Putting Our Group Together
A few weeks ago, Sean put up a post in Plans & Partners asking if anybody was interested in putting a group together to do a nighttime assault on Mt. Timpanogos. I had wanted to do this same thing for a long time and jumped at the chance to join up. I’ve always wanted to watch the sunrise from the summit and set a goal that this would be the trip to do it. Ammon and Jason also joined the group and we were now four. After some discussion of when we would go and which route we would take, we decided that the night of Friday, June 17th would work perfectly. The moon was just over half full, the forecast was clear and the temperature was cool. All of the pieces seemed to be falling into place for a perfect nighttime snow climb.
I met Ammon and Jason in the REI parking lot in Sandy and then we headed down to Provo to pick up Sean. The four of us then headed to American Fork Canyon to start our climb at the Timpooneke Trailhead. We arrived at about 11:30 PM and, after making a few last minute gear adjustments, hit the trail just before midnight.
Up the Giant Staircase
We made good time along the first section of the route. There was no snow and the well traveled trail was simple to follow as it wound its way through the dark pine trees. We came to a hairpin turn in the trail and saw a sign that said Scout Falls. We could hear the waterfall, but couldn’t see it in the blackness. We decided that we would have to stop for some pictures on the way back down when the sun would be out again. I have to laugh at this now because unfortunately, I don’t have a picture to post of Scout Falls. I had packed my camera safe away during our glissade back down and was too tired to take my pack off of my back, dig out my camera, and snap a shot on the way back down.
After passing Scout Falls, the trail started to get more rugged. We were forced to navigate around fallen trees and avalanche debris that blocked the trail. We were also starting see some smaller snow fields, and knew that it wouldn’t be much longer before we would have to strap on the crampons and start climbing the snowfields above us.
Ammon heading up the Timpooneke Trail. The moon is glowing through the trees.
As we came into the first valley in the Giant Staircase that ascends to the Timpanogos basin, we temporarily lost the trail underneath a large snow field. We searched for a minute hoping to pick it up again, but couldn’t find any trace of it. We consulted our map and decided to head up one of the chutes in the cliff bands and into the second valley. Jason found us a perfect route and soon we were, temporarily, back on the trail in the second valley.
We continued onward and upward and were now completely on snow. We stopped for a minute to put on our crampons and take out the ice axes and then started up again. The snow conditions were solid, just as we had hoped and we were making good time as we crunched along frozen surface. The moon was just starting to rise above the ridge above us and soon the whole valley was lit up in a brilliant bluish silver glow. I’d never been on this trail in the moonlight and was amazed at how beautiful it was. We ascended some long steep snow fields ranging anywhere from 20 degrees to 45 degrees. It was already turning into a great climb.
Timpanogos Basin to the Saddle
At the top of one such snow field, we found ourselves at the bottom of the Timpanogos Basin. The summit loomed high above us and looked eerie in the moonlight. We decided that this was a good spot to take a break. As we sat there eating Cliff bars and Pop-Tarts, we began to see the first hints of morning to the east. I glanced at my watch and realized it was 4:30. That gave us just over an hour and a half to be at the summit for the sunrise. I knew we still had a long way to go and at this point doubted that we would make it. I told myself that if we could at least make it to the saddle, the sunrise views would still be fantastic.
We traversed the basin and were soon looking at a very steep climb to the saddle.
Jason and Ammon climbing towards the saddle
Large cornices still hung in a few places high above us and I wondered if we would be able to pick our way over them to the western facing slope for our final push to the summit. The sky was starting to get brighter and I soon realized that even a sunrise from the saddle was being too optimistic.
We climbed the steep snow in the direction of a gap that we had seen from the basin. We hoped this gap would allow us to climb over the ridgeline and onto saddle and the western slope. Once on the other side, we knew that it would be much easier to travel because there wouldn’t be any snow. Climbing was slow on the steep snow, but we soon came to a flat section about halfway up the headwall. This, I thought, would be the place to watch the sunrise. I took out the camera and snapped some pictures. It was an interesting contrast to see. The bluish silver glow that we had been climbing under for the last few hours had now changed to a brilliant orange as the sun rose above the horizon.
