Trip Report : Elephant’s Perch, Idaho

Elephant's Perch

The trunk looked like an advertisement out of Backpacker Magazine- Kelty pack, Kuhl shorts, Hi-Tec hikers, Mountain Hardwear sleeping bag, TheNorthface tent, Black Diamond climbing gear, Ruffwear dog bowls, etc. The theory was that with the right gear I could survive and conquer even what turned out to be my ultimate tolerance test. Elephant’s Perch, aka The Road Trip From Hell.

The beautiful thing about Park City is that it’s less than a day’s drive to just about anywhere. Aspen? Six hours. Vegas? Six hours. Denver? Eight hours. Jackson Hole? Four hours. I’ve driven to San Diego, Calif. (12 hours), Hood River, Ore. (12 hours); even Cloudcroft, NM (18 hours). It’s a no-brainer to hit the open road. Throw your closet in the rear, load the dog and fill the tank. You really could do it alone. Problem is, I’d rather have company.

So the issue becomes, do you say, “Eff it; I’m out,” or post on social media that you’re offering a ride?

Finding A Climbing Partner For Elephant’s Perch

A trip that involves serious hours of drive time -and hang time -with unfamiliar company might create a new best friend or crush you into wishing you had stayed home to pay bills and do laundry.

The excursion began as an idea to climb Elephant’s Perch (aka Saddleback Peak) in the Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho. To digress, a now-defunct love fling introduced the plan. The Boy, a Sun Valley resident, convinced me that the easy six-hour drive would make the perfect romantic rendezvous for us. However, after discovering his status as a convicted felon, the thought of being alone in the wilderness with Brian created too much anxiety and I called the trip- with him- off.

But I was all dressed up with no place to go. Not to be outdone by the gun-toting bank robber, I decided, “To hell with him!” and found another able-bodied rock climber- with three days off work- to take his place. The plan was to hike to Saddleback Lakes in the Sawtooths and climb the 5.9 Mountaineer’s Route at Elephant’s Perch. That was the plan anyway.

elephants perch

Photo courtesy Mountain Project

The Sawtooth Range is home to some stellar sport and big wall climbing. There are nearly 20 trad routes ranging from 5.9-5.13 but no one was with earshot or sight on this particular trek. Mountaineer’s is mostly 5.5 and lower, with occasional sections up to 5.9. leader. It seemed doable.

Having graduated law school, I’m often asked what kind of law I’d practice if I weren’t a writer. I reply, “Murphy’s.” The weekend in Idaho grew to be a prime example of my specialty.

Climbing with Strangers is a Bad Idea

As my new buddy and I pulled onto I-80 a distinctly pungent odor assaulted my nostrils and I realized my passenger must have been so excited about the trip he forgot to wash. “Oh dear God!” I thought. “If it smells this bad now, what would happen in three days after strenuous hiking and climbing?” But how could I tell him about hygiene without hurting his feelings and ruining the weekend? Luckily (and unfortunately), I felt an oncoming cold, with its requisite stuffed nose, to save the day.

Before we got to the mountains, an Idaho state trooper pulled me over for speeding. (“87 in a 65?” not true, Officer!)  I let Joe drive the rest of the way because, as he boasted, “I never drive over the speed limit.” The bank robber probably couldn’t say the same.

Getting To Elephant’s Perch

To get to Elephant’s Perch we had to drive to Redfish Lake Lodge, one-hour north of Sun Valley, fork over $$ to ride a ferry across the Lake, hike three miles of mellow trail to the climb’s approach, and then a one-mile scramble straight UP to the base of the route.

I twisted my ankle, a mosquito bit my eyelid, my cold constricted every muscle in my body and Joe was upwind. I tried to whine only at the appropriate intervals.

The route Joe chose consisted of five moderate pitches (stages to get to the top) of crack climbing. I was still a novice climber and had never done more than three single sport routes in one day. I figured I could handle the challenge (please note the sarcasm). Besides, Joe hadn’t come all this way to turn around without “doing the Perch.”

elephant's perch

Photo courtesy Mountain Project

Cold, tired, sore and sneezing, I looked up at this 1000-foot mammoth wall and a voice in my head whispered, “Let’s not and say we did.”

After zigzagging from crack to crack looking for the way up, Joe shouted down to me from 40 feet. I slowly made my way up to him to tell him I wasn’t going to climb. At this pace, there was no way to reach the peak before nightfall. And I was downwind from Joe again. It’s hard to climb when you refuse to breathe. We aborted the mission and barely reached the dock to catch the return ferry.

To Hell and Back

We drove home in silence, weary and defeated. I was annoyed that Joe wasn’t the great route finder he portended to be nor was he accustomed to soap and deodorant. My cold faded as Joe began to sneeze.

Like the red gas idiot light that blinks to remind you to fill the tank, the spoiled onions aroma tickled my nose to remind me of why I shouldn’t invite strangers on a roadtrip. I missed my cold. I was bummed the weekend didn’t go as planned. But sh+t happens. Yet another lesson that can’t be learned in law school.


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