the north face big shot Kopczynski applies climbing prowess to horizontal route
Reaching Horton RidgeTo reach Horton Ridge Trailhead and climbers’ route to Mount Roothaan and Chimney Rock, drive north from Priest River, Idaho, to Coolin at the south end of Priest Lake.
At Coolin, turn right onto East Shore Road. Drive 7.4 miles and turn right on Road 24 (Hunt Creek). High clearance vehicles are necessary for this last stretch to the former Horton Ridge fire lookout site. The trailhead is easy to find, but surprise, it is not likely to be marked.
Chris Kopczynski has had an enduring relationship with Chimney Rock.
By 1973, after a collegiate wrestling career and graduating from Washington State University, he had made 26 ascents of Chimney Rock, the iconic pillar of granite in the Idaho Selkirk Mountains east of Priest Lake.
“There’s something about it,” he said, elaborating on George Mallory’s “because it’s there.”
Last week he was back in the neighborhood with another sort of goal that evolves from having been there.
Forty years ago, “Kop” had already ascended nearly every crack on all four sides of the Chimney and completed six new routes, including two new routes on the East Face.
He and John Roskelley had become known for international mountaineering, including the Russian Pamirs. The Spokane duo then teamed to become the first American pair to climb the Eiger.
But they also applied their growing rack of skills locally to make the first free ascent of the East Face of Chimney Rock.
“Most people don’t realize what we have in our backyard,” Kop said.
On Feb. 22, 1973, Kopczynski made the first chilling in every sense of the word winter ascent of the Selkirks spire. “Nearly froze to death,” he said.
Back in the Selkirks over the Labor Day holiday, the 68 year old Spokane contractor was joined by his daughter, Kelly Kopczynski, and family friend Lexi Greenwood.
Chimney Rock was a waypoint rather than a destination for this trip.
“This is my second attempt at traversing the crest of peaks, without needing a rope, from Mount Roothaan over to and up Harrison Peak and down to Two Mouth Lakes and out via the Wig Wam,” Kop said.
He completed much of the route with Jim States in March 1981 on snowshoes when hard packed snow allows relatively easy walking over the jumble of granite boulders litering the Selkirk crest.
In summer, the route is much more complicated and grueling. One must hike, scramble, crawl, weave and hop on boulders that sometimes teeter under a hiker’s boot toward a potential crushing fall.
Incidentally, Kop and States were in tip top condition in 1981, the year after they’d teamed with Roskelley and Kim Momb for the locally grown Spokane to Makalu Expedition. That unassisted alpine style ascent has been recognized by the American Alpine Club as one of the world’s 10 “most significant climbs of the 20th century.”
But that’s history.
Last week, the two Kops and Greenwood cashed in favors with family members for vehicle shuttles and were dropped off up from Priest Lake on Horton Ridge, site of a former fire lookout.
Recreation isn’t a primary purpose of the Idaho Department of Lands, which becomes obvious on its routes to the trailhead. The forestry roads are mostly unmarked, but Kop knew each turn intimately.
The first part of their trek was on the pretty much user made trail that climbs the ridge for nearly 2 miles to a good viewpoint near the top of Mount Roothaan that’s popular with lake visitors wanting a closer look at Chimney Rock.
“This doesn’t get any easier over the years,” Kop said, bringing up the rear behind the two 21 year olds.
It didn’t help that he was packing nearly two gallons of water with his backpacking gear and food for three days.
“I hope to find water for camping on the north face basin of Silver Dollar (Peak), but I’m not sure,” he said.
Chimney Rock played peekaboo through the clouds and fog beyond the granite strewn cirque basin below the viewpoint. The threesome regrouped, rehydrated and Chris took the lead on the un trailed route he’s covered dozens of times off Roothaan to the east side of the crest on foot or skis.
Heading down into the steep, slick slope and granite boulders and slabs, Kop seemed to effortlessly walk away from the youngsters.