Mt. Borah: Idaho’s Everest

“Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” – William Blake

Last May I barely escaped a blizzard in the Lost River Range (see my previous post).  It prevented my goal of fording the Upper Pahsimeroi River and shooting Mt. Borah, Idaho’s highest peak, “from behind” (from the east) so I went back on Friday, Sept. 2nd, to try again.  I’d yet to get a photo of the big guy due to clouds.

One can say that the Lost River Range to Mt. Borah is the Himalayas to Mt. Everest– any further likening of the two would be a stretch– but at least I can claim to have seen both peaks personally, and I do have a photo of myself as a child with the Himalayas in the background, taken by my father.

This time I had no problem fording the river, really just a creek at this elevation and season, using my trusty, high-clearance 4×4 steed.  But the weather was foul once again, obscuring the geologic beast with clouds and rain, so I didn’t get the shots of the area that I had hoped for.  (Hence, to show what I aspire to, I’m providing the link to images of the Lost River Range from the website of my pro photographer friend, Greg Jahn, who’s far above my competency level.)  Until I get back there to try again, here’s my shot of neighboring peaks, which I include here only to illustrate the striking geology of the area:


A nearby information center describes the geologic fault in the Thousand Springs Valley on the west side of the Lost River Range.   An earthquake in 1983 at this fault line, the record-breaking seismic event in Idaho to date, pushed Mt. Borah a foot higher (to 12,662 feet) and dropped the valley floor by eight feet.  You can see an indication of this geologic force contorting the rock over millions of years in the image above.

Mt. Borah is one of Idaho’s peaks with a permanent snowcap, on the north face, first scaled in 1912.  To date, three climbers have died on the mountain, in 1977 and 1987.  The death toll on Everest (more than twice as high at 29,029 ft.) is around 280 since it was first scaled in 1953, and Everest has taken lives every year for the last few decades.  The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed 8,000 people and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing another 21, making it the deadliest day on the mountain in history.  The 1983 earthquake at Mt. Borah killed two children who were hit by falling masonry while walking to school in the nearby valley.  Quite a difference in statistics, but both mountains justifiably command awe and respect, and inspire a Buddhist-like reverence for them.  And apparently, Tibetan Buddhism is alive and well in Idaho.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

My love of mountains started with one of my earliest memories: At age three in mid-1956 in Darjeeling, India, I rode a horse, named Charlie Chaplin by our local guide, up a mountain that was probably Tiger Hill at 8,482 ft., with my parents.  I remember galloping (probably just cantering) across a high plateau at the top.  There I got my first view of the  Himalayas and sat on the lap of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who, with Sir Edmund Hillary only four years earlier, became the first human to reach the world’s highest summit.  I wish my parents had a photo of me with Tenzing to back up that claim to fame, but at least they shot me riding Charlie Chaplin, with either Everest in the background, between Nepal and Tibet, or Kangchenjunga between Nepal and Sikkim, India (one can see both mountains from Tiger Hill).  Dig the fur-lined Tibetan sombrero:


At the time, my father, George T. Walsh, was posted to the U.S. Consulate in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, his first overseas post working as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State after graduating from Harvard under the G.I. Bill.  We had transferred to Calcutta in 1955 from the Virginia suburb Pimmit Hills, near Washington, D.C., where I was born two years earlier.  Our first three overseas posts were India (1955-1957), Ceylon –now Sri Lanka– (1957-1960) and Pakistan (1963-1966).  Here are more photos my parents took in Darjeeling (looking very much like Nepal or Tibet), including my mother on Tiger Hill with Everest in the background and my father in a goatskin Nehru hat at a Buddhist temple, in 1957:

Members of my family took many outings to destinations like Darjeeling, Kashmir, Swat (“the Switzerland of the east”), and Afghanistan, with world-class mountain scenery and some with forbidding, desolate landscapes.  In 1965, my parents took a road trip from our home in Pakistan to Kabul and shot these photos while having a carefree picnic on the (then-unpaved) Khyber Pass road at the Afghani border (infested with Taliban these days), looking all the more haunting in black-and-white:

Just north of Kabul on a sunny Friday, they shot photos of an equine sport called buzkashi, a sort of mounted rugby that uses a calf carcass (or goat carcass, in a pinch) instead of a rugby ball, seen in the foreground:

Leaving my parents at home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, when I was a Boy Scout at age 12, my troop used to drive six hours in Jeeps up the Karakoram “Highway” each year to Kaghan Valley, about 150 miles north, where mountains reached up to 13,690 ft.  Our popular activities there included hiking, trout-fishing, snipe-hunting, and raiding the Girl Scouts camp nearby.

