It was the first crux of the route — stretching your leg from one wall to a window ledge on another. If you fell into the gap between the ledges, you’d probably die. There was room for four fingers on each hand and eight toes on the other side.
Chad Emmons was in the lead and extended his long appendage to the adjacent rock, followed quickly by the momentum of his body. Four points of contact secured.
Fear had me frozen in the keyhole (a little pocket carved out of the ridge, which allows you to stand flat) behind him — it was the start of “Chicken Out Ridge” (COR), on Idaho’s highest mountain, Mt. Borah, and I was debating turning around.
To get to the keyhole, you had to climb up a Class 3 chimney (just like a chimney in a house, that gets more narrow and steeper towards the top). We weren’t exactly sure of the route up the chimney, but we could see another climber above us in a bright green jacket, so we followed his line to the keyhole and he was waiting there.
“We followed your way up, thanks for leading,” I said.
“Thank God you guys are here, I don’t know the route and was waiting for you,” the middle-aged man in the green jacket said.
A brief pow wow was had, consulting our memories and technology. The pre-downloaded maps from AllTrails were no help for something this detailed and technical and we questioned what our own minds were recalling from studying images.
A fit and fast woman and a man (that looked like Sublime’s lead singer) were coming up the chimney and appeared at the lip of the keyhole — we were causing a traffic jam.
There was no question we had to get to the other wall, traverse it and start working our way over Chicken Out Ridge to Crux 2.
Impatiently, Emmons scaled down the face, evaluated, and leaped to the other side with his pinkies dangling over the ledge.
Green Jacket dude and I were paralyzed in the keyhole. The pony-tailed woman and the Sublime man followed Emmons’ route and got across.
Before I made the leap, I remember thinking about my kids. Specifically, how my teenage son would clown me at the funeral.
“My dad is so dumb, got no drip, he died on some little mountain in Idaho. What a loser. Can’t wait to meet my step dad, a real man,” my son would say by the casket.
Couldn’t let him do me like that, had to focus, get every move correct.
Once across to the new wall, we had to stair step up these perfect ledge strips, like yard sticks fastened to the side. They were only wide enough for about a quarter of a shoe, but you could fit them both on the yard stick, parallel to the wall. The left shoulder and hip would be pressed tight against the slab, then you would lift (leg very close to the wall) your left leg to about waist level and catch the new lip. The left hand would slide up to a hold above your head, then pressure on the left leg, slowly rise and secure the right foot on the ledge. Repeat until you top out on COR.
The stories and pics were all true — it was a super intimidating route. No one wore helmets because the rock was hard and smooth, so there was no rockfall and if you did fall, a helmet wouldn’t help; you’d be dead. No ropes, either, as there weren’t many spots you could actually set up a belay and we’re all about that free solo.
Our route finding was less than ideal and after down climbing and going up through a rock chute, we arrived at Crux 2, which many considered the hardest part of the mountain. The slab hung over so much that you couldn’t see the holds below you — you just dangled your legs down the side until you blindly found a spot.
Everyone can picture a mountain ridge, the spine leading down from the summit’s head, the hypotenuse of a pythagorean triangle. Some are steeper, rockier, glacier-covered, etc., and few have a step DOWN on the approach. Imagine a stock shooting up in value, the red arrow, then suddenly, it takes a big loss, then shoots back up again — that’s the mind games that Borah plays with you on its ridge.
Most accidents happen on the descent — downclimbing is significantly harder, not to mention the fatigue and dehydration. On Borah, however, you do the hardest move on the ascent, as you have to downclimb a vertical face from the ridge, then continue going up.
“That line on Borah, it’s a soft Class 5 downclimb, but it’s not that long, you should be fine,” Scott Auble said to Emmons and me at the Minneapolis airport a day earlier.
During our layover early Thursday morning, Auble heard us talking about Borah and introduced himself as a Cascade climbing guide. He’d done 49 state highpoints and his expedition to Alaska last year was canceled due to COVID.
He is working on the “Seven Summits,” or the highest point on every continent. His phone showed amazing images from the top of South America.
When landing one notices mountains surround the bowl of Salt Lake City. After landing we headed due north to the Idaho state line after getting supplies you can’t fly with, like camp fuel.
The mountains became hills and all surface matter eventually dissolved into the Snake River Plain.
“You are now at Fort Hall, would you like to look around? Y or N”
Members of the Oregon Trail generation and history buffs would appreciate yet another time we were fortunate enough to travel along the Trail. Two years ago while doing Kings Peak, we stopped at Fort Bridger, in southwestern Wyoming. Now, in southeast Idaho, the Trail stops of Soda Springs and Ft. Hall were another checkpoint.
