June 30, 2006
For over 100 years, Mount Timpanogos (11,749 feet) has been the most popular hiking destination in Utah. Timpanogos (locally referred to as “Timp”) towers over the valley floors below by more than 7,000 feet – an impressive sight that draws hikers of all ages to its trails. Two trails are the most common accesses to the summit, Timpooneke Trail (from American Fork Canyon) and Mount Timpanogos Trail near Aspen Grove (from Provo Canyon). I prefer the Timpooneke Trail because of its steady, runnable ascent. A single round trip to the summit on this trail covers about 14-15 miles and climbs about 4,800 feet. (Compare this to about 4,500 feet elevation change hiking down into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim and back with about the same mileage).
View of Timpanogos summit last fall
from the early portion of the Timpooneke Trail
On Friday-Saturday, June 30-July 1, 2006, I planned to do a good long training run in preparation for the Tahoe Rim 100 to be run in two weeks. I had recovered very well since completing the Big Horn 100 two weeks earlier and was ready for a good challenge. My plan was to run a double Timp (about 30 miles with 9,600 feet of climb). Somehow my plans got out of control and I ended up accomplishing a historic first — a Quad Timp (about 60 miles with 19,200 feet of climb). Last fall I accomplished the first-known Triple Timp (read story here), but now I took it one step further and accomplished the Quad Timp.
The Timpooneke trailhead can be reached by driving up American Fork Canyon (near the cities of Alpine and Cedar Hills). The trailhead is located just past the Timpooneke campground. The trail ascends through a large valley, climbing through a series of four major plateaus, collectively known as the Giant Staircase. You travel by impressive waterfalls, forests, and meadows with wildflowers. Deer and moose are commonly seen along the way. The final step in the staircase is the Timpanogos Basin (elevation 10,100 feet), a wide-open plateau, surrounded by mountains on three sides. From this basin it is about two miles to the summit. With the relatively heavy snowfall this past winter in the Wasatch Mountains, snow is still an obstacle starting about 9,000 feet and is quite deep in places. But the snow is melting rapidly. I made my first ascent of the year a week earlier and observed a three-foot sign in the basin almost completely buried. Just a week later, the sign was free of all snow.
During this early season on Timpanogos, the snow presents a totally different experience. It covers long sections of trails including some steep switchbacks. Novice hikers lose the trail and turn back. Experienced Timp hikers plow through the snow and know the safe routes. The ascent at this time of the year takes me about a half hour longer because of the snow, but I can really fly down the mountain, bounding down snow banks. On this past Wednesday, I set a PR with a 3:48 round trip. The climb took me a slow 2:30, but my descent was a very fast 1:18.
I arrived at the trailhead after work at about 5:30 p.m. on Friday. I planned to run the first trip in daylight and to run the second trip in the dark. My goals for this run was to have fun, avoid any injuries, and not worry about the time it took. As I was making my preparations, I heard a voice a few cars away shouting at me, “No running in Wilderness Areas allowed!!” “What? Who is that?” I thought. Who else, but one of my training buddies, local ultrarunner and 10-time Wasatch 100 finisher, Phil Lowry. Phil had just arrived back at the trailhead completing a Double Timp. He asked me how many trips I was planning to do. I didn’t give him a straight answer, but my completive nature always gets the best of me, I implied that I might do a Triple. Phil has bagged an amazing 325 Timp summits, but he has not yet accomplished a Triple. With my meager 20 summits, my Triple accomplishment is my “one up” on Phil. Both Phil and I are TURDS. We recently came up with the name, “Timpanogos Ultra Running DudeS” (TURDS) for our elite group of crazed Timp ultrarunners.
