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Moose empasse

June 27, 2009

The quick takeaway:  even late June may not be a good time to bag the higher Wasatch peaks in Utah.

A purchase of a treadmill earlier this year led to a very strange idea:  Why not have a vacation where I visit the rail origin of my treadmill?  It was shipped out of Ogden, Utah, and, hey, there’s an ultramarathon in Ogden in June!  OK, it’s barely an ultramarathon – purportedly 28 miles, though with how the map’s been done, it may actually be 23, or 24, or 26, or…

Well, any rate, a run in the mountains in Utah in June sounded just about blissful back in February, so I signed up.

A month ago, airline prices plummeted and I was able to pick up airline tickets for about $200 from Chicago.  Thus, the two days out and two days back became two days for hiking in Utah instead.  Hooray!

I decided to pick North Orem as a base of operations for the first two hikes – south of Salt Lake City and close (relatively speaking) to the two highest Wasatch peaks – Mt. Nebo about forty miles south, and Mt. Timpanogos approximately straight above.

As many of you know, I’ve been all over the west and have ran ultramarathons and hiked extensively in Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and California – but Utah was a state I’ve only ever driven through and flown over, despite having some of the most interesting geography around. It’s not Montana (it doesn’t have grizzlies), it’s not Colorado (it’s not as tall, but also boasts much much lower valleys), and it’s not Nevada (the hills are alive with wildlife and vegetation) – but it has a very unique charm that I’ve grown quite fond of.

Thursday saw a relatively late (6:00 am) start, and as I headed south of Orem for the 50 or so mile drive, I saw, clear in the montain air – Mt. Nebo looming far to the south.  Like several other major Utah peaks, Nebo just rises out of nowhere, with about seven thousand vertical feet difference between the top and the bottom.  Part of this is Utah’s lakes – the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake make for an odd western boundary, but help explain some of the massive vertical differences (I don’t know the geography here, but do plan on buying a book and reading up on it).

I hit what I think is the correct Mt. Nebo trailhead at about 7:00 AM and immediately start ascending.

Mt. Nebo 009

I start climbing, and climbing, and climbing – I’m out of breath very quickly and estimate I’m climbing at about a 30% grade. The trail isn’t switchbacking much and almost feels like a game trail, as I have to scratch my way through sage brush and low red oak bushes.  The trail becomes hard to find in spots but I eventually catch a ridge, and it’s amazing how fast I’m climbing.

Mt. Nebo 045

Lots of Indian Paintbrush though!
Mt. Nebo 046

Though as you can see, the trail doesn’t screw around with gaining elevation!

Mt. Nebo 028

If I had had a USGS map, at this point I probably could have figured out I was on the wrong ridge.  I should be on Andrews Ridge, which is actually the ridge right of center.  In my defense, I think I _am_ on Andrews Ridge, as I took the Andrews Ridge trailhead. Makes sense, right?  (Ironically, I did not even realize this until I was driving out and thought, wait, I just passed the wrong campground… then realized I took a trailhead three miles south of the one I intended). Nebo has three main summits – the true summit is the one to the right (the North summit).  The correct trail (from the ridge you can see) climbs horizontally up to the left and catches the ridge to the left of the South summit.  The trail I’m on would eventually catch up to the correct trail after countouring through several small drainages – which happend to face to the Northeast.

I keep climbing, and the east facing slopes continue to be insanely steep, with a lot of runoff from the snowpacks above forming some beautiful waterfalls in the distance, though my iPhone didn’t catch these well

Mt. Nebo 038

I manage to make it up to almost 10,000 feet when I hit a series of snowfields, and realize I’m not going any further without an ice axe and crampons.

Mt. Nebo 022

So, a bit of a disappointment, but I head back down.  It was a soid workout, to say the least, but I know my limits, and traversing 30-40 degree snowfields without equipment is beyond me!  I did see a fair amount of flora and fauna though – lots of Columbine, a nice snowshoe rabbit I almost stepped on, a couple of Ptarmigan (birds that always seem to wait until the last second to fly away from you in a VERY noisy and heart-stopping way), and a mule deer.

