I am worried that I may be turning into a rare breed of mountain creature: the scaredy cat. If you happened to read my last post, then you know about my Uintas Storm Story. A friend and I had a very frightening (and eye-opening) experience with high mountain weather systems. Needless to say I learned a much needed lesson that day. But now I’m beginning to think I’ve become overly cautious on the tail of that event. For the past two weeks I’ve either cut my time on summits short or abandoned my hike altogether based on weather that may or may not have been ominous.
Last week I headed to the gorgeous Albion Basin area for a quick hike to the top of Sugarloaf Peak. The sky was blue, the breeze was calm. I arrived at Cecret Lake, along with a crowd of other hikers, then began making my way up the north ridge. Before long I was standing atop Sugarloaf at 11,051′. I shared the peak with one other hiker who soon made his way down. Upon my arrival at the top, I noticed what looked to be a storm cell near Mount Timpanogos. Sure, Timp is very far away (20 miles? More?) but as I learned in July, weather moves faster than you think up here. My normal routine on a summit consists of enjoying a light lunch and perhaps a summit brew, taking a few photos and even meditating if the feeling strikes me. Instead, I took a few deep sips of water, munched some trail mix and headed down the ridge back to Cecret Lake. When I got there, I saw that the peak was still blue and beautiful, hardly the terrifying death zone I thought it might become.
This morning I set out from the base of Brighton Resort intent on climbing Mount Tuscarora, one of the three peaks in the area that I’ve yet to conquer. Again, it was blue skies and calm weather as I made my way up the wide resort access road. Soon I was clambering up the rocky slopes of Mount Millicent, and was quickly near the top. As I neared the peak, I noticed some seriously dark clouds building overhead. Directly overhead. It was a small cluster, but man did it look nasty. I tagged the summit of Milly and bombed down the rock piles to the bottom. When I saw those clouds at the peak, I decided pretty quickly that heading towards Tuscarora would have been a bad choice. I retraced my steps back to my truck, and after after just two hours I was taking off my pack and looking wistfully back up at Millicent. The “storm” had broken up during my hike down. White, pillowy clouds near the mountaintops taunted me, making me doubt my decision to scrap it and turn back towards safety.
Did I make the right call? Probably, but I hate turning around short of my goal when hiking. It’s tough to convince myself I did the right thing (retreating) when I see the weather has passed rather quickly. Today in the parking lot, I wondered “what if I had just rested on the summit slope and waited to see if it would pass?” I know this is a foolish thought; a summit ridge is one of the worst places you could find yourself if the lighting starts cracking, but I couldn’t help thinking it anyway. At least today I did summit a mountain, not the mountain I had in mind as my goal, but a worthy peak nonetheless. It’s a tough choice to make: turn back or press on, but when I see those storm clouds now, however distant they may seem, I am taken back to that moment when I was literally running for my life, wondering how I could have been so stupid to ignore such obvious warning signs.
I made the right call today, and I guess the whole point of this post is to try and impart some advice onto others. Trust your guts and don’t ignore signs of dangerous weather. It’s a good idea to head to safety if your instincts are calling out. The mountains will always be there; there will always be another day to come back and enjoy the majestic heights. Better safe than sorry.