Jason Herring of Boise spent the past summer climbing some of Idaho’s tallest mountains, called “the 12ers.” This photo was taken on Mount Idaho, the state’s seventh tallest peak at 12,065 feet. Though Herring successfully navigated the mountain on the way up, he wasn’t so lucky on the way down. He experienced a catastrophe that could have ended his life, but didn’t. (Photo taken by Jason Herring)
By Jason Herring
When I first climbed Borah five years ago, it was a profoundly spiritual experience for me. Although I didn’t have any ambitions to continue climbing at that moment, I went back the following year and again the next. Borah was calling. That same year I read an article in the Statesman about someone who climbed all of Idaho’s nine peaks over 12,000 feet, called “12ers”. I didn’t even know there was such a thing, but I was intrigued. John Muir wrote, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” The mountains were in me, and I wanted more.
The following year as work and travel took me across the PNW I expanded my resume beyond the familiar high point of Idaho to include mountains in Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Then last year I climbed Hyndman Peak, which sits at number nine on the list. I stood on the summit and looked across the distance at the Lost River Range, home to seven of the 12ers including Borah. It was then that I decided to make it a goal to complete all nine. I was two down; only seven more to go.
This year I didn’t think I would have much time for climbing. Between family and a job promotion with added responsibilities, I thought I would be lucky to get in my annual Spartan trifecta. Then COVID hit and with it came the lockdown and subsequent restrictions. Suddenly I’m working from home. Work travel was suspended. The Spartan season was cancelled. And I was going stir crazy. But as things progressed throughout the summer, I realized that I had an opportunity to check off a few more 12ers. So I would work hard Monday through Thursday, getting in all of my calls and emails, and then head for the mountains, camp at the trailhead on Friday, climb on Saturday, and return home the same evening so I could attend church the following day.
Lost River Peak, which sits at number six on the list, was first this summer. Next was Leatherman, Idaho’s second tallest peak. Then Mount Breitenbach (#5) followed by Mount Church (#3) and Donaldson Peak (#8). There was only one 12er left in the Lost River Range and that was Mount Idaho – number seven on the list of nine and the peak closest to Mount Borah. In my three climbs of Borah, I had always admired Mount Idaho’s rugged pyramid shape from the vantage of Chicken Out Ridge. With Mount Idaho under my belt, the only peak that remained would be Diamond Peak in the neighboring Lemhi Range at number four on the list. It looked as though I would be able to achieve my goal this summer.
It was a clear Saturday morning on the first weekend in September when I got ready to embark from the trailhead for Mount Idaho. Before setting out shortly after daybreak, I knelt down on the dirt and thanked God for the health to climb and the opportunity to experience this beautiful part of His creation. The trail rose sharply through the timberline along the vibrant Elkhorn Creek and I saw wolf scat in two places near the trail and spooked a curious lynx observing me from a rockfall.
With nearly a mile of elevation gain, I finally reached the summit in the early afternoon and took in my last summit view of the mountain range that felt like a home away from home that summer. There was Borah, so clear and magnificent, where it all began a few years earlier, igniting my passion for the mountains. I could see all of the 12ers in the Lost River Range. Looking across the wide basin to the west, I could see Hyndman in the Pioneer Range, and in the opposite direction there was Diamond Peak – the last on my list. “By God’s grace, I’ll summit you next week,” I thought to myself.
The wind started gusting pretty hard, so I didn’t linger on the summit for long. I took a few pictures and called my wife to let her know I was okay and on my way down. I took a knee and thanked God for the climb, the view, prayed for my family and some of my co-workers by name, and then I started my descent. Mount Idaho is a gnarly peak with lots of cliffs that require Class 3 scrambling. The only alternative is some sharp scree slopes that are a nightmare even with trekking poles. The best option is to head down the West Face to the ridgeline and try to stay on top of the knife as much as possible.
Speed climbers with better knees than mine can practically skip down the mountain like bighorn sheep, but I move at a more methodical pace. Most injuries on mountains happen on the descent, not on the climb up. There was no rush. I had plenty of time and plenty of daylight. Soak it in. Enjoy the journey. I would be back in Arco in time for dinner and there was a juicy burger with my name on it at Pickles Place diner.
