Climbing in the Sawtooth Range: A Historical Perspective

The wild, glaciated, granite wonderland of the Sawtooth batholith soars above Stanley. Waking up each morning and going to bed each night under a sky soaked in oranges, pinks, and purples, the mountains have become my constant companions and my favorite playground.

I’ve delighted in the bone chilling bliss of alpine lakes and the instantly relaxing hot springs. I’ve marveled at waterfalls and have toiled away trekking up steep snow. I am grateful for the geological processes which have left me with cracks and couloirs to climb and summits to stand on. Of course, I am nowhere near the first or the only person to do this. The Sawtooth Range has been inspiring the vertically intrepid to climb upward since their discovery. Features like the Finger of Fate, the Elephant’s Perch, and Mt. Heyburn look like they are asking to be climbed, but their steep Class V walls ward off anything but the most serious attempts. Climbing here is undeniably dangerous, especially within the wilderness boundaries where rescues are laborious, but a few expert alpinists have explored the limits of climbing here and have opened the Sawtooth’s to amateurs through guiding services.

As a climber and a historian, I was immediately drawn to studying Sawtooth climbing pioneers like Louis Stur, Fred Beckey, Jerry Fuller, Dave Williams, Bob and Miriam Underhill, and the Iowa Mountaineers. To my frustration, information about climbing and mountaineering history in the area was hard to come by. This was intentional. I contacted Kirk Bachman, the founder of Sawtooth Mountain Guides and a local alpine legend, and he told me that culture here has been and continues to be one of “quiet pioneering”. The humble explorers of the Sawtooth Mountains didn’t go vertical for fame, but for pure love of adventure.

Dave Williams and Bob Underhill with Miriam Underhill. SIHA Archives.

Kirk Bachman moved here in 1984 and started a guiding business, though he fell in love with the place when he was nine years old after he caught his first fish in Redfish Lake. He told me stories about people and places, but mostly we talked about the ethos of climbing in the Sawtooths. Alpine pursuits here follow natural lines instead of bolt ladders and there is very little ego involved when it comes to climbing. This ethos is rooted in the history of this place, and can also be traced to the general values of the Stanley community. In my desire to understand the distinct climbing culture here, I began to look back.

Miriam Underhill on North Raker. SIHA Archives.

In 1934 Bob and Miriam Underhill hired Dave Williams, a homesteader with property under what is now William’s Peak, to help guide them around the rugged Idaho terrain.

Bob and Miriam spent their summers climbing out West and after a season spent putting up difficult lines in the Tetons, they discovered the Sawtooths.  The Underhills, with the help of Dave, managed to achieve twenty first ascents in the Sawtooths during their 1934 and 1935 visits. The Underhills spent a little over 4 weeks time in the area, but they were able to achieve amazing new heights and set a precedent for Sawtooth alpinism.

In 1947, Paul Petzoldt, a famous Idahoan climber and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), made the first ascent of Warbonnet Peak, which sits proudly above the Baron Lakes with the Iowa Mountaineers. The Iowans came to Stanley for their summer outing which was “one of the most thoroughly enjoyable trips in the club’s history”. The Iowa Mountaineers of the University of Iowa was one of the most prolific and active mountaineering clubs in the country and they spent their summer based out of Redfish Lake with a high camp in an alpine meadow at the foot of Thompson Peak. They bagged a lot of peaks and named a few after Iowans (few of the names stuck). This kicked off a period of high climbing activity in the region.

Stur and Beckey: First Ascent of Rotten Monolith. SIHA Archives.

Fred Beckey, a climbing legend from Washington with more first ascents than any other American mountaineer, came to the Sawtooths in 1949 and brought with him an infectious energy which led to a boom in climbing in the area. Any climber who comes to the Sawtooths looks up at the Beckey route on the Elephant’s Perch with awe and wonder. The route, which goes at 5.11, requires some serious strength and skill and was first done by Fred Beckey, Steve Marts, and Herb Swedlund in 1963 without the advantage of modern climbing shoes, ropes, and protection. Beckey made impressive assents throughout the Sawtooth’s and along with Lois Stur, brought about a new era of hard technical alpine ascents.

Louis Stur was a Hungarian immigrant who moved to Ketchum in 1951 and began working at Sun Valley. He was known as an exceedingly kind and gentle. He spent his days happily moving about the mountains and established the famous “Stur Chimney” on Mt. Heyburn in 1952 and pioneered new routes in the Monte Verita area. He tragically died in a climbing accident on Mt. Ebert in 1989, but not before leaving an indelible and positive mark on the Sawtooth alpine community. Stur and Beckey, who sometimes climbed together, were joined by other “quiet pioneers” like Jerry Fuller, Reid Dowdle,  Joe Leonard, and many more.

Many climbers visiting the area remark on the lack of a guidebook. Tom Lopez covers the Sawtooth’s in his excellent book, Idaho: A Climbing Guide, but the overview is not all encompassing or terribly specific. Ask any local climber and they will tell you that they want to keep it that way. The point of climbing is to discover the world, the rock, and the route for yourself. If you need help to do that safely, there are plenty of guides willing to help.

Similarly, the point of climbing history in the area is not to put any one person on a pedestal. The climbing pioneers who made first ascents here had no desire for lasting fame. Most of them wanted to get away from the noise of the world and immerse themselves in the mountains. Without posting a picture online or yelling their achievements loudly at the Redfish Lodge, these early climbers quietly and deliberately pushed limits in the mountains.

Louis Stur on Mt. Heyburn. SIHA Archives.

That is what makes the Sawtooths different from the Tetons, the Wasatch range, and other big name climbing areas in the region. It isn’t that the climbing is worse (many would argue it is far better), but it is not boastful. Climbing here requires you to put your head down and put in hard work. The reward for this is clear and can be found in the stunning view down Redfish Canyon or in the pure and satisfying physical exhaustion of a day in the mountains.

There is so much value in spending time in the mountains and inspiration to be gleaned from their cathedral like spires. We all have different reasons for exploring this beautiful place, but if you had to boil it down I think you’d have to label it love. The same things that brought the Underhills here brought Louis Stur and Kirk Bachman and it has brought me too. Whether or not you’re a climber, I’m guessing it’s the same thing that brought you to the Sawtooths too.

Working here as the Historic Specialist, I’ve had the opportunity to have some amazing conversations with locals like the one I had with Kirk. History often becomes mired in dates, names, and numbers, and soul can get lost along the way. That doesn’t happen in Stanley. The facts are wrapped up in heart and soul, and the resulting ethos is lived out every day. I still have a lot more to learn, so if you’re in the neighborhood and have a story please come share it with me, and this post is far from inclusive, so if you have any questions about a specific ascent or climber, drop me a line and I can do some sleuthing. Otherwise, you can catch me out in the mountains. In my opinion, there’s no better place to learn.

-Caroline Wickes, Stanley Museum Historic Specialist




Meier, M. F. (1947). Sawtooth Mountaineering. Iowa Climber.

Stur, L. S. (1952). The Sawtooth Range of Idaho. Iowa Climber.

Bachman, B. (February 1975). Sawtooth Prolog. Off Belay. Issue no. 19.

Interview with Stur. L. S. (February 1975). Sawtooth Pioneering. Off Belay. Issue no. 19.

Bachman, B., Smutek, R. (February 1975). Sawtooth Mountaineering. Off Belay. Issue no. 19.

Wren, C. (October 9, 1999). Paul Petzoldt is Dead at 91; Innovator in Climbing. The New York Times.

Person, D. (October 7, 2016). Fred Beckey is Climbing’s Living Encyclopedia. Outside Magazine.

Interview with Bachman, K. (July 2017)