Lightning pulses in the sky, its flash luminous enough to reach through our nylon tent, through the thin skin of my eyelids, to startle me from half sleep – and in the milliseconds between bewilderment and wide-eyed alertness, the thunder is already cracking the valley open.
Hail pelts our tent and pocks the surface of Sawtooth Lake, then gradually it turns into fat drops of rain that pool and snake down the membrane of nylon overhead. The thunder up here just below McGowan Peak in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area seems to reverberate through the mountains themselves. Its rumbling is deep and ethereal. I’ve never felt a storm so strongly as this.
This is my first backpacking trip into the Sawtooth Mountains of Central Idaho, but I have gazed at the jagged silhouette of this range every summer of my life. From the windows of my family’s cabin just south of the town of Stanley, these mountains have been the backdrop to hundreds of campfires, nights of clear-skied stargazing, and mountain lake swims. So, this hike into the mountains themselves is monumental to me.
When we began the hike in the morning of this July day, the sky was clear and huge. It didn’t look at all like rain, but I know this valley better than to come unprepared for all types of weather, even snow, throughout the summer months.
We have jackets, emergency ponchos, and the fly to our tent. Our matches are packed in a waterproof bag, and we have extra pairs of dry socks. Along with these essentials, we are loaded with two 15F rated sleeping bags, two sleeping mats, one two-man tent, one gas stove stowed inside a bag sewn from an old pant leg, and one water filter, and my great-grandpa’s museum-worthy camping dishes.
Sunscreened, cinched, and strapped to our bulging packs, my boyfriend, Jesse, and I left my dusty car at the Iron Creek trail head. We bought our wilderness use permit and signed the trail log, we trudged past the wooden sign and log fence onto the trail, and set forth into the woods.
The first two miles were easy: the morning breeze lilted through the skinny pine trees, the slope of the trail was even and gentle. Here we are treading past gurgling Iron Creek, over rocks and stumps and roots, into the thick of lodge pole and ponderosa forest. Smell the pine, the morning cool and damp of the dirt trail. See the blue sky above the trees, broken by a cloud here and there. Feel the heat rising as the sun does, the pressing warmth on your scalp and shoulders, feel the weight of your backpack strained across your back and strapped to your hip bones as it shifts with each step uphill.
By lunchtime we’d reached the middle of an upper valley where we crossed Iron Creek, refilled our water bottles from its crystalline flow, and stopped to photograph the wildflower filled valley we had just entered. A jagged wall of steely rock rises to the north, but the rest of this vista opens up before us. Spruce, Firs, Pines, all fringe the edge of this valley. Granite boulders gently rest among the lupine. We sat on cold hunks of granite with water bottles and sandwiches. But we had miles to go, and so, we lumbered on.
Our walkway turned from a wide soft carpet of pine needles to a narrow channel of loose rubble as we climbed the steepening mountain. We rose above the shimmering water of Alpine Lake, and from our rocky perch above we could see where a snowdrift was still feeding the turquoise water. Still, we climbed higher.
Soon we’d wandered past patches of snow slushing in the sun and finally into an upper bowl where Sawtooth Lake is cradled in the palms of the granite peaks. We made it to our campsite on the shore of this glassy lake where the peaks are streaked in snow and the lake reflects the mountain and sky.
There aren’t many trees up this high. Scrubby bushes and tufted young pines thrive up here, but many of the large trees are long dead. Gargantuan fallen trees lay among the boulders where without bark, the fibrous cellulose that’s left swirls like fingerprints underneath the sky that had just begun to cast over with clouds.
Jesse pitched our tent just uphill from the edge of the lake. We could see the way the clouds were gathering and we could smell pine and dirt and the heavy wetness that comes before a storm. We hurried to fill the dented aluminum pot from the lake’s dammed outlet a stone’s throw from our campsite, lit the gas stove with two strike anywhere matches, and we waited for the water to boil. As soon as it did, we got back inside our nylon nest, and hail immediately began falling. Thus, the storm began.
Hail turned to rain and we mixed our dried soup into the hot water, cozy and dry. We stirred and swallowed the hot soup in steaming spoonfuls with great-grandpa’s camping cutlery, listening all the while to the percussive raindrops and lazy gusts of wind. The sky turned dark, evening fell early, and as the raindrops faded into a steady soft shower we drifted into an exhausted sleep well earned after our vertical climb with heavy packs.
And now we’re back to where this story started: in the tent under a sky erupting with lightning and thunder in the sudden brutality of a summer squall.
The hail and rain of our dinner has turned into an aggressive electric storm, and we are violently awake after our nap. We huddle into our sleeping bags and listen. As the wind sweeps down the steep teeth of the Sawtooth Range and into our valley it tugs at the tent’s fly and howls around the barren trees. It smashes fat raindrops against our thin shelter, reminding us how thin of a membrane separates us from the forces of the storm. We see the flashes of lightning overhead and we count until we hear and feel the thunder rumble. Sometimes we don’t get to two – sometimes we don’t get to one – before the crack and reverberation shudder through our teeth and the mountains.
With nothing to do but hunker down and endure the night with hope for a calm morning’s hike out, we sleep.
This rest is fraught with visions of lightning striking too close, of the dead trees blown over we’d where tethered our shelter, of bears or wolves approaching our tent at the scent of our dinner dishes. Every windswept billow of the tent’s fly against the ground turns into the padding footsteps of an animal. Each time we wake, even after the thunder and lightning relent, the wind wails on.
Morning comes at last. Dawn doesn’t break easily over these mountains, so we only know it is morning by the dim light seeping through our tent still being battered by the wind. We rise in the chill of the morning, find our hiking shoes, our jackets, and unzip the tent.
The morning is a balm. Even with the wind, the light of day is comforting. We made it through the storm without a lightning strike, or a bear, or a fallen tree. But still, we are ready to get off this mountain.
As we eat our day old peanut butter sandwiches, we roll up our bags and mats and stow it all back in our packs to haul out, and we’re on the trail again.
The mountains behind us are washed in pale pink light where the sun finally hits, and we break out the camera to snap our way back down the trail. In this sudden warmth the wind seems to cease, and everything is bathed in gold for the fleeting magic light of sunrise.
This bath of gold is the light when we break over the edge of our mountaintop and can again see across the valley, where the shadows are still cold and blue but the light is dazzlingly bright and we can see forever. Each view is different than the day before, renewed by the different light and our tired eyes so grateful to see the sun.
We follow the trail’s steep switchbacks into the meadow, and the flowers are still glowing red and purple, even after the hail and rain. We let our feet carry us down the trail, over the rocks and logs across Iron Creek, back down through the maze of trees and granite, onto the flat soft trail of the low valley, and into the parking lot again.
I unclip my backpack’s waist strap, and let it slide down my shoulders into the back seat of my car. I sit in the drivers seat and lift my legs into place since they now feel like overcooked spaghetti with shoes on. We drive back to the cabin where breakfast and hot coffee are waiting.
We eat and collapse onto the familiar quilt of the cabin’s second bedroom, and we sleep like we couldn’t in the storm: comfortably, and hard.
Sawtooth Lake was the first real taste of the backpacking trips – the stuff of my family’s legends – for me, the fourth generation bound to this range. And I know after this one trip that many more will come.