Sunday, June 1, 2014

Psycho Therapy

Since my beautiful son Max was born, I have contented myself with running.  I had assumed I wouldn't get the chance to do any serious climbing for the foreseeable future due to the time commitment, and the fact that most of my weekends are booked with people coming to visit and meet Max.

Then last week the phone rang . . .

Photo of Psycho Therapy from October 2010 by Bob Boyles
The first time I hiked into the cirque below the north face of Mount Borah was in October of 2011.  After gazing up at the magnificent snow and ice covered north face, my eye was immediately drawn to a deep gash full of ice far to the right along the northwest ridge.  At the time I wasn't sure what it was, but I snapped a mental picture.

Upon returning home home from that first unsuccessful attempt (It would take 4 tries to get the approach and conditions right for a successful north face ascent), I did some research.  The "gash" was called Psycho Therapy (1200', 5.9+, M6, AI4), and was first climbed by Lost River Range climbing legend Dean Lords in September of 2003.

My friend Kevin had a chance to talk with Dean about this ascent, and Dean described the climb as sustained and runout dry-tooling on bad rock and 1/4 inch thick ice runnels.  He even went so far as to say, "I've never been so terrified in my life."  In his writeup in the 2004 American Alpine Journal, however, one sentence stuck out in Kevin's mind: "With more ice in the shaft, this route could be less difficult."

Kevin gets out climbing in the Lost River Range more often than almost anyone (perhaps with the exception of our friend Wes).  Thus, he usually has a pretty good gauge on the conditions in the range.

Last week I got a call from Kevin asking if I wanted to do Psycho Therapy with him.  He explained that with the recent sustained melt-freeze cycles he thought the ice conditions would be prime, and that the route would probably only be in good shape for a few weeks.

After looking at my calendar, I realize that this was going to be one of the last weekends that I had open all summer.  I really wanted to go, but the thought of leaving Thy alone with Max all day Saturday didn't quite sit right with me.  However, when I brought the idea up to Thy, she reminded me that in a couple months I would be alone with Max for a whole weekend while she is at her sister's bachelorette party, and she encouraged me to go.  I love my wife!!!

On Friday after work I drove out and met Kevin.  We sorted gear, and made our way to the trailhead.

Ounces count!  Kevin removes the oxygen packet from his dehydrated dinner to save weight :)

Ready to roll!
Our first view of Mount Borah
We planned to hike a few hours of the approach and then bivy to give us a head start in the morning.

At the trailhead and excited for the fun ahead!
I had hiked into the north fork cirque on 4 different occasions via Rock Creek, and each time I vowed never the come back.  The Rock Creek approach (the standard way of getting to the north face of Borah) always seems never ending.  There is no trail, plenty of bushes and downed trees to navigate, it's long, and you don't gain very much elevation.  So after hours of walking and bushwhacking, you finally get a view of the north face, and you realize that the base of all the routes are still thousands of feet above you.  Fortunately for this trip, Kevin knew a shortcut.

We hiked for 30 minutes or so up the main Borah trail until we got to the first little saddle.  There we left the trail and hiked cross-country to the north.  We dropped steeply down the side of a drainage, crossed the creek (which had beautiful and delicious crystal clear water) and then started up the steep other side of the drainage.  The goal was to gain the "escalator ridge" (as Kevin called it) above.  The hike up was very tiring.  The entire slope was full of loose scree, so that for every two steps we advanced, we slid one step backwards.  Eventually the never-ending scree slog ended, and we arrived at the escalator ridge.  We hiked for a while up the ridge until we found an excellent bivy spot for two, sheltered from the wind by a small cliff.

We woke at 4am.  Kevin ate his dehydrated meal, and I had a spicy Korean Ramen and coffee.  Before we could go we needed to melt some snow to fill our water bottles.  By time we started hiking it was 6:20am.

We continued up the escalator ridge, which is actually a sub-ridge that breaks away from the northwest ridge of Borah.  To reach the crest of the northwest ridge, we again got the chance to slog up a steep scree field.

