The Stars AlignLone Peak is a stunning mountain. Arguably the most difficult peak to climb within the Wasatch, its jagged summit is a prominent part of the skyline above Salt Lake City, and on a clear day from the top you can see all the way to Ben Lomond in the north and Mount Nebo in the south. Of the various types of rock found within the Wasatch, the granite in Lone Peak's alpine cirque is the best around. Just getting to the cirque requires considerable effort though, since all of the trailheads are at relatively low elevations (over a vertical mile below the summit).
After doing Twin Peaks I really wanted to climb Lone Peak as well. Unfortunately during the month of September last year it rained or snowed every single Saturday that my friend Kendrick and I were free, and as much as I like scrambling on exposed ridges, I didn't feel up to tackling the last few hundred feet in icy conditions. The arrival of a new baby and the realization of the responsibilities that come with being a dad caused me to shrink down the list of harder mountains I wanted to climb, but Lone Peak was still a must-do. During the next spring, I went on several easy, scenic hikes with the family, which helped me both get in better shape and gain a better appreciation for the amazing variety of outdoor opportunities Utah has to offer. Liz agreed to let me go on one difficult hike (but nothing technical requiring any special gear) each summer, so after getting to the top of all of the other major Wasatch peaks on my list in previous years, Lone Peak was an easy pick.
The 90-degree temperatures throughout most of the days in June and July helped melt the deep snowpack quite quickly, and each day my anticipation grew. A few weeks in advance, Kendrick and I picked August 9th for the big climb, and as the day drew closer we found a couple other friends from work who wanted to come along as well. James and his friend Todd had just backpacked up Bells Canyon the week before, so I predicted that they'd probably have the fastest pace in the group, but I wasn't sure about Scott and his girlfriend Melissa. They hadn't climbed anything as difficult as Lone Peak, so I warned them about what to expect in terms of mileage, elevation gain, technical difficulty, and the amount of water they should bring with. After several hikes with Kendrick I knew my pace would be similar to his, and since he had the route mapped out on his GPS, we'd be the ones who tried to keep everyone together. I found out that there would be several other SP members on the mountain that day as well, so getting lost wouldn't be an issue. I checked the weather forecast every day leading up to the hike, and although at first it looked like there were sure to be thunderstorms that day (I rolled my eyes and thought "here we go again"), the forecast looked much more optimistic the night before. With all the preparations in place, I went to sleep dreaming of climbing on nice, solid granite.
It took some convincing on my part to get everyone to meet at Kendrick's house in Salt Lake at 5:30 am (I would have preferred to meet even earlier), but in the end they agreed that less time on Jacobs Ladder in the hot sun was a good thing. Kendrick, James, Scott, Melissa, and I finally left Kendrick's place a little after 6, and we met Todd at the Corner Canyon gate in Draper a half hour later. The 2.6 mile dirt road to the Jacobs Ladder trailhead is definitely doable for a passenger car, but we all piled into my Explorer since that way we could drive faster without having to worry as much about all the bumps in the road. After getting all our packs loaded and applying our first coat of sunscreen, we set off up the trail.
Immediately upon going up the steep 4-wheeler trail we came across the junction splitting the main Jacobs Ladder trail from the trail to Movie Rocks (where "Devil's Brigade" was filmed). We turned right, and followed the wide trail along the gently sloping spur ridge east towards Jacobs Ladder as the horizon began to get brighter. Right off the bat I noticed that James' pace was quite a bit faster than Scott and Melissa's, so I tried to stay in the middle (although I was probably a little bit farther back than halfway between them :)). We came across a split in the trail where we debated which way to go (we decided to stay right), and a couple hundred feet later the split trails actually came back together again. At this point we saw the actual trail-marker with "Jacobs Ladder" written on it, signifying the steepest part of the hike.
