Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Shoulder season bites back

This past summer seemed like a charmed one. It arrived late enough that it never wore out its welcome. Despite embarking on lots of day-long bike rides and not a small number of high mountain adventures, I was never caught out in a thunderstorm. (After June 21, that is. I was battered by a couple of terrible hailstorms when the season was still technically spring. But I'll count an easy July and August as a win.) Colorado's wildfire season was relatively tamped down, and there wasn't a single day that smoky air kept me indoors. I think I only complained about the heat once on my blog, and perhaps three times on Strava, which is a decent track record for me. Summer can be a tough season to endure, but this one just coasted. 

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the arrival of autumn seemed abrupt. After the trip across the Grand Canyon, I'd tentatively planned to head up to Wyoming and backpack the Teton Crest. We hadn't even left Arizona when my dreams were dashed by a late September storm that dumped more than three feet of snow on the Tetons — and I didn't have snowshoes, winter boots, or any camping gear that could withstand temperatures much colder than 25F.

Instead, I figured I'd spend an extra couple of days in Utah. I became fixated on the idea of climbing Mount Timpanogos, but Dad suggested that Sunday's winter storm likely dumped a fair amount of snow on its 11,749-foot summit, and I was still lacking winter gear. Instead, we embarked on mellow Monday morning hike along the Wasatch Crest Trail, straddling Big Cottonwood Canyon and Park City.

For 13 miles we meandered along the ridge and descended through lovely aspen stands. This no doubt would be a spectacular fall color hike, but we were still early for the golden display. We stopped for lunch at Dog Lake, where we were harassed by a trio of ducks (ducks bite! Who knew?) One of the ducks had a badly broken leg, hopping around so pitifully that we gave her some bread, thereby contributing to the bad behavior. Dad and I spent the remainder of the miles scheming a hiking trip in Switzerland next summer. I think it really might happen!

On Wednesday I planned to head home, but I still couldn't get Timpanogos out of my head. Why? Well, I've been meaning to make a pilgrimage back here for some time now. Nearly two decades, actually, counting my failures along the way. Timpanogos was my first "big" mountain, which I climbed with my dad at age 16. Climbing 4,500 feet in 7.5 miles along the popular Timpooneke route, it was was massively challenging, shredding my uncalloused feet and wringing all of the strength from my young legs. Yet standing at the summit, gazing across Utah Lake and realizing that every single road and building in all of the Utah Valley was in view, I felt an effervescent mixture of astonishment and reverence. I felt both self-respect for declaring a place on top of it all, and wisdom in the realization that I was a speck on a vast mountain. 

My most recent trip to the summit happened sometime during the summer of 2000. It may have even been early October, as I recall a proximity to Halloween. Two friends and I met at the trailhead at 1 a.m. — our intention being to hike through the night so we could stand on the summit at sunrise. Predictably the night was cold and we were too sleepy to function, guzzling far too much Dr. Pepper and singing at the top of our lungs to stay awake, "Timpooneke, Timpooneke, pretty spooky, pretty spooky." I think we gave ourselves close to six hours to hike to the summit by sunrise and didn't achieve it, finally arriving well into the glare of daylight. I recall squinting toward the eastern horizon, with its ripple of mountain ridges rendered by the morning sun into a geometric gradient, and marveling at how far we'd come. I'd only recently graduated from college, and every horizon held seemingly infinite possibilities.

The Timpanogos night hike was a memorable journey. It was hard to believe I hadn't been back since. There were a few tries — a half-hearted effort while I was visiting from Idaho during summer 2005, when I just gave up because I was tired and my feet hurt and I was pretty sure I no longer enjoyed physical challenges. (Really I was just depressed and about to follow my quarter-life crisis to Alaska, and wow was my life about to change.) After that, there were only the two shoulder-season attempts — once in November 2012 with Beat and Dad, and once in October 2013 with Dad, when we were shut down by dangerous snow conditions. I know, there are thousands of mountains out there, why keep bothering with this one? But Timpanogos was my first love. Nineteen years is a long absence.

