Mt. Timpanogos Attempt
Friday November 7th, 1997
Kris needed to go to American Fork, Utah for a business trip, and suggested that I come along for fun. At first I didn’t want to, it meant missing a day of work at an important time, but I gradually warmed to the idea. Rental car and lodging would be paid for, we’d just have to pay for my plane ticket. “Okie-dokie!” I said.
American Fork is situated on the western slope of the Wasatch front range, a beautiful location, with 11,340 foot high Mount Timpanogos and other peaks rising behind the city. While Kris went to work on Friday, I planned to climb this mountain. I didn’t have a map of the area, and this resulted in some interesting blunders!
I was on the road by 7:00 am, heading north and east under a beautiful clear sky. 15 minutes later, I was driving into a canyon and climbing steadily. But oh no! A sign says that the gate is closed, and my trailhead is several miles past this gate. I press on, and find that one half of the gate is closed, but I can dodge into the other lane and get around. Feeling like a criminal, I drive through the “closed” wilderness, and reach the Timpanoogee trailhead.
After a few minutes, I encounter big patches of ice on the trail, which I skate or leap over with trepidation. The trail climbs slowly up, passing frozen waterfalls. I’m in a “giant staircase,” a canyon with sheer walls dusted with snow, and flat benches which serve as stairs. Occasionally, the trail steepens and switchbacks as I climb from one stair to another. The snow gradually gets deeper, replacing the treacherous ice.
Around 9000 feet, the views really open up and the wind becomes colder. Finally, I’m having fun, although all day I’m worried about the rental car and hoping that officials won’t close the gate!
After the last stair, a 1500 foot high wall must be ascended, through many tedious switchbacks. The snow gets deeper, and soon I’m floundering up to my hips in the dry, powdery stuff. The scenery becomes more alpine, with steep drop-offs, snowfields, and a huge frozen waterfall.
I’m following in the tracks of someone who came earlier in the week, and note that they lost patience with the floundering and headed straight up the slope. I followed, but this was the most exhausting part of the trip. Sinking deep into the snow, I strained to retain upward progress, my calves flexed and burning. I longed for my ice ax, which I didn’t attempt to bring on the plane, and for plastic boots with full shank soles. My leather boots felt like slippers, constantly coming off of holds.
After more than an hour of extremely slow, painful progress, an icy wind struck me in the face as I beheld the beautiful Timpanogos Basin.
A humpy, snow covered collection of hillocks cowering on the lap of the mountain, with an Emerald lake on the south side, and other peaks rising all around, the Basin became one of my favorite alpine retreats. The Timpanogos “glacier” curved up from Emerald Lake to a ridge. On the other side of the peak, the same ridge continued north, and I could see where my trail climbed to meet it. Once on that ridge, I would have beautiful views to the west, where I would see the now-tiny towns and cities clustering below.
But alas! It was 11:30, and with the deep snow, I guessed that it would be another 2 painful hours to the summit. Kris needed a polarizing filter to do photography on Saturday, and I wanted to buy this for her while she was at work. I also wanted to spend the evening with her, rather than racing down the mountain after dark alone. Clouds had moved in and a rainstorm was predicted for the next day. Meanwhile, the winds had picked up, and plumes of snow blew in front of me and behind.
It was not to be…
I lay down on some still-sunny rocks for a while and absorbed the great silence and majesty of the place, putting on warmer layers and eating “Nutter-butter” cookies. With a sigh, I began the descent, promising to return one day.
Going down was a bit hairy due to unstable snow. Usually, I could plunge-step down very steep slopes, one confident stride after the other. But entire snowbanks seemed to collapse on my approach here. Finally, on the last exposed stretch, I resorted to kicking 10 times with each heel to get to stable snow, my arms sinking deep into the slope behind me. I did not want to fall here, as I would be unable to self-arrest.
After that, the rest of the way down seemed easy. Interestingly, mud that was frozen in the morning had now thawed, and I splashed and slipped along for miles, sometimes skating on the mud/ice combination!
Returning to the car at 2:30, I picked up a note on the dashboard which said: “The gates are locked. Someone will patrol to let you out.”
Oh no! Am I in trouble? When will someone come?!? What will Kris think!
I got in the car and raced back to the gate. Sure enough, it was locked, and I was not about to try going around due to the sheer drop off on one side.
I knew that 15 miles away on the other end of this road there was a gate…maybe I would have better luck there! I felt like a kid who had been locked in the mall at night as I zoomed along the scenic Alpine Loop. I had the place all to myself! I wondered why the road was closed, since it was in fine condition, and below the snowline.
Finally, I got to the other gate, and found it locked! But 100 yards down the road was a green truck. I got out and ran to it. A rugged old man with one arm stood by it and almost before I could get a word out said: “yeah, yeah, I’ll let you out.”
I apologized, and felt very embarrassed. “Everybody screws up sometime,” he advised me. I helped him with the heavy gate and with a wave I was free. He was the only person I saw all day!
Getting Kris’s filter was almost as much of an adventure too!
I brought Kris back the next day to a trailhead that was open, but the good weather had been replaced with rain and hail. Still, she got many pictures of icy waterfalls…I hope they come out well!