6-7 July 2001: Mt. Borah
Back in 1998, my brother and I hiked a good portion of the route up Mt. Borah but decided to turn back before reaching the summit. At the time we thought it would be nice to go back without the dog and hike all the way up. Since we were both going to be in Southern Idaho this summer, it seemed like a good time to try again.
The hiking guides we looked at indicated that July through August was the best time to make the hike in order to avoid too much snow. I was a little concerned that there might be too much snow for us to make it without an ice axe and/or crampons, but since it had been a low snow year, I figured there was a good chance that we would not have any trouble even though it was a little early in the summer.
Rather than take the most direct route from my parents' place in Nampa, we decided to leave a little earlier on Friday and drive up through Stanley. I had never been up that way before, and I must admit that even the fairly limited view we had of the Sawtooths was impressive. I would like to do some hiking in the Sawtooths, but that was not our destination on this particular day so we just kept driving.
Not too far south of Challis, Highway 75 meets up with Highway 93, and it was here that we turned south on 93 to head over a small divide and into the Big Lost River valley. Our first view of Mt. Borah from the highway allayed most of our concerns about the snow as it looked like there was no more snow than when we had been there in August previously. We drove down to Birch Creek Road and turned off to head up to the campground. When we arrived at the campground, there were already a few other people there. As the evening wore on, a few more vehicles arrived, but even so, it was nothing like the numbers there were in '98.
We were planning to drive back to my grandma's a couple of hours away after making the hike, so we decided that we should probably get an earlier start than we had last time. At about 4:30am, I woke up and looked out to see a couple of people already getting started. We had decided that 6am was reasonable, so I went back to sleep for another hour before getting up around quarter to six. After a quick breakfast of peanut butter and jelly on hamburger buns, we started up the trail.
We started out right behind a man who looked like he was probably in his 50's, but we were not right behind him for long. I found that the relentless up in combination with the relatively high altitude (the trailhead is at over 6000 feet) was having a greater effect on me than it had the last time. Two months of relative inactivity had taken there toll and so we did the sensible thing and slowed down and took plenty of breaks. Breaks were fairly easy to come by since I was hauling up a couple of cameras and a tripod (hmm... maybe that has something to do with the greater struggles), and there are many things to take pictures of along the way.
The weather was shaping up to be pleasant with no hint of thunderstorms. One nice thing about the hiking route up Mt. Borah is that it keeps you in the shade for a good portion of the hike if you get an early start. I was thankful that it was cool, but, having run afoul of dehydration before, I made sure to keep drinking more fluids than it felt like I needed.
We made our way up through the first section of scrub brush and continued up through the open pine forest of the lower slopes. The trail goes almost continuously up from the beginning until reaching the top of a ridge above the trees. As a fellow who caught up and passed us in the trees commented, "They weren't kidding about this trail. It's relentless." We slowly made our way up through the trees, periodically taking pictures of flowers and trees (or what was left of them). A couple of other pairs of hikers caught up with us in the trees and passed us for good on the scree slope just above the tree line.
The trail stays just below the top of the ridge just to the south. If you walk off the trail a little bit to peak over, you understand why the trail stays on the south side. A stone windbreak erected in a saddle along the ridge offers a nice place to take a break before pushing on up the ridge. As you hike out of the saddle, things gradually get steeper. The ridge narrows to a knife edge ridge which requires some scrambling (which I have seen rated anywhere from class 2 to class 4, it may depend on how much snow is still there). I am not sure whether it is this knife edge ridge or the short snow traverse after it that is known as "Chicken-Out Ridge."
My brother and I made steady progress along the ridge. We passed a pair of hikers who must have been the ones I had heard leaving early in the morning. I recognized some of the rock formations we passed, including an overhang where we had sought shelter from a thunderstorm the last time. The sun was high enough to be shining on us, but a light overcast had obscured it. Despite the fact that mountain landscape photos do not look so good with an overcast sky, I was thankful for the cooling effects of the clouds.
The snow crossing turned out to be no problem. We were lucky in this regard, as I have read other accounts and seen pictures from hikes that were nearly a month later than ours in other years when the snow was much deeper and more treacherous. From here it was easy going as we skirted around the north side of the ridge. Finally we made it to the last saddle before the final push up to the summit.
The last section of hike is basically a scramble up loose talus slopes to the summit. It is fairly steep in places, but there is nothing like the exposure on Chicken-Out Ridge. By this time, I was feeling fairly tired and unmotivated so we took a number of breaks. The first fellow who had passed us on the trail was apparently the first one up on the summit as well. He passed us and was well on his way back when I took this picture looking back. Two of the hikers who had passed us near the tree line and the older man whom we had started right before us also were on their way down as we made our way up the final section.
A little over 5 hours after leaving camp, we made it to the summit. The other pair of hikers who had passed us near the tree line were there taking a break before starting back down. I was feeling kind of tired and had a bit of a headache, but I had been drinking plenty of water, so I figured it must have been altitude rather than dehydration. Even so, I accepted some spare water one of the other hikers offered which he did not plan to use. The other hikers left not too long after my brother and I had arrived. While we had the summit to ourselves, we laid down and relaxed for a bit. He said his head was not feeling too well either, but he seemed to be doing little better than I was.
As we started down, we passed a number of people who started out after we had. One woman was wearing a pair of light gloves which actually seemed like a good idea. Much of the rock is fairly rough and it leaves your hands feeling a little raw after scrambling around on it. I was beginning to feel worse and started to drag. By the time we were past Chicken-Out Ridge I was really feeling exhausted. I felt like I have when I was dehydrated in the past. When I caught up with my brother at the saddle where the wind break is, I finished up my water and drank a lot of the gatorade that he had left. It did not seem to help, however.
By the time we were back down to the trees, I felt downright lousy. I convinced my brother to trade packs with me (or maybe that was back up at the saddle, my memory is a little hazy). I stumbled my way down through the trees. An old dead branch used as a walking stick seemed to help somewhat. I remembered back to the last time I was on the mountain and there was a fellow who was really laboring on his way down. We were near the bottom when we passed him on our way down and he was stopping to take breaks even there. At the time I did not really understand why you would want to stop when you were so close and it was all downhill. Now I understood. Somewhere not too far below 12,600 feet, my body had apparently lost its will to move. I probably would have been happy to lay down and take a nap if it were not for the fact that my brother was there getting impatient and tolerating only brief stops.
Finally we did make it to the bottom and I still was not sure whether my suffering was due to altitude or dehydration. It did not take long for me to decide that it must have been altitude as the frequency of my need to urinate (both on the hill and after we were down) convinced me that I had enough fluids in me. After a short nap while my brother was driving, I felt much better. Presumably I was back down to where the air was thick enough to get my oxygen levels back up to a respectable level. Even so, I was still tired and feeling pretty negative towards the prospect of ever setting foot on that mound of rubble again.
In the weeks since the hike, I have found that my memories of it have mellowed somewhat. As with most good outdoors folks, my memory is highly selective. As the physical pain subsided and the mental anguish started to heal, my memories of that torture have taken on a sort of pleasant nostalgic aura. It wasn't really that bad. I would not mind going at least as far as the trees where I could spend some time taking pictures. Who knows, it might be kind of fun to enjoy a nice family hike with Melissa sometime. Maybe she knows better than that. Time will tell.