Sunday, April 19, 2015

Climbing Little Diamond Peak. The Making of a Lemhi Traverse, April 17, 2015

Little Diamond Peak on Left and Peak 10,965 on right

Last year after climbing Nicholson Peak in the Lemhi Range, Ben and I stood on the Saddle to the south of the peak overlooking the breathtaking Bunting Canyon. Peak 10,965 (Joker) rose on the south with a connecting ridge to Little Diamond Peak 11,272. These two mountains guard the end of the box canyon. Beyond Little Diamond, the ridge seemed to seamlessly connect to the next tall peak to the north, Black and White Peak 10,970. From there the line continued to Shoshone John Peak 11,212, Big Boy Peak 11,402, The Riddler 11,598 and finally to the pride of the Lemhi's... Daimond Peak 12,197. Standing there last year, an idea of an epic Lemhi traverse was hatched.

To reinforce this idea even more is the fact that I look out of my classroom window every day at this line of mountains in the west.

View from my classroom
I mulled over different approaches. Last year, Ben and I approached Nicholson Peak from the Little Lost River Valley via Fowler Springs. I knew this was very doable and, this time, I would forgo climbing Nicholson to venture on to Peak 10,964 (Joker). I read somewhere that Rick Baugher had dropped the moniker Joker on the mountain when it played havoc with his skiing expectations. Not sure if this is really the case, but in my mind I envisioned a grand traverse from The Joker to The Riddler. This trek had a certain Batman symmetry to it.

Another approach was prompted by the desire to explore new ground. I could hike to the end of Bunting Canyon and then ascend somewhere to reach the summit of Little Diamond Peak and then traverse north along the ridge. I would lose my nod to Batman but would gain a big advantage. I would not have to retrace the ridge to get back to my starting point. The northward traverse would lead me back to the mouth of Bunting Canyon. I was pretty sure I could drop off the ridge somewhere near the end and be close to the point of hiking out of the canyon. That really clenched the plan.

On Friday, April 17th, I took the afternoon off and headed to the mountains. My goal was to bivy that night somewhere along the upper ridge. I think I began hiking around 2:30 P.M. The hike up Badger Creek and into Bunting Canyon was a pleasure. The deeper I went into the canyon, the more I veered east. My goal was to end up near or on Little Diamond Peak at the end of the day. As I approached the peak, I began a long scree slog up and over to Little Diamond. The slope and rocks worked together to make it an exhausting trek.

Traversing steep scree to get to Little Diamond Peak
The slope on the left leads to Black and White Peak
The saddle between Joker and Little Diamond Peak
Detail of rocks below Joker
Made it to the base of Little Diamond and made some photos in the evening light before ascending the mountain just east of the ridge, the line of snow leading to the top was ice. This time I had my crampons! However, the last twenty feet were very steep and the snow, for some reason, turned to powder. I would try to get a vertical hold only to end up swimming in deep sugar. eventually, I found a rock that I could leverage off of to make it to the upper ridge.

Ridge leading to the summit of Little Diamond Peak

Ridge detail

Ridge detail
During the trek, I encountered a wide variety of snow conditions. Much of the time it was just soft enough to get a good foot hold. At other times it was so hard that I could barely kick in with crampons.

I made it to the top of Little Diamond Peak at nightfall and looked for a place to bivy. Ended up about fifty feet from the summit on the ridge. I cut out a trough in the snow to place my bag. the last thing I wanted was to slide off the ridge while sleeping. As I cut through the snow, I pushed all the excavated snow towards the downhill slope trying to level out a sleeping platform.

Bivy at 11,200 feet
Nicholson Peak in background
Last photo of the evening
Venus above Nicholson Peak
Despite the 20 degree temperature and brisk wind, I was comfortably toasty. Went to sleep listening to my playlist. Awoke around 2:30 A.M. to a chill. My sleeping pad had gone flat! Without the layer of insulating air, I was in contact with the snow, and a compressed down bag offers very little insulation. Got up and put on all the layers I had packed. This cut the chill but was by no means comfortable. Couldn't get back to sleep so I listened to more music to help pass the time till morning. At daylight, I found a large rip in the pad. I decided right there that I would not be spending a second night on the ridge.

I was anxious to get going and warm, so I packed up and headed down the mountain. I decided I would eat a little to the east of the base of the mountain where the sun was warming the slope. Found a level spot against the radiant heat of some large rocks and ate an energy bar, a snickers, and half a can of salt and vinegar Pringles. I brewed some hot tea and melted snow to fill my water bottles.

Morning breakfast
The false summit of Black and White Peak

It was now up the ridge to Black and White Peak. Along the way, I garnered several lessons. I am new to climbing and learning as I go. The idea that those ridge lines that appear so straight and smooth at a distance are really jagged, convoluted puzzles was hammered into my head. The first ridge "encounter" I call "Close Shave." I have heard of knife edge ridges and have often remarked that I traveled across such ridges. The Close Shave gave me a new perspective. This ridge rose up before me and leaned out over the eastern steep slope of snow leading down to the tops of cliffs below. On my left, the smooth rock wall fell away down the mountain. The only way was to go over it.

Looking back at the Close Shave
I was satisfyingly relived to climb down the north side of this section and continue up towards Black and White Peak. This kind of path is intense. Walking ridges requires concentration with each step. While walking this ridge, nothing existed except the next step! Almost a meditative state.

Looking back down at Close Shave from an east/west section of ridge
A wider view of the above
Upper ridge of Black and White Peak
This east/west ridge turns north and climbs to the summit
The ridge across the canyon
Joker is in center
Once on top of Black and White Peak, I found it to be pretty tame. There is a large flat spot that would make a great place to bivy. Next, I turned towards Shoshone John. The initial path was laden with snow. I put on my crampons and traded poles for the axe before walking the line.

Ridgeline to Shoshone John
About this time, I started to look for a place to drop off the ridge and return to the canyon floor in the west. I knew another bivy was out. I knew that I did not want to down climb in the dark. I also knew from studying the ridge as I first entered the canyon, the day before, that the further north I went, a successful down climb would be all but impossible; the slopes became steeper and riddled with cliffs.

Once across the snow section, I surveyed the task ahead. The line to Shoshone John looked gnarly. Next, the line to Big Boy and The Riddler looked doable. However, The Riddler looked like a massive fortress of cliffs from this angle; it appeared totally outside of my skill set. I had a decision to make. The deciding factor was finding the perfect place to drop off to the west. I decided I would climb both Shoshone John and Big Boy another day, most likely from the Birch Creek Valley. I would be fresh and be able to walk over to The Riddler to scope it out. It is always a bit disappointing to fall short of a goal, but to err on the side of conservative judgment is never a bad idea in the mountains. Anyway, two big peaks and bivy at 11,200 feet is not too shabby.

The daunting line to Shoshone John and then to Big Boy
The Riddler is on the left while Diamond Peak is in the distance

Final image of the trek taken from Little Diamond Peak in the morning sun
For those interested in a GPS track of the trip, I provide the next two images. The first is the track in and the second is the track of the second day.

Starts at Badger Creek and ends on top of Little Diamond Peak
Starts at Little Diamond Peak and ends at Badger Creek 
To get there, drive north from Howe. I am not sure how many miles, but you will see the impressive mountains on your right and the entrance to Badger Creek Canyon in the distance. Turn off on Badger Creek Rd. This road is not marked, so look for the street signs and mailbox pictured here. Once you turn off to the right, hang another sharp right and drive about 6 miles to the trailhead.

Turn off to Badger Creek

For more trip reports of other mountains visit

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