An account of my adventures climbing Idaho's nine 12,000 ft. peaks
Idaho has many high and wild peaks but perhaps the most famous and most sought after are the nine 12,000 footers (12ers). Climbing all nine of them is a feat that can take anywhere from a number of days to a number of years and there are only around 60 known people who have done it. It can be a difficult and often frustrating task but for me it was one filled with great adventures and fond memories.
Seven of the nine 12ers are in the Lost River Range. The other two are in the nearby Lemhi and Pioneer Ranges.
Here are the 12ers ordered by elevation from highest to lowest:
#1 Mount Borah 12,662' #2 Leatherman Peak 12,228' #3 Mt. Church 12,200+'
#4 Diamond Peak 12,197' #5 Mt. Breitenbach 12,140' #6 Lost River Peak 12,078'
#7 Mt. Idaho 12,065' #8 Donaldson Peak 12,023' #9 Hyndman Peak 12,009'
I have included a little bit about each peak in the order I climbed it. I have also included any trip reports I have written previously.
#1 Hyndman peak 12,009 ft.
Hyndman Cobb and Old Hyndman Dad and I with Hyndman Peak
On August 7-9, 2003 my Dad and I backpacked into Hyndman Basin to climb Hyndman Peak in the Pioneer Mountains. At this time I was in high school and not really focused on climbing 12ers but after summiting the peak I was hooked and had to try for more. It was amazing to realize that I had just climbed a 12,000 ft. peak and was higher than almost every other place in the state. At this time I didn't have my own camera so I didn't get any summit photos but I do have some my Dad took with his camera later that weekend. Interestingly I would climb my last 12er seven years later on the same weekend.
Here's a story I wrote
about this trip for an English class when I was in high school. It is also one of the first things I contributed on Summitpost.
#2 Mount Borah 12,662 ft.
Mt. Borah from Lost River The summit from COR
Flash forward to July 2, 2009. Having lived in Idaho nearly all my life I decide it's time to climb the state's highest peak. I hadn't climbed a 12er since Hyndman in 2003 because I was either out of the state or the country. Now, having moved to Boise, I decide it's time to start knocking off the 12ers in earnest.
Rob R. was my partner for this climb. It took us 13 hours and was actually quite difficult due to the snow remaining on the peak. Surprisingly we had the summit all to ourselves which is very unusual for Borah. One other person summited ahead of us but we met him on his way down. Everyone else chickened out on Chicken Out Ridge.
My Dad was waiting for us at the trailhead when we finally got down. There I had the best Gatorade I had ever had and went off to do more climbing with my Dad in the Salmon River Mountains. Good thing he was there because my car battery had died and no one else was there!
It felt good to be on the highest peak in Idaho. Here are my trip reports for this trip.
Borah and a Salmon River Trio (Part I)
Borah and a Salmon River Trio (Part II)
My Borah Summit Shot
#3 Mt. Breitenbach 12,140 ft.
Pete Creek Where the water revealed ice.
The next opportunity to climb a 12er came two weeks later on July 18, 2009 with my friends Zach V. and Mike F. Rob was going to come but something came up and he couldn't make it.
After sleeping under the stars at Mackay Reservoir the dawn came in beautifully. We couldn't have picked a better day to be in the mountains. The sky was clear and temperature was perfect.
We started off by trying to find the road to Pete Creek giving access to the mountain, but after several failures at finding it we decided to park at the base of Lost River Mountain and hike around into the canyon. Pete Creek was an awful bushwhack involving following a dry, rocky creek bed with some sections of thick brush. Higher up we hiked across miles of fairly solid scree. There was nothing but rock as far as you can see.
Near one of the false summits we stopped to get some cold water from a beautiful waterfall spilling over a cliff. Here we could see the water running under the rocks and revealing ice and snow beneath. I believe that we had been walking on a rock glacier.
After following a ridge we summited Breitenbach and headed back down. The stable scree that had been so wonderful on the way up was awful on our knees on the way down. The bushwhack in Pete Creek was also pretty nasty again but eventually we came out at the end of the canyon having climbed Idaho's 5th highest mountain.
Here's my album
for the climb.
Our Splattski shot on the summit.
# 4 Diamond Peak 12,197 ft.
Badger Creek Zach nearing the Summit
For this trip I teamed up with Zach again. Diamond is the only 12er in the remote Lemhi Range and the standard route up this peak is via its east ridge. This makes it quite a long drive from Boise so Zach had the brilliant idea of climbing it from the west and thus cutting off at least an hour of drive time.
We arrived at the trailhead in Badger Creek Canyon after dark and after missing the turnoff and nearly getting stuck on the narrow road. It was a pleasant night and we were up early the next morning to tackle Diamond. The hike up Badger Creek was very pleasant and interesting. The area had seen a lot of mining activity in the past and we passed many historic cabins and mine shafts. The day was cloudy and gray but it never rained.
