I stood on top of Devil’s Castle, overlooking the Alta ski resort and what felt like the rest of the world. The moon was full and the sky was clear, so bright that my headlamp stayed in the pack. Two faint campfires burned below.
I’d been dreading this. It was past midnight and I was alone, slowly picking my way along the crumbly, rotten limestone ridge that makes up the “horseshoe” at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon. I was worried about all manner of unknown misery that nightfall would bring.
The truth of the matter is that any misery was my own doing. I knew I wanted to do the WURL as my birthday challenge, and had spent much of the summer preparing for the eventual attempt. I had four potential partners, but one by one they dropped out, because they (respectively): thought it was gonna be too hard; thought it was gonna be too dangerous; were tapering for another big run; didn’t have time to adequately train. I’d heard of some other folks giving it a shot over the weekend, but I had grown tired of all this equivocating and impetuously declared (on Tuesday) that I’d give the WURL a go during the full moon (Wednesday). Snacks and a plan were hastily assembled. I didn’t really have enough time to get anxious.
The WURL Report- Wednesday Afternoon
Vikki dropped me off at the Ferguson Canyon trailhead, and I began hiking at 11:37am. The climb up Ferguson isn’t too bad. There are a couple of steep spots, and a good 3/4 mile of it is obnoxiously overgrown, but it’s a lovely canyon and I had it mostly to myself. My trusty hiking poles were helping me yard my way up the trail, while giving some support to the heavy load I had with me. My pack was about 20 pounds, and consisted of:
- 1 100-oz Camelbak bladder
- 1 1.5L Nalgene
- 2 Breakfast Burritos from Hector’s
- 2 Headlamps
- 1 Rain Jacket
- 1 Long-sleeve capilene base layer
- 8 (or so) Energy bars/gels of various origin
- 1 GoPro 3
- 1 Samsung phone
- 1 1/2-roll Athletic tape
- 5 Sticks of cinnamon
- 1 pair of earbuds
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 bandana
- 1 generic 5-hour energy shot
If that sounds like a lot (it is), it’s because I was venturing into the unknown in more ways than one. I’d never physically exerted myself for more than about 21 hours at a stretch, and I was anticipating besting that mark by 50%. And I’d never done any technical ridge scrambling at night. I was worried about bonking hard, and also being stranded in the dark. Hence, I over-prepared in terms of supplies, even if I under-prepared in terms of previewing sections of the route.
I made better time than I had on my previous two goes, and summited the eastern peak of Broad Fork Twins after just over 4 hours. Chorizo and eggs was my reward, followed by another 4 1/2 miles of beautiful quartzite ridge. 11 days earlier, Ethan and Natalie had joined me to attempt Ferguson to Superior, but the sky tried to kill us shortly after Dromedary peak. We were forced to retreat, and I was left with little knowledge of the nearly 3 miles of ridge between.
It turned out to be some of my favorite terrain. Occasional scrambles to high points punctuated long, pleasant stretches of “balance-beam” style hiking over narrow, flat stone, with precipitous drops on either side. While I felt like I was flying along, it still took me another 4 hours to reach Cardiff Pass.
I was late to meet my friends Jack, Stacey, and Alexis for a resupply, but Jack was there waiting for me with more provisions than I could wrap my head around. The sun was setting, and we enjoyed a beer while I expressed my anxiety for something I hadn’t really thought about much: the night portion. Jack mentioned that she had some friends that camped along the ridge the previous week, and woke up to frost on their sleeping bags. All I had were two thin layers, a rain jacket, and shorts.
The Sun Has Gone Down and The Moon Has Come Up
Three incidents happened at night. The first was shortly after 11pm when I rolled my ankle pretty badly, but was somehow able to walk it off. The second was pulling a block of limestone onto my own head. Thankfully it was a glancing blow. The last was that one of my hiking poles refused to lock into place, and I spent five minutes fiddling and cursing until it finally worked again.
After Cardiff Pass, most of the route for the next 8 miles or so is 2nd class hiking. I’d planned to do this portion at night, since visibility wouldn’t matter as much. The one exception is Devil’s Castle, a section which comprises a lot of gnarly, narrow ridge composed of rotten limestone. When Gary and I had done this section a few weeks prior, we’d decided it was actually fairly mellow. Turns out, it’s a different beast at night. It didn’t feel terribly dangerous, but it did make some very slow progress.
I’d stopped caring about summits long before reaching the top of Devil’s Castle (except that they meant I could start going down again), but from that summit I realized how beautifully alone I was. My phone had been on Airplane mode for the whole night, and I wasn’t wearing a headlamp. Not a single soul in the world knew where I was. It was almost overwhelmingly serene.
