BackgroundThe Idaho 12'ers are nine peaks in Idaho with summits above 12,000 feet. Each of them possesses its own character and its own challenges, which makes climbing each one a unique experience and a unique challenge from the others. The standard routes on each peak arguably range from Class 2 to Class 3+ with the possibility of crossing Class 4 terrain, depending on the route you are taking during the Summer climbing season. All distances listed are our approximate round trip distances and all gains in elevation are also approximate, one way, and do not include dips where we had to regain elevation, so actual elevation gain is likely greater.
This is my collective trip report, in the order that I climbed the 12er's, with a little history on each thrown in for good measure.
Summit elevation: 12,655 (Officially) 12,662'(After the Quake) (Idaho's highpoint)
Distance: ~7 miles
Elevation gain: 5,500'
Route: Southwest ridge
Named after: Idaho Senator William “The Lion of Idaho” Borah
Dates climbed: 7/19/2008
History: In 1983, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake occurred near the base of Borah Peak raising it by 7 feet. You can see the scarp on the drive to the trailhead and there is a sign explaining it. The USGS still lists the summit as 12,655 feet, though it is actually higher now.
Fatalities: In November of 1977, two climbers were killed in an avalanche.
In 1987, Dave Probst was killed descending Rock Creek from the summit of Borah Peak. He lost control of his speed on a glissade down a snow slope and the snow sloughed of the face from his rapid descent subsequently buried him. This is especially sad because he had just proposed to his girlfriend on the summit.
Our Adventure: My best friend and I decided in 2007 that we were going to start climbing mountains. We bought Tom's book and decided, “why not start with Idaho's highest peak and work our way through the 12er's from there?” From the book it appeared to be a fairly straightforward climb. We then decided to bring along a group of friends instead of going by ourselves. We invited a couple of people we knew, they invited people they knew, and so on until we had nearly 30 people that wanted to go with us. Only 13 or 14 showed up on the morning that we left though, so logistics wasn't that big of a problem. We got to the trailhead at around 5AM and there were quite a few people heading up at the same time we got started.
With such a large group, we had many different levels of fitness and experience, so we brought along radios to keep in contact and divided into two groups, one faster than the other. We made our way up the mountain, resting frequently, and met some very interesting folks along the way. We rested with a group of young kids carrying a golf club, golf balls, and a can of chili as their only food for the climb. They planned to hit golf balls off the summit and eat their can of chili at the top. We also ran into an EMT who had brought bottled oxygen with him. He made it as far as Chicken Out Ridge (COR) and had to turn back due to altitude sickness.
At COR nearly half of our group decided to wait for the rest to return from the summit, so the rest of us climbed on. COR proved to live up to its name for most of us, mostly because we got off route and were trying to traverse the sides of the ridge instead of staying on top of the ridgeline. We ended up in some sections of steep climbing, but eventually made our way to “The Nose” and onto the snowfield. From there it was a hike to the summit where we got plenty of photos. It was a beautiful day to be on the mountain.
On the descent we decided to go lower on the snowfield and cross what appeared to be a mountain goat trail. We thought this route would be easier and less risky than the route we had taken on the other side of COR and because it was lower in elevation, we wouldn't have to gain and lose some elevation getting over the ridge, thus saving us time. We were wrong. This route lead us into some spooky Class 4 terrain and some good Class 3 scrambling before we got back to the main trail.
We discovered that our group-mates had turned around and gone back to the parking lot. All of us descended without much difficulty, but we were all exhausted from our first effort on the 12er's. Many of the people in our group decided that they had climbed enough mountains for a while and my best friend and I decided that we would finish the 12er's, but we would do it by ourselves, and we knew that it was only going to get better from here on out.
Lost River Peak
Summit elevation: 12,078'
Distance: ~5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,478'
Route: Southwest face, “Supergully”
Dates climbed: 7/26/2008
Our adventure: We got started from Idaho Falls at about 3AM in order to make the trailhead by 5AM. We got started up the mountain while it was still dark, which turned out to be a great idea, since it got wretchedly hot later in the day and there was no cover on the mountain.
Lost River Peak's standard “Supergully” route is the steepest of the standard routes of the 12er's and is often referred to as "the bowling alley" due to the number of rocks that come rocketing down the gully in the Summer. We unfortunately dislodged a few of the larger rocks on our ascent and watched them pick up speed as we yelled “Rock!” at the top of our lungs in case there were other climbers behind us. We learned later that there were a couple of climbers behind us, so it's a good thing we yelled. We were about halfway up the gully when the other climbers came out of the treeline.
