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Elijah Weber climbing the Petzoldt Couloir on Mount Heyburn in central Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.

Climbing The Petzoldt Couloir
photo by Mark Weber

Mount Heyburn, with its serrated southeast ridge and twin summits, dominates the skyline above beautiful Redfish Lake high in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains. Its northeast face is severed by a snow-filled cleft, known as a couloir, named after the legendary climber Paul Petzoldt. Though details of the first ascent are hazy, Petzoldt climbed this thin ribbon of snow and ice in 1947.

On this Father's Day, as my son Elijah, 26, and I trek toward the peak, a late spring storm lashes the summits of the Sawtooths with rain, snow and wind. We pause in the forest for shelter and dig parkas from our packs. As lightning flashes across the dark sky, I consider the possibility that climbing Mount Heyburn may have to wait for another day.

The Petzoldt Couloir is one of those classic climbs that should be on any alpinist's must-do list. Classic climbs are not necessarily the most difficult and may not even ascend the highest summits, but they include striking features and offer aesthetic climbing over relatively safe terrain, and that is just what we came here for today.

Straight-forward climbing—varying in steepness from 30 to 60 degrees—on firm snow and occasional ice leads up this narrowing defile to a prominent saddle. Some parties may feel more comfortable roping up for this climb, which is a Class 5, while others will be secure self-belaying with just their ice tools.

For most of my life, the beauty and challenge of Idaho's mountains have called to me with an irresistible siren's song. This trip, however, was born as much from my son's desire to experience and challenge himself in these mountains as it was of my own. Admittedly, I cherish these opportunities to share with my kids the same experiences that shaped so much of my life. Now, gambling that the dark clouds and squalls would pass, we decide to continue. As we climb, a schizophrenic display of sinister clouds and welcoming blue skies unfolds overhead, luring us upward. Kicking crampon points and plunging ice axes, we inch up the ever-steepening ribbon of snow.

From the saddle, Petzoldt climbed the slightly higher west summit, but unless you enjoy mediocre rock climbing on less-than-stellar granite, save the west summit for the classic Stur Chimney Route and set your sights on the slender and exposed pinnacle of the east summit just to your left. Faced with the last few difficult moves to the summit, Elijah delicately grasps tiny granite holds and edges carefully with his boots to the top. Turning back to my stance on the ridge, he flashes me a familiar smile and I know this outing in the Sawtooths has been a fitting gift for Father's Day.

How to climb Petzoldt

Access: Take Redfish Lake Road off Highway 75, five miles south of Stanley. Drive two miles to Redfish Lake Lodge and the Redfish trailhead. From either the trailhead or the Redfish Lake Inlet Transfer Camp (shuttle boat ride), hike the Forest Service trails to the Bench Lakes. Continue climbing to the fifth or highest bench lake on indistinct trails. Pass to the left or south of the highest Bench Lake (vague trail can be seen in the scree and talus) and continue up the cirque to the base of the couloir.

The Route: Once inside the couloir, stay to the right and just follow it to the top at the saddle. The saddle lies between the west and east peaks. At the saddle, leave your crampons and ice tools. Start scrambling up the ridge to the left (southeast); this is best accomplished by first staying to the south side, then crossing over to the north. The last 20 feet may require a couple of Class 5 moves.
Descent: Retrace your steps back to the saddle and descend via scree-filled gullies that wriggle down the mountain's south face. Rejoin the Redfish Creek Trail and continue to either the Redfish Inlet Transfer Camp (shuttle boat ride) or back to Redfish Lake Lodge via the Bench Lakes/Fishhook Creek trails.

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