This trip to Idaho, to hike its highest mountain, was a long anticipated one for me. I had done my research well, collecting information from hiking guides, Highpointers books, websites, and trip reports like this one. All these sources proved useful, to a greater or lesser extent, and I could mine some morsel of information from each. All mentioned certain landmarks like “Chicken Out Ridge”(COR), and a certain snow filled saddle, and a 20-foot cliff on the summit massif. Hurdles all that had to be negotiated if one wanted to reach the top. August of 2004 found me setting out for Idaho. And I can report here, after hiking to the summit that it was not as hard as you are led to believe from available information. Don’t get me wrong, it is a difficult hike. No doubt. It is a lot of elevation gain from trailhead to summit, a good portion of which is across weather exposed ridges, there is no water on the route and the descent is a real knee jamming experience. Also, the difference between the weather at the trailhead and the summit is not to be discounted. Be prepared for anything.
AUGUST 21, 2004 Sat.
I arrived at the trailhead late. I came directly, more or less, from the airport in Salt Lake City. The drive took me about 7 hours. This included various stops, at least and hour or so to track down fuel for my whisperlight (Don’t go to Home Depot-I ended up getting Coleman fuel at Kirkham’s Outdoor Products, on South State Street), and getting dinner in Idaho Falls and a detour or two. There is a lot to see in Idaho, and I found all the lava fields especially interesting.
The posted speed on Interstate 15 was like 75mph, so of course I did 85 and yet I was passed as if standing still by some drivers. This, truly, is the land of lead feet.
I arrived at the trailhead at 10:00 PM and quickly set up my tent in the sagebrush flat surrounding the almost empty parking area. Exhausted, I fell asleep quickly. There were few cars in the PA, but it was Sat. night, and I figure most everyone that weekend had come and left already. I suspect that like every other popular trailhead that this place is jumpin’ come Friday. Come early if you want to get in on a Friday.
One thing about the trailhead camping must be mentioned here. Idaho has got it right! I mean I’ve camped at a lot of trailheads, but this is the best so far- and it’s free! First there are several nice campsites, each provided with a picnic table. There is a spanking new double stall vault toilet with stacks of TP in each stall. This last impressed me quite a bit.
There are not many campsites, but there are plenty of places to go off into the area surrounding the PA and camp. I even saw one group with their tent set up right next to their car in the PA. As you drive up, you will first see, on the right, a group campsite in the trees. A little higher are a couple three sites on the left across from the toilet. A small seasonal rivulet flows through these sites, creating a nice riparian zone. And even though I had taken water with me to the trailhead, I did use this water later. Last, at the top near the PA are a couple of campsites. Just 20 feet higher in elevation then the riparian zone these sites are as if in another place entirely- a desert scrub. The views from the PA west and across the valley are wonderful, and the summit can be seen as the most distant ridgeline on the horizon to the east. You can even make out the differently colored bands of rock that compose these mountains. (As a note, once on the summit of Borah look down and you will see the PA, I could even pick out my solitary white rental car!)
Aug 22, 2004 Sun
I woke about 6:00 AM and was on the trail before first light, but still I was the last to leave that day. A group of three was just ahead of me all the way to COR, where two decided to turn back and the third guy took off like a rabbit for the top.
It was hard going for me as I had just arrived from sea level. So I just went slowly, took sips of my drink and stopped often to catch my breathe (which allowed for long moments to enjoy the spectacular and ever changing views) In this way I did avoid the usual headache that I get when I hike in these elevations.
Initially the trail starts up a rutted woods road, passing through a wooded area with mountain mahogany and pine. Soon it crosses a dry ravine and climbs on tight switchbacks up to the top of a long ridge, popping out at about 8600 ft. There is a good campsite here, protected but dry. Even though it only took me half an hour to reach this stop, I was still glad I had decided to camp low and not haul my entire kit plus two days worth of water up to this spot as I had originally planned.
Next the “trail” (not marked- no signs, but easy to follow) turns “right” and steeply ascends the ridge. Near the tree line, at about 9800 ft, is another very small slightly improved camping spot. It is big enough for a small, narrow, tent or two, but it is much windier here and also dry. In fact there is no water at all on this approach. Well maybe some melt off on top in certain years when there is a snowfield or two. This year there was no snow, not even in the infamous snow filled saddle on the ridge. A lot of route descriptions have included recommendations to bring an ice axe, crampons and a rope for this section. So, it was a good thing that there wasn’t snow, this year, as I did not have any of this equipment with me. Now, here’s the kicker- there are good social trails that will by-pass all the prickly thorns on this route. So unless you like the exercise, you do not have to climb down and out of the snow-filled saddle, or up and down the cliff. Even COR was not as bad.