This morning, I check out and head to the Mt. Timpanogos trailhead, just a short drive from Orem. As I’m heading out, I notice there is someone with a University of Montana license plate parked right next to me – I take that as a good sign. Go Griz!

Then, as I’m passing through Sundance on the way up to the trailhead (yes, that Sundance), a female elk darts in front of my car.  I’m going 20 mph or so up the winding mountain road, so stop easily and she saunters out of the way. Another good sign.

I hit the trailhead, sign the trail roster, and am on my way!

First, the trail here is only climbing less than a thousand feet a mile, and I’m literally flying up the trail. It’s also wide and incredibly easy to follow and I can actually see where my feet are going to fall with each step!  I’m in heaven!

I’m taking the Timpooneke trail, which isn’t the most popular path to the top, as it’s slightly longer and involves another five miles of driving on a very narrow road through amazing thickets of aspen – the kind of road where you have to look out both your drivers and passenger side windows to watch the road.  Good times.  One of the advantages of this trail looks to be the scenery – Scout Falls quickly looms into view, and these huge falls are very photogenic

Timpanogos 011

Unfortunately, facing north, this early in the summer, the trail also tends to also act as a stream a large percentage of the time.  Not a huge deal, as the trail is wide and it makes the hike interesting.  I slip easily into a good pace (looking down only infrequently to plan where my next half dozen footsteps). And fortunately I’m looking up as I switch left around a tree and bump into Mr. Bullwinkle:

Timpanogos 018

Now, I’ve ran into a lot of animals on the trail – bear, buffalo, elk, deer, pikas, chipmunks (one that even drew blood, but that’s cause I tripped trying not to step on it), rabbits, squirrels, snakes… but this one’s a new one to me, and I really don’t know what to do.  Here’s what I know:

1) A big mammal is standing about thirty feet from me (he was slowly descending the trail towards me
2) He isn’t acting like a threatening animal – he’s smelling the air and acting more curious than annoyed or pissed off)
3) I’m in his way

Do not taunt happy fun moose.

Do not taunt happy fun moose.

I figure I can’t do anything about 1 or 2, but I can do something about three – I downclimb from the trail (normally I’m VERY good about staying on the trail, but figure this is a permissible offtrail excuse) and make myself look small.  I’m only ten feet off the trail, but I’m also about ten feet below him, and he trots on down the trail

Timpanogos 024

I make it to the second basin above the major falls, and see.. snowfields!  Even worse, I can see the trail above and it’s heading straight for a pretty major snowfield to boot:

Timpanogos 029

I soon run into the only person who made it to the trailhead ahead of me, and he’s coming down – he made it through a few snowfields, but then turned back.  I think I make it to the same point he does – I could probably get across here, but… where does the trail go?

Timpanogos 031

So I make the easy decision to turn around.  Why easy? Well apart from the safety thing, there was also the nifty little rainstorm forming in the col – if you want to know what a rainstorm looks like forming, this will give you a pretty good idea.  If you see something like this, it’s not a horribly bad sign – you’ll probably get rained on, but these don’t generally form major thunderstorms.  However, the idea of trying to walk across snowfields while trail finding AND being rained on – decided to take a pass.

Timpanogos 040
The four miles back down the trailhead were uneventful but wet – I head back to Orem for lunch at Cafe Rio (great little Mexican chain – swear to god, this is THE best post-hike food I’ve ever had, though I do say that about any food after a good hike!)   I then take a circuitous route from Orem up to Logan (going from 20 miles south of SLC to about 60 miles NNE, and get checked into the hotel, find some bag balm at a local ranching store, find the park in the foothills where the race starts tomorrow (running into some very nice and chatty LDS volunteers getting ready for an evening of “extreme makeover” for an LDS youth group), grab some more food at Sonic, and am getting ready for the morning.  Because of the snowfields, I’m pretty well-rested to tackle the 28 mile run tomorrow (I hope) – though also have to admit it’s a bit disconcerting at the moment, watching a thunderstorm hover over Logan peak, the occasional lightning bolt striking near its crest… But the peak is not even 10,000 feet tall, and there are very few snowfields on it, so imagine tomorrow will be a question of willpower and endurance vs. a lack of crampons, so looking forward to it!

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