The Things that Borah Peak Spoke to Me
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
Borah Peak after some moisture
The alarm on my hiking watch vibrated on my wrist and assaulted my ears; I almost went back to sleep. But, that drum beat resonated again deep in my soul and was impossible to ignore like that of the Jumanji movies. Tap. Tap. Tap. I have tried to skip the beats call to hike a few times but learned that it only gets louder if I do. I get up; all my gear is carefully laid out the night before. I triple-check that I have everything and then leave. The drive from Challis, ID, to the Borah Peak trailhead, was easy, only about 45 minutes. I pull in and survey the campsite. Very quiet. But, it was full of people like me, wishful hikers eager to see, smell, touch, and feel what Borah has to show and teach us. Some of us are experienced, but most of us are not. For many, this will be our first significant mountain experience. I was one of the latter.
Many leave around 5 a.m., but we were going earlier at 3:30 as we are less experienced and were trying to avoid weather, the same weather that canceled a much larger group. We thought the risk was acceptable, so we formed a smaller group. I find them at the gates and press the button atop my headlamp; it switched from a dull red glow to blistering white. I learned in the Navy that ships use red lights at night because the red spectrum travels far less than white and other colors. My heart and soul were excited as we started; I didn't know what lay ahead of me, but I was happy to be there. I was thrilled at the potential of reaching her summit, but I also realized what a monumental feat we set out on. I send the first of many heartbeat texts via GPS, including my coordinates. It chirped like a trusted friend and was brought along in case I or someone I encountered was hurt as we needed to call for help.
I approached Mount Borah like one might come to that of a wild stallion, admiring her beauty, rewards, and potential but also realizing she is all powerful and will humble you if need be. I didn't want her to humiliate me, so I started with a healthy fear of her. One step at a time. Foot by foot. Ridge to ridge. Mile by mile. I didn't know it yet, but I had just set out on the best hiking day I had. We traveled in the pitch black, a crescent moon helped, ever so slightly illuminating our path, but our headlamps did the most of the work. Spirits were high. Every half mile, groupmates would ask me how far we had gone. Borah was already extracting what she required out of us but will still have an excruciating amount of work to do.
We made it past the tree line, and it hit me how exposed we would be for the first time. We pull and claw ourselves over the first big push of the hike, up and over a ridge. As we climbed, we could see the glow of two headlamps. "Who had left earlier than us?" I thought. We caught up to them and chatted, a father and son. They had left at about 1 a.m. As we talked, the importance of Borah Peak was immediately apparent to them as a team and as father and son. The father informed us that he has stage four cancer. Trying not to shine my bright headlamp on his face, I noticed a profound and moving look in his eyes in the shadows. It was a look of duality, determination but humbling peace, the type of peace you only earn after facing your mortality. But also that of strength and a fighter. Of a father. Of a loving man. Of a man likely to die soon. The creases on his face look like the ridges we are climbing, full of character and grit but no doubt the after-effects of chemo. We wish him and his son luck and say our goodbyes. That man and his look left an indelible impression on my heart and soul. Borah had just shown and taught me the first of many profoundly moving and humbling experiences.
By this time, it's getting lighter outside, but I keep my headlamp on. To my delight, I turn around and see the farmlands of Chilly, ID, and the surrounding valley. Aptly named as it was cold for us, leather gloves kept my hands warm. I shudder to think how this area is transformed by the winter. As I surveyed the valley floor, it struck me how far we had already climbed, about 2,500 feet. This trail is roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile. We take a few pictures and continue. We didn't know it yet, but the most mentally and physically demanding part of the day lay in wait for us, Chicken Out Ridge (COR), which jetted out in beautiful arrogance, taunting me but at the same time calling out to me. Tap. Tap. Tap. Mount Borah must be respected, I think as I reflect on the hike so far.
The sun was up enough for us to see without lamps. We slowly make our approach to COR. My steps are heavy but calculated as I am fearful of COR. I send a heartbeat text. That familiar and friendly chirp sounds. As we started the COR ascent, I still didn't know what to expect of her infamous ridge. I had done plenty of research on the mountain, and it is clear that COR is the most hyped part of the whole Borah Peak experience. And, I would be lying if I didn't admit that COR scared me. But I had faith in myself and the mountain. I would take it slow and bit by bit. Our small group had partially split by this point, and it was just the two of us. We met up with three or four other hikers who got to COR at the same time as we did. We talked briefly about the best way to approach the ridge, which wasn't immediately clear. You can either go high on the shelf or lower. The lower path is probably the safest and most accessible way forward, but the scree (loose rock like shale) concerned me; it's a long way down if one loses their footing or is absent-minded even for the briefest moments. The majority of the group takes the lower path. I follow a guy with a look of raw adventure in his eyes and decide to take the high side—another calculated decision involving high risk.