We were slow going up the mountain as we sunk nearly up to our knees with each step in the scree, no matter how careful we were. We got ourselves over to the left side of the gully and tried to stay on the solid rock as much as possible and eventually made it to the summit ridge. We took the usual summit photos, had our lunch, and started down. While the ascent wasn't the most pleasant, we had some great scree skiing on the way down.
On our way out to the highway we ran into Michael (montanaboy here on summitpost) and he agreed to open the gates and we closed them as we followed him out. He had just climbed Mount Breitenbach that day and it was good to see somebody else out enjoying the mountains.
Summit elevation: 12,140'
Elevation gain: 4500'
Route: Pete Creek Drainage to South ridge
Named for: Jake Breitenbach, an Idahoan who was a member of the climbing team to make the first successful ascent of Denali's West Rib in 1959. He was crushed by falling ice in the Khumbu Icefall section of Mount Everest on an expedition in 1963.
Dates climbed: 8/9/2008, 8/16/2008
Our Adventures: On our first attempt of Mount Breitenbach we got ourselves out of the drainage too soon because we were sick of bushwhacking. When we got on top of the ridge, we found that we were left high and dry with no way to get back to the gully we needed to ascend to the summit. What was worse was that three small storms that had been forming on the other side of Mackay reservoir, which we thought would miss us, had in fact all combined and changed course. The new, larger storm was headed right for us. We ended up making a dash for lower ground, watching lightning strike lower on the mountain than we were and then being trapped in an inversion where the “clouds” rising were so thick we had to stop because we couldn't see more than three feet in any direction. We got back to the truck safe and sound and decided to go hike around Craters of the Moon instead.
Our second attempt went much smoother. We once again got started at 3AM and made the base of the mountain by 5AM. We stayed in the drainage and after an hour or two of bushwhacking, we were grateful to be out in the open, walking up the creek and higher into the mountains.
At about 10,500' there is a small waterfall coming out of the mountain, which we thought was pretty neat. Shortly after we made the main saddle and after looking at our map, we discovered that not only did we have to climb the big ridge we were looking at, but we had to descend the other side and climb two more of them. We had a further to go than we thought, but it wasn't difficult terrain and the views were gorgeous as we had another great day on the mountain.
When we got to the summit we checked the time and figured we had gotten to the summit much faster than we thought, so we could spend a little more time on the summit than usual. There was a cairn with Tibetan prayer flags and register. We took pictures and then decided to eat lunch, rehydrate and take a short nap. When I woke up I noticed that the sun was getting a little low in the sky and thought we overslept, so I checked the time. Troy's watch read the same time as when we got to the summit and I discovered the adjustment knob had been knocked loose. The watch said 11:15, but the sky said it was much later. We had to hightail it down the mountain, but we were only about halfway through the Pete Creek drainage when darkness fell.
Summit elevation: 12,009'
Distance: 12 miles
Elevation gain: 5,000'
Route: East face (not the ridge)
Named for: Major William Hyndman, a Civil War veteran with the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, company A. He practiced law in Idaho, was involved with mining operations, and died in Ketchum on Oct. 1, 1896.
Dates climbed: 6/4-6/5/2009, 7/2-7/3/2009
Our Adventures: Learning from our last year's experiences we decided to overnight our trips this year. We ended up getting to the Hyndman trailhead in the afternoon and noting that it was much colder than the weather reports had indicated and there was heavy cloud cover. We decided to press on anyway and hiked in about 4.5 miles before the rain started. We made camp quickly, hung our bear bag, and managed to get a small fire started, even in the soaking rain. As the night went on the rain didn't stop, but the temperature continued to drop. Near 1AM it turned to sleet and then snow and we put on a couple more layers.
When we got up in the morning we realized that we weren't prepared to climb in rain the whole way as we couldn't afford good rain-gear and were making due with emergency ponchos. We also hadn't planned on snow, so we didn't have many more layers to put on to protect us from the cold. It was early June and we were in 15 degree weather. We decided to hike up a little ways to see what we could see and hope the weather cleared a bit, but the peak was obscured by a snowstorm. After walking over one of the small mountain lakes, which was frozen, we decided to bag the trip and try again under more favorable conditions, or at least with better preparations. Another lesson learned.
