A Jump Into the Mountains

From my perch on a crumbling, volcanic overlook, I faced a small, grassy basin and a shallow, broad lake. To my right, Palace Butte guarded a cliff edge where Twin Falls tumbled abruptly from the basin into the main Hyalite drainage.

Behind me, in separate tents, slept my co-leader and our 14-year-old students on this 10-day backpacking trip with the Jump Start Leadership program. I couldn’t begrudge them their sleepiness: we spent most of the previous day scrambling across a technical, two-mile section of Hyalite Ridge. Above 10,000 feet all day with full packs, we’d peered into hanging glacial cirques and bottomless blue lakes 2,000 feet below.

Here on this ledge, my companions were scrubby, stunted pine and fir, still jeweled with raindrops. I was glad for the slow, cold morning. Thick clouds hugged the flanks of Sleeping Giant’s cliffs, reflecting sunlight.

Sun hit a long, grassy slope across the basin on Elephant Mountain’s south face, lighting a mountain-goat herd bedded down at tree line. They, like my teenage herd, were still sleeping after a hard, stormy night.

Slowly, the kids emerged from their tents. We watched the goats wake and ramble up the mountainside, munching grass. Grey Wolf (we went by trail names on this trip) propped binoculars against his knees, his mouth slightly open. “They’re so much bigger than I’d imagined. It looks like they’re shedding their summer coats.”

After breakfast and packing up camp, Wolf and fellow student Spruce sat on their packs, orienting and studying the map. They kept their backs to the stiff breeze that came off the lake next to us, in turn pointing at the west side of Palace Butte, then tracing a path on the map.

“That looks pretty steep, I’m not sure we can get up there,” Grey Wolf said as he talked through a plan, squinting toward the mountain pass we planned to cross. There was a tinge of hesitation in Wolf’s voice. He’d frozen up on the ridge two days before, not wanting to move for several minutes until my co-leader Berg talked him through the talus. Wolf had come to Jump Start Leadership with hopes to gain confidence.

“But look what we came down yesterday.” Spruce pointed up toward the ridge we’d descended. “What do you think, Balsam?” he asked me. Spruce, a So-Cal surfer, was here to think outside of his world at home, outside of himself. I was glad he asked my advice. I suggested they pick the path of least resistance, the path that had the gentlest contour lines on the map and a clear safe way through the rocks.

We took off, students leading through a boulder field and onto a steep, scree-covered hillside. Taking turns navigating, the boys worked their way on the firmest ground they could find, connecting ledges until they found a path scattered with bighorn sheep scat. We wound 800 feet up the hillside to a craggy pass leading into the next basin south.

On the other side, Spruce sang Beatles tunes while we picked our way down a gentler slope. We angled right—up canyon—toward a moraine and a pair of unnamed lakes. Down in the basin floor, we dropped our packs and climbed the 300 feet to the first lake. This was one we’d seen from above two days before. Five feet out, the lake bottom dropped off a shelf into interminable, dark depths. Wolf sat on a rock outcrop and took out his journal, continuing a fantasy story he’d begun writing the previous day.

Wolf, Berg, and I walked around the first lake to the second, small pond. Five feet at its deepest, with a sandy bottom, this rock-lined bathtub was shaped like a 50-foot figure-eight. Its outlet spilled down a steep rock face, echoing off the cliff walls above us. Afternoon sun shone strong as we slipped one-by-one into the breathtakingly cold water.

Lying out to dry on sun-warmed rocks, I thought about the opportunities Jump Start Leadership offered my students this summer: to become competent outdoorsmen and responsible mountain travelers, to make close ties with new friends, to learn about themselves and improve family relationships, and to learn an appreciation for wilderness.

Emily Stifler spends her summer months as an instructor for Jump Start Leadership. A local nonprofit outdoor camp for 12- to 17-year-olds, the Belgrade-based program’s mission is to help teenagers strengthen their leadership and communication skills through outdoor adventure, while helping them connect their successes in the outdoors with their abilities to succeed in life. For more information on upcoming courses and available scholarships, call 388-5478 or visit the website at jumpstartleadership.org.