Last Minute Plans
Sometimes things don’t pan out the way you’d expect. On July 1st-4th my family and I had a big get together planned. We were going to meet in Copper Basin in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains and camp for four days. While there, there would be endless opportunities for climbing, fishing, and almost anything else you could imagine. But it was not to be so. A week before the planned date I found out that it wasn’t going to happen. Work schedules weren’t working out and there were other unexpected difficulties that needed attention that weekend. For me as well as the rest of my family this was a big disappointment. It was decided that the trip would be postponed a month but since I already had work off, I had an open weekend with nothing to do. My wife was busy studying to take her licensing exam to become an LPN and didn’t want to go anywhere but she was fine with the idea of having an empty and quiet house to study in. So I thought I’d take advantage of the situation and knock a few peaks off my list.
At the top of my list are the Idaho 12ers one of which I had completed (Hyndman). The other 8 remained to be conquered and I thought this would be an opportune time to get at least one. I set my sights on Idaho’s highest, Mt. Borah at 12,662 ft. Having lived in Idaho nearly all my life I had never climbed Borah, even after I became interested in climbing I just never got around to it. I have seen the mountain many times but I was always either too busy or too far away to make the trip. But this time was going to be different. This time I was going for it!
In my opinion it’s always better to climb with someone, not just for safety reasons but for companionship and conversation. I really didn’t want to do Borah alone either. It’s a big and tricky mountain in places, plus being kind of early in the season there was still a good amount of snow in spots. A few weeks before I meet Rob while climbing Ironside Mountain in Oregon. We found that we were both mutually interested in completing the 12ers and decided to partner up for as many of them as possible. I emailed Rob and soon had a reply saying he could go. We were gong to climb Borah on the 2nd. Now, what to do about the 3rd and 4th….
and I usually try to go on a trip together each summer. Sometimes it works out and other times it doesn’t. This time we decided that if we couldn’t go to Copper Basin with everyone we might as well use the open time for something else. He agreed to meet me at the Borah Trailhead on the 2nd and from there we’d take off on another adventure.
I have always been curious about the Salmon River Mountains. They always seem to get overshadowed by the other nearby and more popular ranges like the Sawtooths, White Clouds, and Lost Rivers. They are always there but mostly ignored. Since Borah is close to Challis and Challis is close to the highest peaks of the Salmon River Mountains my Dad and I decided we’d set our sights on White Mountain
, and North
It was settled, Borah and then three Salmon River peaks! Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad weekend after all!
Rob and I met in Boise on the evening of the 1st. I was quite a bit late because I had left without my hiking pants and had to go back home for them. I’m just glad I remembered them when I did. It could have been a breezy trip without them. We were on the road by 8:00 PM for the 5 hour drive to the Borah Trailhead. It was getting dark by the time we got to Lowman, but first we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the South Fork of the Payette River.
By the time we finally reached the trailhead it was 1:00 AM and the stars were blazing above us. The drive was generally uneventful except for the nearly 20 deer we saw, a few of which we almost hit. Originally we planned to start at 4:00 AM but since it was already 1:00 we decided to get up a 6:00 and get a few more hours of sleep.
The next day dawned on us bright and early without a cloud in the sky, a perfect day for climbing. The sun had not yet come up over Borah so it was nice a cool in the immense shadow it cast across the valley. There were two other cars parked besides ours, the owners had already left though. While we ate our scrumptious breakfast of dehydrated bacon and eggs and pop-tarts two more people showed up and headed out ahead of us, one from Nevada and another from Missouri. Amazingly we were the only Idahoans on the mountain that day!
We left the trailhead at about 6:45 AM for the long and arduous climb up Borah’s Southwest Ridge. Right from the start the trail gains elevation but it is not nearly as steeply as it will farther up. Here there are many old trees extending up to about the 9800 ft. contour. The shade was nice even though the sun had not fully shone on these slopes yet. The mosquitoes, however, were absolutely voracious. This is about the time when both Rob and I realized we had left our repellent at the trailhead. I also realized that I had forgotten my sunscreen but luckily Rob had some.
We reached treeline less than two hours later as the sun was beginning to hit the Western side of the mountain. Although there was no shade now it was not terribly hot and thankfully wouldn’t be for the remainder of the day. Here we could finally see the entire route that lay ahead of us including snowy Chicken Out Ridge (COR).
