August 19-21, 2016: Taking a shot at the second-fastest known time for climbing all nine of Idaho’s 12,000+ foot peaks.
This particular challenge began six years ago, in 2010, while I was working for Idaho Wilderness Company as a rafting guide on the Middle Fork of the Salmon river. I was a relative newcomer, and eager to earn the older guides’ respect. It came up that one guy had climbed Mt. Borah — Idaho’s highest peak — in 2 1/2 hours, and he regaled us with stories of rushing past awestruck tourists on the way up. Naturally I thought beating his time would be a great first step in proving I was worthy. By the end of the summer I’d beaten his time up Borah, stumbled across idahosummits.com and the 12ers challenge, and kindled a new, larger ambition to beat the existing speed record for climbing the 12ers. At that point, the record was 38 hours and 50 minutes, set in 2005 by Dave Bingham and Rob Landis.
Idaho has nine peaks that rise over 12,000 feet, though the next earthquake or two could easily add to the list. Hyndman Peak sits alone in the Pioneer mountains outside of Sun Valley, Diamond Peak by itself in the Lemhis to the east, and then there are the seven in the Lost River Range (from north to south): Borah, Idaho, Leatherman, Church, Donaldson, Breitenbach and Lost River.
The project slowly took shape over the next few years. I was based out of Challis while working the raft trips, which provided a great central home base to get up on the peaks during days off from the river. This is when the Lost River range earned my respect. I’ve had four or five scouting trips up in the range that ended badly; either bailing out of the mountains early due to weather, terrain, or just realizing that I wasn’t fit enough to cover the distance I’d planned for the day. These aborted scouting missions always seemed to get worse once I was down out of the high country, even though I was usually bloody by the time I got back down to treeline. Thrashing around in creekside stinging nettle, “shortcuts” that lead to cliff-outs in the dark, getting lost in the sagebrush flats up off highway 93, hitchhiking back to my truck at 2 in the morning; it all became the standard fee for accessing the range. But I was hooked. I loved the mixture of running and scrambling through rocky ridgelines, the full-body experience of moving light and fast through class 3 and 4 terrain. Something about moving that way through areas that were just shy of requiring a rope did the trick for me.
In 2013 I thought I was ready to take a crack at the record. I took it on solo, with my saint of a mom providing moral and transportation support. Starting at Diamond, I made it through Borah and Leatherman before running up against the difficult traverse to Church and my own exhaustion. I made only three peaks over 26 hours, and it was easy to see I wasn’t near prepared enough, mentally or physically. I knew if I made another attempt I wouldn’t try it alone.
I had met Paul Lind and his son Cody the summer before, when Paul organized a runner’s trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon with my rafting company. The trip was an exhilarating, slightly crazy mix of high athleticism and debauchery — kind of like everything the Linds do. Both of these guys are top-notch endurance athletes, and getting hooked in with them just as I was starting to run ultras was good for me, to say the least.
In the summer of 2016 I found myself fit, running races well and primed to take another attempt at the 12ers. Cody had started dating Brittany Petersen, another super-fit sponsored runner, and plans took shape through the summer for the four of us to go after the second-fastest time, the 2005 Bingham & Landis record. Luke Nelson and Jared Campbell, two world-class ultrarunners, had broken that record in August 2014. Their time was an out-of-my-league 28 hours & 18 minutes.
But it wasn’t like shooting for the second-fastest time was going to be a sure thing. The challenge is predominantly off-trail, and most of that off-trail terrain is shifting scree fields and crumbly, sharp ridgelines. A running adventure, this is not. More like a gritty slog through uneven, difficult rock. Paul likes to call it the Lost River Fuck Rock, so poetically named because it is crumbly, untrustworthy, and yet puppy-teeth sharp. Durable gloves are a must, and the average pair lasts less than two trips.
We started up Hyndman at 5pm Friday, August 19, into a beautiful late summer evening. Spirits were high with our awesome crew chief Lynn, and good friends Sam and Molli who came up from Hailey to run part of the peak with us. We settled into a good pace that worked for everyone, and the jokes flew when the terrain wasn’t too steep.
