A Tale of Summer Backpacking: A Little Sketchy, A Lot Worth It

We were down-climbing steep loose rock, deep in the wilderness. A wilderness scattered with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. An area where you can’t afford to mess up.

By Benjamin Goodpasture, Founder and CEO of Shasta Rock Club

I’ll never forget the day I first saw Emerald and Sapphire Lakes from Sawtooth Ridge…

A couple years ago Alex Wittmer (@alexjwittmer), Isaia Faumui (@isaiakawika) and I scrambled up Sawtooth Ridge above Big Caribou Lake known as the “Caribou Scramble”. The large drainage to the south of the lake is decorated with beautiful granite blocks, full of boulder problems galore. It’s like Candy Land for explorers who love cross-country travel and route-finding. The grand prize is the summit. Some say it’s the best view in the Trinity Alps.

Last week my nephew and I hiked from Big Caribou to Emerald and Sapphire and then back. It was a burly day (especially when you can’t find the trail down the ridge). We improvised and chose to descend along an obvious drainage down the mountain. How hard could it be?

We were down-climbing steep loose rock, deep in the wilderness. A wilderness scattered with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. An area where you can’t afford to mess up. What if we hit a section where we couldn’t down-climb?

Best view in the Alps: Emerald and Sapphire Lakes. Photo by Benjamin Goodpasture.

I kept thinking about how in 1982 an 18-year-old kid died from heat exhaustion going back up the 99 switchbacks. (Ironically, I was born in 1982 and my nephew is 18). Not encouraging.

“This is going to be an awesome adventure or a total failure,” I thought. “Am I the worse guide ever, taking my ‘newbie’ nephew down this? This is going to be awesome. Just send it.”

To our relief, we made it to the bottom of the canyon after a couple hours reaching the lush Stuart Fork Trail. We submerged ourselves in the creek to celebrate, as the 2200-foot descent down the mountain offered no shade.

The craggy peaks encircled us with towering views on every side. We took our time reveling in our surroundings, both because it was epic and because it was practical… delaying the hike back as much as possible helped us avoid the scorching heat that bakes the south-facing side of Sawtooth Ridge.

We had a long way to go from Sapphire Lake back up the mountain and down to base camp. Lucky for us, we found the trail this time which we hoped would be an improvement from the drainage line…

Emerald Lake looking back at Sawtooth Ridge. Photo by Benjamin Goodpasture.

It was 6pm and the temperature was still roasting. The ascend back up was more like bushwhacking than following a tidy trail. (I’d heard no one goes up this side of the mountain, now I clearly saw why). Among hikers this section is known as the “pain cave”. We felt like ants compared to this beast. Our legs were heavy and ached, our lungs craving more oxygen, our minds fighting dizziness. We shared the silence and marched onward, each of us secretly praying for a cool breeze to sweep through.

The look on my nephew’s face by this point concerned me. I could tell he was at the end of his rope. Half way up we took a break, we took in the ground we’d covered, (and I took stock of his mindset and stamina). Thumbs up. Serendipitously, that cool breeze did sweep through, whispering it’s encouragement when we needed it most.

We finally made the summit of the ridge close to 8pm. The homestretch trail leading back to base camp was memorably beautiful. We hugged and laughed a lot coming down the other side, any prior anxieties now behind us. The pain from our long day was overshadowed by thoughts of tacos and a campfire.

We processed our experience that night… Hiking Emerald and Sapphire Lakes was a dream come true, and it did not disappoint. My nephew said it was both the hardest and coolest thing he had ever done, “an experience of a lifetime” he said. In retrospect, I’m glad we found ourselves on the path less traveled. Because these are the type of memories that define us- moments of overcoming challenges, dealing with fear, and discovering what’s inside of you beyond the limits of your comfort zone. The experience marked both of us in more ways than one, and we left our imprint there in the mountains in return.

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