Monday, July 11, 2011

Road/Climbing Trip 2011: Borah Peak

After a couple days of rest with my aunt and uncle in Bozeman, I drove to Idaho by way of Helena in order to attempt to climb Borah Peak (curiously also referred to at Mt. Borah), Idaho's highest point on July 9. After the most technically difficult I've done solo so far, I was proud to have bagged another state highpoint. But, as the saying goes, the top is only halfway, and I still had a challenging climb back down to my car.

I had originally only planned to stay two nights in Bozeman, but since I got there a day early I decided I didn't need to rush off, and I could stick around for one more day. When I got in on the 5th, my aunt was actually at my parents' house, and my uncle wasn't really expecting me. He fed me, then he went off to play drums, leaving me to catch up with the civilized world after being away in the wilderness for a few days. We picked up my aunt at noon on Wednesday, and went for a hike later in the afternoon. We went up to some trails just outside of town and hiked up to two different waterfalls, first Palisades Falls, then to Grotto Falls nearby. They were both quite lovely, and apparently flowing much more than usual for this time of year. My uncle is something of a gear junkie (as am I), so he didn't mind showing me a couple of the local shops Thursday morning, where I picked up a really sweet new ice axe. We also went to an engineering supply store, where they printed a topographic map of Gannett Peak (my next challenging solo climb) for me. In the afternoon, all three of us went over to Livingston where we hiked up to yet another beautiful waterfall.

Friday morning I shoved all my crap back in my car and drove to Helena to tour the capitol. Montana's Capitol is another one that I had previously taken a picture of my motorcycle in front of, but had not toured. It's a fairly traditional design, with a large central dome. The layout was a little different, however, with the House being in one of two matching wings added to the relatively small original building in 1909-12, past the Senate, which is across the rotunda from the old Supreme Court (I forgot to ask where the Court is now, if it's not in the capitol). Typically, the House and Senate are across the rotunda from each other, but they may have moved it to the addition for more space (again I didn't take the tour and forgot to ask). Also a little different was being able to stand directly under the interior of the dome. In many of the capitols I've toured, the state seal is directly under the dome, and they don't let you stand on it. I checked out the galleries of the Supreme Court and Senate, despite there being almost no lights on on the fourth floor, but the House gallery was locked, apparently because of some valuable painting. I didn't really have the time at that point to take the tour to find out some of these things or to see the House gallery, and I headed towards Idaho. I got to the highpoint trailhead, which is 20 miles from a town of 700 people, and 30 from a town of 900, around 6 pm. I didn't think I would be able to camp there at first, because I didn't have more than a liter of water with me. I knew there wasn't a spigot, but I thought there might be a steam I could filter some water from. I didn't see one, so I started back down the dirt road to the highway, when I came to a stream I hadn't noticed on my way in. I filtered a few liters and headed back to get the one free campsite of the five at the trailhead. As I was setting up camp, my legs were getting bitten by mosquitoes, so I put on some DEET and they left me alone until closer to sunset, when they started attacking me all over. I cooked up some freeze-dried dinner and rearranged stuff before retiring to my tent for a little reading before bed.

