Climbing in the footsteps of Louis Stur
Intending to climb Mt. Heyburn in a day, I hustled up the trail and made quick work of the cross country approach only to have altitude and fatigue slam me in the face. Having slowed to a more rational pace I'm soon confronted with remnant snow that laces the cool shadows of the west ledges. It's delicate work, with no protection to be found, as I am stymied by the last wall of "ball bearing" granite and snow slurry.
Nearly resolved that it was not to be, I commit to a solitary crack while leap frogging nuts on tiger tails. Arriving at the foot of the Stur Chimney, I'm struck with how little I recall of the climb, and how different these conditions have made it.
Thirty 'plus' years ago my buddies Steve and Paul took me on this, my first ever rock climb. Then, my mountain schooling was woefully limited to glacier and snow, which was born out of the desire to ski a couple of Washington Volcanoes. I didn't own any hardware, the only rope I knew about was plastic ski area avalanche cord, and I was outfitted head-to-toe in army surplus. As for rock - I had never touched it, and during that ascent I got my hands slapped by the proverbial Mt. Heyburn ruler. As I starting to gear up for my return climb, I gazed toward the upper reaches of the chimney, while recollecting sequences randomly like foggy apparitions. On my first encounter I recalled being plagued by "cotton mouth", where not even a gallon of water could satisfy as I wrestled with my rock demons. At one point I pressed myself deep into a high alcove, so I wouldn't have to look down, while huffing and puffing harder than Thomas the Engine. I began to wonder if the boogie rock troll was waiting to jump me on this round as well.
Accumulating adventures and skills over the years I was here to put a solo twist on the re-ascent, following not only in my reminiscing footsteps but in those of name sake, Louis Stur. During my first attempt I had found a very cool hat on the approach. After returning to the land of the living from the improbable summit success, I got to thinking…could this hat be Louis's?
As I continued to pursue my mountain ramblings, I became increasingly enamored with the mountain pioneers. And began a small collection of artifacts found along the way to add to Stur's hat. Like a tactile picture they connected me to the mountain spirit of places visited and of those who had gone before.
As I started up the chimney, requiring a double-climb due to self-belaying, I called to Louis to show me the way. In 1951, Louis Stur came to Sun Valley to visit, fell in love with Idaho, and never left. In doing so the Hungarian immigrant was destined to become the most prolific climber of the European guides who worked for the Sun Valley Company. Stur, with Jim Ball, occasionally with Fred Beckey, and often with Jerry Fuller, raised the standards of Idaho mountaineering as he explored every nook and cranny of the Sawtooths and established classic routes on many peaks. Mount Heyburn, notably the most visible, well known and by some accounts, the most majestic peak in the Sawtooth Range, owned a bad reputation of notoriously rotten granite in early exploration. After making the first ascent of the higher west peak, famed Robert Underhill described the peak's granite as "some of the worst stuff I have ever seen." Stur changed the mountain's regard when he discovered an untried chimney on the peak's west face. As I ascended his most popular test piece I soon reached the lower roof where the first clue of Stur's passing revealed itself. A piton on the west face - climbers right called for a round about series of moves then back into the chimney for more. Perfect, well placed Louis! Climbing on, the solid dry groove of the route was becoming a delight as I had now shaken free from the pesky snow.
Crafting my way to a limitless sky, I wondered how Louis had found this obscure classic. Stur said that, "It's the fascination of pioneering the mountains. You look at some climb and … it might go, it might not. Once you describe it by a decimal, part of the fascination is lost." In 1959 he wrote in the American Alpine Journal about his beloved Sawtooths, saying, "Though the principal peaks have been climbed, we set ourselves the modest task of discovering the best and most enjoyable routes." In recounting I was reminded, Louis Stur's rewards from climbing were derived less from expanding the technical horizons of the day than from the fulfillment he gained simply by being in the mountains. In that moment I appreciated the clarity.
Finally, in a rhythmic sequence of moves directly up the chimney there it was, my nemesis the "cotton mouth" alcove. It looked the same, having been firmly etched in my memory. Again, I suffered from shortness of breath, not from the fear of an impending dome, but from simple altitude. As I communed with my comical past I took note of the securing claw marks in the back of the cave as they lay under the large chockstone, or so I imagined. Louis, what now? As I strained to remember the detail, the path unveiled via a series of pitons leading around the roof on the climber's right. Not difficult, but requiring thought about the next move, I puzzled how Stur had managed to put the pins in.
Reaching relatively safe ground within another thirty feet, I shed my harness and hardwear to move freely about the summit. The Sawtooth crest highlighted by early season snow revealed every crease and feature, while the high vista over the Stanley valley presented a vast expanse and the distance yet to be traversed on the return to Red Fish Lake. As I placed a summit 'Space Pig' Memorial for my brother, Carl, that my first ascent buddy Steve had asked me to bring, I was brought full circle. Like Louis I found once again "pleasure in working with the stone, enjoying the landscapes and wildlife as much as the summit."
In 1990, the American Alpine Journal remembered Louis Stur by commenting, "He wasn't a conqueror of mountains; his love for the mountains was too deep for that. Rather than tread upon them, he chose to climb among them." Having set his eyes on Mount Heyburn in the early days, he reflected "it's such an impressive, beautiful mountain that I thought it deserved some nice route," as if seeking to give the mountain something in return for its beauty.
Louis, thanks for your blazing trail, and the sporting hat.
Louis Samuel Stur
Stur was as much a legend for his generosity as he was for his climbing exploits. Climber after climber discovered that no matter how busy Stur was at the Sun Valley Lodge, he would always take time to answer a climbing question or point out the best route on a peak.
Although he had traveled widely in his sixty-five years, including visits to Africa, Patagonia, New Zealand, China, Tibet, Nepal, and the Alps, he found the great mountains and the great climbs right at home. He was content to grab a local partner, or to climb solo, and explore his own adopted backyard, the Sawtooths of Idaho.
Louis Stur died from a fall in 1989 at age 64 while exploring a chimney on Baron Peak in the Sawtooth backcountry. In its day, Louis Stur's routes were anything but moderate; they were considered extreme.
Stur Chimney – First Ascent, October 1, 1958, Louis Stur, Jerry Fuller and Jim Ball II, 5
Mount Heyburn - Elevation: 10229 ft / 3118 m