OverviewBroken Wings. That first ascent made me realize; if the rock fall in a chute was manageable then a direct route up the face could be had as well. I didn’t forget that exploding boulder however, so looking for a competent partner was a halfhearted endeavor at best.
In the fall of 2011, after our ascent of the East Face Direct on Mt Borah, Kevin Hansen and I decided to make a serious try on the face the following summer. On July 24th we rendezvoused at the end of the road in the West fork of Upper Pahsimeroi with Bob Boyles and Frank Florence. Bob and Frank had their sights set on a new route up the East Face/Northeast Ridge of Mount Borah and wouldn’t be joining us on Sacajawea but both had made earlier attempts on the face with Curt Olson in the 1970s and 80s when they and a few other climbers were setting the standard for big alpine climbs in the range. Bob described a couple of those tries: “Curt had an old, low res photo someone had taken that we used as a guide for our proposed route since neither of us had been up in the drainage before for a close look. On this first trip we packed fairly light and did not bring a lot of technical gear since we figured it wasn’t going to be too difficult but we were wrong from the start. Our proposed route began with a very steep snow slope and quickly led to technical climbing that would require a lot more gear than we had brought along so we considered the first trip as “promising” and planned to come back soon for a full-on assault.
"On our second attempt we came ready for anything, including spending the night on a ledge if necessary. We quickly negotiated the steep snow slope to a small ledge where we packed away our ice axes and racked up our gear for the climbing ahead. Curt took the first lead and I was pleased when the rope kept moving as he progressed up into unknown territory. When Curt got to the end of the rope he set up anchors and soon it was my turn to follow him up the huge face above. The angle was so steep I couldn’t see him above me so we relied on voice commands to know when it is safe to move. I heard Curt from above tell me that he was going to clear a few loose rocks and to be aware. I tucked in close to edge and waited and all of a sudden dozens of rocks were raining down on me. Just when I thought it was over I heard a rumble from above and hundreds more rocks started flying down the face. I grabbed a pack, put it over my head and jumped into a fetal position just as the rocks started exploding on the small ledge that was I was standing on. My hands were shaking after the barrage ended and I decided right then and there that I would not get on this route again but first I had to climb up to Curt’s level to pull his gear in order to get off this mountain. I quickly followed Curt’s path and after a harrowing set of rappels with more rock fall, we safely exited the mountain. He explained that in attempting to clear a few rocks, he dislodged the “cornerstone” rock and the entire gully dumped its contents down on me. I forgave him but decided no route is worth climbing if it means someone is going to get injured or killed in the process."
"Curt and I made one more trip to scout out another possible route but our timing was too late and an evening snow storm ended all thoughts of putting up a new route on the North Face of Sacajawea for the season. Curt did talk Frank Florence into one more attempt on our proposed route in 1993 and the two of them made it to our high point where Frank too decided this route wasn’t worth the risk. We did learn a secret from our trips and that is the face is back-cut, or has handholds that are not visible from below."
Sacajawea July 25, 2012
Kevin got the first rock pitch and we traded leads on superb limestone for the first several pitches. Although gear placements were scarce, the holds were solid and plentiful. Kevin is a master at finding good belays and I felt comfortable every time I was seconding a pitch. My anchors however lack both muscle or imagination and I usually prodded him to place something as soon as he left the belay station.
Kevin is also one of those climbers who is absolutely unaffected by heights. He can stand on the edge of the abyss and talk with both hands, seemingly unaware of the void below.
Pitches 4 and 5 cruised up some easy class 4+ terrain and we climbed several hundred feet in a running belay until I spotted a nice wide ledge off to the left of our trajectory. It was great to finally sit down in a comfortable spot but I had climbed us into a nasty corner where we’d have to descend 50 feet to get back on route or traverse immediately from the ledge under a 40’ long roof section on much steeper rock. I was glad it was Kevin’s lead and so was he. We only had one real fall on the mountain and it happened shortly after leaving that ledge. Kevin was able to place two nuts and a tiny cam on the way to a short overhanging chimney where he fiddled in another size zero Cam and started up. In the chimney, he had a good under-cling on his left hand but when he committed to the move and made a grab at the rock he could only find a smooth sloping hold. He somehow stuck the move and reached up with his left hand only to find another sloper. He hung in there for a second or two and then peeled off. As he came down, he reached out and snagged the two-foot runner hooked to his cam and stopped his own fall before any weight came onto the belay. He down climbed a couple steps and traversed further out and around the chimney where the roof ended and then continued up.
I was sitting on the ledge at the top of pitch 9 with my feet dangling over the edge. The clouds continued rolling by and small rocks, knocked down by rope drag, whizzed by out into space. Most of them came by at least 20 feet out from the wall and after seeing them fly by all day I’d kind of gotten disconnected to their potential danger, so when I got hit on the forearm by one the size of a softball I was so stunned for a split second I wasn’t sure what had happened. The pain, for a few moments was blinding and I couldn’t help but squeal like a kid. Kevin heard me from above and instantly figured we were going into rescue mode. I knew I was done leading for the day and although it wasn’t broken, it was completely useless and was the catalyst for several sleepless nights. Worse, I couldn’t hold on to a bottle of beer with that hand for nearly two weeks.
We continued gaining elevation on good rock, but above, the “headwall” looked like several pitches of steep decomposing mank and by the start of pitch 10 we confirmed that suspicion. The rock turned from a dark chocolate to a lighter brown color and much of it appeared to barely cling to the wall. To top it off, we saw our first dark cloud roll over the summit and heard a distant peal of thunder.
One of the setbacks to climbing on the North East side of the range is you can’t see any weather coming. We’d picked the best day in a 7 day forecast but Mother Nature had different plans and it looked like we might get rain. Near the top of the pitch I headed for a large roof section that had a wide crack under its belly, but when I got to it the crack was too wide for any of our gear. For the anchor, I balanced two nuts into a flaring crack and tossed a sling over a rounded horn. I knew it was all crap and so did Kevin when he got close enough to see. I dismantled it after he put in two slightly better pieces and then did a precarious 60’ down climb to his stance on a narrow ledge. We traded belays and he set out on the “head wall” proper as the first drops of rain started to fall. It wasn’t a hard rain and only lasted about 10 minutes but it thoroughly soaked everything. While following pitch 12, it started to rain again and then snow. Needless to say the climbing got pretty slippery and with only one good arm I was grateful for a snug belay. I cheered up even more when I got to the top of the pitch and found Kevin belaying inside a small bolt hole in the wall. I clipped into another flimsy anchor and Kevin excavated the hole so we could both get out of the slush.
After about 15 minutes the snow and rain stopped and we could see patches of blue sky overhead. We stayed in the hole waiting for the water to drain off the rock and made guesses on how far we had to go. Kevin led out on pitch 13. Shortly after he got past the half way point on the rope I heard him yell “Off Belay, I’m back in the sun” and I knew he’d made it to the top.