It was all a matter of mountain perspective.
Tuna Surprise, was a very nice way to describe it. We were positioned on the lower slopes of Idaho’s highest peak, 12,662’ Mt. Borah, ready to do a night ascent. Doing it at night would be a good way to make an otherwise arduous and steep summit climb less mentally difficult and more interesting, I reasoned. We were able to drive right up to our embarking point, so had the relative luxury of being able to carry whatever sort of bulky, non-trail food we wanted, along with a large propane burner. The plan was to have a good, filling and early supper, followed by a few hours of sleep and then a projected five or six hour long ascent, beginning at midnight.
Chris Green self-selected to prepare the supper while everyone else readied their climbing packs and got their sleeping area in order. The pre-ascent meal he chose would meet all the criteria for what we needed—it’d be be ample, nutritious and filling. Of course, the assumption was that it would at least be relatively tasty.
And so, he got his ingredients together and went to work. He opened and then placed a large can of tuna into a mixing bowl, crumbled up a bag of Cheese Nip type crackers or two into it, added some water to add to the tuna juice, threw in some spices, mixed it all up into a sort of mush and then placed it on the burner. Since everyone was hungry, he decided to push the speed envelope and turn the heat up a bit. Amazingly, after only a few minutes, it was ready.
I assembled the group, and within moments, everyone was digging in. I waited around for my serving until the end. I noticed hints of burn in my portion, but rationalized that since I was scraping the bottom of the pot, I’d gotten something most everyone else hadn’t.
We all got in our bags and mostly went to sleep by early evening. We awoke right at midnight and were soon on the trail. Our group of teenage mountain climbers had somehow gotten it all together and we were walking up the trail with headlights on and well wrapped up in fleece and wool to break the nighttime chill, within minutes of being rousted. There were initial moans and groans, but I figured they mostly had to do with the late night/early morning hour. As it turned out, my assumption wasn’t all that correct.
It wasn’t long after we started walking that I began to feel a little queasy, but within only a short distance, I began to feel downright unsettled in the stomach. Most of the group did not throw up within those first few minutes, but it quickly became apparent that my own discomfort was prevalent, in one form or another, throughout the group. I also came to the conclusion, partially based on the strange burned fish taste that I had in my mouth, that the stomach situation likely had something to do with our supper.
One important thing that the special meal did for us as we climbed, was to serve as a distraction from the steepness and the actual climbing related pain and tedium. As we broke out of the trees a thousand or so feet below the summit, am almost moonless and brilliant star-filled sky along with the outlines of several surrounding mountains enveloped us. By that time, most everyone’s stomach pains had mostly gone away, probably absorbed by the body or whatever it is that happens with things like that, so that what we mostly thought about was what we were experiencing at the moment- the mountains and a whole wild world that surrounded us.
I knew that some significant rock scrambling, especially along a section known as “Chickenout Ridge”, separated us from the summit. And I’d read that Borah was considered one of the more technically difficult “state high points”, and so those two facts weighed heavily on my mind. But for the moment, we all walked and climbed in an immediate world illuminated by headlamps and an even broader one brightened by the Northern Lights.
There was no chickening out as we reached the steeper exposed areas and we made it up to the summit, just as the first light of the alpine morning was beginning to show. After handshakes, hugs, photos and a moment to take it all in, we gathered our gear and were back down to our starting point, before the sun had even begun to heat up the day.
Farnum Peak and the Adventure Race
The Outpost Wilderness Adventure Adventure Race was essentially what the name implies. It was a competition between teams of 4 or 5 people (in this case teenagers), leading and managing themselves without intervention from any adult guide or leader as they undertook a variety of adventure activities. The activities often included such things as rock climbing, fly fishing, and mountain biking, and always a healthy dose of general outdoor skills, including the all-important navigation and route finding. The event was designed to be a multi-day event, meaning that there was typically at least one night of adventuring out in the wild involved. Obviously, the goal was to be the first to finish and since a team would not be permitted to move from one activity, or sub-activity, to the next unless their entire team was together, the whole concept of group and teamwork was very important. Actual adventure guide/leaders did follow each group, but were there only to intervene in the event that some sort of emergency occurred or if the team got completely off track. And so, it was with all of that as a prerequisite, that I set off with another guide, both of us as adventure guide followers– tagging along closely, so as to be there if needed, but intent on keeping our mouths shut.
The race began at midnight. The way it worked was that no one (other than me) knew what each stage involved or where it went until the start of that particular stage. All each team knew, was that they would be traveling out in the backcountry and should be prepared for route finding, backcountry camping, hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, climbing and night travel.
I’d learned from past adventure race experience to “tone things down”, essentially making it more realistic. And so, to that end, I’d set up a route for this particular one that began simply enough, calling for the groups to begin by climbing to the summits of several non-technical, local and somewhat obscure peaks that rose up in the distant back of our valley. They would climb them in a sequence that would get them into an adventure race mindset and off on the right foot as they started off in comfortable, home terrain. Whether or not that part of it was realistic, remains to be seen.
The team that I was following got their instructions and were out the door of our main lodge within minutes of the official start. The team must’ve discussed and come up with some sort of plan, but I’d probably been too involved with other logistics to have heard it.
