By Michael Lanza
The zigzagging trail up the Southwest Ridge of Borah Peak, Idaho’s high point at 12,662 feet, rose above us on the almost barren mountainside and appeared to end abruptly where the ridge narrowed to a crest of jagged rock—the route’s crux, known as Chickenout Ridge. We reached the base of this stone fin, looked at each other, put our hands and feet onto a steep rock ramp and started up it.
On a pleasant weekend in August, my wife, Penny, and I set out to dayhike Borah—an accomplishment that confers at least a small degree of bragging rights in certain circles in Idaho, where we live. More than that, though, it’s a tough but beautiful climb and a really good way to spend a day.
Also known locally as Mount Borah, the peak ranks 11th on the list of state high points and is one of just 12 that rise over 12,000 feet. It’s also the highest among the Gem State’s nine mountains that top 12,000 feet—seven of them neighbors of Borah in central Idaho’s remote Lost River Range, and one each in the Lemhi Range and Pioneer Mountains.
Named for longtime Idaho Senator William Borah, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1934, Borah has 6,002 feet of prominence, which represents the summit’s height relative to the lowest contour line encircling it and containing no higher summit.
The standard Southwest Ridge hiking route up Borah Peak begins at Birch Springs, on the mountain’s west side in the rural Lost River Valley, and ascends 5,262 feet in 4.1 miles from trailhead to summit (8.2 miles up and down)—that’s almost 1,300 feet per mile, a relentless, very steep hike which gets rated “very hard,” the fourth tier on the five-level scale described in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” It follows a good trail until you reach the route’s crux, Chickenout Ridge, at 11,200 feet.
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In early summer, that standard route demands mountaineering skills because you’ll have to traverse a very narrow, snow-covered, knife-edge crest at the upper end of Chickenout Ridge. By late summer, though, with most of the snow melted away, the route becomes accessible to most fit hikers who are comfortable with some third-class scrambling and moderate exposure for about 300 vertical feet on Chickenout Ridge, where there are a few route options on the crest and left or right of it. They don’t vary greatly in difficulty and you’re hiking as much as using your hands at times.
One telling measure of its difficulty is that, on a nice weekend summer day—like the day Penny and I hiked it—you will see dozens of people making their way up and down the mountain, and only a low percentage of them turn back upon reaching the start of Chickenout Ridge. Having hiked, scrambled, and rock climbed countless peaks for 30 years, I think Borah offers a fun level of challenge and exceptional scenery, which, on top of the significant strenuousness, gives hikers a real sense of climbing a big mountain.
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The upper end of Chickenout Ridge has a fixed rope to help you descend a nearly vertical pitch that’s about 15 to 20 feet high but has abundant foot ledges and handholds. Above Chickenout Ridge, hikers follow a rough trail that gets steep and loose in places. The summit rewards your considerable effort with one of the best 360-degree views in Idaho, spanning the Lost River Range, the Pioneer Mountains to the west, and the Lemhi Range to the east.
Although summer weekends can be very busy on Borah’s Southwest Ridge, hike it on a weekday and you may encounter few other people. I first climbed Borah on a Monday in late July and saw just a few other hikers.
While the fastest-known ascent and descent of Borah was just over two hours and 21 minutes, accomplished by Luke Nelson on Oct. 22, 2010, according to summitpost.org, most hikers take anywhere from eight to 12 hours round-trip. We finished in under nine hours, a respectable time for a couple of middle-aged working people—and drove down to Arco for a well-earned dinner.
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Trekking poles are strongly advised for this route’s steep descents and ascents. See my picks for “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
Carry a daypack with capacity for a full day’s supply of water, food, and extra layers; the ability to attach poles to the exterior will be handy on Chickenout Ridge. See my “Review: The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks” and my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack” (which includes daypacks) and all of my reviews of hiking gear.
In dry, hot conditions, wear supportive but lightweight boots or shoes that breathe well (not waterproof); see all of my reviews of hiking shoes and my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.” Carry a reliable headlamp with fresh batteries or a full charge in case you’re starting in the dark or get down later than expected; see my review of the five best headlamps.
Learn the tricks for gauging a hike’s difficulty before you leave home—including a five-level difficulty rating system—in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” You can read part of that story without a paid subscription to The Big Outside, or click here now to download the e-guide version it.