Mount Borah, located in the Lost River Range, is on most adventure-loving Idahoan’s bucket-list. On nice weekends during the summer it isn’t out of the question to see the trailhead parking lot full and a dozen or more parties trying to stand atop Idaho’s highest point. USGS Surveyor T.M. Bannon is credited with the first recorded ascent of the mountain in the spring of 1912 and since then dozens of other routes on all aspects of the mountain have been pioneered, but what stands as the traditional route (or most popular) is the class 3, southwest ridge. This route takes climbers up very abruptly, climbing over 5,000 feet in 3.5 miles and has the famed exposed class 4 “Chicken Out Ridge.”
While you are very likely to hear stories at a summer BBQ about a group’s return from their mission up Borah, you are far less likely to hear about climbing and skiing it in the winter. Even as ski mountaineering has gained popularity and as the internet/social media have given people a platform to post trip reports (guilty here), you will not find a huge number of people going to the Lost River Range for skiing. In 1977 Bob Boyles, Mike Weber, Art Troutner and Frank Florence made the first winter ascent of Borah’s North Face but it has gone undocumented who has the first ski descent from the mountain. Given the harsh weather conditions and avalanche danger, the mountain doesn’t see many ski attempts and most of the attempts are focused around spring/early summer conditions assuming the snow conditions cooperate.
Given its rural location and rugged landscape, we would be lying if we didn’t say that it would be pretty cool to ski from the state’s tallest peak, Borah has always been in our conversations as a ski objective. That being said, Borah and the Lost River Range is a tricky place to catch ski conditions that are safe, much less actually enjoyable (like not just side slipping down spring ice sheets) and it would take picking a good weather window during a good snow year and a little luck.
The Lost River Range runs North/South from the Salmon River to the central Idaho town of Arco. This desert fault block rises dramatically from the valley floor and has the three highest peaks in Idaho and 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the state. This high desert ecosystem gets much less precipitation than neighboring ranges and the lack of much vegetation adds to it’s ruggedness.
Poor snowpack, strong winds and consistent avalanche danger make the Lost River Range a bad ski choice for the winter months, but having climbed Borah during the summer a few times, we thought its large west face could be an enjoyable spring ski objective. Just as people started dusting off their mountains bikes and golf clubs in late March and early April, we eyed the window of high pressure as an opportunity to make an attempt.
So we loaded up one evening and set up camp in the van at Borah’s base, ready for an adventure the next day. There is nothing glamorous about three dudes snuggling up in a one van, the oldest of the group was smart enough to sleep in his own truck bed. With a cold clear night, we knew there would be a hard freeze but the day’s temps were forecasted to be warm, so we didn’t lag in camp and got moving. If you have ever climbed Borah in the summer, then you know it is about 300 yards of mellow trail followed by one of the steepest trails you will ever hike. The good news, it is only 3.5 miles from the trailhead to the summit; the bad news is you gain 5,200 feet in those 3.5 miles. There was snow on the ground but with icy, frozen conditions and given the steepness, we opted to boot the entire climb instead of putting on our skis and skins.
At about 10,000 feet, you break through the trees and are treated to an up-close look at Borah’s West face and the range’s surrounding peaks. From this point, you have gained the wrap-around ridge that takes climbers up to the summit (standard summer route). There are several exposed moves along the way but it is really a spectacular ridge traverse.
Right on schedule, we reached the summit and had enough time to snap a few photos, and have a snack before starting the ski descent. The sun was already warming things up and it was time to get going. Ski mountaineering isn’t always about good skiing and an enjoyable adventure is usually the goal; surprisingly, we had very good skiing from the summit all the way down to about 8,500 feet where the sun and temps had done their number to the snow. From that point and until we got back to the trail, we had rotten/trap-door snow conditions that were far more challenging than the climb. It was probably 60 degrees by the time we got back to the car and we understood why you don’t hear more about people skiing this mountain. It was a great adventure and a fun experience with good friends.