At 11749′ / 3581 m, Timpanogos is the second-highest mountain in the Wasatch Range. It’s a classic Utah hike and I’d wanted to do it for years, but never managed to convince myself the extra driving was worth it when there are a couple dozen 11,000′ peaks that are closer. Basically I should have done this hike earlier, it’s probably the prettiest mountain I’ve been on. Unfortunately the only day that worked both for me and hiking buddy Dave Hanscom was a Saturday, and the mountain was really crowded. We were moving fast and passed literally 200 people in the three hours it took to make it to the summit. This was about as fast as I could move; it’s 7 miles and more than 4000′ elevation gain. Dave’s a trail runner and could have gone faster. On the way up we also passed dozens of people on their way down: it’s apparently common for people to start this hike around 1am — a pretty hardcore alpine start for the obviously non-mountaineering demographic! At the top it was not just crowded, but cold; we had to put on gloves within a few minutes.

Instead of descending the Timpooneke trail that we had climbed, we traversed across the summit ridge on a slightly exposed trail that leads to the top of the “timp glacier,” which was crevassed during the early 20th century but is now either a rock glacier or simply a glacial remnant. We had hoped to lose altitude quickly by glissading but the snow had so many rocks embedded in it that we mostly had to walk. At the bottom of the snow we refilled water bottles and descended the Aspen Grove trail — the other major route up and down this mountain — until we reached the Hartsky cutoff which heads back across the mountain toward where we started from. This trail follows what looks like an old, nearly-overgrown mining road and is hard to follow in places. However, the scenery was excellent and, in stark contrast to the major trails, we saw nobody until getting back to my truck. I was really happy Dave knew about this cutoff, which is described here; these seldom-used routes in the Wasatch are always my favorites.

Ten Years in Utah

Ten years ago today Sarah and I and the cats woke up somewhere in western Kansas and drove to our rental house in Salt Lake City:

A lot has happened since then — marriage, kids, tenure — but still, it’s hard to imagine that more than a quarter of our lives has been spent in Utah.

Our little Honda (in the driveway in the picture), which we drove for five more years, turned out to be poorly adapted to life in the desert. Black both outside and in, it got extremely hot. Its minuscule ground clearance turned moderate roads in Southern Utah into epics. It was not very secure and got broken into at least twice before finally being stolen from in front of our house (we got it back).

Red Baldy

People following the “outdoors” thread on this blog will have noticed that Bill and I failed to summit on Mount Baker and also on White Baldy this year already. I’m not all about summiting, but this got on my nerves a little. Yesterday I decided to climb Red Baldy, an 11,000′ neighbor to White Baldy. Around six years ago I had failed to climb Red Baldy by its NE ridge, due to some frightening scrambling problems and also I was by myself. Just to make things confusing, Red Baldy is usually accessed from the White Pine drainage, whereas White Baldy is usually climbed from Red Pine.

This time I was a bit worried about timing: I couldn’t start before 9:30 due to dropping off kids, and had to finish before Sarah and I went out to celebrate our anniversary (nine years!). The White Pine road is notoriously long and switchbacky, and at least one trip report on the web indicated an eight-hour round trip for this peak. Luckily, whoever said this was either slow or took a different route: I made it up and down in 5.5 hours, including about an hour on top. The fast way to Red Baldy is to walk the White Pine road until it makes a final switchback towards White Pine Lake a little below 10,000′. From this switchback, ascend tundra and talus to Red Baldy’s north ridge, then follow this ridge to the summit. After leaving the trail this route is class 2 walking, making Red Baldy perhaps the 4th easiest 11,000′ peak in the Wasatch (after Hidden Peak, Sugarloaf, and Baldy).

On this hike temperatures were pleasant at the trailhead in the morning and also up high around mid-day, but it was around 85 at the trailhead when I got back there at 3pm, and then 102 by the time I got home, yikes. A few snowfields were left in upper White Pine; in my soft boots these were useless on the way up, but provided a quick way to descend a few hundred feet.

Grandview Peak

Grandview Peak, at 9410′, is the highest point in Salt Lake City. Even so, it’s a long way from anywhere and no trail goes to its summit. Over the course of four trips to Grandview I’ve yet to see another person within two miles of the top (not counting whoever I’m hiking with, of course).

