Idahome: Bikepacking in God’s Country
Words by Aimee Gilchrist, photos noted in Gallery Captions
God’s Country Day 1: Captain’s Log
The pain felt like a feathery flame, arriving fierce and lacing itself into the layers of fibers in my quads. I bend over my bars to stretch and shake the lactic acid bath pooling in my legs. My chest strains to keep air in my lungs when it desperately wants to escape. I glance around to see if the others show similar conditions to help calm my mind. Although I had fared well earlier in the day when we were sticking to the fire roads, now the steep grade of this narrow, rutted trail has me feeling worked. I’m barely keeping my inner dialogue silenced. The steeper and higher we climb up the pass, the weaker my mental fortitude becomes.
Maybe you’re familiar with how this internal battle begins. It starts with the harmless unspoken inquisition, “How much farther?” and when left unhinged, it will eventually escalate to “Why the hell am I doing this?” and “Who thought this was a good idea?”. Never to be spoken aloud, of course, this questioning can consume the adventure itself if left to its own discretion. I remind myself of all the jokes we make about Type 2 fun and then settle into the recipe that usually quiets my self-deprecation. I look out at the sweeping mountain view and remind myself how lucky I am to have two arms and two legs that can pedal me to this very place and two eyes that can see these beautiful views. And that I have a heart pounding in my chest that allows me the endurance to get to the far reaches like this. I remind myself to be grateful.
Next thing I know, my breathing is slowing, and some of the others have caught up. Adam, our trusty trip photographer, cracks a joke right on cue to break the silence and I’m reminded I’m in good company. Once the laughter floats away, it’s time to start kicking steps into the fresh mud to keep the pace. Fourteen of us are in a single file line of hike-a-bike and have been for at least 5 miles, and an undetermined distance left to go. We’re following a steep backpackers trail to the historic Custer Fire Lookout, built in 1933 at some 9,700 feet in elevation, in a remote part of Idaho’s Salmon River Range.
My good friend Todd Gillman, who heads up Marketing at Coal Headwear in Seattle, has been with me on some solid bikepacking trips in the past, so when he lassoed me into this project with 12 strangers, I was quick to say “heck yes, my brother”. Todd wanted to share a storytelling piece in partnership with Tenkara Rod Co, Latigo Coffee and Swift Industries in honor of the annual Swift Campout. His hair-brained ideas are always adventurous, sometimes fun and a week after you’re back in your cozy bed, you realize they were a good choice. We all have a friend like Todd.
Let me take a quick second to catch my breath and introduce you to our badass crew:
Todd Gillman, Seattle, Washington- Ringleader and Scout Master
Drew Hollenback, Boise, Idaho
Lars Reber, Salt Lake City, Utah
Steve Bretson, Bozeman, Montana
Katie Cook-Bretson, Bozeman, Montana
Amanda Hankison, Salt Lake City, Utah
Kevin McClelland, Salt Lake City, Utah
Sean Hamilton, Seattle, Washington
Mark Finster, Los Angeles, California
Alicia Rhoades, Seattle, Washington
Bo Thunell, Portland, Oregon
Adam Concannon, Denver, Colorado
Kyle McCarty, Seattle, Washington
Aimee Gilchrist, Yours Truly, Los Angeles, California
Let’s Rewind to Day 0
Just 36 hours ago, I was boarding a flight from LAX to Boise with Mark, founder of Latigo Coffee and all-around good dude, anticipating this very journey. Although this present moment of full-body mountain bike Crossfit at altitude isn’t what I had expected, I am aware that I signed up for just about anything when I said ‘YES’ to a 4-day bikepacking traverse through Central Idaho in the middle of June on an unpublished route that no one had attempted.
