Native Ascents in Idaho
Did native people climb to the summits of Idaho's high peaks? It's a tantalizing question to which there is no definitive answer. In any event, let's try to make some educated guesses based upon the evidence at hand.
The imprint of humans in Idaho may go back 12,000 years. This great length of time, alone, is a compelling argument for the affirmative. On a spectrum, did natives ascend ALL of Idaho's peaks, most of them, many , some, just a few, or very few? Evidence shows native people used the ridges north of Salmon River for travel, examples being the Nez Perce trail system, and 'indian post offices' (route-side cairns).
In Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and the southwest, people climbed high in the mountains to escape the heat. The Utah state archaeologist contends native people climbed ALL peaks in the Beehive state. Fremont people at Range Creek (east central Utah) climbed cliffs rated up to 5.11 to cache precious food stores. No doubt they had the ability.
Unfortunately, there is meager evidence to show native people visited many Idaho summits over 10,000' elevation. A government archaeologist, referring to Idaho's high peaks, told me "from an archaeological standpoint, we don't know what's up there". For further discussion on this subject, consult the article 'Prehistoric Mountain Ascents in North America' by Dr Evelio Echevarria in Appalachia, Dec 2001.
After Paul Petzoldt's 1924 ascent of Grand Teton, the budding legendary climber from Idaho inquired if anyone else in Jackson Hole had climbed The Grand. The local response was "I ain't lost nuthin' up there". This articulately speaks to motivation. Why would members of nomadic subsistence cultures waste precious time and energy climbing summits where there were no life giving staples to be found? Just because some (white) people value peak bagging today, doesn't mean this was the case with other populations. In the 1980's I raised this question with some elders of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. All I got was silence. Finally one person said " If we knew anything we'd tell you, but our people don't have a tradition of climbing mountains".
This doesn't mean native Idahoans weren't in the mountains. On the contrary, mountains and their bounty were part of the ebb and flow of life for nomadic people. At Big Spring in the Lost River Range, 5th class climbing was needed to inscribe the pictographs. In the Lemhi Range, a sagebrush lashed ladder was found in Rocky Canyon.
My own hunch, based on 825+ unique Idaho summit visits, is that native people climbed some to a few of the high summits. But, this is only a guess based on observation of the evidence. Cairns and monuments placed by early white explorers and surveyors could have obliterated native evidence.
One hypothesis I'm currently testing is as follows: On a few occasions artifacts have been found shy of the summit. Could there have been a myth of ill omen or bad karma related to standing on a summit? Were summits to be avoided?
To help develop more of an appreciation for our early mountain visitors, here's a photo essay on some things to look for. A fertile imagination is required. If this subject whets your appetite, please share your own observations.
To the mountains.....
Archaeologists have identified about 25 visionquest sites in Idaho. The visionquest was a several day mediation taken by a youth entering manhood. A favored location for this ritual appears to be desolate high hills with magnificent vistas. Here's one. This butte in Thousand Springs Valley overlooks the Borah Peak area. Shown is an obsidian dart point, and for scale, an ungulate bone.