In May of 2020, unemployed and needing adventure I attempted to take on Idaho’s tallest peak, Mount Borah (Borah Peak). Despite the mass of snow on the ground, and questionable weather, I made it to the base of chicken out ridge at around 11,000 feet. There I was taken over by a powerful snowstorm that seemed to materialize from nowhere. Being used to cascades snowstorms, I thought I will turn around and all will be fine.
What I am not used to is this strange Idahoan snow that acts like fine powder. In the 2 or 3 minutes I spent to take a video, my footprints had filled in and the ridge line had obscured in a thick whiteout. Taken together it was a terrible experience and one I knew I had to come back and beat. After all, you can’t let the mountain win. I knew by the time I got back to the car, I was coming back for Borah Peak.
This year, I wanted to try Borah Peak again nice and early in the year to avoid any crowds on chicken out ridge. Lucky to have family here in Idaho, I asked my brother what the mountain conditions were like. He let me know that the snow year was low, and, if I could find a decent weather day my chances were much better than last year.
To take on the peak, I arrived at the main trailhead off Highway 93 late in the evening on a Friday. There was 2 other cars and I figured a few others might be up on the peak for the day. But,it was nothing close to the crowds I have heard of in the summer time. Overjoyed at the opportunity for a mountain experience I hopped into my back seat bed. I prepped for the morning climb and then watched the stars as I fell off to sleep.
I was dismayed to wake up 2 hours late the next morning for my planned start time. I always hate these kind of days. Ones where you know the climb in front of you is big, and it starts in the wrong way. Undeterred, I slapped my backpack on ate a minor snack for breakfast and ran off to test my will.
Mount Borah does not kid around. It’s trail begins in earnest as it heads uphill through the woods. The most surprising thing to me though, was the lack of snow. It was almost nowhere. There was a few patches here and there, but, compared to my last attempt it was near bone dry. As a climber it brought me joy at the ease of access. But, as a lover of mother nature, it made me wonder where the farmers are going to get their water for the year.
Up until the small pass at around 8600 feet (not sure of name) the trail was nice and easy to follow. Patches of snow here and there, but else it was clear. After this small pass though, where the climbing begins, was a different story. All the sudden, the snow was waist deep, powdery and made for a nightmare of a walk. I had made a mountaineers decision to my snowshoes in the car for weight savings and was now regretting it. In several spots there was vague footprints to follow, in others there was nothing. I went from walking at 1500 ft of gain per hour on the first stretch of trail, to not even 500 in the next hour. It was awful. I remember sitting down on a log at one point and thinking the day was over. “If only I kept the snowshoes on my pack” I thought to myself.
Almost in tears at my perceived failure, I decided I couldn’t lose if I kept trying until dark. To press forward I traversed further out to the east side of the slope. Here I managed to find a small track that looked fresh and followed it up to the main ridge under Borah peak. By the time I was out of the woods, the snow was gone again. I found it funny as I was now breathing a sigh of relief that I didn’t have my snowshoes. “Too Much weight to have carried” I thought. Oh the shortsighted nature of a climber….
The first section of ridge up to around 11,000 was almost snow free. There were patches of rock sticking out all over the place and a mass of footprints to follow. Most looked old but a couple of them looked fresh. As I worked my way up to the base of chicken out ridge, I finally saw the first and only group I would see for the day.
If you do not like heights, or, you have a fear of narrow scrambling, this spot around 11,000 is a great place to stop for the day. There is a brilliant view of the surrounding peaks (many over 11,000 feet) and down into the surrounding valleys. If you continue chicken out ridge has the right name and it does not kid around.
Immediately after the ridge begins to narrow, the scrambling begins. Right now there is a mix of loose rock, iced over footprints and a layer of soft powdery snow. I do not know what to say about it. It is one of those magnificent places that I would love to describe. But to know the freedom of chicken out ridge in winter, you will need to experience it. Terrifying in spots. Gorgeous in every right. The thrill of walking it in these near perfect conditions was fabulous.
The worst part right now if you do go up there is the small section that most people rappel. The rock was very icy. The handholds available were tough to grab. The one saving grace is that there is currently a fixed rope in place. I had left my 30m in the car to save pack weight since I got up late and might have been able to navigate it without the rope. But it would have been scary close to death. The fall below this spot is no joke, so be careful if you take it on before summer.
Once down chicken out ridge, the remaining climb up Borah peak is simple to see. The winter trail (at least this time) will lead you into a small gulley on the side of the peak. From here you can climb straight up to the summit ridge and into Idahoan heaven. My biggest issue along this section was the altitude. At around 11,800 or so I started to feel dizzy. Several times I had to stop and sit down for a moment to catch my breath. It probably sounds weird to the some, but, man have I missed the feeling of altitude. It is like a drug to me. No better high than knowing I am at my own body’s limits.
The summit itself was incredible. I had pushed my turn around time to it’s absolute limit and only got to stay for about 30 minutes. I watched the forecasted snowstorm roll in across the valley below and, once it was close to the side of Borah peak, I ran back down the ridge to celebrate at my car.