Mark and I had hitched a ride from the Boise Airport with Drew, co-owner of Tenkara Rod Co. and Boise local, in his well-suited road trip mobile, a faded denim blue ‘89 Vanagon. If nothing else, this mountain commute would be entertaining, as Drew warned that his van is prone to breakdowns once it leaves Boise city limits. I found myself humming Cat Stevens “Oh Very Young” with the windows down and the motor purring as we sputter into the forested outskirts. Our anxious chatter fueled the 3-hour drive to Stanley and as we rounded the final bend from the Payette River canyon into a breezy, grass valley, we were gifted one of the best panoramic views this side of the Colorado. Jagged peaks with snow-capped edges soared high, each creating their own wispy cloud patterns. If I had spent more time with the Ride With GPS route, I would have known right then that in less than 24 hours, we would be knee deep in that very snow 9,600 ft. above sea level, attempting to cross over the pass. There is a delicate beauty and humor in leaving some things to the unknown.
Back to God’s Country Day 1: Captain’s Log
Drew had put together a clever game to preoccupy our numb brains into counting 50 steps then taking a 30-second break to breathe. He knew none of us were counting so he slipped in 100 or 150 steps and we didn’t know the difference. Our Swift Campout crew hailed from popular adventure towns like Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle and I was impressed to see we all held the sacred “thou must not complain about pain while bikepacking and tarnish the group morale” code dear to our hearts. For the last 10 miles, we had encountered about 50 fallen trees making the route seem impassable at times. One after another, we were lifting our loaded bikes over waist high mature trees that had tumbled over in the recent winter storms. It was like doing 50 curl reps with 50- pound weights. I was peeking ahead looking for the tree line boundary, so we could find our pedaling freedom. But instead of seeing a vast open mountaintop, I saw a 15 ft. fortification of snow reaching to both sides of the trail. As Robert Frost said, “The only way out is through”. Those ahead of us had already dug a route through this wall of the North and had an efficient system of passing bikes and bodies over and down. This is the most intense first day I have had, maybe ever. I’m wondering if the others are feeling the same, but I keep it to myself. Attitudes seemed tired but positive. Another affirmation that these rad humans will keep me in line. The clock says 7pm on this fine summer solstice day and the sun is unwavering. We were officially into the Idaho backcountry and going and the feeling of being committed to the remoteness was coming in hot as we stepped over fresh bear scat.
When I caught up to the front of the pack, the boulders had grown to the size of watermelons on steroids and it was impossible to ride uphill over them. But who am I kidding really? The past 5 miles had been hike-a-bike and an actual pedal stroke occurred once every 10 minutes or so if skilled and lucky. Seeing my fellow riders discussing the plan with their bikes laying on the summit scree meant that I could take a quick breather. The deliberation had begun prior to my arrival: “How much further to the Custer Lookout vs how much daylight was remaining?”. I feel it is a good time to introduce the novel idea of dinner to the group, as it was now after 8pm and it felt almost impossible to eat another piece of dry jerky.
When the meeting adjourned, it is decided that a Kevin and Steve would go beyond the summit following our route in search of Custer Lookout, and the growling stomachs would be satiated while we wait for them to return. Todd and Mark backtrack to look for a dry, flat surface to set up camp as a backup plan, and shortly after dinner the sun is sinking, and we determine this would officially be Camp 1. I think about that bear poop again and scour the forest for a tree I can climb to hang my food bag. I’ve been robbed by the furry friends before and going the next 3 days without food is not high on my list. I am arming my tent for evening winds when the guys came back to say the high snow would make Custer Lookout unreachable. I think we were all beginning to consider that might be the case, so no one seems too shocked. So, the time to work on a Plan B route for Day 1 will wait until the morning, as we had more pressing campfire-whiskey-hot cocoa things on the agenda. Thanks again for the whiskey, Katie. And Bo, thanks for the cocoa magic. These are my people.
Day 1: 35 miles, 1 flat tire, 1 hot spring, 2 fish caught (and released), 1 porcupine (not caught), 1 pile of bear poop, 4500ft. give or take.
God’s Country Day 2: Captain’s Log
God bless Mark for preparing camp coffee any and every time possible. I had just finished crawling out of the tent into the damp, frosty morning air when Mark appeared with a steaming mug of joe and confirms I am the last one to wake. Before the end of the day today, he will have brewed 5 batches of Latigo coffee (lakeside, trailside, tent side…you name it) which has become the lifeblood of our group.