2 hours and 29 minutes after leaving the TH we summited and spent a couple minutes soaking in the view and taking pictures.
Brittany, Paul and myself made it back to the car at about 9:15, just before dark. Cody had stayed back to make sure one of our crew made it off her first 12er safely, though the two of them pushed the downhill pace more and made it back to the TH only a few minutes after we did.
We spent a quick ten minutes packing gear for the Lost River traverse, as we knew that we wouldn’t want to mess with things once we hit the Borah trailhead. And then all five of us crammed into Cody’s four-seat Jeep Cherokee for a mad dash in the dark back to the highway and over Trail Creek road. There was an indelible moment here for me as the Jeep bounced along the ruts and potholes of Hyndman road. We had gear stashed everywhere, under our feet, behind knees and under elbows. And we started passing around homemade food in big tupperware containers in the dark, everyone sharing the same forks and same comaraderie and a strong sense that we were in the middle of doing something special.
Another 10 minutes at the Borah TH double-checking packs and trying to make sure we didn’t forget anything we’d need for the next 24 hours, and we were off at quarter after 11. One guy was trying to sleep directly next to the trail start, and I’m sure we pissed him off a good bit with our talking and closing car doors. Sorry man — don’t sleep right next to the trail next time!
We broke out of the treeline to a sky full of stars and an almost-full moon that made headlamps unnecessary. To everyone’s consternation, something was obviously not alright with Paul; he was climbing more slowly than usual and clearly not feeling right. He stopped the train and told us that he was going to bail, he had some kind of sickness going on and was going to slow us down if he continued. I think this hit Cody the hardest because they both were looking forward to this as a father-son adventure, but if anyone knows his own body it’s Paul. He’s run ultras his whole adult life (including the Tahoe 200) and has likely spent more time in the mountains than the three of us combined.
We summited Borah at 2:14am Saturday morning with high spirits. From here it was a quick scree-sliding descent to Cedar creek so we could bypass the inefficient ridgeline between Borah and Idaho. We weaved our way through the trees over the creek several times, and worked up a large scree field to a saddle at the head of the canyon, a couple thousand feet below Idaho. From there it was more rocky ridgelines and scree chutes to the summit. We topped out at 5:53am, just as the first hints of day started coloring the sky. This was a high point for me and ultimately my favorite peak; I’d felt sluggish on the climb up Cedar creek and the daybreak was rejuvenating.
From here I was in high spirits. We were in familiar territory that had been scouted multiple times, so we moved fast and confidently off the ridge, down a fun thousand feet of scree sliding, and to Pass Lake on the Pahsimeroi side. Quick side note — Pass Lake is one of the most gorgeous lakes I’ve ever been to, with sheer walls rising directly off the water’s edge. We stopped briefly to refill water and chat with a couple campers (who were entirely unimpressed with our adventure) and pushed on towards Leatherman Pass.
The route from Leatherman Pass to the summit of Leatherman is typical of the range — steep, loose scree bisected occasionally by fins of protruding bedrock that give a sense of solid ground and a respite from the one-step-up, slide-a-step-down slog of the scree. But we all got in the groove in this section and summited at 9:46am.
Cody and I had scouted the Leatherman to Church traverse earlier in the summer and determined that the fastest way would be drop back off the north ridge of Leatherman (the same we ascended), and then sidehill through the miles of scree field to the cirque between Church and Donaldson. Our mistake earlier in the summer is we’d climbed Bad Rock Peak (next peak south of Leatherman) and done the traverse from there. What we didn’t anticipate was how much more difficult keeping our elevation would be in the scree fields. It’s just not energy efficient to contour perfectly as you sidehill this scree, bit by bit you naturally keep dropping.
This was the lowest point of the entire adventure for me. We were about an hour behind our target time, and it was all I could do to think about finishing, let alone beating any times. This was also the hottest part of the day and I was frustrated and disappointed about putting the team on the wrong line. If I ever try this again I would likely descend off the south face of Leatherman, even though it is more technical. This would allow you to skip more of the demoralizing side-hilling.