Our second attempt, almost a month later, was in much warmer weather down low. We made camp in the same place as before and admired the scenery all the way to base of the peak. We got some great shots of the high mountain lakes there since it was such a clear day. Or so we thought at the time. We could feel the pressure changing, but we couldn't see any weather patterns. We saw clear skies and it was about 70 degrees according to our thermometer, so we decided to head up the mountain. To save time we decided to climb the East face of Hyndman Peak instead of taking the standard saddle and ridge route. This proved to be much more difficult and treacherous terrain than we had expected and probably cost us time. It was a lot of fun though.
When we got to the summit we were tired, but amazed at what we saw. Though our side of the mountain had clear skies, there was an awful looking storm waiting for us on the Pahsimeroi side. The temperature on the summit also dropped to 17 degrees. We were at eye-level with a fierce-looking thunderstorm and realized we were in a sticky situation. We took our summit photos and then quickly packed up for a very fast descent. We spent only two to three minutes on the summit. When we got back to the basin we put on our newly acquired rain-gear and enjoyed the walk back, broke camp, and headed for home. It was a great couple of days in the mountains. I think Hyndman has some of the best scenery of the 12er's.
Summit elevation: 12,197'
Distance: 5 miles
Elevation gain: 4,200'
Route: East Ridge
Named for: Its distinctive Diamond or Pyramid-like shape.
Dates climbed: 8/6-8/7-2009
Our adventure: Diamond peak was by far my favorite climb of all of the 12er's. We encountered little, if any, scree on our route and some solid rock climbing sections with little exposure, which made for a much more enjoyable climb than slogging through scree.
That said, we also encountered the worst weather our of any of our climbs, though we weren't fully aware of the danger we were in at the time. More on that later.
When we got out of the truck, the wind was howling. It took considerable effort to keep the doors from springing and to get them closed. We got our gear and took off up the hillside and stayed on the leeward side to shelter ourselves from the wind. It began to drizzle a little, so we put on rain-gear and pressed on. Staying on the side of the ridge we couldn't find any place to make camp and we pressed on.
After we made the ridge we dropped our packs to look for a campsite and after searching for about half an hour we found what looked like a dirt platform carved out of the hillside behind a tree at 9,200'. We guessed that it was an old hunting camp, probably for antelope as it had a great vantage point of the valleys. We pitched our tent there, took some photos, hung the bear bag, and went to sleep.
We were woken up later that night by the wind, which was shaking the trees, our tent, and howling like a banshee. The sound would wind down and ramp up almost like an air raid siren and there was a peculiar smell in the air, which I had only smelled previously during a tornado. It's a very particular smell and not one you forget easily. Hail began to fall, lightning was flashing every few seconds and I was starting to wonder whether it was possible to have a tornado at this elevation. Troy woke up at one point and asked me “What's a tornado sound like anyway?” To which I replied, “Well, a lot like...that.” He then turned over and went back to sleep. I figured our options were to either get to lower ground or wait out the storm and that we'd be safer in the tent than out in the open, so we stayed there and slept.
When we woke up the next morning we discovered that the odd weather had created a huge inversion over the entire valley, which made for some great photos, which came out blurry for the most part because I didn't put my glasses on before I took the photos. It was also pretty damn cold and still windy.
We started up the mountain and stopped to hide behind rock outcroppings from the wind and the cold and put on all the layers we had, including rain-gear even though it wasn't raining. This helped and as we climbed higher and the valley warmed from the sun, the clouds in the valley from the inversion began to chase us up the mountain. It was interesting to watch their paths and then when they caught up to us, the moist air was about 20 degrees warmer than where we were and the wind would stop while we were in the clouds. Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything while we were in them, so we stopped to rest and warm up when they caught us. Later in the day the weather cleared and it turned out to be a nice sunny day when we reached the summit.
The summit register was packed full of history, relics, toys, signal mirrors (I think there were seven of them in there) and other knick-knacks. We read through and signed the register. One entry dated back to 1972 and read: “The Idaho Hardcore Mountaineers Club summitted Diamond peak by traversing three peaks. Intense. What a view!” We enjoyed our time on the summit and made our way back down, broke camp and slogged down to the truck.
When we got to the truck we did what we normally did: turned our phones on, checked messages, and made calls to the people we had given our trip plans to in case something went wrong. We were both surprised and a little alarmed when we had about 15 messages on both of our phones. We both assumed somebody had died and we needed to get back in a hurry, but after listening to some of the messages realized that everyone thought it was us that had died. The first message was left no more than fifteen minutes after our departure from the truck, warning us about the severe weather pattern moving into the Lemhi range. All of the others followed suit, or asked us to call immediately. We found out later that we had in fact been in a tornado and it was the first to have hit the Lemhi range since 1983. We got lucky and had a good, sheltered campsite. We returned our calls and headed home. We were really starting to hate the weatherman.
