On Failing to Reach the Summit of Mount Timpanogos

Yesterday I attempted to hike to the top of Mt. Timpanogos, and I failed.


For several years I have had the goal to reach the top of this mountain, and time and time again I have put it off, thinking the weather would not be good, or I was not in good enough shape to do it yet, or it was a holiday or Saturday and too many people would be on the trail, or there were more important things to do that day. Whatever myriad excuses.

But yesterday I decided it was time to just do it. Virginia had to work both Friday night and Saturday morning in Orem, so I suggested we camp out Friday at our little house in Provo Canyon that we are trying to sell, and that on Saturday I would hike while she worked (she is with child so this kind of hike isn’t really a temptation for her right now). To further impel me to finish the hike (so I thought), I decided that I would hike up one trail and down a different trail. So, before her work Virginia kindly double drove with me to park my car at the Timponeeke trailhead, and then dropped me off back at the Aspen Grove trailhead where I would begin my hike. I assumed I would have no cell phone usage available to me except for perhaps at the summit of the mountain, so I would have no choice but to follow through and reach my car on the other side of the mountain.

[Some background on Mt. Timpanogos: The second-tallest peak in the Wasatch mountain range, Timpanogos towers over Orem and the other Northern communities of Utah County. Numerous schools, businesses and even an LDS temple in the area are named after the mountain. The hike up Timp is extremely popular; I easily encountered 50-100 other hikers during the several hours I was on the trail yesterday. For more info on the hike, some great descriptions and photos of both trails to the summit of Timp can be found here.]

The main difference between the two Timpanogos trails is that the Aspen Grove trail is shorter but steeper, while the Timponeeke trail is longer but allegedly more moderate a climb. Against all my prior daydreaming and planning, I decided yesterday morning that I would begin at the Aspen Grove trailhead. Descending steep terrain is hard on my knees and I don’t find it very fun, so I decided I would climb the steep trail and descend on the more moderate trail.

So I began my hike. I didn’t see anyone on the trail for the first 30 minutes or so. I passed the two waterfalls and left other people there to gawk at them and take pictures. It was 10 AM and I still had a long way to go to and must be on my way.

As I later stopped under the shade of a pine tree for my first real break at 1.5 miles or so, I began to encounter people coming down the mountain. They were almost universally younger than me, most of them probably BYU and UVU students. For one of the first times in my life I became fully cognizant of the reality that, at 30 years old, I am not in the same peer group as these kids, and at this point in my life I would never be mistaken for a college student. I’m an old man now. In retrospect this realization may have added “weight,” as it were, to my pack for the rest of the trip. I don’t know.

I continued on. For a half hour or so I totally zoned out from the trail. Suddenly the terrain changed and I realized I had traveled a fair distance without even paying attention. This made me happy because I thought it meant I had found some kind of rhythm, which could only bode well for my journey. Having once again noticed my surroundings, I stopped to take a look at the impending topography. From the outset of the hike I had noticed this imposing, impossibly high cliff ahead of the trail. I had actually noticed this feature many times while simply driving by the area on the Alpine Loop road. Most hikes I am acquainted with rely on some sort of side canyon or fork to lead the hiker up to the summit, and I had taken it for granted that this hike would be the same. Now as I looked at my environment and tried to determine where the trail would next take me, I saw that there were no side canyons ahead, no ridge to go around; I was already on the side of this cliff and there were only more switchbacks up this cliff ahead. It was the path of the trail, and it was unavoidable.

The long, gradual switchbacks that I coasted through had ended and now the steep climbing began in earnest. In places it was hard to tell what was the regular trail, what was a shortcut trail, and what was a dried up stream cascade or waterfall. People began passing me on a regular basis, some of them scurrying up or down steep shortcuts with which I wanted to have no business. I was slowing up. I had to stop a lot. I heard people above me on the trail, far away but directly above me, still on these same switchbacks on this same cliff.

I sat down on a rock and drank. People passed me. I ate a sandwich. People passed me. I stood up and walked about five steps, and found I wanted to stop again and look. I did this several more times, gaining an altitude over the course of 20 minutes that others had attained in a mere 1-2 minutes. I turned on my cell phone to check the time, and I beheld full bars with 3G? Was this a trick? It was 12:45 PM. At my one-step-per-minute rate, I knew that even if I did manage to push through and get to the meeting-place of the Aspen Grove and Timponeeke trails (all hope of reaching the summit had evaporated at this point), it could well be midnight by the time I reached my car on the other side. My wife would be off work in less than an hour. If I turned around it would not mean attempting to hitch a ride on the Alpine Loop with some shameful tale of slothfulness and failure (that’s what I have this blog for, after all); I could just call my wife to come save me!

And so that is what I did. I made it back down off the mountain safe and healthy, save some serious sunburn. TOTAL FAILURE. And yet, I had hiked enough steep miles to have more than answered any number of other hikes with a summit reached and unqualified success on the return. Mt. Olympus, for example. So where was my failure? Failure to pick the right trail? Failure to plan appropriately? Failure to persevere? Failure to bring a caffeinated drink with me?

TO BE CONTINUED, hopefully . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *