Idaho’s Big Tease: Mt Borah
Article & Photos Copyright 2011 Ron Watters
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Some mountains are beautiful: lean, long lines reaching upward – and men and women are immediately drawn to them. Some are just shapely, with bulges here and there, but, nevertheless, possessing qualities that attract our interest.
Mt. Borah is of the later. She is benign and bulgy, not a ravishing beauty, but she has something over any other peak in Idaho.
She is the highest. Rising up from a sagebrush valley in the southeast part of the state, she dominates all other peaks in the state.
One would think that a mountain of her stature would have something of uppity nature, and I suppose she does in more than one sense of the word. Conceit can be an irresistible quality, and she certainly attracts in her own standoffish way. Climbers and hikers flock to her, and on a typical summer day, dozens can be found scampering along voluminous skirts.
She’s not a particularly difficult mountain to climb: “a walk-up” in climber’s parlance. Oh sure, one part of the standard route is a narrow stretch with dizzy drops on either side, but there are plenty of hand-holds, and if you’re comfortable with heights, you can stroll along and whistle a tune at the same time.
Granted she’s tall and it takes a long, long day to gain the summit, but, all in all, Borah is not a particularly difficult ascent. Most people check her off their “to-do” list quickly and go on to other mountains.
For me, however, there were no quick check-offs. I had lived and climbed in Idaho for many years, and yet her airy heights was as elusive as grasping for rising mist.
* * *
It wasn’t for lack of trying. My first attempt at the mountain was when I was in college. When I think back on it, the image that comes to mind is being on a first, tentative date with someone far more experienced than I. Clearly, I was unseasoned in the ways and wiles of mountains, and after that first attempt, I was left with the feeling that this relationship – in some odd way I had begun to think of it as a relationship – might turn out to be something quite a bit different than the norm.
The standard climb of Mt. Borah’s 12,662-foot summit is up the southwest ridge, her long arching backbone originating just above tree line on its west facing forested slopes. The crux of the climb is the narrowing of the ridge mid way between the tree line and the summit. Since a good many would-be Borah climbers turn around when they are faced with prospect of crossing this short, exposed stretch of the ridge, it has become known as Chicken Out Ridge.
On that first climb, our small group of college friends had ascended through the forested band on the western slope of the mountain and made it to somewhere beyond where the trees give way to the rocky southwest ridge. The summit was still a long way away from us. From this point, the ridge ambles along endlessly and dropping into a saddle before it makes its final sweep up to the summit.
Now that we were above tree line and firmly planted on the ridge, we devoured the view directly west towards the White Knob, Pioneer and White Cloud Mountain Ranges of central Idaho. The view from Mt. Borah’s southwest ridge is exquisite, like looking through a lofty picture window.
But there was something besides mountains that caught our attention. Racing towards us through the opening in the picture window were billowing and menacing storm clouds. They were coming very quickly. So quickly that we already were feeling static building, that prickly feeling where hair follicles tingle and quiver. Exposed as it is, facing directly into the oncoming weather, the Southwest Ridge on Borah is no place to be in an electrical storm. We were young and inexperienced, but nature was shouting loudly in our ears – and we listened. We turned and bailed.
We were so anxious to get off that vulnerable ridge that we didn’t return the same way we had come. Instead, we dropped off directly to the south into what’s called Cedar Creek. It seemed to us the fastest way down. At first, we slipped and skidded down gradual scree slopes. There was no snow, but we used an adapted ski technique to get down, balancing ourselves with arms spread and glissading on top of the small, bite-size pieces of rock rubble.
It was great fun and we descended quickly, heading for safer terrain lower on the mountain. But imperceptibly the slope had been steepening, and straight away, we found ourselves on great long fingers of scree that stretched unabated, disappearing from our view hundreds of feet below. As we tried to control the descent, large areas of small rocks were sliding with us, like the great slabs that form in avalanches.
It was an eerie, unnerving feeling, a feeling that at any minute the whole mountain would just collapsed in one last grand avalanche of rocks. But there was no alternative. We had to go down. On and on, down slope we went, plunging into the canyon. I don’t think I’ve ever run into longer more sustained scree slopes than those on the side of Mt. Borah.
