Lost River 12ers finish (Lost River, Breitenbach, Donaldson, Church)

Donaldson and Church from Breitenbach

With a drying trend delaying thunderstorms until mid-afternoon, I finally had a chance to finish the southern half of the Lost River 12ers, from Church through Lost River Peak. The Lost River Valley had been my home for a few nights, and I wanted to be gone before the locals began to resent my presence. I now knew the approach for Church, and had a GPS track for Lost River (via the unsigned but public road), so the task was straightforward in theory. Looking at Lost River from the road, I saw that the upper route was steep snow, which would probably be more efficient going up than down, and therefore decided to start on the southern end. I drove through the ranch gate, found a flat spot off the road to sleep, readied my bike and pack, and once again set my alarm for 4:00 AM.

Upper Lost River Peak

I began riding up the road by headlamp, skirting a couple of fence corners on the way to near where I had stashed my bike last time, then continued on a steeper road toward the base of Lost River that had me in my lowest gear. Right where the track indicated, a trail left the road to head straight for the prominent basin and gully leading to the summit ridge. This trail, like the Borah trail, was wonderfully efficient, heading nearly straight up through the scrubland and sparse woods to their highest point before traversing into the scree gully below the snow. There was a distinct path in the scree, but it was still fairly loose, so I was happy to reach the lower margin of the snow and put on crampons. The snow was firm and supportive, providing good purchase for my crampon points, and I steadily French-stepped up the remaining distance to the summit ridge, pausing to admire the serrated layers forming the ridge to the south, and proceeding with more caution on the final, steeper, wind-packed slope.

Lost River summit ridge

From where I gained the ridge, it was a long, gently undulating walk to the summit cairn. Overnight clouds had left a coating of frost on the rocks, further lubricating the already-slick limestone talus, but this did not cause much of a problem on the flat ridge. Looking north, I could see the remaining peaks and some of the connecting ridge, with Church in the distance looking notably snowier than the rest. The register was an ammo can with a well-made flag showing the peak’s name and elevation, and a damp book which I did not try to sign in the cold. I took some photos, then began the traverse toward Breitenbach by skirting a subpeak, where easy travel came to an abrupt end. The usual loose side-hilling was made somewhat slower by the frost, and the small snow-tongues were hard, requiring me to move cautiously and kick forceful steps to avoid frequent, time-consuming crampon transitions.

Some interesting ridge

Once back on the ridge, I found myself fighting the short cliff-bands, dodging left again to get around a couple of vertical drops. As I neared the lowpoint, the crest featured several knobs that I had to either attack directly or skirt to the left. None of it was particularly difficult, but it was all slow, either thoughtful on top, or tedious and tiring around the side. On my previous attempt to traverse from Borah to Lost River, I had guessed that I had reached the midpoint in time at Leatherman Pass, but now I was less certain. How long would it have taken me, fatigued from a full day on the move, to deal with this terrain in the other direction?

Easy final ridge to Breitenbach

As the ridge climbed back toward Breitenbach’s false south summit, it turned to scree, and a welcome use trail emerged. I followed this at a tired pace, then happily hopped along the flatter ridge to the true summit. Looking at my map and Brittany Peterson’s downloaded track, I saw that she had dropped 1500 feet west from the summit and regained the ridge east of Donaldson. She had done something similar at almost every opportunity, skipping peaks between the 12ers as if they cost her points, and while it sometimes made sense to me, in my tired state I preferred to trade technical difficulty for elevation loss and gain. The saddles on either side of No Regret Peak were high, so it made sense to me in this case to stick to the ridge.

I soon began questioning my choice. The rock layers here slope up from west to east, making the west slope a steep slate roof scattered with loose shingles, and the right a staircase with a tread filled in with rubble and hard snow. As the ridge drops to the north, the layers step down in sometimes-sheer cliffs. I had been able to wind through similar terrain descending from Lost River Peak, but this time I was stopped by a 40-foot step without an obvious downclimb, to small to be obvious on a topo map. Because of the shape of the rock layers, this cliff band extended well down the west side, and did not look easily avoidable to the east.

I scrabbled down some snow to the west, returned to the edge of the step to reconfirm that there was no sneaky downclimb, then regained the snow to descend facing in through a narrow snow-filled chute. Peterson had continued this way (in the other direction), but I did not want to lose another thousand feet, preferring to regain the ridge. Traversing north, I ran into another small cliff-band, but was able to scramble up some slabs, dodging loose rock and melting snow, to regain the ridgetop. As I had hoped, it offered quicker and less strenuous travel than side-hilling, and I made encouraging progress through the lowpoint of the ridge.

Donaldson and Church from No Regret

There seemed to be two vertical steps on the way to No Regret, and I thought I might have to contour left around its summit, but I found that, on the crest of the ridge, both were no worse than fourth or low fifth class. I was fatigued, but the engaging scrambling distracted me and cheered me up on my way to the summit, where I found a cairn but no register. Donaldson and Church now looked within reach, but the clouds were building, and I feared being chased off once again by electricity. Barely pausing, I headed west down the ridge, finding helpful downward ramps, but also a few steep steps up that I had to climb or dodge to the left.

Church from Donaldson

The ridge became more frustrating near the saddle, where the ramps turned upward and hid steeper drops on the other side. I downclimbed some, got cliffed out by others, and generally made slow, trial-and-error progress until the terrain steepened on the final climb to Donaldson. This was on some unpleasantly loose rock covered in places with marbles, but at least it was straightforward chossineering. I took a short detour to tag the summit, then returned to a faint use trail leading toward Church, its snowy summit intermittently hidden in clouds. They did not seem to be building to a thunderstorm, but it would likely rain or snow later.

Church summit

I passed a bivy shelter on the ridge, then lost the trail somewhere before the high connecting saddle. The terrain was thankfully much simpler than most of what had come before, though I had to take some care to stay away from cornices on the intermittent snow. The final summit ridge was all snow, but soft enough not to require crampons, and I reached the summit without much difficulty. The views in all directions were partly and intermittently obscured by clouds, but I could occasionally see as far north as Borah, and it was thankfully clear down the slope to the west where I had to descend.

Sketchy scrambling

Without a track, I would have returned to the Donaldson saddle or slightly south, but my track indicated that a steep chute just south of the summit led down about a thousand feet, whence I could probably continue to the valley and rejoin my Jones Creek escape route from the northern 12ers. The descent was surprisingly spicy in places, with a couple of steep steps requiring careful downclimbing on outward-sloping limestone. I picked my way down the scree, snow, and rock to the base talus fan, then made a descending traverse south to intersect game trails just below the Jones saddle. The familiar route back to dirt roads was long, but much more pleasant without rain or hail.

Typical Lost River storms and cows

I knew my bike was around 7600 feet, so rather than diligently following the roads, I contoured through the low, sparse sage, following cow-paths and roads when they seemed useful. The terrain was not quite runnable, but I was in no shape to do much running, so the brisk cross-country walk was little slower than I could have managed on a road. I found my bike where I had left it, and had a wonderful time blasting down a thousand feet of dirt roads to my car. After a quick change of clothes, I made coffee and a snack for the road, and drove north then west through a vicious downpour, happy to be done with the Idaho 12ers. I am curious how quickly I could do the whole traverse from Borah to Lost River in dry conditions, but not enough to return. Once was enough.

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