Saturday, August 9, 2014
Priest Lake, Idaho!
I spend a lot of time cruising the earth on Google Maps. Not looking at exotic vacation locales, but looking for untapped bouldering potential. For the last year, I have been looking for the closest possible granite bouldering area to Lethbridge; Squamish and Leavenworth are simply too far away for a short trip. After a great deal of time looking at geological maps and comparing them to satellite images, I 'found' an expansive area of large granite boulders beneath granite walls in northern Idaho, only about seven hours drive from Lethbridge.
In May, Kyle and I visited Leavenworth WA to boulder for a week, and on the drive back to Lethbridge I convinced Kyle that we should take a short drive out of our way to visit the (potential) boulders of Priest Lake. To make a long story short, the drive wasn't that 'short', and we ended up looking for boulders on a mountain side in the dying light of a spring day. We saw a couple of amazing problems and climbed one, enough to pique our curiousity and fund a return trip.
Last weekend everything fell into place for a drive to Idaho, and Kyle and I headed to Priest Lake Friday evening, arriving there well after midnight. Luckily, we knew exactly where the camping area was (right beside the boulders!), so we pitched our tents and crashed for the night.
The next morning we decided to start our trip with a hunting expedition. Satellite images showed that there were many large boulders on the slope above the campground (below and somewhat down-valley from the multipitch slabs), so we packed some water and started hiking. After an hour or so of hiking and exploring the boulders, five things became evident.
(1) Hiking through Priest Lake is a lot like hiking through west coast forest (e.g. Squamish). In some places it was hard to see the boulders, though as we hiked a bit higher the trees thinned out a lot, and we were hiking through open piles of granite blocks. Anyone wanting to develop the area should be prepared to make trails / bring a saw. However, the area is pretty densely populated with boulders, so huge amounts of trail-building may not be necessary.
(2) There are a lot of boulders at Priest Lake, and lots of them are big (!). In an hour or two of hiking, we saw hundreds of big granite blocks. However...
(3) The boulders are relatively blank. The granite here has a lot of mica in it, and seems more susceptible to spalling than the more cohesive boulders of Squamish. As a result, most of the holds have long since departed from the boulders. The density of problems in the area will be a lot lower than in Squamish or Leavenworth, with only one or two problems on each boulder; many of the problems at Priest Lake will feature lots of squeezing and slopers. Even finding starting holds was difficult for most potential lines. The area would be HUGE if there were more holds, but alas...
(4) The rock quality is decent, but not amazing. While some of the boulders are absolutely bombproof, some have lots of exfoliating microflakes and crystals. At its best, the rock resembles that found in the North Walls in Squamish, but many boulders seemed to have a less cohesive crystalline structure.
(5) The area is beautiful! Amazing mountain scenery, a beautiful little river, natural rock slides in the river for sliding around in. Lots to look at, and a great place to spend some time.
After our hike, we settled down to the dirty business of scrubbing boulders. Much like Squamish, the boulders are covered with lichen (where exposed to full sun), moss (where exposed to some sun) and moldy munge (under overhangs). There were sections of perfectly clean rock, but mostly we committed to the serious amount of scrubbing with a wire brush needed to make the problems pleasantly clean.
On our previous recon mission (in May) we had found a huge boulder with two amazing-looking side-by-side lines. The first was an arching rail through an overhanging scoop that connected to two vertical rails/fins up a high vertical face, and the second was a powerful-looking line with underclings and a powerful lip move to better holds above. We were surprised to find that someone else had been to the area in the last month and had partially cleaned the tall "fin" line and a few shorter problems on an adjacent boulder.