One of the reasons I enjoy Grandview is that the route has great variety. You get peaceful hiking near an alpine stream, typical low-Wasatch walking through scrub oak, a nice climb in open pine forest, a long ridge-run with plenty of minor obstacles, and finally a serious two-mile brush thrash on exit.

According to Google Earth, my route was right at 10 miles and involved 4400′ of gain/loss. It took about 6.5 hours and 1.5 MPH felt plenty fast given the difficult terrain.  I’d been hoping for pleasant temperatures; valley highs were around 90 and the average adiabatic lapse rate predicts that 5000 feet higher it should be 17 degrees cooler.  Somehow this prediction was total crap and it was both hot and humid; I guess surface heating probably dwarfs adiabatic effects unless the air is moving around a lot, and transpiration defeats Utah’s natural low humidity. Anyway, three liters of water was not enough. My previous times on Grandview were a lot more pleasant, and had been in spring or fall.  Here’s a description of a similar route I took a few years ago.

Epic Win

Today I visited my favorite taco stand in SLC, the one facing State Street in the Sears parking lot close to 800 South. Four excellent carne asada tacos for $3 is hard to beat. After lunch I went to the new Epic Brewery just a few hundred feet away. I didn’t know much about them, but had heard they’re making good beer. Epic’s shtick turns out to be interesting: they brew strong beer (in contrast, most Utah microbrew is 4.0% ABV) and sell it only in 22 oz (~650 ml) bottles. The retail store is minimalist: a fridge full of bottles, a rack of t-shirts,  and a cash register. While reviewing papers tonight I opened an “825 State Stout.” It is good: a little sweet, not overly alcoholic or hoppy, with plenty of toasted malt flavor. Overall above average among stouts I’ve tasted — nice, since Utah stouts tend to be underwhelming.

White Baldy

White Baldy, on the ridge between the Red Pine and White Pine drainages of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah’s Wasatch Range, is an infrequently visited 11,000′ mountain with no really easy routes: its east, west, and north ridges are all messes of bus-sized boulders. Bill and I decided that if we were ever going to climb this mountain, it would be via a snow climb of its broad north face. This face could be a fun scramble in summer, but getting to it would necessitate an hours-long session of boulder hopping in upper Red Pine. Better to just walk on top of it all.

On June 21 we hiked not-speedily to Red Pine Lake, one of the prettiest locations in the Wasatch. The snow was very firm and the small patch of open water on the lake had accumulated a skin of ice overnight. We had good walking to Red Pine’s highest bowl at around 10,200′ and from there the climbing began. The problem with this north face is that it doesn’t have any really pleasant couloirs; as the slope became steeper, there were always sharp rocks sticking out of the snow below us–not so fun to imagine falling into them. As the angle crept past 30 degrees we started running into patches of icy crust where my light mountaineering boots were failing to kick very good steps. With about 600′ to go we chickened out and turned around; putting on crampons (which we hadn’t brought) or waiting an hour for the snow to soften would have also been solutions, but neither of us was super invested in summiting.

We traversed over to the west ridge, stopping to do a bit of self-arrest practice along the way, including a few of the always-frightening backwards / headfirst falls. I hadn’t practiced stopping fast slides for a few years so this was good review. We had lunch looking into American Fork Canyon. It was a great day: sunny and warm in the lee of a boulder, but surprisingly cold in the wind–my hands started to get numb while I was taking pictures. On the way down the snow was getting sloppy but the partially broken-down snow bridge over the Red Pine stream held up fine. Overall, it was an excellent spring snow climb.

Here’s a 360° panorama with White Baldy in the middle.

Flower Power

The Wasatch Range peaks are 7000′ higher than the nearby Salt Lake Valley. This has many nice side effects but one of my favorites is that a wide variety of micro-climates is available within a small geographical region. In late Fall or early Spring it can be calmly drizzling in the city, but in the mountains it’s storming like the Himalayas. Before having kids I’d often get up around 5am in July and August to go for a hike. Even on days that are going to be over 100 degrees in the valley, it’s generally pretty chilly at 8000′ at that time of day.

