Thunder through Bells
My friend Steve and I had both wanted to get up the Thunders (North and South) for quite some time. I had been in the area before, but never actually reached the true summit, so I wanted to get back and bag it, while Steve only needed the Thunders, Nebo and White Baldy to complete all of the Wasatch 11ers.
The forecast looked excellent and Steve preferred Bells Canyon, so I knew we would need an early start to get both of these peaks, so we decided to hit the trail at 5:00 am. I always like to play some loud music before a hike to get me in the mood, you know, get my juices flowing, so I had some Snoop Dogg pounding when I arrived at the trailhead just after five. Steve was already there waiting for me and after a few minutes of getting our gear ready, we donned our headlamps and hit the trail. The air was warm, but not hot and we were both glad, because we knew it was really going to heat up later in the day.
After a few minutes of hiking we came to the lower reservoir and skirted around it looking for the right trail. We were not quite sure which one to take, as it had been a few years since I was on the trail and Steve had never been above the lake. There was an option to go left on a side trail or stay on the road. Steve had read that we needed to stay on the road, so we continued hiking and looking to cross the stream. Eventually we came to what looked like a water treatment area with a small bridge that crossed the stream. We crossed over and headed up the trail. After a few minutes we arrived at a bouldering area and the trail became very difficult to follow. We got on a few side trails that seemed to go in circles and the bushwhacking began. Steve was regretting his decision to wear shorts and he had a brief encounter with a sharp log that turned part of his leg into meat loaf. We both went through numerous spider webs and had to cross a few small streams looking for the trail. On one of the crossings my foot slipped of a rock and went into the water and I was happy to have my Gore-Tex trail runners and knew they would dry quickly.
After several confusing minutes, we eventually found the right trail and we picked up our pace, trying to make up for lost time. Eventually, we crossed over to the North side of the stream and then after a few more minutes, we crossed back over to the South side, where the trail improved and the sky started to become light. We both took off our headlamps and I was struck with the beauty of this place. The views just kept getting better and better and I was shocked at how scenic this canyon is. There were wild flowers, ferns, wild berries, giant granite rock slabs and boulders, waterfalls, even some wild raspberries.
We finally reached the large waterfall and there were a few logs tied together, that allow you to cross back over to the North side of the stream. After a few minutes the trail forks off to the right, but we stayed left. From here the trail does get somewhat difficult to follow at times as it is overgrown, with fallen trees and boulders all over the place. The route finding was not extremely difficult, but it can be somewhat confusing at times. There were cairns placed whenever there were a lot of boulders, so we were eventually able to pick up the trail without much frustration.
It took us four hours to reach the upper reservoir, although we did get a little higher than we anticipated and we were well above the lake on the south side, so we were not sure which route would be the quickest to South Thunder. We contemplated it for a few minutes and decided to descend slightly, while still making our way around the lake. Once we were around the lake, the route became a little more obvious, as it was either scramble up the boulders on the left or make our way to the saddle on the right. As we stopped to take a break, I was breathing pretty good and with my mouth open and while inhaling rather deep, I sucked in some sort of fly that decided it wanted to get acquainted with my uvula. GAG! After a brief thought of could this fly actually choke me out, I instinctively coughed it back out into the air. Not sure who had the worse experience, me or the fly?
After a few minutes of heading for the saddle, we stopped to take a break and weigh our options. I spied what looked like a really good route right through the boulders on the left, through a few minor cliffs and right up to the summit. It looked a lot more challenging than the saddle, but also much faster. We decided we would try it and if at any point it looked bad, we could always make our way to the saddle. We quickly skirted over to the North and started hopping up boulders and scrambling through others. We headed for a chute that looked pretty good.
It was somewhat of a scramble, but nothing too serious, because there were plenty of hand holds. Eventually, the terrain became a bit more technical and we were almost constantly climbing up boulders in moderately steep chutes.
At around 10,800 ft. we came to an area that became rather steep. Steve went first and after scrambling for a few minutes, he shouted down that I needed to head to my right. Looking up it did not seem all that bad, so I kept going straight up. He yelled down at least two more times “Go right!” It still looked very doable, so I continued going up, because going to the right seemed quite a bit longer and I felt totally comfortable. I came up to a very large slab that looked reasonable, so I started up thinking to myself “this is not bad at all.” The slab was about 15 ft. high and a fall here would have been at least 30-40 ft. as the rocks below the slab would not have stopped me. About half way up the slab I realized that I was running out of holds. I felt it was too steep to down climb and I started to get nervous. At this point I think I heard Steve yell at me to get right and I thought “too late now.” I had a pretty good hand hold, but my feet did not feel right. My climbing partners always tell me I need to work on my footwork and with my trail runners, I was getting more nervous, as I did not have a good grip. Just then Steve appeared at the top of the slab. I could see immediately that he seemed concerned at my predicament. I told him I was running out of holds and he told me there was a black knob up and to my right. I had not seen this before, because I was so worried about my feet. I lunged up and got the knob and felt a little better, although my foot holds seemed even worse than before, so I knew I was in a bit of trouble. There was a pretty good crack out to my left, although there was a huge prickly bush growing out of it. I looked up to check my holds and I could not see anything very good for several feet, so I knew I would have to go for the crack. I lunged left and stuck the crack with my left hand, but the bush was really thorny and sharp, so I pulled myself up with my left hand and looked for a hold with my right. I could not get into the crack, so I ended up grabbing a large limb that was in the middle of the bush. I had to stop and catch my breath, but I knew I was safe now, because I could see a big jug just above me. I rested in the bush/crack for a few seconds and then lunged for the jug. I have never felt as relieved to be on a solid hold in my life. It was a quick and easy scramble now to the top of the slab, where Steve and I both remarked it was a close call. He had to mention again that he told me to go right and I agreed.
From here it was just a short scramble up some really easy boulders to the summit. Steve arrived first and I seemed to be really hesitating now, thinking at any second I was going to go tumbling down the mountain, even though the terrain was really easy at this point. On the summit we took a long break, eating making phone calls and signing the register. We still wanted to go over to North Thunder, but it was getting late and we talked about bailing out to the South and going down the alpine side. We decided that we would just go for N. Thunder, but after only a few feet of scrambling down the ridge, we both decided to turn around and head down to Lake Hardy. We just picked a route that looked good and went for it. We had to down climb through several boulder fields and we eventually came to a real cliffy area and had to skirt around it to our left. After some more boulder hopping and scrambling we made it to the lake, where we took another break to drink and have a few snacks. At this point I had 32 ounces of water left and I was a little worried about the descent, because it was very hot and dry and I knew there would not be much water on the Alpine side, but I decided I would be fine with what I had.
I knew that there was a trail to Lake Hardy, but we could not find it and eventually made our way to a meadow below the lake, where we picked up a trail that we hoped would get us to Alpine and it was going down, so that was a good thing. After about an hour we came to a fork in the trail and we were not quite sure which way to go. We were hot and tired and I was nearly out of water. We went to the right and after a few minutes we came to a stream. It was cool and shady and we decided to take a break to cool off. I purified some water and it felt great to replenish ourselves. Eventually, we ran into a different trail and met some hikers that said they were on their way up to Lake Hardy. Apparently, we had been on the wrong trail, but the one we were on met up with the main trail to the lake. The rest of the hike was uneventful, although the last few miles were Hell on tired feet. We had to find a ride back to the Bells trailhead, so after a few calls we secured a ride and we only had to wait about 10 minutes at the bottom.
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