Monday July 2, 2001
Got up at 5:15 in our motel in Moab, Utah (elevation 4000 ft, 1200 m). We had planned to climb Manns Peak today but Mary developed an earache last night so I decided to climb Mt. Tukuhnikivatz which my guidebook rates as extreme (I had originally planned to climb Tukuhnikivatz on Friday). I was excited. I got ready and ate breakfast in the motel. By the time I got in the car, it was 6:45. From our motel area, I could only see South Mountain and the very tip of Tukuhnikivatz rising above the surrounding cliffs. Just a little farther south (downtown Moab), the entire La Sal Mountain range comes into view to the east. It was still early morning and the sun was shining brightly in the eastern sky. The mountains appeared as shadows. This is such a cute little mountain range. It is only 25 miles long (north-south) by 15 miles wide (east-west). This was the first time I ventured into these mountains so I was thinking of it as a journey of discovery. My guidebook says the first non-native person to visit these mountains was the Spanish explorer Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera who came here in 1765. The 1776 expedition of Dominguez-Escalante gave the mountains their current name (La Sal). The story goes that the Spaniards could not believe that mountains so deep in the desert could have snow on them in summer so they called them "The Salt Mountains". The more likely explanation, however, is that the locals called them The Salt Mountains because of salt deposits in the area. The mountains were first surveyed in 1875 and many of the summit names date back from then. Can you imagine going into completely uncharted territory finding these mountains and canyons? Of course times have changed and you will never know why each individual explorer came here (find gold and glory, convert souls, forced to come…). The sight of such wild places may not have been very pleasant to them. Tukuhnikivatz 12482 ft, 3805 m is the third highest peak in the range (after Mt. Peale and Mt. Mellenthin). The name is supposedly a combination of native words meaning "where the sun sets last". This is a very appropriate name. The mountain is the westernmost summit of the La Sals and rises very abruptly above the plains and canyonlands to the west. Although it really has a round summit, from Moab it appears very sharp with a very long steep slope that makes it look higher than the rest of the peaks. Mt. Peale 12721 ft, 3877 m which is the highest peak, sits on the eastern side of the mountains and is not seen very well from Moab. I chose to climb Tukuhnikivatz instead of Peale because I thought it might provide a much better view of the canyonlands. Mt. Mellenthin 12645 ft, 3854 m is also well visible from Moab but appears shorter than Tukuhnikivatz. To climb Tukuhnikivatz, you must go to La Sal Pass which separates South Mountain 11817 ft, 3602 m to the south, from Peale and Tukuhnikivatz to the north. There is a 4 wheel drive road that climbs the western slopes of the mountains going from Moab to La Sal Pass. I was hesitant to go on a long 4WD road not knowing how rough it may turn out to be. Instead, I chose to go on La Sal Pass Road which is a graded dirt road that climbs the eastern slopes of the mountains. To access this road, I first had to go to the east side of the mountains so I took Route 191 south. I was in a good mood playing music and enjoying the drive. This road travels the length of The Spanish Valley. For a good 10 miles or so I could see a continuous band of red cliffs that form the western wall of the valley. The road then went into some hills/slickrock areas where the mountains were no longer visible. It eventually emerged on a plain at 6000 ft, 1800 m of elevation where I could look back to the northeast to see the mountains. I then turned on Route 46 east. This road skirts the southern tip of the mountains going to their east side. It gives great views of the southern slopes of South Mountain. The plain I was driving on was covered with sparse desert weeds that had a pale green color. The mountains were forested. The forest seemed to go all the way to the summit of South Mountain. As I drove east, the plain went higher in elevation. The town of La Sal turned out to be just a few farmhouses at an elevation of 7000 ft, 2100 m. Just a few miles before the Utah/Colorado border, I reached the Canopy Gap Road. At that point, I was at the southeastern corner of the mountains at an elevation of 7700 ft, 2350 m. Canopy Gap Road is a decent dirt road that travels north on the eastern margin of the mountains. From this point on, I did not see a single person or car until La Sal Pass. Fig/berry-like type of bushes 5-10 ft tall appeared all over the place. After 2 miles on Canopy Gap Road, I reached the La Sal Pass Road. In only 8 miles, this dirt road goes from 7764 ft, 2366 m to La Sal Pass 10125 ft, 3086 m. The road headed west going straight up the sloped plains. The bushes became so dense that the road came to resemble a canyon cut into the bushes. Two mountains appeared to the northwest. These were Peale and Tukuhnikivatz. They are connected by a 1.5 mile long ridge that has a minimum elevation of 11700 ft, 3550 m. I then reached a creek that crossed the road. The water was one foot or more deep and I had to drive through it. This gave the day a "Safari" type of a feel. On the other side of the creek, I suddenly came across a bunch of cows standing in the middle of the road. That was very unexpected. What were those cows doing there in the middle of a national forest? They slowly moved out of my way. After that, I saw cows every now and then. I just had to give them time to clear the way. At one point, I came across a calf that was not smart enough to get off the road. If I moved, he too would move along the length of the road in front of my car. If I stopped he would just stand there on the road. This was at first funny but soon became very annoying. I finally sped up as much as I could and passed him. No one was watching these cows. I was thinking what a peaceful life they have. They live in a beautiful giant salad bowl. After a while, the slopes gradually became much steeper and I "entered the mountains". Very dense groves of Aspen trees appeared. The road became much narrower. In some places it was only wide enough for one car. It was very beautiful. The road kept alternating between dark Aspen forests and bright meadows. To the south, the northern slopes of South Mountain were gradually appearing. These were very steep and were bare. As I went higher, forests of pine also appeared. I then reached a large flat meadow that I thought was probably La Sal Pass. (my maps show La Sal Pass to be a large gap in the mountains: 2.5 miles from the summit of South Mountain to the summit of Tukuhnikivatz). According to my guidebook and the car odometer I still had one more mile to go. There was a pickup truck with a California license plate there but no one was around. My guidebook also talked about a two-track starting on the north side of the pass on the meadow but I could not see a two-track. Was this La Sal Pass or did I still have one more mile to go? I hate confusion like that. I drove a little farther but the road became 4WD and started to go downhill. This was the road on the west side of the mountains I was trying to avoid. I had to go a little to find a place wide enough to make a U-turn. Going back up to the meadow did require the use of 4WD. I guess that meadow was La Sal Pass after all. Once I reached the meadow again, I had driven 48 miles from downtown Moab. I was upset that I could not find the two-track my guidebook talked about. If I can’t find the trail from the very beginning, I may not make it to the top. I could see the meadow leading to a stand of spruce trees as my guidebook said. That was reassuring. I could see a bunch of cows up the grassy slopes. They began to run down the slopes toward me as soon as I parked there. Why were they running? Were they attacked by a bear? This was my first time in these mountains and the area seemed very remote to me. I was wondering if I was more prone to wild animal attacks than in Colorado. I was then sitting in the car reading my maps. Until this morning, I was still thinking we were climbing Manns Peak so I had not even looked at the maps in detail. I then suddenly saw all those cows were standing behind my car. I could see the face of one of them in my rear view mirror. She was cute. It looked like she was expecting something. What did they want? Was I supposed to feed them? After a few minutes, they slowly went away. I then got out of the car looking at the mountains trying to find the route. There may not be a trail and I just may have to find my own way. Tukuhnikivatz was to the northwest and Peale was farther away to the northeast. South Mountain, with its steep bare slopes, was to the south. None of the mountains looked all that high. My guidebook said it was 3 miles to the summit. As I said earlier, the trailhead is 10125 ft, 3086 m and the summit is 12482 ft, 3805 m. I started hiking at 8:50. This