Kevin, about to hike above tree line into yet another steep scree field
The second scree field wasn't quite as bad as the first, and soon we were standing on the northwest ridge taking in the view of the north face cirque.
The north face of Mount Borah as seen from the northwest ridge.  The summit is the highpoint on the far left, with everything to the right of that being the long northwest ridge.  Psycho Therapy climbs a deep gash in the ridge just out of sight on the right side of the picture.
In order to access the north face cirque from our location on the northwest ridge, we would have to somehow get down off the ridge.  At first glance it looked like several rappels would be necessary to accomplish this, but fortunately Kevin knew of a ledge/ramp system that diagonaled down towards Borah.

The ramp system that provides access from the northwest ridge to the north face cirque begins at the far right edge of the darker portion of scree.
I had heard Kevin talk about this shortcut before, and was excited to follow him and learn the route.  Once we got to the ramp system I was in for a surprise.  I was picturing a walk, but in actuality the ramps were discontinuous, and in order to follow them we were forced to navigate a significant amount of highly exposed class 4 and 5 scrambling on classic (i.e. loose) Lost River Range rock.

Kevin finding his way into the north face cirque

Kevin downclimbing after realizing he followed the wrong ramp.

Me kicking steps up a hanging snow field to access the next ramp

Me, navigating some low fifth class rock on the approach to the real climb
More steep snow on the approach
Eventually we found ourselves staring up into a dark and ominous gash in the mountain.  The gash was our route.  I began to wonder if we were in over our heads.  Hiking into the remote north side of Mount Borah to try a Dean Lords testpiece?!?  Who did we think we were?  What if we couldn't find any solid gear?  Doubt started to creep into my mind.

Above us a steep snow slope (55 or 60 degrees) lead into the gash.  We roped up so that we would be prepared when the technical climbing started, and simul-climbed up the snow slope.  After about 400 feet of simul-climbing, Kevin built an anchor in a somewhat sheltered spot on the side of the slot.  Above, a couple ice bulges led to what looked like an overhanging cornice.  From where we were we couldn't see if there was a way around the overhanging snow.  Either way, the pitch looked serious.

And yet, the hard part didn't look that long, and the rock wall on the side looked like it had some features.  "We're totally going to do this!"  Kevin's positive attitude was contagious.  "Yeah man, I think it just might go!"

"If you want the lead, you can have it, but otherwise I'd really like to try it."  Kevin said as I got to the belay.

"Be my guest!"  I said, trying to conceal how relieved I was.  I haven't climbed much in the last 6 months and wasn't feeling as confident as I remember feeling on climbing trips past.

I'm ready to hold the ropes while Kevin goes off to dance with the crux pitch

Kevin, psyched to tackle the crux pitch of Psycho Therapy
Prior to building my "anchor", Kevin had climbed up and placed one good ice screw at the start of the business ahead.  This was a good thing, since he could only find one solid bugaboo placement for my anchor.

Kevin set off on the crux pitch. He quickly dispatched with the initial ice bulge, and sank a second solid ice screw.  Now I felt much better, as there were two good ice screws between Kevin and my one piece anchor.

Above him, what looked from below to be a cornice turned out to be a giant "chockstone" made of snow and ice.  He could see no way up other than surmounting the overhanging snowy obstacle.

Kevin made a few mixed moves using the verglas covered rock wall on the right.  After climbing about a body length one of his crampons suddenly popped off of the small edge he was standing on! My heart stopped. Fortunately the flake that he had his tools cammed behind held, and after a bit of steel scraping on rock he was able to reset his feet and regain his composure.

He climbed higher, and eventually found himself stemming between the rock wall and the snow-chockstone.  The snowy chockstone had some ice in it, and Kevin placed another screw, but I doubt it would have held a fall.

As Kevin stemmed higher, eventually he reached a point where he had to commit fully to the snow-chockstone.  As he stepped is 2nd foot onto the scary feature I held my breath . . . but to my surprise the snow chockstone held his weight and did not collapse.