Phil attempted to discourage me from doing another Triple. He said I was jeopardizing my Wasatch 100 training, doing too much. I “poo-pahed” his concerns and said I would just see how it went. Phil also griped about a warning notice at the trailhead about Avalanche Danger. Phil is on the local avalanche rescue team and boldly wrote all over the notice, stating that there wasn’t any avalanche danger, but plenty of danger from slick snowfields. Phil wished me well. He said he was returning in the morning to do another ascent. (Phil is trying hard to catch the all-time leader in Timp summits, 64-year-old Ben Woolsey who has 348 summits. Ben doesn’t start hiking until the snow melts, so Phil is trying to make up the difference so he can pull ahead this year.) Phil said he wouldn’t see me in the morning because I would have finished my double already. I said, “Well, I might see you if I’m doing a Triple.”
I bid good-bye to Phil and was on my way up the trail. The first mile is very runnable, a shaded soft trail, climbing up away from a stream to the first plateau. I felt wonderful running among the maples, pines, and aspens, hearing the sound of a roaring stream below. Soon I could see and hear Scout Falls ahead pouring violently with water from the melting snowpack above. I overtook a group of backpackers slowly making their way up the trail. They kindly stepped aside. One of the hikers was a girl who saw me last Saturday at the trailhead after I had finished a second Timp run for the day, a 4:22 roundtrip. She had been flabbergasted that anyone could make the trip that fast. “How many trips are you making today,” she asked. “Two,” I replied. Her friends had questioning looks on their faces, but I went on and left her to tell them about the crazy Timp runner.
As I climbed above the third major plateau, I looked down and was pleased to see two moose resting in a meadow. I soon arrived at a huge snowfield that totally obscures the trail. Novice Timp hikers get really confused at this point because the field is so massive, fed by numerous winter avalanches. The field was so deep last year that it never melted off during the summer. This year it looked just as deep. I knew the way and cut diagonally up and across the massive snowfield to reconnect with the trail on the other side. I could see many misdirected footprints from people who attempted to hike straight up, never finding the trail. About fifteen minutes later I reach the next major snowfield, very steep, but climbable. I had two choices: 1. Follow the switchbacks higher and then take a long steep traverse across the field, hoping not to fall and take a long slide down, or 2: Trudge directly up the steep field, digging in tracks for footing. On this trip I choose method 2. On my return trip I would bound and “ski” quickly back down this section. I quickly made my way up and reconnected with the trail leading into the Timpanogos Basin. The basin is still mostly covered in snow but had significantly melted off compared to just a few days earlier. The recent 90-degree temperatures in Utah were making their impact on the snow pack.
View of Timp basin and Timp summit (taken last fall)
I looked up to the Timp summit and could see very black clouds to the south. An afternoon thunderstorm quickly formed. I removed my headphones to help me hear the thunder and detect how close the lightning was. I wasn’t too concerned because I knew that the winds were from the southwest and the thunderstorm was forming in the southeast. The thunder booms became louder and only five seconds after the lightning – only a mile away. My pace slowed. I had no desire to be on the summit during a thunderstorm. In the basin, I could see a group of campers running away from their camp. They yelled something to me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I suppose they were going to take some cover instead of being in the exposed treeless basin. Last year a hiker was struck by lightning in this basin. I became somewhat nervous running across an exposed basin with a thunderstorm so close. I wanted to quickly reach the next set of cliffs to get some protection. But my prediction was correct. The storm continued to stay to the southeast and the clouds near the summit became less threatening.
I was next faced with the most difficult section of the climb – a steep 500-foot climb to “the saddle.” Normally there is a trail that cuts up diagonally and guides you below some cliffs. But on this day, the trail is totally covered. I’m again faced with two choices: 1 – Follow some feint tracks that traversed upward crossing some very steep slopes. A misstep would mean a dangerous slide down, possibly hitting some rocks. 2- Follow a course straight up, making steps in snow cups, scrambling up exposed loose rock, and doing some foot and hand climbing to a ledge leading to the saddle. I took option 2 which seemed quicker and safer. I rapidly reached the saddle and had a stunning view of the cities below, including Utah Lake and my hometown across the large lake. I was now able to get a much better picture of the weather. The clouds to the southwest didn’t look too bad, so I believed I would have a safe trip up the final steep 800 feet to the summit. The rest of the trail is western facing and free of snow.