was the first time I took my GPS on a mountain hike. It is much more accurate than the old altimeter I had bought in Iran 20 years ago. I did not see a single person while I was on this mountain. I loved the quiet and the solitude. It is good to know that there are still places like this (unlike Colorado where you run into crowds). I never saw the guy in the pickup truck with California license plate. Maybe he had gone to climb Peale. I had a big backpack with my camera and camcorder in it. I had also hung the bear mace from the backpack’s belt. Each time I wanted to film or take a picture I had to undo and redo all of that. It was sunny and nice. I began heading north up the meadow toward the Spruce trees. There was no sign of a trail or a two-track anywhere. I noticed that the meadow was literally full of small grasshoppers ½ inch or so long. With each step, I could see at least 4-5 of them jumping out of my way. The meadow must have contained millions and millions of grasshoppers. How could there be so many of them? At least they were small and cute. If they were any bigger, they would have totally freaked me out. Soon I reached the Spruce trees and there were no more grasshoppers. I went to the west margin of the trees and I found the faint remains of a two-track. My guidebook was published in 1995 so things have probably changed a little since then. I followed the two-track which went into a forest of Pine and Aspen trees. I could no longer see the summit of Tukuhnikivatz but I could see Peale to the northeast. In the forest, I heard my favorite bird. I don’t know what kind of bird that is but I hear it each year when I go to the mountains. The trail then reached a meadow again. My guidebook had said when you see a bulldozer scar, get out of the two-track and go up a slope into a forest of mixed Aspen and Pine. I did not see a bulldozer scar and I sure did not want to go into that dense forest where it would be difficult to walk but I thought I was at the point where I had to leave the two-track. I continued a little longer until I saw a steep slope that was covered with grass only. I knew I had to go up this slope to get to the top of a ridge. I left the trail/two-track heading west straight up the slope. The slope was covered with green grass and a pretty weed which was 2-3 feet tall and had long narrow leaves on its bottom half and a long clustery flower-like structure on its top half. Many dry flood-beds had scarred the slope. I was heading toward some pine trees on the very top of the slope where I assumed my ridge was. I had to go 500 vertical ft, 150 m up the very steep slope. It was very slow and breath taking. I was getting sweaty under the intense sun. The slope faced east and gave me good views of the semi-arid plateaus and canyons of southwestern Colorado. When I put my camcorder on maximum zoom, I could barely see snowy mountains in the horizon. I suspected that these were Mt. Wilson and the peaks around it (75 miles away). Later, when watching my movies, I was able to identify "Lone Cone" which rises to the west of the Wilsons in southwestern Colorado. I finally reached the top of the ridge where the pine trees were. It was 11150 ft, 3400 m there. The red canyonlands suddenly appeared in the far southwestern horizon. The green mountain slopes seemed to fade into red plains below. The bare summit of Tukuhnikivatz came into view again. South Mountain and Peale were also in good view. A trail appeared there. I was then heading north up a very steep slope. The trail went straight up the slope among clusters of pine trees. At about 11500 ft, 3500 m, I reached the last trees. They were very small and bush-like. Alpine tundra covered the slopes after that. The trail faded away. I could see the saddle between Peale and Tukuhnikivatz (It was much closer to Tukuhnikivatz than Peale). I was veering west off the spine of the ridge going closer to Tukuhnikivatz. It became less steep and easier to climb. I reached a talus field. The small rocks were unsteady under foot but soon the tundra came back. I finally reached the saddle and views of the north suddenly appeared. I was now at 11900 ft, 3625 m, higher than South Mountain. Right in front of me to the north, steep bare cliffs dropped into Gold Basin. There were many patches of snow on these cliffs and slopes. Mt. Mellenthin and the rest of the peaks to the north of it had also appeared. To the south, the Abajo Mountains had risen far behind South Mountain. I was right at the base of the summit of Tukuhnikivatz to the west (You could