I conquered Mount Borah, and it's not a hike I'd recommend to many people. It's steep. Really steep. In fact, it's considered one of the steepest trails in the U.S., and it's not hard to believe.
Take a staircase with nearly 10,000 stairs, make half of the steps loose, cover the other half with loose dirt and gravel, take out the handrailing, narrow some of the steps to a couple inches wide, and have sections of the staircase cling to the side of a 2,000-foot cliff, and you'll have Mount Borah.
But it was worth to climb-not so much to say that I did it but to see that I could do it.
Mount Borah (also known as Borah Peak) is a 12,668-foot behemoth in the Lost River Range of east-central Idaho and about 37 miles south of Challis. It was named after Idaho's U.S. senator William Borah, and is noted for being the tallest peak in the state. The Thomas P. Martin Classification of Difficulty for U.S. State Highpoints ranks Mount Borah as a Class 8 (out of 10) state high point, and the sixth most difficult state highpoint to climb in the U.S., ahead of California's Class 7 14,505-foot Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the lower 48 states). The trail up the south face is 7 to 9 miles long roundtrip with 5,300 to 5,500 feet of elevation climb, depending on which trail guide you consult.
To stay in shape for Mount Borah and a number of other hikes and backpacking trips this summer, I took short hikes and walks throughout the colder months early this year, sometimes hiking up and down volcanic buttes in the area such as Lizard Butte, Pickles Butte, Kuna Butte, Guffey Butte, Elephant Butte, and Sinker Butte.
Once summer hit, I tackled a number of trails in Oregon's Cascades, California's Sierra Nevadas, and Idaho's Sawtooths, completing 64 miles with more than 15,000 feet of elevation climb, mostly in rugged wilderness areas.
Now for most people in good physical condition, that's overkill, but I wasn't just doing it for training purposes. And I believe most people in good shape and free of significant health problems could make it up and down Mount Borah without any training. But it could be the most exhausting experience of their lives and involve more pain than they bargained for. As one of my backpacking buddies likes to say about big hikes, the more in shape you are, the more fun you'll have. Don't make Mount Borah a miserable experience by not preparing for it.
My two brothers and I had originally planned to hike Mount Borah the weekend after Fourth of July, but unusually late spring snow required too much gear and mountaineering experience. I kept track of the slowly receding snow level by pestering the Lost River Ranger District station (588-3400), which gave me a trail report based on surveys from hikers who had recently come off the mountain. The trail report tells you how much snow is up there and if ice axes, crampons, and ropes are still recommended.
Enough snow had melted off the peak by late July, but it wasn't until two weekends ago that we got a chance to go. Accompanied by my brother's co-worker, we pulled into the primitive Mount Borah trailhead campground after 10 p.m. and found 40 vehicles and their tents crammed into six campsites and a small trailhead parking lot. Yet because almost everyone there was an experienced hiker, all their campsites were small and tidy, and we were able to find a grassy (although very lumpy and slanted) spot to pitch two tents.
The first 4,100 feet up
After an uncomfortable night's sleep, we woke up half an hour before dawn and discovered that most of the other hikers were already getting ready to hit the trail. We quickly followed suit, and immediately the path started to climb uphill from its base elevation of 7,400 feet -a trend it didn't deviate from nearly the entire way to the peak. A long series of mini switchbacks took us through a pine forest before the trail straightened out above the tree line at 10,000 feet. Looking back, I could already see a vast expanse of desert valley floor leading up to forested foothills and the Pioneer and White Cloud Mountains beyond to the west.
Once above the trees, the trail became of path of loose rock steadily climbing to the base of Chicken Out Ridge.
Chicken Out Ridge
At 11,500 feet, Chicken Out Ridge is accurately named. This is the section of the trail nearly everyone who isn't feeling up to the task of climbing the entire mountain or has any fear of heights takes one look and calls it a day. Chicken Out is a knife-like ridge with 2,000 foot drops on either side. And not only is the ridge knife-like, but it's serrated as well, with knobby pinnacles of rock hikers have to work their way over or around on faint trails and narrow ledges. This is the most treacherous section of the hike, requiring solid footwear and firm handholds, yet it's also the section hikers respect the most and exercise due caution on.
This section of the trail also affords fantastic views and makes you realize that Mount Borah is actually kind of an ugly mountain. It's the other 12,000+ foot peaks that rise spectacularly around it with near-vertical faces thousands of feet tall that really catch your eye.
For those who make it across Chicken Out Ridge without turning around, there's the reward of the famed snow bridge, which was still firmly intact in late August this year and afforded a three-foot-wide crystallized pathway with a very long drop on either side.
The last 800 feet up
As you pass over the snow bridge and dip ever so slightly down the final ridge leading up Borah Peak, you're greeted with a sight that makes the last 4,700 feet of elevation climb look like a walk in the park. The trail leads straight along a ridge, and then just as it hits the base of Borah Peak, appears to go straight up at a 90-degree angle. It looks ridiculous. For every three feet forward, you have to hike one foot up, and the faint path is a mass of loose rocks ready to be knocked down upon the heads of hikers below you.
But when you see hikers twice your age and even a six-year-old kid (one of only two kids I saw on the trail) coming down the mountain after hiking to the top, your dignity requires you to give it a shot, too.
There's one other thing you notice as you approach an altitude of 12,000 feet: oxygen. Or rather the lack of oxygen. Not only do you have to stop every 10 steps because your body is demanding rest, but your head starts pounding from oxygen deprivation. If not for the frequent encouragement from hikers coming back down and lying to you, "You're almost there! You're just about to the top!", I think more exhausted, oxygen-starved hikers would turn around at this point.
The top, 12,668 feet above sea level
An Idaho state flag and the stars and stripes greet you as you crest the summit of Mount Borah. Beautiful vistas spread in all directions around you, from the incredibly rugged Sacagawea Peak to the distant mountain ranges piled on top of each other to the turquoise glacier lakes of Pahsimeroi Valley. And once you've caught your breath, it's time to pull the faded "Mt. Borah, elev. 12,552 ft." banner from its protective container and pose for that shot you've long desired to post as your Facebook profile picture. You've made it. You're awesome.
And now it's time for the hard part.
I don't care how good of shape you're in. This part hurts. A woman behind me was sobbing as I climbed back down Chicken Out Ridge, and there was still more than 4,000 feet down to go. But this was also the section of trail where I could feel the sense of community created by a group of approximately 100 people focused entirely on the same goal-making it back in one piece. Strangers who had gotten to know each other on the trail helped each other over Chicken Out Ridge and offered advice on the safest routes to take, and the hikers near the end of the line made sure that the very last people on the mountain made it down safely.
As you reach the trailhead parking lot and look back up, you're filled with a great sense of pride in your physical abilities and fortitude in scaling the tallest mountain in your state and with thankfulness for having made it back down safely. But then there's one final thought niggling at the back of your mind:
This video by my brother's co-worker Kyle Foote gives a great overview of the trail (Note: Due to the distortions of the fisheye lens, some sections of the trail look steeper and more treacherous than they actually were):