It was all a matter of mountain perspective.
Tuna Surprise, was a very nice way to describe our entrée for that evening. We were positioned on the lower slopes of Idaho’s highest peak, 12,662 foot 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 use whatever sort of bulky, non-trail food that 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, that would begin 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 did meet the criteria for what we needed it to be— which was ample, nutritious, and filling. Of course, the assumption was that it would also be relatively tasty.
And so, he got his ingredients together and went to work. First, he opened and then placed a large can of tuna into a mixing bowl, crumbled up some Cheese Nip type crackers into it, and added some water into the tuna juice. Then, he seasoned it, mixed it all up into a sort of mush, and finally placed it on the burner. Since by that point everyone was getting especially hungry, he cranked up the heat and after only a few minutes it was ready.
I assembled the group and within moments everyone was digging in to their supper. I waited around for my own serving until the end. After loading my plate, I began eating and immediately noticed hints of burn in my portion, but rationalized that since I was scraping the bottom of the pot, I’d most likely gotten something most everyone else hadn’t.
After filling our stomachs, everyone crawled into their sleeping bags and mostly went to sleep. We all awoke just after 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 headlamps on and well wrapped up in fleece and wool within minutes of being rousted. There were initial moans and groans, but I figured that 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 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 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 that we were experiencing. As we broke out of the trees a thousand or so feet below the summit, an almost moonless and brilliant Milky Way filled sky along with the outlines of several surrounding mountains enveloped us. After a few hours of climbing time, the stomach pains had either gone away or were in serious retreat, the discomfort likely absorbed by the body or whatever it is that happens with things like that. What we all mostly thought about as we felt the summit nearing was what we were experiencing at the moment- the mountains and a whole wild world that surrounded us.
At that point, I knew that some significant rock scrambling across a section known as “Chickenout Ridge”, still separated us from the top. I’d also 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, photos, and a moment to soak 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 & 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 teenagers, leading and managing themselves without intervention from any adult guide or leader as they undertook a variety of adventure activities. Those activities often included such things as rock climbing, fly fishing, and mountain biking And they always included a healthy dose of general outdoor skills and the all-important navigation and route finding. The event was designed to be a multiday event, which meant that there was typically at least one night of adventuring out in the wild involved. The goal was to be the first to finish and since a team would not be permitted to move from one event or 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 staff person, both of us as adventure guide followers.
The race began at midnight. The way it worked was that none of the team members knew what each stage involved or where it went until the start of that particular stage. All they knew was that they would be traveling out in the backcountry and should be prepared for whatever activities were included.
I’d learned from past OWA adventure race experiences to tone things down a bit in order to make it more doable for our participants. And so, to that end, I’d set up a route for this particular one that began in simple and straightforward fashion, calling for the groups to begin by climbing to the summits of several non-technical nearby peaks The plan was for each group to climb them in a sequence so as to put them into more of an adventure race mindset as they started off in comfortable home terrain. Whether or not it worked out that way remains to be seen.
After the official start, the team that I was following got their instructions and was quickly out the door of our main lodge within minutes. They moved with such confidence that I decided that they must’ve discussed and come up with some sort of plan right off the bat, but that I’d probably been too involved with other logistics to have heard it.
The first summit/point they were supposed to reach was the top of the nearby 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, which is where the camp was located. While it’s not a technically difficult peak to climb, visibility while on it is limited and getting up it even in broad daylight is something of a route finding nightmare. I’d been up to its summit several times before and knew the difficulties involved in getting up there. But it was a familiar sight and getting up to its top was seemingly simple enough, since word was that all that needed to be done to get up to the top of it was to hike to its base 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.
The night was calm, uncommonly warm, and there was 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 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’d thickened significantly and was suddenly limiting what could be seen.
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 more or less certain of our location, although not so sure if any of the team members had any clue. Even with the fog, they somehow continued going the right way. Even though I wasn’t so sure that they knew where they were, they kept doing the right things and since it was without input from either me or the other guide, I was completely confused.
The light from our headlamps seemed to just bounce off of the ground level clouds, but there was enough surrounding detail visible for the team to continue to pick its way up through the trees. Early on in the ascent, I felt like that we were at least “close enough” to being on the right track. But after about 15 minutes, the team began veering off in a direction that I was certain was incorrect. I said nothing and was actually somewhat pleased to see that they appeared to be 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 and regroup. As we all stood there in the middle of the night fog, initially there was just a good bit of huffing and puffing, snack eating, and water gulping going on. After that all calmed down, talk and discussion about various race and route strategies erupted throughout the group. I just listened. Personal doubts about their assumptions and methodology 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 supposedly get them to the top ahead of the other teams.
Within minutes, they were packed up and back on the move. As we continued on, there was no doubt that we were mostly going uphill, although I felt like we were veering from the actual route to the 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 be the combination of the massive Firs and Spruces which predominated all over the Farnum slopes. The size of the trees indicated that we were still somewhere below the summit ridge, which served to further affirm my suspicions about us being off track. But then, Bristlecone Pines started entering into the mix. On previous ascents, I’d noted how those gnarly and scraggly trees dominated the forest up near the top, where extreme winter winds pounded the ridges of the Puma Hills. But on those trips, I hadn’t noted that there were any lower down on the mountain, which was exactly where we were. Just as I was trying to figure out the Bristlecone thing, the trees and vegetation began to get noticeably smaller, the grade began leveling out, and I came to the realization that we were walking up onto some sort of summit. In my mind, we weren’t even supposed to be close to the top. Even as confused by the terrain features 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.
From only a few feet away, I recognized the rock cap of the Farnum summit as we approached and whatever doubts I still had at that point went away. Just as we were climbing up onto actual summit, we stepped out of the fog and right 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 to us, it not only lit up the granite summit slabs, but also the faces of the 5 teenagers looking out at peak after peak sticking up out of the blanket of fog. The tops of the clouds were illuminated by the moonlight and created a seemingly impregnable barrier between where we stood and where we’d just come from. The massive ridges, slopes, 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 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 that I spoke would only be less profound than what we were seeing.
After a few moments, someone in the group found the written instructions for the next stage of the race in Farnum’s summit register jar. He pulled out the wadded-up piece of paper they were written on and read what it said. Then, he took out a map, opened it up, and spread it on the ground. The team huddled up around it, made a plan, and in another instant we were stepping back down into the fog.