"Life demands a substantial portion of inspiration in the daily diet... we need to raise our mental blinds and let in more light."(1). More light wasn't the issue this early Friday morning, it was the time... 4:45 AM. I had driven in last night with a reservation at the Mount Timpanogos campground just past Sundance Ski Resort and the Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference center on UT-92. This incredibly beautiful campground is surrounded by thick aspen trees and fir, hidden deep in the shade of the surrounding mountain peaks. The campsite is nice, the road is asphalt and the toilets flush. I settled in quickly and started dinner to the sounds of nearby children helping set up tents and the Aspen Grove Family Camp singing Frozen's - Let it go.
It rained off and on during the night, which in turn is part of the reason this early morning light and the chill of the night was keeping me glued to my sleeping bag. I wanted to be on the trail no later than 7:00 am. With a 13 mile hike to the summit of Mount Timpanogos and back, I was planning on anywhere between 8 and 13 hours. Eight if weather and trail were perfect, 13 hours if any of the 40% chance of rain descended on the mountain. I was counting on somewhere in between. The weather forecast had been bouncing between 60% rain and 30% with thunderstorms. I'm okay with rain at altitude, but lightening is something else entirely.
I packed the camp, ate breakfast, and loaded my backpack. The families in the campground were still sound asleep as I quietly drove through the thick forest to the main road. The Aspen Grove trailhead is a stones throw from the campground and I was surprised at the number of cars already filling the parking lot. The welcome sign included envelope and signin for $6.00 covering three days. I didn't read anything about day use, so I paid my $6.00 and hit the trail.
Mount Timpanogos trail #052 leads due west from the trailhead and wanders up the main wash. To my surprise the trail is asphalt in many places, which I latter assumed to prevent erosion.
The trail is surprisingly steep as I make my way up the path, I'm amazed how overgrown it is given the large number of visitors this path sees over the short summer season. Many hikers simply enjoying the coolness of the elevation and the abundant number of waterfalls along the trail.
I'm making good time (compared to my timetable) and I have already gotten to know several hikers who are moving about the same speed. Most hikers know the drill... Hike, pass someone taking a break, they pass you when you take a break... etc. Two interesting hiking groups which I met on my first break included a gentleman in his early 70's. We visited briefly at the trailhead while I was trying to figure out the payment system. This will be his 47th summit of Mount Timpanogos, he climbed it first at age 8. The second group was a father and son and this will be his first summit ascent at age 9. Very fun to get to know this group. The father and son were moving along faster than I and I would see them off and on again the rest of the day. The older (and wiser) gentleman, must have turned back at some point during the day.
The trail switch's back and forth through the lush vegetation until it finally breaks free into the rocky terrain of high alpine country. The hiking is decidedly easier after the grueling ascent as fresh mountain lakes of still melting snow dot the surrounding hillside.
Making my way onto the rubble strewn hillside I can see people making their way off of the summit along the ridge line to the south. An abundant number of clouds are also forming as the 40% chance of thunder showers is starting to materialize. One final push will bring me to the ridge line and a saddle which will open views to the southwest and Utah Lake. The view is stunning, what is viewed... not so much.
A massive thunderstorm is pounding the valley and mountains to the south. I watch and wait, trying to judge the storms time and distance. The Y Mountain and Provo Peak is awash in rain. I can hear thunder and soon a lightening bolt streaks the sky. Not good. Another group I've been back and forth with are done. They aren't going to attempt the steep rocky trail. The exposure is enormous and although I don't feel any wind, I would not want to hike back along this terrain. The storm appears to be moving slow, so I decide to continue on. Soon one of the other hikers is with me. Younger and having abandoned his pack he is really moving. I move to the next section which opens up even more views to the south.
Here I meet the father and son again, they had made it to the peak and spent two minutes to high five before they high tailed it off the summit. I double check my TOPO for distance; no chance. I will hit the summit the same time the storm does. All one has to do is Google "Mount Timpanogos rescue" to be aware of how often the Timpanogos Emergency Response Team is sent out to rescue someone trapped on this mountain. I decide to call it a day.
With the summit in plain view I head back down. Soon the younger man moves up behind me moving fast again. With renewed optimism I ask him if he had made the summit? Hoping it might be closer that I read on the TOPO. No such luck, he wasn't going to be stuck either. I watched as he semi jogged down the trail to the saddle.
Just below the saddle a group of 4 was huddled in a crack. They were planning on waiting out the storm. As I hiked back down the rocky trail I wondered if that perhaps wasn't the best option. I try really hard not to second guess my back country decisions. Decisions made in real time with unpredictable weather and other types of situations pitted against experience has led me to let some summits go (see my three strikes rule) with the concept "Live to hike/climb/ski another day" philosophy. Still this was a tough summit to pass up. The mountain will be here, I want to make sure I am. So I continued down the trail.
Soon clouds poured over the summit and with it not rain but hail. I noticed the huddled group of 4 leaving the saddle and making their way down the trail. After about a hour of light hail and swirling clouds the extreme weather never hit. And that's how it works in the back country; if I had been 45 minutes faster or 2 hours slower the summit would have been mine. I learned a long time ago that the "gut rules the measurement"(2), some people will gladly keep hiking while others will keep SAR's teams busy. If we all valued risk and reward the same way many summits would never have been climbed.
1 The Majesty of Books by Sterling W. Sill
2 Against the Gods The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein