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One man in the mountains

In his pursuit to chronicle the wide and ranging trails of the Wood River Valley and beyond for his new book, Sun Valley Hiking, Matt Leidecker learned that his longtime home still holds the power to surprise him. Photos by Matt Leidecker.

It takes a lifetime to develop a relationship with the landscape. My connection to the mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley grew slowly. After trailing behind my parents to high-mountain lakes as a toddler, racing the ski runs of Bald Mountain with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation and honing my nascent camping skills through the outdoor program at The Community School, I gained the confidence to continue exploration on my own.

Understanding a landscape means more than just knowing the local trails. So, when I decided to write a guidebook to the Smoky, Boulder and Pioneer mountains, I determined to not only hike as many of the trails as I could, but to also delve into the geology, history and politics of this land.

The following vignettes and photographs are a small window into my discovery and exploration of the mountains out my backdoor.

Pioneer Mountains

Fall Creek & Surprise Valley – Discovering New Terrain. August 8, 3:49 p.m.

It has been raining on and off most of the day. Following a thousand foot climb through steep switchbacks and granite spires, we top out in Surprise Valley. My hiking partner, Danny Walton, and I have already explored the Moose Lake basin and hiked several miles out the Fall Creek drainage. Now, from an overlook, we pause to contemplate this first-time view of jagged peaks, including the 11,878-foot Standhope Peak, which appears and disappears behind drifting clouds. The sun’s rays slash briefly across our afternoon vista before the clouds let loose with a barrage of hail. Patches of bright red scarlet paintbrush stand out against the 2 inches of fresh snow.

Arrowhead Lake – Climbing the Arrowhead Aręte. September 25, 11:29 a.m.

The high peaks of the Smoky, Boulder, and Pioneer mountains capture the small towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue between skyscraping, snow-capped summits. To truly experience the mountains they must be climbed to their lofty summits. So, I set out to explore an aręte in the Pioneer Mountains for potential inclusion in my book. At the top of Wildhorse Canyon, on the north side of the Pioneer range, I come to Arrowhead Lake. The precipitous north faces of Hyndman and Old Hyndman peaks reflect in the mirror-like surface of the lake as I scramble to a notch in a thousand foot knife-edged aręte that rises from the lake. Though we were prepared for belayed climbing, the technical challenges of the ridge did not demand it, but the exposure and risk of such an environment is not for everyone. Once at the top, I reward myself with a turkey sandwich and a Snickers bar. As I bask in the crisp, clear air of a beautiful September afternoon, I realize how deep my connection to these mountains has become.

Trail Creek – Adventures with my Daughter. July 18, 11:40 a.m.

Three years ago, the broad gravel footpath along Trail Creek would not have been a favored destination for me. Three years ago, I did not have a daughter. One of the more rewarding parts of mapping trails is sharing them with Sarah. Most of the time, I load her in the backpack and head down the trail, offering a steady stream of raisins and Cheerios over my shoulder. From that cozy perch she has summited peaks, visited high mountain lakes, and peered into the dark tunnels of open mine shafts. Along Trail Creek, I explore at her pace. We squeeze mud through our fingers, throw rocks into the creek, and even take a quick swim. I had no idea there was so much to do in a quarter-mile stretch of trail just east of Sun Valley Resort.

Boulder Mountains

South Ridge of Silver Peak – Full Moon traverse. September 3, 9:02 p.m.

One late summer’s eve, I took advantage of clear skies to make a full-moon traverse of the south ridge of Silver Peak, on the southern end of the Boulder range. As I gain the ridge at the mouth of Silver Canyon, crepuscular rays slash through hanging clouds down the Big Wood Valley. Farther along the sharp, rocky ridge, I watch as the moon rises over Boulder Peak. From the top, pale, moonlit summits stretch out in every direction. Somewhat reluctant to descend after such a magical experience, I am thankful for the light of the moon to lead me home.

Smoky Mountains

Placer Creek - Discovering the Details. July 24, 11:35 a.m.

Partway up Placer Creek, on a tributary at the northern end of the Warm Springs drainage, I stop to take a GPS reading at a stream crossing. Surrounded by the sound of a gurgling creek, I notice several sheepherder inscriptions dating back to 1979. Beyond the shady oasis, a vibrant, lupine-covered ridge beckons. I take out the map to plan a future side trip. Had I been pushing to follow the pace of a normal mountain bike ride, I would have missed out on these hidden highlights of the day.

Warfield Creek - Geology defines the landscape.
July 22, 7:29 p.m.

In the shady confines of Warfield Canyon, west of Ketchum, I jump across a tributary of Warm Springs Creek. Here, pinched between steep talus walls that drop 1,000 feet to the valley floor, the trail has to fight for real estate. In a few strides, I emerge into the broad, sunny headwaters of Warfield Creek. It’s as if I have crossed a threshold into a different landscape. Warfield Creek crosses two geologic boundaries. The first, near the mouth of the canyon, takes hikers from the eroded sandy hillsides of the Rooks Creek granodiorite into the talus-forming sediments of the Wood River Formation. The second transition opens into the convoluted landscape defined by the rocks of the Challis Volcanics. These different formations give a true sense of how the valley’s underlying geology drives the character of this landscape.

Kelly Mountain - South Valley Hiking. June 18, 10:16 a.m.

Foot travel on public lands surrounding the southern Wood River Valley towns of Hailey and Bellevue is unrestricted. Many big, open ridges lead to summits of prominent peaks, offering stunning vistas of the high-desert landscape. One that drew my attention was Kelly Mountain, sitting along the ridge dividing Deer Creek and Croy Canyon. I set out to link the ridges of Red Elephant Creek (six miles out Croy Canyon) in a perfect loop across the top of Kelly Mountain. From the summit, we enjoyed views of the snow-capped Boulder and Pioneers to the north, and a sea of spring-green ridges to the south. And I realize that hiking in the south valley is limited only by a paucity of imagination.

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