So I was driving away from my parents' house not terribly early Wednesday morning, and stopped at a light about two blocks away, wavering on whether to turn north, toward my route home, or south, toward Timpanogos. I genuinely couldn't decide — snow cover still seemed likely, and it was a long effort to take on for a day that was also supposed to contain a nine-hour drive. But almost without deciding, I found myself veering toward Draper and the winding climb over South Mountain to American Fork Canyon.

When I arrived at the trailhead, it was 34 degrees and breezy. I'd dressed for what I assumed would be a mild-weather jaunt on either Grandeur Peak or some sort of trail run in Wyoming, so I quickly added more layers, water and food to my backpack. The first 3,500 feet of climbing were uneventful. There was almost no snow on the trail, which was a surprise. The temperature was brisk, so I moved with purpose, more or less keeping pace with a trail runner who was wearing shorts and light vest over a long-sleeved shirt while carrying a tiny pack. He really didn't seem to be dressed for the weather and was actually running, yet I kept seeing him on switchbacks just ahead. Sure enough, I saw his silhouette briefly crest the saddle before he promptly turned around. He passed without a word, descending quickly. "It's always crazy windy up there," I remembered.

I had no idea what was coming. Just above the saddle, the summit ridge was completely enshrouded in cloud. I snapped this photo during a rare moment of clearing, but more often visibility was near zero; I could barely see my shoes when I looked down. Fog tore sideways across the talus on a fearsome gale; it was difficult to brace myself against the gusts, which likely topped 50 mph. It was *so* cold. If trailhead temperatures were close to freezing, I think it's fair to say it was 20 or even 15 degrees here at 11,700 feet ... but windchill is what counts. If you asked me to guess the temperature, I would have said 20 below. Of course it's early in the season and these things always feel worse than they do once you become more acclimated, but damn. This felt like the worse place in the world. I wanted to be anywhere else but here.

A deeper fear of failure drove me forward, picking my way along narrow rock shelves notched against sheer cliffs, scrutinizing each step into the white void. Here was a place I hadn't been in 19 years, and I was relying on memory to piece together a route that involves a few short scrambles up rock faces, and a trail that's barely discernible in the scree. And this slope is popular enough that there are footprints everywhere. At one point I picked my way down the edge of a cliff, thinking I needed to scramble up an adjacent gully. But as I began the climb, the loose-scree gully quickly became steeper and steeper, until the grade was clearly, "If you start to slide, you'll probably keep sliding."

"There aren't any death gullies on the main route to Timp, are there?" I loudly vocalized my question into the wind. "No, pretty sure no death gullies on the main route to Timp." I turned around, and had to consult my GPS several times for breadcrumbs pointing the way back.

GPS told me I was only about 150 vertical feet to the summit, and by that point I was truly done. I very nearly turned around there. I couldn't see the trail, I was so very cold, my fingers were numb, my toes were numb, and I was definitely not going to Alaska this year, no way, I'm done being cold, cold wind sucks. It was just then that two faint figures appeared in the fog. They were only about five feet away when I finally saw them, and standing next to me before I realized they weren't dressed all in white — they were coated in frost. Their black wool hats and fuzzy black hoodies were fully encrusted in white ice. One looked at toward me with frosted eyelashes and a bright-red face, and I realized they were both young women, probably about 21 or 22 years old. Given our location, I assumed they were BYU students, enough so that I consciously censored my inner monologue. Instead, I shouted:

"Holy cow, you guys are frosty!"

"I know!" the red-faced woman shouted with an electric sort of glee in her voice. "Isn't this awesome?"

With that, we all continued. No stopping in this gale. But I was awe, and revitalized by her buoyant enthusiasm. "There is a woman who is going places," I thought.