The official map holders have already pieced together what we hope was a less intense Day 2, but it will be impossible to tell. It would be a safe choice to backtrack the way we had come up, but, Amanda said it best when she said, “No one was willing to back out.” Everyone commits to think on it over coffee.
As we are finishing our last bites of breakfast, the rumbles of thunder reach our camp in a deep echo and the dark clouds that were loitering in the distance are now racing our way. We scatter like a flock of pigeons after thrown breadcrumbs. The snap of lightning gives us a warning shock and we don’t have much time to make an escape plan. Alicia and I tighten a few straps on our bike bags for good measure and I tuck my Ritchey Timberwolf under the canopy to keep dry, grabbing my trusty flask at the last minute from the side pocket. Mark yells from his tent for us to hurry inside because the hail is really coming down. When I look behind me, no one was there. Where are the others? The hail eventually turns to sleet, and temperatures drop considerably. Todd, Katie, and Steve are our last-minute house guests and we greet them cheerily with tequila. We are told the others are in gas station ponchos hiding and shivering under the nearby trees, ready to bolt like minutemen when it lets up. When the lightning and thunder rolled past, we saw an opportunity to get going. Remember, we are north of the wall, so as legend has it, it is just as hard climbing up as it was going over the day before.
The trail is as wide as my hips and at least 2 inches deep of quicksand mud. To my right was a sheer drop off down the edge of the mountain into nothingness and to my left is a steep wall of dripping water and falling rocks. This is not the time to look away. My feet are sliding like a newborn deer on ice, downward towards the edge in the mudflow and I am severely spooked of sliding off the mountainside. Alicia appears behind me and seeing my fear and pushes my bike through the most dangerous section, and now I’m able to regain my footing and begin walking again. When the storm lets up, the sun immediately breaks through the clouds with a few slow drops still falling like little rainbow drips. I’m already covered in mud like Pigpen from Charlie Brown, and I luckily have Katie to help get the mud and loose straps cleared away from my wheels, so I can pedal freely again. Day 2 is proving to have its own set of absurd obstacles, but it is too early to get discouraged. We hadn’t even finalized our route yet. We will later find out that our choice is a double black diamond descent back to the Yankee Fork.
Steve and Katie run a bike shop in Bozeman called Alter and they were truly our trail angels. I realize my seat clamp nut is stripped on Day 2 and my seatpost sinks little by little over each bump. Enter Steve to save the day with a replacement nut as well as an extra hand to lift my bike over another barrage of fallen trees. The trail today is much like an obstacle course which involves rock climbing with the left hand up a steep face with a loaded bike over the right shoulder. One misstep would land you in the flowing water just off to the right. My mantra of the day: Stay cool and take it easy on the brakes. I might have forgotten to mention most of my heavy load was in my giant yellow dry bag given the morning conditions, and I never made time to redistribute the weight. My mistake. My bike doesn’t have rack mounts, so panniers aren’t an option. So, the front wheel sinks with the weight and propels me all sorts of directions.
Amanda and I have a few good belly laughs as we take turns self-ejecting. Be sure to watch the film because she captured a great one on camera. The group is pretty spread out at this point because the trail clears and becomes an actual MTB single track until the massive scree field at the bottom. Watching Bo on the bike during that decent is like having a front row seat to watch an Olympic ice skater. This was an all-time descent. I am living vicariously through the others hearing their shouts and hollers and I’m happy to get down safely with a huge grin on my face. And lo and behold, there is Mark to offer another steaming cup of dark roast coffee. Could life get any better? The switchbacks crossed the creek several times like the trails at home in the San Gabriel Mountains of LA. I felt homesick for a quick minute and then let myself daydream of staying in Idaho forever. My slice of Idahome. When we all regroup on the dirt highway, it seems clear that the hot springs are necessary, so we take off sailing back towards Stanley like a group of muddy tire flaps. We may have missed the ghost towns and abandoned mines and a badass lookout tower (dang it!) but we have all our limbs and good spirits. The Sawtooths are looking fondly upon us.
Day 2: 26 miles, 0 flat tires, 1 hot spring, 4 cold beers, ½ bag of gummy bears, 1 hot shower. 1000ft.