The pleasantness ended when we got to the base of the mountain below the southwest ridge. Here, a 1000 ft chute of knee deep scree awaited us. Up until this point we had made excellent time but the scree in this area was so deep and loose that it took us four hours to reach the ridge! As we got higher the slope steepened making us literally swim through the scree using our hands for support. Zach followed a rock wall near the edge and ended up getting himself into a nasty spot. Eventually he made it through and we were on the ridge. From here the climbing was easy but we were already exhausted from our scree slog.
The summit view was amazing except someone had left some unsightly orange peels on the top.
The descent was MUCH faster. The scree chute that had previously taken us four hours to navigate now took us about 10 minutes. It was just like plunge stepping in snow.
My Diamond Summit Shot
# 5 Mt. Idaho 12,065 ft.
My birthday is September 19th and in 2009 I got my fifth 12er for it. Mt. Idaho is a peak that many people leave til last for some reason but Rob and I went for in the middle of our 12er run. It is the first 12er south of Borah.
Mt. Idaho from the east ridge. The Southwest Face
After another night under the stars Rob and I left for the Elkhorn Creek trailhead at 4 am. It was pitch black and my headlamp was dying. There is no trail up Elkhorn Creek so the going at first was difficult and confusing in the dark. Previous climbers had left cairns marking where they had been but they were few and far in between. About an hour into the trip we got off route in the dark and lost about an hour wandering around the woods while trying to find our way back to the route. By then it was light enough to see where we were going so we stopped worrying about being off route and just headed straight for where we thought we needed to go.
Soon we were at the base of a dry wash leading up to the west ridge of Mt. Idaho. The climbing in the wash was awesome as the rock was good and the holds were plentiful. When we reached the ridge an awesome view of Borah and Mt. Idaho awaited us. Here's where the real climbing started. We had to follow a ledge out across the southwest face of the peak to a gully filled with scree over solid rock. The gully was tough and slippery but soon we were on top with another amazing view all around us. Happy birthday to me!
For the Descent we went straight down a chute on the right side of the southwest face. It was steep and dusty but uneventful. I was dirtier after this trip than on any other 12er because of the dust on the descent.
My summit shot
#6 Lost River Peak 12,078 ft.
Looking Down the Super Gully The corniced summit ridge
Lost River Peak is a tricky mountain. To climb it you must go up through what is called the "Super Gully", a 2000 ft. chute surrounded by cliffs. It is at about a 45-50 angle and is filled with loose scree. The Super Gully is best done in the spring when snow still fills it and is hard enough to use crampons on. There is also a significant avalanche danger in the gully so the conditions must be watched carefully on this route. After the gully a knife edge ridge must be traversed and even if conditions in the Super Gully are good the ridge may be corniced over and dangerous. To climb in snow there is about a 2 week window of perfect conditions. Outside of that you'll either have knee-deep scree and slushy snow, or dangerous avalanche conditions and cornices.
Lost River is the only 12er I had to do twice. The first time on June 19, 2010 Rob, Daniel, and I found great conditions in the Super Gully but because of a recent snow storm the summit ridge was corniced over and was very unstable. We backed down and decided it was better to come back another time than to risk killing ourselves getting across the ridge. I have nothing to complain about though, my friend Mike had to do Lost River six times to summit. Luckily the sixth time was with me.
This is the album for my first attempt.
On July 17, Zach, Mike, and I set out to finally conquer Lost River. It was exactly a year before that this same team had done Breitenbach and once again Rob had had something come up and couldn't make it. We spent a night under the stars and got to the base of the mountain early in the morning. By now much of the snow in the Super Gully had melted leaving only a patch about 100 ft. long near the upper end. Surprisingly the scree was not too bad up to the edge of the snow. Here we got out our ice axes and kicked steps into the softening snow. We progressed quite rapidly across the snow and were soon at the open face above the Super Gully. Here's where the climbing got tough. The scree was terribly loose and a thick sloppy layer of mud was underneath. All this was on a 50 degree slope and it was pretty miserable. Eventually we made it to the false summit and could see that all the cornices had melted off. The route was clear but still exposed in places. In some spots the ridge was only a few feet wide but it was easy to drop a little bit below and work along the side. We were at the summit in no time. This was Zach's 8th 12er, my 6th, and Mike's 7th. It had eluded me once before and Mike 5 times before. The descent was much easier than the ascent and soon we were celebrating at Pickles Place in Arco.
My Summit Shot
#7 Donaldson Peak 12,023 ft.
The Crux Donaldson from Church
Donaldson is usually done on the same trip as Mt Church since the two peaks are right next to each other. It is a long day of route finding in some challenging terrain.
I did Church and Donaldson with my friend James M. and we found that the peaks were difficult but enjoyable. The area was amazing! On our way there we passed Zach coming home from finishing his ninth and final 12er Mt. Idaho.
