Roof of Idaho’s Sawtooths: Hiking Thompson Peak
By Michael Lanza
A morning fog hangs like a damp, cold blanket over the Sawtooth Valley as my wife, Penny, and I start hiking in early morning from the Redfish Trailhead, minutes from the shores of Redfish Lake. Before long, we catch our first view of our destination—and from here, it looks quite far off: the pinpoint summit of 10,751-foot Thompson Peak, the highest in Idaho’s best-known mountain range, the Sawtooths. From where we started walking a little while ago, 6.5 circuitous miles and 4,200 vertical feet separate us from that lofty piece of granite, including on- and off-trail hiking through aspens and ponderosa pine forest, up a hanging valley with a steep headwall, over talus and scree, and a final bit of third-class scrambling.
But Penny’s never stood atop Thompson, and I’ve never grown tired of climbing it, and it’s a bluebird, late-July day. So we fully intend to get there.
According to Idaho—A Climbing Guide, by Tom Lopez, 33 summits in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains exceed 10,000 feet. That total depends on which ones you count. Using that guidebook, I’ve put together a list of 37 Sawtooth peaks over 10,000 feet that look worthy of climbing, although some may be considered just subsidiary summits of another mountain.
Thompson Peak towers prominently above the Sawtooth Valley at the eastern front of the Sawtooth Range, where a row of jagged peaks and spires extends for miles. Looking up at them reminds me of the view of the Tetons from Jackson Hole (although the Sawtooths do not match the relief or heights of the Tetons).
The top of Thompson lies just close enough to the nearest trailhead to reach in a day, and just far enough away to make that a pretty full, rigorous day. But it’s a day filled with much of what we head into the mountains for: challenge, inspiring scenery, deep quiet, perhaps a frigid dip in an alpine lake, and a surprising degree of solitude for the highest peak in a well-known mountain range.
Penny and I break out above treeline while the fog still fills the valley below us, but it’s burning off quickly. A little while later, we pass the alpine lake that sits in a stone bowl at 9,000 feet—a lake unnamed on maps but often called Goat Lake by locals—below the dramatic spires of Thompson’s east ridge. Farther still, small, shallow tarns reflect those spires. I look around at the magnificent cirque framed by Thompson Peak and its neighbor, Williams Peak, a fine destination for a hike even if you have no intention of attempting one of these summits.
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Four-and-a-half hours after starting out, Penny and I scramble about 15 feet of steep, blocky rock onto the slanting tabletop that comprises Thompson’s summit. The breathtaking view goes for many miles, taking in Goat Lake 1,700 feet below us; most of the Sawtooths to the east and south; the shimmering Salmon River in the Sawtooth Valley and another great Idaho mountain range, the White Clouds, to the east; and the rumpled blanket of peaks and canyons of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the north.
There’s hardly a breath of wind, the sun beats down warmly, and we have the roof of the Sawtooth Mountains to ourselves on this July weekday.
Thompson Peak is a great mountain climb. It’s shockingly scenic just about every step of the way. It’s varied and challenging, long and tough: Afterward, Penny, who has climbed a lot of mountains, was surprised at how strenuous it was. It’s ambitious and rewarding.
Go do it and good luck. You’ll be glad you did.
See my story “Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Idaho’s Sawtooths?” for a description of the standard hiking route to the summit of Thompson as well as other great dayhikes and backpacking trips in Idaho’s premier mountain range. And see all of my stories about Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
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