Mt. Borah North Face



Some say the north face of Mt. Borah is Idaho's premier alpine climb.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

I've climbed the regular route on Borah quite a few times, and had wanted to try the north face for almost as long. Our guide, Bob, had climbed this back in October 1976 and was on the first winter ascent in January 1977. Today he would be filming and then lugging our overnight gear back to the car, racing us back to the trailhead (different trailhead than our starting point). This is the same group that did Gannett Peak this past June.

This picture is the Willow Creek web cam from that weekend, for a comparison of conditions. Click for a bigger view that shows the snow on the north face.

Borah cam

We left town at 6, had breakfast in Mackay, and left the Rock Creek TH a little after noon. It was about 80°.

Good day for ice climbing?


I had been up Rock Creek last fall, and Bob has done this hike many times. Between us we did an OK job following the old trail. On the way, out, Bob was able to follow it the entire way. So it is there.

It was hot, so we took our time. At about 2:45 we had walked far enough that the valley was swinging south and we finally got to see our objective. Rock Creek basin

At one time, there had been a glacier in this valley (back in the Pleistocene when we were young). Bob and I both knew Bruce, the geologist who had discovered and documented the glacier. But a massive avalanche had wiped out his gear, bringing this spaceship-shaped thingy down the valley about a mile.

Snow survey gear

At about 3:30 we hit the treed terraces, just below the cliff band. After a brief search we found running water (there wasn't any in the previous mile), so made camp here.

There is a secret passage through the cliff band that starts right above the snow patch.


Rock band
After we set up our camp, Bob and I explored the upper valley and studied the route. Here's Bob in the secret passage during our return to camp from our surveillance.

The little meadow in the foreground is what Bob refers to as the "biv site." It was a nicer campsite than the site we had chosen. We didn't climb up to the biv site because we weren't sure there would be water. But on inspection, there was indeed water.

But the real reason we were here was to scope out the face. Bob has climbed this 7 or 8 times, following several different routes. It was nice to sit and study with The Master.

North face

Bob's advice was to follow the red line here. Looks simple enough.

We ended up following the blue line (Curt's Couloir), as explained in the next sections. And no, that's not a squiggle- at one point we did a bit of downclimbing.


The next morning we left camp at 6:15 with head torches on. Stumbling through the talus with big boots and packs heavy with gear, we took our time.

It was with relief that we finally got to supportive snow so could switch to crampons and leave the talus. Although we put on our harnesses at this point, we left the rope and pro in the packs. This was at about 8am, and we were at around 10500'.

Gearing up

We were on snow, but it was sugary and made us feel unstable. And it was not yet steep enough to use our short ice tools for balance.

There are two climbers at the bottom of the slope. They had hiked up Rock Creek in the dark. Reportedly that makes the trail even harder to see.


From here on, it was just Brian and I. Bob wasn't climbing; he was here to sherpa, coach, and take photos (I'll add his photos and video later).

As explanation, normally you have to carry all your gear up and over. As Brian and I climbed, Bob went back to camp, grabbed our camping stuff, took it back to the car, then drove around to the regular Borah TH to meet us.


Once it got steep enough to use our axes a bit, we made short work of the lower snowfields. About here, the red line in the previous photograph turned off to the right. But that picture makes the face look flat, which it is not. It has many, many vertical folds or gullies that all appear to go straight up.

You'll notice that off to Brian's right side looked, well, not very interesting. We needed to climb over one of the intervening folds to see the slope.



Looking straight up from that same point looked much better, so up is where we went.

You can see the dirty old snow in the middle- this was hard, solid snow and fantastic climbing.


The white stuff was unconsolidated sugar left by the storms in late August and the middle of September. That stuff scared me; it only sort of felt like my crampons were holding, and the little axes didn't seem to be doing anything at all.

We also ran into the occasional clear water ice. We liked that because it held our ice screws (which came later when we roped up).


We kept going up until we were looking up a 'Y' in our couloir. Things seemed wrong. We knew we had to move right to hit the "Direct" route. My altimeter said we were already pretty high on the face... too high. So we opted to downclimb a bit and then traverse right and seek the correct route. This is Brian's view looking back at me across the traverse.

Bob later explained that we had taken "Curt's Couloir", so named for a friend who spent a long November night in that couloir tied to two ice screws.

John traverse

When Brian got across the traverse, he thought he could see the upper "snow bowl." So I traversed over to Brian, then we started up the ever-steepening chute above him in the picture.

It was all going pretty well until one of Brian's crampons came off. Yikes! But Brian was able to do the one-footed ice axe hop onto a rock horn and get the crampon back on.


Brian traverse

From down below, Bob had been watching our progress. I couldn't see exactly where he was, but I imagined him down there trying to signal us like those guys out on the airport tarmac telling the jets where to turn and park.

Although we were quite high on the face, it had only been about an hour since we left Bob. He later said that when he realized how fast we were climbing, he had to hustle if he was going to beat us to the trailhead. But before he left the valley, he took this picture of Brian exiting the steep chute.

I suppose I'll have to go back to compare accurately, but we thought our route was steeper and more direct?

Other climbers

When we hit these old tracks, we were back on route. We followed the tracks up to the rock point on the left, where we found a giant platform chopped into the snow.


Upper couloir

The two climbers mentioned previously were following the red line. From the platform, I could just see them below us.

From the platform, it was a little over 200' to the bottom of the couloir. Time to rope up. We had been told several times that if you wait until you need the rope, there's no place to stop.

Other climbers

From our platform, it's just over 200' to the bottom of the couloir. So we set another belay, and Brian brought me up. Here's Brian 30' above the second belay (on our second roped pitch), moving into the final couloir.


Start of 2nd pitch

This is me about to finish the second pitch. I had already gotten over the short rock step and water ice, and was wading through some more sugar. But the sugar is steeper now.

From this point on, it's a little more serious. I didn't take any pictures on the final pitch because I was either belaying Brian or squeezing my axes really tight.

End of 2nd pitch

We got to the top of the couloir at about 11, and the summit at 11:30. It was quite warm and almost no breeze.

This was a fantastic climb.

But we still had to do the walk down Chicken Out, this time with big boots and heavy packs adding to the fun. On the way, there were lots of folks. We ran into Dave, close to summitting Borah for his first time. I met Dave on the IdahoSummits climb of El Capitan a month ago.

At the trailhead, Bob's car registered 80°. But the beer was cold. Big Thanks to Bob for all his help.


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