Unlike some of the neighboring mountains, the Lost River Range is comprised of limestone and dolomite and thus lots of loose rock. You have to test your handholds and footholds before committing your body weight. About a fourth of the way down the West Face, I was traversing along a narrow ledge against a cliff face, trying to stay on top of the ridge. As always, I was keeping three points of contact with the cliff as I made my way over to more promising terrain. My hands were more than shoulder width apart and gripped to the rock when suddenly the entire section of cliff gave way and pushed me backwards. If you’re old school enough to picture this, it was like someone hit the eject button on a VCR player and the tape popped out. There wasn’t even room or time to fight to regain leverage or balance. Immediately I began to freefall backward in what felt like slow motion.
As I fell I remember thinking, “This is it”, as though I instinctively knew that I would not survive a backward plunge off a mountain like that. I fell 20 feet before slamming squarely on my back and then tumbling in a somersault down the scree slide between the two cliffs before sliding to a rest next to the opposing cliff. It happened in an instant and yet I could clearly remember the thoughts going through my head as though it were minutes. Staring at the bright blue sky above me, I listened to the rockslide that my fall had started down the mountain.
“I can’t believe that I’m alive!” I exclaimed. I had landed with such force on my back that I could not believe I wasn’t paralyzed or worse. My NorthFace backpack with its aluminum stays, coupled with my Black Diamond helmet, had saved my bacon by absorbing the impact of my fall. I sat up and began to check myself for compound fractures. My pants were shredded at the knees and I had some minor cuts on my hands and legs. I bandaged the more serious cuts and took some Ibuprofen. But when I tried to stand up I felt a searing pain in my right ankle.
In 43 revolutions around the sun, I have never sprained an ankle. I get that from my dad, who is 65 and never sprained an ankle even after years of running and playing competitive sports. Perhaps, this was a first. I took a roll of duct tape out of my backpack and splinted my ankle to keep the swelling down, hoping it would help me regain some mobility. I then bear crawled about 50 feet up the scree slide to level ground where the cliff joined the mountain. What to do next? Little did I know that during my fall my right foot impacted the ground with such force that my ankle bone had driven into my heel, shattering my calcaneus, fracturing it in over nine different places. From my ledge I was able to relax and collect my bearings. I decided to give the Ibuprofen some time to kick in, hoping that I had only bruised my foot. But after 15 minutes when I tried to walk again, I knew something was broken.
With two bars on my phone, I called 9-1-1 and explained my predicament to the operator. She put me in touch with the Challis Sheriff’s Department, which began to coordinate with South Custer Search and Rescue and Air St. Luke’s to get me off the mountain. Using my smart phone, I was able to give them my exact coordinates. The sheriff’s office was unsure if they could get a helicopter to my location. Winds were gusting at 35 mph and the threshold was 40 mph for the safety of the pilot and crew. The sheriff told me a team from South Custer Search and Rescue was headed to the trailhead and would start working its way towards me – although the team might not get to my location until morning. Would I be okay to spend the night on the mountain with my injuries? Was I prepared and in a position where I could bivouac overnight? I told the sheriff that I was prepared to do so. I had a headlamp with extra batteries, two long-sleeved performance shirts, an emergency poncho, an extra liter of water, a Clif Bar, and hopefully enough Ibuprofen to get me through the night. I found a place where I could put my back to the cliff where the rocks partially shielded me from the strong winds.
After a couple of hours I heard the distant chop of the helicopter. The only high altitude copter in the Air St. Luke’s fleet came in high from the Lost River Basin and made three passes before the crew finally spotted my location. I was on the phone with the sheriff’s office, which was coordinating with the crew via radio at the same time. There was a saddle on the ridgeline where they were going to try to land. The sheriff informed me that I needed to try to make it to that location if possible. There was about 45 minutes of daylight left and I was over a half mile away from the landing zone with a 900-foot-plus vertical descent. If I could only make it down the rest of the steep West Face of the mountain, hopefully the search and rescue guys could guide me across the ridgeline where my sight and route finding would be limited.
But how? About 10 feet in front of me the mountain disappeared. It was a series of cascading ledges and boulders that plunged down towards the ridgeline. An adventure on a normal day turned into a serious dilemma with a broken foot. It was then that God told me, “I have a plan and a purpose for your life. If I wanted to kill you or punish you for all the mistakes you’ve ever made, I could have done it just now. I protected you in your fall and you’re going to be okay.” I had this overwhelming sense of peace, and I determined to just take it a few feet at a time. Using my arms as legs and my good foot as a brake, I would slide on my butt to the next ledge and peer over to discover the best way down. I continued this way from ledge to ledge all the way down the West Face until I arrived at a huge cairn where the mountain meets the ridgeline. Darkness was just setting in, and Bret, a medical worker from Air St. Luke’s, walked up.