The angle eased up and eventually, we safely reached the bottom. The bottom of Cedar Creek is no picnic, and we thrashed and clawed our way through the tangled undergrowth, carefully climbing around rocky outcroppings, and finally dragging our exhausted bodies back to the vehicles.
So ended my first date with the mountain.
* * *
Some places have a romance about them by virtue of their name. “Lost River” is one of them. Lost River is a river, of course, but it’s also the name of a mountain range. Most often, people refer to the range as “The Lost Rivers.”
Mt. Borah is a part of the Lost Rivers. They’re a narrow range of a sedimentary peaks slanting northwest and sitting about 90 miles northwest of Pocatello in Southeast Idaho. The Big Lost River for which the range is named is fed by incoming streams and by a series of springs in the valley which are shadowed by Mt. Borah in the early morning. The river is aptly named. Down river 60 miles from Borah, its waters disappear in the porous lava flows of the Arco desert to the south. Strange as it sounds, the lava is a great sponge, sopping up the water, and releasing it a hundred miles to the southwest in the Hagerman Valley of the Snake River.
The Big Lost Valley near Mt. Borah is a pretty agrarian valley. It’s mostly undeveloped with a scattering of ranches; though ominously, building in Sun Valley to the west is spilling over into the fringes of the valley.
Probably the worst scar, however, is a poorly located high voltage power line that was built well two decades ago. Its access road and splotchy excavation scrapings around the gleaming metal towers cut a path directly across the base of the mountain. All along US 93 from north of Mackay to Willow Creek Summit, the power line is plainly in view and starkly out of place.
A college friend of mine grew up on the ranch that sits at the base of Mt. Borah. She was one of two roommates in a house that we shared in one of those creative college living arrangements to help keep expenses to a minimum. Coming from hard working, Idaho ranch stock, she grew up with her dad teaching her how to ride horses, chase cows and fix fence. Her father passed away quite some time ago, and while I only knew him through her stories, had he been alive, I’m sure he would had some strong words about what the power boys did to his mountain.
* * *
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to climb the mountain in the summer, I decided to switch strategy and attempt it in the winter. In the winter, Borah is lavishly draped in white from head to toe. From mid winter well into spring, the white remains wrapped pleasingly around her, but as summer progresses, she sheds her clothing piece by piece. Saucy, free-loving gal that she is, by late summer, much of it is gone. Therein might have been my problem in the summer. I would try, instead, in the winter.
Winter climbs, of course, take more equipment and more time. There are additional risks, particularly from avalanches, but since much of the climb is on a ridge, the standard route on Borah can be done fairly safely, keeping above possible snow slides.
Customarily, there are other hindrances when winter climbing. One is deep snow – and that’s what greeted us on that first winter attempt. We waded on our skis through bottomless powder snow and after a long, long day we hadn’t even made it to the ridge. As British climbers might put it, we were creamcrackered. I love that term. Where it came from I have no idea, but it does pretty well tell how we felt. It also could be applied to that feeling you get when you’ve been mercilessly teased – which, more and more, was beginning to define our relationship, the mountain and I.
My three other companions and I shoveled out a platform within the forested lower slopes and spent the night. The next day, we took turns leading and plowed our way up to above tree line, but . . . it was deja vu. The sky darkened. Snow streaked downward into the valley and big bellied clouds rushed towards us.
In the building wind, we gathered together, held a brief discussion, and, yep, we bailed.
It was a lumbering ski back down into the conifer forest. Once in the forest, negotiating with our skis was difficult because of the tightly spaced trees, and then we came to a gully. The open gully was tempting. There were no trees to impede our skiing, but a warning light was flashing in my brain. I was just beginning to learn something about avalanches then and I knew a gully probably wasn’t the best place to be. It looked nice, though. We could be down in no time, I was thinking. Shuffling over, we examined the edge of the gully, poking the snow with our poles.
Already a couple of my companions were drifting into the gully. Somewhere I had read that if snow sounds hollow, then it’s dangerous. I have no idea where I had read it. Maybe in a Zane Grey novel. Armed with such an authoritative source on avalanches as Zane Grey, I said: “If it sounds hollows, let’s not ski it.”
Well, of course, it didn’t sound hollow when we got on it. I’m not sure exactly what hollow snow is supposed to sound like, but it was a quick way of getting down the mountain. I’ll never take that route again – at least in most winter conditions. Some time afterward, it struck me that we were skiing an avalanche chute which was nicely enveloped in fresh, unsettled snow, waiting for the right trigger to send it down.