Sunrise over the Timpanogos Basin
It was a breathtaking site. All around us the snow was lit up as if it were on fire.
Looking North as the sun casts its orange glow.
We stayed for a few minutes enjoying the sunrise and then started up again. We began climbing again towards the gap at the top of the ridge. The slope continued to get steeper as we climbed and I started thinking that a slip would lead to a wild ride back to the bottom of the basin. The run out at the bottom was smooth and a fall wouldn’t have been terribly dangerous, but I didn’t want to risk having to haul myself back up here if I slipped and wasn’t able to stop myself. I took extra care to make sure that my ax was firmly planted with each step.
Sean and Jason nearing the saddle.
We came to a band of rock near the saddle and again stopped to catch our breath. We could see that we could climb over onto the saddle from where we sat and began trying to figure out how to get there. There was a 60+ degree slope between our rocks and the saddle and the only way over was to traverse about 40 yards across it. For Sean, this would be the end of the climb. He had snapped his ankle on McKinley the year before and this was his first climb since getting his doctors OK to climb again. He was loosing strength in it and decided it would be best to head back down. We made arrangements to meet back up with him and then turned our attention to the slope separating us from the saddle.
Morning glow on the summit
Saddle to Summit
The steep slope was a rush to cross and soon we were sitting on the saddle enjoying the view. Far below us we could see all of Utah Valley. Off in the distance we could see Mt. Nebo, the only Wasatch peak taller than Timpanogos. We took off our crampons and started making our final summit push.
Looking back towards the saddle en route to the summit
Ammon and Jason were moving much faster than I was and they were soon far ahead of me. I started to wonder if I was having an off day or if I was just exhausted from lack of sleep. I kept trying to motivate myself by saying that I would be rewarded with some cheese and crackers once I reached the summit. I watched Ammon and Jason reach the top and about 10 min later I dragged myself inside the little metal hut at the summit. It was 8:00. Out came the cheese and crackers. I downed those along with some energy bars and began feeling energy creep back into me. We signed the summit log, snapped a few summit shots, and then continued on towards the Timpanogos glacier.
The Wild Ride Back Down
As we traversed the summit ridge, we passed two climbers who were on their way to the summit after climbing the Everest Ridge. They were the only other people we had seen since starting our climb hours earlier. We wished them luck and continued to the Timp Glacier.
We followed the trail through the scree slopes and came to the glacier. This was one of the best parts of the climb. I had always loved the glissade down the glacier. It took us hours to climb from the basin to the summit and it would take us only seconds to slide back down. Ammon went first, then Jason, then me.
The Timpanogos Glacier. Emerald Lake is still frozen and covered with snow.
The ride down was a blast, and soon we were sitting inside the hut at Emerald Lake. We made some gear adjustments and then continued on.
Looking NorthWest from the shack at Emerald Lake
We had one more cliff band to negotiate before we would be at the bottom of the basin and we began looking for a route down it. We decided that the safest way would be to traverse a steep slope underneath the looming summit to a point where we could glissade to the basin floor with a smooth run out. As we cut across the steep snow, I saw Jason momentarily slip from line of sight. I yelled to see if he was alright. He yelled back that his crampons had balled up and that he had slipped, but was able to self arrest with his ax immediately. We continued to our glissade point and then took another wild ride to the basin floor.
Back to the Trailhead
A large part of our decent would be done on our butts, glissading down toward the trail head. Soon we were out of the snow and traveling along the dirt trail. We passed scout falls, but as I mentioned earlier, I was too tired to dig out my camera to take a picture. I was completely worn out and allowed gravity to carry my legs with each step as we neared the car. Unlike when we had started, the lower trail was now covered with people. We passed people in jeans and tennis shoes and received more than one bewildered look when we told people where we were coming from. I always get a kick out of some of the crazy looks that always seem to accompany the approach to the trailhead.
14 hours after we had started and more than 16 miles later, we were finally back to the car. Sean was there to congratulate us on our summit. As we loaded our packs into the back my blazer, we joked about going for another climb on the way back home. Even though we were all exhausted, we were happy to have spent time on such a beautiful mountain. We hadn’t made it to the summit for the sunrise, but that didn’t seem to matter now. It was a great accomplishment and a trip I won’t soon forget!