The Snow on COR
As we approached COR we passed five other people coming down, all of them had chickened out at COR. They told us horror stories of how bad the snow was and how we would have to side-hill across a 60 degree snowfield. It made us wonder if we would be able to summit that day but we pressed on anyway. From below we had watched one person already get across COR without a problem and figured that if they could so could we.
Nearing COR COR Towers
Luckily when we arrived at COR we found the horror stories to be a bunch of baloney. They had seen the footprints of someone who had gone dangerously off the route and assumed that it was the trail. In all actuality you should stay right on the top of COR to ensure your safety and this is what we did. It was quite snowy though so instead of there being just one snow bridge there we two large ones and about three smaller ones. They weren’t too much trouble as we had come prepared with ice axes and crampons. The snow was soft enough that crampons weren’t needed for the first few bridges. On the big bridge we decided to use them for extra protection as the snow was a little harder there.
I always here stories about how much exposure there is on these snow bridges and how far down it is. Honestly I didn’t think they were too bad. There is plenty of run out on both sides if you fall but the bridge is so wide that falling would be difficult especially if you have snow equipment. I found COR to be the most fun part of the climb. The higher slopes of Borah proved to be the most difficult.
While crossing COR we met the man from Nevada on his way down from the summit. He was the only one besides us who made it to the top that day. He told us that the trail was snow covered for most of the rest of the way up but that if we followed the ridge we could stay on rock all the way to the top without a problem.
Nasty terrain Old Glory
His report proved to be true except the “without a problem part”. We were mostly able to stay on rock as predicted but the rock we stayed on was horrible. It was loose and shifty in most places with a few smooth walls in others. All of it, though, was on incredibly steep terrain. After a few hours of struggling through these physically and mentally taxing obstacles we were beginning to wonder if we’d be able to reach the top via the route we had chosen. Just about the time we were ready to give up and look for another way, I caught sight of the most wonderful thing I’d seen all day. The American Flag marking the summit of Borah only a few yards in front of us. We had made it! Amazingly, we had the summit all to ourselves and saw no one else the rest of the day. I have yet to share an Idaho summit with anyone other than the people I’m with!
Me on Top
The Descent- On to the Next Adventure
After a quick lunch we started the long descent back to the trailhead. If the ascent had been tough the descent was brutal. We decided to take a different route down since the route we had taken on the way up had been difficult and slow. We decided to follow the trail as much as possible and cross the snowfields using our ice axes and crampons.
I have always hated down climbing on loose rock and Borah was no exception. The going was excruciatingly slow. Every step we took sent rocks crashing down the mountain and sometimes it was snow we sent flying as we crossed the snow covered sections. By that time of day the sun had softened the snow significantly making our progress even slower over those sections as we often sunk deep into the snow. This part of the trip really made my heart pound. We were side-hilling on very steep terrain, the canyon floor being a few thousand feet below us. It took us two hours to descend from the summit to the saddle connecting it to COR, about 1000 ft.!
Rob on COR Going down the ridge.
COR went without too much difficulty, in fact I found it easier on the way down than on the way up. That was probably because the upper section of the mountain had been more difficult by far. After that the rest of the mountain was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring the pain in my legs and feet. When we reached treeline the mosquitoes descended and began feasting on us. (About this time I realized I’d also forgotten my bug spray. Of course!)
Finally after 13 hours on the mountain we reached the trailhead. My Dad was already there waiting to meet me so we could start our next adventure in the Salmon River Mountains. Thankfully he had some cold Gatorade for us which was a life saver.
Rob and I broke camp and he headed off back to Boise. The next stop for my Dad and I was Challis where we would begin the next trek. I had one more obstacle to overcome though. My car battery was dead and had my Dad not been there I would have been all alone at the trailhead waiting who knows how long for help. Amazingly the parking lot was empty except for us! He jump started me and we were off without further incident.
The only thing better than knowing I had finally summited Idaho’s highest mountain was knowing that the trip was not over. I still had three more peaks to tackle in the Frank Church Wilderness!
End of Part 1
Storm Clouds over Borah.
View South from the Summit