Above this small campsite, the trail starts to moderate along a now exposed and bare ridgeline, skirting a couple of small humps. At about 10,600 ft is another “improved” campsite. It has a low and sheltering stone wall on the windward side. Great views, but a harsh place to camp. And what is with all the fire rings? I don’t get it. It is way too windy up here.
Anyway, if you look to your left you will see the objective of your hike- a long ambling ridge of broken stone leading to the summit of Borah Peak. But if you gaze to your right, you will find a more interesting sight. This range of mountains to your right are somewhat lower then the one who are on, but vastly more interesting, at least to me. I think that their huge uplifted planes of varicolored rocks will also capture your imagination. These are set at improbable angles to one another. The trees that grow at the base of these planes of stone seem as blades of grass, so dwarfed are they by the massive rock above. I was fascinated by this range, my imagination captured.
Anyway, back to Borah Peak.
Once past this last campsite, the trail will steepen once more and the color of the rock will brighten from a dark grey to yellow/buff. You are now beginning the most difficult section the entire hike. You will find yourself climbing up though a keyhole-like notch in the yellow rock. Beyond this is the crux of the hike. It was here that the group just ahead of me split up. As it was a sheltered spot, I took a drink and ate a few chocolate covered raisins, too excited to really eat. I zipped on my jacket, as the wind had picked up and the temperatures fell, and went for it. I was delighted and relieved to see that what looked so scary from the notch, was in fact after a very short distance found to be not so much. I even tried to call the two back who had turned back, but the wind took my calls to Tibet.
Now, don’t get me wrong- this is still not a cakewalk. It is just not as scary as I thought it would be. There a are few steps that one must make, clinging 3-point fashion, by excellent hand and foot holds to the soft yellow rock. But then, on the left of the ridge that you are on, a way will become apparent to you, a kind of faint social trail. It will lead you by the easiest way possible along COR. In fact a number of social trails are evident along the western flank of the summit ridge. You should be able to pick out these as lines. They contour below the ridge top proper. In this way all the difficult sections are circumvented.
The “trail” now bends along with the ridge to the north. Now it is just a matter of time and one foot in front of another, to the top. There are still a couple of scree and dirt filled chutes to cross, and you are still some distance and elevation from the summit.
By now people were beginning to pass me on their way down. Some having gotten to the top and some having turned back before the top for one reason or another. These latter usually urged me to turn around as well. I know some turned back at the scary section and some due to improper dress or the devolving weather. I slapped on another layer and continued on. After all, I had come far to visit the top of Idaho.
The rabbit passed me on his descent and I recommended that he not tell his buddies abut how the trail eased out. He assured me that he would be teasing them, mercilessly, ASAP upon his return to the trailhead. The last to pass me on their way down was three locals, two women and a guy.
Now I had this whole high altitude world to my self. I continued on for much longer then it would seem. The summit looked so close, but I was going a snails pace.
Finally, I arrived at the top, 5:40 from the trailhead. The views were spectacular. I quickly signed the “register”, if an unorganized collection of small notebooks, address books and scraps of paper can be called a register. But, be that as it may, this register is to be found inside an old ammo can, tethered to an a sort of anchor by a string, This and all of Idaho is then overlooked by a pair of weathered mule deer antlers, decorated with red yarn.
I only stayed about 10 minutes on top of Idaho. It kinda seemed a let down. I guess for me summiting is like a “petite morte”. A thunder storm system, dumping rain in the valley below me and to the west was on the move in my direction. Already a few snowflakes swirled around me and the temperature was dropping again. I’d hiked enough above treeline to know when it was time get out of Dodge. As fast as I safely could I headed down and to the relative protection of tree line.
But once in the forest, the storm did not materialize beyond a few fat raindrops. So I lay my weary and bruised body down for a nap. A short time later, some 9 hours after I began, I was back to the trailhead.
I was surprised to find the three Idahoans waiting for me. They wanted to make sure that I had gotten down before they drove off. They were the last, except for myself, at the trailhead. At first I felt guilty about that half- hour nap, that is until I noticed that they were sipping ice-cold beers in insulated holders. But, gracious to the end, they did in fact offer me a cold one. This I declined, but I did at their urging take over their most fine campsite, the one with the rivulet running past the picnic table.
Later I had my dinner, under the Aspens and then I took my Garuda and stepped over the water to set it up in a lovely glade. And sure enough, with my usual impeccable timing, as soon as the tent went up the rain came down. Bushed, but satisfied, I turned for the night.
“I move in mighty landscapes, among tremendous heights, depths and expanses and with unlimited views to all sides…Long perspectives stretch before me, distance is the password of the scenery” I.Dinesen