Lost River 12ers bail (Borah, Sacajawea, Idaho, Leatherman)

Ridge to Sacajawea and Idaho

The Lost River Range is home to most of Idaho’s 12,000-foot peaks. It combines the uplift limestone of the Canadian Rockies with the dry climate of the Great Basin, meaning that while the scenery can be spectacular, the terrain can be slow. The 12ers can all be done in a single traverse, from Borah to Lost River Peak, so that was my plan. I was on track to do so, with a bike shuttle to close the loop, but the Rockies’ typical thunderstorm cycle unfortunately caused me to abort just before Church Peak. After seeing the terrain, I am even more impressed by Cody Lind’s 20h23 and Brittany Peterson’s 28h29 speed records for the Idaho 12ers. I might be able to touch the latter, but Cody’s time is absolutely insane; both deserve more recognition.

There are a couple of roads leading to the base of Lost River Peak, where I needed to stash my bike, and I chose the better-looking one, labeled with a BLM sign for Upper Cedar Creek. It was a slow but easy drive in my low-clearance car, passing through a couple of wired-shut ranch gates and skirting a log cabin with all of its windows either boarded up or broken. I left my locked bike and helmet near an irrigation canal, then drove back to the highway and up to the Borah trailhead to sleep. The next day’s forecast was mediocre, but I hoped for the best, and in any case was somewhat committed with my bike now twenty miles away.

Sunrise below Borah

I woke to my alarm at 4:00, and hit the trail around 4:30 by headlamp. The Borah trail was every bit as steep as I remembered, efficiently gaining over 5000 feet in only a few miles. I ground it out at a steady pace, reaching the summit in about 2h30 from the car and 2h15 from the trailhead. Along the way I watched the sun rise on the peaks to the south, and the pointy shadow of Borah approach across the plains to the west. Borah is fairly popular even early in the season, so I had a nice boot-pack to follow across a few stretches of snow, one of which might have been “chicken-out ridge.” The footprints scattered on the several use trails up the final talus-slope to the summit, so I followed one for awhile, then headed to the ridge for the final bit to avoid hard snow.

Scrambling on Sacajawea

From Borah, I retraced my steps on the ridge and talus, then made the mistake of traversing around the southern subpeak on hard snow instead of going over. I saw another hiker lower on the trail, but left it before meeting him to head south along the ridge to Sacajawea. The rock on the ridge was fairly good, and I found some enjoyable bits of class 3-4 scrambling on the climb to the not-quite-12er’s summit. I had downloaded Brittany’s track, mostly to pull in the relevant topo maps, and was surprised to see that she had dropped east around Sacajawea. This looked absolutely miserable to me, and slower than following the ridge, but perhaps she had done the math.

Borah from Sacajawea

Getting down Sacajawea to the saddle with Mount Idaho was tedious, with too many gendarmes on the ridge itself, and a lot of variably-loose scree and hard snow on the slopes to the right. I returned to the ridge where it became more tame, and followed that to the lowpoint. From there, Mount Idaho was a fairly straightforward if loose scramble. I briefly entertained the idea of sticking to the ridge, but was concerned about my time given the distance left to travel and the chance of afternoon storms. Seeing that I would have to drop all the way to 10,500′ at Leatherman Pass no matter what, I figured it would be faster to follow the track and skirt Peak 11,967′ and White Cap to the east, via Pass Lake. I plunge-stepped down some loose scree, then made a sliding boot-ski traverse south into the unnamed drainage. The snow was somewhat sun-cupped, but seemed better than the underlying loose junk. I put on my crampons for the first time to climb to a notch in the ridge north of Pass Lake, then slid down the south side, grabbing water near the spring north of the lake. From Pass Lake, I contoured down and around a spur ridge, then joined the faint trail to Leatherman Pass.

Leatherman Pass from Idaho

I was feeling slightly slow on the slog up to the pass, but was pleased with my time upon reaching it. I believe Leatherman Pass is roughly the halfway point in time and distance, putting me on track to finish in something like thirteen hours. Cody probably had to do this section in around ten to complete Hyndman, Pyramid, and the drives between in twenty hours, which would have required not just superior aerobic capacity, but excellent scrambling skills. The rock quality deteriorated significantly on Leatherman. I followed a faint use trail up and right through the scree, then slogged up a somewhat more stable rib back to the ridge. I stayed on the crest until the final vertical section, then traversed right and climbed some sketchy fourth class back to just below the summit. There might be a summer trail to the left/east, but it was covered in snow, and I did not want to make more crampon transitions.

