I tapped on Joe Bullough’s door to let him know that I had arrived to pick him up – today we were going to climb Mt Timpanogos via its broad western slopes, a massif rising over 6,000 ft above the suburban sprawl that is Utah Valley.
We had weathered several weeks of the snowstorms and high avalanche dangers that had prevented us from climbing Sundance Ridge and the ridgeline of the Timpanogos massif, and with the danger lowering to LOW-MODERATE I was eager to do more ambitious climbs than we had been limited to so far in the year. Neither of us had enough time to do our Timp ridgeline ‘project’ that weekend, but the Everest Ridge (aka. Big Baldy Ridge) on the west side of Mt Timpanogos seemed perfect for a single day climb.
Since New Years eve the mountains had seen sustained high winds from the west, a recent thaw, and currently, an inversion with nighttime temperatures below freezing. This, I reasoned, would result in a hardened snowpack with a frozen crust on the western and southern slopes along that ridge, making for a perfect snow climb. Such conditions would also make our plan of climbing 6,560 ft in a day during the middle of winter feasible.
We had planned on meeting at Joe’s house at 1:00 am, but a Sundance movie that I was attending ran later than expected. This left me no time to sleep and no real dinner, both of which became problematic later. Luckily I wasn’t seriously late and we were soon on our way to Utah (Happy) Valley.
My attempt to make up for lost time on the drive was hampered by the weather. A thick fogbank had rolled into the Salt Lake and Utah Valleys. Although I had to slow down, we were lucky enough to find our way to the trailhead with only one missed turn and a run-in with some deer wandering the foggy hillside suburbs of Orem. We didn’t know what to expect at the trailhead due to all of the recent housing developments in the area, but luckily it was easy to find and had a good parking lot.
The fog/smog created by the inversion ended just below the trailhead, leaving us with a crystal clear night sky and a full moon to enjoy. The metropolitan region below us was nowhere to be seen.
With our 30lb daypacks strapped on, we headed up a rough trail that soon dumped us into the riverbed of Dry Canyon. For a while the trail was clear and easy to follow, but soon the rocks encountered became larger and the brush began to close in. Joe and I suspected something was wrong but we pressed on ahead anyways since our speed still seemed reasonably fast. After a while I began to get fed up with our ‘trail’ and decided that we must have lost the real trail and that it was probably on the northern end of the canyon above the creek. I kept a sharp lookout on that end of the creek and soon I saw a wall of boards on the slope above. That was either the trail or a pipeline – either way, better check it out.
It was the trail! Free of rocks, level, and clear of vegetation, this highway allowed us to make significantly better progress up the canyon. Soon we reached a clear meadow. The moonlit form of Timpanogos loomed above us, while the lights of Utah Valley shown below. The clouds obscured most of the detail, making the city lights appear as surreal colored clusters of glowing orbs in the clouds below. A string of orbs was probably I-15, but beyond that there were no recognizable signs that the surreal night landscape below us was a city.
The trail soon left the meadow and continued along the steep southern slopes of Mt Baldy. We soon encountered some rock hard patches of snow. Luckily the trail was well traveled and there was a cluster of footprints showing us the way to go all the way to the Big Baldy saddle. Once the trail got into some deeper brush the snow softened (probably due to it receiving less sunlight) and we had to break out our snowshoes. The trail turned north and steepened considerably. Soon we reached the border of a clearing allowing an uninterrupted view of the snow slopes rising over 3,000 feet straight up above us. The entire length of Everest Ridge was in full view, and the sight of such a long, open, and continuously steep ridge was at the same time intimidating and exhilarating.
Rather than follow the edge of the clearing the rest of the way to the Big Baldy saddle, Joe and I cut across the open slopes and followed a faint ridge that became absorbed in the southern spur of Everest ridge. The ridge provided some better views of the mountain, as well as some strange hiking over the large contoured cuts in the slope that are common in this part of the Wasatch Mountains. Due to the overgrazing allowed by the earlier settlers, the hillsides had to have giant contoured steps cut into them to mitigate erosion and to allow the vegetation to grow back.
We reached the base of Everest Ridge. We had come 3 miles and 3,000 vertical feet since the trailhead. Now we had 3,500 feet to gain in the last 1.5 miles before the summit.
The moonlight was so bright on the snow that we no longer needed our headlamps, so Joe and I stowed them and our snowshoes and got out our crampons and ice axes. I headed up the steep headwall of the southern spur on the ridge. At the steepest point I measured the slope with my inclinometer – 50o! Steeper than I had expected to find on the route, and also the steepest slope measured that day - I found the rest of the ridge to be between the 30o-40o range.
The steep slope was sustained and the horizon continued to roll away from me as I climbed higher. Mt Baldy soon fell far below us. Our calves burned from the strain – in order to save our legs we alternated between different foot positions, a little pied troiseme (Three-o’clock) here, some French technique on diagonal lines there, and a lot of duck walking with French technique.
After about an hour and a half we reached our first cliff band. Rather than leave the ridge to traverse around it, we searched for a way that we could climb up it with our crampons on. Joe found a nice line a little to the south of the main ridge. A small rock spire jutted out from the cliff, which provided an excellent stepping stone for getting up the cliff. The rock was mostly solid and very blocky. There were many small ledges, but almost everything was normal to the cliff or sloped slightly downward. This made the final move onto the snow-covered talus a little awkward with the mantle moves. Overall it was a fun 20 ft section of mixed scrambling to break up the monotony of the snowclimb.
The sky was beginning to lighten up – the sun was finally rising! We scrambled over some rock blocks jutting out of the snow and climbed to the top of a small rise, and from there we could see the remainder of the ridge.