Mount Church and Donaldson Peak
Summit elevations: 12,200', 12,023'
Distance: ~9 miles
Elevation gain: ~5,100'
Route: Lone Cedar creek to the base, then North by Northeast into the Cirque to the ridge.
Named for: Mount Church is unofficially named after Idaho Senator Frank Church, whose efforts helped to designate the Frank Church Wilderness. Donaldson Peak is named after Idaho Supreme Court Justice Charles Donaldson author of the Law Review article: Crisis in the Idaho Court System: An Appealing Remedy. Donaldson, Charles R. 13 Idaho L. Rev. 1 (1976-1977).
Dates climbed: 8/11-8/12/2009
Fatalities: In August 2005 an Idaho woman fell to her death from a rock buttress 200’ above Jones Creek. See Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2007.
Our adventure: We decided to take the approach up Lone Cedar(?) creek, just Northwest of Jones creek, instead of the Jones creek approach because we had heard that it was steeper, but shorter and had less bushwhacking involved. We still had our fair share of bushwhacking and it was obvious that not many people had been through here. We eventually found a trail, whether human or game I'm not sure, but it looked like it was most likely a little of both, and followed that for a while to stay out of the brambles. The sides of the creek eventually began to close in on us and rise higher and higher into stone slabs, forcing us into the creek. We resisted the urge to try and find a way over the rock slabs, heeding words of advice from other climbers, and made our way through the creek. Eventually we came out on top of the ridge that divides Lone Cedar and Jones creeks, near the base of Mount Church and found a spot to make camp.
The morning was a bit chilly, but not too bad. We got an early start and made our way up toward the “stairs” below the little pond. Though wet and slick, the “stairs” really were like giant, steep stairs and were much easier than slogging uphill through scree. We made it to the pond and were still having difficulty finding where on the face of the cirque our route would take us and a suitable way up to the main ridge.
It wasn't until we made it to the face of the cirque that a route began to take shape in front of us. When we made it to the ridge I decided to make a little cairn so that we wouldn't miss out “turn off” on our way back down the ridge. We then proceeded to the top of Donaldson and out to the point just past the summit for a better view of the valley. It was bright and sunny and there was no wind. It was a great day.
We then headed back down the ridge towards Mount Church and the wind began to really pick up. By the time we got to the skinnier sections of the ridge we could hear gusts of wind starting below us in the valley racing up to us like freight trains and then slamming into us so hard we had to drop to the rock and cling to it to avoid being blown over the other side of the ridge. The wind started to hit us from both sides, so we quickly found a place to drop down off the ridge and got under a large outcropping to shelter ourselves for a while. We decided that we would wait a while, probably half an hour, and if the wind got worse, we'd have to go down, but if it let up, then we would continue. After a while we got up and checked the wind, which hadn't died down much, but hadn't gotten worse either, so we decided to press on. The wind remained strong, but the gusting subsided after a while and we got used to it.
We then caught sight of what we thought was the summit and felt relieved, but it turned out to be a false summit and we stayed there for a while wondering if we should turn back. We were both sick of being buffeted by winds up here, and both tired. After taking a few minutes to regroup we kept going and soon made the real summit. We felt that we had really had to work to earn this one. After taking our summit shots I took a set of shots to make a panorama out of later (I still haven't gotten around to that yet) and then we headed down. We had planned on finishing these two and then moving on to Leatherman Peak, but it was nearly 7PM when we got off the mountain, we were exhausted, and really just wanted to rest rather than climb another mountain. It would have to wait until next year.
Summit elevation: 12,228'
Distance: ~8 miles
Elevation gain: 4,100'
Route: North Face
Named for: Henry Leatherman, a hunter, trapper, teamster, and freight hauler in the Lost River Valley in the 19th Century. He was born around 1830 in Ohio and relocated to Idaho where he died around 1870. He is buried in Battleground Cemetery in Mackay, Idaho.
Dates climbed: 8/10-8/11-2010
Our Adventure: If we climb Leatherman, or anything close to it from the Pahsimeroi valley side, we're bringing four-wheelers to get down the road. By far, the road in was the most dangerous part of this climb! After we got to a point where we decided to stop, we got our gear ready and headed up the road towards the trailhead.
