A Tale of Summer Backpacking: A Little Sketchy, A Lot Worth it

I’ll never forget the day I first saw Emerald and Sapphire Lakes from Sawtooth Ridge... 

Best view in the Alps: Emerald and Sapphire Lakes

Best view in the Alps: Emerald and Sapphire Lakes

A couple years ago @alexjwittmer, @isaiakawika and I scrambled up Sawtooth Ridge above Big Caribou Lake known as the “Caribou Scramble”. The large drainage to the south of the lake is decorated with beautiful granite blocks, full of boulder problems galore. It’s like Candy Land for explorers who love cross-country travel and route-finding. The grand prize is the summit. Some say it’s the best view in the Trinity Alps.

Last week my nephew and I hiked from Big Caribou to Emerald and Sapphire and then back. It was a burly day (especially when you can’t find the trail down the ridge). We improvised and chose to descend along an obvious drainage down the mountain. How hard could it be? 

We were down-climbing steep loose rock, deep in the wilderness. A wilderness scattered with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. An area where you can’t afford to mess up. What if we hit a section where we couldn’t down-climb?

I kept thinking about how in 1982 an 18-year-old kid died from heat exhaustion going back up the 99 switchbacks. (Ironically, I was born in 1982 and my nephew is 18). Not encouraging. 

“This is going to be an awesome adventure or a total failure,” I thought. “Am I the worse guide ever, taking my ‘newbie’ nephew down this? This is going to be awesome. Just send it.” 

To our relief, we made it to the bottom of the canyon after a couple hours reaching the lush Stuart Fork Trail. We submerged ourselves in the creek to celebrate, as the 2200-foot descent down the mountain offered no shade.

The craggy peaks encircled us with towering views on every side. We took our time reveling in our surroundings, both because it was epic and because it was practical... delaying the hike back as much as possible helped us avoid the scorching heat that bakes the south-facing side of Sawtooth Ridge. 

Emerald Lake looking back at Sawtooth Ridge

Emerald Lake looking back at Sawtooth Ridge

We had a long way to go from Sapphire Lake back up the mountain and down to base camp. Lucky for us, we found the trail this time which we hoped would be an improvement from the drainage line...

It was 6pm and the temperature was still roasting. The ascend back up was more like bushwhacking than following a tidy trail. (I’d heard no one goes up this side of the mountain, now I clearly saw why). Among hikers this section is known as the “pain cave”. We felt like ants compared to this beast. Our legs were heavy and ached, our lungs craving more oxygen, our minds fighting dizziness. We shared the silence and marched onward, each of us secretly praying for a cool breeze to sweep through. 

The look on my nephew’s face by this point concerned me. I could tell he was at the end of his rope. Half way up we took a break, we took in the ground we’d covered, (and I took stock of his mindset and stamina). Thumbs up. Serendipitously, that cool breeze did sweep through, whispering it’s encouragement when we needed it most.

We finally made the summit of the ridge close to 8pm. The homestretch trail leading back to base camp was memorably beautiful. We hugged and laughed a lot coming down the other side, any prior anxieties now behind us. The pain from our long day was overshadowed by thoughts of tacos and a campfire. 

We processed our experience that night... Hiking Emerald and Sapphire Lakes was a dream come true, and it did not disappoint. My nephew said it was both the hardest and coolest thing he had ever done, “an experience of a lifetime” he said. In retrospect, I’m glad we found ourselves on the path less traveled. Because these are the type of memories that define us- moments of overcoming challenges, dealing with fear, and discovering what’s inside of you beyond the limits of your comfort zone. The experience marked both of us in more ways than one, and we left our imprint there in the mountains in return.

Words & Photos by Benjamin Goodpasture

Sapphire Lake

Sapphire Lake


Bouldering is rock climbing in its simplest form. I love that it is accessible and available for anyone motivated to learn. It requires the least amount of gear: rock climbing shoes, chalk bag and a crash pad. No rope or harness required for this style of climbing. You can go bouldering anywhere outdoors where there is solid rock and at most indoor rock climbing facilities like Shasta Rock Club. 

Bouldering focuses on linking difficult movements together that create a "boulder problem", a defined route, up the rock face. These movements can be very dynamic and athletic at times, or very delicate and balanced. To be well rounded at this sport, one must learn to be both physical and mentally sharp at problem solving. It's great practice for learning technique and movement on the rock while building strength and endurance for other types of climbing.

This type of rock climbing has often been misunderstood, as it differs in scope compared to climbing tall 30 to 1,000 ft cliffs. But therein lies the beauty- bouldering is both intense and challenging, precise and nuanced, which equips climbers with the necessary strength and confidence to climb bigger rock faces & mountains. 

In my experience, the quintessential attraction to bouldering is the shared experience of problem solving and friendly competition that results as a group of climbers attempt a boulder problem. The reasons for its popularity are clear: its an affordable, accessible, community-oriented activity that promotes health and fitness. 

If you are new to climbing, bouldering is a great way to get started. Climb on!

Photo: V4 Patio Arete - Boone, North Carolina circa 2003. 

Success on Mt. Shasta

"Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he never dreamed of when he first made the decision." - The Alchemist - Pablo Coelho

What is success? Who gets to define success? How do I become successful?

I recently posted the question, "Who wants to climb Mt. Shasta this year?" Many people responded with a "YES, I'm in". This enthusiasm caused me to reflect, and stirred my curiosity, wondering how others will experience their adventure. 

On June 16, 2014, I summited Mt. Shasta for the first time. For me, success looked like setting one goal, saying many "yes's" along the way, and letting the journey unfold.

Over the course of five months, my training included ice climbing & back country skiing in Montana, backpacking in the Trinity Alps, snowshoeing in Lassen National Park, many long bike rides, hikes, & runs around Redding. In retrospect, my decision to climb Mt. Shasta attracted opportunities that I didn't anticipate or know would present themselves. I just kept saying "yes". 

The success of my larger goal began in those moments of preparation. Not to mention how many unforgettable memories were created in the process with friends in the outdoors. Success became about simply showing up. Getting out of bed earlier than before. Choosing to make time for a solid run. Meeting friends in other states to charge it for a few days. Knowing I was training my body and mind for greater endurance. 

During the climb (15 total hours), I experienced the benefits of being mentally and physically prepared. I have vivid memories of how present I felt as I ascended, joyfully present, in fact. It took my full focus and energy, but I didn't feel strained. I realized my sense of success in summiting that day was the sum of hundreds of small decisions made along the way. 

Maybe for some, the commitment to attempt a massive challenge is motivation enough. But what I discovered was that commitment grows by consistently saying "yes" to what's in front of you each day. As you begin planning your climb up Mt. Shasta or another peak, consider afresh what "success" really means to you - I believe it will boost your sense of adventure and thankfulness in the process, not just your satisfaction with the climb itself. The summit will be icing on the cake. 


Mt. Shasta is a serious mountain - Please get educated and prepare before attempting any climb up Shasta. For more info on routes, weather and avalanche conditions visit these sites:

Shasta Guides

Shasta Avalanche Center

Mountain Project