Just north of Ft. Hall was the town of Blackfoot, where we finally stopped going straight north and hopped off I-15, with a northwest bearing towards the Lost River Range. Here is the world’s first town lit by atomic energy, Atomic City.
“Here, in 1961, the country’s first fatal nuclear explosion took place – not even a decade after a dangerous reactor meltdown left the town paralyzed with fear. Today, while not fully abandoned, Atomic City stands desolate and scarred by the radioactive fatalities of the past with only a handful of residents remaining as a living legacy of the tragic events,” from https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/
An hour past Atomic City and the great Snake Plain, the earth rose again and the horizon was blurred by silhouette shadows of faint mountain ridges.
Camp I was established behind a “Game of Thrones” background of medieval tattoo-colored grayscale boulders that sat on an evaporating reservoir. The Lost River Range behind us, lake water and a stone turret in front of us. Seventeen hours of straight travel and we could finally set up a tent.
Idaho must be the “side x side” / ATV capital of the world. Every trailer we passed had one in the back and you could always hear the engine and muffler bursts off in the distance.
Too tired to cook, I crawled into my synthetic home while it was still light out. The tent was baking in the high mountain desert air, even at 5,000 feet, and I took all my clothes off and fell asleep on top of my bag with just boxers on.
At 1 a.m. I woke up shivering, it was absolutely freezing in my longhouse style tent and all the vents were open and I scrambled to zip up and jump in my bag.
At 4 a.m. the alarm clock broke camp and we marched onward toward the peak after jet-boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. A handful of climbers started hours ago with headlamps, their dim lights bouncing up the trail.
In an ideal world, we would have had a longer approach hike where we could acclimate for at least a full day. The torrential downpour and lightning and wind were coming, so we didn’t have the luxury of waiting the extra 24 hours — we would have to try for a dramatic summit push the very next day.
The first two miles were below treeline, but it was a steep grade so every step was stairs with boulders. Every time you looked up, you could see a climber far away, on a more slanted area and you’d wonder how they got up there. Hours of knee-bending repetition later, we broke treeline and could see the beginning of COR.
The legends were accurate and it was a violent vertical drop off of the left side as you approached. Luckily, the path was wide but continued to narrow as we closed in on the chimney. Peaks hidden and housed within the range began to appear while ascending. There were unwelcoming colors of dull brown and granite silver, no vegetation anywhere. Rock faces sliced like Zeus’ axe going through Olympus.
A second set of climbers passed us on the shoulder of COR. It was the first time I felt like the old guy on a climb. Without acclimating, I wasn’t pushing the pace. I was concerned about altitude sickness and messing up a rock move and falling to my death ‘cuz of fatigue.’ Emmons had to constantly slow down or wait for me.
Up the chimney, past Green Jacket false god, the leap of faith, new wall traverse, up the yard stick steps and back to COR, where the story left off.
Crux 2 was also about faith, but this time it wasn’t a leap, but a dangle. Remember, the top slab of the downclimb protruded over the edge, so you couldn’t see the footholds below. Pictures of the route were studied and we knew there were grips, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Emmons had been expedition lead on this climb, so again, he had the pleasure of going first. Two hands were secured around the lip of the first edge, and he whipped his legs around and off the side his legs floated, searching for a sliver of rock.
“Oh ya baby, I got some footholds down there!” Emmons said.
Blindly, his arms snaked down the rock and his toes went for a second hold. Watching it all from the overhang, it was a huge relief to see him get to the bottom.
What a rush when I flopped my legs over the side and even more exhilarating when they rubbed against a nub wide enough to rest the ball of my foot. The holds were excellent and there were no issues getting down.
Due to the abnormally light snowfall, we didn’t have to cross the notorious “snowbridge,” where many people have slid down and been seriously injured.
Dripping in sweat, we could finally see the true face of Mt. Borah. It didn’t seem possible that there was any way up.
The number one question I get asked the most is, “Why? Why do you climb? Is it the adrenaline, the quest, the fitness, the non-existing fame, the feeling at the summit — why?”
The answer isn’t sexy or cool — I climb because in those intense moments, everything is stripped away and all that matters is moving this hand from point A to point B.
When is soccer practice? Is homework done? Are the bills paid? Is the yard mowed? Is there stress at work? Why is the delivery driver staring at me?
All of those voices are turned off. They don’t exist. I become Descartes’ “Meditation One” and the only reality is, “I think, therefore I am,” past that truth, there is nothing. Freedom from my own thoughts.
