High Anxiety

On a Tightrope at Twelve Thousand Feet

Story and Photos by Mike Cothern

As the phone conversation ended, a wave of anxiety washed over me. Did I really want to climb two of Idaho’s tallest mountains with a group of strangers?

I had once made it to the top of Mount Borah, but that was almost a decade ago. Since then, my body had suffered more wear and tear, and I was sure my tolerance had lessened for exposure to weather at high elevations.

The offer to accompany an informal hiking group, most of whose members called the Magic Valley home, was my own fault. Earlier in the year, I had talked to Norman Wright, a Filer resident, about a potential trip. He organizes several outings annually that include ascending at least one of the state’s highest mountains. My initial desire to bag another Idaho peak waned as the spring unfolded into summer, but even so, I phoned him again, part of me hoping I had missed the opportunity.

Norman said my timing was perfect. “We’re headed to climb Mount Church and Mount Donaldson next Saturday. We’ll have the rare chance to summit two twelve-thousand-footers in one day.”

I cautioned him that I didn’t want to attempt anything beyond my ability, but after he heard about my Borah trek, his enthusiasm held steady. “There are a couple of tough spots, but you’ll be fine.”

That evening I opened the definitive book on the state’s high elevations, Exploring Idaho’s Mountains: A Guide for Climbers, Scramblers, and Hikers, by Tom Lopez. Reading that the author rated the climb we would make as one level more difficult than Borah, I groaned. Ten years ago, Chicken Out Ridge on Borah had seemed to be at the edge of my abilities—could I take on something more than that now? The doubts began adding up, and my heart throbbed faster, reminding me of my not-quite-prime physical condition. Not wanting to waste a quickened pulse (or perhaps to mask it), I hopped on the treadmill. Could I get into any kind of decent shape in ten days?

Every night, I doggedly did time on the machine. I wasn’t sure if my cardiovascular condition improved much, but was comforted to find that the exertion on my heart and lungs didn’t cause them to fail. Other parts of my body clearly were not happy. My arthritic hip joints, one of which was replaced a year after the Borah summit, whined for less abuse and more acetaminophen. My back felt out of alignment, requiring a crack by my chiropractor.

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