I reached the summit hut after 2:35, a relatively slow ascent, delayed by the concern about the storm. I was confident that I could make up some time with a fast descent. I signed the register, noting that Phil Lowry had been up three days in a row. I then started my run down. After 100 yards, I realized that I left my water bottle back in the hut. That was dumb. Back I went to retrieve it. After that delay, I was back at it. When I hit the snow, I enjoyed bounding and sliding my way down and across the basin.
As I headed down below the basin, another violent thunderstorm formed to the north. This time the lightning strikes were frequent and very impressive, hitting the ridges on the Wasatch 100 course to the north. The wind was still from the southwest, so I didn’t worry and the lightning stayed several miles away. But the clouds were very dark at dusk. I turned on my headlamp earlier than planned. As I ran across the second “giant step,” the backpackers yelled at me. I looked back and saw them taking shelter in a cliff with an overhang. They were clearly very worried about the storm. “Be careful out there!” they yelled. I replied, “It looks like it will miss us.” I continued to run with the impressive lightning show ahead of me. Rain fell and the thunder became louder. I was starting to get soaked as I brushed against the wet bushes.
My spirits became low. I started to have thoughts about quitting after one trip and going home for sleep in a warm bed. I arrived back at my car wet and cold after a trip of 4:13. I turned on the car and the heater, and deciding to at least wait out the storm. As I waited, I munched on Nutterbutters and drank Gatorade and Ensure. I changed into a clean shirt and dry socks and shoes. Wow, I felt much better. The rain stopped and I waited for the thunder to go away.
After about 45 minutes waiting out the storm, I took inventory and realized I felt great. I had no soreness anywhere, didn’t feel tired, and had a nice full stomach. I couldn’t find any excuses, so I gathered my things and with flashlight in hand, I hit the trail again. My spirits quickly soared. The trail was already drying out in the warm weather. My pace felt strong. I believed I would really enjoy this night trip. I did enjoy it. After awhile I detected that my pace was actually slower than normal. I didn’t really care; I was going up steady and feeling great. I did have some difficulty navigating across the snow-covered basin in the dark. I ended up going off course but soon discovered my mistake. On the steep climb up to the saddle, I chose option 1, the upward traverse across some steep slopes. It was pretty spooky in the dark. I looked down and did not want to stumble and slide into rocks below. I was very careful and went pretty slow. Reaching the saddle, I paused to take in the impressive view of the city lights below.
I reached the summit again in a slow 3:00. The darkness and snow had really slowed me. I signed the register again, noting that I accomplished a double, and then started my second descent. As I ran on the trail below the basin, I almost ran right into a huge porcupine that had its back to me. We both were very startled. I backed up and continued to shine my light at the confused animal. At first it didn’t budge but finally started to waddle down the trail and soon headed up a slope. I took a wide berth around the huge critter and continued my run down.
Above the third major plateau, I could see some lights on the trail far below. It was a little about 3:30 a.m. Some hikers had started out pretty early. I never got to talk to them on this trip because I ran/skied down a massive snowfield, bypassing the longer trail, saving about ten minutes or more. As I reached the numerous small streams that cross the trail toward the bottom, I was trying to be very careful, so I could finish with dry feet. I didn’t succeed very well. After crossing one little flow, I stepped into a deep hole that sent me falling to the ground into the bushes. I banged up my knee, rolled and ended up on my back with my head below my feet on the slope. “Ouch,” I yelled. I stayed down for a few seconds and then pulled myself up. The knee hurt, but I would be fine.
I reached to trailhead again after a slow 5-hour trip. I had been more cautious and slow in the dark. After eating, I again took inventory. I was feeling great and didn’t have to change any clothes. I again had no real reason to stop. I quickly decided to head out for a Triple.