* * *
I made one more attempt in the winter. This time it was late winter, nearly spring, and I was with my good friends Yuki Fugita, Mark Torf and Bill Hogan. It wasn’t weather that stopped us this time; it was Chicken Out Ridge. A double cornice curled lazily over both sides of the thin ridge. Soften by the warm sun, it was posed, ready to break away and plunge 1,000 feet or more to either side.
It was, however, a remarkable trip in two respects. The first was the existence of another climber on the mountain. He was alone, had managed to get past the cornices at Chicken Out Ridge, and had successfully reached the top of the mountain. We found him on his return.
He was lying in the snow 50 feet or so below the ridge line and attracted our attention by crying out for help. The sound was spooky and unearthly, almost as if the mountain was whispering. We had no idea that anyone else was on the mountain.
Bill Hogan, a pediatrician, got to him first. He found the climber in pain and immobile with a dislocated arm twisted in an odd, contorted manner, still limply holding his ski pole planted in the snow above. Bill who had spent time as emergency room doctor, chatted with him as he moved the arm gently around, then with a quick pull reduced the dislocation.
It was immediate relief. Able to rise and move his arm again, the climber thanked Bill. Then he gathered his things together, and he was off, heading down along the ridge and vanishing from our sight.
Not many people climb Borah in the winter. The likelihood of a party of climbers coming upon an injured solo climber is remote. But somehow our timing had been perfect. Turned around by Chicken Out Ridge, we had been delayed just enough to come upon the climber shortly after his fall.
Did we save him? Not really. I’m sure he would have figured out a way to make it down on his own – eventually. But most certainly it would have been far more uncomfortable without Bill’s doctoring.
The second unusual occurrence that day was the snow. As we descended to the lower slopes of the mountain, we ran into one of the most extraordinary snow conditions that I’ve ever experienced. It was becoming very warm. Free water was lubricating the coarse snow grains found near the bottom of the pack. The conditions were perfect for slab avalanches, and this time, I sensibly suggested that we stay in heavy trees avoiding the open gully.
When we finally reached the safe, long, gradual sloping run out at the bottom, I was in the lead. We all had been looking forward to the last, easy going mile-and-a-half glide back to the highway, but the snow required some adjustment. I learned quickly that I had to keep my speed up. If I slowed down, I’d drop through snow and come to a grinding halt.
Something else was happening too. My weight on the snow was causing it to break into blocks and cracks would radiate out 100 to 200 feet on either side of me. It was extraordinary. There was no chance of an avalanche. It was a very gradual slope, nearly flat, but the whole snow surface was cracking like an egg shell.
It was fine for me as long as I kept the speed up. Behind me, however, it was bedlam. I could hear the cries of Bill, Mark and Yuki as they tried to maneuver through the snow surface which had been turned into a network of crevasses and blocks by my passing. Looking briefly over my shoulder, I saw Bill fall into one of the cracks and tumble face-first into the snow. I quickly calculated that I’d be in the same situation if I stopped, and I pushed with poles to keep gliding.
The cries behind me turned to curses, but eventually I moved far enough ahead that they were out of ear shot. I made it to the car and waited . . . and waited. It was almost an hour before my three companions showed up.
That was about the only time that the mountain gave me a break. I didn’t make it to the top, but I managed to have a little fun. Of course, my companions weren’t exactly sanguine as I was about that part of it.
* * *
I did manage to reach the summit of Mt. Borah a decade later. It was in late June and a summer snow storm had rolled in through the big western picture window and draped the mountain in a thick white haze. On the summit, we couldn’t see much more than about four or five feet in front of us. It was all white, offset with just a bit of darkness showing from the boulders at our feet.
It would take another eight years before I reached the summit again. But this time, she relented and I stood on the summit with clear skies and unhindered views all around. It was wonderful. I was filled with the euphoria that often accompanies one upon reaching the top of a mountain. I laid back against a boulder which had been warmed by the sun. An overwhelming feeling of peace and relaxation seeped into me.
But it wasn’t for long. A cool wind came out of nowhere and chilled my exposed skin. I slipped on a parka, hoisted my pack, and with a tinge of regret, headed back down into the valley below.