Sunday, September 19, 2010

Return to Mount Borah

I think everyone needs a nemesis mountain. A mountain that has gotten the better of you at some point ... a mountain that drug you down to the base of your weaknesses, scraped away the shallow facade of your identity and exposed those deeper cracks in your soul, the ones you hope you never have to peer into. But after this happens, and you survive it, you want to go back, again and again, just to see whether those cracks have filled in. For me, this mountain is Mount Borah.

It's the highest peak in Idaho. 12,662 feet. It used to be seven feet shorter, but in 1983 a powerful earthquake thrust this massive mound of rock even higher into the sky. I didn't mean for it to become my nemesis mountain. I discovered it by accident, in July 2001, as my friend and I were making our way home from a two-month road trip across America. While we were driving down Highway 93 in central Idaho, we came across a sign that said "Borah Peak Access Road." And in the way we made most of our decisions at the time, we both looked at each other and said, "Let's climb that!"

Now, in all honesty, Borah is not even close to the hardest or scariest single-day effort I've embarked on. It's not even the hardest or scariest peak I've climbed. But it caught me in a perfect storm of weakness. We arrived at the trailhead at 1:30 p.m. - a bad time to start a hike that logs about 6,200 feet of total vertical gain and descent in seven miles round-trip. I was already fatigued from the long road trip, anxious to get home, and not in the best shape of my life. The route was all-business to 11,000 feet, and I was full-on dizzy when we reached the saddle, but still we kept climbing.

We came to the knife ridge - which is called Chicken Out Ridge - and Geoff pressed far ahead as I grappled with the exposed scramble on my own. I was rattled and physically shaking by the time I crawled, on my hands and knees, across the narrow snow-covered saddle. As I began to pick my way up the face of the mountain, dark clouds steamrolled in from the west and began to drop large quantities of snow. I was wearing a cotton tank-top and shorts, because it was July. I had no jacket or gloves. I did not want to cross Chicken Out Ridge in a snowstorm. I was convinced I would either slip off the mountain, or freeze to death avoiding that fate. I completely lost it. I sat on a rock and indulged in a full-fledged panic attack. Eventually Geoff came back to look for me and gently talked me down. Neither of us made it to the summit that day.

That was my first battle with Mount Borah - a sweeping defeat. I didn't go back until August 2005. I was working as a copy editor at the Idaho Falls Post Register at the time, and some co-workers were planning a hike on the mountain. The mere thought of it dredged up bad associations, and at first I told them I wasn't going to join them. But as the date neared, much in my life was beginning to change. Geoff was moving to Alaska. I was trying to decide whether to follow him there. I decided to dedicate the month to seeking out situations that scared me, and facing them head-on. I went on a whitewater rafting trip down the Snake River. I took my then-nearly unused mountain bike on several intimidating rides. And I asked my co-workers if they still had room on the Mount Borah trip. I did not want to go. But I did believe up there, I'd find the perspective I was searching for.

We camped at the trailhead the night before. I hardly slept at all, tossing and fretting as though I were psyching myself up to climb Mount Everest. We left the next morning at 5:30 a.m. Even though I wasn't in particularly good endurance shape at the time, I charged up the steep slope with single-minded purpose. I quickly left most of my co-workers behind, and climbed into the rising daylight with an almost gleeful sense of doom. As I picked my way across Chicken Out Ridge, it was tough but not nearly as deadly as I remembered. The sun was hot as I made my way up the peak, and I stood on top for the first time beneath a perfectly clear sky, so blue and bright that it cast far-away mountain ranges in startling clarity. It was the clarity I had sought, but as I squinted into the distant desert, I felt a strong sense that I should stay in Idaho, and let Geoff slip out of my life for good. Strong enough that it felt like a decision. I bit my lip, let the one co-worker who caught up to me take a picture, and headed down.

Returning across Chicken Out Ridge in August 2005, I got vertigo again. The sensation wasn't as bad as I had felt in July 2001, but it was still enough that I had to hunker down until my head stopped spinning. The physical reaction echoed the deeper feelings of confusion and frustration I had been feeling all month. The act of doing things that scared me wasn't working. It only seemed to magnify the fact that I was weak and helpless. I didn't know what to do about Alaska. I knew I didn't have a lot to lose by leaving Idaho. I returned as indecisive as I had ever been. The mountain showed me nothing I came to see, but later, after moving to Alaska and reflecting on what turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, I think that Mount Borah showed me what I needed to see.

I hadn't really planned on ever returning to Mount Borah. It's hidden in the Lost River Range, not particularly close to anything, and there are hundreds and thousands of amazing, accessible mountains that I will never find the time to climb. But my friend Bill in Missoula has recently developed an interest in elevation, and Borah is the closest "12'er" that's fairly accessible to non-climbers. He was the one who brought it up. I was headed south anyway this weekend, for a trade show in Vegas. "Let's do it," I agreed. On Friday Bill and I set out with our friend, Norman, for a weekend road trip and mountain climb in Idaho.

It was interesting to return here, nine years after the meltdown and five years after the big decision, to experience Mount Borah as the person I am now, with the people I know now. The route is still all-business and I still harbor irrational fears, but I now carry a modicum of strength that goes deeper than a facade. After the first 30 minutes I looked at my GPS and said, "Wow, we already climbed 1,000 feet!" Everyone shrugged. We blazed up the talus, gaining another 1,000 feet, and then another. We cut across Chicken Out Ridge and I didn't even get the shakes. Norman and I started to feel the elevation above 12,000 feet. We had to take more frequent breaks to bring down our screaming heart rates, but we made it to the peak less than four hours after we left. We held the Idaho and U.S. flags and enjoyed a full half hour as the highest people in Idaho. We crossed the fields of recent snowfall and dropped down Chicken Out. My bruised ankle's soreness reached a level that aroused involuntary grumpiness, so I took a handful of Advil pills, leaned hard into my trekking poles, and plowed downhill until the pain went away. We lost 6,000 feet in 3.5 miles. There was a time when something like that would have wrecked my quads, but not anymore. Mount Borah is just a walk these days, a stroll, and it's beautiful and physically stimulating, but it's just a small piece of the grand scheme of adventure, and of the world.

Have I filled in my cracks? Not even close. But I see them now for what they are, just cracks, and like the fault line on Mount Borah, they remain as beautiful scars of the upheavals that have made me who I am.