Idaho's tallest peak a rewarding climb

Posted: Friday, October 01, 2004


  Nate Olive, left, and Sarah Janes, center, talk with U.S. Border Patrol agent Mike Harris, right, as Olive and Janes walk the last leg of their 1,800 mile journey along the beach at Border Field State Park Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, in Imperial Beach, Calif. AP Photo/Denis Poroy

Nate Olive, left, and Sarah Janes, center, talk with U.S. Border Patrol agent Mike Harris, right, as Olive and Janes walk the last leg of their 1,800 mile journey along the beach at Border Field State Park Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, in Imperial Beach, Calif.

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

MACKAY, Idaho -- There's something about big mountains.

Throughout history, people have been simultaneously awestruck and infatuated with towering peaks -- pinnacles that come closer than other natural objects to the heavens. Borah Peak on Mount Borah is Idaho's offering to the gods and the state's tallest point. To be precise, it's a 12,662-foot-high sedimentary sentinel that rises abruptly from the Lost River Valley floor near Mackay.

''That's what young mountains look like,'' said Paul Link, Idaho State University geology professor. ''It's an actively uplifting range on an actively extending fault. That's why it's so steep.'' As a recent scene at the foot of the mountain illustrated, Borah both rewards and punishes.

A group of Preston teenagers huddled in the September sunlight near the trailhead. The right foot of one girl trembled uncontrollably, whether from exhaustion, the cold or the sheer psychological strain of braving Borah's steep flanks. There's nothing forgiving about the hike up Borah Peak.

''It's a lot harder than I expected,'' said Mike Guthrie of Tri-Cities, Wash., on his way down from a recent ascent. ''Mount Elbert (Colorado's tallest peak) is a walk in the park compared to this.'' In addition to Colorado, Guthrie has also climbed the tallest mountains of Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska.

Although Borah Peak ranks 11th in the country in terms of highest mountains by state -- between Montana's Granite Peak and Arizona's Humphreys Peak -- it is regarded by Guthrie and many other ''peak-baggers'' as one of the toughest in the U.S.

Guthrie was the first to reach Borah's summit on a recent Sunday, an ice ax strapped firmly to his backpack and a grin on his face.

''It's just a little bit farther,'' he said to one group of hikers that had stopped to catch their breath on the trail. But as Guthrie noted, the view can be misleading.

Even from atop Chicken Out Ridge, a spine-tingling narrow scree slope near the top of the mountain, the summit isn't nearly as close as it appears.

What looks to be 15 minutes away melts into more than an hour as steep rocky slopes challenge the balance and willpower of even the most zealous mountaineer.

Anyone who suffers from vertigo might want to choose another hike -- Borah's sheer vertical exposure would make even a mountain goat a bit queasy. And it's a legitimate fear. According to several guide books, a handful of people have died trying to scale Borah's rugged spine.

The view from the top, however, is divine. The Sawtooths loom in the West, the Bitterroots in the East and a few glacial lakes dot the landscape far below.

It's almost dizzying to breathe such rarefied air, and a fitting reward after hours of relentless uphill.

The ascent begins at a small, wind-swept camping area, where jackrabbits hop through sagebrush and cold winds blow up the valley. From where the trail begins, climbers must gain more than 5,000 vertical feet to summit Borah -- almost two miles in sheer altitude.

Many choose to start before sunrise, equipped with head lamps, a hearty water supply and a day pack.

Though not all climbers do so, it's a good idea to start up Borah early and get down before late afternoon. Lightning storms on the mountain are legendary, and gnarled, blackened trees stand as monuments to the nature of such storms along the lower reaches of the trail.

The first several hours of the hike are spent in the trees, following a masochistic trailblazer's cruel definition of a switchback.

After breaking above tree line, the going doesn't get much easier. The views of the steep precipices on neighboring Leatherman Peak to the south are stunning as the trail winds up along an exposed ridgeline.

It gets steeper even as the trail winds through steep rocks and then nearly vanishes through a labyrinth of crags and rock walls leading to Chicken Out Ridge.

The key is to look for small rock cairns, and make sure you have good hand and footholds before scrambling your way up.

Link said most of the rock on Borah is limestone, dolomite and quartzite -- sharp protruding rocks that offer good holds but which can come loose rather easily.

Jonathan Mirstly of Washington D.C., who works in the telecommunications industry, climbed Borah for the first time two weeks ago.

''It's much more technical than I thought it would be,'' he said matter-of-factly.

After scrambling up the rocks, Mirstly said he befriended several fellow hikers to help him across Chicken Out Ridge.

''It was nice to have some moral support, or at least some people there in case they have to notify my next of kin,'' he said.

Mirstly said he hiked 17,000 foot mountains in Mexico last year and spent the week before summitting the Gem State's top dog riding his bicycle throughout the Sun Valley area.

But Borah, he quickly learned, isn't a mountain to mess around with.

''My friend had to turn back,'' he said. ''She just wasn't feeling it and didn't want to slow me down.''

There's no disgrace in turning around on Borah short of the summit. It takes at least five or six hours to reach the top (for most people) and those without gloves, water and solid hiking shoes might even be encouraged to quit.

But for those who make it to the top of the beast, the feeling is hard to describe.

Throbbing legs, windburned face and aching lungs -- it's a small price to pay in exchange for being, quite literally, above it all.

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