Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Kings of Borah: the high points of Idaho and Utah

Kings Peak 13,528 feet at Sunrise from Dollar Lake (Utah). 
Chapter 1: Borah, Borah, Borah

After work on Friday, Phil and I headed south from Missoula through Darby, picking up several $1.59 “meat” sliders at the Peoples Market and proceeded over Lost Trail Pass into Idaho. Our destination: The Wagon Wheel motel in Mackey, ID. We arrived shortly after 9PM, sorted our gear and turned in for the night.

Throughout the night, we awoke to the intermittent spattering of rain on our window.  Our alarms sang us awake at 4AM. Outside, the glow of lightning illuminated the sharp high ridge of the Lost River Range. Although not encouraging, the distance of the system and the forecast allayed our concerns of being forced off Borah again by the range’s fickle weather. The forecast called for 40% of precipitation in the morning, decreasing through the day. We grabbed a bite and hit the road.

We were moving at 5AM. Short and steep, the standard route on Borah Peak climbs 5,267 feet in just over 3.5 miles (the trailhead is at 7,400 feet, the summit at 12,662). This was Phil's third attempt and my second attempt of Borah. Phil and I made quick work of the first 2,500 feet under the illumination of our headlamps. At tree line, ~10,000 feet, we doffed our headlamps and were provided the first glimpse of what the weather held for us. Although not particularly foreboding, streamers of rain underhanging growing cumulus clouds were amassing across the valley, directly West of Borah. We acknowledged the atmospheric instability and proceeded with caution, accepting the fact that we may be skunked again on Borah.

The clouds clearing off of the upper half of Borah Peak
(on our way descent)
We moved swiftly up to 10,500 and then 11,000 feet, before engaging in a serious conversation about the changing weather. The rumbling of thunder had steadily increased in both intensity and frequency. The streamers of rain and grown into a wall of precipitation – rain, snow, sleet, its contents we did not know – and was moving quickly in our direction. We made the call to retreat off of the high ridge and gain shelter in the trees before making a final decision about Borah. On the descent, the lightning strikes became visible in our vicinity, striking near the base of the mountain and surrounding ridges. The seriousness of our situation apparent, we abandoned the ridge and began a speed hike/run down the northern slope of the ridge into a clump of trees and rocks.

200 feet above the trees, the wall of precipitation revealed its true contents. First rain, then sleet, then hail. The wall engulfed us. I had sped ahead to find some semblance of protection for us to sit out the storm. After careful going with 20-50 feet of visibility, Phil and I found ourselves nestled safely in at 9800 feet, 1200 feet below our high point. Lightning struck and thunder sounded in our vicinity, but never seriously threatened our position. The hail and rain persisted for no more than 15 minutes before easing off to drizzle and then dissipating entirely.

During those 15 minutes, Phil and I weighed our options: 1) descend and give it another go the following day; 2) descend, head south to Kings Peak in Utah and return to Borah in 2-3 days; or 3) wait it out and give it another go from our position. Option ‘3’ was the most attractive choice as it kept us on our original itinerary and saved us from having to re-ascend 2,000 feet in several days time. And who knew what the weather would do!

The soft echo of thunder receding to our east, we made the decision to give it another go. We quickly re-gained the ridge crest and caught up with a couple that had waited out the storms below the trees. As it turns out, an early start was not to our advantage!

From the ridge, it was clear that the worst had passed. Although precipitation swirled the valley and low clouds continued sweeping over our route, there was little threat of lightning.

Within an hour we were back at our high point, just below ‘chicken-out ridge.’ We picked our way up and over the ridge, climbing and down-climbing sections of the exposed ridge. As we reached the final section of ‘chicken-out’ clouds swept over our windward perch, bringing with them 30-40 mph winds and snow. So it goes.

Chicken-Out Ridge as seen from the summit ridge of Borah
(photo taken on descent)
 As it snowed upward – the snow literally blowing from the valley below up – we pressed on to the summit ridge. With 50-100 feet visibility, we picked our way up the ridge with the occasional cairn guiding our progress. I built several additional cairns along the route up to the ridge crest. We hit the summit just after 10:30AM. This was Phil’s 45th state high point (and his third attempt)! Hurray! Although the snow was easing off, the wind chill was enough to limit our time on the summit. We took a few perfunctory summit shots and headed down.

Phil on the summit of Borah Peak, his 45th state high point.
On the summit of Borah Peak with wedding prayer flags.

The descent was happily eventless. As we descended the clouds began to thin. By the time we reached the bottom of ‘chicken-out ridge’ the summit of coming into view. And by the time we reached the car, blue sky peeked through broken clouds. We reached the car at just after 12:30PM.