Air St. Luke’s had dropped off an EMT and two guys from South Custer Search and Rescue before returning to the hospital because it was shift change and the high winds and darkness presented hazards in the mountains. They would be back at first light to pick me up. In the meantime, my three new-best-friends would help me navigate the ridgeline to the landing zone where we would bivouac for the night.
Bret gave me a double dose of morphine to see if I could walk. Almost immediately I felt the effects of the morphine, but when I tried to walk, my ankle buckled. Later the orthopedic surgeon informed me that if I had tried to force it and walk on my broken heel, I would have spread open the fractures like crushing Styrofoam and required major surgery on my foot. As an endurance athlete, you get to know your body. You know the kind of pain that you can push through and you know the kind of pain that says, “You need to stop.” I would have to cross the ridgeline the same way that I descended the West Face. T. J. and Buzz from South Custer Search and Rescue joined us for the painstaking trek back across the ridgeline they had just traversed.
“I’m sorry that I’ve ruined your Labor Day weekend plans,” I joked. “No,” they laughed. “We’re just happy that you’re okay and in one piece.” They had personally been involved in some high altitude mountain rescues that turned out to be tragedies. It was a blessing to have these guys guide me across the ridgeline. Coming up, I had just climbed over the top of the cliffs and rock pillars that stood out like giant fingers and knuckles on the ridge. Now that wasn’t an option and I needed to navigate around them, which was hard to do from the vantage point of sitting on your butt with a headlamp in the dark. It took us two hours to make the trek across the final quarter mile to the landing zone. When we finally made it to the saddle, Bret broke out bivy sacks for each of us, and after finding a couple of nice boulders to lean up against, we hunkered down for a cold night on the mountain.
In between morphine-induced power naps, I would look up at the nearly full moon and star-filled sky and think about how lucky I was to be alive – not just that night on the mountain, but every night. I thought of the John Muir quote: “You may be a little cold some nights on mountaintops above the timberline, but you will see the stars, and by and by you can sleep enough in your town bed or at least in your grave. Keep awake while you may in mountain mansions so rare.” Yes, indeed. Mountain mansions so rare.
That morning, the helicopter arrived with Tim, the pilot, and Kennah, another EMT. “Are you hungry?” Kennah asked as she walked over with a bag full of sausage McMuffins, hash browns, and chocolate milk. “That looks like a steak dinner to me,” I replied in gratitude. I thanked my friends for their incredible help and support before I was lifted off the mountain. They didn’t have to carry me or use ropes to get me down from the site of my accident to the landing zone. Fortunately no life-saving measures were needed. But I had an injury that put me in a very bad way at high altitude and their assistance and encouragement were invaluable. When T. J. and Buzz showed up at the bottom of the West Face, I told the trio, “You guys are my heroes.” T. J. responded, “Well, we haven’t done anything yet.” “Yes, you have,” I told him. “Just being here. Your presence means a lot.”
Accidents sometimes happen. And when it did happen I was prepared, and I didn’t panic. My helmet and my backpack probably saved my life or at the very least saved me from a debilitating injury. But I owe everything to the protection of an almighty Providence, and I could not have made it down off the mountain without the assistance of the amazing team of responders. You never forget the kindness of strangers when you’ve survived a situation like that.
Mountains make such great metaphors. From time to time, we’ve all found ourselves stuck or in a bad way. When you see someone in that situation, you don’t have to have all the answers. None of the responders were orthopedic surgeons and no one happened to bring along a portable x-ray machine. But they were there for whatever was needed, and just having someone to talk to while I butt-skied and crab-walked down the mountain was incredibly uplifting. As long as we’re alive, God always has a plan and purpose for each of us, and there is no greater plan, no higher purpose than time spent in service to others.
Jason Herring is a father to four amazing kids and husband to his wife, Suzanne, of 21 years. In 2009 they experienced two miscarriages and the loss of their 4-year-old son Josiah to cancer. In the wake of that devastation, Jason has sought to share hope with others who walk that same valley. He is passionate about his family, mountains, Spartan Races, history books, writing, and speaking on the grace of God.