Big Peaks & Bad Rock by Tom Lopez, Idaho: A Climbing Guide

You can watch "Land of the Lost River Range" online at https://video.idahoptv.org/video/land-of-the-lost-river-range-8d1pff/

This essay originally appeared in Summit Magazine in 1982.

The Lost River Range is a seldom visited pile of sedimentary rubble in the southeastern corner of Idaho’s central mountains. The range contains not only the two highest peaks in Idaho but also the largest concentration of 12,000-foot summits in the state. Borah Peak, at 12,655 feet, is the highest point in Idaho.

Mt. Borah, with Chicken Out ridge on right. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

Although climbers come from all over the west to scale Borah because of its “highest peak” status, most of the other peaks are rarely climbed. There is a distinct possibility that several major peaks in the range still remain untouched by human feet. Inaccessibility and bad crumbly rock are the two major factors governing the lack of climbing history.

Photo by Tom Lopez

On our summit attempts in the range, we have found a different world from the nearby Tetons or the vast Wind Rivers. The routes are grungy, yet they offer a challenge and a beauty all their own. The big peaks make and the bad rock have their own special character.

The range runs 70 miles north to south between Challis and Arco, Idaho. The Big Lost River Valley and the Salmon River flank the range on the west. East side approaches are through the Little Lost River and Pahsimeroi Valleys. Two dirt roads cross the range. One road crosses at Pass Creek summit, the other at Doublespring Pass. Between these two crossings lies the heart of the range.

Leatherman Peak, Idaho's second highest mountain. Photo by Terry Lee.

The majority of the Lost River Range is composed of layered sedimentary rocks. There are also volcanic rocks extensively distributed throughout the range. Paleozoic Age rocks have been folded and faulted into near vertical ramparts which provide impressive cliffs and faces. The sedimentary rocks are extremely fractured and shattered. The geologic make up has formed a rugged, broken range.

Access is difficult and often requires lots of time and a four-wheel drive vehicle. There is a good access point only to the Borah Peak area. This remoteness and the spectacular scenery has led the Forest Service to recommend that 119,864 acres in the central Lost River’s become wilderness. The proposal is currently tied up in Congress.

Toward Chicken Out Ridge, with Borah peak to the left. Photo by Tim Tower.

The west side of the range is very dry with no dependable water sources. The east side is wetter and has a few alpine lakes and several permanent streams.

Borah Peak is climbed by 200 to 300 people each year. It is most frequently climbed by its south ridge. The route is a long grueling grind starting at 7,400 feet. The route is generally a steep hike, with only the last 600 feet providing some interesting bouldering opportunities.

Climbing Chicken Out Ridge. Photo by Tim Tower.

The summit register on Borah makes reference to “fantastic” ice climbing opportunities on the north face. At any rate, winter climbing in the range is hazardous because of the high avalanche potential. In November of 1977, two Idaho Falls climbers were swept away and killed by an avalanche on the peak.

From top of Mt. Borah, looking eastward. Photo by Leif Tapanila.

The second most climbed peak is Leatherman, 12,228 feet. The old coffee can that serves as the summit register holds little history inside its mated skin. The register records climbs from 1960 to the present. Many years have gone by without a successful climb and possibly without even attempts.

This peak is climbed almost exclusively by its north ridge, beginning at Leatherman Pass. The route climbs more than 1,600 feet to the summit. The steep talus-covered route climbs over and around fractured rock towers and up two small snow gullies. Climbing without dislodging rock is impossible, it is hazardous for two parties to climb at the same time.

Hiking near Pass Lake with Leatherman Peak in background. Photo by Tim Tower.

Leatherman Pass can be reached from three different drainages: the Pahsimeroi and Sawmill Gulch and Lone Cedar Creek. The pass itself is 10,600 feet and forms a major notch in the 12,000-foot Lost River escarpment.

Mt. Idaho, another 12er, towering above Merriam Lake. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

The range can be reached from Idaho Falls, Idaho by U.S. Highway 20 to Arco, Idaho. U.S. Highway 93 runs north and south between Arco and Challis on the west side of the range. State Highway 33 runs east to Howe, Idaho. At Howe, take the Pahsimeroi Highway north through the Little Lost and Pahsimeroi Valleys. U.S.G.S. Quads for the major peaks are Massacre Mtn., Borah Peak, Elkhom Creek and Burnt Creek.

You can read other articles by Tom Lopez at https://www.idahoaclimbingguide.com/bookupdates/lost-river-range/

(Cover photo by Terry Lee)