Phil descending the summit ridge of Borah 
Sometimes you have to go up to go down. Phil climbing on our
way down 'chicken-out ridge'

Total time: 7.5 hours
Total vertical ascent: ~6400 feet
Total mileage: ~8.5-9 miles

Chapter 2: Kings Peak

Next stop: Kings Peak! Kind of. From Borah’s trailhead we headed back to the town of Mackey for a celebratory burger and fries. We continued south through Idaho, into Utah, before heading east into Wyoming. At 8PM we found ourselves in the town of Mountain View, Wyoming, the gateway to Kings Peak. With damp gear and a rather damp 12-hour forecast, we opted to stay at the Country Cabin Inn in Mountain View rather than camping at the trailhead. We spent the evening drying out our gear and organizing our packs for our overnight in Henrys Fork basin.

We awoke at 6AM on Sunday with the intention of hitting the road. Again, Mother Nature had different plans for us. With rain and lightning hammering Mountain View, we took our time gathering ourselves for departure. We hit up ‘Maveriks’, the gas station next to the inn, for a day’s old Krispy Kreme donut breakfast and coffee.

We tentatively departed for the trailhead under the curtains of rain and flashes of lightning. All the forecasts we looked at promised back-to-back clear days from Sunday to Monday. We rested all of our hopes on this being the case.

From our northerly approach, we crossed the border into Utah. The rain abated at this time. We arrived at the trailhead (~9,400 feet) just before 9AM. This was later than we had planned on, but it was, as it turned out, the best of all possible outcomes given the weather. We disembarked at 9AM under breaking clouds and a glimmer of blue. The rain on the drive in would be the last precipitation of the trip.

5.5 miles up Henrys Fork towards Kings Peak. Phil looking up trail
at the range.
Our spirits buoyed by the stabilizing weather, we cruised up the gentle slope of the basin to Dollar Lake. After a delightful 8-mile hike we hit Dollar Lake at 12:15PM. The weather was stunning: blue skies, clear atmosphere and 50 degrees with a light breeze. We quickly erected the tent, cached all unnecessary gear and hit the trail at 12:30PM for the summit.

An hour later, we found ourselves at Gunsight Pass. From Gunsight Pass, the trail proceeds down into Painter Basin, skirts West Gunsight Peak and then heads up to Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge of Kings Peak. We received intel from a couple of hikers that there was a well-cairned route that traversed high on the back of West Gunsight Peak, effectively trimming an hour or more from the standard route. We quickly found the route and clawed our way up to the expansive alpine that is the northern slopes of West Gunsight Peak. What a lark! The walk was beautiful around the mountain. Kings Peak comes into view quickly, dominating the skyline on our bearing.

Looking north from Gunsight Pass. Our route took us
under the cliff band on the right and up the talus slope to
the high bench center.
Under blue skies, we reached Anderson Pass and the base of the summit ridge (12,400 feet) at 2:30PM. We scrambled our way up the ridge, exchanging pleasantries with many of the folks heading down. At about 12,800 feet we passed a pair of gentlemen working their way up the ridge. One of the men was moving by way of a pseudo-crawl, using both hands to brace himself on easy terrain while his friend kept a close watch, occasionally guiding his progress. I stopped to chat with them briefly and they gave off the vibe of being very experienced outdoorsmen. Interesting.

Phil looking out over Henrys Fork basin - from whence we came -
from just below Anderson Pass en route to the summit.
The Kings Peak summit ridge is a very pleasant walk/scramble. At about 13,450 feet, the ridge juts sharply up, providing a fun scramble to the top. At 3:30PM we stood on the 13,528-foot summit of Kings Peak and the top of Utah. So beautiful was the day, we were in no hurry to descend. We were equipped with headlamps and plenty of warm clothes should we find ourselves descending the final miles in the dark. We ate, drank, took pictures, chatted with a gentleman from Idaho, laughed and celebrated Phil’s 46th high point. We observed the fact that we had – unplanned – summited the high point of Idaho and Utah in two consecutive days. There was a group of rather boisterous young men – dare I say my peers – tempting fate with various summit hijinks i.e. peeing off the summit, throwing rocks. One of men had a rifle protruding out of his pack. I asked him why he had it and he said he was hoping to bag a ptarmigan or two. Huh.

On the summit of Kings Peak, the high point of Utah.
Phil's 46th high point. 
At 4:10PM we began our descent. We passed a total of 6 folks still scrambling their way to the summit on the way down the ridge. At about 13,200, we ran into the gentleman that was ‘feeling’ his way to the summit. As Phil and I approached the duo, Phil suggested that perhaps he was blind. Plausible. We reached the men and chatted again. I asked, “I don’t mean to be offensive, I am simply curious, what is your technique all about.” He took the question with grace and responded happily. He explained that he had suffered a brain injury many years back and half of his body was not especially responsive, while his balance suffered severely. Wow. Amazing. It was an inspiring moment. This man was literally crawling his way up the mountain, moving no faster than ½ mile an hour while his friend patiently guided his movement. He went on to explain that this is a part of recover journey back to climbing. At this pace, they were likely to summit around 5PM. Phil and I expressed how impressed we were and carried on with a new sense of respect, understanding and appreciation for those that strive in the face of serious adversity.