As the trail steepened, weaving up tightly between dry trees and bushes, I suddenly became thirsty. While hiking up the loose scree field below Broads Fork Twin Peaks last summer, I made the mistake of guzzling my water whenever I felt like it which caused me to quickly run out, so this time I disciplined myself to only drink 5 sips at a time from my Camelbak. I also brought a full 4 liters of liquid this time (2 liters of water and 2 liters of Gatorade, sticking the bladder from my wife's Camelbak in with my own), so my plan was to slowly go back and forth between the two, using up most of the water first (since lukewarm Gatorade is still tastier than lukewarm water, and can restore electrolytes lost from hiking). Todd commented that it looked cool having a tube coming out of each shoulder of the Camelbak, and for the most part this setup worked quite well (besides when Gatorade occasionally leaked out and turned my left arm all orange and sticky). Another trick that helped, which after all my previous hiking I was embarrassed to not even know about, was when Kendrick told me that blowing the liquid stuck in the tube back into the bladder before taking any sips can cool it back down.
Besides the views looking south towards Mount Timpanogos and Utah Valley, Jacobs Ladder didn't offer much in terms of scenery. It was very dry, and I cringed thinking about going back down through the loose, overgrown trail later in the day when it was a lot hotter. We had chosen to do Jacobs Ladder because as far as time goes it offers the fastest route to the summit, even though the Bear Canyon trail is much nicer (also longer and less steep). As we went up, I gradually lost sight of James, Todd, and Kendrick, but I thought it would be best to stay with Scott and Melissa to make sure they were doing alright. We were still making pretty good time though, and passed a group of three who were hiking up with their two golden retrievers.
Eventually the trail became more gradual as it met up with the trail from Draper Ridge, and the cirque (now much closer) looked incredible. We chatted with tmcrane and a couple of his buddies from Idaho who had come up Draper Ridge, and followed them from this point. I told them about some other fun hikes in the Wasatch, and they told me about some of their favorite hikes in Idaho. I'm not sure if it was because we were all distracted talking to each other, but at some point we lost sight of the main trail that goes through a large meadow, and started veering to the left (north) towards some of the impressive granite rock formations leading up to the cirque. As we started bushwhacking (which was mostly pleasant off-trail hiking on granite, without nasty shrubs in the way to hinder our progress), Scott and Melissa stopped to rest. I assumed that Kendrick and the others were still ahead of us, so this time I decided to stay with the group from Idaho to catch up with them. After going back down a gradual granite slope we found the trail again, and because I wasn't sure where Kendrick, James, and Todd were, I tried calling Kendrick. Since the main trails on Lone Peak go up the ridge dividing Salt Lake Valley and Utah Valley, there is still decent cell phone reception most of the way up. Kendrick answered, and after talking a bit we realized that they were waiting for us down at the meadow and we had accidentally passed them. Scott and Melissa were still farther behind, traversing the granite slopes we had just come over, so I told Kendrick to come up the trail with the others and hopefully we'd all meet back up. I thanked the Idaho hikers for letting me tag along with them, and starting eating second breakfast as I waited for the others.
Kendrick, James, and Todd got there first, and a few minutes later Scott and Melissa found their way back onto the trail as well. After some more snacks and jokes about our navigational shortcomings, we continued on the trail, which now began to follow a faint stream coming from the cirque. As the drainage opened up, the views of the cirque were awesome. The area felt so remote and far-removed from civilization that it was difficult remembering we were only a few miles from the houses at the bottom of the mountain in Draper. There were small cairns throughout the cirque leading to where we wanted to meet up with the northwest ridge, but even without them it was pretty easy-going on the smooth granite. As we got closer to the northwest ridge, we could just barely see some people standing on top of the summit, as well as some rock climbers going straight up the west face.
Upon reaching the ridge, the steep class 3 scrambling began. At about 11,000 feet, the altitude made it harder to ascend the steeper parts without stopping every now and then to catch my breath. Just before getting to the top of the ridge (where you can first see the Cottonwood Ridge to the north), I saw someone coming down from the summit ridge and immediately recognized him as Matt, who I had talked with via phone and e-mail a couple times but had never actually been hiking with. After a brief exchange, we continued on up to the more exposed portion of the ridge. Just a few hundred feet from the top, I could now see down into Bells Canyon and east towards the rest of the Alpine Ridge. I was excited to join James and Kendrick on the summit, and see how difficult the scramble to get there really was.