turn east and follow the difficult "Razor Fang Ridge" one mile to reach Peale. There are, however, much easier ways to climb Peale). All around me there were beautiful little alpine flowers. I could see two big flattened and dried up piles of poop. I wanted to think they were cow poop but do cows come this far up? Maybe they were bear poop. A big piece of dark gray cloud had appeared and was hovering over Peale and Mellenthin. I then turned west and began to follow the ridge to the summit of Tukuhnikivatz. Suddenly I heard a loud thunder. Where did that come from? Did that one piece of cloud cause thunder? The cloud was actually looking nasty. It had turned into one of those clouds that have parallel vertical lines. The bottom of these lines almost touched the summit of Peale. I sure did not want to be caught on a high ridge in the middle of a thunderstorm but I was close to the summit and did not want to turn around and go back at this time. Soon the tundra ended and there was nothing left but a sea of loose rock about one foot in longest dimension. As I went on, the slope became much steeper. Everything was shifting under my feet. It was hard to believe that this loose pile of rock was a summit that has been standing here for eons. It sure sounded like with each step the whole mountain may just collapse on top of me. It then became cloudy and I kept hearing thunder from behind. In my mind, I was begging the clouds to let me get to the summit, give me at least half an hour there and let me get down to the trees before they start a thunderstorm. I had a good 270 degree view of north, east and south. Then the slope began to ease up and I was reaching the top. The summit of Tukuhnikivatz is a big round hump. I walked a little more until I reached the very top at 11:30. The red canyonlands came into good view again way below me to the west. I had the summit to myself the entire time I was there. It was cloudy over the mountains but sunny over the plains below. From the southwestern to the northern horizon, only red arid plains could be seen far below. The lush green forests of the mountains gradually turned into red arid plains and canyons. Spanish Valley (where Route 191 runs) could be seen very clearly. It looked like a straight trench one mile wide by ten miles long. It was all red except for its northern end where Moab is which looked green. I could see Kens Lake which is a water reservoir near Route 191. I could not see the road even when I zoomed with my camcorder. The cliffs to the west of the road were very prominent. I could not really identify anything in the vast" redlands" below. When I zoomed with my camcorder, I could see cliffs, mesas and towers but nothing I could recognize. To the distant south, The Abajo Mountains (highest point 11360 ft, 3463 m) rose above the redlands. They appeared as broad green ridges. Immediately to the south, the loose rocky slopes of Tukuhnikivatz dropped very steeply. Forest began about 1000 ft, 300 m farther down in elevation. South Mountain with its steep bare northern cliffs could be seen very well 2.5 miles away. Between us, a fuzzy green carpet of forest covered the highlands of La Sal Pass. I could see La Sal Pass Road but could not find my car even when I zoomed with the camcorder. Arid plains could also be seen behind South Mountain. Mt. Peale dominated the view to the east. I could also see part of the high ridge that connects it to Tukuhnikivatz. Right in front of me to the north, very steep slopes of loose rock dropped into the upper portions of Gold Basin 2000 ft, 600 m below. Gold Basin is a valley that dead ends into the steep northern slopes of Tukuhnikivatz. Mt. Mellenthin was to the northeast. It too seemed to have a broad round summit. An upside down roughly T-shaped high ridge with a minimum elevation of just below 11700 ft, 3550 m connects Mellenthin to Peale and Tukuhnikivatz. (Peale and Tukuhnikivatz are connected by a 1.5 mile long east-west ridge. The ridge to Mellenthin, also 1.5 miles long, shoots off to the north from the middle of the Peale-Tukuhnikivatz ridge). Mt. Laurel 12271 ft, 3740 m, seemed to be a bump on the ridge to Mellenthin. This T-shped ridge forms the heart of the La Sal Mountains. Geyser Pass 10538 ft, 3212 m, was to the north of Mt. Mellenthin. Like La Sal Pass, Geyser Pass is a large gap that separates the middle portion of the La Sal Mountains from the northern section. The northern section has 7 peaks higher than 12000 ft, 3658 m. East to west, I could identify Mt. Tomasaki, Manns Peak, Mt. Waas, Pilot