Climbing Idaho’s tallest mountain: The worst 12 hours you’ll ever love

The Borah Peak summit in Idaho offers 360 degrees of mountains and plains. (Bill Manny/Idaho Statesman/TNS)
caption arrowCaption
The Borah Peak summit in Idaho offers 360 degrees of mountains and plains. (Bill Manny/Idaho Statesman/TNS)

Credit: Bill Manny

Credit: Bill Manny

Forget what you’ve heard about climbing Borah Peak.

The worst part of climbing Idaho’s tallest mountain is not Chickenout Ridge. Unless you have a serious problem with heights, the ridge will be thrilling, not throat-clenching terror.

The worst part is not the knob at the uphill end of the ridge, which involves a rock-climb drop of about 20 feet (though it helps to go with a veteran).

No, the worst part of going up Borah Peak is not going up at all.

It’s coming down.

Because after the 4:30 a.m. breakfast, the chilly pre-dawn start, the withering mile of vertical elevation over 4 miles of hiking and the torturing midday sun above treeline, you have to do it all again, backwards.

As steep as the up is, the down is sole-wrenching punishment on ankles, toes, calves, hammies and, most of all, knees.

Your first round trip will take you 10 to 12 hours of almost nonstop walking. It will take more water than you want to carry. It will test your fitness, your patience, your appetite for Idaho mountains and your leg’s shock-absorbers.

So before deciding if you want to climb up, make sure you want to descend.

Still want to try it? Great. If you are prepared and in shape, it’s one of the most fun days you’ll spend on a mountain in Idaho.

The traditional Borah hiking route begins at 7,400 feet and climbs to 12,662. It’s a day of steep walking, some hand-over-hand scrambling and some steep dropping.

You have to be fit. You’ve got to be able to stay with your group and stay strong for the descent at the end of an exhausting day. You have to train. You have to do a lot of hiking. To get my climbing and elevation legs, I like to go from Simplot Lodge at Bogus Basin to the top of Shafer Butte several times in the weeks before I climb. To be ready for 12,000 feet, there’s no replacement for spending time at elevation.


What to expect

You’re not likely to get much solitude climbing Borah. Especially in August and on weekends, this will be an exercise in camaraderie, not contemplation. On busy weekends in August, climbers quickly fill the four campsites at the Borah Peak campground, which is where you want to sleep to start before dawn. So get there early or you’ll be sleeping in the gravel lot or the flats below the campground.

The campground has no water and just one two-door pit toilet. But when it’s full of excitable folks eager to experience the Lost River Range, it takes on an energetic, communal, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe. Enjoy the conviviality.

If you can, spend an extra night on the trip to The Lost River Range. I’ve made Craters of the Moon, the Sawtooths and Trail Creek my sleepover on the way north. My body definitely notices an extra 24 hours of acclimation.

0 hour: Early to bed, early to rise. Prepare your gear and your breakfast before it gets dark, then get to bed early. Get up as early as you can. Summer mountain storms often gather in the afternoons, so it’s best to get up and off the peak before the heat of the day. A bit of advice: Use the campground toilet. Once above treeline, there is no privacy.

Hour 1: Through the trees. Turn on your headlamp (bring extra batteries) and get started. Hitting the trail by 5 a.m. or so puts you at or above treeline by sunrise, which lets you watch the shadow of the mountain creep across the Lost River Valley. It also lets you watch the first touch of sunlight on the surrounding ridges, bringing out a richness in the Lost River Range rock that disappears in later, harsher light.

Hour 2: On the ridge. OK, that was truly awful! The steep approach trail and even steeper path to treeline is behind you, and you’ve emerged onto the broad ridge you’ll follow to infamous Chickenout Ridge. Study the terrain ahead. From here, the entire horseshoe-shaped ascent is in front of you. Enjoy the next hour; it’s the only chunk of trail that is of moderate grade.

Hours 3-4: No shame in chickening out. You’ve arrived at Chickenout Ridge, which presents itself not as a ridge at all but as a steep nose of rock that discourages the casual, the unsure, the tired and the vertiginous. No shame in turning around here, or taking a nap and waiting for your friends who go on. Load a book on your smartphone, just in case.

Chickenout Ridge is where you want to change your fleece gloves for leather. You’ll be pulling and lowering yourself through sharp, rough rock. There’s no one right way to proceed from here: You just go up. Most people stay well right of the cliff edge, but the edge is gnarlier and shorter.

Once you’re up and over that first bulby bluff, you work your way along the ridge itself. This is a matter of picking a comfortable line and sticking with it, generally staying along or just right of the edge. An hour or so of this takes you to a knob with a drop-off. The drop looks harder than it is, but it’s best to go with a veteran. If you’re not sure, wait and watch the next group. Follow their lead (and maybe borrow their rope if you didn’t bring your own).

Hour 5: You’re getting close. Catch your breath. All that stands between you and the peak is another 90 minutes and 1,500 feet of trudgery.

From the distinctive (and usually snowy) notch you’ve just dropped onto, work your way left on a clear path through the talus and boulders. This semi-circle brings you to a broad, often-snowy, saddle below the summit. From here you can see the dusty trail through the scree and boulders to the top. Sorry: This is nothing but an hour of sloppy misery ahead and there’s no getting around it.

Hour 6: Drink in that view! Your misery is rewarded! At the summit is an American flag, a summit banner and the best 360 degrees in all of Idaho. There’s often a golf club up there, with which I have driven peanut M&Ms and apple cores from the top (although several readers have rightly pointed out since this article was first published that no one should ever send anything off the top of mountain that people are climbing).

Bask in your accomplishment. You are standing taller than the governor. You are enjoying a view no billionaire can buy. Sweat, grit and determination is the only way someone gets to where you are right now.

Sit. Relax. Take pictures. Make a phone call. (Yes, you can get a signal here.) Eat your lunch. Treat yourself. I’ve seen beer, wine, champagne and Starbucks on Lost River peaks.

Hours 7-12: Repeat in reverse. Now, the hard part. Descend. You’ll curse me before you’re done. (You’ll swear that you will never EVER do this again.) Don’t shortcut. (Every year, someone gets lost trying to out-think the trail.) Drink lots of water. Shed those layers. Take your time and place your hands and feet cautiously. Be careful on that long, last descent at treeline, where loose rock and loose footing on the steep trail mean you inevitably end up on your butt. No denying this: You will be miserable. Your feet, calves and shins will protest. Your knees won’t talk to you for days.

At camp, make sure to have a supply of cold drinks and snacks. Rest at the base and appreciate your accomplishment. Then start contemplating your next Lost River adventure. From where you sit, you’re close to seven of Idaho’s nine 12,000-footers.

Not one is easier than, or as clearly marked as, the one you just did.