Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Not to Die or Give Up While Climbing a Mountain

The Timpanogos Cave Trail Adventure

Till a week ago, the most difficult trail I can remember ever attempting was The Shoals Falls Loop Trail in South Mountains State Park in NC, or the Hot Pots trail, in Diamond Fork Canyon, in Utah.

But both trails quickly fade in comparison to the Timpanogos Cave Trail, in American Fork Canyon, which kicked my butt!

My husband attempted to climb it 10 years ago. In worse shape than he is now, although younger, and on a 100F+ day in the middle of summer, with no water on hand, he and his friend made it half way up the mountain and turned around. They never made it to the cave.

I will let you read on the specifics of the trail on your own, but I want to tell you about my own experience.

First, I have been intrigued about this cave since I moved here, simply, first, because I love caves. It’s one of those “face your fears” deals for me: I am terrified of bats, and I am not crazy about complete darkness, either. But I love what God and Nature conspire to do inside the belly of the world! And unlike the bottom of the ocean, where I would need special skills to go visit, there are no special skills or instructions required to see a cave.

Then, everyone I know in this area has not only been to the cave, but have climbed The Timpanogos (mountain), a 14 mile trail, which takes you up 11K feet high above the valley floor! Loving heights as much as I do, and looking upon open vistas, I was craving for years to lay my eyes on this beautiful landscape as seen from up there.

I promise my husband every summer that “this year, we’ll do the cave” and yet, for 4 years, we have not done it. So, this year was the year of the cave!

We each got a liter and a half of water to take with us, 6 clementines and a breakfast bar, good shoes and a good night sleep before the trip. And on the Sunday of Labor Day, we reserved our tickets to start the hike at 12.15 PM! My husband was dubious still, all the way to the trail head. And beyond.

In what follows, it’s the story of this hike, in pictures, and words:

It was actually chilly start, in the shade! The weather announced 78 for a high that day, which is perfect hiking weather, but it felt more like 68 to me, hence the sweater:

Right after this picture was taken, my husband dropped his bottle of water into the abyss below us! Oh, no! We were left with just my bottle – just one and a half liter for both of us, and a mile and a half of steep, steep canyon to climb! Will we make it?!

On the climb up, we kept seeing people with lots less water than us, and eating salty snacks, coming back, so we figured if we conserve our snacks and energy we’d be fine with the water we had left!

The trail is paved all the way up – which always made me believe that it’s no big deal. However, “steep” does not even begin to describe it! It is breakneck steep! It’s almost “straight up”, as if you were to rock climb Angels Landing in Zion! Seriously!

At every bend in the road (and there are many, as the trail snakes back and forth through rocky terrain), you feel like your knees, your liver, your chest are going to give up on you and this is your end. Right here, on the Timp Cave trail! 

This is one of the many pictures my husband took of the steep-ness and winding-ness of the trail: we are at one of the bends in the road when we took this shot:

From almost every angle we looked down in the valley from, we saw this abrupt, endless, and humbling beauty below: it was just quite literally breath-taking. I know this is a cliche, but I really don't have any other words for it: the vistas below kept us going and wanting  for more: more angles, more canyon clearance, more flora, more ... and more and more ...:

We were thrilled to learn that there are markers to tell you how far along you are in your journey: of course, tourist geeks that we are, we took pictures at every marker: here's me at the 1/4 way spot, right before entering a mini-tunnel:

The terrain is all rock, as you'd expect, in Utah. On every stopping point, you see these huge walls shouting up towards the sky, protecting you from falling off the cliffs. And then nothing but more rock beyond:

Although we had a set time for the cave tour, at the top (1:45 PM), we were in no hurry: we stopped not only to rest but also to take in the landscape, near and far. There are lots of up close beauties on the trail, like these flowers springing right off the boulders, or this trunk being one with the desert:

Such simple and plain and quiet beauty!  

Because the mountain is so steep and full of loose rocks and boulders, there are many areas throughout the trail marked as " no stop zones" - notice the yellow line in the middle of the trail: you are not supposed to stop in those areas, because of the increased danger for avalanches - this was killing me, because whether feeling dead or not, you could not rest. You had to keep on going:

This is me at the 3/4 way mark. Can you tell I am almost ready to die?! 

These are more amazing vistas we walked above of: the road you see winding about in the valley is the Alpine Loop, or the bottom of the American Fork Canyon. And the town in the distance is American Fork: 

To keep it ever so interesting, almost right towards the end of the trail, we found this sign: really, after being over a mile away from civilization, close to the top of this mountain, with the canyon only a mirage picture below us, you warn me about rattle snakes?? And really, do they know to stay off my trail, so I can be safe?!


This is me almost close to the end: I just could not believe I was towering over these gapes. I always say that photography never makes justice to mountain pictures because it doesn't matter what lens you use, you always lose in depth and width. Only the naked eye can understand the impact:

 My husband was so proud of himself (and I of both of us!) when we reached this sign. He needed a shot for his friend that attempted the hike 10 years ago and never saw this landmark:

Right after that shot, we started to see some sign of human presence, and we figured this will be the end of our "beautiful" ordeal: a rooftop, which meant, probably: the entrance to the cave!