After a few hours of cleaning, we had a handful of problems ready to climb. We did two short-ish crimpy problems, then turned our attention to the two tall side-by-side lines. We did the bottom half of the tall rail/fin problem easily enough, but couldn't muster the courage to head up to the top of the boulder. Kyle had used a ladder to clean the problem, and his 16-foot ladder didn't reach the top of the boulder! We then turned our attention to the much harder problem to the right. The problem is very cool with great features, and is broken into three sections, each with about four moves. The first section moves through a series of good underclings with poor feet, the middle section (the hardest) moves through powerful underclings on a huge block to a hard move to the lip, and the third section moves through the bad lip holds to better incut mini-jugs and a very funky topout move. We quickly worked out the first section, and found that the underclings on the big block of the second section were powerful, but doable (at least individual moves were!). The final section took us a little while to figure out, but ultimately turned out to be not too difficult. The hard move to the lip, though, stumped me again and again. I simply could not muster the power to do the hard diagonal move from a bad undercling to a crystalline sloper above the lip. Kyle managed to do the move after only several tries. but I tried it repeatedly for an hour without success. By this time, it was getting late, so we headed back to camp, made a fire, and cooked hotdogs.
The second day, we again 'warmed up' by hiking though the forest looking for boulders (slightly down-valley this time). We found some decent boulders, but again most of them didn't have many problems on them, due primarily to a lack of useable holds. We headed back to the camp for some lunch, then packed our pads back up to the project. We cleaned and climbed another handful of problems to warm up, including the fun Kyle's Pinch Problem (V3/4, which featured some very cool fin holds) and a nice lip traverse I called Flipper (V2ish). I also climbed the first half of a VERY tall problem I had cleaned on toprope the day before; the bottom half of the problem (ending on a jug) ascends a HUGE fin feature, and is an amazing V1 in itself. The second half of the problem is about V7 or V8 though, and since the boulder is 20+ feet high I didn't make much of an effort to work it.
We then turned our attention back to the tall line with the two fin features. This time we mustered the courage to head up onto the face, and found that the moves were easier than we thought they might be. However, the mantle looked a bit spooky (the top of the boulder is somewhat of an angled plane without features, though there is a huge foothold to make the press more straightforward). After staring at the boulder for awhile, and discussing how we really didn't want to fall off the mantle, we arranged the mats carefully and both sent the line. The mantle turned out to be quite easy, in the end, and the problem fantastic. We're not certain if the problem has previously seen as ascent, so I am tentatively calling it Black Robe (V3? V4?). If anyone knows if it's been done previously, let me know!
Kyle and I then shuffled the mats over and started working the moves of the undercling/block project. Gradually we started to link sections together, and eventually I could do it from the start to the crux move (where I would fall), and from the crux move to the end (using a very funky kneebar). Finally, in the fading light, I managed to do all the moves perfectly, and I sent the entire problem. I was pretty excited to climb such a great line; a long and powerful problem that nonetheless demands a great deal of subtlety. After a great deal of consideration, I decided to call it Keep The Faith (V8ish).
Kyle going big on the crux move of Keep The Faith. Hard!
Kyle was very close to sending as well, but as the sun set the holds started to disappear into the shadows so we called it a day.
The next morning we trooped back up the hill, and I started to scrub some new problems. I cleaned and sent a very fun sloper problem that I called Metric (V4ish), and a very tall (!) slab problem that I didn't climb (too tall for a hot day!). If anyone wants to head up to Priest Lake, there's a freshly scrubbed slab highball awaiting a first ascent!
Kyle warmed up and got back on Keep The Faith. He was incredibly close to sending, but by midday it was simply getting too hot for hard slopers. It was time to head back to Canada, so we packed our mats, shoes, brushes, ropes, and a ladder into the van and headed down the long road back to Lethbridge.
So what did I learn on the exploratory mission to Priest Lake, Idaho? Priest Lake isn't a huge bouldering destination, but with a little work it will be a very fun local area, with hundreds of problems. The scenery can't be beat, and the free camping is great (and right beside the bouldering). With Spokane and Coeur D'Alene just a few hours away, I hope that the boulderers of those cities will load up on wire brushes (and maybe a saw) and develop the area more. The Lion Creek valley would be a great escape from the summer heat of the desert. I may be back there someday, but hopefully when more of the boulders have been scrubbed!