Salt Lake City - distant storm at dusk (click for bigger view)
Last week I went on my first trip to Salt Lake City, Utah. I will probably repeat this later… that is one beautiful part of the country.
But before I got there, I had to get on a plane 1800 miles away. And that plane was 2 hours from my house. And it took off at 7am. That means I had to leave my house at 4:15am to have enough time to get through security.
Let’s be very clear about this: I am not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. 8am is very early for me. Getting up at 3am to be ready to leave the house by 4am is like inhuman torture. Of course, that assumes I’ve gone to sleep by that point, which is not a given.
I did try, though. I got in bed by 10pm. I tried to sleep. I think I dozed off periodically somewhere between 12-1:30am. Then I was awake from 1:30-2:53am. Realizing that the alarm would go off in 7 minutes, I miraculously fell asleep – and woke up at 4am. Yes, after an entire night of staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep, I ended up in a mad dash through the shower 15 minutes before I had to walk out the door.
A lovely start to the trip.
I thought I would sleep on the ride to the airport, or on the plane, but I didn’t. Amazingly, I wasn’t tired. Aside from sitting in a crowded plane next to a rather large young man who did fall asleep, the 5-hour trip went smoothly. I even ended up in a plane that had an interactive TV in the headrests, plus I had loaded up my iPod with the final episodes of West Wing to keep me occupied, so that was cool.
When the person in the window seat in my row finally lifted the blinds, we were descending below the tops of the snow-capped mountain range. It looked like I could walk out on the wing and touch the mountain. A glance across the aisle to the other window revealed the optical illusion of a mountain growing downward – a perfect reflection of aÂ mountainousÂ island in the polished glass of the Great Salt Lake. What a great entrance to the city!
Click for huge size view - this is looking south from a neighboring mountain
I made it to the hotel by 11am local time, and then I had a conundrum. I couldÂ succumbÂ to fatigue and take a nap, do some work, or take advantage of the unbelievably nice weather and scenery. As I almost never have this kind of opportunity, I opted for door #3. And now, over a week later, I’m still thrilled that I did, and somewhat surprised that I made it out alive.
Unfortunately, I did not heed my 6 year old’s advice and take the cell phone with a camera in it, so I don’t have direct proof of what I accomplished, but I still remember how it looked and how it felt. It was awesome. And scary.
I was staying at the University of Utah, which sits at 5000′ above sea level and backs right up on the mountains. I live at approximately 400′ above sea level, so at 5000′ the air is already comparatively thin. But the promise of the view from the side of the mountain just minutes away was too much for me. So I took my sad, out-of-shape body out for a walk. I stopped and picked up a bottle of water, a sandwich, an apple, and some chips, and walked up the road past the Red Butte Nature Research Center, into the pass between two mountains.
Walking up the road I saw some random people, not many, jogging or walking their dogs. Looking up the hill on the left were the paths obviously moreÂ traveled, on hills that rolled into their height, catering to the foot traffic of those out for exercise and beautiful scenery. On the right were the wilder, steeper, more challenging trails that I imagine were favored by mountain bikers. Not impenetrable, but certainly more difficult.
Had I actually thought about the fact that I was working on a broken 2 hours worth of sleep, have bad knees and a bad back, and get winded walking across my back yard at home, I probably would have gone the easier route. But I was taken in by the promise of the vistas I would see on the higher mountain to my right. It was too tempting to pass up. Besides, I’m an Eagle Scout; I’ve hiked in the Rockies before; “I’ll know when to turn around – I’m not that far from other people.”
I picked a plateau overlooking the city as my goal. Somewhere around 5300′ I started having to concentrate on my breathing. I took lots of little rests and small drinks. By the time I reached that plateau at 5500′ I thought I had reached the top of the world. I was panting and my legs were tired, but man… what a view. I could see the airport and the lake all the way across the city. In the distance, a plane was flyingÂ below meÂ headed toward the airport.Â I rested on a rock surrounded by wildflowers, ate my lunch, and called my wife to brag about my achievement.
It was awesome.
Then my wife asked me how much of the city I could see.
The route I took as seen on Google Earth (click to view in Google Maps)
“All of it!” I said, looking around. Then I realized that, well, there is technically more city beyond that ridge just to my south. “I could probably see over that if I got a little higher,” I thought. All I would have to do would be to follow that path behind me to the next rocky outcropping. Yeah, it was steeper than what I had just climbed, and more rocky, but it looked possible. And I was starting to feel my strength coming back after eating my lunch. “Why not?” I reasoned.
So I walked up the path, slipping once on a loose stone early on. Though there was increasingly more panting, it actually wasn’t as difficult as I expected, at least until I got to just below the rocky outcropping. There the path started hugging the edge of the steeper side of the rocky slope. One misstep could easily see me rolling down the side of the mountain, seriously bruised or worse. I reached a small tree growing out of the side of the rocks, the trunk leaning toward the path, the branches just over my head. It was as I reached for a branch to steady myself and rest for a moment that I realized I was pretty dizzy. I had to concentrate to aim my hand at the branch. The thin air had really begun to take its toll.
I contemplated turning back at this point. Safety had begun to demand attention. But I was sooooo close to my new goal. All I had to do was climb over or around the rocks supporting this tree. So I did, after a rest just long enough to stave off the dizziness. Looking back to my lunch plateau, it seemed a long way down. I was at about 5900′ now, about 400′ higher than my last stop. The view (and sense of accomplishment) was tremendousâ€”but I still couldn’t quite see over that south ridge. Almost, but not quite.
There was another rock outcropping a bit further up. The path itself was steeper, but had angled a bit away from the steepest slope at this point, though there was much more loose rock. If I stayed just off the path, however, on the edge of the small vegetation, it wasn’t too bad. So after another rest, I slowly made my way up another 300-400 feet, sometimes using my hands to help climb. NOW I was high. I could see everything, even over the south ridge.
All kinds of bliss. Just pure beauty. Awesome.
And kind of cold. And my bottled water started tasting funny. And I was dizzy again, and it didn’t go away after I rested.
Then I looked up the hill. The top of the ridge was right up there. Maybe another 200 vertical feet. But it was steeper again. And more loose rock. And narrower. But so close. Â “I might be able to make it.”
I called my wife again and bragged about where I was. I told her I was close to the top. “I can probably make it.”
In the end I decided it was stupid to risk it for a couple of hundred feet and bragging rights, when I was already noticeably affected by the thin air. Even if I made it to the top, I’d still have to turn around and come down the same treacherous path. As it was, I had a hard time getting down those first 400-600 feet again. But as I descended I got less dizzy, and my water started tasting more like water again. Even though my legs were more tired, my footing was more sure. By the time I reached my lunch spot I was feeling normal again.
A view of the mountain I hiked. (click to embiggen)
Another view, closer to the base. You can see the plateau I stopped at for lunch between the electrical lines. (click to embiggen)
By the time I got back to my room, I was completely re-energized. I still don’t really understand that. I should have been dead tired after going through that much exertion following so little sleep.
The rest of my week had some great moments (and some dead boring ones, too), but nothing topped that hiking experience. The whole time I was there I kept looking up that mountain surprised and proud at how close I came to the ridge, yearning to take another shot at it.
I’ll tell you three things I learned from the experience:
- I might not be in quite as bad shape as I thought.
- For some reason, water tastes weird when there’s not as much oxygen.
- Never go up an essentially treeless mountain on a cloudless day with no hat or sunscreen. Even today in the shower, my head still hurt a little.
Have you ever accomplished something that surprised you?
All photos provided by Julie Lesch – thanks!