The closer we got to the summit, the longer each move took. We were averaging 2 hours to go 900 feet, and the loose talus scree melted away beneath our feet, sliding us back. On all fours, we were scrambling and crawling up a mountain that never ended.
It’s impossible to translate a summit feeling; there’s obviously a sense of relief and accomplishment and the views are fantastic. But the down climb is ever present, so it’s like a barber that has free hair cuts, but you have to do it yourself when you’re there.
Any pain or suffering I may have described to this point was nothing compared to the downclimb. Never have my legs wobbled and almost broke with every step. Knees grinding, quads completely burned through, and all the technical moves still to go.
Camp II would be in a totally different spot, so after all the misery and almost complete body collapse, we still had to set up a new camp. And the rain finally came.
Y’all camped in rain before? Like, for days in relentless downpours? At a certain point, everything gets saturated, no matter how many covers, Gore Tex materials and jackets you have.
Pick your climbing partners wisely, because sitting trapped in a vestibule for hours next to another human will test your relationship. Luckily for Emmons, I operate at a 70% joke-success rate.
On the way to Camp III, we did some hiking at Craters of the Moon National Preserve (COTM). Once a lava ocean of over 100 square miles, it’s now cooled and hardened into charcoal fields of frozen waves. Lava tubes are as wide as a house had turned into caves that you could explore.
Deep cave blackness is soooooo creepy. It’s like quantum matter where nothing exists until you see it with your light. The lower walls were algae green and higher they became dark blue with with crystal white speckles. We’d hit a giant pile of rocks, look up to where it fell from the ceiling and think, glad we weren’t walking under there.
Turns out Emmons wasn’t a big fan of caves or endless dried lava fields or running up the black sand cinder cones.
“Can we leave? Are you ready? I do not. Like. This place,” Emmons said.
The rain respite held for COTM, but began again shortly after we got our tents set up at Camp III.
I was so sick of the rain and needed to clean my body after days of mountain dust and filth soaked into my pores, so I stripped down, Andy Dufresne style, and used the storm as a shower. Right when the shampoo was fully scratched into my skull, mother nature was all like, “Wait, this cracker is enjoying the rain? OK, well then how about some hail?”
The hail caused me to panic, and now I didn’t have rain water to rinse my head, so I grabbed a jug that was super cold and doused myself–the temperature shock caused me to suck in my breath in a suffocating fashion.
You always hear about “hail the size of golf balls.” This hail was only the size of peas, but it hurt like bee stings on the bare flesh. Emmons just stood and watched, as I spazzed out, ran around with a half-shampooed head, trying to find cover as he laughed.
After drying off and getting secure in my tent, I fired up my little liquid petroleum pocket stove and warmed up with dehydrated potato cheese soup and waited out two more hail storms.
Emmons didn’t want any more clothes to get saturated so he endured all the hailstorms and then finally broke, crawled his soaking soul into the tent, saturating the base, and then the rain stopped.
Close to sunset on the last night, the rain ceased and we set out to make a fire with completely soaked wood. Seemed like all the weather, physical activity, travel, sleeping on the ground over three days finally hit all at once and trying to get that fire lit was melting our brains.
It was fun ‘cuz me and Emmons wanted to kill each other as it took many, many attempts to get it going. If I only had one shot at a time machine, I wouldn’t be Biff and bet on a sports outcome I knew about, like the 2016 Cavs, or go back and kill baby Stalin.
I’d time warp to that fire-starting process and hit Emmons’ hand with a thick stick every time he tried to add a soaked branch. Just hit him like a couple times, no big deal. OK I’m kidding, we’ve been buddies since 1985, and I’d probably do the kill Stalin thing.
Two days after I was back in Ohio, and I pulled out my Macbook and was just looking around at some routes out west for 2022. Fate had me staring at a fascinating route I’d never studied before: “Disappointment Cleaver,” on some 14,000 foot peak in Washington called Rainier…
Five state highpoints remain, here’s the breakdown:
There’s one easy hike in White Butte, North Dakota (3,506 ft.).
One moderate climb left in Guadalupe Peak, Texas (8,751 ft.).
And three extreme climbs left, in order of hard to hardest:
A. Mt. Katahdin in Maine during the northeast winter.
B. Mt. Rainier in Washington, the most difficult glacier climb in the lower 48 states.
C. Denali, 20,310 feet of pure Alaskan madness and the hardest mountain in North or South America to summit, not to mention the sixth hardest in the world (Everest is #5, for perspective).
Only one person has ever soloed Denali in January, where there can be only 4-5 hours of sunlight a day.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.