The march from Devil’s Castle to the Snowbird tram is mostly easy hiking, but my knees were starting to feel the cumulative effects of 16 hours of banging. I took a 30-minute break at Snowbird, finding a small corner of concrete that was sheltered from the wind. I propped my legs against the wall to rest them. The time was 5:15am when I finally departed.
Never Underestimate the Wasatch
Stacey had mentioned that Snowbird was roughly the half-way point in terms of difficulty, even though it’s well beyond that in terms of mileage. That was alright with me, because I knew I was entering my domain: sketchy scrambling.
Of course, what I wasn’t prepared for was some of the sketchier scrambling coming right off the break at Snowbird, heading up to American Fork Twins. That was rough. I was also anxious about White Baldy. A hiker I’d met on top of Superior, upon hearing of my objective, asked what my plan was for “dealing with the overhangs.” I told him I had no idea. Gary and I had tried to do the Snowbird to Pfeifferhorn segment a few weeks prior, but, to my lack of surprise, we got stormed off on that day as well.
I made it past the nasty approach to AF Twins with some cursing but without incident. I was also treated to a sunrise that lifted my spirits considerably, as I knew I’d be able to move much faster with increased visibility.
Then I reached the peak of Red Baldy, and looked down at a 500’ pounding descent down irregular quartzite scree, followed by a very choppy-looking ridge ascending back up to White Baldy. In short, it sucked. I mostly turned my brain off until I got to the summit of Pfeifferhorn, where my resupply awaited.
The Beatout Beatdown
It was about 10:30am when I began marching down the west ridge of Pfeifferhorn towards the final four peaks: Upwop, South Thunder, Bighorn, and Lone Peak. This was, thankfully, known territory, as Tyson and I had done this section a few weeks before. I knew it would be rough, but at least I knew. I hoped to be at the trailhead in 7 hours or less.
Frankly, there’s not much to report between Pfeiff and Lone. Along the way, I saw some marmots, had a really satisfying poop, cursed a fair amount, and tried to keep my excitement at being so far along tempered, since I still had a really fucking long way to go to get back to Salt Lake City.
I’m not sure, but I think I bonked around South Thunder. If I had to scramble or haul myself over a rock, I had to catch my breath for a few seconds. My pace was quite slow, my breathing shallow. It felt like my lungs were full of atomized goat shit. I summoned Stacey’s mantra, Relentless Forward Progress. I kept moving. The final grassy climb to the summit of Lone Peak had felt hard but heroic when I’d done it with Tyson. This time it felt interminable, and even the knowledge that it was the final peak couldn’t convince my legs to churn any faster. I was cooked.
“Hey where’s the summit?” I was caught by surprise as a nice boy from Provo called across the notch. I pointed just to west of his position, and, buoyed by my first conversation in over 18 hours, I scrambled across the notch to join him. Unlike every summit except for Superior and Pfeifferhorn, I ironically had company on Lone Peak.
“Holy shit,” I immediately blasphemed to Michael, the bright-faced BYU-bedecked boy. “I don’t have to go up anymore.” I kind of wanted to cry. He asked me where I’d started. I pointed across Little Cottonwood Canyon to Broad Fork Twins, the first peak I’d summited 24 hours before. The magnitude of what was behind me started to creep in, as I remembered being on the other end of the ridge looking at where we were sitting. I remember Lone Peak looking far even as the crow would fly. As the WURLer would hike, well, it was unfathomable.
And yet there I was.
Yes, there I was, 6 1/2 miles and 6,000’ from the trailhead. No rest for the weary. I fired off some texts and headed off.
The hardest single section of the WURL, in my opinion, is the descent gully to get back to Bell Canyon. It was bone dry (no snow to glissade). It’s steep and loose and dirty and rocky, and to add to it all, you’re completely wiped. I made it down without major incident, though I did almost eat it when the boulder I had hopped on to slid about ten feet with me half on board.
A few more minor spills and I was back where Tyson and I had gotten slightly lost. I’d scoped the cross-country route from the ridge this time, and had a pretty good idea of how to regain the trail. I got lucky and more or less nailed it, and began jogging down the trail.
At this point, my knees were crushed, my feet ached and their soles were abraded, my neck hurt from staring at my feet for 30 hours, and I smelled like a jar of pickles in the bottom of a pile of jock straps. I rolled my ankle once more for good measure and passed many tempting swimming holes, as the canyon dragged on and on.
I rolled into the parking lot at 6:48pm, 31:10 after beginning. Vikki greeted me with a camera, a cold beer, a kiss, and a cinnamon roll. I gratefully accepted the first three, but couldn’t quite stomach the fourth.