My pace again started strong and I felt amazingly fine after almost 30 miles and 9,600 feet of climbing. My major problem was lack of sleep. As I reached the third major plateau again, I was sleepwalking, moving and stumbling along the trail slowly. A couple times I caught myself as I was falling over asleep. “Wow, this is great 100-miler training,” I thought. Dawn had arrived and I finally stopped to sit on a rock for five minutes to rest my tired eyes. As I rested, I noticed a little campfire on the trail ahead. I thought that was strange. Also catching my attention were three deer, playing and chasing each other on a field of snow. It was a wonderful sight.
I picked myself up, feeling a little better and headed up the trail toward the campfire. When I arrived, a guy was putting out the fire. It was the group that had the lights I had seen during my last trip down. They asked, “Have you been up this trail before?” Oh, if you ever knew, I thought. “Yes,” I replied. They had become confused at the major snowfield and couldn’t figure out where the trail continued. For three hours they must have hunkered down and cooked some breakfast until morning arrived. I pointed out the continuing trail across the snowfield below a waterfall. I told them that I was the green light they saw coming down the trail a few hours ago. I continued on as I left them wondering what I was doing. I quickly crossed the snowfield. I noticed that the group had given up and started to head down. With the sun up, I felt more alive and awake.
I reached the top after 3:30. My sleepy slow pace took its toll. I pulled out a little recorder and said, “Feeling really good, the legs feeling really good, except I’m sick of climbing these snow fields. I would do a Quad but I just can’t see pulling myself up those crazy snow fields anymore. It will also probably get pretty warm and slushy.” I signed the register again. It was cool to see my name three times in a row — the only person who had been to the top for the past many hours. I called my wife to let her know I was alive and also called Phil, leaving a message on his cell phone, rubbing it in that I had accomplished another Triple. Right after the call from the summit hut, I was amazed to see two skinny mountain sheep only 20 yards away on the top ridge. They didn’t notice me yet, so I just watched them for a while. They pranced around on the ridge and I started to head down coming within ten feet of the sheep. They finally saw me and with great speed ran back along the ridge. I thought, “Now that is some serious trail running technique!”
As I was descending through the cliffs above the basin, I heard a whoop far down below in the basin. There was no mistaking that familiar gait. It was Phil Lowry. We greeted each other on the snowy slope climbing out of the basin. He explained that he had become concerned that he had not run into me earlier. He had even expressed that concern on his two-way radio to the forest service at the trailhead. He had asked them to check if my car was still there. I explained about my delays with the storms and my drowsiness. We had a fun conversation and he congratulated me on my second Triple. I told him that it was really strange – I really didn’t feel tired and I didn’t have any leg soreness. Phil mentioned that he planned to do a Triple on Monday. I knew he wanted to match my feat. I said, “I should continue and do a Quad today just to spite you!” He replied, “I bet you can’t do it. You will get to the bottom with sore legs and call it quits. I dare you to try.” I smiled, knowing that he threw down a challenge I couldn’t resist.
I continued on and tried to call my wife to ask if I could do one more trip. But I couldn’t get coverage. I started to run into many hikers making their way up the mountain. It is funny that when people are around, I run much faster, either to catch them or to show off. When I’m alone, I get lazy. As I descended, I became more determined to accomplish a Quad. The morning temperature rose as I descended deeper into the valley. It was getting hot. I knew that a 4th trip would be very warm so I was careful keep myself cool, dipping my hat into several cool streams.
Returning to the trailhead for the third time, I found a note on my car from Phil. He wrote it when he realized that I was doing a Triple. It said, “We are all freaks, and you are our KING! You are nuts, Phil.” I decided I would go for it and do a Quad. I got in the car, turned on the AC. I washed my hair, cooled myself down, put on plenty of sunscreen, drank a lot, and gathered plenty of food. I was amazed how well I felt, still no pain.
