Off-trail amid towering mountains, engulfed in freezing fog and stepping over fresh bear tracks, our writer finally finds America in the raw
In 1901, the pioneering environmentalist John Muir sat down to write a compendium of America’s wildernesses, places he had learned to love and also helped preserve as the world’s first national parks. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people,” he wrote, “are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity …”
It is perhaps fortunate that John Muir never did get to queue for the toilets in Yellowstone, guzzle popcorn while Old Faithful spouted, or take selfies from his SUV with a buffalo in the background – the buffalo whose progress had been blocked by a line of motor homes. When I first visited America, I did the national parks and I came away with some great memories, but also a lingering feeling of dismay. Where was the wildness? Why did every experience have to be had from behind a low rail with a helpful signboard? Where was the spirit of John Muir?
Now I’m sitting on a boat, heading across Redfish lake in central Idaho, with Sara Lundy of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, who is going to show me, I hope, that the real American wilderness does still exist. “Everything we take in, we will take out,” she says. “We leave no trace.”
Ahead of us is a range of incredible jagged peaks, the appropriately named Sawtooths, part of a 130 sq km wilderness area. “It is not a national park,” Sara states emphatically. “There are no roads into it, no signs, not so many footpaths – and those that do exist are not so well maintained. We will be going off-trail anyway – it’s the only way to reach the Warbonnet, the most remote and untouched part.”
“Can we have a campfire?” I really like the idea of a campfire.
“We won’t,” says Sara. “There are some temporary restrictions at the moment and anyway they leave a mark. Also people tend to camp in the same places and use up all the available dry wood. After a time you see the effects.”
Inwardly I feel annoyed. This is taking it too far. A campfire is part of my idea of a wilderness experience. John Muir had campfires, and what is more I’ll bet he chucked his used toilet paper on the blaze and warmed his hands, rather than slipping the stuff into a sealable plastic bag and carrying it out.
“But what if we catch fish?” I ask. “It’s simpler to cook over a real fire.”
“I reckon we should catch and release.” Damn.
We are dropped off by the boat at the head of the lake. The picnic tables here will be the last signs of civilisation for a while. The first day is spent lugging food and supplies up to a camp in the woods, where we meet Randall, a climbing guide, and narrowly miss seeing a bear (the tracks were fresh). Then we tackle a 200-metre climb on a granite slab. This is a particular type of climbing: the granite is polished by glacial action to a glassy finish and ascent depends a lot on careful balancing and friction. I am totally focused on what is right in front of me for a couple of hours and when we emerge on the top, the panorama hits me like a physical assault. My world is abruptly catapulted into wide angle, my eyeballs stretched around vast spaces and razor-sharp lines. My British English is stretched too, and cannot cope. Randall leaps to the rescue with Big Country American, pointing out other climbs and the route to Warbonnet: “I’m stoked to be here! Pretty bumpin’, hey? Look at that rad route – sick!” It sounds right.