I fought back waves of anxiety for the first 10 minutes of COR. Every time I looked around, I was in awe of where I was but then snapped to the reality of how dangerous this ridge was. One slip of the hand, one footing in the wrong place, one gust of wind, or even just one absent-minded heartbeat, and you would get hurt. It was a very long way down. About 3,000 feet, to be exact. After I faced the initial fear of COR is when the ridge became one of the most exhilarating hours of my life. I felt like only an Eagle could feel. A feeling of freedom and authority perched above, looking down on vast ravines full of color that shifted from rust to grey to golden brown to dark brown. Choosing the high side of the ridge was the right decision for me. Although more dangerous, the craggy spires and often block-shaped rock provide many anchor points for my hands and feet. I analyzed every foot and hand placement as I traversed the ridge with respect and fear, and I was rewarded by safely getting to the rope on the other side. I watch a few people go before me down the rope and follow their lead. I wait for the party member we left behind at the start of COR while the second leaves with a faster group. A heartbeat text was sent with great relief. I had traversed COR and had not gotten hurt.
We pass many friendly and encouraging faces and smiles as we continue to the last big push of Borah Peak, the last mile. My legs, arms, and back were sore from using them to excess on COR. And my lungs were trying to capture the fleeting oxygen that could be a little scarce at this elevation. We had a link-up with a group earlier and more than doubled the group size to five. We took the final approach slow and steady, trying to conserve the dangerously low energy levels. Borah had extracted plenty from us by this point, but what she promised us at her peak would be unmeasurable, so we pushed hard.
We finally reached her peak and were all very excited but tired. I tried to put what I had beat out of it back into my body and had a nice lunch. I popped open a congratulatory beer I had brought and surveyed the area around me as I sipped. I felt like the lord of all creation. I had just climbed over 5,000 feet and had my life flash before my eyes on COR. We took lots of pictures and sat for a little while. There was a sense of community and laughter among us crammed at the top, about 20 people. After a few minutes, that feeling of lordship diminished as the reality set in; there was still a another monumental task ahead of getting off the mountain. We started the descent.
About a mile down from the peak is when tragedy struck. One of the hiking partners tripped on a rock, fell, and started to roll. An instant pang of fear hit me. Thankfully she did not continue to move and eventually caught herself. But the damage has been done. She landed on her left hand and severely sprained it, perhaps breaking it. We still had four miles to go by the point and needed to cross COR again. I am not yet comfortable in my climbing skills to help anyone else. She takes the low side, and I take the high side. I watch her as I wait for my turn on the rope. She slides a little bit; that pang of fear is back—my turn on the rope. I traversed the ridge the same way as I had the first time.
My body is screaming at me. But I take it bit by bit, trying not to internalize how dangerous this is. I am happy to catch up with my injured hiking partner on the other side. A paramedic on the mountain that day helped her through most of COR. Mike, her guardian angel, carefully orchestrated her movements. About twenty people and I patiently waited for them to traverse the final parts of COR. Finally, we made it through the ridge. But I was determined to stay with my injured hiking partner until we both could get off the mountain. We continued our way down, sore, stiff, and tired. We meet up with the group to which the man with cancer belonged. We get word; he had indeed summited and they were on way their way down. Incredible.
About two miles left, I noticed how big the raindrops were and looked back at the peak. It was ominous, with dark clouds and shards of thunder shooting to the ground. A wave of relief washed over me as we were mainly off the mountain at this point. Finally, we could see the trailhead. I shout to my hiking partner, congratulating both of us. We had indeed done a complex thing and persevered. We pushed our mental and physical limits and accomplished a shared goal.
We hiked to Borah Peak.
What once was a Big Hairy Dream is now a reality. Mount Borah will leave an unremovable tattoo on my heart and soul. The experiences and lessons she taught me are ones I will take with me for the rest of my life. She opened herself to me and allowed me to trust in her. She rewarded me with safety and surreal peace and sense of accomplishment. While she extracted about everything I had, the pride and strength she gave me in return, I will have the rest of my life. And, for me, Borah Peak was never about checking it off the list. It was more about experiencing her and being present in the moments of the day.
I'll gladly visit her again.
An enormous thank you to the people who supported and encouraged the rest of the hiking community and me, ensuring everyone had a safe and successful day.
We did it "till' it was done."
Borah by the numbers:
5+ Liters of water drunk
1,000+ calories ingested
5,000 to 6,000 calories burned
8+ miles over 14 hours
Ten kajillion times, my hiking partners asked me how far we went :)
Three times I was scared for my life and that of others
An unmeasurable amount of memories and respect for Borah Peak.