This week the foothills near my house have the most flowers in the 6000′ to 7000′ range. Below this things are starting to dry out; higher up, the snow has only recently melted and buds are still trying to open. As the summer progresses, the band where flowers are found will slowly increase in elevation. The nice thing about this arrangement is that for about four months of the year, there’s somewhere within about a 45 minute drive that has wildflowers at their peak. The density of flowers in the foothills doesn’t approach the wall-to-wall color seen in some of the real alpine meadows, but some of these photos came out pretty well.

Predicting Grad School Performance

I enjoy going out drinking with my colleagues, although it only seems to happen a few times a year. It should come as a surprise to nobody that professors are natural bullshitters and people always have good stories: nearly destroying a ticket booth at Alta while doing avalanche control work, barely sub-nuclear pyrotechnic displays out in the desert, skiing across Siberia during the good old days of the USSR, things like that. It is perhaps relevant that one of my colleagues, Erik Brunvand, is the son of the guy who popularized the term “urban legend.” We also tell work stories; these are slightly less colorful but this is one of my favorites:

At some point before my time at Utah, some professors got together and decided to bring a few principles to the chaotic process that is graduate admissions. The experiment worked like this.  First, the applications to graduate school from a number of previous years were gathered up and a spreadsheet was created containing every current graduate student in addition to all of the quantitative data from their applications.  This spreadsheet was sorted by various fields such as GRE score, undergraduate GPA, etc.  Then, the resulting lists of names were passed out to the faculty without telling them what the sorting keys were. Each professor was asked to choose which list or lists best sorted the graduate students by ability. Finally, the results were tallied up.  The most important predictor of grad student quality turned out to be whether the student arrived with a MS degree or not, followed closely by social security number and then phone number.  GRE and GPA were not predictors at all.

50 Vertical Miles

A little over a year ago my family moved to a house near the north edge of Salt Lake City.  Although access to real mountains is not great — it’s about a three-hour walk to the nearest 8000′ peak and a major slog to a 9000′ peak — the foothill access is excellent.  At the same time, after way too much sedentary work, sedentary travel, and time at home with small kids, I found myself with high blood pressure and needing to lose weight, so I started doing a 45-minute hike each day, with a bit over 750′ elevation gain/loss.

After a year of this I ended up in decent shape and around 20 pounds lighter.  The cool part, though, is that 365 days of 750 feet comes out to 50 vertical miles hiked.  I was a little disappointed to compute that I’ll never be able to hike to the equivalent of geosynchronous orbit, but low Earth orbit should be attainable this year.  Of course due to travel and being sick, I missed some days, but also there were plenty of days where I hiked 2000-3000 vertical feet, so probably the average was maintained.  The hardest part is not missing days when weather is crappy or work and kids make life busy.  The solution, however, turned out to be easy: a good facemask and a powerful headlamp.

Although hiking the same set of trails day after day threatens to become boring, there has been a nice unintended benefit.  Since little brain power is required, I get a lot of unstructured time to think.  As far as I can tell, this has improved the quality of my work quite a bit; I usually return from a hike with three or four new ideas for me or my students to try out.  Even if only a few percent of these ideas are useful, the time is still well spent.  Hiking is even better than the shower for generating new ideas — who knew?

Elk in the Neighborhood

When hiking locally, I usually move fast and don’t bother taking pictures.  However, one thing I’ve learned is that a clearing snowstorm often makes for striking photography.  So it was just luck, then, that I had a camera on an afternoon hike in upper City Creek Canyon a few days ago when I ran into a large herd of elk who decided to pose for me in a couple of locations.  Actually it was doubly lucky: I was also hiking the wrong ridge, one that contains intense scrub oak, instead of the one I intended, which has a reasonable brush-free route.  Embarrassingly, when I sent a few pictures to my Dad, I mis-identified these animals as mule deer.  This was silly since elk and mule deer don’t look that much alike, and also the piles of grape-sized scat were obviously not from deer.  Even so, I’d never before seen elk around here (generally it’s deer and moose), so these animals were the last thing on my mind.  The pictures turned out well, including a couple that might be worth printing and framing.