I woke up a little after 5 on Saturday, ate some oatmeal, broke camp, and moved my car to the actual trailhead. The trail started uphill immediately, and didn't slow down. In fact, it got steeper after about a half mile. Since I was cold at first, I started jogging, not realizing how quickly the trail ascended. That only lasted a few minutes, but I kept a brisk pace. After only fifteen minutes, I had to take a quick pause for breath before continuing at my usual brisk pace. It was probably because of the steepness of the trail, but I had to keep pausing every five minutes for breath. I tried to slow my pace down so I didn't have to keep stopping, but I couldn't really get my legs to do so. There was a tease of a short flattish traverse once I gained the first ridge, but after only a hundred feet or so, the trail turned rocky and to maximum steepness. I was making pretty good time, and I had passed two parties, one of a single guy, and another of two guys by 8:15, two hours in, when I actually sat down and ate a snack. That was just before the climb got technical, at "Chicken Out Ridge." Before I actually got to that part, I thought I might be able to make the summit by 9, but the technical nature of the ridge slowed me down considerably for safety's sake. Chicken Out Ridge is a class 4 rock scramble, with exposure, meaning it was too steep to just walk on, and had precipitous drops on either side. The scramble part was not difficult to me, compared with the vertical rock climbing I've been doing (most especially the rock I climbed on the Granite training day), and would have been fun other than the exposure and my cold hands. I was able to block out the fact that a fall could be deadly, since I felt secure on the rock, but the cold was bothering me. Because I was expecting warmer weather, I was wearing shorts, a fleece jacket, thin gloves, and a baseball cap. Not ideal for the actual temperatures I encountered, with wind chill. There were several snow crossings on COR, which were quite solid thanks to freezing conditions overnight at that altitude. I just followed the existing footprints, and with my trekking poles they were no problem. After making my way, deliberately and slowly across COR, there was a flattish non-technical section before I got to the summit ridge, which was another rock scramble. I lost what there was of a trail, and wound up scrambling up fairly solid rock (with tons of easy holds) along the ridge itself. I found out later that the more traveled route was lower on the ridge, maybe not quite as technical, but much looser rock. I summited at 10 am and took in the spectacular view. I got a couple of "hero" photos by balancing my camera on a rock, ate and drank, then started down the more traveled trail. I also put on my rain pants while I was on the summit, which, in addition to being a lot warmer, were useful when I felt the need to sit and scoot across a steep snow bank. I hadn't used my (new) ice axe on the ascent, but it was quite useful on the descent. I stowed my poles for most of the technical parts of the descent, since for most of the ascent, they were just dangling while I gripped the rock with my gloved hands. The poles have hundreds of nicks on them now because of this. When I came to this first snow bank, I waited for two people to ascend: the single guy I passed on the way up, now accompanied by a woman. I started down in standard alpine fashion: ice axe on the uphill side, stabbing the butt in for support. However, the snow was so hard, I didn't feel like I was getting any actual support from the axe, so I switched to using driving the axe into the snow, and scooting along on my butt, more or less. The fatigue of the ascent, but possibly also from the adrenaline and nerves of the exposure, had my legs feeling a little shaky once I was off the summit ridge. I had the caffeinated gel I had with me before I got back to COR, and eventually that shakiness went away. Due to the steepness, my knees started hurting on the way down. I had, once or twice briefly, felt some tainted of pain in my right knee coming down from the Granite climb. Now it was much more pronounced and constant. My left knee flared up a little as well closer to the bottom, but not nearly as bad, and has recovered well. I had thought that if I could make it back to my car by 1 pm, that I would go to Boise to tour the capitol, but it was pretty apparent by the time I got off the summit I wouldn't make that.

I got back to the car at 2, and started driving to Jackson, Wyoming for the evening. I wasn't in any particular rush, and stopped about every hour of the 4-hour drive for a drink or something. One stop was at the Idaho National Laboratory's EBR-1 historical site. I don't know why, but for several years I've had something of a fascination with nuclear power, and I really enjoyed touring the first breeder reactor. I would have spent even more time than I did if they hadn't closed at 5. I got into town around 7:30, and found what, for Jackson on a Saturday in July, was a steal of a deal on a motel for $100. I went to dinner and tried to watch all the Tour de France coverage, but just couldn't keep my eyes open until 1 am. This morning I got breakfast at seemingly the only place open before 9, and furthered my mountaineering quest with stops at the gear shop and the main office of the guide service I used for Granite. I drove from Jackson to Pinedale, where I will launch my trek to Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest, in the morning.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this narrative. Five of us reached the summit on 8/13 and we reviewed what you had written before we started. Much warmer weather than you experienced and less snow. Not so bad going up but my left knee gave me a lot of pain coming down. The climb was in celebration of my 65th birthday. Ted Chu