And this is us, finally, at the entrance of the cave. You have no idea the elation and the excitement we felt when we finally saw the sign and started seeing the park rangers welcoming us:

After a 45 minute to an hour tour of the three caves (the Hansen, Middle and Timapnogos Caves), we came out at an even higher spot than where we walked in. I felt like I was really on top of the world, as it seemed like there was no mountain higher than where we were standing at this point:  

Not only the beauty, but the chilly breeze and the complete serenity and quietness of the moment were overwhelming. No car noise, no stream, nothing by the wind swishing in your hair was to be heard. If the heart of the cave lets you experience complete and total darkness, the top of the mountain offers you complete and total quietude on this planet.

It's here that we had our "lunch": the breakfast bar and the clementines - the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted - the lavish reward of a hike accomplished:


When we finally reached the bottom of the trail, that we had left almost 4 hours before, we took a shot of the park sign, for posterity: 

I am exhausted but happy and so much richer than 4 hours before!  

What makes this journey more amazing is the fact that although we love hiking, we are not healthy people! We attempt only "easy" hikes. We are not fit people. We are not even physically active people in my mind (although my husband would beg to differ about me, there). But we took it slow and steady, we reveled in the beauty ahead of us and we conquered the mountain. 

Only half of the water bottle was gone, at the end, and all of the food. We were so starved after it all, and completely threw all good sense to the wind and gorged on chicken wings, steak, mashed potatoes, salads and cheese fries for dinner! The waitress didn't understand how two people could order half of the menu. But if we were to die, we were going to die happy. And full. 

Would I do it again?! Only when my body will forget this pain it's been in for a week! 
I definitely recommend that anyone should attempt it at least once. 

Here's the most famous formation inside the Timpanogos cave: the Great Heart of the Timpanogos. Click on the picture to see the entire album, and all of the cave shots of all the eerie formations:

 Both Aa. and I agreed: when we have guests in Utah, in the next several months, we will encourage them to climb the trail. We, however, might be waiting for them with a picnic, at the bottom of the mountain. That, and a cold bottle of beer. Maybe two years from now, our bodies will forget and we might join. But not before then! Till then, you're all on your own. 

The Summer of Open Ended Possibilities …

"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day." -  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some people live for their Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions, I suppose. I live for the year round ones. I feared (I always do) that this summer was too short, just about as much as I always fear the winter is too long. Humans. Are we ever pleased?  

Always a planner, I had lists of new things to do this summer and I left room for the ordinary and routine as well. The hand that was dealt gave us both but not in the quantity we would have liked (again: just being human and expecting), I suppose: not enough newness and not enough oldness, in the end. Maybe just as much as our time and tired bodies could handle.

Even the mainstays take a new shape or form every year, depending on what changes happen in the local landscape, or how old and decrepit I am becoming to be able to handle them (differently) every year.

Other than getting away to Wyoming and to Snowbird for two weekends, we spent the summer pretty much around our area, just taking in the smells, tastes and trails of the mountains and cities close by. I remember when, living in the South East, my one and only dream was to travel to The Rockies and explore. The time and cash were always limited and I never got to do it when living there. Now, that dream is my backyard, and I cannot ever stop being grateful for everything my surrounds offer.

Every year, I am more and more amazed, surprised, thankful for everything I get to do around here. The “same” yearly things are not really the same – every sunset has different colors in it, and every rainbow a different shape. And every year, my eyes get older, and perceive new shades or stop perceiving the old ones – not sure. All the summer foods taste different every year, depending on how much or how little rain we got that season.

The aspen trees and pines are eternal in their beauty. The rocks are still towering and somber, protecting us, as good soldiers do, from winds, and tougher weather. But the air smells different and the wind feels different on our skins, with every season. I didn’t miss the desert fires this year, truthfully!  

There are some things that will be this year’s alone: this will be the year of lazy afternoons of canceled plans, and not-too-hot weather, but hot enough to call it “summer”. It was the first year (after 4 years of living here), when we actually had grass in the backyard. Well, weeds, mostly – but the year we had “green”.

 The unusual year of a poor tomato crop, but an equally unusual time of a huge herb and onions crop. Even peppers are better this year. The year of fresh Alaskan salmon grilled in the Payson park – I can still smell it! The year of discovering the peace and serenity of Payson Lakes, and the year we conquered part of the Timpanogos mountain. This will be the summer of my first rodeo, and of my first visit to a Mormon temple.

If this summer taught me one thing, it is, just like the song says: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy”.
Really. Just step outside your door. There is always a trail waiting, a piece of skin left un-tanned,  a tomato stand peeking around the corner, a rose bush needed to be trimmed, a fruity drink waiting to be sipped, a sunset waiting to be watched…

There will also be lots of things we left undone on our summer list. But those are just cocooned possibilities for a later date. No regrets. Just our lives, in the future.

Tired and sighing, the sun is retiring for the season. The sunsets will be gentler and paler from here out, more shy, in the shrinking temperatures of the fall and then winter.
Click on the picture to see a brief journey, in pictures, of our 2014 summertime.