10/50: Borah Peak, Idaho [12,668′]

There’s a scene in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank where the titular character, a hitman, returns to his hometown after a ten-year absence.  While there he’s attacked by and is forced to kill a rival hitman in a fight.  His high school best friend, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade, stumbles in on this event and immediately and (mostly) unquestioningly helps his old friend dispose of the body.

Everyone should have a friend like that.  I’m lucky that I have a handful–though I haven’t yet called on any of them for body disposal–and right at the top of that list is Tom “da Bomb.”  We first met in middle-school detention hall (him: surreptitiously listening to his Walkman in class, me: truancy) and have sort of looked out for each other ever since, despite the distance that twenty-five years will inevitably bring.  Currently Tom was living on the sparkling banks of Redfish Lake in Idaho’s jagged and beautiful Sawtooth mountain range, and my proposal to climb nearby Borah together was met with his signature high-five.

Idaho is a stunner.  My drive from Boise to tiny Stanley (pop. 63) twisted upwards through mountains and paralleled the impressive Payette River, which alternated from roiling rapids to mirror-smooth with every turn.  The trip took hours beyond the estimated range as I spontaneously yanked my rental car off the road to stare at the raging river or catch a quick hiking jaunt through cool blue-green pines to a vantage point.  Everywhere was a vantage point.

Idaho flowers mountains    Hemingway Idaho memorial quote   Idaho river   Redfish Lake Idaho

I met Tom at the incomparable Redfish, and after provisioning at Redfish General Store we drove out to the Lost River Range, where we camped the night to secure an early start… surrounded by miles and miles of silent mountains; blanketed by a velvet black sky punched through with a million stars and split by the greasy white streak of the Milky Way.  The morning dawned a delicate pink blush of too early, and we blearily stumbled into shoes and onto the trail.

Borah Idaho Earthquake      Borah Idaho sunrise

The first couple miles weave upwards through fir and cottonwood, each turn framing a view of Birch Springs’ muddy alluvial fan down below as the sun raced us up the slope.  The clean air smelled bitter with dust and sage.  Ahead we could just begin to see the blocky outline of the fault scarp, remnants of the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that jarred through this region thirty years ago, cracking the mountain and jutting the northern flank sharply aside.

Borah Idaho

Too soon we broke out above the treeline and into the relentless sun, and we hiked the dusty worn path up along the ridge.  A strong and constant wind battered us from the west.  To our right loomed a tall obsidian peak streaked with copper, to our left a field of scree swooped down 800’ to the Rock Creek Basin below.  Ahead rose the spiny back of the ominous “Chicken Out Ridge,” curling like a predator along the length of the ridge until the path rose up a 45° slope to our destination, the tallest peak in over 200 miles.  We paused for a high-five around 10,800 feet–this was the highest Tom had ever climbed, and we still had nearly two-thousand more vertical feet to go.

Borah Idaho trail      Borah Idaho trail

After interminable lengths of sun, wind, and increasingly faded black paths tread into black rock, we finally confronted the crux of the hike, the aptly-named “Chicken Out Ridge.”  The knife-edge rocky ridge rises from the mountain like an open pair of scissors, starting with a near-vertical scramble up and over a steep arête, only to present us with a perfectly vertical couloir dropping down away to our right.  We peeked around the left side of the ridge:  an exposed trail perched above a steep dropoff, which was plausible except for the narrow slope of pea gravel that would be our final traverse.  On the way back down we’d be able to slide down this hill, but there wasn’t a way up it.  The only possible path was straight up, through a keyhole notch and across the toothy peak of the ridge itself.

Borah Idaho Chicken Out Ridge    Borah Idaho Chicken Out Ridge    Borah Idaho Chicken Out Ridge

We grabbed onto rocks and scrambled up the ridge, creeping up the sharp-edged boulders hand over hand and sliding down the backs.  Finally we pulled up a crag that seemed to disappear into thin air– this was the end of the ridge, dangling over a two-story vertical downclimb to a narrow loose scree ridge, each side dropping sharply off below.  We exchanged a look and swung out into the Idaho sky, fingertips holding us from a 15’ drop and an assured tumble down the avalanche slope to the valley below.  The toes of our boots found purchase and we crept down the rock face and then along the dropoff to the base of the final slope, where we paused for a snack and to finally admire the view.

Borah Idaho      Borah Idaho

Refreshed, we tackled the final push:  a steep, slippery slope of loose rock that topped out on the rounded peak.  It was a tedious climb, each step getting us a few inches forward, the talus sliding us a nearly equal distance back.  For the first time I could see the dark clouds that had rapidly gathered on the other side of the peak, but climbing faster only made me slide backwards faster.  Graupel, those weird oblong pellets of light snow, bounced down among the rocks like broken styrofoam.  Tom held back to wait it out while I impatiently pushed up and over the final snow-battered slope.

Borah Idaho       Borah Idaho snow

The summit!  I turned around to wave to Tom and called hello to another climber.  The cloudy air felt thick and soupy and there was suddenly a strange high pitched buzzing–did this guy have a phone on vibrate?–when I realized the buzz was coming from a little golf-club flagpole planted at the summit.  Oh shit.  I yanked off my hiking-pole strapped backpack and flung it to the ground, then took two running steps back down the slope when POP it felt like someone slapped me hard on the top of my head.  I skittered further down the slope and crouched down on my toes to minimize contact with the ground and waited for a lightning strike, arms wrapped over my face.  After a moment I peeked through my elbows back at the summit.  The other climber was standing at the peak, peering down at me curiously.

“Hiya!  You feel that, too?” he said, rubbing his head.  The buzzing had stopped, the graupel had disappeared, and as I cautiously crept back to the summit to reclaim my backpack the clouds began to part.  The other climber was cheerily standing next to the golf club, holding his camera at arm’s length for a selfie with the retreating dark stormcloud.  Well okay then.  I sat down at a bit of a wary distance and watched the clouds skate off to the northwest, leaving a denim blue sky in their wake.

Borah Idaho

Tom pulled up over the edge of the peak and raised an eyebrow, exhausted from the hike but oblivious of my bizarre static burst and microstorm.  “We made it, yo,” he announced, looking around appreciatively and winding up for a high-five.  “I can’t believe we f’ing made it.”

Borah Idaho highpoint flag    Borah Idaho highpoint Sockeye Dagger Falls IPA    Borah Idaho highpoint

About the beer: 

My plane landed in Boise and I made only two stops, both based on recommendations:  first for a slice of Bacon/Gorgonzola/Apple quiche at a bacon-themed restaurant, and second to Sockeye Brewing to pick up a sixer of local favorite Dagger Falls IPA.  When the sky had cleared on Borah’s peak Tom and I tapped a sudsy toast, and this beer tastes exactly like Idaho should.  It starts with a whiff of spicy citrus and then drops a bomb of pine tree, like sniffing a pomander on Christmas morning, and it tastes just as good, hoppy without any kind of bitter finish.  A super drinkable West Coast style IPA; there’s fewer beers I’d rather have after ascending 5,262 vertical feet (in just 3.5 miles!) with my lifelong hometown friend.  Cheers, TdB.

Sockeye Brewing Dagger Falls IPA - Borah - Idaho


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