The upper portion of the summit ridge of Kings Peak.
Pain-free with my health, suddenly rheumatoid arthritis faded to white noise, an innocuous diagnosis made manifest only by the pillbox that lie in our tent below.

We stopped below Anderson Pass to filter a few liters of water for the rest of the return journey to Dollar Lake. We picked an easier line around the backside of West Gunsight Mountain and cairn-hopped our way back down to Gunsight Pass. The glow of the setting sun illuminated the red, brown and white rocks of surrounding mountains as we cruised down the trail into the basin. It truly was the ‘most beautiful day in recorded history.’  We reached our campsite around 7PM, 10 hours after we had left the car. The GPS read exactly 18 miles with ~4,300 feet of ascent on the day.

Gunsight Peak and Gunsight Pass on the descent.
We filtered several additional liters of water and watched the sun set on the surrounding peaks with a woman from Bountiful, UT. We split a 3-cheese pasta Mountain House meal – I prematurely put in half-heated and unboiled water into my mac and cheese, rendering it uncooked and possibly bacteria-ridden - and hit the rack. I woke up several times to relieve myself and found the sky to be among the clearest I had ever seen. Layers of stars succumbed to even deeper layers of stars.

Phil sitting on a rock at Dollar Lake as the sun sets.
We awoke at 6AM to a cloudless sky. I surprised Phil with cinnamon rolls I had packed in for our final breakfast on the mountain. We watched the sun rise from the point we had watched it set the evening before. With Starbucks coffee and cinnamon rolls we dined like kings of Kings Peak. “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is,” said Kurt Vonnegut. And in this moment – as in so many moments in life – it rang true. We had succeeded and in so many ways. From safely gaining the summits of two state high points in consecutive days to edifying conversation to awe-inspiring beauty, it was all a success. Although our primary objectives were peaks, the underlying drive was the pursuit of beauty and life through mountain travel.

The trail to Kings Peak from Dollar Lake at sunrise.
We broke camp at 8:30AM. I walked 100 feet from our camp to relieve myself. Looking up, my gaze met the eyes a cow moose some 50 feet away. Accompanying her was a calf several feet further. She didn’t seem to mind my presence. Careful not to disturb the animals, I grabbed Phil and we viewed from a safe distance.

Look closely! A cow moose and calf. 
With the day ahead of us we opted for the longer and less traveled route out of Henrys Fork. We hiked about a mile up the trail to 11,000 feet and crossed the basin. The terrain was breathtaking: lakes, ponds, marshes and stands of trees all back-dropped by 13,000-foot peaks. The trail we were on disappeared and we proceeded to bushwhack 1-2 miles across the valley. We came upon another moose, this one 100-yards distant, in a marsh near one of the myriad ponds. The topographic map had us below the trail and so we traversed up and over a couple of knolls before catching sight of a massive cairn marking the trail. On the trail, we got back up to our 3-3.5 mph hiking pace and cruised on down the valley.

The peaks of Henrys Fork from Elkhorn Crossing. 
Our trail junction came quickly. At the junction we ran into a couple that had spent several days up the basin picking off several 13,000-footers in the area. They introduced themselves as Jennifer and Gerry from Montrose, CO. They were extremely – an understatement - knowledgeable about the state high points and Gerry disclosed that he had completed all of the high points. Jennifer asked if we were familiar with the Colorado 14er books. It immediately clicked: this is the Gerry Roach! The Gerry Roach of mountaineering and guidebook fame. He was the 2nd person to climb the highest point of all seven continents and has over 2,000 Colorado Peaks under his belt.  We chatted with Jennifer and Gerry for a couple of minutes longer before heading down the remaining 5.5 miles to the trailhead.

As was our wont, we made quick work of the final, relatively flat, section of trail. We were back at the rental car around 1:30PM.

And that was it. Just like that, it was over.

Total distance: 30.5 miles
Total vertical ascent: 4,600 feet
Total elapsed travel time: 15.5 hours (27.5 hours on the mountain)
Moose sightings: 3

En route to Salt Lake City, we stopped off at Don Pedro’s Family Mexican restaurant in Evanston, Wy. Phil and I shared some laughs, stories and fajitas. All good things. We made the gorgeous drive to Odgen and down to Salt Lake City to our hotel just off the Salt Lake City airport campus.

A couple of hours ago Phil and I exchanged our farewells and headed on our separated paths: he to Chicago and I back to Missoula. Back to our lives and loved ones. The trip was a short, but rich lark. It was beautiful, gorgeous and life giving. With a full cup – life-filled - I return to the venerable vagaries of normal life and give back. Phil once shared this poem with me:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever;
You have to come down again …
So why bother in the first place?
Just this: What is above knows what is below,
But what is below does not know what is above.

One climbs, one sees.
One descends, one sees no longer,
But one has seen.

There is an art of conducting oneself
In the lower regions
By the memory of what one saw higher up.

When one can no longer see,
One can at least still know.”

An abandoned cabin on the hike out. 

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