Also, my family often used to drive on weekends from Rawalpindi to the nearest mountains,  which were less than two hours away.  The U.S. Government leased a weekend getaway house there at roughly 8,500 feet in elevation, about 1,000 feet higher than the nearest town of Murree a few minutes away.  My father shot these photos of us sledding there (my sister, mother, brother and me), and hanging out in the yard (enough with the fur-lined hats!), circa 1965:


Aside from winter sledding and summer horseback riding in fresh-smelling evergreen forests with incredible views, our Pakistan mountain experience included a snow-leopard, which we named Freckles, prowling near the Murree house.  Unfortunately, our beloved, Murree-born, chief “bearer” (domestic employee), an undercover Inter-Services Intelligence officer named Kulinder, who was assigned by his agency to keep an eye on my father, shot Freckles, presumably because the leopard was a danger to us kids.  It’s now known that snow-leopard attacks on humans are rare, but maybe not attacks on the smaller ones.  Anyway, before the days when we’d be appalled, and he’d be listed  as an endangered species, Freckles was soon hanging on the dining room wall:

Today I would kill for the opportunity to shoot Freckles’s descendants in the wild with my 600mm lens.  Here are more photos my father took of hapless animals in Pakistan, with the three Walsh kids among the five on the elephant (although the monkey doesn’t appear bummed out in its respite with a childhood crush of mine)…

… and one photo of Kulinder with his son (?) after he shot what we called a “polecat,” which had been keeping us up at night by running around in the attic of the Murree house:

kulinder107Perhaps no less exotic was the question my family always debated as we stared at the peaks around Murree, about 40 miles from Rawalpindi, in hopes of sledding in the snow up there for the weekend:  “Is it snow, or is it laundry?”  We had to drive a lot closer to determine if the snow-white cover we saw was the frozen kind or just the white cotton laundry that the locals would spread over the ground to dry in the sun.  Sometimes at least one of us was disappointed when we finally arrived, especially having placed a bet along the way.

We had interesting neighbors and visitors aside from the snow-leopard.  Our next door neighbor in Rawalpindi was the Mir (or Emir) of Hunza, whose son played basketball with me in our driveway, ruled over a mountainous, autonomous, Shangri-La state bordering China.  My father and Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a future prime minister of Pakistan, sometimes played golf together at the Rawalpindi Golf Club, near Ayub Park where we loved to go boating and watch the kingfishers dive for their meals.  Bhutto sometimes brought his 12-year-old daughter (my age at the time) to our Rawalpindi house and to Murree.  Young Benazir Bhutto charmed us with her humor and articulate intelligence.  She had us kids rolling on the lawn in Murree with one tall story she told, insisting on the existence of a flying snake she called an “ooks” snake that would catch its prey on the fly.  We laughed about her fanciful story for decades.

Well, it turns out she was right about the snake, although the scientific name for it, Chrysopelea, differs somewhat from her name for it, maybe the Urdu version.  One such snake was reportedly seen in Pakistan last year.  Benazir went on to be right about a lot of things, graduating from Harvard and winning election to the office of prime minister of Pakistan.

“Computers make me totally blank out.” – Dalai Lama

Yes, I graduated (or fell from grace) from exploring mountains by horseback to a mechanized, less green method: Toyota’s cold-steel, high-speed “Blue Meanie” Tundra with GPS and touch-screen infotainment system has replaced the warm-blooded, slow and digital-free but environmentally benign “Charlie Chaplin.”  I have mixed feelings about that, but I was indoctrinated in adventure travel, especially with the sights, smells, and sounds of the mountains, so hike and shoot the mountains I must, the more the better, in the time I have left.  Life is short, and horses just don’t deliver what I need anymore.

