Love on the Rocks: The Romance of Climbing

Cristen Iris

by Cristen Iris as originally published in IDAHOmagazine, April 2015


It started at mile marker thirteen. Unlucky thirteen. Or maybe lucky thirteen? No, our relationship was destined to be a rocky one.

Jim Edgemon and I met early in the year of 2011. After chatting for months about our various outdoor interests, he asked me out on a date. He proposed a hike to, and climb up, Stack Rock, near the Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area. We had talked about it many times and I was excited to go, having never done anything like that before. Our date started at the trailhead near mile marker thirteen on Bogus Basin Road.

The June sky was bright and cheerful, all the vegetation was fresh-faced and wearing new leaves, as if to impress. The warm air alive with the sounds and smells of new life. The atmosphere encouraged us to go farther and seemed to diminish the effort required to get up steeper sections of the trail.

"We're almost there," Jim told me as we crested the top of a little hill and followed the trail to the right. And there it was, just beyond a swath of ceanothus. That's no big deal, I thought.

It wasn't a big deal. But it wasn't Stack Rock.

As we rounded that particular stack of rocks, the structure appeared that is nicknamed Freddy's Stack Rock. Now that was a big deal. Especially at an elevation of almost six thousand feet. This was the first time on our date when I felt nervous. I became self-conscious and insecure. I'd climbed at the Black Cliffs near Lucky Peak Reservoir once with my brother, but that was many years earlier, and we had been fully roped, harnessed, and chalked. I wasn't sure if my bravery would rally for this adventure.

But like the trees, I was eager to impress, in my own way. I put on a fresh face and let the mood of a first date inspire me as we began our ascent.

I felt fairly bold for the first half of the climb. My strength and skill were lacking, but my date was attentive. There may not have been any doors to open for this lady, but there were certainly obstacles that allowed plenty of chances for chivalrous acts like offering a leg or a hand up. We made progress and were getting along well until I looked down. My heart began to pound, and I hoped my apprehension wan't showing. My face must have given something away, because Jim began to encourage me. I'll never forget what he said.

"You're doing great. That was the worst part."

That helped.

Up, over, around, and then I stopped dead in my tracks. "Dead" being the operative word. I had followed Jim as he clambered up a narrow section, but when he paused to swing around a corner, I saw the precipitous drop.

This trip was a bad decision. A very bad decision!

I've never been good at a poker face, and terror is difficult to mask. Jim assured me he was right there and it wasn't as bad as it looked. Bravery had abandoned me altogether, but ego rallied. My heart pounded as hard as it has ever pounded. I held my breath, grabbed Jim's hand and swung around. I tried not to consider the climb back down. I was committed now.

Jim had lied about the worst part, but just beyond the terror was the summit, with its fantastic 360-degree view. The tree-covered hills of Bogus Basin and Deer Flat Station were to our backs, while the Treasure Valley stretched out before us. To our left, the foothills of Boise gradually grew to mountains, and somewhere just beyond sight were the Boulder-White Clouds. To our right, we could see the Avamor community on Highway 55 leading to Horseshoe Bend. And across the valley stood the magnificent and still snow-capped Owyhee Mountains. We stayed for more than an hour, talking and enjoying our perch. Jim took the opportunity to familiarize me with the landscape and to tell me that none of the other women he knew would make the climb. He let slip that it had been a test, and I had passed.

So had he.

It was, without a doubt, the best date I'd ever been on. I'd never felt so high. That's love, I guess. It starts off scary, but it's worth the climb.

Over the next year, my fear of climbing subsided. We took on Stack Rock several more times, and settled into a steady relationship.

One weekend in the early spring of 2013, we headed to Challis to explore the moraines near Mt. Borah. Challis' geology is active and with a minimal amount of training anyone can read the history of the landscape. The rugged beauty of the location we chose lured us farther up the draw. The air was cool, the sky dark, the vegetation not yet dressed itself for the new season. The air was damp and smelled of sleep. The atmosphere was unwelcoming if not foreboding, and the clouds spat snow at us, as if to warn of trouble ahead. Perhaps we should have taken the cue, but we pressed in and up, our sense of adventure and determination driving us.

Even in unwelcoming places, there is always enough to keep adventurers engaged. The occasional fossil rock and high craggy peaks intrigued us long after we'd seen the gentle moraines and boulder-strewn glacial formations we had come to see. We decided to attempt to climb as high as we could.

