This write-up is meant to be supplemental to the very thorough post by Luke Nelson.
Short version : On August 16th and 17th, 2014, Luke Nelson and I ran, climbed, and crawled our way to the summits of the nine 12,000’+ peaks in Idaho in a time of 28 hrs 18 min.
Oftentimes big adventures are more about who you’re with than what you’re actually trying to accomplish. When Luke asked me to be part of his Idaho 12ers FKT assault I immediately said yes, partly because it sounded like a cool adventure, but more just because I wanted to get to know Luke better. We were due to tackle something big together.
The objective is obscure, which added to the allure. Off the radar of most trail runners because of the sketchy terrain and logistics involved, and off the radar of most climbers because of the rotten rock and length of time required. Fortunately, Luke and I have climbing in our roots and have both spent inordinate amounts of time shuffling around the mountains. Thus, we seemed well-suited for such an adventure. By the numbers, the record seemed well within reach barring any major errors. Our daily lives prevented us from getting out for much recon, other than an ascent of Hyndman, which I snuck in the day after my wife ran the Standhope 60km the prior weekend. This meant that much of our planning would be via maps, Google Earth, beta from several key locals, and scoping the route while we drove up Highway 93…. This lack of more optimal preparation added a fun element of improbability, stacking the odds against us to some extent.
A bit of last minute good fortune came when Gary Davis, a guy I met at the finish of the Millcreek 50km at 2:30AM on 8/2/2014, offered to crew us with his friend Dave Robb. Turns out both of them had tried the exact same route just a few weeks prior, what are the odds? Both school teachers and off for the summer, they had the time off and we’re suddenly on-board. They turned out to be two incredibly great guys and critical to our success. Dave literally wrote the book on climbing in and around the Ogden area and the duo can often be found quietly scrambling up new routes in the Willard cliffs just north of Ogden.
There are nine total 12,000’+ peaks in Idaho: Hyndman in the Pioneer Mountains, seven peaks in the Lost River Range (LRR), and Diamond Peak in the Lemhi Range. We planned to start at midnight with Hyndman, then link the LRR north-to-south, followed by an ascent of Diamond. We would drive (or be driven, rather) between the three different ranges.
It made sense to summit Borah Peak, our first peak of the LRR, at first light so as to have maximum daylight (14 hrs) for the LRR traverse, certainly the most technical and tricky part of the overall adventure. This dictated the start time for Hyndman to be midnight, which turned out to be a near-perfect decision. We ran Hyndman via Wildhorse canyon to the north, a much more direct route compared to the standard trail and it also added in a bit of fun class 4 scrambling to acquire the ridge south of the peak. Thankfully I had done this peak the weekend before so we were able to move through it efficiently. We summited in 1:52 and were back at the car in 3:08. We piled into the truck and drove to the Borah Trailhead.
When we arrived at the Borah parking lot it was apparent that we needed to hit the trail quickly to get ahead of the hordes of folks gearing up. There were lines for the bathroom 4:30AM, seriously! We packed up, and started our march up Borah. Luke set a commanding pace all the way to the top and I just tried to not hold him back. On the summit we were greeted with a chilly wind and a beautiful sunrise. The views from the summit are truly spectacular. Looking to the south we could see our next 6 peaks : Idaho, Leatherman, Church, Donaldson, Breitenbach, and Lost River.
Given that our objective was to summit the 12,000’+ peaks, it meant that our route became one that we thought would provide the quickest way between them. This isn’t the cleanest line from a climbers perspective, but hey, we had a specific goal. Mt. Idaho was up next and rather than sticking true to the ridge and tagging Sacagawea Peak (11,936′) we dropped down into the upper portion of Cedar creek, dropping down to 9,600′ and then pawing our way back up loose talus until we hit the western ridge of Mt. Idaho.
The descent down the south ridge of Mt. Idaho was fantastic. Loose and exposed, it commanded attention. We slowly picked away at it keeping our eyes on the gullies on the eastern side, looking for the one we planned to descend.
We found our gully and it turned out to be the second best scree gully of the entire route! We flew down to the boulder field below, climbed a small ridge, and arrived at the amazing springs above Pass Lake. From there we contoured around and made the small climb up to Leatherman Pass.