It’s a fairly boring, two-hour drive from Boise on I-84 and Rte. 20 until you reach Ketchum and Sun Valley on Rte. 75, where the mountains start to get high.  But the time went quicker as I enjoyed Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep classic mystery novel on audiobook, about the “wisecracking, hard-drinking, tough private eye” Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie), who is also “quietly contemplative and philosophical and enjoys chess and poetry.  While he is not afraid to risk physical harm, he does not dish out violence merely to settle scores. Morally upright, he is not fooled by the genre’s usual femmes fatales…”  (Yes, you got it, “… in a city that knows how to keep its secrets...  Guy Noir, Private Eye”).

I sometimes thought of becoming a private investigator, as a more glamorous version of, and logical retirement segue from, my career as a sedentary intelligence analyst.  But “The Big Sleep” was written in the 1930’s, and glamorous Marlowe, PI, would now spend most of his time sitting at a desk, talking on his cell phone, debriefing informants, researching the internet and public records in City Hall, and reporting to whoever is paying him, possibly revealing distasteful, unethical, immoral and/or unlawful activity; in other words, working as an intelligence analyst.  It was challenging, interesting and rewarding, but I’m done with desk jobs, they’re bad for your health.

The Sun Valley ski resort, established in 1936, has always been a ritzy destination, and since I don’t alpine ski I never took to the place.  Nice to look at, I guess, but not my cup of tea.  But Ketchum is another story:  My oldest friend and I, on separate road trips, saw it for the first time in 1980 and were charmed by its mountain setting, Western rustic architecture, small-town feel and bohemian style.  We thought it was the best town ever, and decided we would move there and open a bar and restaurant with a total ban on smoking, which would be the nation’s first.  Our pipe-dream lasted for decades, and now the town has turned into an Aspen, still more charming and accessible than Sun Valley, but no longer affordable.

Ketchum is where Ernest Hemingway bought a house in 1959, the same year President Eisenhower met with Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco (formerly tied to Nazi Germany), whom President Richard Nixon toasted as a “loyal friend and ally of the United States.”  Franco’s violent defense of “Catholic Spain” against “atheist Communism” included concentration camps, forced labor and executions, mostly against political and ideological enemies, causing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths.  His repression of the (now-autonomous) Basque Country of Spain included banning the Basque language, sparking the formation of the armed Basque separatist group ETA in 1959.  The Basque Country is about the size of New Jersey and is home to 3 million people.  Hemingway, who had joined the communist-supported Republican loyalists in their mountain hideaways against Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), committed suicide in Ketchum two years after buying his house there.  Idaho is now home to one of the largest Basque communities outside of Spain, numbering around 30,000 in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon, according to private associations.

The year 1959 also saw the Dalai Lama flee to Darjeeling to escape the communist Chinese “liberation” (repression and effective annexation) of Tibet, the “roof of the world” that includes part of Mt. Everest.  Tibet is three times the size of California and has a population of 6 million, whose activities now forbidden include fund-raising “in the name of social welfare,” urging protection of the environment or the Tibetan language, and conducting ceremonies that carry “overtones” of support for Tibetan independence.  About 145 Tibetans have committed suicide by self-immolation since 2008, including the latest such death in March of this year.  These days, Tibetan Buddhism, which can be considered atheistic or agnostic, seems to be popular in Idaho, but by 1991, the only known Tibetan in Idaho had hoped to make Boise a haven for Tibetan refugees.  I know of only one Tibetan in Idaho today, the owner of the Mount Everest Momo Cafe, one mile from my house.  In 2002, private associations estimated there were 8,650 Tibetans in the United States, but there are no official estimates, even today, because census statistics hide the “Tibetan” identity under, you guessed it, “Chinese.”

Trail Creek Road from Ketchum to Mackay goes through some of the prettiest country I’ve ever seen.  I wish I’d taken photos of this corridor, which is closed in the winter.  But after gassing up in Mackay, I found myself in the beautiful Lost River Range only one hour later.  I made a beeline for the Upper Pahsimeroi River crossing, and 4-wheeled up a hill in low gear to a saddle with a (theoretically) great view of Mt. Borah, and I stopped to camp.  It started to rain a few minutes later, so I settled down to read my book (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris) and to listen to music on satellite radio.  Among the lineup were two favorites: Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto and Clarinet Concerto, which my parents had introduced to me in Rawalpindi when I was twelve, when my father also introduced me to Bob Dylan, giving me the 45 RPM with Like a Rolling Stone and Gates of Eden on the flip side.  It was still raining when I cooked dinner and went to bed.