Downclimb from Leatherman

I found old tracks on the summit, but they led strangely to the northeast, while I wanted to head south. I briefly headed down the next ridge east of the one I wanted, then made a steep, inward-facing crampon descent of the couloir between them to return to the correct ridge. I was already displeased with the rock quality so the fact that the next peak was named “Bad Rock Peak” was somewhat unnerving. In my opinion this whole section should be named “Bad Rock I,” “Bad Rock II,” etc. like the Gasherbrum peaks.

Bad side of Bad Rock

I briefly considered going up and over Bad Rock, but chose instead to follow my downloaded track on a traverse around the right side, figuring there was a reason for doing so. While I did find some faint sheep trails and easier travel at the base of some small cliff bands, the going was every bit as miserable as I feared, swimming sideways through ankle-deep flowing scree. Brittany had continued this way all the way past Church before climbing a gully just east of its summit, but by the time I passed Bad Rock’s summit, I was too unhappy to continue. I found some more solid ground leading upward, and followed it back to the ridge. Looking back, I saw that the other side of Bad Rock is a nightmare of complicated gullies and buttes, which is supposedly fifth class. As bad as the traverse was, figuring my way down it would have been probably slower and definitely scarier.

Looking ahead, I was confronted with a steep step in the ridge, and once again began traversing right. Fortunately, however, I found a decent ledge system leading around the step and subtly up, and was able to regain the ridge closer to Church. There appeared to be one more steep section to be overcome, but it looked avoidable on snow to the left.

Final bit of Church totally goes

I was just congratulating myself on my route-finding when I heard a strange hissing noise, a bit like air leaking from a wet tire. Pulling my ice axe from behind my back, I realized that it was the source of the sound. I could not think of a way that air pressure could build up inside the axe, and it soon dawned on me that this was probably the so-called “buzzing” of an ice axe in the presence of too much electrical charge. There was a significant thunderstorm building to the southwest, but it did not look particularly bad overhead, and I had not heard any close lightning. I did some experiments, and found that the noise ceased when I touched the axe to the ground, and became more intense when I raised it. I was in no position to abandon my axe — the Booty Gods had only just given it to me, and I might still need it — so I continued until I found a flat-ish spot off the ridge, then set it and my crampons in a pile before taking a seat a respectful distance away.

Time to bail?

I was loath to abandon my traverse, since from this point it would be nearly as much work to bail to my bike as to complete it, and the storm might pass, but spending the rest of the afternoon on a ridge with only intermittent chances to escape toward home was not reasonable. I put on my rain jacket and stress-ate for ten minutes or so, then picked up my metal things — yep, the axe still hissed — and started down a convenient scree gully. As if to mock me, the sun came out on the ridge only minutes after I headed down.

Getting soaked

The descent was more of the awful same, with not quite enough loose stuff to scree-ski on top of outward-sloping ledges and steep hard-packed dirt. I angled generally toward a notch between the main ridge and Williams Peak, figuring that since there was a jeep road to the mouth of Jones Creek, there was probably some kind of trail in the valley. I found an encouraging cairn at the saddle, then picked up a faint trail and occasional cairns again once I was below the snow. Right about then the skies opened, and I was drenched in rain and graupel the whole way down the canyon, grateful that I was not back up on the ridge. The canyon seemed to go on forever, but I eventually emerged at the mouth to find a rubber water pipe and disused quad path.

Lupine ditch and Jones Creek

Little did I know at the time, but the valley bottom is a crazy quilt of BLM, Forest Service, and private land, with different maps showing different roads, and some of the labeled BLM/Forest roads crossing apparently-private property. This would not worry me in a place with fewer guns, but this was Idaho, and I felt like an easy target in tights and a bright orange hat. I tried to stay away from both buildings and cows, clearly neither hiding nor threatening someone’s property. I soaked a foot jumping the irrigation ditch, but made it back to my unmolested bike without incident.

Biking toward Borah

Now I just had a 20-mile ride back to the car. Descending the way I had driven the previous day, I was slightly alarmed to find that the two ranch gates, previously just wired, were chained and locked. Seeing as how I was on a signed BLM road, I figured someone was just asserting an illegitimate property claim, but did not want to meet him in any case. Fortunately I was on a bike, so it was easy to cross both gates and speed down to the highway. As I paused there to prepare for the ride back north, a pickup turned and drove up the way I had come, thankfully not stopping to ask any questions. The highway ride north was chilly but thankfully dry, and I took it easy on the climb back to my car, enjoying the afternoon sun on Borah after the storms had calmed. I would have to come back for the rest of the 12ers while I was in the area, but that would have to wait for some recovery and a better forecast.

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