Nearly every autumn since 2004, my dad and I have traveled to the Grand Canyon to hike from rim to rim. Traveling from Idaho or Alaska or Montana or California, rain or snow or 110 degrees at the Colorado River, south to north or north to south, hiking with a big group or a few friends or just my dad and me — I love our annual R2R. It is my favorite tradition. We always plan the trip a year in advance, and 2013 was to be a first for me — a Rim to Rim to Rim, over two days, spending a relaxing night with my mom on the South Rim before turning around and heading north again. But it was not to be. The federal government shutdown cut access to the Grand Canyon, and Arizona's deal to reopen it wasn't reached in time to save the trip. I already had nonrefundable tickets to Salt Lake City, so I decided to travel out for the weekend anyway, and salvage some of the tradition by spending time with my dad in the Wasatch Mountains.
Of course, I had to hit the double jackpot of bad timing when my trip coincided perfectly with a winter storm that hammered the mountains. In the two weeks prior, my dad had climbed a couple of favorite mountains and enjoyed warm weather and good conditions. But this storm was likely the one that will close off the Wasatch high country to anyone who isn't a serious backcountry skier or mountaineer for the rest of the season. I had traveled out to Utah with Grand Canyon gear — ever the optimist — and wasn't well equipped for winter conditions in the mountains. But I had rain gear so we set out on Thursday for a peaceful and sleety hike to Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood Canyon. I enjoyed the brisk weather and time with my dad.
By Friday we were feeling ambitious and decided to check out the conditions on Mount Timpanogos, starting from Aspen Grove near Sundance Ski Resort. We should have known better, given we tried this route last year around Thanksgiving and discovered that it's not doable under snow cover given the steepness of this aspect. But I was hopeful that the recent snow was just a dusting and we'd be able to follow the summer trail.
Starting out around 8:15 a.m., temperatures were in the low 30s and it looked like it would be a fabulous bluebird day.
A low fog moved in but the sun continued to needle through, highlighting a fading but diverse pallet of fall colors.
The snow cover quickly became deeper as we gained elevation, and was already windblown enough that drifts frequently buried the trail. Soon the steep switchbacks were entirely hidden underneath a smooth, powdery snow slope, climbing at 35- to 45-degree angles, sometimes steeper. The powder snow didn't consolidate underneath our feet and we had a lot of difficulty gaining traction as we crawled up the slope on our hands and knees. Of course it didn't take long to lose the route. And from this aspect of Timpanogos, you really have to stick to the route because everything else is a cliff. We ended up right back where we were last year, somewhere around 9,500 feet altitude, staring up at the cliffs in bewilderment and declaring a dead end.
I've never hiked to Timpanogos from Aspen Grove, even in the summer, so I didn't know where the route was. But after observing the rim earlier, I had a sense that it was likely cut into a more open drainage to the right, and I was determined to find a way over there, "just to look and see." I punched a trench up this near-vertical gully and then picked my way along the base of an imposing cliff band. Although I told my dad I'd return after my scouting trip, he followed my tracks along the meandering and sometimes precarious route. Later, we would look up at this spot from below and be flabbergasted at how we managed to pick our way through that section; it all looked like cliffs. But I never sensed it was too dangerous (not enough snow cover for avalanches), and sure enough we did find our way back to the discernible outline of a switchbacking trail.
Meanwhile, snow was ripping off the Timpanogos summit at an alarming rate. When I lived in Juneau, I learned how to gauge summit wind speeds by observing the movement of clouds streaming off the ridge. I'm rusty on this skill, but based on past experience I'd say it was easily blowing 50 to 60 miles per hour up there. And it was not warm. My Camelback valve and hose froze outside my coat, indicating temperatures below freezing at that elevation. Even in the relative protection of the basin, the wind blew 20 to 30 miles per hour, and windchills cut through to the core.
I'd just spent the past month doing nightly sauna training and biking in 80-degree heat just so I'd be well acclimated in case it was a hot year in the Grand Canyon. All of that preparation did me exactly no good here in the Wasatch. These were full winter conditions, complete with fierce wind and sugary snow. My gear was not great — Hoka trail-running shoes and a single pair of Drymax socks on my feet, a single pair of fleece gloves that was neither water nor windproof on my hands, and an old rain coat instead of a real winter shell. But I had a great new Patagonia primaloft puffy that I'd recently acquired for Alaska, and I was very grateful to have that piece. Because my torso was toasty warm, my extremities managed to stay relatively comfortable. My dad struggled a bit more with his hands and feet, and had to break out the handwarmers.
We climbed above Emerald Lake Basin to the edge of the cliffs over the Timpooneke basin, 500 feet below. The first 200 feet are a sheer drop, and the mountain tumbles steeply into them. In the summer there's a good trail carved into this rim, but it was entirely obscured by wind-loaded powder. Sometimes we be flailing around in waist-deep drifts, only to have the next step be onto slippery, ice-coated rocks covered in about an inch of polished snow crust. Meanwhile, the sideslope became steeper, the cliffs grew closer, and both my dad and I were nervous. At this point the saddle wasn't far, and we were nearly as high in altitude, but I had strong doubts we'd want to continue to the summit. "The windchill is going to be zero degrees or lower up there," I reasoned, "and the wind is probably so strong that we'll feel like we're getting blown off the mountain." Continuing this sketchy traverse where any slip on hidden ice would likely mean a 500-foot death plunge, just to reach a saddle where we'd turn around right away, did not seem worth it. My dad asked if I was disappointed that we missed a summit yet again. Hell no. "I've had enough terror hiking this summer," I told him.
We ate a quick and uncomfortable lunch in the little hut above Emerald Lake. The back wall, the one facing the wind, was half blown off and the shelter provided little protection from the brutal windchill. "Just think," I said to my dad. "Right about now we'd be at Phantom Ranch, sitting in the shade in 80-degree sunshine and sipping on fresh lemonade. But the Grand Canyon shut down so instead we're here!" I'm not sure he found this as humorous as I did. He didn't laugh.
Luckily, we found the real trail to follow downhill, so the descent was uneventful. The cold wind only picked up in strength as we lost elevation, making me feel grateful we didn't attempt to climb higher.
It is gorgeous, this mountain and its surrounding valleys.
Timpanogos was the first mountain I ever climbed, back in the summer of 1995. I haven't been back to the top since 2000. But I will return someday. Dad says I should try visiting during a proper summer month, the time of year when one can run to the top on a nice, smooth trail. But I do enjoy the challenges of the shoulder seasons, even if they shut me down time and time again.