South Thunder - 7/20/03

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 40.53330°N / 111.734°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 20, 2003
This was my second attempt of South Thunder mountain; on my first attempt in 2001 I greatly underestimated the length of the hike, and with both drinking water and daylight running out, choose to abort the hike only 0.3 miles from the summit. To correct these two blunders on this attempt I included a water purifier in my pack, and a 3:50am wake-up put us on the trail at 5:06am. I was also somewhat confident that the previous experience in Bells Canyon would aid in eliminating the numerous routefinding problems which plagued the previous attempt, but this turned out to be only partially correct. Starting from the trailhead on Wasatch Boulevard only a faint hint of dawn was visible over the mountains, but the 3/4 moon directly overhead provided sufficient light to proceed without headlamps or flashlights. After passing Lower Bells Reservoir and moving through a relatively level stretch through scrub oaks, we came to the footbridge which crosses Bells Canyon Creek. Beyond the bridge we continued eastward up the trail, which rose gradually at first but became increasingly steep as we slowly chipped away at the 6000+ vertical feet of elevation gain. As far as steep trails are concerned I somewhat enjoyed the next couple of miles; this section of the trail is studded with numerous solid roundish granite rocks, at times making it seem almost like ascending a stairway (although the riser heights rarely met local building codes). After rising steadily eastward to approximately 7,420 feet we crossed to the left side of the creek, where the trail makes a 90° turn to the south. From this point the trail almost immediately began to deteriorate. Several sections of the trail were almost completely overgrown with shoulder-high ferns and other brush; at times I could not even see my feet, and it felt as if I was walking through a Kansas cornfield. Now more than 2 hours into the hike we decided to stop at a small creek and top off our hydration bladders, which were already surprisingly low on this very warm morning (Salt Lake eventually hit 100 °F on this day). As the trail continued climbing in a generally southward direction, we begin to encounter the mosquitoes which plagued us for much of the day. A short but steep section of the trail passed through a number of huge pine trees which had been toppled (presumably by wind or avalanche), making travel very slow and tedious. The remainder of the trail to the upper reservoir became increasingly difficult to follow. Some portions were quite obvious but would then suddenly seem to disappear, although with some searching a cairn could usually be spotted leading in the correct direction. After what seemed like an endless climb through trees and rockbands, the trail leveled somewhat and we finally reached the primitive rock dam at the north end of Upper Bells Reservoir, after 4+ hours of hiking. Our target, South Thunder, was now clearly visible to the southeast behind the reservoir. At the dam we paused briefly for a sandwich, but the swarms of mosquitoes soon encouraged us to get on with the hike. On the previous failed attempt in 2001 we had worked our way up from the east side of the reservoir, but this time we decided to try following a vague trail which could be seen along the west edge of the lake. This didn't turn out to be much of a trail and soon became little more than a cairned route. Eventually we came to the conclusion that this route wasn't doing us much good, and was also heading further south than we wanted to go, so we decided to just cut to the chase and head directly east towards South Thunder. After climbing steeply for some time, we came to a rocky bowl at the base of the summit's west face, where we paused a few minutes to evaluate our options for the final approach to the summit. Electing to aim for the north ridge we began moving through the jumble of boulders, very slowly and carefully to avoid the possibility of tipping a precarious rock and being crushed. As we scrambled upwards I realized the mosquitoes which had been pestering us for the last few hours had finally been left behind. After crossing the boulder field the slope steepened and became a crumbly mixture of coarse sand and dirt, my all-time least favorite hiking surface. A few minutes and several cuss words later the slope eased slightly and became rocky again. Now feeling my customary adrenaline rush of summit fever, I picked up the pace hurried up to the ridgeline slightly north of the summit, the east side of which plunges several hundred near-vertical feet into Hogum Gulch. From this point a couple more minutes of routine boulder hopping and I was finally on the summit. About 5 minutes later Shelley made her summit appearance, where we spent a full hour eating lunch and enjoying the view. We also lamented the bottle of Gatorade which I'd prepared the night before, but apparently forgot to stuff in my pack. The summit register which dated back to the late 1980's provided some entertaining reading material. I counted 13 summit entries in 2003 prior to ours, indicating how infrequently this peak is visited. The sky was overcast but didn't appear terribly threatening so we took our time enjoying the scenery and taking photos, then finally decided it was time to begin the long and steep hike back down. Not thrilled with the thought of descending our original route up, especially the steep and crumbly section, we choose to descend to the south, which turned out to be much easier than our ascent route. We thought we might come across a hikers trail used by those completing the Pfeifferhorn/Beat-Out hike, but not seeing anything trail-like we just heading in the general direction back to the upper reservoir. We soon began to encounter a pesky breed of flies which tormented us for the remainder of the day, making the mosquitoes seem like a mild nuisance in comparison. These large black flies would go into synchronous orbit around our heads before attempting to land in our hair, and only continuous swatting prevented them from doing so. At first it was only a mild irritation, but 5+ hours of this buzzing and swatting was enough to drive us nearly insane, quickly putting a damper on the warm fuzzy glow of our successful summit. We stopped just below the upper reservoir to refill our hydration bladders which we'd nearly drained on this long hot day, then continued our way down the canyon, doing our best to follow the occasional cairns even though the route down is fairly obvious, with the Devil Flies circling our heads continually. Arriving back at our vehicle nearly 14 hours after we'd started, we were so ready for this hike to be over, and the only dinner we could find energy to put together was cold cereal. Feeling dehydrated later that evening I went to the refrigerator to grab the Gatorade which I'd forgotten to pack for the hike. Not seeing it in refrigerator I went to my pack and dumped the contents out on the living room floor, and there it was - an extra 32 ounces of ballast which I'd carried for the entire hike. In my pre-coffee early morning stupor I'd placed the bottle in my pack, but forgetting I'd done so, didn't even bother to look for it on the summit.


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