Borah Peak – Roof of Idaho (12,662 ft)
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Mt Borah, Idaho (12,662 ft)
5262ft elevation gain
“Come on, don’t be a chicken,” Matthew yelled up to me. I was standing on the top of a 20ft cliff protruding up from a knife-edge snow ridge. On the right side of the ridge was a 1500ft drop, and on the left a 2000ft drop, and the only way forward was to downclimb the little cliff and cross the snow. This was the aptly named “Chicken-Out Ridge” section of the standard Borah Peak route, where a slip could have severe consequences and people often decide to just turn around and forsake the summit.
I wasn’t chickening out, though, just planning my route carefully. I strapped my poles to my pack, turned around, and started downclimbing.
Matthew and I had flown out west for another state-highpoint-bagging weekend in our quest to finish all 50 by the end of the year. We flew into Salt Lake City Friday night and polished off #47 Kings Peak, Utah in a 27-mile hike Saturday, finishing early enough to drive into Idaho Saturday night.
As grad students we make enough of a stipend to fund a plane ticket once in a while, but try to save a penny whenever possible during the trip. On these trips we usually look for a national forest to drive into and just camp for free in the woods. So at 9pm Saturday night when I pulled off on an appealing gravel road in Caribou National Forest in Idaho and saw the sign “Free Area,” I was pretty excited.
“No that says ‘*Fee* Area’, dufus,” Matthew pointed out. I must have been pretty tired. It was a campground and thus I instinctively started putting the car in reverse to look for a better spot.
“Hold on a minute,” Matthew started, “we’re both exhausted, it’s after dark, we just found a campground in a national forest that’s only $6 a night, we won’t have to worry about somebody caring that we’re sleeping here, and we still want to turn around and keep looking for something cheaper!? I think we can each afford $3 for a good night’s sleep, especially since it’s going towards a good cause (the forest service).” I agreed, and we pulled in there for the night.
We were both probably as whipped as we’d been on Denali summit day – we hadn’t really acclimated to King’s Peak (13,528ft), and had been having terrible headaches most of the day. The altitude sickness had sapped our hunger and we had each eaten hardly anything during the 27-mile trek. And we were both pretty dehydrated, despite each having drunk 1.5 gallons of water. Oh yeah, and sleep deprived from only getting a few hours sleep the previous night. But it’s amazing what one good night’s sleep can do to a mountaineer’s body. It was like someone had hit the restart button on a computer and the next morning we were back to 100%.
Matthew took the wheel and we started driving northwest at 7am. The original plan had been to sleep at the Kings Peak trailhead that night and drive the full 7.5-hours to Borah on Sunday, climbing into the night if necessary. But with our bonus 3-hours of driving already done from the previous night, we pulled in it to the Borah trailhead early at 11:30am. There were nine other cars in the lot, and two were actually from Alaska! Everyone must have already started hiking hours ago, and with good reason: the sign at the trailhead warns: “the climb takes 6-7 hours – plan on a 12-hour round trip.”
“We’ll it ain’t gonna take us no 12-hours,” I proclaimed. It was only 7 miles, and we had done 27 miles yesterday in 10 hours. But we still knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. The trail gained 5262ft in just 3.5 miles and involved some sketchy scrambling sections. Moreover, I had some unknown knee injury that hurt pretty badly if I ran or put much weight on it. I knew, though, that I could avoid pain by taking small steps, leaning on my poles, and favoring my good leg on the scrambling, so wasn’t too concerned.
We started hiking at noon. The trail was extremely steep, and we soon passed out of the lowland scrub and into the trees, and then out above treeline around 10,000ft. At least five other parties were on their way down, after what must have been alpine starts that morning. I couldn’t tell then, but apparently some of the groups had actually chickened out on the namesake ridge and hadn’t actually reached the summit. Nobody announced that to me, though, of course.
After about an hour and a half we reached the fun part. The trail kind of fizzled out at the base of some ledges and the only way forward was scrambling up. Matthew started ahead, climbing up the 3rd class rock, then traversing to reach a small cairn at the top of a scree field. From there it was more scrambling up along the ridge, avoiding the occasional snow patch and trying to ignore the thousand foot drop below us if we were to fall. That section would have definitely required ice ax + crampons a month earlier, when we had originally planned on summiting Borah. It was no coincidence we had chosen this weekend, though, when the snow level would be at its lowest and we had the best chance of a fast and light summit bid.
Eventually the path of least resistance led us back to the top of the ridge and the infamous chicken-out section. It turns out the downclimb is a lot easier than it looks from a distance (either class 3 or 4 depending on your guidebook source), and has awesome hand and footholds the whole way. We got down no problem and the knife-edge snow ridge at the bottom had enough footprints that we crossed without needing crampons.
From here the final push to the summit looked impossibly steep, though it turned out to be mostly class 2 level. We passed two local Idahoans descending who said they were the last ones on the summit. They said they’d passed quite a few people on their way up, but didn’t see anyone else reach the summit after them. Must have chickened out, they supposed.
At 2:45 we officially reached the roof of Idaho, and had it all to ourselves! State highpoint number 48!
There were all sorts of memorabilia up there: a big American flag, several summit registers, and even a pair of old elk antlers. We admired the view for quite a while, and did our usual fooling around pictures of juggling and jumping. Down on the east side of the mountain we spotted some awesome alpine lakes that brought back memories of the Sierra Nevada. There would be quite a lot to keep a mountaineer busy in the mountains around Borah Peak, and I wouldn’t mind too much if MIT would move to Mackaye Idaho (at the base of Borah). It could even keep the same acronym.
The clouds started building up and getting darker and that was our cue to get down. We had each drunk about 3 liters of water on the way up but still felt dehydrated, so we filled up from a melting snow patch on the descent.
The chicken out cliff was easier going back up, but the rest of the scrambling a bit sketchier going down. Some sections had scree sprinkled on rocks (what some mountaineers call “kitty litter”), but we managed to avoid that most of the time.
Shortly after we got back into the trees we saw two more hikers starting their way up. The clouds were building and I could have sworn I had felt a drop of rain.
“That could have been us if Kings Peak had taken any longer,” I said after they had passed. It was already 5:30pm, and they would certainly be descending in the dark – I just hope they didn’t have to go over chicken out ridge in the dark *and* rain.
We reached the car at 6pm. No speed record (I had definitely slowed us down by being careful with my knee) but still better than the supposed 12-hour time the “average” hiker takes.
We were 5-hours away from Salt Lake City and needed to make a 2:30pm flight the next day, so we figured we had enough time to check out one more destination – a bonus point you might say. Craters of the Moon National Monument was only an hour away, so we headed there and got in one last evening hike in the ancient lavafields. We left early the next morning and made it to our flight with plenty of time to spare, arriving back in Boston late Monday night.