As I headed up again, I laughed at how crazy this was. I started to run into hikers who recognized me from my third trip down. “Are you going up again?” “Yes, actually, this is my 4th time since last evening.” The reactions were everything from shock to a total lack of comprehension. At about the one-hour mark on this 4th trip, as I was climbing up from the third plateau, I heard a whoop and shout. Phil was taking the descent down the long snowfield and I was climbing the trail. We knew our paths wouldn’t cross so we just shouted and waved. He knew I was really doing it. Later on my cell phone I heard this message from Phil: “The miracle of reverse psychology has put itself together again. I really wanted you to go for a quad which is why I told you that you couldn’t do it. You walked right into that one my friend. You have raised the stakes so high!” He threatened to call the local newspaper and suggested that I next do a quintuple that he would help crew and pace me.
Despite my slow pace, I still overtook many hikers struggling to make progress. With all of the traffic, the trail was much more defined and the snowy traverses were more defined. At one point I saw some hikers with a dog, trying to coax it across a steep snowfield. The dog was smarter than them. It held its ground and just barked continuously as if trying to say, “Are you guys crazy! I’m not going across that.” The day was hot and I drank three water bottles on the way up.
At the saddle, I called my wife, explained that Phil had dared me. She laughed and said it was fine. I told her not to worry, that I was feeling great and would be home in a few hours. As I was within ten minutes from the top, my cell phone rang. It was Phil, checking on my progress. He congratulated me. I explained that it was really weird. I still wasn’t very tired despite the 19,000 feet of climbing. The only thing that I could figure out was that I was carefully hydrating and fueling, going at back-of-the-pack speed, and that my big recent mileage base was making a huge difference. As I reached the top, someone sitting on the ridge next to the hut welcomed me and asked, “How many trips is this for you?” I told him that it was my 4th since last evening. “Are you Davy Crockett?” I told him I was. He introduced himself – Grizz Randall, a well-known local ultrarunner and 10-time Wasatch 100 finisher. He was glad that he had finally met me. He had read about many of my crazy runner adventures. My trip to the top took 3:15. Not bad for a 4th trip.
It was about 1:30 p.m. and the view from the top was incredible. I sat down and took it easy, enjoying a nice chat with Grizz and his friends. I signed the register one more time, pointing out that I had accomplished a Quad. The first in history. I tried calling a couple more friends. Grizz reminded me that I still needed to get to the bottom to finish the quad. I said, “Right, I could even roll down to finish.”
The trip down went pretty fast. My only delays were to talk to people I caught up with. At one point, I caught up with four very fit college-age guys and girls who were running down the trail. One of them had a BYU track team shirt on. I concluded that they all were probably track team members. I really kicked it into gear, passed them, and decided to school them on the art of trail running. For the next two miles I really cruised, leading this group of fit runners. As we hit pretty technical sections, I was able to float fast through them and I could see that they struggled. But they were having a blast following me. I could hear screams of delight from them as we kept flying down the trail. Finally, my better judgment took hold and I decided to back off to avoid any injury. I stepped aside and let them pass. They gave me smiles and the guy with the track team shirt gave me a respectful salute. They never knew they were running with an old 47-year-old who had already run almost 60 miles.
I took it easy for the remaining mile, starting to feel minor cramps and pains Finally my legs were letting me know they were tired. I reached the trailhead without any fanfare at about 3:30 p.m. I had been going for about 22 hours. It did it! I accomplished the first Quad Timp. I knew I overdid what was supposed to be a moderate training run. Oh well, I had a great time.
After a long ten-hour sleep I awoke feeling pretty good. Still drained, but without much if any soreness. I’ll now take it easy until Tahoe Rim 100. Ya, right.
On July 3, 2006, Phil Lowry attempted to match my Quad Timp. He allocated 17 hours for the feat and was pretty much on schedule, but called it quits after a Triple Timp. He is now the second person to accomplish a Triple. He now has 329 summits, only 19 behind the all-time record holder.