TR-Borah Peak, ID (12662')
Highest point in the state of Idaho
Lower 48 Prominence Rank- 27 (5982')
~7.0 miles RT, 5620' gain via southwest ridge
Participants: Doug Shaw, Kevin and Jenni Baker
Since becoming a highpointer way back in '97, I have looked forward to the chance of climbing mighty Borah, the roof of Idaho. My wife and I have been doing the state highpoint gig since our honeymoon in '97, and we are beginning to run out of the easy ones. I knew Borah would test my fear of heights with the infamous Chicken Out Ridge, and throw in a lot of snow and things get a little interesting. The standard route on Borah climbs around 5600’ in about 3.5 miles give or take.
I had been monitoring Idaho's weather patterns for many months and was discouraged when seeing a couple of failed trip reports in late May and early June mostly due to weather and snow conditions on the ridge. Idaho had a very dry winter, but was dumped on in the spring. I wanted an experienced climbing partner in case Jenni decided it was too much for her, so Doug Shaw came to the rescue! I had never hiked with Doug before, but I knew he was well experienced in these kinds of conditions. We met Doug in Castle Rock on Tue the 21st and headed for the booming metropolis of Rawlins, WY. We got some much needed rest for the climb and drove the 500 or so remaining miles to the trailhead. This was the first time in Idaho for all of us and the scenery was impressive but not as great as CO! We arrived at the trailhead at 4:30pm on Thursday and were promptly greeted with aggressive mosquitoes. Thankfully the wind held them at bay for most of the trip, so we didn’t have much of a problem with them. Borah is well hidden on the approach from the south, as it is not visible until a couple miles before the turnoff from US-93. As we gazed upon it, I made three foolish proclamations: 1) we wouldn’t hit snow until 11K’, 2) the ridge looked wind scoured, and 3) we would summit in no more than 6 hours. Two of those three would prove to be wishful thinking.
We headed to the sparse town of Mackay after setting up camp for some dinner at an overpriced steakhouse, then were back early enough to head up the trail for some recon. We hiked without packs from the 7400’ trailhead to a mini-saddle at around 8600’. This section of the trail was steep but manageable. Apparently the trail crews in ID don’t know what switchbacks are as there were not that many! We made it back to camp just before dark and we got our gear ready for our attempt of Borah. Being on the western edge of the Mountain Time zone, it doesn’t really get dark until about 10pm, so we were in for a short night. We awoke at 4:15am to clear skies and began the grunt at 5:20. We decided to forgo snowshoes, which proved to be a good decision. We had plenty of winter and technical gear though, as both myself and Doug’s pack weighed in at around 35-40 pds. We all brought crampons for the climb, but the mixed climbing conditions and soft snow did not warrant using them.
We made excellent time below treeline as we made it all the way to 10200’ in the first two hours, but our pace pretty much came to a screeching halt after that. As we gained the s.w. ridge, we were afforded with some impressive views of Borah and its’ infamous ridge. We did not come to the first patch of snow until 10500’, but it was quickly apparent that our work was cut out for us on Chicken Out Ridge. At around 9:30, we came to the base of the class 3 climbing, where we were introduced to our first snowbridge crossing at an elevation of around 11200’. The exposure was to the left only, so all three of us made it up this bridge without any problems. As Jenni gazed upon the class 3 climbing on exposed rock, she decided to call it a day. She was not comfortable with descending the bridge without protection, so Doug kindly setup a boot/axe belay for her. We gave Jenni a radio and told her to wait at treeline where it would be warmer and still above the mosquitoes. After seeing Jenni safely down the snow, we began the arduous traverse across the ridge at 10:30.
With the many trip reports and accounts of this ridge, I knew there was easy terrain if you look closely, but the snow conditions limited our options. We basically had to stay on the spine of the ridge most of the way as the sides were filled with soft snow. In these conditions we found it was rarely safe to go below the ridge. At times we were forced to pull a few class 4 moves as our choices were few, but we adopted a slow, methodical pace as the weather still looked promising. We came to a second snow bridge at around 11500’ which we thought was the one that covered the route for much of the year. The bridge did not drop off the rock very far, so once again we found the bridge to be straightforward. A few minutes later, we were looking on the final major obstacle to Chicken Out Ridge, the last snowbridge. This involves a downclimb of about 5-6’ at this point in the year as the snow in this case made it easier. Another tricky ledge system followed the bridge, and then we were finally clear of the class 3 mess. After the class 3 climbing, the trail heads northwest and skirts Pt 11898’ to the left, before gaining the saddle. We were forced to stay on the ridge in this section as the trail was buried under steep snow. We finally made it to the saddle below the summit at around 1pm. What? I guess our 6 hr ascent is out the window! As we gazed upon the s.w. face of Borah contemplating our route, an avalanche broke loose below some cornices on the east side of the saddle. This was my first witness of an avalanche in person, and I was glad to be above it! We heard it slowly descend to the basin.
The final 900’ push to the summit was a mix between the trail, ridge traversing, and mixed climbing. We were able to follow the trail in some areas, but toward the top it traversed underneath steep, wet snow, so we stayed on rock when possible. The ridge finally abated, and at 2:11pm I was on the roof of Idaho! During this time we were watching some storms develop to the n.w., so Doug arrived a couple minutes later and we spent all of 7 minutes on the summit. The register was buried, so we took the obligatory pics and got out of Dodge. On the descent to the saddle, we chose to plunge step down the steep snow, which saved us a little time. As we headed back to the ridge, the wind picked up quite a bit but it looked like the storm to the n.w. would miss us. We knew Borah was not done with us yet, as it is always harder to go down steep terrain than up. We retraced our steps across COR as much as possible, slowly working our way down the steep ridge and snowbridges. I struggled with a couple of the downclimbs, but Doug assisted me through these areas nicely and everything went smoothly. The first snowbridge seemed almost flat now as we were getting used to the terrain. After 3 hrs and 15 min of ridge traversing, we were finally below the difficulties.
We tried reaching Jenni on the radio numerous times, but were unable to reach her after 1pm on the saddle. I figured the batteries had probably died. As we descended, it started to rain lightly but it was very brief. With such a late summit, we were very fortunate to avoid any weather difficulties on the exposed ridge. As we made it down to the mini-saddle, arrows were etched in the dirt pointing down, so we knew Jenni had headed all the way down. The final descent down to the trailhead was brutal on the knees, but we were just happy to be hiking on a trail! At 7:15, we met my understandably worried wife who was overjoyed to see us. Borah was a tough climb given the conditions, and we were lucky to have the opportunity to have graced its’ worthy summit. I will have to come back some year when it’s dry!