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wandering around the Wasatch Wilderness

The directions for ascending Deseret Peak seemed pretty straightforward: hike through an aspen forest, head over several meadows towards the peak, follow switchbacks up the saddle to get to the summit. Sounds easy, right? We lost the trail almost as soon as we set foot on it, and though we had an enjoyable day hiking in the wilderness, we never reached the summit and there were a few sketchy sections during our ascent when S questioned the wisdom of our adventure.

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We were barely out of the aspen forest the first time we lost the trail. It was faint to begin with, and had no trail markers, cairns, or blazes to point the way. The only signpost we saw the entire day was the one marking our entry into the Deseret Peak Wilderness area of the Wasatch National Forest. When our friends climbed the peak a few years back, snow had already blanketed the wilderness, and they had a trail of shoe prints to follow through the powder. We were fortunate to still have beautiful sunshine this late in the year, but the flip side to the gorgeous weather was that decision-making and navigating in the wilderness were a lot tougher.

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Once we left the first strand of forest, we ascended a ways up a scree slope — just far enough to get one bar of cell service so that we could check our coordinates. According to the digital map, we were not far off the trail, and after scanning our surroundings we spotted what looked like a path through the brambles on the other bank of the small stream we had crossed a couple of times in the woods. We made our way across and rejoiced when ten minutes of scrambling through the prickly undergrowth rewarded us with a clear trail.

Unfortunately, this trail petered out as inexplicably as it had materialized and we again found ourselves picking our way haphazardly through the woods. Having checked the trail once online when we had service and knowing where the summit lay, we relied on our compass to point us in more or less the right direction.

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Looking back on our hike now and comparing the route we took to the one we should have taken, we only made one mistake, but it was a serious one. We reached a clearing in the woods, which could have been one of the meadows the directions mentioned. We were close to the base of the mountain and there were only one or two patches of forest separating us from the bottom of the aforementioned saddle. However, it lacked any obvious trail and we did not see the switchbacks discussed in the trail guide. The saddle was steep and covered in scree, which would have made it laborious to ascend. With no obvious trail to follow, neither of us fancied the prospect of scrambling up the scree without the guarantee of being on the right track. We decided to try to circle around it instead, approaching the saddle from the side, and therein lay our error.

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We made our way through forests and meadows, photographed a couple of interesting birds, and saw a handful of mule deer scampering around the woods. Once we tacked left around the scree and began ascending the mountain, however, it quickly became painfully clear that we were off course. It had gotten pretty late — certainly too late to attempt to backtrack and find the right path — so the question became one of how far to go and when to turn around.

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It was tough going. We made it up a steep, wooded hillside to a rocky, tree-covered ridge that was practically unnavigable. The rocks were loose and frequently crumbled away as we ascended, leading us to wonder how we would return. We did not make it all the way to the summit ridge, but we came close, gaining a nice ledge a couple hundred feet beneath the summit that offered a great panorama of the valleys on both side of the mountain as well as a view down to the Great Salt Lake. We ate our lunch and then turned around for the descent.

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It might have been possible to press on and struggle our way towards the summit ridge or we might have found ourselves staring at a technical ascent or a chasm between a false summit on the massif and the peak we sought. We’ll never know because we ran out of time. After hiking for three and a half hours through the wilderness without seeing even a single trail marker and making a questionable ascent up an unstable ridge, we wanted to budget plenty of time to backtrack before darkness fell.

Beryl Markham wrote that “the only disadvantage to surviving a dangerous experience lies in the fact that your story of it tends to be anticlimactic. You can never carry on right through the point where whatever it is that threatens your life actually takes it — and get anybody to believe you. The world is full of skeptics,” she concluded. It might be a stretch to call our little adventure death-defying, but had we had an accident on our way down the unstable mountainside or gotten lost on our way back through the wilderness, we would have found ourselves in a rather unenviable position indeed.

Fortunately, we hadn’t gone very far and the various landmarks we had passed were clearly visible from our little perch. We gingerly navigated our way back down the narrow ridge and steep, scree-covered slopes without any incident. Once we got into the woods, we lost visibility but the hiking became a lot easier again. S didn’t think she would have made it back on her own, but it took us only slightly more than two hours to get back to the campsite.

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Nearing the aspen grove where we had started we had regained the only nice trail we had seen all day, but it looked like it ran parallel to the aspens before forking away in an unknown direction. Reluctant though we were to leave such a clear path, we were concerned that we would get out of the woods only to find ourselves at a different campsite, so we plunged into the wilderness once more in search of the faint trail that led back to our car. We backtracked through the aspen copse without much success at first, but just as we were beginning to worry, D spotted a familiar-looking fallen tree and started flipping through the photos we had taken that day. Sure enough, one of the first pictures we took that day was of S in that exact spot.

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We may have fallen short on our summit bid on Deseret Peak, but the day proved a success nonetheless. With the exception of a couple and their dog whom we encountered close to the trailhead we did not see another soul the whole day. We ascended about 2,500 feet up the mountain, so we enjoyed much the same views we would have had at the summit. And not only did we have spectacular weather, but we also saw the wilderness lit up with the golden brilliance of autumnal sun-splashed aspens.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Amazing photography!

    November 15, 2015
  2. I love the colors on the aspens! I read a book on survival once, and it said you should always make sure to turn around on your outbound trip, so see what you will be looking for on the way back. Excellent advice, I thought – taking photographs to compare later is even better!

    November 15, 2015
    • Thanks! That is indeed excellent advice because the landscape tends to look differently on the way down than it does on the way up. Even when walking a marked trail, cairns can sometimes be positioned in such a way that they are easy to spot going one way and difficult to pick out in the opposite direction.

      It’s probably fair to say that we didn’t prepare as well for this trip as we could have — there is only so much pre-planning one can do, and when time is at a premium, trip research sometimes falls by the wayside. We thought of a number of things we will try to do differently for our next big hiking trip, including printing maps and photos for wilderness trails.

      November 15, 2015

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