The view towards the summit of Leatherman from the pass is rather daunting, it’s one steep choss pile! No option other than to put our heads down and march upwards. Eventually we reached the summit and were greeted by a group of humans! I wasn’t sure they existed in the high country of Idaho anywhere other than on Borah. 🙂 They graciously snapped a few photos for us and off we went, plunging off the south ridge towards Badrock and Mt. Church. The descent off Leatherman was tricky, high-consequence choss. The gully tried to suck us to the SE, but we wanted to acquire the ridge to further west. Our routine was as follows, I’d forge ahead and find a spot clear from the choss Luke was sure to dislodge, then Luke would follow as I looked for a way back to the ridge proper. Rinse/repeat/rinse/repeat. Eventually we got to the ridge.
Next up, navigating Badrock. This was an obstacle we didn’t need to summit, just get around. From Google Earth I saw a trail that I was confident would go. Turns out a very sneaky goat-route did indeed snake its way around the western face. It seemed improbable that it would keep going, but sure enough it did, winding its way up, down, in, and out through the steep gullies. We soon arrived back on the spine of the LRR ridge and were staring at the north face of Mt. Church.
Mt. Church presented the biggest unknown to us. Wes Collins, a local who helped us immensely hadn’t been up the north face and there was no other beta to be found. Our plan was to get over to the base of the north face and stare at it for a bit to see if anything stood out to us. Nothing did.
So, we fell back to our plan B, which we had scouted from the highway the day prior. Skirt around the southwest side of Mt. Church and try to ascend one of the gullies. Luckily, our super-crew Gary and Dave had decided to climb up to the gully we had spotted and check it out for us. Over radio they broke the bad news that the gully went 98% the way to the top, but then cliffed out. Probably 5.10 or harder.
We needed plan C. We pulled out the iPhone and zoomed in on the photos we shot through one side of our binoculars. I swear I could see another route further south…. It seemed like our only option. Gary and Dave concurred (via radio) and altered their current route to scope it out for us. They eventually radioed that it went! Because this gully was so much further around to the peak, it meant that Luke and I were in for a very memorable side-hilling-talus extravaganza. No choice but to forge onward.
In the gully of Plan C, there was miraculously a spring with a decent flow. We topped off our water supplies and then trudged our way to the summit, feeling the weight of the adventure. Gary and Dave were on the summit, it was nice to chat with them. Only a few peaks left we thought…
It’s a nice easy ridge over to Donaldson. We snapped a few photos and gazed over at Breitenbach, our next objective. Based on some very solid advice from Wes, we opted to descend down into Jones Creek to about 10,200′ and then paw back up to the summit of Breitenbach. This was to avoid a series of cliff-bands with mandatory rappels. So, down we went….
We reached the low point and then began the grind back up the steep talus to the summit. Gear : Low 4. The view from the summit of Breitenbach is absolutely stunning:
At the summit we felt the LRR was in the bag. Nothing we had read or heard suggested that getting to the final peak of the range (Lost River Mountain) would be a challenge at all. But, it sure didn’t look this way… We pressed on and eventually found ourselves cliffed out on a knife-blade ridge. Backtracking didn’t sound great, but it was the only option. Things suddenly began to feel a bit dire. We had less than an hour of light left and were suddenly faced with unanticipated challenge after unanticipated challenge. We rolled the dice, dropped off the ridge some 400-500′ and began side-hilling again. Uggg. We re-acquired the ridge only to be again befuttled by what lay ahead, it was a maze. After a series of good calls and lot of luck we eventually topped out. wheww! crisis averted. On the summit of the Lost River Mountain, we radioed down to our crew to let them know we were okay. This last section had taken much longer than anticipated so we expected them to be a bit worried. We turned on the head-lamps and began one of the best scree descents of my life, the Super Gully!
We arrived at the truck a bit beat up, but ready to recharge and move onto the final peak, Diamond. After a tasty freeze-dried meal, we were off, bouncing down the dirt road. I dozed off in the back of the truck while our crew worked their way to the start of the Diamond.
Gary and Dave decided to join us up the final peak, which was great. They knew the route, which was helpful at this point as it would be night climb. Luke, Gary, and Dave were impressively strong and we marched up the peak in just over 2 hrs. We were back at the car in 3 hrs 15 min. While I only experienced the peak in the shallow glow of my headlamp, I’d call this one of the best peaks of the entire adventure due to the sustained 3rd and 4th class scrambling and relatively good rock.
We were thrilled to have accomplished our goal in a time of 28 hrs 18 minutes.
This terrain of the LRR is brutal, both on humans and on gear. We brought leather work gloves, which turned out to be a fabulous decision. Our gloves had worn holes completely through, shoes had taken a serious beating, braided stainless gaiter cables destroyed, and one pole broken. Not bad considering what we put everything through.