The first summit/point they were supposed to reach was Farnum Peak. It’s a thickly forested mountain that rises up to just below tree line and at 11,377 feet is over 2000’ feet above the bottom of the Second Creek valley. It’s not a technically difficult one to climb, but is covered by a whole lot of trees and is something of a route finding nightmare, even in the daylight, and much less at night. I’d been to the summit several times before and knew that it wasn’t an easy one to get up, due to its lack of trails and the vast amount of bushwhacking required to get up it. But, it was visible and obvious from down below, and getting up to its top was seemingly simple enough, since all that needed to be done to get there was to hike to its bottom and then, simply go up.
The team confidently headed out the door and immediately walked straight toward Farnum. My first thought was one of satisfaction with the fact that they were at least going in the right direction. At the same time, I couldn’t help but note that another team had not appeared to be so sure about what they were doing, and after discussing their options, had simply just followed the one I was trailing.
The night was calm and uncommonly warm with a full moon—good race conditions, I reasoned. As we walked, I couldn’t help but notice fog beginning to develop. I’d never really seen significant fog develop in the area, so was not initially concerned that it would get very thick. But within only a few minutes, and by the time we reached the bottom of the actual Farnum slopes, it had become like pea soup.
This’ll confuse things, I concluded. It was simply a new and unexpected wrench that’d been thrown into the mix. Even though the visibility had been cut to about 10 feet, at that point in time I was still sure of our exact location, although not so sure if any of the team members had any clue. I was relieved that at least they were continuing to go the right way. Even though I wasn’t sure that they knew where they were, they’d continued doing the right things up to that point and without either my or the other guide’s input, which confused me.
The light from our headlamps just bounced off the ground level clouds, but there was enough detail visible for the team to keep picking its way up through the trees. Since I was just following and not actively route finding, and because we’d continued to go up, initially I kept thinking that we were at least “close enough” to being on the right track. After perhaps 15 minutes of hiking, the team began veering off in a direction that I was sure was incorrect, but I held my tongue and said nothing, actually somewhat pleased to see that they were unable to get up to the first point without my help. Getting off course was something that I was confident would happen, especially given the fog. I’d come to grips with the fact that we were all in for a long night of just wandering around out in the forest, going nowhere. So, I just kept following along, amused by their obvious route-finding mistakes.
At some point, after climbing and bumbling around in the fog for a while, the team stopped to take a break, rest and regroup, As we all stood there in the middle of the night fog, initially there was a good bit of huffing and puffing, snack eating, and water gulping going on. After all of that calmed down, talk and discussion about various race and route strategies erupted throughout the group. I just listened. Personal doubts about their assumptions and plans, once again crept into my thoughts and it was all I could do to keep my mouth shut, as they concocted a plan that would get them to the top before anyone else.
Within minutes, they were re-packed and we were back on the go. As we’d continued to move, there’d been no doubt that we were mostly going uphill, but I felt like we were continuing to wrongly veer away from the actual summit. The other guide, Dave and I stayed at the back, following and chattering between us, about how off track and fouled up it was all getting. There was nothing truly unexpected about what we were seeing or where we were going, since I was sure that we were still on the lower slopes of the mountain and far below the summit. As expected, the forest continued to mostly be a mix of massive Firs and Spruces which predominated in the forest all around Farnum. Their size indicated that we were still somewhere below the summit ridge, which just further affirmed my suspicions. But then, Bristlecone Pines started to enter the mix. On previous trips up there, I’d noted how those gnarly, scraggly and persistently powerful trees dominated up near the top, where extreme winter winds pounded the ridges of the Puma Hills, as they crossed South Park on their way down from the Arctic. But, I hadn’t seen or realized that there were any lower down on the mountain, and since I assumed that we were somewhere lower down, my confusion was expanded. Just as I was trying to figure out the Bristlecone thing, all of the trees and vegetation began to get noticeably smaller and more spread out, rock ledges began to appear and the grade began leveling out. I was flabbergasted, as I began to realize that we were walking up onto some sort of summit. In my mind, we weren’t even supposed to be close to the top. As confused by the terrain as I was, I looked around and could see that the team members had no doubts about any of it and were simply where they’d planned to be all along. Their plan had worked out as expected.
From only a few feet away, I recognized the rock cap of the Farnum summit as we approached. I had no more doubts. Just as we were climbing up onto it, we stepped out of the fog, and into a clear middle of the night and a world that we’d already forgotten. A spectacular full moon blocked out all, but the brightest of stars. Closer in, it not only lit up the granite summit slabs around us, but also the faces of the 5 teenagers looking out at peak after peak sticking up from the blanket of fog. The tops of the clouds were illuminated by the moonlight, creating a seemingly impregnable barrier between where we stood and where we’d just come from. The massive ridges, slopes, lower summits and the main summit of Pike’s Peak were visible, some 75 miles away. We picked out the mountains we knew—Bison, McCurdy, North Tarryall, and Badger Mountain and guessed about many others. There was a moment of silent wonder, as we all tried to comprehend what we were looking at. I wanted to say something, but realized that any words I spoke would only be less profound than what we were seeing.
After a few moments, the group found the written instructions for the next stage in the summit register jar. They pulled the wadded-up piece of paper out, read what was written on it, took out a map and spread it out on the ground, huddled up, made a plan, and in another instant, we were stepping back down into the fog, on our way to Garmin Peak.