As mentioned in my blog on the Mount Hood climb I had a pass out. So, as you do, I went to Idaho. The objective was Borah Peak, the State highpoint. Well, of course, it is not quite as simple as that. There was a family holiday to be had and I flew out six days before the others. This had required an overnight stop in Denver and then an early morning flight to the State capital, Boise set in a valley beneath a line of small hills. It was originally much more wooded and explored by the French. The name derives from les bois or la riviere boise which was then corrupted to its current name.
Having done some walking in various parts of the Colorado and New Mexico Rockies and wanting to explore some states not previously visited, my eyes fell upon Borah Peak, otherwise known as Mount Borah. This seemed a suitably challenging objective. At 12,688ft it is the highest peak in Idaho. By July the snow is largely gone. It involves 5,250ft of ascent in just over 3.5 miles – so it is steep! It is a moderately popular ascent and, as I was planning to tackle it on the 4th of July, I assumed the place would be packed.
Having woken in Denver at 4am local time (a 7 hour time difference from the UK) I then shifted a further hour on arriving in Boise. I picked up a hire car and then searched out a supermarket to stock up on some food. This done I set off eastwards for my 4 hour drive.
Idaho is a sparsely populated state. Soon out of the metropolitan area of Boise you are in to the arid southern part. The Snake River makes its sinuous way in an east-west “U” shape across the state, fed by the melting snows of the Rocky Mountain chain to the north and east. Agriculture, forestry, the science and technology industry and tourism are the main economic drivers. The state is responsible for 1/3 of all the potatoes grown in the USA and this fact is proudly celebrated on state licence plates.
During the summer months, the state exists in a bit of a rain shadow from the Cascades and Sierra Nevada ranges to the west and south west. Accordingly agriculture is sustained by irrigation that draws its waters from the rivers that are also fed by the snow melt. Everywhere you look long sections of pipes supported by trusses would march across fields spraying water. Verdant areas contrasted starkly with those that were not irrigated.
The wide valley through which the Snake River runs is a geological feature formed by subterranean volcanic activity which is now most obviously seen in Yellowstone National Park. This is most notably seen at Craters of the Moon National Monument. This park conserves 400 sq miles of lava fields. So here are some pics of the landscape. The first shows South Butte a volcanic cone.
South Butte, Craters of the Moon NM
Then some typical scenery
Craters of the Moon, NM
and some flowers which can flourish even in these conditions
I should mention that the temperature was about 34 degrees C (or 93 degrees F in old money) with a stiff dry breeze to go with it. The park is at about 5,900ft above sea level compared with 2,700ft at Boise. It was then on to Arco, at the entrance to the romantically named Lost River Valley and having the distinction of being the first town in the world ever to have been lit by electricity generated by nuclear power.
So it was on north up along the Lost River with mountains rising on both sides, the green and fertile valley contrasting with the arid mountains. Mmm – snow. There looked like there was a bit more than I was expecting. Anyway, there was not a lot I could do about that now. It was about another 30 miles to Mackay which was the last settlement before my objective. Here I found a burger bar to stock up on carbohydrates before continuing.
Borah lies about 20 miles further north. I spotted the turn off easily enough and the way now followed a rough dirt track for 3 miles to the trailhead. I was able the get a proper look at the peak for the first time.
Borah Peak, Lost River Range, ID
The route up follows the ridge coming down to the right from the summit to the first point and then the ridge leading towards the camera from there. The feature running across the lower slopes is not a road but is a fault line that appeared in 1983 following an earthquake in the area. This lifted the height of Borah by 7 feet!
I arrived at the trailhead around 5pm. There was no-one there. There was not much there other than some signs:
and a pit toilet (strangely I did not think to take a pic of that!)
There were some extremely rough spots to pitch tents. Even though I had brought my lightweight tent with me I decided to take my chances sleeping in the car. This would also keep the mozzies at bay. Although I was feeling quite tired by now (my body clock said it was now early in the morning), it was too early to try to sleep so I mooched around, packed and re-packed my rucksack and worried about the snow I might find on the mountain.
I had my ice axe with me so I would take that. But should it be my three season boots or my stiff four season boots and crampons? Mentally I changed my mind three or four times. Eventually I decided on the three season boots and I would leave my crampons behind.
The plan was to leave at 5am, just as dawn was breaking. So I would settle down for some sleep at 10pm and set the alarm on my phone. I was packed and ready to go. Two pick ups arrived between 8pm and 9pm. I would have some company after all! In the first were three blokes. We had a brief chat. They were going to start the climb that evening and get to the top edge of the forest where they would kip. Off they went with very small packs with sleeping bags and mats dangling from them. The other contained two blokes and a younger lad. They went off to find a spot to camp.
