Our trip to central Idaho had absolutely nothing to do with the famous “50 classic ski descent” Devil’s Bedstead, and all to do with skiing off the Potato State’s tallest mountain, 12,667 foot Borah Peak. Also known as Mount Borah, the absolute behemoth towers over the town of McKay with a 3,000 foot West Face that begs to be skied. There are a multitude of other ski lines, ice climbs and summer routes on Borah, but the three fall-line avalanche paths staring directly at the Lost River Highway are the crowning jewels. I climbed Borah once before, two years prior in the dead of summer. Oddly enough, the typical winter ascent of “Chicken-Out Ridge” is the same as the summer route, a rarity in the mountaineering world. Chicken-Out Ridge earned it’s title because for the most part, Borah is a tame scramble, except for one little stretch of knife-edge exposure. Many a hiker has climbed the bulk of the peak, saw the summit and got pumped with optimism, only to get caught with their tail between their legs on Chicken-Out Ridge. Faced with a few tricky maneuvers, a healthy dose of exposure and one miniature but nonetheless technical down-climb over a polished slab of rock, recreational hikers often meet their match. However, in the grand scheme of mountain climbs, Borah barely makes the junior varsity team; I did it in running shoes and a t-shirt, and have absolutely no rock climbing experience. Ever since standing on the summit and looking west into the gargantuan bowl funneling to the valley below, I made it my goal to return with skis. I have been eagerly searching for a window to tackle Borah, to motivate a crew for the three hour voyage from Teton Valley, but two years of opportunities slipped through my hands until I was able to rope Sam Johnson and Carl Osterburg in for a late-spring attempt. Our good friend Simon Garcia caught word and was gladly accepted into the plan, making a group of four. With a relatively long car ride ahead of us, I was packing up my camping gear two nights in advance when I opened my favorite coffee table book, “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” As I sifted through the always impressive, jaw dropping pictures, my eyes came to rest on a map of Idaho’s classics – there are four. Based solely on geographical proximity to Borah, one particular peak jumped off the page, and when I flipped to the corresponding picture I was instantly hooked. The Devil’s Bedstead, with a 2,400 foot north face that looks nearly vertical from Trail Creek Road, standing proud at 11,865 feet and known well to the locals of Sun Valley, is an instant optical feast for any ski mountaineer. It called my name out loud and clear. Seated conveniently in the Pioneer Mountains right across the Lost River Valley, a mere twenty or so road miles from Borah, “The Bedstead” made logical sense for a second objective. All it took was a picture of the facing page to seduce the crew into a tandem mission weekend of epic proportions.
Devil’s Bedstead – North Face
“Ski it like a man possessed” the caption in ’50 Classic Ski Descents’ reads, an ominous yet intriguing description that did absolutely no justice to the damning face that stared us down from Kane Creek (the approach) Road. All other car talk ceased at first sight. Both Carl and I laughed, for we had spent the last ten minutes wondering if different peaks along the skyline could be the Bedstead. The North Face looked vertical, like sheer vertical, like “how can that even hold snow” vertical. For the next hour we pondered if it could really be as steep as it looked. Luckily we had seen YouTube videos and read enough blog posts to know many a skier has tackled the line, and we weren’t novices in the realms of steep skiing. Nonetheless, the rest of our evening was filled with a certain nervous excitement for the day ahead. The weather forecast called for sunny skies and temps in the fifties, perfect for a late-spring corn-snow mission. Carl and I were just finishing up dinner when Sam and Simon rolled in, fresh off a day rock climbing in Arco, Idaho. The four of us staked out camp, packed our gear and enjoyed a short bonfire before hunkering down.
