Jerry Dixon, of Seward, Alaska
The Beaverhead Mountains between Idaho and Montana mark the Continental
Divide. It is a section where I decided to "get high on mountains"
and traverse along the spine of the route rather than in the valleys.
This is actually a mountain range that the Lewis and Clark expedition
circumnavigated in 1805 and on their return in 1806.
Looking east from an unnamed peak on which I stood, I could see to
the far horizon. I knew the names of ranges and rivers I had traversed
since I began paddling up the Missouri River five weeks earlier. Looking
west I could see the mountains I would cross on my way to the Pacific
during the next seven weeks.
Although I'd been following the trail of Lewis and Clark for six weeks,
I decided to take a detour to traverse a section of these majestic
peaks. It's a place the Corps of Discovery surely would have avoided
because of the vertical terrain. I loved following the Missouri, Jefferson,
and Beaverhead rivers, but for that "heart in the throat"
sensation of wildness, I needed to get high on mountains.
Lemhi Pass, where I spent a day hiking with the Sierra Club, I mountain
biked 12 miles on Forest Service roads. Then I got a shuttle from
a friend and starting hiking the crest, which is actually the Continental
Divide. Then, during the next several days, I encountered rain, snow,
sleet, hail, grapple, high winds, and temperatures that were as cold
as anything I experienced last winter in Alaska. So I bailed off the
ridge and hiked into the Big Hole Valley on the Montana side.
I started climbing again from the Big Hole Valley of Montana the next
morning, and later stood on the crest of a 10,048-foot peak. A voyager
from 200 years ago would recognize this vista. Except for the small
clearing marking the town of Wisdom, Mont., to the north, there was
a spectacular 360-degree sweep of mountains, rivers, and sky. It was
a view of our nation's youth. I had started the day shortly after
5:30 a.m. Summiting this first peak I found one of the most unique
game trails I have ever seen. It started above a rockslide and traversed
at the angle one would expect for a maintained Forest Service trail,
many of which I have built. But there was no distinct beginning or
finish; it just melted into the forest at both ends. I am continually
amazed by the profundity of wildlife, especially birds.
next section would be to climb to the Continental Divide then traverse
west across two more 10,000-foot peaks to reach Sacajewea Peak (which
has just recently had its name changed). As I looked south I could
see a 2.5-mile-long cornice of ice and snow, 50-feet high, which guarded
the summit ridge of the divide. If it gave way while I was on it,
I could have been buried under tons of ice.
From the peak I was on it was the obvious route. With my 45-pound
pack I climbed to the cornice and looked for a path. It was a fun
route-finding session and reminded me much of the Alaska Mountain
Wilderness Classic races I run in Alaska. We traverse 180 miles across
mountain ranges with few to no trails and carry everything on our
backs, running real rivers in 18 oz. backpack rafts and crossing glaciers
in tennis shoes. In the 22-year history of the race fewer than half
of the starters have finished.
The sun warmed the snow so that I could kick steps with my light shoes
and not have to chop them with my poles. From the time I started on
the cornice until topping out, I didn't look up. To my left a mountain
sheep has made its way up, but there was no way a fall could be protected
there and it is above a 300-foot cliff. I remained totally focused
on the placement of my feet and hands.
On top, the sweeping vistas of the Lemhi and Salmon river mountain
ranges were brilliant in the late June sun. I remember when I first
saw the Beaverhead Range rising from the Salmon River plains. It was
in 1971 when I was a young smokejumper returning from a fire. Then
I wondered what it would be like to climb along the spine of these
magnificent mountains. It would take 32 years to find out.
I spent four days hiking these shining mountains and except for the
authors of the Continental Divide hiking book, I saw no one until
I hiked into Salmon, Idaho. Having been fortunate to have traversed
many ranges in Alaska I was truly surprised to find the solitude and
wildness I experienced here. The Beaverhead Mountains should be preserved
as wilderness for the next generation of voyageurs.
Read the six-part account of Jerry's trip:
of the Mountains to Lemhi Pass
Pass to the Salmon, float Salmon to the Lost Trail
of the Beaverhead Mountain Range
Trail Pass to Lolo and across the Lolo Pass
the Clearwater to the Snake, Snake to Columbia and Columbia to Wallula
Biking to the Pacific
Back to main page of this journey.
Photos by Jerry Dixon. Top: Corniced north face of
the Continental Divide looking west toward Sacajewea Peak. Middle:
Author on 10,048-foot peak with Continental Divide in background.
Bottom: Alpine lake with ice around edges and Continental Divide above.
For more information about the Sierra Club's Lewis and Clark campaign or to find out how you can help, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.