To cap off the bad section, I ran out of water about 30 minutes from the cirque where we planned to refill. When we got there, there was only a small, slightly brackish pool of water where a month and a half earlier I was doing backflips from a deep snowfield into a pristine, deep pool. Luckily there was a small trickle of water still flowing from the rocks above the pool, and we were able to refill water. If there hadn’t been water here we would have had to drop about a thousand feet to a creek, as there are no other opportunities for water until you come off of Lost River peak at the end. More likely, we would have had to abort the attempt. Given my mental state at that moment, I severely doubt if I could have handled that setback. At any rate, we took about 15 minutes here to rest and this was especially good for me to get my mind back on the right track.
From here we worked up to a saddle between Church and Donaldson. We were all climbing in our own worlds, and I didn’t realize how much trouble Brittany was having with the effort and exposure until we hit the summit of Church at 2:42pm and she opened up about possibly bailing out. But Cody and I both wouldn’t hear of it and we all were firmly committed to finishing together, no matter what that looked like. Cody and Brittany climbed together through the traverse over to Donaldson, and by the time we summited Donaldson at 3:41pm she was back to a strong mental state. Really, we all were — after the five hour slog between Leatherman and Church ticking off two peaks in the span of an hour was the boost we all needed.
The descent from Donaldson is steep and uncertain, and despite previous scouting missions we found ourselves in a band of cliffs and steep gullies. We lost about twenty minutes looking at different options, finally found a way, and dropped all the way down to the bottom of the bowl separating Donaldson and Breitenbach. If you’re a solid rock climber, there might be a way to stay on the ridge between these two peaks, but for us this wasn’t an option. If someone does find a way, let me know, because that would be awesome as the alternative of slogging up the east face of Breitenbach from the bottom is not very pleasant. There are extended sections of stepping into scree only to have it slide you right back where you started, and you have no other choice but to keep at it.
This section is where Cody’s world-class fitness really showed. Brittany and I had been dealing with lows at various points throughout the day and were climbing at roughly the same speed, but Cody had never seemed to drop too low mentally and was able to easily outpace us. It inspired and pissed me off all at the same time.
We summited Breitenbach at 6:37pm. Amazingly, we’d made up time coming over from Donaldson and we were now back on track to beat the 2005 record. Spirits were back up high and we began thinking it might be possible after all. One peak to go in the range!
But it wasn’t just an easy hop over to Lost River. I’d done this section about four years previously, but going south-to-north in the opposite direction . I remembered there were a couple sections of semi-technical rock climbing and large cliffs that forced you off the ridge, but couldn’t remember exactly where they were or the exact routes through them. Nothing 5th class, but definitely no-fall 4th class.
This section was the whole reason we’d structured the timing of the effort the way we had, in order to tackle it in the daylight. It would be doable at night, sure, but it would cost us a lot of time.
Brittany fought through some nasty blisters in this section and showed her true tough colors. We slowed down a bit with the route-finding, but just tried to keep consistent progress. We kept to the ridge as much as possible, dropped down around bluffs when they were impassable, and got some climbing in. The sunset came in tandem with the last of the bluffs, and we put our headlamps back on just as we were gaining the ridge again.
At this point it was roughly 9pm and we had been moving for 28 hours. I started to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and the effort, my eyes going unfocused if I didn’t make a conscious effort to focus on the task at hand. Despite the excitement of being so close to Lost River peak, I knew it could easily turn into a long night.
We summited Lost River at 9:31pm, ran through our summit routine of taking a group photo and signing the register, and kept on truckin’. There is a large, relatively flat ridge between the summit and where you begin to descend into the Super Gully. We crossed this quickly and began the fun, yet quickly arduous task, of descending 4,000 feet of scree. Cody and I are more comfortable with the scree-sliding than Brittany, and we settled into a pattern of he and I descending, then waiting for Brittany to join up. This had the added benefit of spacing us out enough so we weren’t choking on each others’ dust and dropping rocks on one another. I also realized it was possible to run down a scree field one moment, and be literally falling asleep on my feet the next. One moment, Cody and I were standing in the steep scree talking quietly, the next moment I was falling off balance, jerked awake after falling asleep on my feet.