mountain and Green Mountain, all higher than 12000 ft. Haystack Mountain 11641 ft, 3548 m, looked very prominent. It looked like a half sphere with bare slopes although most of it is lower than timberline. Because I was seeing their southern slopes, the mountains to the north did not have any snow on them. In the distant north, a red wide valley with a long line of cliffs (just like Spanish Valley) cut into the green foothills. I could see a couple of towers/mesas rising in the middle of the valley. Later I identified this as Castle Valley. When I zoomed, I think I could barely see a small portion of the Colorado River by route 128 beyond the valley. To the northwest, the slopes of Tukuhnikivatz dropped steeply to a minimum of 11900 ft, 3625 m and then gradually rose again to form an almost separate peak. This peak is Tukuhnikivatz North AKA Little Tuk and is 12048 ft, 3672 m high. With the camcorder on maximum zoom, I could see snowy peaks in Colorado in the southeastern horizon. I could also see some shadows in the distant southwest which were probably the Henry Mountains. The Pine forests were dark green and the Aspen forests were light green. Alpine tundra appeared as a pale greenish hue on top of the mountains. The bare slopes were all brown with a tinge of red in some places. There was no wind and the temperature was just right. I was very comfortable with my jacket on. It was very quiet. There were a lot of flies around. They were not pesky and did not bother me but I was surprised to see flies that far up. I was wondering what they ate up there and where they went at night when it gets cold. In the absence of any other noise, their collective buzz was very audible. Planes went by every now and then breaking the silence. Sometimes all the flies sat still. These were moments of absolute silence. In the previous years whenever I flew from the Midwest to Colorado and climbed a 14000 ft mountain the next day, I did start to feel altitude sickness at around 12000 ft. I was not sick at all today. My GPS showed that I had come 2.18 miles although the guidebook said it was 3 miles. On a straight line, I was only 1.49 miles away from my car. I really enjoyed my time up there all alone. I was thankful that it didn’t rain. I could have sat there forever but I finally began to go down at 1 o’clock. Going down steep loose rocky slopes is psychologically a challenge. When you go up, your back is to the slope and you do not see how high you are. I then reached the saddle and was following the ridge down. I now had great views of the Colorado plateaus to the east. When I was nearing the first stand of trees, I thought I saw the black hairy spine of an animal move behind the bush. I got concerned about a possible bear. I kept my hand on the bear mace and slowly moved on. Nothing happened. I then found the trail that went down the steep ridge among the trees. I could now appreciate the steepness of the slope much more. I could only take small steps so the going was very slow and it put a lot of pressure on my knees. Three times I slipped and fell on my hands or butt. A few drops of rain began to fall and I heard more loud thunder. I then reached the steep grassy slope and went down very slowly until I got to the bottom of it and found the two-track. I could finally start walking fast. When I was in the woods I suddenly heard an animal run away. It turned out to be a deer. It then rained a little bit until I reached the car at 3 o’clock. All day I had eaten only two 200 calorie Balance Bars and about 20 skittles but I was not hungry. I rested a little and then drove a short distance to a pond called Medicine Lake 9990 ft, 3045 m. I had good views of South Mountain, Peale and Tukuhnikivatz. A bunch of cows walked by in the distance. It was very nice and peaceful there. I then began to drive back on the dirt road. The dense forests of Aspen were very pretty. You could not drive faster than 10 MPH on this road. I had to put the car in low 4WD to stop it from speeding up. Only when I was half way down the road did I look at the thermometer to see it was 70 degrees F, 21 C (when I reached Moab, it was 107 F, 42 C). I was then driving back to Moab. I had my eye on the mountains, particularly Tukuhnikivatz. They change shape so much as you see them from different angles. I stopped several times to take pictures. I was again in a good mood playing music and driving on the fun two lane roads. I got to our motel at 5 p.m. Mary was home. She went out to get us dinner which we ate outside at the motel. I was very tired.