The approach to Devil’s Bedstead follows the Kane Lake trail, which by April was completely snow free, and remained bone dry for the next few hours as we wondered aimlessly through the woods, bushwhacking our way up an unmarked drainage Carl identified on his GPS. Lucky for Sam, Simon and I, Carl actually did his homework. Several trip reports warned of people following the Kane Lake Trail too far, which looks to head towards the Bedstead before ultimately curling around the back side. Unbeknown to us, our approach would actually entail several thousand feet of crawling up shrubby, rock littered slopes until reaching the snowline somewhere around 9,500 to 10,000 feet. Summertime was definitely upon us. Following the first drainage after crossing Kane Creek, we were led directly to the base of Devil’s Bedstead by 9:00 AM, and got the pleasure of basking in it’s glory while we transitioned to crampons and unsheathed our axes. The plan was simple, climb directly up the center of the face and scout a viable descent route along the way. Rife with terrain traps, avalanche gullies and hanging snowfields, the Bedstead was certainly to be respected, but conditions couldn’t have been more ideal for a safe and efficient climb. We started our ascent in the middle-most gully, continuing onto the main face and eventually the looker’s right ridge. The snow was alarmingly firm and only grew more variable with altitude. Small pockets of wind slab, re-frozen avalanche debris, loosely covered rocks and bulletproof snow had us questioning our fairy-tale ski line, wondering if we’d be in for a demonic dose of survival skiing. In hindsight, opting for the rocky ridge was the worst decision we could have made, as the 500 foot scramble turned into a class 4-5 climb with significant exposure on the south. Despite the unnecessarily spicy detour that cost us at least an hour, we did receive a gift – a mountain goat sighting! The duo stared back at us with an essence of confusion, as if wondering “what the hell are these guys doing up here?” If goats spoke human tongue, I would have probably replied with “your guess is a good as mine.” While decently experienced in winter ski mountaineering, I had no legitimate climbing experience, and without Simon and Sam’s coaching I’m almost positive I would have turned around. However, a collaborative effort brought us to summit around noon, capping off the most technical ascent of my young mountaineering career.
When I made my fist turn off the top of the exceptionally exposed face, I wasn’t sure what to expect. By the fifth turn I knew we were in for a special day. Somehow the solar effect softened the sun, turning the heinous crust into an edge-able light powder, offering tremendous skiing for the steep upper pitch. Simon and I traded off shooting pictures as the crew turned up the speed with confidence. On the lower part of the face, variable crust turned to corn as we skied through the eastern-most avalanche path I dubbed “the tube.” With banked walls and a lesser slope angle we ripped the natural half-pipe with hoots and hollers into the basin below, stopping only once to negotiate a tricky frozen waterfall before plummeting into the valley below. Every turn from top to bottom was exactly as a “50 Classic” should be, exhilarating, engaging and surrounded by breathtaking views. “Every time I ski a classic, it makes sense to me why it’s a classic” said Sam, who has skied three lines from the book, same as myself. Re-grouping for a glorious lunch while drunk on adrenaline, we begrudgingly directed our attention towards the next few thousand feet, which didn’t hold quite the same glamour.
A painful hour of punching through rotten snow, grinding over dead-fall, skiing beds of pine needles and hiking down dry hillsides returned us to our stashed tennis shoes, a welcomed sight for our knees. Back at camp, spirits from Devil’s Bedstead ran high as we packed up our gear, filtered stream water and caught up on lost calories before shuttling across the Lost River Valley to the base of Mount Borah, the sight of the crime for the weekend’s main event.
Borah Peak – West Face Chutes
Borah Borah Borah… where do I start? Skiing off Idaho’s tallest peak speaks for itself, especially considering all the amazing mountain ranges my home state has to offer. As mentioned above, my first climb of Borah sparked the immediate obsession with climbing and skiing the aesthetic and impressive West Face in winter. However, we got our best glance at Borah from the foothills of the Pioneers, and it didn’t exactly look the part. Craggy and studded with rocks, Borah seemed more like a ripe minefield ready to destroy a pair of skis, and maybe a human body, than a viable ski run. Sam was especially skeptical, on multiple occasions suggesting that we could just hunker down at the Bedstead and ski one of the other well covered peaks in the Pioneers. My stubbornness cared little for his idea, so I was especially happy to come across two locals that had skied the Lost Rivers the day before, saying that “Borah has plenty of snow.” They got turned around on a different objective early that day, but apparently had a good look at Idaho’s finest. With an air of doubt even further perpetuated by a sky full of black clouds that swooped in to obscure the sunset, we shackled up in our tents and once again set our alarms for 4:00AM.
