Friday, October 21, 2016

Highpoint #38: Borah Peak, ID (12,668')

What does one do with an unclimbable mountain? Give it a try anyway and see how high you can go.

I woke before dawn the next morning due to both nerves (upon my decision) and the commotion of day-hikers arriving. The air was frigid; I shivered all the way to the outhouse, where I tugged on my spandex climbing-pants and down jacket (though, as usual, I'd shed the latter within the hour). I packed away my tent, strapped my new trekking poles to my day-pack, locked the car, double-checked that it was locked, and--oh, there's no sense delaying it. Up the mountain I went.

Borah or bust...?
I honestly didn't expect to make it to the summit. Something--bad weather, elevation, exposure, exhaustion, Pamola's last revenge--was sure to intercept me along these next 3.4 horizontal miles (and 5200' in gain) and force me to turn back. And, honestly, I'd be lucky if that was the worst of it. The mountain would remain after a failed attempt; would I? (I'd like to think I have enough sense to keep myself alive, but I'll admit the matter's not entirely in my hands.)

But the route up Borah began, as all trails do, relatively gently, as a simple dirt path.
As I climbed, the grass of the valley gave way to scrub, and then, soon after, to a sparse, dry pine forest:
Typical of the West, as I'd seen.
I continued up through the trees, doing my best to keep a steady pace as the grade increased. The trail, I soon discovered, was absurdly dusty--even now, several short hikes later, I still haven't gotten all the Borah-dust off my boots. That's what you get with a semi-arid Mediterranean climate: no rain from May to October. As I climbed, the valley narrowed; soon I was faced with near-impassable scree slopes on both sides.

Did I say "both sides"? I meant "all three." Around the next bend the trail's already-tough incline grew steeper--so steep, in fact, that I struggled to make upward progress through the slippery coating of dirt and scree. How in the world would I get down this without falling? Somehow, I told myself, filing it away as future-me's problem. With those trekking poles, perhaps. Carefully.

My fellow hikers, I noted with a perverse relief, weren't faring much better on this stretch. I caught up to a fit-looking middle-aged man just as he finished a break; he continued on and stayed consistently ahead of me, a distant figure scrambling up the rocks. The second group I met, a pack of chatty bros, I passed and saw no more. I doubt they made it past treeline-

-which was near, promised the thinning forest. I paused at a trailside clearing and looked back to see the range across the valley tinted pink by the rising sun:

Past there, the grade increased from mildly-concerning to near-impassable. I struggled over stair-like roots and waded up waterfalls of dirt, lingering over any solid footholds I could find. At one point I even forced myself to turn around and take a few steps down just to make sure descent was possible (it was, barely). Yet still the trail climbed that endless gravelly slope...

...until the trees thinned out:

Note the angle they're growing at.
and the crest came into view. It wasn't Borah's summit, not nearly--this little local maximum couldn't have been more than 10,000'--but it promised (at least) a brief reprieve from my ascent. So I pushed on to the top of the hill, which, I discovered was the base of the mountain's summit-ridge. From there I got my first clear view of Borah:

Waaay up there.
and learned why the trailblazers had forced us up that horrid scree slope:

Yep, the other side's worse.
Behind me, the sun had risen over the valley:

Comfort, safety, and flat ground, all so far away...
I took a brief break, drank some water, and continued on.

The next bit, in which the trail traversed the scree field on the gentle side of that ridge, was the closest to level I saw all day:

Yes, that. Really.

I'd just begun to relax, musing on the beauty of the mountains as I picked my way across, when a massive shadow appeared above the ridge and descended straight towards me. What was that thing? A bird? A plane? Wrathful Pamola, wreathed in lightning?

None of the above: it was a paraglider jumping off the mountain. Well, I thought once I'd regained my composure, that's one way to get out of downclimbing this thing. But the more I mulled it over (as I continued up the trail), the weirder it seemed. How did that guy get a glider up the mountain? Heck, how did he reach the summit so early? I can only assume he jumped from there, but I'd started up at dawn and I was still at least two hours out. There's nowhere to camp above treeline, believe me, so how...?

As if to taunt my unanswered questions, his buddy came shooting down the ridge so close I swear he almost hit me:

but he leveled out at the last second and passed ten feet above my head. A line, verbatim, from my notes: "Man, if he'd knocked me off that ridge, I hope my parents would've sued."

Daunted, but not fatally so, I continued up. I passed a few more parties on this stretch: an older couple who warned me that the air was thin up top (oh, didn't I know it) and a younger couple who, like me, had been freaked out by the paragliders.

The gentle slope was not to last. Soon afterwards the trail grew steep again, and rougher:

Still far from the summit, but nearing that brown band...
heading up towards an ugly-looking knife-edge by the name of Chicken-Out Ridge. That ridge--the most famous route feature in Idaho, I'd heard it called--was the main reason why I'd wanted to climb Borah Peak. On paper, it didn't sound much harder than Katahdin's Knife-Edge: a half-mile or so of  scrambling with a steep drop on either side, but there was no way to know for sure without climbing it.

