I have this theory that hiking uphill isn’t any more tiring than hiking on flat ground. Uphill takes a different set of muscles, but once your “ups” are in shape, you should be able to climb as readily as strolling. I’ve been trying to convince myself of this idea for years and after a decade of daily hikes, I’m beginning to believe it. Driving west from the Tetons through Victor and Driggs, I decided to test my theory on Borah Peak, the highest mountain in Idaho and one of the steepest hikes around.
The trail up Borah Peak gains over 5,300 feet of elevation in under 3.5 miles up to the summit at 12,662 feet. That’s steeeeeeeep! No switchbacks. The narrow, rocky path just arrows straight up the mountain. I camped at the trailhead the night before and got some disappointing beta from a woman coming down the mountain with her golden retriever: the crux at Chicken Out Ridge wasn’t passable to dogs. Having left Dio in the camper for my last big hike at Death Canyon (which is in Tetons National Park, no dogs allowed) I didn’t want to leave him behind again. So I decided to do it anyway, with Dio, and deal with the dog unfriendly obstacle when I got up there. If I couldn’t summit, then oh well, I’d still enjoy the hike.
At 4am, I was awoken by a gaggle of boy scouts assembling right outside my trailer, getting ready to head up the mountain. When I got up at 6 another gaggle of women was gathered at the trailhead. Apparently Borah is a popular group hike. The ladies invited me to join them but I declined. I’m not one for hiking in herds. I took Bowie for an easy stroll around the base of the mountain, fed him breakfast, got him settled back in the trailer (he’s not a morning dog and he’s usually more than happy to go back to bed) and Dio and I headed up by 6:30.
Right from the start, the trail was steep and I spent the first half mile visualizing away the dull early morning ache out of my legs, the burn sifting down to my feet and out my soles, leaving an invisible trail of fatigued particles in my wake. My legs felt stronger with every step and soon I was cruising. I’m not really a fast hiker, just a smooth and steady one; I seldom need to rest. The path was so steep that my heels rarely touched the ground, my toes and arches carrying all my weight up the mountain, a precarious position, and yet it felt so good. I soon caught up to the group of women and left them behind, puffing in my wake. Not everybody subscribes to my uphill theory.
We passed maybe a dozen straggling boyscouts on the way up the flank of the mountain and then caught the whole troop just below Chicken Out Ridge, a steep, narrow class 3 section just before the final ridge line to the summit. The kids were nervous and the ridge reeked of fear. Dio caught the scent and started fretting and shaking, despite the warming sun. I scouted out the class 3 section above and found it hand-over-foot steep, with deadly drop offs on both sides. I can handle exposure but I wasn’t going to make Dio do it if he didn’t want to. Looking back at him, crouched nervously on a ledge, I said, “Do you want to go down?” and he turned back down the trail, tail wagging in relief, decision made. Dogs don’t get summit fever. To them, the sides of mountains are just as intriguing as the tops.
If the ridge had been quiet, I could have laid down my jacket and poured a bowl of water and told Dio to wait there for me – he’s very used to waiting for me at the bottom of rock walls while I’m climbing – but I wasn’t going to leave him untended with so many people coming up the mountain. So I took a good long look at the final half-mile to the summit, savoring the enticing upward pull and then turned downhill. Once I was safely past the scouts I started skating down the mountain, giving in to gravity, balancing on the outside edges of my heels like a downhill skier, my stabilizers pushed to their limits, my legs strong and sure. Uphill I cruise, downhill I fly.
Borah Peak isn’t going anywhere and I’m sure I’ll take another dog-free crack at it someday. Ultimately, I think it was a good exercise for me to turn back from a summit I knew I had in the bag. Dio’s right: To really love the mountains you have to love the sides too, not just the tops.
From Borah I headed west into the Sawtooth Mountains. I camped near Stanley at a sweet free site and took an easy evening stroll with both dogs up Iron Creek to the wilderness boundary. The next morning was drizzly and misty, but I’m a firm believer that there’s no bad weather, only bad gear. I suited up in my raingear and Dio and I hiked up Iron Creek to Sawtooth Lake. I had my eye on Alpine Peak, a class 2-3 scramble, but I wasn’t going to tackle that much loose scree in the rain. Sometimes, in the mountains, you have to be satisfied to just look up at the summits and scheme for another day.
On to Oregon!