Skiing Mt. Borah In Idaho
Standing at 12,668′, Borah Peak is Idaho’s tallest mountain. The highest point in the Lost River Range, The Borah rises above sparsely populated valleys full of grazing cattle. The vertical cliffs that make the face of this behemoth reflect an aura of monstrosity. There are no gentle curves, it is a steep-sided, snow-capped mountain. Comparing it to taller mountains in other states only serves to undersell her magnificence. Black rocks and avalanches put this peak into a category of its own. Like everything else in Idaho, it’s difficult to an extreme degree.
Of course, it was my goal to climb it and then ski down it.
Backcountry Skiing In Idaho
Having only begun backcountry skiing in February 2019, it made perfect sense to attempt the tallest and arguably most dangerous mountain in Idaho with less than 3 months experience under my belt. My good buddy, Dan Noakes, who I met on the Idaho Centennial Trail, invited me along for a trip the first weekend of May.
Early spring marks prime-time for skiing the largest peaks in Idaho. It’s late in the season and the snowpack is dense enough to all but mitigate avalanche danger. The lower elevations are devoid of snow but Mt. Borah still had over 3,000′ vertical feet of skiable area. And so, as a result of my ignorance to what lay ahead, I found myself setting up camp on a Friday night at the base. Joining us in the camp were a few friends Dan invited from Salt Lake City who drove up to join us for the climb.
Climbing The Borah In Early Spring
Waking up at 5 am, we took first steps at 6:00 am. It was chilly but well above freezing at base camp, a mere 7,000′ above sea level. The trail was well marked and receives ample attention, especially in the warmer months. We weren’t alone in our quest to ski the mountain, one other group was taking a more direct route up the middle bowl of Mt. Borah. We opted to take the “summer route” along Chicken-Out Ridge.
We hit the snow-line at about 8,000ft. I pulled crampons over my trail runners and continued the hard hiking uphill. When Dan first contacted me about the hike, he made sure to ask if I had crampons for the attempt. I did, I assured him. Little did I know, my crampons were made to fit over hiking boots. Dan had actual alpine mountaineering crampons which resemble iron spikes. Instead of trail runners, the group I was hiking with used All-Terrain ski boots, which double as mountaineering boots.
Not even halfway up the mountain, I realized I was woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. However, like most trips I embark upon, I chose to ignore this shortcoming and kept pushing onwards and upwards.
At about 10,000 feet the ridge-line really began. To my left, Mt. Borah jutted into the sky, towering above me. To the right, more peaks, every bit as spectacular. I had entered a high-elevation paradise, still blanketed in snow, seemingly unaffected by the changing of the seasons.
As my group adjusted and attached their crampons, ice-axes were brought out. Thankfully, I was self-aware enough to borrow a friends for the trip.
Attempting Chicken-Out Ridge
A famous ridge-line in Idaho outdoor circles, the trail leading to the peak of Mt. Borah becomes a knife’s edge hike. In early May, this ridge is snowed in, making the ascent that much more of a challenge. As the ridgeline got narrower, every step I took had to be planned in advance. One foot to the right or left would leave me falling down nearly 1,000′ vertical feet.
We used our ice-axes to carve handholds and kicked toeholes with our boots in almost 90-degree angle snow banks. Up was the only direction we were climbing. At the top of a particularly gnarly vertical climb, I paused to catch my breath. At 11,000′, the air was noticeably thinner and every step was becoming slower.
I looked up the ridgeline, and saw only steeper climbs ahead, flanked with sheer drops on either side. Dan powered forward, kicking ice clumps down the sides of the mountain which made icy shattering noises as they bounced off the jagged boulders.
It was here that my feet became paralyzed. There was no way I could take another step.
The other two climbers huffed and puffed past me. They could see in my eyes that I was bailing. Dan tried to convince me to keep going but I knew that this was it for me. My trail-runners and slip on crampons offered little traction. Compounding my decision to stop was the lack of skis. I had left them at a bowl about 1,000′ below where I was standing. If I was to safely descend after summiting, I would be doing so in the hottest part of the day, when the snow was at its softest.
I waved a peaceful goodbye to the crew, wishing them luck. Their crampons dug into the icy sides of the ridge and they were soon up the next hurdle. For me, it was time to climb down.
The Descent Is Always The Worst
In my mind, thoughts swirled of the numerous books I had read about Mt Everest. The descent is the most dangerous part, where most mistakes happen. Looking back at my situation, it’s laughable to even compare the two but at that moment, I was on a mountain and I needed to get the hell down.
Climbing down a vertical snowbank, nearly two-stories tall made me appreciate every step I took. Focused on finding the proper foot and handholds meant that I forgot to put on my mittens. Gripping my ice ax, I lowered myself down the snowbank. It was slow going. Inch by inch I stretched my feet into the previously dug out toeholds. Placing my hands in the snow and using my ice ax to grip the snow, I began ascending one slow-motion step at a time. Not even 1/3 of the way down, I realized my mistake of not putting on mittens.
Fingers began to freeze as I continued to dig them into the snow around me. There was no way I could stop and get my mittens out of my backpack. I needed to keep moving, and get off the edge I had climbed onto.
Ice ax, step. Slowly lower my other foot, kick it into the snow. Move my hand one more hole lower. Repeat.
Concentrated at the task at hand, I lost track of the frostbite surging across my hands. The wind, the sun, the sounds, my senses stopped tracking them all. All I had were my toeholes.
When I finally reached the ledge at the bottom of the snow cliff, I let out a cry of relief. Immediately my frozen hands became extremely painful. As blood flowed into my frozen digits, I experienced immense pain. I sat on that ledge for nearly 10 minutes gasping as new blood poured into my fingers saving them from frostbite and leaving me in agony.
Skiing Down Mt. Borah
After that little adventure, all I wanted to do was get the fuck off that mountain. I trudged down to where my skis were waiting. There was a beautiful bowl at 10,000 feet that offered nearly 1,000′ of vertical snow. It was perfect for someone with my skill level.
Strapping my phone to a ski pole to use like an action camera, I booted up and began my descent. Almost immediately, my legs gave out on a turn and I fell into the snow. Not a bad fall by any measure but my phone had been knocked off the ski pole. I was just beginning my descent of the bowl and only snow surrounded me. I looked around and my phone was nowhere to be seen.
After climbing up the steep and icy bank twice looking for my phone, I gave up. It was nowhere to be found and must have plummeted into a boulder to never be found again.
I cursed at The Borah and admitted defeat. I didn’t even ski down the rest of the way, I walked. My skis tied to my backpack, I hiked down the mountain to the end of the snow-line.
Here, where the snow ended, my phone was lying, face down. Undamaged and completely functional, it had slid nearly 1,000 feet. Picking it up, I reflected on the adventure I had just experienced. I had come out a loser on this trip but my desire to climb this mountain had been reignited. Not this day but soon, I would return to climb The Borah.