each leg.
As we got down lower, we were able to get cell service and call our wives (Michele and Molli) to tell them what happened and that we were both ok. Jones Creek is a total V trap, and I had concerns of traveling under the west slopes that were just starting to take heat from the sun. But it was our only good option, when compared to spending the night and waiting until the snowpack locked up again. We traveled quickly through old avalanche debris and watched as roller balls were starting to make their way down the slopes. After we made it through the overhead hazards, we just had to link snow fields through a narrow drainage and eventually switched to walking. Our ride was still a couple of hours out, so we made a campfire down in the foothills and brewed up some coffee. We sat around the fire, discussing all the possible errors we made while it was still fresh in our heads.
I wanted to be transparent about the mistakes that we made and hopefully it can aid others to not fall into the same traps. Often when people get caught in avalanches, they are ashamed for the mistakes that they made, and therefore they choose to not report them. We should take ownership and share these stories, so they became lessons in a place [mountains] that is so dynamic and ever-changing in a minutes notice. Sometimes the mountains don’t always give us the feedback we crave.
Thank you to everyone who reached out to me to talk about it and the friends that were happy to hear we weren’t hurt or injured. I’m grateful to live in a community that cares about my well-being. I gained a lot of valuable lessons from this close call and now the signs that I missed are clear. Most were part of the human factor, but others were present in the snowpack.
Our thoughts are that Sam initiated the upper persistent slab (resembling a storm slab) when he was approaching the ridgeline where the slab was thinner. It propagated nearly 1400’ across the slope and stepped down into the basal facets/depth hoar and released a deep persistent slab. The upper crown had a uniform depth and was razor sharp across the slope. Therefore did not present as a typical wind slab. It appeared more like a persistent slab that might have failed on a near surface facet/crust combo. The recent NW wind loading, 0.5” SWE, and/or solar input was enough to make the slab reactive.
We are both incredibly grateful to be alive and uninjured. We put ourselves in a dangerous situation by failing to properly investigate the snowpack in a remote area. The initial avalanche was likely some kind of shallow persistent slab that we were unaware of and had enough force to trigger the deeper persistent slab. We probed and felt the persistent slab, but didn’t test its energy. Had we dug an actual snow pit on this aspect, the likelihood of triggering a persistent slab avalanche would have been very evident. Doing this was even more important since we were in an area with an unknown snowpack. We would like to think that we would have chosen to abandon our objective for that day if we had realized and acknowledged that a persistent avalanche problem existed.
If you were able to read all the way to here, thank you for taking the time to look into this close call!