The most common ascent route, summer or winter, starts directly from the Mount Borah campground, following a meandering trail for about a mile to a col between Chicken-Out Ridge and a high-point to the west. From here, a blistering and cruel but efficient trail punches a few thousand feet directly up at an achillies tearing degree. Intermittent snow patches forced us to hike off trail, even further exacerbating the pain emanating from my ankles. On a positive note, our vertical gain was rewarded with a lovely pinkish sunrise over the Pioneer Mountains and Devil’s Bedstead to the south. On a negative note, the spectacle was quickly ousted by another ominous surge of clouds, this time accompanied by strong winds. None of us wanted to admit it, but doubt was creeping into our heads. For late season skiing without fresh snow, sunny skies are required to soften frozen conditions and generate the coveted “corn” springtime back-country enthusiasts adore. Corn is especially relevant on steep slopes, where icy slopes make for unsafe skiing. Judging by the sky cover, it was becoming increasingly obvious we weren’t harvesting any corn today, and as we climbed further into the crux of Chicken-Out Ridge a dense fog completely swallowed Borah. Then, the even more improbable happened – it started to snow. Confused and bewildered we all agreed to “go until it doesn’t make sense to go any further,” a mantra from the Jackson Hole legend Jimmy Chin that I use often when climbing mountains. As the ascent got more complex, the storm only grew stronger and the gusts more violent. More than a few times I convinced myself to turn around. Carl voiced similar sentiment. Once again, Simon and Sam blazed the technical sections, boosting total group morale. Ultimately less involved than the day before, we negotiated the slabby down-climb by descending climber’s right and booting up a stretch of steep snow to regain the ridge. Once the rock sections were behind us we inflated with confidence, despite the fact the weather wasn’t receding an inch. Though we couldn’t see the summit, I knew from my summer experience the worst was behind us, but what loomed ahead wasn’t exactly a piece of cake either.
From the crux of the route, a straight forward 1,200 foot scramble up moderately sloped snow and rock was all that remained. To this point no one had acknowledged the elephant in the room, the likelihood of blindly skiing bulletproof ice off a twelve thousand foot summit in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I felt fairly confident we could find our chute, but with so many imposters on the massive face I couldn’t be sure. However, right as legitimate concern began to foster, we caught the most magical break I’ve experienced in the mountains. The clouds lifted. Gradually at first, returning in waves but widespread by the summit push, the dazzling sun burned off the storm, exposing the summit of Borah dressed in a drizzling of new snow. By the time we topped out we had 360 degree views of the Lost River Range and an unrelenting sunlight ready to cook the frozen snow-pack. Standing atop the beast I yearned to conquer for the last two years felt incredible, and the reignited excitement of the team only furthered the experience.
Dropping off the summit skier’s right, we traversed a manageable ribbon of snow crosswise to the gut of the West Face. From here our chute was clear, a 3,000 foot highway-width plunge to the valley below. With a light dusting of snow and a little help from the sun, we enjoyed a conservative ski on the upper half of the face until the corn kicked in, prompting us to ratchet up the pace. The only tricky part of the descent was a small waterfall (we seem to have an affinity for skiing water ice) that required some scouting courtesy of Carl and an ice-axe assisted side slip for added security. Beneath the falls we scored beautiful sun-softened corn, cruising the apron to the conclusion of what might just be the largest fall-line ski descent in Idaho. Christmas came very, very early for us, a late April miracle.
The rest of our day progressed as a souped up version of the Bedstead egress, rotten snow, rocks, logs, avalanche debris, river crossings, tree climbing, dirt walking… you name it, we saw it all. At one point I actually had my skis on my feet – on a rock island – in the middle of a rushing creek. Instead of venting, I’ll wrap this story up pretty. We all made it to the campsite safe and sound. Borah was as spicy as I feared and more, an all encompassing ski mountaineering experience. As for bushwhacking, I’d argue it builds character. Over seltzers, beers and laps full of food we reveled in the glory of another amazing Idaho weekend. Fifty classic number three in the bag and a true Idaho classic tucked in there too.
A Spiritual Take
These words hold tremendous power in the back-country, but I would argue life as well. Instead of worrying, forecasting and trying to predict an outcome, it often makes sense to simply keep going. Eventually, if it’s the right path, you will gain momentum and achieve your ultimate goal. If it’s the wrong path, you will reach a point where the risk outweighs the reward, where motivation ceases to halt or even more importantly, where the little voice in the back of your head, I call it intuition, speaks the truth loud and clear. The trick is to NOT let the little voice get misguided by ego as it often does. As long as intuition is heeded, 99% of back-country accidents, or real world mistakes, can be avoided. On Borah, though we continued to push through the storm, we all felt confident down-climbing our ascent path, obeying another popular climber’s adage: “Don’t climb up what you can’t climb down.” In this way, we never crossed the point of no return, dangerous in the mountains and life alike. I’d liken it to taking on a car payment you can’t afford, quitting a job without a financial plan or marrying into a relationship that just doesn’t feel right. I try to live by Jimmy’s mantra every day, no matter the circumstances.
A big thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Yostmark Mountain Equipment, without which I’d still be riding limp back-country skis that probably weren’t tuned to perfection. Check these guys out!