I scrambled over a few dark-gray ledges, and there it was:

Cluck cluck, mountaineers.
So, I said, you must be this Chicken-Out Ridge I've heard so much about.

Indeed ah am, it replied. And you're comin' over, ain't'cha?

I looked back at the Lars. MomMom shrugged. We'd survive a tumble, she said. Plus we can gnaw out handholds in a pinch. You're the fragile one--it's all up to you.

Come on, dearie, crowed the ridge. Ah'm only rated Class 3.

Um... I took a deep breath (breathing fine), looked up at the sky (weather's fine), tested the rock (holds fine), climbed up one ledge (that wasn't so hard now, was it?), then another, and another... hey, I could do this.

Beneath my boots, the rock leered. Ah'm Class 3, it whispered, but only if you stick to the right route.

As SummitPost had promised, there were lots of options once I scaled that initial rise and the narrow section that followed, though few of them appeared secure. The holds were all canted away from me along the grain of the mountain; flat surfaces were few and far between. I took what appeared to be the line of least resistance to the left of the knife-edge, but soon found myself traversing shallow chimneys--that couldn't be right. I worked my way back to the top, then crossed over to a flat bit:

Like Katahdin's Knife-Edge, the Ridge was interspersed with them--and without any blazes to force me back onto the arête, I could "cheat" on them for as long as I wanted.

As the ridge rose and narrowed again, I caught up to the pair of climbers before me. I wish I could remember their names, but my mind was on the rocks when we introduced ourselves, so I'll call them as I remember them: Monkey Hat (so named for the monkey-shaped knit cap he wore) and his adult Daughter, both from Utah. It was his sixth or seventh time up Borah, if I recall correctly, and her first. Both were impressed that I was attempting the mountain for the first time alone (although how much solitude can one really expect on a summer weekend? I knew there'd be folks around if I got well and truly stuck). Answers led to questions: I learned that Monkey Hat was also a highpointer and had climbed all of the Southwestern peaks I'd skipped. None of them were quite as technical as Borah, he said, so if I could make it to this summit, the rest would seem easy.

I must say, their presence helped me through the worst of the knife-edge traversal. Routefinding was a lot easier with three sets of eyes to assess the terrain: at times they coaxed me through time-saving moves over the arête that looked worse than they seemed, and at times I found gentler routes around tough bits they would have climbed right through. Maybe there's a reason most folks climb in groups.

Chicken-Out Ridge ended in a steep drop (reminiscent of Katahdin's Chimney):

onto a narrow col. I'd heard that this section stays covered in snow quite late into the season, but this year the glacier had retreated to the shady side, leaving it mostly clear.

After that ridge, the Lars needed a moment to chill.
I continued up the trail (near-flat again, but with a scary-looking drop to our left) with Monkey Hat and Daughter. It contoured around a subpeak, then brought us to another dip in the ridge, this one wide enough to lay down in:

From there we could see the rest of the way to the summit:

...and it didn't look easy.
I was ready to keep going after a quick water break, but Monkey Hat and Daughter wanted to rest a little longer, so I left them there and headed up alone.

The first bit wasn't any worse than the section below Chicken-Out Ridge: just another scree slope. Fitting, I thought, that the Idaho high point was covered in potato-sized rocks. But as I climbed the trail grew rougher and steeper until I could no longer spare the oxygen to think (it's funny, but despite my fears, the thin air only got to me on this last stretch above 12,000'). My world shrank to a bubble centered around my next step. For each foot I progressed, the scree under my feet slid me a few inches back; at times it seemed I was pulling myself up by the rocks beside the trail in spite of my feet.

Almost there...
But somehow, one halting, slippery step at a time, I made it to the top of the ridge, and from there it was only a few dozen feet to the summit:

What do you know, I could make it up.

Exhausted, I sat down on the rocks and looked out over the Lost River Range:

and back the way I'd come:

See the trail?
As I watched, a raven flew across the valley from one peak to the next. If only I could so easily access these heights, I thought--but if I could, I don't suppose I'd value them much at all. If flying up a mountain was as easy as a wingbeat, who'd care to do it, or tell of it, or hear about it? One can curse those scrambles and scree slopes all they like, but they're the reason why we climb. The uphill struggle is what matters.

Despite the custodians' request that hikers not leave things at the summit, the register-box was stuffed with all sorts of odd trinkets (including a keychain from Waikiki Beach that I can only assume was left there by Hawaiian highpointers). I signed the register, drank some water, and forced down an energy bar--the altitude had muffled my appetite, but I knew I'd need the calories on the descent. The summit's only halfway home, after all.

A few minutes later, Monkey Hat reached the summit. We chatted more about the Western high points as he waited for Daughter to catch up (like me, he hates carrying an overnight pack, so he'd done Mt. Whitney in a single day, hiking literally from dawn to dusk). Just as he began to worry that she'd gotten stuck somewhere, she popped her head right over the rocks behind him. She'd lost the trail just below the summit, she said, so she'd followed our voices and scrambled straight up to us!

