As co-owner and co-operator of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Erik Leidecker has guided the milk run up 12,662-foot Borah Peak countless times. But guiding the infamous ridge up the famous peak in the Lost River Mountains with his Eddie Bauer teammate Ed Viesturs forced him to examine the approach and potential consequences a little bit differently. Getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory, even on the local backyard high point. —LYA Editor
Words by Erik Leidecker, Images by Matt Leidecker
Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to climb Mt. Borah, the highest peak in Idaho, with fellow Eddie Bauer guide team member and legendary climber, Ed Viesturs. Ed and I both live near Sun Valley, Idaho, and we donated our time to guide a group up Mt. Borah to benefit the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF).
Standing 12,668 feet tall in the Lost River Mountains, Mt. Borah is climbed by hundreds of people each year, mainly during the summer months. The standard Southwest Ridge route gains 5,200 vertical feet over three and a half miles. The famous Chicken Out Ridge section of the climb begins at 11,400 feet and intermittently follows a jagged limestone arête for about four hundred vertical feet. The climbing on Chicken Out Ridge is 3rd and 4th class, the rock is often loose, and there are many locations where a slip or fall could be disastrous. After Chicken Out Ridge, a loose, rocky trail skirts the west face all the way to the summit.
Prior to this day in the mountains, Ed and I had never really spent much time together. And due to our roles during this Borah climb, we didn’t have many chances to converse. Nevertheless, just having Ed along on the climb got me thinking a lot about decision-making challenges we face while guiding and climbing “non-technical” peaks such as Borah.
Mt. Borah is a summer milk run for my guide service, Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG). Guides use short-roping and pitching techniques to protect climbers through Chicken Out Ridge, but there are no other technical guiding challenges unless the mountain is covered in firm snow.
Nevertheless, days on Borah can be long and grueling. Many guided and non-guided climbers underestimate the difficulty of climbing Borah because the presumption is that the ascent is non-technical. Although this is somewhat accurate, it overshadows the fitness required to efficiently manage the vertical relief alone, which is a mile in both directions. The average fit climber acclimatized to the elevation and with experience in 3rd and 4th class terrain can be up and down Borah in around seven hours. However, less-fit climbers or those without experience traveling in the rugged terrain often take between 12 and 18 hours. Usually the descent eats up somewhere between half and two-thirds of the overall round-trip time.
Indeed, going down Borah is torturous. The trail on the west face headwall is steep and loose. Each and every step requires care, and those unfamiliar with this type of terrain can move painfully slow. Reversing Chicken Out Ridge usually takes a little longer than on the ascent, but then the real suffering begins.
The return trip from the terraces at 11,400 feet, where Chicken Out Ridge ends, to the trailhead at 7,400 feet is a 4,000-foot knee-pounder, with barely a flat section for any respite. The terrain is consistently steep, with slope angles between 25 and 40 degrees, and the trail only contours from the vertical fall line by a few degrees. Hiking poles can be helpful, but the bottom line is that the descent is brutal, especially on the knees.
Because of the long descent, guides at SMG have been discussing ideas more often associated with Mt. Everest than Mt. Borah. Should we implement mandatory turn-around times? Should we better screen potential climbers regarding previous injuries and fitness?
Even with a good weather forecast and motivated climbers, spending eighteen hours on Borah is not unreasonable. But throw in an unanticipated thunderstorm or a twisted ankle and the situation moves from routine to serious in a matter of moments, and undermines the ability to return safely to the trailhead.
I think the vast majority of climbers are not willing to die for the summit. If this is the case, then the decision to turn back, even on a “walk-up” such as Mt. Borah, needs to be taken more seriously. If it’s late in the day, if the sky is getting dark, if the descent will take longer than the ascent, or if that little voice just says something isn’t right, then it might well be time to turn around and start down.
Perhaps Ed Viesturs’s greatest legacy as a writer, motivational speaker, and alpinist is his mantra, “Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” The day I climbed Borah with Ed, our group was fit and the weather was good. Our team summited and returned to the trailhead in about ten hours, and we never really had to contemplate turning around. But had things played out differently, I’d like to think that Ed’s wisdom would have been first and foremost in my mind.
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