The descent turned into a couple interminable hours of sliding through rock, weaving down through trees, and bushwhacking through gullies. Occasionally we could see the car lights from our crew, on a different planet thousands of feet below us. But the night has a way of tricking you like that, and we unexpectedly popped out of a gully to the waiting car far sooner than we thought at 11:30pm, just a shade over 24 hours since we’d started in the Lost Rivers.
Paul drove the truck quickly back to the highway and caught us up to speed with how he’d been tracking us in the spotting scope from the highway. I only half-listened, all I wanted was some warm food and anything resembling a couple minutes of shut-eye.
Back at the highway we traded the truck for Paul’s motorhome, our mobile basecamp, for the drive to Diamond. Paul and Lynn got the motorhome quickly on the road, and Cody, Brittany and I refueled with some great hot food and reveled in just being able to sit down for a bit.
We ate, re-packed our bags for the final peak, and all tried to lay down and get some sleep for the remaining hour or so of the drive. I know I slept a bit, probably about a half hour. Cody slept too, though Brittany said she wasn’t able to get her mind to shut down enough.
Since the motorhome wasn’t going to be the fastest vehicle for getting up the dirt road to Diamond’s trailhead, we were also hauling two 4-wheelers on a trailer. At the junction of Pass Creek road and the highway we pulled the 4-wheelers off the trailer in the cold night air, threw pants and down jackets on for the ride, and took off for the trailhead. Even with the extra layers, by the time we hit the TH a half hour later I was cold and anxious to get going. At this point we knew that breaking the 2005 record was within reach, but anything could happen and it was far from a sure thing. We were all doing the math in our heads that if we left the trailhead at 2:45am it left us almost 5 hours exactly to summit and get back to the TH if we were going to beat the 2005 record.
We left the trailhead at 2:49am, climbing strong and steadily, not talking much and each wrapped up with our own thoughts. The climb up Diamond starts off with a steep, loose dirt trail, and then transitions into moderate bouldering/scrambling sections along the bedrock ridge. Diamond’s rock is completely different than the Lost Rivers, though, and this scrambling is steady, secure, and, dare we say, fun? At least, I think it is.
Again the night played tricks on our perception. As we climbed along the ridge towards the top, the moonlight made it look like we had to drop several hundred feet before the final push to the summit. But it was thankfully shorter and more straightforward than that. When we hit the summit at 5:15a, just under 2 1/2 hours from the start, I began to believe we could beat our goal. After all, if we could summit in half the time we had to work with, barring a catastrophic accident surely we could descend faster.
The sun began to rise as we descended, and I think that, and knowing we were so close to the finish and primed to beat our goal time made the descent even quicker than we’d hoped. We all felt surprisingly good, and even managed a respectable jog through the lower sagebrush sections to the 4wheelers. Paul gave out a big whoop, the three of us crossed the imaginary finish line all holding hands high in the air, and just like that it was done. 6:44am, 37 hours and 44 minutes after starting.
Later, Lynn made the three of us some hot chocolate in the motorhome and there was this poignant moment where no one had taken a sip and we all were just staring at the steaming mugs. That moment captured the three of us all sharing the same exhaustion and reflecting on the same adventure, each in our own way. Funny how those little moments get indelibly burned in your mind.
After six years of working towards this goal, it didn’t feel real to finish. I guess it never does. It was hands down the hardest thing I’d ever done to that point. We only had a rough idea of the totals before starting, but we ended up covering 42 miles with 26,000 feet total vertical gain. As a contrast, the steepest 50-mile ultra in the U.S. covers 52 trail miles and 23,500 vertical gain.
We all used durable work or leather gloves.
Brittany and I used trekking poles and loved them. Cody would use them if he did it again.
Cody’s shoes (Scott Kinabalu Enduro Trails) were the only ones not to get destroyed. My Brooks Cascadias and Brittany’s Saucony Peregrines had large holes in the toebox and sides.
Brittany and I used Tailwind. Cody used VFuel.
The weather treated us really well. It never got too hot or cold and we were able to get by with one baselayer, one light windbreaker jacket (I used the Patagonia Houdini) along with shorts & t-shirts.