We stopped at Lone Star taqueria and got food to go. We went home, I showered, and then sat on the porch and ate four bites of a fish burrito and paused, unsure if I was really enjoying it or if I was about to vomit. The rest of the burrito disappeared into my gaping maw, which more or less answered that question. I don’t like soft drinks but I enjoyed the hell out of a Dr. Pepper. Then I basically crawled into bed, moaning all the while from a combination of pain and incredibly deep satisfaction.
It’s the WURL, not the WURA
The funny thing about big objectives like this is that there really aren’t any rules besides your own, and those that govern a wilderness area. On his blog, WURL pioneer Jared Campbell suggests that people hit each of the 21 peaks he identifies in order to get the full experience. As simple as this sounds, it’s not so cut-and-dry when you’re navigating the course on your own.
Oftentimes there would be an obvious trail a few dozen yards from the ridgeline, and it might take you around a high point, saving time and energy. Particularly at the start, I would notice the trail leaving the ridge and scramble back up, saying to myself “it’s not the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Avoidance.” Yet half the time I would find myself on some terrible combination of loose rock and thick foliage, and clamber back down to the trail.
All of this internal struggle was an attempt on my part to make sure I never felt cheated. As a result, I traveled rather inefficiently in several places, but at least when I was skipping parts of ridge I was able to say to myself that I’d earned some extra credit a half-mile prior.
WURL Musings/So Ya Wanna WURL
- I was worried about being undersupplied, and ended up being overburdened. My pack weighed 17 pounds when I finished, meaning it was over 20 for most of the Beatout, and certainly over 10 for whole thing. Over the entire distance, that’s a lot of wasted energy.
- Though I was worried about being underprepared, I also liked that aspect. I honestly did not know if I could complete this challenge, and that’s what I was hoping for. As Stacey put it, the WURL is, at a certain point, just about suffering. And I learned that I can suffer with the best of ‘em, and carry a heavier pack while I’m at it.
- Nutrition and hydration are difficult to keep on top of. I did my best to carefully monitor my intakes and scan my body systems for signs of collapse. Yet that often got overridden by the “Relentless Forward Progress” mantra, and I’d have to take a short breather to chug some Gatorade. This slowed me a little, probably, and I’ll chalk it up to inexperience.
- Hiking poles are life-savers for me on flat or uphill terrain, yet having to extend/collapse them and put them away/take them out ate up precious time. I ended up keeping them out unnecessarily a lot of the time, which slowed me considerably.
- I had nearly perfect conditions. I do well in the heat, so that didn’t bother me. It didn’t rain on me, and the night stayed clear which allowed me to navigate by full moon. Of course, this meant I was carrying two headlamps for no reason. See #1, above.
- Not wanting to cheat myself, I tried to rigidly adhere to “ridge proper.” Often, this would be just a waste of time and energy. With more previewing, I’d have known when that mattered and when it didn’t. That would’ve saved some time as well. Ultimately, nobody cares, and I felt just fine about the paths I chose.
- There is a point between Red and White Baldy where the geology abruptly changes from red quartzite to a beautiful white granite. I recall thinking to myself, “welp, granite from here on out.” And I prefer it: granite is grippier and more predictable.
- I saw one goat the whole time, between Dromedary and Monte Cristo. We startled each other, and I chased him along the ridge for 100 yards before he dropped down toward LCC.
- South Thunder is a bitch. You actually have to kind of detour to get to it. I was frustrated at the time, but I understand why it’s included, and, furthermore, there’s something beautiful about an intentional navigational blunder in the middle of an intentionally masochistic exercise. Maybe I should’ve thrown a little dumbbell into my pack as well.
- Starting in the daytime was great. I was well-rested and well-fed. I knew the night would be slightly dreadful, but it would be followed by a glorious sunrise and a second (or eighth) wind. Finishing in the afternoon, instead of in the middle of the night, was also quite pleasant.
- During the night, I was worried about surprising a large mammal that might injure me. All I did was startle some birds (owls?) that would abruptly flutter off and scare the hell out of me.
- I had no music. My brother let the payments on our Spotify premium account lapse, and I was stuck with whatever my brain felt like reciting. Thankfully, I figured out that with about ten seconds of concentration, I can change the song on my mental juke box.
- By my rough estimation, I consumed 3 gallons of water and about 4,000 calories. There’s a huge margin for error, because I have no clue how many calories were in my breakfast burritos.
- More than anything, this challenge taught me that you can do anything as long as you can summon the will to just keep moving. The WURL is rad, because once you start it’s hard to bail, so the will-summoning part is more or less taken care of.
- I’m not ruling out any future ultra-distance objectives in my future, but I’m not seeking any opportunities at this time. Who wants to go mountain biking?