“Sleep is the best meditation.” – Dalai Lama

Sunrise the next morning, as with sunset the night before, was still cloudy and rainy.  Finally, at mid-morning, it cleared enough for me to hike up the adjacent hill to a viewpoint where I took these photos of the area, looking east, with my camper showing as a speck, low on the opposite hillside:


I couldn’t see the little fellow, but I could hear the faint but charming alarm-call of a pika nearby.  I also found deer and elk droppings all through the adjacent woods, and one hunter riding his noisy ATV, which had woken me up before dawn on his way up, passed me as he returned to his campsite well below mine, apparently having failed to bag any prey at all.  I suppose hunters on ATVs actually are successful sometimes, but the noise must reduce their chances.  I didn’t take his picture, as I tend to prefer shooting attractive scenery, but I do need to diversify my portfolio, so I’ll try to keep an open mind in future.

I camped there one more night, but the weather never cleared enough to get good shots of Mt. Borah or any other subject, so I packed up and drove to my secret lookout campsite about 2o miles north, still in the Lost River Range, but in a drier area.  On the way across the valley I saw a pair of pronghorn antelope, but they were too quick to get a good shot: dsc_5132


Aside from a jackrabbit and a few birds, they were the only wildlife I saw (no snow-leopards that day, but at least I also saw no cattle).  The only way to get to my campsite with the great view of the Pahsimeroi Valley from 7,500 feet (same elevation as our Murree vacation house in Pakistan) is by foot, horse, or a high-clearance 4×4, crawling up the final quarter-mile in low gear.  The view was cloudy but I was able to catch up on some reading before it started to rain again:

That night it snowed on my campsite and on the surrounding peaks and hilltops, which I discovered the next morning:


There was no mistaking this snow for laundry, but it barely covered my windshield and hood, and it melted quickly, so I saw no need to bug out before noon.  When I had stepped out of the camper that morning I was instantly flooded with the scent of sage, which the moisture apparently had released from the local ground cover overnight with the snow.  It was very peaceful there, with no sight or sound of vehicles or people anywhere.  But I also saw no letup in the dreary weather, so at noon I packed up and headed home.  This time my exit from the Lost River Range was orderly and calm, in contrast to the near-panic escape at midnight from the blizzard on Mt. Borah and my campsite last May.

“I am just one human being… I describe myself as a simple Buddhist monk. No more, no less.” – Dalai Lama

My family’s India and Ceylon tours coincided with the early years of the Tibetan upheaval.  The book titled Orphans of the Cold War by former CIA officer John Kenneth Knaus, using declassified reports, details the CIA’s involvement in funding, arming and training Tibetan resistance fighters and in aiding the Dalai Lama’s escape to Darjeeling in March 1959.  Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the U.S. had already started considering the Dalai Lama’s options by the time we arrived in Calcutta, and efforts were well underway to persuade Indian officials to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama, with Thailand and Ceylon as the second and third choices, “based on proximity to Tibet in a country sympathetic to Buddhism.”

The book describes how the CIA got involved as early as 1951, when the Dalai Lama’s worried mother sent an emissary monk to the U.S. Consulate in Calcutta to discuss the situation.  In the summer of 1956, during our tour in Calcutta, the Tibetan resistance leader visited the U.S. Consulate there.  Within months the CIA started arming and training the Tibetan resistance in guerrilla warfare, radio communications and intelligence collection and reporting.  The main impetus had less to do with aiding the Tibetans than to “impede and harass the Chinese Communists,” which was a primary policy of President Eisenhower and hence the objective of the State Department and the National Security Council, under which the CIA operated during the Cold War.  But CIA support to the Tibetan resistance against China also aided in the Dalai Lama’s escape in 1959, and the support continued well after Eisenhower.

