Would we chicken out at Chicken Out Ridge while climbing 12,662-foot-high Mount Borah, Idaho’s tallest peak? The notorious knife-edge ridge has 1,500-foot drops on either side to scree fields. Would we confront altitude sickness or sudden afternoon thunderstorms laced with enough lightning to make hair stand on end?
We had to find out for our birthday bucket lists—our daughter at 18, me at 58, and a friend at 38. The Borah Peak Trailhead, 23 miles northwest of Mackay along Highway 93, beckoned.
August and September are prime times to trek to the top, which we were told is like walking up stairs for about six hours but with take-your-breath-away views and a strenuous, steady 30-percent grade that really does take your breath away.
The elevation gain from the trailhead to the top is about 5,200 vertical feet over about 4 miles.
The round-trip record for running up and down is held by our neighbor Luke Nelson of Pocatello, an internationally competitive ultra-athlete who made it to the top and back in an astounding 1 hour 26 minutes and 42 seconds.
Not being close to ultra athletes, we planned for about 11 hours roundtrip. Before our trek, we hoped to train, but life happened, so we went for it anyway with optimism, humor, and an Aleve® the night before to banish muscle aches.
If you wonder if you are in shape enough, go for it. You can turn back anywhere. The view and entertaining camaraderie of about 100 other climbers make the trek worth it.
We started up the dusty trail in 5:30 a.m., blackness with glittering constellations above and our flashlights guiding our way below. No one spoke because we were breathing so heavily.
A couple of hours later, dawn tinged the sky with pink and blue, and we could see where lightning had struck pine trees, leaving them charred black.
Finally, we were above timberline and began following a well-trodden trail on gravel and rocks. Ahead, the narrow Chicken Out Ridge loomed, with a famed snowfield immediately after it.
The higher we went, the more we realized Borah brings out the best in people. A father and son were clad in purple-and-gold plaid kilts.
Our hero was Kyle, a 12-year-old with slip-on tennis shoes, shorts, and reassurance that nothing could go wrong. Like Mr. Magoo, he was fearless and oblivious to any danger. He wandered away from his family and was fine. Two other climbers and I—all natives of Akron, Ohio—fantasized about a Galley Boy Burger from Swensons Drive-In.
At the base of the ridge, the rock cairn piles that had marked the trail disappeared. We had to find our own way. We all helped each other, scouting and pointing out the easiest way.
The Forest Service advice was reassuring: that ropes were unnecessary, and the ridge was considered a class-3 scramble.
Up we went, finding toe and hand holds, keeping three points of contact and not looking down. OK, once or twice for a few seconds we looked at where we didn’t want to go.
It was late morning when we crossed the flat, 10-foot-long snowfield gingerly, because it was still glazed with ice in August. Now it was only the final 1,000-foot trudge to the top with ping-pong ball sized rocks slipping out from under our feet as we climbed the final rocky stairway.
At the cold windy summit, we caught our breath, not only from the strain but the views. The Forest Service sign said it all.
“Congratulations. You have reached the top of Mount Borah, elevation 12,662 feet. There is nothing more to see. You can go home now.”
People signed the logbook. A frequent entry made us all smile knowingly.
“I’ll never do this again. Well, maybe.” ISI