The night before the climb James slept soundly on the ground while I spent an uncomfortable night in the back of my truck. We were on our way by about 5am the next morning following an unnamed drainage leading to the base of the peaks. Surprisingly there was a decent trail through the spectacular canyon rimmed with rock walls. At about sunrise we entered a large basin below the 12ers with a stream running through it. Here we were cautiously observed by a female bighorn sheep on the side of one of the mountains. We worked our way up to the high pond below the Church-Donaldson saddle where the real climbing would begin. There was a surprising amount of snow at the bottom of the route and in the cold morning air it was also quite hard. I regretted leaving my crampons in the truck but my ice axe helped me get across it without too much difficulty. From here we had to work our way up a series of scree covered ramps and gullies. It was by far the toughest part of the climb as it was very loose and steep. Finally we made it to the ridge just below the summit of Donaldson and in about 10 minutes I was sitting on my seventh 12er! After a bite to eat and some rest we were off to tackle Mt. Church.
My Donaldson Summit Shot
#8 Mt. Church 12,200+ ft.
Church's East Ridge Climbing on the East Ridge
Church looks formidable from every direction, however it never looks the same. Idaho's third highest mountain is probably its most difficult 12er. The ridge between Church and Donaldson is sharp and exposed with consistent class 3 climbing. All this combined also makes it one of the coolest climbs in the state.
From Donaldson it took us about an hour to make it across the ridge to the summit of Church. The ridge was incredible! It's pretty airy in places but never so bad you need to rope up. It is still a place where caution must be exercised though. For the most part the rock was solid right on the ridge but if you dropped below it became crumbly and loose.
The summit was awesome and it felt good knowing I had only one more 12er to go. Interestingly, the summits of Church and Donaldson were the only 12ers I had to share with other parties. It was quite crowded on the mountain that day (5 other people were climbing, most of whom I knew).
The descent was quick and pleasant and soon we were once again at Pickles Place enjoying our Atomic Burgers.
My Summit Shot on Mt. Church
#9 Leatherman Peak 12,228 ft.
Peaks on Fire Leatherman's East Face
Perhaps the most spectacular area in Idaho is the West Fork of the Pahsimeroi River on the east side of the Lost River Range. This is the easiest climbing approach to Leatherman but the road to get there is the most wickedly awful road I have ever been on. It is, however, worth the drive to see this remote and seldom seen side of the range.
My last 12er I did with Mike and Rob on August 7, 2010, exactly 7 years to the day from when I did Hyndman as my first 12er. The road in was a horrific nightmare of ruts, mud, rocks, and bumps. The scenery was heavenly.
We camped along the road near the trailhead. All the campsites were surprisingly full! During the night it thundered and rained but it was over quickly. Seeing that there was a 40% chance of thunderstorms the next day we decided to get out early. At 4:30 am we were up to the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning. The day did not look good. However, as we started hiking the skies cleared and the weather was never a problem that day.
The approach to Leatherman was much different from other Lost River Peaks. There was plentiful water, a good trail, lots of trees, and an easy grade. We were in heaven, especially when the sun started to come up lighting the peaks in front of us on fire.
Before we knew it we were at the base of the peak. Surprisingly the scree was quite stable and we continued to make good time up the rocky basin to the east ridge. Most of the elevation on this climb is gained while climbing to the ridge. Here the rock was loose but we got lucky. There was a patch of snow in a shallow gully running from the bottom of the basin almost to the top of the ridge. We found that the snow was just soft enough to allow us to kick steps into it and climb it like stairs, thus we avoided the loose rocks. Within a half hour we had ascended the 1200 ft. to the summit ridge and were well on our way to the summit. I was sitting on top of my last 12er by 9:30 AM and had decided that it was my favorite. It was such a pleasant hike and a fun climb. The view was fantastic but nothing compared to the feeling I had inside having just completed the Idaho 12ers.
We stayed on the summit for about an hour before heading down. The rest of the trip was spent racing thunderstorms to the trailhead. We made it back to camp and packed everything away and about 10 seconds later it started pouring. Perfect timing! The downside was the rain made the awful road super muddy a made the drive...interesting. Four hours and only 50 miles later were were again celebrating with Atomic Burgers at Pickles Place in Arco.
My Final 12er!
In the End
Climbing the 12ers was a fun challenge, one that I will always remember. I made many new climbing friends and saw some of the most beautiful places this world has to offer. Some of those peaks I may never do again but there are a few that I will definitely be back to repeat. Leatherman in particular comes to mind.
Although it took me 7 years to complete the task, most of the climbing was done in the summers of 2009 and 2010. Eight of the nine were done in those years.
One person worth mentioning is my wife who has allowed me to pursue my passion for the mountains on many Saturdays. Thanks Brittany! I love you!
Now with this behind me I feel free to explore the other wonderful peaks of Idaho and the surrounding areas! As I climbed my "must do" list grew longer and longer and now I can finally start working on it. Free at last!
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