Ascent of Borah Peak on 2011-07-16

Climber: William Musser

Others in Party:Karen Musser
Date:Saturday, July 16, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Borah Peak
    Elevation:12662 ft / 3859 m

Ascent Trip Report

Trip Report for Borah:

Reading so many accounts that say be prepared for the snow bridges along “Chicken out Ridge” and how much snow they had this year late (in fact the Snake River was overflowing its banks and above the boat ramps when we were there), so I came to Idaho over-prepared. I brought my crampons and newly purchased ices axes and my La Sportiva mountaineering boots and even some webbing and one harness in case there was something tricky since my wife had challenged herself to join me on this big ascent.

Karen had climbed Baxter Peak (Kathadin) in Maine with me but came down each time very fatigued and had not climbed above 8,800 feet before (She did Guadalupe Peak with me in Texas), so this would be significantly higher, steeper, more technical, and more gain than she ever had attempted. I thought this would be over her head. I was wrong and I am proud of her achievement. At 51, and with this being her first true alpine ascent – she kept busting along and we summitted together in 5 hours and 40 minutes. I don’t think I would have climbed it in much less than 5 hours myself (especially with the wrong turns and few bad routes I choose along the way) so she did well!

We had visited the Craters’ of the Moons National Monument the day before and grabbed a motel in Arco. I was a pretty tired since while she was in her nuclear physics conference all week, I had been satisfying my training by climbing county HPs and other interesting features the last 3 days and was getting in between 1,500 feet and 3,500 feet of gain each day. I had already tweaked my knee, ankle and had a blister on my right heel the day before the big climb.

We awoke at 4 AM and set off soon thereafter to drive up to the trailhead. I did not sleep that night worried about her lack of proper equipment. I brought her gators and tall ice ax but she did not have a good day pack, crampons, walking poles, or mountaineering boots (she wore light climbing shoes) and her small fanny pack that only carried a quart and a half of Gatorade. I took my North Face climbers pack and loaded it with 6 quarts of Gatorade, 2 ice axes, 2 raincoats, fleece, flashlights, ankle gators, food, camera, etc.. and it felt like I had all but the kitchen sink. Neither of us had climbing poles.

I wanted to start at 5:30 to be safe. We found the trail head and began at 5:40 AM. After an hour we caught up to the first ream of hikers and the only team that started ahead of us (a father and his 15 year old daughter from Twin Falls Idaho). It was his 5th time up Borah and first for his daughter. They were a wonderful pairing and although we passed them we did enjoying talking to them at times when they caught up to us while we were resting.

The first 2 miles has a stretch that is everything that they billed it to be in terms of being ridiculously steep. The users have carved z back switches in the basically straight up the ridge ascent through the conifers but this erosion and abuse makes the material on the ground very loose and hard to hike up. Once we climbed above the sub-alpine and made the first alpine ridge the views were amazing. We passed to young men coming down. I was like no way you got up and down that fast this morning and they told us they ascended at 11:30 PM yesterday and watched the sunrise and were now passing us coming down. WOW!

Karen was doing well. She needed to stop often while I was happy to keep going but still I was impressed with her fitness this year. She never complained once and hiked at a good pace. We took our pulses before beginning the first scrambling ridge. My pulse was 88 and hers was 140. Typical of our hikes together this summer in Maine so she was doing fine at altitude.

We reached a precarious ledge and I lost the trail temporarily and I thought this could not be the way. But the cairns were not in view and this was still before “Chicken out Ridge” so we rested seeing someone coming up from below. About then the first climber to pass us came along. A very fit looking man in his early 60s that moved around the rocks like an experienced mountain goat. He carried a wooden handled ice ax that he said he purchased when he was 17. The oldest treasured possession he owned. How cool! We followed him out off the pinnacle back on path. In hind sight, that was only one of three places where the path finding got tricky and one of two times I made the wrong ascent line. Most of the trail is either very easy to see and worn, or well marked with cairns.

Half of the people on the mountain that day carried ice axes to self arrest along the snow bridges. Nobody used crampons. I am glad I had an ice ax along. The morning crossing not so much as the snow was firm and the boot tracks held well. In the afternoon the axes were prudent and those with poles did OK too by getting a third point in the snow while making sure their boots were secure. The trail today moved us around and down chicken out ridge instead of up and over it to a snow bridge crossing on the east face about 20 feet below the snow. I presume the boot tracks we followed were worn in from earlier crossing in July to avoid a cornice but the fact is we had crossed it and I did not even know we had passed the supposedly scary part of the trip. Scrambling the arête in itself is a sizeable mental challenge for those that are not secure at heights with significant exposure. I compare it to the Knife Edge on Kathadin but seemingly more feet of very exposed conditions. As the literature says there are plenty of fantastic foot and hand holds so it is not dangerous nor physically demanding scrambling but you have to call much of that ridge class 4 Exposed Scramble as a fall from several of the locations would be fatal on either side.

On this day there was a second snow bridge that was shorter that the first, but 10 feet long (the infamous one at the Chicken Out down-climb was 20 feet long this day. While making our approach to the third snow bridge a second man passed us who was about 30 and very athletic. He uses Borah as a training climb. Good God he moved quickly. He wore shorts, a training shirt, climbing gloves and had no equipment. Karen and I and all the other people on the mountain were dressed warmily as the wind was strong and cold up there. This guy looked like a Marine on a mission in Afghan. We let him pass.

