Storm peak lake, the hike
If you drive about an hour north of McCall Idaho, you’ll come to a trailhead that’s really just a dead end road. Back in 2007, my brother Paul, and three other friends of ours found ourselves at this trailhead about to hike into an isolated chain of lakes, of which Storm Peak lake was the crown jewel. The trip was not a spur of the moment thing, we’d been planning it for months. We prepared carefully. Every item on a trip like that has to be carried in a backpack, and those items add up quickly, and can really weigh a person down, so every decision is a critical decision, do I really need this?
I have extensive experience in the woods, both in recreation, and I worked in the mountains of western Montana for years, so I’m not a newbie. My brother lived in McCall for a couple years, working as a teacher and football coach, so he knew the specific area better than I did. One night I called him and told him what I had as far as gear for the trip, food, clothing, sleeping bag, etc. I asked him what the hike was like, “It’s an easy and gradual 5-6 miles, almost like a park, it’s not steep at all until you get to the last ½ mile or so from the lake. It’s not a super challenging hike, but it’s beautiful!” I asked him if I should buy anything special for the trip, like clothing, any specific types of food, shoes, an ax, or whatever. “No, like I said, it’s a nice, easy, fairly flat hike, it shouldn’t be much of a challenge at all.”
We got up early the morning of the hike and drove to the trailhead, It was beautiful country, jagged snow capped peaks as a backdrop to gradual sloping meadows that had been burned through several years before, leaving craggy black snags here and there in the fields of shiny green bear grass and multi-colored wildflowers. The beaten dirt trail wound back and forth through those fields, moderately gaining altitude at each switchback. Around 10:00 we reached some timber, which was really thick, dog hair lodgepole. Horse and deer flies were abundant in the shade, so we had to keep moving to keep ahead of them. It took longer than expected to get to the first lake because the trail wasn’t maintained and there were hundreds of blow down lodgepole criss-crossing the trail. We didn’t reach the first camp until around 6:00, and spent the next hour or so gathering firewood, pitching tents etc. By the time everything was done and we’d eaten, it was dark. We were all exhausted, so we went to bed.
The next morning we moved our camp around to the north side of the base lake and set up between the lake and the base of a mountain that was made of massive granite boulders. A couple of us went down and caught 7 or 8 little rainbow trout, and we ate a big breakfast, sat around the fire bullshitting, and deciding what we were going to do. Between the five of us we decided to hike to the lake we came to see, Storm Peak. We filled our water bottles, grabbed a few snacks, and off we went. We wound our way up the side of the mountain behind us, passing through some little, twisted, red barked pine that grew out of a pure crumbled granite hillside. Massive white boulders of granite dotted the slope, and it felt almost prehistoric walking through them. When we got to the top, we passed through a narrow crevice that sliced through the granite peak, and when we came out the other side there was a massive bowl carved out of the northeast side of the mountain. To me it looked like half a volcano cone, the other half missing. It was probably a mile across the cone, and the face was mostly broken granite and shale…and it led straight down ¾ of a mile to the little almond shaped emerald that was Storm Peak lake. We all stood there, a wind passed over a huge still unmelted glacier in the shadow of the cone, bringing cold air into our faces. I stood there thinking, nice lake, but there’s no way. I looked at the lake, then I looked at my shoes, Chuck Taylor All Stars, then I looked at my brother, and I thought…nice easy hike huh? You have got to be SHITTING ME. But, he wasn’t. Let me preface this next part with a couple of tidbits. Number one, I am terrified of heights, like, I don’t even want to stand on a kitchen chair to change a lightbulb, type terrified. And when I tell you this cliff was nearly vertical, I am not exaggerating one iota, I could have spit off the edge and it wouldn’t have hit the ground for 60 yards. But over it we went. I was second off the edge in my tractionless Chuck Taylor’s, feeling very much like I had on a pair of greased socks and was trying to gain traction on a plate of polished glass. If you’ve ever seen a water strider, that’s how I looked, arms and legs wide, looking for little toeholds and solid heels of granite that could slow my descent. My body was as tense as a piece of jerky as we went down an inch, two inches at a time. A single slip and it would have been a head over heels fall for hundreds of feet. Slowly, surely, incrementally, we finally made the bottom, and were standing on the shore of the lake. I stood on a huge white boulder and looked straight down into the water 25 or more feet, and it was so clear it was like looking through a tumbler of greenish gin. Black trout swam lazily by, and I caught several beautiful cutthroats, the slash under their chins bright red, their sides brilliant silver and green in the sunlight, then released them. I had a hard time enjoying any of it, because I knew we had to climb back out. I kept looking at the cliff and where we had to go, and I was not excited.
We stayed at the lake for an hour and a half or so, then just naturally started gathering together and drifting toward where we’d start our ascent. There was one older gentleman with us, and it was a genuine concern to us how he was going to handle getting out. My brother signaled me, and said quietly, “Hey, I’m gonna get above him and pull, if you’re below him, maybe you could push, and if he falls, catch him?” I was thinking, I can barely even stand on this shit, if this guy falls, we won’t stop for a thousand feet. I told Paul, “Man I don’t know, I barely have any traction…WITH THESE SHOES YOU SAID WOULD BE FINE…” Paul rubbed his chin, “Tell you what, why don’t we tie ourselves together, that way, we can help each other.” I agreed, but kept picturing the three of us tangled up in rope, and surrounded by a landslide of dust, and shale and shattered gravel, plummeting to the bottom.
About every fifth or sixth step the whole way up the face, the older man slipped, Paul held from above, and his feet landed on my shoulders, head, or torso. It took twice as long to get out, but we finally made it, exhausted, sweating, and covered with the guy’s shoe prints over every inch of my upper body. The moral of this story is simply this…wear the shoes.