One adventure, from my early days of adventuring, has such prominence in my memory that I often find myself comparing the “soul glow” from a weekend well-played, to how I felt a decade ago, after a whirlwind trip to climb Mount Borah.
I grew up in a family that absolutely did not embrace the outdoors. Believe me when I say that I only learned of the outdoors through books, and it was some distant thing that other people did. I could never have imagined that I would someday own the stories that I now enjoy telling so much.
I first moved to North Idaho at the age of 20 and I was green. My uncle — a product of the old days in Coeur d’Alene, hiking and riding dirt bikes in the mountains of North Idaho — invited me on hikes to places like St. Regis Lakes (largest snowflakes I’ve ever seen!) or Chimney Rock in the Selkirks.
I quickly became drawn to the mountains.
Then one day, Uncle Doug invited me on the trip that forever changed how I calculated value in my life.
We would be climbing Mount Borah. I had never even heard of it. But at 12,662 feet tall, I was electrified by the idea. Growing up on the coast, I’d never experienced such elevation.
When Doug mentioned that we had to be back in only three days, I remember being acutely disappointed. How could we pack much adventure into only three days? Especially when the mountain was almost 12 hours away?
Mount Borah stands in the Lost River range in southern Idaho. I lived in North Idaho. I could drive across Washington, Oregon and down into California in the same time it would take to get to Mount Borah. But still, I was at my Uncle’s house with my Toyota 4Runner packed and ready, directly after work on a Friday afternoon.
We left around 5 p.m., and after some last-minute shopping, headed south for McCall, where my Uncle Mike lived at the time.
I can’t help but laugh as I think about it. In these days of wife and kids, I’m usually as prepared as I can get. When we travel I take with me every tool I could ever need. Tire repair kit. Mini air compressor. High-Lift jack. Headlamps. Pistol. Chainsaw. Camp stove. Water purifier. . . Back then, I doubt I even had a pair of pliers in the truck. I had some cheap camping gear and a kayak, but not much more. I‘d bought some brand-new, never worn, hiking boots just for this trip, and I thought I was set (more on this later).
We crossed the Clearwater River at Lewiston and headed south into territories new to me. We reached McCall just before midnight. We were already tired, fueled only by the promise of adventure, but we were determined, and as such, decided to drive through the night to get to Mount Borah by early the next morning.
Now, I can’t drive for very long at night. Never have been able to. The few times I’ve tried have resulted in hallucinations. Once on a road trip I was kept awake by a Samurai warrior who appeared in the fog and would swing his sword at me every time I closed my eyes. By the time we reached Highway 21 and headed east toward Stanley, across the large swath down the middle of Idaho that is nothing but mountains and trees, I was in a daze in the back seat. I only remember Mike being frustrated that my bright lights only worked if you held the switch toward you, and if you flipped it the wrong way, you would lose lights altogether. Being afraid hitting of a deer, and probably driving much faster than we should have, I’m pretty sure that Mike held onto that switch all night.
We arrived at the trailhead just as the sun was coming up over the Lost River range. A few people were stirring in their tents, or in their trucks. We were exhausted from the drive ourselves, but since the sun was rising, we decided to go for it. We laced up our boots and began the ascent by the standard, or “Chicken-out Ridge” route. I had no idea what I had gotten into.
Three things made this the most arduous hiking ascent I have ever attempted.
First, this standard route climbs over 5,000 feet in 4.5 miles. Straight up. I’m pretty sure there weren’t any switchbacks on the entire route, and if there were, they have been banished from my brain by the combination of sweat and pain.
Second, both of my uncles are extremely athletic. Mike runs ultra-marathons, and Doug completed the Ironman triathlon when he was the age I am now.
And third, I am unable to let myself be out-hiked by either of them. I have since used this to my advantage when training for races with them, but at the time of the Mount Borah hike, all I could do was suffer through just barely keeping up.
We ascended through the tree line, past scraggly, wind-tortured trees, out into views as I had never imagined, and on toward Chicken-Out Ridge. This “step” only drops something like 20 feet onto a razor-back ridge, but thousands of feet on each side.
We were in the zone at this point, every thought and every muscle tensioned toward the sole purpose of taking one more step. And then another. And then another.
The last scramble toward the summit is just that - a scramble up loose rocks to a summit seemingly built of loose rock. At 8 a.m., we reached the summit where there was only a father and son, and a large American flag.
Doug and I later claimed, unofficially, what surely must stand as a record. From Lewiston, the lowest part of Idaho where the elevation ranges from 710 to 756 feet above sea level, as we drove south to McCall, to Borah Peak, the highest point in Idaho, in 12 hours.
There were very few snowfields left on the mountain at that time of year, but I remember hiding in the lee of whatever rocks I could find to avoid the bitter cold.
We posed for a few pictures at the summit and raced down the mountain. I say raced, because around the same point going downhill, we all decided it made no difference whether we went fast or slow in the loose rock. Our knees were going to be in inflamed agony regardless, so we might as well get it done as fast as possible.
After reaching the trailhead, we paused and soaked our agony in a beer, downed some food and hit the road again.
We passed Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve as we drove west toward Twin Falls where we finally slept in the backyard of Mike’s in-laws. I hadn’t slept but briefly since Thursday night and it was now Saturday night, nearly 800 miles and a 12,000-foot peak later.
We woke the following morning and rallied to meet some of Mike’s friends at the boat launch underneath the famous Twin Falls Perrine Bridge. People were already base jumping and bungee jumping off the bridge as we paddled upstream several miles to the base of Shoshone Falls.
The water of the Snake River was slow and stagnant, except near Palisades Rock where there was a short, little Class III rapid that we portaged.
Once at the falls, I couldn’t help but paddle underneath the spray along the north rim. I hadn’t yet mastered my kayak roll, so I was very nervous about getting swamped and kept a safe distance from the water plunging into the pool next to me. The sight was mind-numbing.
I saw Shoshone Falls from above, once many years later when I was working in the area and the Snake River was running high. My coworkers didn’t believe I had once paddled up-river and sat in my kayak underneath that thunderous torrent.
After paddling downstream (and running that little Class III rapid near Palisades Rock) we dropped Mike off at his in-laws’ place, then Doug and I headed north, determined to get a jump on the long drive ahead of us.
We wanted to sleep that night on the white sandy beaches of the Salmon River upstream of Riggins.
As soon as we drove down onto the beach the sun dropped over the valley rim. We dug out nooks in the sand for our sleeping bags and ate. I fell immediately asleep. I remember watching large spiders run from the brush down to the river at sunset to get a drink, and not caring one bit if they ran across me in my sleeping bag. I heard deer close by in the dark “bark” at us and didn’t care one bit.
When I woke in the morning I experienced the moment that I still judge all other adventures against. My world had changed. There would forever be a “before” this adventure, and an “after.”
I was broke-down. Beaten. My feet were bloody from blisters because I was stupid enough to wear brand new boots up Mount Borah. I was starving.
But I’d had a weekend of awesomeness that filled all the voids in my soul and made the surface as smooth as still water. I had traveled the length and breadth of Idaho. Climbed its highest mountain. Paddled underneath its largest waterfall and was now waking up on a silky white, sand beach on the edge of a vast wilderness.
Now, almost 10 years later I can still feel wisps of that moment stir across my soul. There have been other weekends and other adventures that have touched me the same way, bringing me to where everything is right in the world and my place in it.
But before Mount Borah, I didn’t know that place even existed.