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After knocking off the Pfeifferhorn and Mt. Timponogas in the last few weeks, I have been trying to determine which peak in the Wasatch Mountains would further test my abilities. I talked with my neighbor about climbing Lone Peak, but a few days before the climb he had a mountain biking accident and was no longer able to go. Faced with the prospect of having to climb alone, I was leaning more and more towards an ascent of Mt. Olympus, a good way to get some elevation without requiring large amounts of time.
The night before my departure I shared my intent to climb Olympus with my father-in-law, and he expressed his desire to head up into the mountains as well. The only obstacle was that he had a lot of responsibilities to attend to the next day before going out of town. We immediately put into motion a plan that would allow him to take care of his work, and get us up into the mountains before leaving on his trip.
As we did some research on the Broads Fork Twin Peaks, we remembered a friend of the family that also wanted to climb this prestigious mountain, and around 1100PM that night we called him and invited him on our climb. The three of us would leave at 330 the following morning.
To the Meadow
We arrived at the parking lot around 4AM, geared up, and hit the trail. From the parking lot the trail heads west towards the entrance of the canyon, then turns left heading south. From this point on it is consistently steep while working up towards a big open meadow.
There are numerous times when overgrown vegetation covers the trail and I found myself extremely glad that I had decided to wear pants. We passed through literal clouds of bugs and gnats; I ended up inhaling them despite my best efforts to breathe only when I thought the coast was clear.
As we climbed, the systematic ting-ting-ting of our trekking poles fighting for purchase on the rocks lulled me into a daze. The sky was still pitch black; my world consisted of me and the 1-foot-in-diameter bobbing sphere of light at my feet being cast on the rocks by my headlamp. My existence in this narrow world relied solely upon making it to the top; putting one foot in front of the other was the only available means to that end.
We soon reached a large meadow opening up into a small valley. (Keep in mind that the trail passes through a few smaller meadows on the way up to this larger one. You will know the big one when you get to it.) As you emerge from the trees into the meadow, there is a split in the trail.
The trail we were standing on continues straight (east), and there is a trail that breaks off to the right and heads south. You want to continue straight heading east, despite the logical reasoning that you should head right in the direction of Twin Peaks. (We learned all of this after the fact)
We stopped at the split to drink some water and tried to determine which way to go. Phil retrieved a map from his pack so we could get a better idea of our location, and Peter was randomly looking around off the left side of the trail while we were waiting. As the beam of light from his headlamp swept across the meadow, he suddenly realized that about 60 yards away there was a pair of two glowing green eyes locked right onto our position. He notified us of this disconcerting find, and we all began shining our headlamps in that direction attempting to gain some insight as to who our admirer was.
Despite our best efforts, our lights were not strong enough to illuminate objects at that distance, and the piercing green eyes remained. At one point we saw the eyes drop about a foot as if the owner was slinking down close to the ground. We were not positive, but assumed that we were in the presence of a phantom of the wilderness; a cougar.
To the Saddle
After a few intense minutes, we decided to take the trail to the right heading south. Peter was the last one in line, and kept an eye on the trail behind us making sure that we weren’t being followed. The trail to the right follows the right side of the meadow, then begins working its way up the side of a mountain. (If you take the trail heading east, it goes to the opposite side of the meadow, and around the east side of a small pond in the valley. This is the correct way to go and will prove to be much easier then the trail that we took.)
As we worked our way up the mountainside, we noticed that Peter had stopped and was looking down into some trees and brush at the bottom. He thought he saw the green eyes again. We stopped and scoured the vegetation attempting to locate any uninvited additions to our climbing party. We came up with nothing. He attributed what he saw to paranoia, and we kept working our way along the mountainside towards the edge.
At the bottom of the small valley to our southeast (left), we could see a small boulder field in front of some 40-foot cliffs. It is amazing to see the residual effects of the glaciers that created this terrain such a long time ago. As we neared the edge of the mountainside, we had a clear view down into the valley, and up the large chute of talus and boulders guarding us from the saddle.
As we neared the edge, we started hearing this extremely loud, high-pitched shrieking noise. Phil identified it as a Marmot; Peter and I concurred. I have heard Marmots before, but never one yelling as consistently and as loud as this one. Little did we know that it was actually sounding an alarm, warning us of a predator nearby.
Peter happened to look down, and about 50 yards away there was a mountain lion looking right at us as it headed up the mountainside in our direction. The three of us stopped and looked returning its stare. It turned immediately, cleared the boulder field in about 3 seconds, then scaled the 40-foot cliffs. We saw it come out on top as it disappeared into the woods.
We stood silently in awe. First, it is extremely rare to see mountain lions, especially during the day. Second, we could not believe how quickly and effortlessly it cleared the boulder field and scaled the cliffs. Third, how long had it been following us and for what reason? We literally stood there for 5 minutes just trying to get a grip on what had happened, then decided to keep moving and started up the gauntlet.
The chute up to the saddle is some of the most grueling climbing I have ever experienced. The mountainside is a sea of shifting and unstable rock mixed with clumps of thorns and thistle. Every step requires thoughtful consideration. It was mentally taxing as every 5 or 10 minutes I would look up towards the top to check our progress, and it would seem like we hadn’t covered any ground. The only option was to keep climbing, and try not to look up as much in order to curb my impending disappointment.
We eventually neared the saddle and came upon some rocky ledges in our way. I stashed my trekking poles as my hands would serve better tools for gripping the rocks than the poles would help by trying to balance on them. There are a few narrow ledges along the way, but nothing serious or difficult. We picked our way up to the top and stood triumphantly on the saddle.
The view from the saddle was tremendous. Looking south we could see all the way to the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Lone Peak, the Pfeifferhorn, and White Baldy. To the west we could see down into the Salt Lake Valley and the summit of the eastern Twin. The ridge that has to be traversed to get to the summit looks rugged and has some pretty serious exposure. Unfortunately, we would not have an opportunity to cross it, at least not today.
Before leaving that morning we decided that we would need to be home between 10-11AM. We reached the saddle around 830AM, and estimated that it would take us two hours to get back to the car. Despite our disappointment, we decided that the worst time to try and rush would be while crossing this dicey terrain to the top. Our only option was to head home and come back another day.
To the Bottom
We grossly underestimated the time it would take to get down. Because of the loose rocks in the chute, it was more difficult finding our footing on the way down then it was on our way up. It took us roughly the same amount of time to get down as it took on our ascent.
We passed by the cliffs in the valley, and were even more surprised to see how steep they were. We were baffled as we noticed an overhang at the top of the cliffs. How did the cougar negotiate such rugged terrain in such a short amount of time?
As we passed by the pond we noticed a beaver dam running across it. I couldn’t believe the myriad of wildlife that we had encountered on the trip. We noticed some wild raspberries growing on rocky ledges overlooking the pond and decided to stop and pick some. It was a welcome break as the unforgiving terrain had already taken a toll on our feet.
The trip down was enjoyable as we were seeing much of the terrain for the first time. When we climbed up to the meadow in the morning, it was dark, and we could not appreciate the beautiful scenery along the way. We could not stop talking about our experience seeing the cougar earlier, and we all ruled out the prospect of hiking alone in the future ever again.
We continued down the trail and welcomed the sight of the car as it came into view. It was a successful trip, but left some unfinished business for us to resolve. We will be returning soon in order to make amends, and the next time we will not be on a schedule.