North Thunder Mountain is a peak I'd been curious about for many years. Despite its prominent appearance from the Salt Lake valley it seems to go largely ignored by hikers, and is climbed much less frequently than the more 'popular' peaks on the Wasatch front.
After considerable searching of the Internet and consulting the local guidebooks, I was still unable to locate much information on how best to climb this peak. What I did learn is there are basically two primary ways to ascend this peak; a relatively short but very steep and challenging hike up Coalpit Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon, or a considerably longer hike up through Bells Canyon. Having made two previous unsuccessful attempts from the Coalpit Gulch approach, this time I decided to try my luck with a Bells Canyon approach.
With no established route to follow I resorted to studying a topographic map of the area, and came up with a promising looking route which I then uploaded into my GPS unit. Taking a much needed day off work, I awoke early and drove to the Bells Canyon trailhead in the dark, where I started up the trail at 4:50am by the light of a flashlight and headlamp.
Hiking alone in the dark woods made me very jittery, and the fact that I was in the middle of reading a book on mountain lions didn't help matters; I found myself repeatedly jerking in the direction of every little rustle in the brush, certain I would see the glowing eyes of a stalking cougar, even though I knew the odds of such an occurrence were extremely rare. Regardless, I was greatly relieved when the sky began to lighten, by which time I was already several miles into the hike.
The Bells Canyon trail is poorly maintained in spots and can be difficult to follow, but having become familiar with the trail from several previous hikes, I had no difficulties and made good time to the upper reservoir, where I made a brief stop to top-off my hydration bladder. With no established trail beyond the reservoir, my plan was to contour up and around the east side of the lake, heading for a ravine which climbs generally eastward up to a small saddle on the south side of Bells Cleaver (el. 10,488 ft.).
With GPS in hand I headed up through cliff bands which had a tendency to force me higher than I'd intended, but I was still able to reach the ravine with no difficulty. To my relief the ravine turned out to be less steep than I'd guessed it would be, and it was a fairly simple boulder hopping exercise up to the saddle, although my legs were now beginning to feel the effects of the 5000+ feet of elevation I'd already gained.
Upon reaching the saddle at approximately 10,200 feet, I was greeted with my first view of the summit, and immediately experienced a major bout of depression; the peak appeared further, steeper, and much more rugged than I'd expected (or hoped?), and from this perspective my planned route to the summit appeared beyond my abilities. I studied the peak closely for anything resembling a promising route, but there didn't appear to be any obviously simple paths to the summit, and I briefly considered abandoning the whole attempt.
After several minutes of feeling sorry for myself I finally decided that after coming this far, the least I could do was forge ahead and at least check things out, and maybe with a closer look a decent approach would present itself. From the saddle I reluctantly gave up about 60 feet of elevation dropping to the boulder field below, then picked my way across the boulders towards the steep west slopes of the summit. A small pond surrounded by a grassy meadow filled with wild flowers made this desolate and remote mountain valley very scenic.
As almost always seems to be the case, the slopes leading up to the summit ridge turned out to be not nearly as steep as they'd appeared from a distance, so with tired legs and now feeling the effects of altitude I started climbed upward, slowly chipping away at the 1000+ vertical feet still remaining to the summit.
At this point I was still unsure exactly where I was headed, so I selected a somewhat promising looking spot on the ridge slightly to the north of the summit as my target. The steep slope was strewn with boulders and progress was slow, but I eventually reached a point just a few dozen feet below the ridgeline. These last few feet up to the ridge involved a few scrambling moves but nothing which made me uncomfortable, and I soon found myself on the summit ridge, the east side of which plunges into Hogum Gulch.
The summit was now hidden from view but I knew it was very close, and barring any last minute impassable obstructions I was finally beginning to feel I had this one in the bag. After several dozen feet of exposed but easy scrambling I climbed over a large boulder and was treated with a view of the summit only 30 feet away.
Much to my surprise I was not the first visitor to the summit on this day; standing right on the summit block was a lone mountain goat, who appeared just as surprised upon seeing me. This was certainly a Kodak Moment, but with my camera stuffed deep in my pack I didn't stand a chance of preserving the moment in pictures, so we just stared at each other for a brief moment before he moved off and conceded the summit to me.
On the summit I ate my early morning lunch while reading through the entries in the summit register. I was surprised to see I was only the 12th person to sign the register so far this year, which was actually a significant increase over the 7 entries of the previous year - now it was clear why I'd had difficulty locating sources of information on this seldom visited peak. The weather was very windy but the temperature was quite pleasant, and I enjoyed a leisurely stay on the summit before deciding it was time to begin the long hike down.
Moving much quicker on the way down I made good time back to the saddle near Bells Cleaver, which I decided I might as well try to bag while I was in the neighborhood. But after a short bit of scrambling up its east ridge it became apparent an ascent from this approach was not a trivial matter, so I decided to save it for another day. I retraced my route back to the upper reservoir, with a few slight variations, and from there navigated my way down the Bells Canyon maze/trail.
My last stunt of the day came as I made my way down the last couple of miles, when I stepped on a rock covered with loose marble like gravel; my feet shot out from under me and I fell hard, performing an impressive half-twist in the air before crash landing on my hip, leaving me with a large bruise as a souvenir from an otherwise satisfying adventure.
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