Dedicated PagesTrip Reports
Borah Peak, Idaho, 12,662 feet
DRIVING ROUTE. (1) From Arco drive about 45 miles north on US 93. (If approaching from the north, the access road is about 35 miles south of Challis.) (2) Turn east on Birch Springs Road (gravel) at the sign for Borah Peak access and drive to the end. At about 3.5 miles the road turns and runs down the earthquake fault of 1983 for about 100 ft, then passes through a wooded patch and emerges in a parking lot. The entire road is now easily passable in a two-wheel-drive car (not so a year before when we had scouted out the approach). The Forest Service has installed an outhouse; there are several campsites with tables (but no water). The trail, such as it is, leaves from the uphill side of the parking lot; there is no marker, but the route is evident.
SPECIAL NOTE. Borah Peak is rather more than a very strenuous hike: the ascent requires "scrambling" (rock climbing using the hands) and crossing a small but precipitous snowfield at very high altitude. Paul L. Zumwalt'sbook Fifty State Summits describes the death of three persons on this mountain, and Tom Lopez's book Exploring Idaho's Mountains describes three other mortalities that seem to have no overlap with Zumwalt's. Although the mountain is climbed each summer by perhaps hundreds of hikers without special gear, every person we met on the trail who had done it before was carrying an ice ax (and perhaps crampons and other gear in their packs).
I offer the following as recommendations for minimal preparation beyond adequate snacks, water and clothing: (a) good physical condition, (b)acclimation to high altitude, (c) absolutely no tendency for vertigo, (d)experience and confidence in scramble-climbing while wearing a backpack,(e) ice ax, with experience in arresting a glissade on extremely steep slopes, and (f) a very early start, to avoid lightning on the exposed slopes. If there is snow besides the permanent snowbank in the high altitude notch, climbers should have (g) crampons, and (by Zumwalt's recommendation) be (h) roped, with experience in arresting the fall of a companion. (i) Zumwalt also notes that "the final assault involves ascending finely-balanced loose rock, and the hazard of falling rock makes a hard hat advisable."
HIKING NOTES. Two days before, Liz and I had picked up at the Salt Lake City airport our younger son, Eric (age 30), who would try the ascent with us. We left on the route at 5 am in pitch darkness, ascending the wooded gully and after 40 minutes bearing left to cross a ravine with downed trees, ascending again to emerge at a saddle about an hour after the start. The saddle is at about 8700 ft, more than 1000 ft above the trailhead. But that's just the start; we then climbed even more steeply through open woods, Eric prancing ahead, until reaching tree line about another hour later.
There are tiny campsites here with barely room for a small backpacking tent; one would have to truck a lot of water up here to make an overnight expedition out of the climb. Eric was out of sight now, and the way continued to ascend sharply without switchbacks, running along the crest of a hogback with the steep scarp face on the left (north). The ridge became increasingly steep on the south side until there was no path left and we were climbing with our hands.
At about 4.5 hours (11,000 ft) we met a nice, soft-spoken chap who had passed us on the ascent but was now climbing down, his companions far out of sight. "I have two children to put through college," he said simply. We climbed a bit farther and were greeted by the spectacle that precipitated his return: the way was over a knife-edge arete, perhaps 4 ft wide with dizzyingly steep slopes on bothsides. One had to jump across a gap to the next large boulder and I could see no certain footholds or handholds. Unlike Eric, neither Liz nor I have any experience climbing; we are simply enthusiastic hikers.
"Chicken-out Ridge" is what the hikers have dubbed this stretch, and discretion is still in my book the better part of valor. Eric reached the summit about a half hour after our turn-around. By his account the arete reached the south ridge of Borah Peak at 11,800 ft. Continuing along the crest just a little east of northerly, he encountered another scary climb down to the notch containing the snowfield. Deep footprints made a sort of narrow valley across the top so crampons (which we all had in our packs) were not necessary. Eric used his metal walking stick for stability in crossing the snow, then continued northward on the ridge, reaching the summit (12,662 ft elevation and roughly 5200 ft gain in less than 3.5 miles) in 5 hours from the start. Near the end of our descent, Eric caught up to us, along with Steve Glenn; they had met near the summit. Steve is a professional tester of outdoor equipment, here on a sort of busman's holiday. Now clean shaven, Steve is the bearded chap crossing a rushing stream in the photograph on the lower right corner of the cover of Zumwalt's book; he knows virtually everyone in all the cover photos, front and back. I asked him about crossing the snow field and he replied that he got out his ice ax for the crossing. "If I'm going to slide 2000 feet to my death," he said,"I don't want to die stupid."
ALTERNATIVE ROUTE BEGINNING. The Forest Service's little brochure on Borah Peak shows the route as climbing the open slope to the north of the parking ot, and one could do this instead of following the ravine for the first hour of the hike. The alternative route would be a little longer but not so steep, and from the topo map would seem to entail hiking higher than need be, then losing some altitude to meet the usual route at the saddle.
--Jack P. and Elizabeth D. Hailman email@example.com