A High Country Epiphany: Running in the White Clouds Wilderness

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I have this ugly hat that I love. My wife hates it. Strangers stop me in the grocery store and ask what it means.

“Where is ‘Altilope Rap Battle’?” my mom asked when she first saw it, pronouncing each word in what sounded like her best Italian, assuming it was a place name somewhere far from here in Montana.

The hat is significant, not just because it happens to be the most comfortable hat I own, but because I actually witnessed an altilope rap battle. A couple of summers ago, I was with two friends on a 10,000-foot ridge in Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Mountains, following a rocky trail—not worn by humans, but by the hooves of animals, generations of them.

Draney and Nelson utilize a game trail in the Boulder Mountains. Photo by Steve Gnam.

First, we smelled the trail builders, their scent a sweet mix of old leather and pinesap. Then we saw them, a herd of elk: mostly cows, with a few immature bulls. They stopped in a meadow. Across from them stood a herd of pronghorn antelope. The elk and pronghorns faced each other, and began to call in their own dialects—antelope wheezing and elk chirping, back and forth.

Ty finally spoke, interrupting our awe as we listened. “We should call the pronghorns ‘altilope,’—I’ve never seen antelope so high in the mountains.” And the altilope rap battle was christened.

Draney and Nelson find soft footing alongside a high-country lake. Photo by Steven Gnam.

It was July 2015, and Luke Nelson, 35, of Pocatello, Idaho, and Ty Draney, 41, of Star Valley, Wyoming, and I were in the Boulder-White Clouds on a multi-day running trip. We were exploring land in Central Idaho that was slated to become the country’s newest wilderness area. The Boulder and White Cloud Mountains spread north from Ketchum and east of Stanley. While they aren’t as widely known as their sister range to the west, the Sawtooths, thanks to their pale, chossy rock, their long alpine

ridges have an other-worldly high-altitude allure. These mountains have one of the highest-elevation salmon runs in North America and a wolverine population that endured while others vanished across the West.

In the early 1970s, the remote range found the political spotlight when an open-pit mine was proposed at the base of Castle Peak, creating a raucous uproar among locals. Forty years after the mine was proposed, the long fight to protect this place has come to an end, the conclusion a complex result of compromises won and lost.

Draney runs into the sunset, with Castle Peak prominent on the left edge of the skyline. Photo by Steve Gnam.

A few months earlier, at a conference at Redfish Lake, Luke and I listened to Republican Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson speak about his personal experience in the range and how it drove him to defy party norms to protect it. Simpson proposed a wilderness bill that protected a smaller chunk of land, instead of supporting the larger, multi-use National Monument many conservationists and recreationalists pushed for. Simpson’s bill eventually passed, giving the place the utmost protection but for less land, a tough compromise for many in the coalition.

Luke Nelson. Photo by Steve Gnam.

As Luke and I left the meeting, I mulled over my lingering questions. What is the best way to care for a rugged mountain range? And what does a wilderness designation do for land and for the human relationship to it? As Luke and I talked, we felt we needed our own experiences in this place to shape our perspective. Running down this ridge, stopping to watch the elk, seemed like a good start.

As Luke and I talked, we felt we needed our own experiences in this place to shape our perspective.

On that July day, high in the Boulder Mountains, we remained motionless for 15 minutes as we watched the last elk and antelope walk out of sight. As we prepared to move on, Luke noticed an elk antler in the center of the meadow and veered toward it, through the lupine. The antler was an arrangement of blonde tines stacked along a heavy brown beam. Luke sat down on it and dumped rocks out of his shoes, taking his time as he laced them back up. As he stood, instead of just heading out, Luke bent over and picked up the 20-pound bone sculpture.

A shed antler and lupine. Photo by Steve Gnam.

We pressed on, finding the rhythm of our pace again. Our eyes shifted from the narrow trail to the rolling hills and expansive sky in front of us. A cadence of shifting perspectives, from the unchanging horizon to the blurring rocks underfoot. We’d been moving for a few hours and still the place invigorated us. Luke was still carrying the antler, but, a few miles farther, his tired arms gave it back to the earth. For Ty and me, fatigue lurked 10 miles ahead, near Meridian Peak. In that moment, however, we felt like the antelope, moving effortlessly.

A geode in the Boulder Mountains. Photo by Steve Gnam.

As we continued along the ridge, my toe kicked up a strangely round rock, and I stopped to pick it up. It was a geode, filled with crystals. We had stumbled upon a garden of geodes, little cabbage heads poking out of the ground, hiding their sparkling underbellies.

“Look at this one!”
“This one is crazy!”
“It’s like being in a rock shop.”
“Oh, found another one!”

Luke and Ty ran about picking them up, sharing the best ones with each other. But in the end, they were like the antler—we returned them to the earth and continued on.

As we got closer to Meridian Peak, the high point of the day, the ridge began to fall off steeply on both sides. The elk trail turned to mountain-goat trail then disappeared. We weren’t running anymore, but using our hands on the loose choss. Columns of rock interrupted the ridge, and we spread out to find the safest route around them. As we scrambled around the columns, we realized we would need to alter our route in light of this time-consuming section. Ahead were miles and miles of similar-looking terrain.

On the summit of Meridian, at 12,426 feet, the cumulative effects of altitude and fatigue caught up with us–at least Ty and me. I started to feel nauseous. I tried to eat, but the thought of my gummies and potato chips made my stomach churn. Just after signing the summit register, Ty vomited off the side of the mountain.

Ty Draney. Photo by Steve Gnam.

“Ty, how you doing?” I asked
“Fine. How about you?”
“Not so good.” I replied. “Wait, how are you fine? You just threw up.”
“I’m used to it. Happens to me all the time on long efforts.” Ty responded like only a seasoned ultrarunner with a delicate stomach could.

Luke seemed to be impervious, popping gels and smiling. With two of us queasy and the terrain slow going, we knew we couldn’t stick to our original plan and stay high above treeline for the rest of the day. We needed to bail off the ridge and hit the trail in the valley–the fastest way back to the car. Even then we were going to be coming out in the dark.

We pressed on, finding the rhythm of our pace again. Our eyes shifted from the narrow trail to the rolling hills and expansive sky in front of us. A cadence of shifting perspectives, from the unchanging horizon to the blurring rocks underfoot.

As we made our way off the ridge and to the valley floor, my six-hour vision quest began. I fasted the rest of the run out, because even the gel made me want to throw up. As night fell, I was left with the small bit of trail illuminated by my headlamp, the sounds and glowing eyes of the bear and moose we spooked and my thoughts.

Draney and Nelson on the flank of Castle Peak, White Cloud Mountains. Photo by Steve Gnam.

As we ran to get out of the dark and the wild, I thought about the words of the Wilderness Act: “Man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Even if we wanted to, we don’t possess the skills to live out here. These mountains, as much as I love them, can’t be my home.

Perhaps it was the clarity from my unplanned fast, but I found solace in the idea that this place would stay untouched, remain a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The purpose of Wilderness is not solely for us humans, a thought we often resist. But somewhere in the dark night, miles from anything resembling civilization, this idea was satisfying. The wild exists for itself, and I am just one small light moving through it.

On August 7, 2015, President Barack Obama, backed by Congress, signed into law the Jim McClure–Jerry Peak Wilderness, the Hemingway–Boulders Wilderness and the White Clouds Wilderness. If you visit those same ridges today, looking for the altilope, you will find them much the same as we did before the wilderness designation–and I think that’s the point.

Steven Gnam spends much of his time following wolverines, which is good training for following his ultrarunning friends around. He lives with his wife in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington.

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