I took their picture at the summit, then began my journey down:

Oh boy...
I must admit, the scree slopes weren't quite as impossible to descend as I'd expected. The middle-aged guy I'd followed up advised me to dig in my heels (as he passed me on his own way down), which went against all my rock-instincts, but gave me a bit more purchase on the loose gravelly bits. Like the snow slopes on Mt. Washington last February, it was more or less a controlled fall. I made it down to the wide col without incident:

and continued back around the subpeak, feeling pretty good. Here I was atop the highest ridge in Idaho on a glorious summer afternoon with a new highpoint in my bag. The hills were alive with music... at least, until I ran out of breath (even on a flat trail, singing is no easy feat at 12,000 feet).

And then I hit Chicken-Out Ridge again:

Ah've been waitin' fer you...
I met up with the middle-aged guy just before it; he'd stopped there to take in the view:

Which was pretty nice, I'll admit.
I waited until he’d made it up the first steep bit, then followed after. Oddly enough, it felt more awkward coming up than down--this time the rock jutted out towards me, so I had to pull myself over all of its weird lumps:

I followed the middle-aged guy over the ridge for a while, but soon fell behind. He stuck mostly to the arête--the right thing to do, it seems, if you want to stay in Class 3 territory--but left to my own devices I once again veered off to my left side. A little while later I spotted some gravelly ledges below me: the trail, I thought, so I descended towards them... not realizing that the ridge still had another 500 meters or so to run. As you can guess, these fake-trail ledges soon disappeared, stranding me on the mountainside a good fifty feet below the arête.

The view was great, but...
While I stood there wondering what to do, a girl passed by above me leading--I kid you not--her dog up Chicken-Out Ridge. Think about that for a moment. The definition of a Class 3 scramble is that it requires the use of hands--I wouldn't take anything without opposable thumbs up one. But I digress. The girl started to descend towards me, but I waved her off--I was way off the trail, and it appeared I'd need all four limbs to get back onto it.

I could have just turned around, climbed back to where I diverged, and taken extra care to stick to the arête the rest of the way down. But as I examined the face of the ridge, I spotted a way across the lumpy mess: forwards a bit, then down a chute of gray rock, around a slight vertical ridge, and across a rough pale stretch that appeared to meet the ridge-top as it dropped. It would be by far the most technical pitch I'd ever attempted in the field... but I felt I could do it.

And so I set out across the face. Slowly, carefully, I moved from one secure position to the next without looking any further down than my next hold. I don't know how bad the drop would have been, and I don't want to know; in the moment, it didn't matter. To admit the possibility of a fall--and invite in the hesitance, the freezing fear--was tantamount to falling. I would not fall here. I could not.

Later, in safety, I would marvel at my concentration in this moment, at how--somehow--I'd simply set aside my fears and climbed. In memory I'd cling to the Ridge, shifting a foot forwards--but how easily that foothold could have crumbled out from under me, or my hand slipped its grip--and then I'd feel the lurch, the slide, the tilt, the fall--so many times I've fallen from the Ridge, but only in my mind, never in life.

How did I do it? I don't know. I had no other option, I suppose, once I'd committed to that traverse.

As predicted, those rough pale rocks (patterned in green and rose-red lichen like the wallpaper of a fussy old lady's bathroom) led me back onto the Ridge proper:

After that traverse, the rest of it felt easy. A few more minutes, and I'd reached the dark-gray ledges I remembered from the way up--Chicken-Out Ridge's proper end.

Take that!
It was an easy walk down the rest of the ridge:

At the end I paused:

...for one last bite of the ridge?
to break out those trekking poles I'd had strapped to my back this whole time, since my knees were starting to complain. I'd made it past the crux, but I still had a long, steep way to go to get off this mountain.

Full disclosure: this was the first time I'd ever used trekking poles (I know, I know, I should have practiced with them before I brought them up a mountain, hold your sanctimony). I'm honestly not sure how much strain they spared my knees, but at the very least, the mental effort of figuring out how to use them kept my mind off the ridiculous grade of that trail. I tried moving the pole opposite the leg I stepped with, then with that leg, then completely decoupled from my stride, but nothing really felt right (I finally settled on moving them both forward at once, then stepping down to them). To their credit, though, the poles did help me steady myself when I slipped; I would have eaten a lot of Borah-dust on my way down if not for them.

And so I poled my ungainly way down through the forest, stopping frequently to cool my knee-brakes, until at last the trees thinned out:

and I was home free... well, car-home:

Close enough.
All in all, I made it up and back in a little over eight hours--not bad, compared to the 10- to 12-hour round-trip the sign at the trailhead predicted. I took one last look at the mountain:

then stowed away my pack and poles, changed out of my dust-coated boots, and headed out.

The drive to Boise through the rolling golden hills along the northern edge of the Snake River Valley was quite relaxing... at least, it would have been if the sun hadn't been in my eyes the whole time. That's what I get for driving west at 6 pm, I suppose. All along I kept waiting for the trees to kick in--Boise means "forested" in French, after all--but they never did: the town was flat, dry, and treeless. False advertising, I'd say. Once there, I snagged a pizza and a motel room, pigged out, and crashed--I mean, enjoyed a well-earned lapse into oblivion.

[Happy (extremely belated) birthday, Mom! This one's for you.]
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