God’s Country Day 3: Captain’s Log
I would be remiss to not tell you that we lost one of our crew back on Day 1 and didn’t locate him until Day 3. Sorry to leave that out earlier. It is Kyle, our cameraman who was driving logging roads to meet us at predetermined checkpoints. He was waiting for us at Camp 1, but, as you know, we never made it there. So, he moves onto Camp 2 for the next night, and we never make it there either. And during the process, the truck slides off the road going around a snowbank 18 miles off the highway without any cell service or location device. So, on Day 3 he begins the slow hike back, carrying a heavy load including all his expensive camera gear. Meanwhile, back in Stanley, Todd and Alicia are gearing up to head out to search for Kyle while the rest of us head over to the amazing Stanley Bakery for a world class breakfast and a Day 3 planning session.
Mark’s idea is that Stanley is the El Chalten of North America and I’m in complete agreement. Amazing peaks, rivers, valleys and a charming town to boot. Stanley has a way of charming you into wanting to stay forever. The KSAR or Kyle Search and Rescue squad made up of Kevin, Amanda and Todd, respectably, locates him between the truck and the highway and then spends most of the rest of the day bartering with locals to extricate him out of the remote mountainside snowbank, while the rest of us ride 10 miles out to Stanley Lake for a day of fishing lessons with Drew and Lars from Tenkara Rod Co. and some old-fashioned dockside beer drinking.
When the signal comes that the troops are back, we all jump onto our saddles and pedal onward toward Camp 3. Our band of misfits was reunited at last, Kyle and all. We got some good laughs out of everyone’s missteps. Right after sunset, the group decides to get a little rowdy. With some on bikes and the camera crew and others loaded up in the van, we take off for the summit about 8 miles into the backcountry to catch a few shots of our last Sawtooth sunset on top of the ridge. I am in the backseat of the van and we are tailing the mischievous riders with the camera crew hanging out the back hatch when, out of nowhere, the local sheriff rounds the corner ahead of us one a one lane gravel road and turns on his lights. Oh shit. I look down at all the “evidence” rolling around in the van and hit the mental panic button. After all our crazy hair-brained ideas this weekend, are we finally getting busted for this joyride? Our driver, who will remain anonymous for this article backs down a narrow, windy gravel road with the sheriff on his loudspeaker ushering us. Those of us nearest to the “evidence” begin disposing of it immediately. When the road widened, we are prepared and all waiting the worst outcome, but the sheriff just waves and thanks us for moving out of the way and continues down the road with his lights flashing. HOLY HECK. A flood of relief paralyzes us momentarily and we take a moment to assess our losses, and head back up the road to the summit to catch the riders.
To recap, we had climbed with bikes to the top of a snowy peak at 9700ft, but are forced to bail due to conditions, then a hail lightning storm creates a crazy, muddy descent, and the whole time, our camera guy and friend is lost and missing having his own crazy time. And then a handful of us thought we were ending up at the Stanley jail for the night making our one phone call. The good news is that we survived and now we are enjoying the quiet open night sky. We could barely see the lights of town in the distance.
The solstice weekend was kind to us and throughout, a group of strangers would be bonded together forever. It’s a special moment when a few good brands bring great people together in an adventurous, social experiment and everyone leaves better for it. Good ‘ol Idahome.
Much gratitude to Todd Gillman, the Marketing Manager of Coal Headwear for introducing the idea and recruiting a great group of humans and to Tenkara Rod, Latigo Coffee, and Swift Industries for supporting these efforts in the best way possible.
Day 3: 15 miles, 0 flat tires, 1 lake swim, so many cold beers, 1 run in with the sheriff, 14 new friends in their happy place, 100% fun. 800ft.
“…And though you want them to last forever you know they never will. And the goodbye makes the journey harder still…” –‘Oh Very Young’, Cat Stevens
As a disclaimer and a defender of all, I wanted to add that Todd spent a ton of time studying the route & talking to locals & the only snow warnings I got had to do with leaving Hyndman Lk. via the high route. So he wasn’t leading us blind and carelessly into the mountains. This story, as with all stories, are, …well, stories. I hope you enjoyed it.