“Whether you call it Buddhism or another religion, self-discipline, that’s important. Self-discipline with awareness of consequences.” – Dalai Lama

Fast-forward 11 years to 1970: In the May 4 Massacre, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four Kent State U. students who were protesting the Vietnam War, after which my classmates and I wore a black armband in Langley High.  The next year, metropolitan and federal police in Washington, D.C., in response to the May Day anti-Vietnam War protest by 200,000 people (including me), illegally arrested 12,614 citizens (not me) in the largest mass arrest in U.S. history; and my parents divorced in Langley, Virginia.  The next year, CIA ended its support to Tibetan guerrillas with Nixon’s visit to China.  The next year, Francisco Franco surrendered the function of prime minister, remaining as head of state and commander-in-chief of the military, and ETA killed his successor in a “spectacular bombing;” and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State who carpet-bombed Cambodia, won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Vietnam War.  Franco died two years later at 82, and Spain became a democracy.  Two years later, the original Charlie Chaplin died at 88, and three years after that, my father retired.

Almost a decade later, in 1988, my childhood friend, Benazir Bhutto, became prime minister of Pakistan.  The next year, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Berlin Wall fell, and I became a law enforcement intelligence analyst with the federal government.  Five years later, Nixon died at age 81.  (Kissinger is now 93).

Thirteen years later, in 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at age 54 in Rawalpindi by a suicide bomber; the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (he’s now 81); I won a transfer at age 54 to La Paz, Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world (a rank previously claimed by Lhasa, Tibet); and my mother, who had settled in Boise in 1978, wrote a letter to my father in Boston, their first contact in 30 years.  They soon decided that he should move to Boise, where he landed in her basement until he bought a condo. Both in their eighties, they talked of getting married again, to each other  (their second spouses had passed away years earlier).

“We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.” – Dalai Lama

After half a century my parents had come full circle, from their first visit as a couple to the land of the highest mountain in the world, to their final resting place as a couple in the land of the highest mountain in Idaho.  But I know that I’m more of a fool for mountains than my father ever was.  He was more focused on the people who live in them, whether in body, mind or spirit.  (William Blake was his favorite visionary).  He passed away five years ago at age 86.  My mother is 88 and still lives in the same house she bought 38 years ago.  During my 62 years the longest I lived in one house was 6.5 years in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

I’ll never see Mt. Everest or my father again, but, Mt. Borah, I still need your elusive photo. 

After I posted this blog I did some more digging in my archives and was reminded that my father’s involvement in the Mt. Everest region didn’t end after our posts in Ceylon (1957-60) or Pakistan (1963-66).  Visas and immigration stamps in his old official passport pages show that after we returned to Virginia from our tour in Egypt (1966-69) he visited India, Ceylon and Nepal in November 1970, and stopped to visit Nepal in March 1974 after his official tour ended in Dacca, Bangladesh.  These are the souvenirs (a postcard and a hotel freebie) he sent from Nepal:



I also uncovered a forgotten letter that my then-retired father wrote to me on May 10, 1986, that strengthens another claim he made, which I mentioned early in this post. Referring to clips of that day’s Boston Globe obituary that he included on Tenzing Norgay, who had died the previous day, he wrote:

Enclosed are clips of an old friend of yours. Somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of our debris are movies and 35mm stills of you, age three, and Tenzing at his place in Darjeeling. At the time he was running a mountaineering school. Under the kind tutelage of your ayah, Mary, you were manfully mounted upon a pony with the obscure name Charlie Chaplin… Mary was a Nepali. She worshipped Tenzing. As a matter of fact, she worshipped you. Can’t think why. In any case, you can flatter yourself that you and the first man to stand on the top of the world have been loved by the same woman.

p.s. – Hillary later said it was Tenzing who first stepped to the top.

Here is that Globe obituary on Tenzing: tenzing140


Walsh family lore always paired me with Tenzing, but we’d never seen any physical evidence. After a thorough search of family archives in our mother’s Boise basement, my brother and I didn’t find any 35mm still of me and Tenzing, but we did find a few 8mm home movies, which Idaho Camera later transferred to DVD. I hoped that we’d at least have footage of me riding Charlie Chaplin with Everest in the background.  Here’s a 40-second sample from those 8mm movies:

60-Year-Old Home Movie

7 thoughts on “Mt. Borah: Idaho’s Everest

  1. That’s a whole lot of history! Those pictures really brought me back to those days walking around Muree, playing hid-and-go-seek, looking for the Monkey King, taking baths in a metal washtub. And when I say ‘walking around Muree’ I remember we were near the top and we could and did walk the circular road, point to point.
    Sis and I running to keep up with Mom and Dad, she with pencils in hand…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s