It started to go dark and I settled down to sleep. I had 3 hours of a beautiful deep sleep. I woke up at 1am with a start. My body was telling me “OK it’s 9 o’clock, time to get up”. My mind said “No way, I want to go back to sleep! We’ve only had about 8 hours sleep over the last 48 hours”. My mind then battled with my body for the next hour and a half. The body won. So I surrendered and had breakfast.
At 3am I started on up the mountain. I must say it was an absolutely stunning night. It was cloudless and still. There was no moon but, without any light pollution, the stars provided enough light to walk by. I had started off with my head torch on but realised that my eyes would accustom themselves sufficiently to what light there was in order to walk in the starlight. The band of the Milky Way was clear; I saw an occasional shooting star.
The trail was obvious and went for half a mile of so up a dry river fold between two ridgelets. It turned to the right up towards the flank of the one on the right before swinging around to the left at the head of the fold on a more steeply rising traverse to meet the left of the two ridges. I was well into the forest by now. The smell of the pines and the distant rush of a stream filled my senses. When I stopped the only other thing I could hear was the occasional insect buzzing by. The stars continued to twinkle amongst the branches above me. The stillness was awesome (sorry a bit of an Americanism slipped in there, but it was).
As the forest became thicker I had to put on my torch. From time to time the trail became a little difficult to follow amongst the tangled roots of the trees but I never lost it. After an hour I picked out three bodies in their sleeping bags in the beam of my torch. Soon after, I had left the trees behind.
There now came a section of scree. Various zig zags appeared – no route apparently any easier than the others. This section was relatively short, perhaps 300ft or so of ascent and gradient of the ridge then relented a little and was merely rocky. I switched off my headtorch. The stars still shimmered above but the arrival of dawn was starting to lighten up the sky.
At a narrowing of the ridge there was a small point and a levelling off. The path ran through scree to the right of the ridge line and descended a 100ft or so. The first patches of snow were reached. The ridge here comprises an upturned escarpment, the layers clearly visible in some of the photos to come.
Eventually the snow covered the trail. On the first occasion I tried to avoid it by walking on the slopes beneath it. But the rocks were loose and I expended more energy doing this than had I crossed the snow. So the remaining patches were walked through. Even at this early hour (5.15am) the surface of the snow was wet and sheared away from what was underneath it. Fortunately at this point there was no great depth to it.
Now at over 10,000ft the effects of altitude were beginning and a cool breeze had sprung up. I slowed down. Around me the peaks were starting to catch the day’s first light.
Alpenglow on Mt Idaho
At this point it is perhaps worth copying an extract from Wikipedia’s route description of the normal route up Borah.
“This route on the southwest ridge, the most popular route, is a strenuous hike for the most part until one reaches a Class 4 arete just before the main summit crest. This point is known as Chicken Out Ridge as many people will abort the attempt once they see the hazards up close. In the cooler seasons this dangerous crossing involves a traverse over snow, with steeply slanting slopes on either side. An ice axe is strongly recommended for this section. Parties should turn back if there is any doubt about being able to make the crossing.”
In my researches on Borah before leaving the UK I had tried to understand what “Chicken Out Ridge” was really all about. There are conflicting accounts on various websites. Suffice it to say that, in my view, if you are comfortable on the Skye Ridge or on Crib Goch then you will be OK on this one.
So here I was at the foot of COR. Here is the view up it.
Initial climb up COR
and here is a view towards the summit of Borah which is still over 2,000ft above.
Summit from foot of COR
Here the character of the mountain changes. The rock is volcanic and rather like the Skye gabbro is “sticky”. But it is also a tottering tower of crumbling “sh*te”. The scramble up on to COR proper is reminiscent of the initial scramble up on to Crib Goch but looser. The ridge then narrows to a knife edge. I could then see what I was up against.
In true summer conditions there is a scramble for almost half a mile before the crux which is a 20ft down climb on to a saddle that has snow on it all year around. This saddle requires care because on both sides there are snow covered slopes that disappear into the valleys on each side. But the conditions were not summer ones. The ridge was covered in snow with rocky outcrops popping up amongst it like islands of sanctuary. Despite the early start and the altitude, the snow was wet. After only a hundred yards or so along the ridge I came to a snow covered bump with the ridge beyond out of sight. I gingerly made my way forward. The bump was a mushroom of snow – in other words, the snow overhung a drop to the next section. There was no way that I was going to get down there. I looked around and noticed that 50ft below me to the right there was a line of footsteps through a snow field. So I reversed back along the ridge and scrambled down to where the footsteps started.
I had not needed to use the ice axe as yet. Now I most certainly did. The snow field was perhaps 50 to 60 yards wide and pitched at perhaps 50 degrees. I did hesitate before stepping out. The bottom of the snow field ended 3,000ft below in a valley on the “wrong” side of the mountain. The boots were just about OK. For each step I planted the axe deep into the snow and checked it was secure. Step, plant, step, plant, step, plant. Out of breath I stopped in the middle of the slope. I do not suffer from vertigo but looking down I had another check of the axe. I proceeded as fast as was it was safe to and gained the security of the rocks again. There were no further similar objects. I trod carefully on the snow and rested where necessary at the rocky oases.