Joe is rather like me in that we both love to take photos of our climbs, and with the sun beginning to rise we whipped out our cameras and in vain began snapping away. The light was still to faint for our digital cameras to capture much, especially since they wouldn’t let us take timed exposures. Luckily I got a couple to come out crisp by using my ice axe as a tripod. A gorgeously sculpted bowl of snow stretched out before us, its sinuous crest leading the way up the final headwall before a short flat section and then the crux of the route, known as the ‘step’. The step is a large cliff band, perhaps some 100 ft thick that extends several hundred feet north and south of the ridgeline before retreating into the slopes of Timpanogos. This crux in normally bypassed by traversing around to the south, and this is where our problems began.
Traversing north or south required traversing on a slope that passed between the ‘step’ and another set of large cliffs below. The space between the cliffs was angled back at about 40 degrees and was some 100 ft wide – a bad place to be caught in an avalanche. The current cycle of avalanches were comprised of wet slides on southern aspects, and the avalanche danger rose as the snow became heated. Because of this I was wary of following the standard traverse along the south slope of the ridge, since we would have to come back across this slope later in the day. I could see the debris of a number of wet slides on the southern aspects surrounding us. Warning bells were going off in my head. The north facing slopes looked OK, there were no slides that I could see breaking off of them – let’s take the northern traverse. Joe was more wary of traversing north than south – he was predominantly concerned with the dry slides that are more common in Utah, which break off of the northern and eastern aspects.
Sunrise from the Everest Ridge route. (by Joe Bullough)
I gave in and tried the southern traverse. I made it out about 50 feet before I turned back – the snow was very hard, making it very slow and difficult to kick steps. Then I came to an ice sheet just as the slope steepened. I front-pointed partway out on it and then came back. I would have been fine if I had had two ice axes, but since I only had one mountaineering ice axe, I had to balance on my toes when I re-set my axe. I doubted that I could self arrest on this +40o slope before I went over the cliffs below me and I was aware that the ice sheet I was on was a thin sun crust. What if the crust broke underneath one of my crampons as the sun heated it?
Begining the traverse below "the Step". (by Joe Bullough)
Defeated, I came back to the ridge. Joe was still resistant to traversing to the north, so we compromised by going up a sliver of snow that cut straight up the cliffs. I had been checking out that sliver as a possible route from lower down on the ridge, and it looked feasible, apart from it ending about 15-20 feet short of the top of the cliffs. The first section involved ascending a steep section of snow bordering a 20 ft band of cliffs. I front pointed with my left foot while climbing on the rock to my right – one foot on rock, the other on snow. A short ascending traverse through mixed snow and rock brought me to the final cliff. It was encrusted in a thick coating of rime. I hacked away at the rime for about 10 minutes. By then I had uncovered enough hand and footholds to climb partway up the cliffs and find a good handhold. I hung there and hacked away at the remaining rime for another good while.
Eventually the rock was completely free of rime and my arms were pumped. I climbed up a bit higher and could touch the snow above the cliffs. I had made it! I searched around for a good solid handhold to cling to while I replaced my crampon points and stood up, but all I could find were small flat and sloping blocks with a dusting of snow. The snow above the cliffs was steep and powdering, covering loose scree. Then I made a mistake – I looked down. If my hands slipped on the awkward mantle moves required I would free fall about 15 feet and land on the steep hard packed snow below and take off like a rocket for the first 60 feet before flying over another 20 foot cliff band, and then another 100 feet before I went off the big cliff below. I lost my stomach for making the final move and came back down.
The 'step' crux of Everest Ridge, seen from the SW as we descended.
For the past half hour or so I was feeling some vertigo and fatigue, probably a combination of sleep deprivation, lack of food (we had hardly stopped to eat that day, which didn’t help me since I hadn’t had much of a dinner the night before), and dehydration (since our camelbacks froze and we didn’t stop for water breaks to compensate). My drive had been adversely affected, but so had my thinking. Joe was worried about the possibility of a dry avalanche on the north traverse. The stability of the snow pack for such a slide could easily be ascertained by digging a simple snowpit! Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier! I dug a pit and found a weak layer about 4 inches down. I tested the layer for shear and it refused to give. The layer was stable and the snow was likely to be safe.
For some reason we didn’t continue on. My hands were numb and stinging very badly, so I tried to warm them. I felt depleted of energy to push on the summit and drifted in and out of sleep as we moped around the ‘step’ deciding whether or not to continue. Then we descended.
By this time the sun was fully out and it was a warm clear day. The Salt Lake metropolitan area was still nowhere to be seen, hidden by the murky clouds below. Our mood lightened as we descended – now was a perfect time to take pictures! We hadn’t taken any on our way up since it was still dark, so now was the time to make up for that. We found a lot of great shots and poses. I also had some fun practicing some self arrests on the steep slopes, throwing myself flat on my back headfirst down the slope. The snow had softened up and we had some good long glissades down the ridge and soon reached the Big Baldy Saddle. From there we headed down to the trailhead and reached the car by 1:30 pm.
Joe and I were tired and depressed, but not defeated! Joe regretted his hypersensitivity to the nonexistent avalanche danger that day (substantiated later by the avalanche forecast for the day), and I regretted my timidity in both the traverse attempt and our push through the cliffs. We will return to finish this route the first chance we get. Next time I’m even bringing 2 ice axes and some webbing for a lightly protected belay – next time we WILL succeed.
Looking back up on the descent. "The Step" which thwarted our summit attempt on this day is the rock buttress near the top of the ridge. (by Joe Bullough)