To climb Idaho’s highest mountain, you camp at the trailhead, rise before dawn and start walking by the light of your headlamp, beginning the 8-mile round trip and 5,200 feet of elevation gain in the dark. Borah Peak is a brutally steep trail, especially in the first hour or so, and you gain so much elevation so quickly that you have a spectacular view for dawn, the rising sun illuminating the variegated ridge to the east. The very shadow of the 12,662-foot mountain crawls across the plains of the Lost River Valley. It’s a six- to 12-hour expedition, and the trip down punishes tired legs with special glee.
OK, that’s Borah. The second-highest is Leatherman Peak, which has a trail that starts gently. But just getting to the traditional trailhead involves a day of oil pan-scraping travel. Accessing the Pahsimeroi Valley to the north means navigating one of the most tortuous roads you will ever dare four-wheel. The dawn hike is lovely, through a timbered glen and then a grassy valley. Then the ascent turns toward Leatherman and becomes a long slog through loose rock — a quicksand of talus and another eight-hour ordeal.
And so on. Hyndman Peak, east of Hailey, is the shortest of Idaho’s nine 12,000-footers, but its 13-mile round trip is the longest. Some climbers bike part way, or backpack into the Hyndman Basin to break it into two days. You traverse every type of Idaho topography: shady creek, sagebrush, pasture land, forest, soft tundra, rocky fields and boulder-strewn summit ridge. For most of the hike, as with Borah, there is a defined trail.
That can’t be said for the rest of the Idaho 12ers. Borah has a highway sign on U.S. 93 pointing climbers to the official trailhead — with an outhouse, no less — and Leatherman has a highway marker identifying its pyramid-shaped summit. Hyndman has a lot and an outhouse. Otherwise, there are no signs — no trailheads, no parking lots — to help you get to Idaho’s tallest, most dramatic peaks. Climbing Idaho’s 12ers is a quest you undertake on your own, with little official assistance or sanction.
TRAIL? WHAT TRAIL?
In recent years, some trails have emerged as climbers beat into permanence the faint tracks scuffed out by animals or early climbers. There’s a use trail along Elkhorn Creek to start the Mount Idaho ascent. But Church, Donaldson and Breitenbach involve bushwhacking up drainages, finding your way along or through overgrown creek canyons, hard enough without the creeks in full flow. Getting to Diamond Peak involves navigating a bewildering spaghetti bowl of jeep trails, then four-wheeling through a precipitous, rocky gully straight out of a Ford pickup commercial. The Lost River Peak climb follows an old motorcycle track straight up a barren hillside, which is lost in gnarled timber as you approach what fans (or foes) call “the super gully” — so steep and narrow that you don’t want anyone above you who could kick rocks loose. A trail shows the way down Lost River Peak — climbers “ski” down scree nearly as soft as beach sand — but going up usually means feeling for slightly more solid footing at the gully edges.
You get the picture. For the average climber, any one of these nine mountains means a dry trailhead camp and a daylong commitment (Church and Donaldson share a ridge, and are typically climbed together). Getting up and down is both demanding and exhausting. For people who do it, walking the ridges and basking in the solitude and unbroken views from the top are the rewards for the tedious hours of slipping, slogging and route-finding.
“All of these peaks are long days. You’re not just going to jump up off your couch and bag one of these nine peaks,” said Dan Robbins, the veteran climber behind the popular IdahoSummits.com. “You’re going to have to have some experience, you’re going to have to be in shape. … This isn’t hiking up Table Rock. You’ve got to have some strategy around it.”
NO. 9, AT LAST
In late September, I climbed Lost River Peak to notch my ninth Idaho 12er, the end of a five-summer project.
Friends took me up Hyndman and Borah in 2001 and 2002, but it wasn’t until I climbed Leatherman in 2013 that I determined to do them all.
In 2014, my daughter Helen and I spent a long weekend scouting the maddening, unmarked roads and routes on the Lost River Range. We set aside a week in late August and my hiking buddy Rick came from Portland to do as many of the 12ers as we could. Long story short: A thunderstorm turned us back after we’d summited Donaldson Peak before we could cross the ridge to Church, and my buddy said one nasty, sloppy Idaho mountain was enough for him. He went home. Helen and I waited at Challis Hot Springs for the weather to turn: It did, to snow and hail.
We grumbled home, too, feeling skunked.
But I’d become obsessed. Having to turn away so close to Mount Church ate at me all winter. I watched websites and webcams: I watched snow blanket the range, then melt away. In 2015, I got three more of my 12ers.
Another reason for my obsession: The night before our 2014 Donaldson climb we were camped at Mackay Reservoir, which looks straight up at Lost River Peak. Before bed, we saw lights dancing down the super gully. Were those climbers lost? Insane? Caught after dark? The headlamps descended quickly, followed by vehicle headlights. A few days later at the Mackay Ranger Station I learned that ultra-marathoners Luke Nelson and Jared Campbell had set the record for all nine in one climb. They missed their goal of 24 hours (28 hours, 18 minutes). They were sure, they told me later, that with better route scouting they could beat 24 hours.
And in July 2018, Cody Lind of Challis did it: He climbed all nine in one 20-hour, 23-minute climb. All nine.
Climbers who want to shave hours don’t do the nine the way I did them, parking at each trail, trudging up each creekbed, then down the trail again. These extreme climbers do the Lost River Traverse, staying on the ridgelines, dodging cliffs and sneaking around towers and skittering at 10,000 and 11,000 feet from peak to peak. (They rest as friends drive them from Hyndman in the Pioneers to the seven Lost River Range peaks, and then to the Lemhis to finish with Diamond Peak.) This requires an estimated 45 miles on foot and immense stamina, route-finding skill and self-reliance, including the confidence to climb and descend through the night.
In 2017, a 16-year-old, Sophia Mazzoni of Ketchum, climbed all nine in three days, seven hours and 37 minutes. Also in 2017, Kelly Lance of Pocatello climbed them all in 78 hours without a car assist — covering nine peaks and 119 miles on foot in a little more than three days. (I saw his notation in the Lost River summit register: He called the 12ers the “Kel’vrs.”)
More power to them all, but those climbers are a different breed.
ONE MOUNTAIN AT A TIME
For old-fashioned, one-at-a-time climbers like me, Dan Robbins keeps a log at idahosummits.com. When Dan added me to his list, I was the 127th to complete all nine.
More people, Robbins said, are setting out to do the 12ers. Robbins’ experience was like mine: He did the nine peaks over about five years, finishing in 2003. Now, he said, more people try to do all nine in one or two seasons.
“In the old days I was adding like two names a year,” he said, “and now every year around the end of August, the first of September, you’re getting 10 or 15 names added to the list.”
With my Idaho 12ers done, I’m now pondering my next quest. Idaho has 114 mountains above 11,000 feet; Idaho mountain legend Tom Lopez says six people have climbed them all. Counting my nine 12ers, I’ve climbed 11 of them.
Just 103 to go.