Remembering advice I'd heard in the past, I opted to go straight over the granite boulders on the ridge, and when an easier opportunity presented itself on the east side (Bells Canyon side) of the ridge, I took it. Although it wasn't really a knife edge (in summer conditions at least => winter conditions are another matter), there were a few places where a fall would definitely result in serious injury, but the rock was solid enough that there was never really any danger of slipping. There was one small spot at the crux that I might consider Class 4 (which I'd define as something that you'd have to down-climb while facing into the mountain), where I gripped the top of the rock in a bear hug as I carefully maneuvered my feet along a slightly inclined granite platform below, but for the most part it was enjoyable Class 3 scrambling. After traversing a few more boulders and climbing up one last steep section, I made it to the summit at exactly noon.
The summit block itself is small (about the size of a big desk), but there was plenty of room on the other neighboring blocks for the dozen or so other people that were up there. The extreme exposure (especially off the south side) actually didn't bother me, even though I knew that it was over 600 feet straight down. The hikers from Idaho were up there, as well as Denise, who I recognized from Summitpost. We had a nice relaxing lunch, admiring the scenery as I tried naming all of the peaks in the distance. Todd got to the summit shortly after I did, and we helped coach Scott and Melissa through the difficult parts of the scramble by shouting to them to stay on the east side of the ridge. Besides one little incident when Kendrick's GPS case accidentally got knocked over the edge and a rock climber below shouted to stop throwing rocks, everyone seemed to handle the steep cliffs around the summit alright, and it was rewarding looking down into both Utah Valley and Salt Lake Valley from such a high, exposed vantage point. Once Scott and Melissa were at the top, the storm clouds off in the distance to the east started growing pretty fast, and after hearing thunder a couple of times we decided to start heading back down. We'd be well on our way down the mountain if the storm actually did come our way.
Which Way Down?
On the way down, James started talking about how he wanted to go down the Bear Canyon trail, and this seemed like the best way to do it since Jacobs Ladder would be steep and unpleasant on the way back, and passing by the Outlaw Cabin on the other trail would allow us to fill up with water from the stream using James' filter. Since Todd's car was still at the Corner Canyon Gate, he could just drive some of us back to my car at the Jacobs Ladder trailhead, and we could meet back at Kendrick's place for steaks after that. Going down from the drainage to the meadow looked different because I had come up a different way, which was nice because it allowed me to see more of the mountain. We saw several people camping at the meadow, and I imagined how fun it would be to come back and do the same, exploring all of the neat granite formations up around the cirque.
There were thunderheads all around in every direction, but the sun was still blazing right above Lone Peak itself. The added shade would have been nice, because Jacobs Ladder was very hot and dry. Going back down was murder on the knees because there were too many switchbacks to actually jog down, and the combination of loose dirt and overgrown tree roots required us to concentrate where we placed our feet on each step, putting a lot of pressure on our knees and feet. Melissa slipped and fell a few times, but luckily Scott and I were able to maintain our footing. Scott ran out of water near the bottom of Jacobs Ladder, but with my 4 liter plan I still had some left, so I gave him the rest of my water and rationed my Gatorade for the remainder of the hike down the spur ridge to the trailhead. The sun finally hid behind some clouds for the last 15 minutes of the hike, which boosted our spirits for the final leg of the journey.
Upon arriving at the Explorer just before 5 pm, I thought I'd call Kendrick to see how they were doing (if they had successfully found the Bear Canyon trail then they might have gotten down already). It's a good thing I did, because they were almost all the way down, but had ended up at a point halfway between the Bear Canyon trailhead and the Jacob's Ladder trailhead. We drove down to pick them up, and I dropped off everyone at Todd's car for the drive back to Kendrick's. Eating steak at his house sounded really good, but I had to get some things done since I was driving up to Idaho the next day. After decorating the road with the contents of his stomach (due to heat exhaustion, I think), Kendrick went back to his place with the others for some well-deserved steak, while I stopped off at Arby's on the way home for a few beef'n cheddar sandwiches to restore some of the day's burned calories.
Lone Peak StatsDISTANCE: 12.6 miles roundtrip
JACOBS LADDER TRAILHEAD: 5,600 feet
SUMMIT ELEVATION: 11,253 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: 5,700 feet
DIFFICULTY: Class 3+
TIME: 10 hours