As Kevin tried to claw his way over and on top of the snow-chockstone he found that his tools could get no purchase.  Every time he would pull on them they would just shear through the snow and come out.  At one point he thought he was falling and began to yell, but managed to down climb back to his stemming stance between the rock wall and the snow.

Kevin on the money pitch
Kevin enjoying a stemming rest after down climbing from a failed attempt to pull on top of the giant snow-chockstone

A fall from his position would be disastrous!  The nearest good screw was 10 or 12 feet below him, and although it would probably hold the fall, he would become a human pinball bouncing off the sides of the fissure and the ledge above the ice bulge before it caught him.  There was no cell service, and the hike out to the car would be at least 5 hours.  Basically, getting injured in here would suck, and falling from where he was at meant getting injured.

I thought for sure that after Kevin's first failed attempt to pull on top of the snow-chockstone he would down climb and we would bail.  Apparently I didn't know Kevin well enough.  Kevin Hansen is tough as nails, and he proved me wrong!

After resting and regrouping in his stemming rest stance, he meticulously excavated a few foot placements in the overhanging snow, and then back up he went to "ride the walrus!"  This time he managed to hook his right tool around a bit of ice where the snow met the rock, which provided him with just enough purchase to pull himself over and onto the snow chockstone!

I hooted and hollered a congratulations.  Kevin responded with "It's not over yet."

What I couldn't see was that he was now directly below the actual chockstone (the one made of rock).  Fortunately, Kevin was able to sling the constriction at the edge of the chockstone for the first piece of good protection in awhile.

Although passing the chockstone was difficult, after dealing with the scary snow-chockstone, Kevin made short work of the mixed rock and ice moves to pull the real one.

Above, he climbed steep snow until he was able to build an anchor and bring this epic pitch to an end.  He yelled down that the anchor was bomber (He later said that it was the best anchor he's ever built in the Lost River Range, which is notorious for terrible rock quality), and proceeded to keep me on a tight toprope.  With the nice toprope, and the footholds in the snow-chockstone already excavated down to firm snow, I had fun following the pitch.

When I got to him I grabbed the rack and led through, onto the much easier final pitch.  Most of the pitch was just steep snow climbing on fairly firm snow.  It was a bit longer than our 60 meter rope, so we did a bit of simul-climbing.   The crux of this pitch came at the end when a few drytooling moves were required to pull past the overhanging cornice.

Looking up at the overhanging cornice that marked the very top of Psycho Therapy.  For a brief moment, the dark slot in the mountain was flooded with light as the sun passed overhead.  

Looking back down the last pitch as Kevin simul-climbs behind me
Kevin stands atop the couloir.  We did it!
After topping out the couloir we were ecstatic!  We completed a Dean Lords testpiece (albeit in much easier conditions than when Dean put it up)!  It was still fairly early in the day, and we both thought that the descent would be nothing more than a walk off down a scree field.  Visions of an Atomic Burger and deep fried dill pickles from Pickles Place in Arco began to dance in my head.

Looking across at the north side of Chicken Out Ridge from the top of our route.  In the background is the north face of peak 11,308.

After scrambling a few dozen feet along the ridge-top our vision of an easy descent was dashed!  Below us was a steep notch that we needed to cross.  This necessitated some steep 4th class down-climbing with a ton of exposure.  This made the ramps-approach seem tame.  Eventually we found our way down into the notch, across the steep snow, and then out the other side.  After that all we had left was the long slog out.

Kevin, climbing on the exposed northwest ridge during the descent
The hike out was long, but eventually we got down.  Camp to car time was about 14:40.  Add in the time we spent hiking to camp on Friday night and the round trip moving time was about 17:20, plus a 5 hour "nap".

Alpine flowers hiding amidst the scree

Kevin fills his bottle directly from the crystal clear creek on the hike out


  1. Sounds like an epic trip! I am not the climber that you are, but I hope to summit Borah one of these summers. Will I be seeing you in Challis?

    1. Thanks! Yup, I'll be in Challis for my first every 100K this weekend. Excited and nervous!