We found a very developed, maintained trail waiting for us and we followed it up to an open meadow. It was a very pretty hike in through beautiful country and we saw a couple of bull elk from across the meadow. We watched each other for a while and then they took off and it started to drizzle a bit. We made our way across the meadow to a small grove of trees where we hung our hammocks.
In the morning we started up the mountain and had no trouble. The weather turned cold on us and we got a few little flurries, but it was nothing to worry about, so we put on our jackets and kept moving. When we got to the summit there was a register in a soda bottle and a stick jutting up from the cairn. The view from the top was great.
On our way down we glissaded down the snow slopes and I bent one of my trekking poles coming to a stop. We ended up going a bit faster than expected. A good climb!
Summit elevation: 12,065'
Distance: ~8 miles
Elevation gain: ~5,000'
Route: Elkhorn creek to Southwest ridge to South face
Named for: A demarcated area in the United States made up of 44 counties, which produces nearly one third of the country's potatoes and is home to nearly 1.5 million people. Known phonetically as “'aɪdəhoʊ, ” it is also one of the few places on Earth where star garnets can be found and is the only place in the world where six-pointed star garnets can be found. The area is also home to a vast amount of wildlife including Falco pergrinus. North America's deepest canyon, Hell's Canyon, is also located here. Esto perpetua.
Dates climbed: 8/17-8/18/2010
Our adventure: We had clear skies, but it was hot as blazes when we started up the route by Elkhorn creek. We decided to take it easier than normal and sip often from our water supplies to keep hydrated. We made our way up into the forested areas and found quite a few spots that would have been suitable for tent spots (we were using hammocks anyway) but we weren't as high on the mountain as we wanted to be, so we pushed on. We ended up making camp close to sundown on a slope above Elkhorn Creek, which was fine because we brought hammocks instead of a tent.
In the morning we headed up a dry wash that gave us good rock for climbing and we managed to avoid the scree until we made the main ridge. We then got to the pillars that Tom Lopez talks about in his book and made our way around them, though they were rotten and very crumbly. We had looked around for another way, but didn't see one.
At this point our plan had been to take the ridge to summit, as it looked like the easiest route from the map and pictures we had seen. Up close, it didn't look so accessible to us and neither did the face. We chose to climb up the face, which was steep and a little slick in parts, but mostly stable. We made it to the summit, where we rebuilt the cairn that was knocked over, and took pictures. At this point we realized that we had both miscalculated our water supply because each of us had thought the other had 2 liters at camp. Because we had already drank the 2 liters at camp we were left with about a quarter of a liter of water between us for the hike out. I figured we had a filter back at camp to replenish our water supply from the creek, but Troy informed me that he had left it in the truck to save weight. It was around 11AM, 95 degrees and we had to break camp and hike the 4 miles from the summit to the truck. It wasn't going to be pleasant.
When we made it back down to the pillars, we were dreading climbing around them again and looked on the backside. From this side it was apparent that there was a nice path running behind them that we didn't see coming up. We had a good laugh over missing this on the way up and quickly made our way past them and down to camp. From there we got back to the truck as fast as possible, though we were both pretty badly dehydrated. We stopped off at the gas station in Mackay and got some fluids for the drive home.
ReflectionsIn the course of climbing Idaho's 12er's we also took up rock climbing and hiked or climbed many other routes, mostly in preparation for climbing the 12er's, but also because it's just plain fun. We taught ourselves more survival and primitive skills and not because we're crazy backwoods survivalists, but because we ran into situations where they became very useful. This was especially true in the cases where gear failed or we forgot to bring a piece of gear, couldn't justify the weight (so we left it at home, did without, or improvised later), or simply couldn't afford it and needed to improvise. Knowing which knot to use, how to make cordage, find food if we had to, water, and make fire without modern means all became useful skills to us.
We made a lot of friends along the way and earned the respect, curiosity, and sometimes the condescension of our peers. We were asked many times “Why do you do it?” and the best answer I could come up with was simply, “If you've got to ask, you'll never know.” Of course, once you've been to the top, you know why we climb. It's different for everybody, but no matter who you are, time in the mountains will challenge you and change you.
Route MapsBelow I've included some maps of the routes we took on each peak.
Other ResourcesThe IdahoSummits.com Idaho 12'ers page can be found here. It contains the "official" list of those who have summited all nine of the 12'ers.
Tom Lopez's site can be found here. A great book if you're interested in climbing in Idaho.
The Idaho Outdoors Forum can be found here. The Idaho Outdoors forum is a great place to get advice, get current conditions, and benefit from the wealth of experience that a great group of people enjoy sharing.