Of course my body was still uncomfortably cold and not warming up, and the wind was still as fearsome and scary as every. At the little summit shack I tore open my backpack and put on everything I had with me — a puffy over my shell jacket already covering a primaloft vest and base layer. Hiking gaiters over my shoes. Mittens over my gloves. That was it. My backpack was empty. Really, that amount of clothing is nearly what I would wear if it was -20 in Alaska, but it was early October in Utah and it didn't feel like nearly enough layers. Luckily I had no problems route-finding on the way down, and escaped the terrible summit ridge quickly. At least my heart warmed with the satisfaction of finally, after all these years, achieving the summit of Timpanogos. The hoards who climb it in August have no idea what they're missing.

Those mere two miles on the summit ridge beat every last ounce of energy out of me. It was enough that I couldn't bare the thought of the nine-hour drive that awaited me at the trailhead. But ... if I spent enough time on this hike ... I'd have the perfect excuse to only drive partway and spring for a hotel room so I could sleep with the heater cranking at full blast. This was how I made the decision to loop the route by crossing the snowfield below the cliffs and joining the southern trail into Aspen Grove. Thus, this became a 20-mile day with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing. But it sure beats driving!

Early in the climb I neglected to blow the water back into my hydration bladder, and the hose had been solidly frozen for hours. I'd been too cold to eat anything as well. By hour five without food and water, a bonk had clamped down hard. Still the shiver monster continued to stalk me, and I was too anxious to stop walking. I was nearly to Aspen Grove and still wearing everything. By this point temperatures were balmy 42 degrees, and I was again meeting trail runners in shorts. I imagined myself as the reanimated corpse of a dead mountaineer, frozen stiff inside this puffy jacket and zombie-walking down the trail.

I connected the two trailheads on a series of horse trails — Lame Horse and Horse Flats were two of the names — that looked like great mountain bike trails but seemed to see a lot of motorcycle use. This whole route is fantastic ... well, minus the flash-freezing summit cloud ... and I hope to return again, hopefully sooner than 19 years from now.

I blasted the car heater on high all the way to Rock Springs. En route I also indulged in necessary rehydration with a 64-ounce (yes, you read that correctly) tanker of Diet Pepsi. My most egregious vice ... which I'd ultimately pay for with a terrible night of sleep when I had to get up five times in the night, either with a full bladder or painful cramping from my hamstrings. The following day I was still driving and still in possession of an excuse for an rest-stop adventure, so I veered down to scenic highway 130 and a newer favorite of mine, Medicine Bow Peak.

This seven-mile loop starts at 10,000 feet and tops out at 12,000 feet. A lot of the route is on talus and boulders, so it's not all that runnable, but I was feeling surprisingly peppy given the altitude and how much I'd buried myself the previous day. It helped that it was a good 50 degrees warmer — 62 at the trailhead, and although breezy not that much cooler on the summit. At 12,000 feet in Wyoming. Weird. I had been chatting with two friends about embarking on a bike overnight the following day. Since I still hadn't really tried to use my left hand since I injured it three weeks earlier, I made the logical decision to remove my wrist brace and do the whole seven miles with my single trekking pole in my bad hand, to make sure it was up to the task. This all went quite well, as long as I chose to ignore the dull, aching pain, which I did.

From the summit of Medicine Bow Peak, gazing south toward Lookout Lake and an expanse of buttes and basins, eventually reaching the North Platte River gorge where it flows into northern Colorado. I appreciate the way summits put the landscape and consequently life in perspective. Sometimes the climb is effortless and you can see a hundred miles in all directions. Sometimes it's arduous and tears you to pieces and you can't even see your feet through the fog. Sometimes 19 years go by between visits, and even amid the whiteout you can clearly see how everything is both different and unchanged. Sometimes only a year has gone by, and already the memories are blurred enough to blend with the present, and you'll simply wonder if you're stronger than you were in 2018. You'll ask yourself, "does it matter?"

Time marches on, either way.

1 comment:

  1. Ugh we never even had a summer (you would love it) and now it is winter! I'm unreasonably angry about this. However, nothing to do but adapt. I'm impressed how you manage to make the best of your road trips. I power through like a zombie and arrive unexercised and hangry. I like your method better.


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