At the end of COR the crux was not there. As it had snowed so much over the previous winter, the top of the snow bridge at the saddle was level with where the down climb normally started. So it was just a question of stepping out on to the narrow snow bridge and balancing across its airy height.
At this point one is faced with a subsidiary bump in the ridge. The route takes you round to the (left/southwest) side of this. There was no real path. The going was horrible with blades of shattered rock forming ribs interspersed with runnels of soft snow topped with a crust of ice of varying degrees of strength. So the next half hour or more was spent alternately teetering on fragile, moving rock and plunging through the surface of the snow.
I was speedily consuming the fluids I had with me. In that respect I thought I was well prepared. I had hydrated the previous evening and had started the climb carrying 3 litres of fluid. By now I was well into my 2nd. Eventually I reached a saddle before the final climb of 800/900ft towards the summit. This was the view upwards.
This was the view back to the intervening bump from above the saddle.
Progress remained slow. Whether it was the shattered terrain, lack of sleep or the altitude I still do not know. On the ground there was the choice of walking up moving scree, taking your chance with the snow or padding up blocks of rock which were at just too steep an angle to be comfortable. Nonetheless the bump receded below me.
And then the summit was reached. There I was on the summit of Borah Peak two days after leaving the UK.
It was 8.55am. Like the mountain I was shattered – but exhilarated. Until now the effort of the climb had kept me warm enough. I hurriedly put on a couple more layers and finished my 2nd litre of water. I gazed at the views. Here to the west.
Here to the north.
Now to the east.
And here down to the south to the trailhead which was now a mile beneath me.
I forced down some food. I heard the sound of a light aircraft. It was red. It came towards me from the south and then proceeded to circle around me before continuing its way northwards.
On the summit were two furled flags (the Stars and Stripes and the flag of Idaho) and a couple of ammunition boxes that contained scraps of paper signed by those who had ascended together with messages on some.
It was chilly on the top even with the bright sun. I stayed on the summit for about half an hour. Now that the plane had gone, for all I knew I could have been the only person around for tens of miles. Looking down the ascent route I could see no-one. Then it was time to go.
The descent was no more pleasant, nor was it much quicker. When I reached the bump, there was the sign of a path slightly higher up but it soon petered out. So the snow plunging continued. What I have not mentioned until now is that I had decided to wear shorts for the day. Most times when I sank into the snow, the surface crystals grazed another layer of skin. Soon each leg was lined with vertical red lines, some oozing blood that left its mark in the snow.
As I reached the snow bridge at the end of COR, I saw 3 people.
There was a delicate descent on the usual shattered rock and soft snow to a traversing line that led to the end of the snow bridge.
I walked across to the knob of rock where they were putting on crampons and had a chat with them. It was the two blokes and the younger lad. They had seen the three who had camped in the forest but those three had turned around when seeing the conditions higher up. I found out that these three were from Idaho and that one had worked briefly in Northern Ireland.
The return down COR was as delicate as before. It was absorbing. It certainly was the challenge I had been looking for. Here are some shots looking back up COR.
I down climbed the final section and shortly after then stopped for some more food and most of my remaining drink and pondered on what was left of the day. Here is a view to the mid part of the ridge.
On I went. I was quite tired by now and I still had 3,000ft of descent to go. The more level section of the ridge went by quickly, I scuttled down the 300ft of scree and into the forest. It was lovely but I was too tired really to appreciate it. I stopped again and finished my drink. Belatedly I applied some more sun screen. The path wended its way down through the trees. The blue sky above, the wind subsided, it became hot, very hot.
I plodded on down. I was on autopilot. Such beautiful scenery but I wanted to be back at the car. I wanted the breeze back. I wanted a drink. The atmosphere was sucking me dry. The first hint of a headache was starting. My weary limbs were not able to soften each step I took and the occasional jarring threatened to set off a humdinger of a headache. Down and down and down I went, switching back to the descending traverse into the fold between the ridges. Only half a mile to go. It seemed endless. My mouth was parched. I had lots of water back in the car – how I longed to get to it.
Eventually the trail head came into view. I reached the car. The effort of taking off the rucksack and bending down to find the car keys in one of the zipped pockets seemed so much effort. But I was back. It was 3pm. 12 hours and one of the most challenging solo walks I had done.
There were more vehicles in the car park. A group of students from Washington State University were there on a geology field trip. They turned up shortly after I returned. We had a chat. They asked about conditions up on Borah. Little geology hammers hung from some their waist belts. I suggested that they could be used as ice axes – well I thought that was funny. I spent the next hour re-hydrating. The headache never materialised. Just as well – I had the drive back to Boise.