The third snow bridge was by far the scariest crossing of the day. It was longer than the others, perhaps 40 feet, and had long steep snowy slopes down each face. The boots prints were firm and safe and half of the people crossed here without using an ice ax. A slip and fall here, although unlikely on our morning crossing, could be fatal as the slopes only get steeper away from the bridge and drop some 800 feet before you would stop sliding. We made our second mistake following the Marine who up-climbed instead of using the easy and well marked trail below this sharp ridge – snow bridge. The material was a crumbly shale like mess that was hard to move in and we continued to dislodge rocks below us as he had done. This was not safe – falling rocks in never a good thing so I looked for another way that we missed. Luckily our Father and daughter team caught up to us and yelled across the bridge to us that we should not have followed the Marine. That the standard route is a trail directly below us by about 40 feet. I found the trail below and began down climbing this messy plated area. Karen dropped her ice ax about then and we ended up leaving it for later as we needed to get out of this shale like material. We found the trail below and thanked the pair for correcting out course and then I left my harness as it was not going to be needed for the day and we enjoyed the relatively flat traverse to the final saddle.

The climb up the final stretch of peak took a while and is a mixture of class 2 talus negotiating and some fun class 3 scrambling. There is no class 4 scrambling that we saw on our final approach although I hear the ridge crest approach is full of hard stable rock and might have some there. We passed the Marine on his way down when we were about 400 feet vertical from the top and he apologized for not advising us to NOT follow him – he liked to take the more technical routes for fun and he advised us to stay left after that. At about 200 feet from the top we passed the man with the wooded ice ax coming down and he advised us to use the solid scambling rocks and slab rocks to go up and use the exit path to the left (west) with the loose scree to come down. We could no longer see the father – daughter pair as they had taken a long break behind us.

Acquiring the ridge we began to see the vast views of surrounding mountains. I summitted at 11:20 AM and started setting out the snacks and drinks and Karen was right behind me a few minutes later. We took wonderful pictures and I would have to rate the views up there as impressive as any place I have been. Borah is very rugged and the surrounding mountains appeared to have very high gains. Not like many of the Colorado 14ers I have visited where the saddle between them may be 500 to 1000 feet lower; these looked like 3,000 feet or more of vertical between saddles. I saw no tempting easy piggy back peakbagging off of Borah. At noon the father-daughter made the peak and we exchanged camera assistance and then we left the peak alone for them to enjoy – his daughter beaming with pride. I was very proud of Karen as well. She posted and outstanding time for her first high alpine challenging ascent ( 5 hours 40 minutes). On the way down we passed a new face – a man in his 20s about 400 feet from the summit and already over 6 hours into his climb. He seemed to be struggling with path finding and was carrying his ice ax which he no longer needed. He told us he had a partner who attempted his first alpine ascent and chickened out on chicken out ridge. So like all the other reports I read – there are always those that do not pass that place on the climb. Going down is hard on tired legs we got to the snow bridge and I gathered up my missing ax and my harness and repacked.

By the time we got it all together I tried out the snow bridge short cut that others had used earlier and the snow was soft now and was not holding the boots well. For the first time that day I felt uncomfortable and used my ice ax with purpose. I gathered Karen and about then the father daughter joined up to us. I told him in my opinion the short cut was getting a bit iffy and I worked hard to cut new deep boot prints into the snow but I was sure glad I had an ax with me. He checked it out and elected to up-climb around the soft snow to the top of the snow bridge. Good decision since he did not have axes with him. Karen and I followed as Karen had no real formal training with ice axes and I believe in always finding the safest path when you can. The snow on top of the bridge was compact and icier and not sloughing off with each step so it felt much better than the lower traverse I recommended that they all avoid if possible.

The four of us traversed across all of the ridge and at the second easy snow bridge I was last to climb up. The three ahead of me had broken up the compacted boot prints and by the time I got there the remaining snow was so soft it kept cleaving off and going down the side of the mountain. The late day snow just was not as safe as when it was firm in the morning. I ended up using my arms to pull up into the small chute of rocks and avoid putting weight directly on the failing snow in that location. The third bridge, however, was still solid. The four of us chatted and worked our way through all the scrambling and then Karen and I passed to get down with the thought of a delicious victory dinner in both of our minds. When we got down we found the young man that had chickened out in his car awaiting his friend who never caught up to us on his own coming down. He would be the last to come down and we told him to start worrying if he did not appear within an hour of the father-daughter pair coming down right behind us.

We were down in 4 hours and 10 minutes. Our entire climbing time was 5-40 up and 4-10 down or 9 hours and 50 minutes total. We had 40 minutes of peak time in addition to that. Then we went hot tubbing and to a delicious dinner. This is a solid 9/10 trip but not for those with a fear of heights or a lack of endurance. The books and Peakbagger accounts give a wide range of times from 5 hours roundtrip to 15 hours. Extra gains from guide book literature and estimate of some of our misroute corrections.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:5652 ft / 1722 m
    Extra Gain:120 ft / 36 m
    Round-Trip Distance:9.2 mi / 14.8 km
    Route:Standard Trail from highway
    Trailhead:Trailhead parking  7250 ft / 2209 m
    Grade/Class:1,2,3,4 mostly 2 and
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Ski Poles
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
50F in morning and into 70s top was cooler and very breezy hot coming down.
Ascent Statistics
    Time:5 Hours 40 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:4 Hours 10 Minutes

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