Go to Hells Canyon
42 miles, 18,000 feet of climbing and a swim
Mike James cruises to the route's finish in Idaho. Photo by Steve Graepel
“I think it’s going to rain,” I muttered to Mike as inky clouds blotted out the sky and lightning lit the canyon walls in bright technicolor.
“Positive thoughts,” he said. I tucked my feet into a garbage sack and rocked for warmth as the sky unloaded.
It was my first trip—and my first time meeting—with Mike James, a 40-year-old airplane mechanic out of Billings. I was looking for a companion to run the canyon; he was looking to take in “an easy 60 miles” the same weekend. I could help him with some miles, but they wouldn’t come easy.
Two hours later a flock of chukars flew through the dewy morning light. I rolled over to find Mike plucking spines out of his backside. While descending from the Oregon highpoint, we were stymied in the canyon basin by nightfall, preventing us from crossing the river back into Idaho. Wading through the dark, in search of a place to bivy, Mike had slipped off a grassy ledge and onto a patch of prickly pear cactus, abruptly breaking his fall.
“Evidently it takes about a spine per pound of flesh to stop a man,” Mike flipped.
Desolate, hot, dry, inhospitable. ... Many see Hells Canyon as purgatory. But we came looking for adventure and Hells dished it out in heavenly portions.
Our goal was simple—complete an out-and-back of North America’s deepest can- yon, which sits at the borders of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and western Idaho. At their highest points, the canyon rims are slightly over 8000 feet (Idaho) and 5600 feet (Oregon) and stretch 10 miles before they plunge into the Snake River. Getting to either rim requires a committing approach: eight miles from the Windy Saddle trailhead in Idaho and a mile or two from Hat Point, Oregon. In the trench, the out-and-back route serpentines 42 miles and climbs 18,000 feet. From scouring the sources, best we could tell it had never been attempted. We were getting schooled as to why.
Twenty-four hours earlier we had left the Windy Saddle trailhead in Idaho, shouldered our bloated packs and trundled over manicured trails afoot the Seven Devils Mountain Range. Our approach circled counter-clockwise under granite spires and through charred toothpick forests, eventually running out onto Dry Diggings ridge—a high-alpine plateau that would bring us to the rim. We used the time to introduce our- selves, both silently assessing each other’s skills and vocally sharing our extracurricular vitae. Mike rattled off a few of the big races as he pitched down the trail.
“We’re in it for the long haul; let’s take it conservatively,” I suggested, throttling back the testosterone.
After three hours, the trail plunged nearly 6000 feet into the Snake River, which we only briefly discerned before it cut behind chiseled walls. The canyon air was stained auburn by the Sheep Fire 20 miles north, making the Oregon rim appear farther away. Mike spied a lone tower piercing the horizon line: Hat Point, our turnaround destination.
“She’s a big ditch,” he said.
The abstraction of distance and terrain began to settle into reality.
The Snake is a lifeline for southern Idaho, bridling fertile ground and power where there would otherwise be neither. Hells Canyon is no different. Only here, the canyon always takes more than it gives. The trail to the river revealed a quick visual history of the Canyon’s greed: a rock shelter dated over 7000 years, pictographs painted on the basalt walls, fruit orchards gone feral and farming implements strewn about the McGaffee Cabin—abandoned since 1935. Just then, the anachronistic din of internal combustion caught my attention.