After crawling on hands and knees through a dense patch of scrub trees, we reached a scree field at the base of a craggy rim. Jim started to cross first. By then, I was comfortable enough that I didn't need Jim's constant attention and encouragement. I like to do things myself. So he headed out first and I followed slightly behind, each of us picking our own route.

Suddenly, I heard the rocks groan. My head snapped up to find Jim. His head whipped around to find me. He locked his eyes on mine as he said, "This was a bad decision."

He was calm but emphatic. "We are not safe. We need to get out of here!"

I had come almost parallel to him at that point, but was above him on the slope. The rocks beneath my feet began to shift and slide toward him, and I had to stop moving. We risked more than sprained ankles here. The dislodging of smaller scree destabilized the slope, and the shifting of the boulders above us meant that we were in imminent danger. A scree field is no place to be in the event of a rockslide. It was imperative that we quickly make a plan and move in unison if we were going to get out of our predicament unscathed.

Gingerly, we worked our way to a large, dead tree not far from where we were. From there, we moved in single file across the scree, our feet following the same route.

Once across, we sat together for a while and decompressed from the terrifying experience. We both realized how close we'd come to a catastrophic end to our adventure. I was struck by the potential loss of this man and invigorated by our team effort to get ourselves and each other out safely. That's love, I guess. Two people get into a bad situation but work together to escape it.

By August 2013, Jim and I had settled in to living together in a comfortable little condo near the Boise foothills. By August, the stifling heat and sameness of our surroundings were starting to grate on us. We needed a change of scenery.

As all Idahoans know, summers here go hand in hand with wildfires. Between the months of June and October, it seems that somewhere, something is on fire. This did not dissuade us. We loaded up the car and headed for the Stanley area.

Jim had slowly introduced me to many of his old haunts, and I was an eager companion. Each new adventure seemed better than the last. My fitness and ability had increased to the point that I was no longer a tag-along but a partner. I had been warned, however, that this trip was different. We would ride our mountain bikes several miles up the mountain, ditch them in the high brush, ford a stream, and then hike an arduous trail to a hanging lake.

He said we would see how I was feeling once we got there. If I was doing well, we would then climb through the boulder field toward the second lake. It would be our most difficult ride, hike, and climb to date, I was told. I took exception to the insinuation that I was perhaps not up to the challenge and retorted with an attitude that declared, "I'll be fine, thank you very much."

The ride up was wonderful, and when we got the bike drop, I scoffed at Jim's concern over my fitness. I was doing just fine, thank you very much. We forded a small stream and picked our way through a wide marsh before finding a narrow trailhead. The middle section of the trail was little more than a series of exposed tree roots used as a ladder. The dry dirt was as fine as powder. No traction could be found using our feet. It was hot, dirty, and exhausting work to pull ourselves up root by root.

I became angry; Jim had lied. This wasn't a hike; it was a death march! To make matters worse, a severe forest fire was burning in the area. Our mouths were full of ash and the air had more of a taste than a smell. The smoke made it difficult to breathe and the higher up we went, the worse our eyes burned. Obviously, we were working our way toward the fire.

This was a bad decision, a really bad decision!

Suddenly, the trail widened and flattened. In the foreground we saw a clear, tree-lined lake, with bare granite crags in the background. Smoke hung in the air, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene. The orange sky reflected eerily in the ice-cold water. All my anger and frustration evaporated into the smoke. The scene was one of the most stunningly beautiful things I'd ever seen.

After a brief, refreshing rest, we were called higher by the rosy rocks. We struggled through the thick air up to a large boulder field. High in the rocks, it was even more beautiful, and difficult to leave. The images of that day have left a lasting impression in my mind, much like the fire that marked the landscape. There's a strange beauty in fire burning through sameness, making room for new growth. That's love, I guess. Sometimes, fire and smoke are all around. They can make the journey difficult, but they give us the opportunity to see things in a different, more beautiful light.

I often wonder how Jim and I found our way to each other, and how together we find our way in, and out of, so many wonderfully rugged Idaho places.

Just luck, I guess. Or a series of bad decisions. In any case, I'm certain of one thing: our relationship will always be a rocky one.



Photos by Cristen Iris or Jim Edgemon. Please respect our copyright by asking permission before copying and using.


Cristen Iris

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