September 19, 2016. I couldn’t sleep all night. I had taken a sleeping pill at 8pm, knowing that it would put me to sleep. What I forgot was that that sleeping pills put me to sleep for about three hours, then keep me up the rest of the night. I had laid in bed in a daze for hours before finally deciding I might as well get up around 3am. After eating some breakfast I headed out to Ferguson Canyon to start my attempt of the WURL. I was in good shape, climbing and hiking regularly. I had even done some sections of the WURL, so it couldn’t be too bad. I had never hiked Ferguson Canyon past the climbing area at the bottom though. As I ascended I quickly got lost. I looked at Google maps on my phone and realized I was way off trail, having followed a trail to a viewpoint and not the trail up the canyon which had spurred off a while ago. I bushwhacked a couple hundred feet down to the trail. The rest of the route to Twin Peaks followed the same format, confused, lost, re-adjusting. The ridge was incredibly difficult, I would follow it, only to find shear cliffs or steep unfeatured rock on the other side. By the time I got to Twin Peaks I knew I wasn’t completing the WURL, but I decided to press on and do as much as possible. The ridge to Superior was spirit breaking. I nearly broke my leg when a huge rock slipped out from under me and I fell into a hole between rocks up to my chest, knocking the air out of me and hitting my head. I told Tristan to pick me up at the trail head to Superior. As I descended from Superior I got lost again, this time on the steep, rocky side of a mountain. Instead of being too high, I had gone down too soon. I called Tristan in tears, completely lost and completely emotionally and physically spent. He had to hike up and find me, I vowed I would never do that ridge again.
And I didn’t.
For almost three years.
The WURL appeals to so many outdoors lovers in the Wasatch. 36 miles of incredible ridge line, with about 20,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s right at your doorstep, beckoning. Yet, so few have completed it. I was only #44, and the first solo female. The list of those who finish the feat is kept by the trail-running-world famous Jared Campbell, who first did it in 2004.
As much as that ridge scared me the first time, I knew deep inside that I would be back. Over the next three years I joined together pieces of the ridge, eventually covering everything except the descent from White Baldy to the Pfeifferhorn’s ridge. I had never trained for anything before in my entire life. I don’t do sports, and I don’t do races (why pay for something you can go do on your own without throngs of people?). I’ve always been able to do what I love, hike, without an issue.
Yet this, I knew, would require some real planning and training. I actually had a more audacious goal in mind that I was training for, with the WURL only as a side-note. But in early May when I came to terms with being injured, I knew that goal wasn’t happening this year. Having never trained for anything, when I got shin splints I kept going. I foam rolled and smashed and all that, but they stuck around for weeks. Eventually my right leg got better, but my left turned from splints to what I’m pretty sure was a minor stress fracture. After two months of hoping the pain would go away (I had to get in those 20+ mile weekend trail runs!), I finally decided it was time to stop running. I didn’t want to, nor could I afford to get surgery, which was the next step down the spiral staircase if I kept training.
For all of May and most of June I swam, aqua-jogged, and climbed. I didn’t ride my bike to the climbing gym because it hurt my shin. I couldn’t even hike. After all those weeks of not hiking I still can’t figure out what other people do on Saturdays! When I started running again it was devastating. I went from a typical run of 10 miles with 650’ elevation gain up the canyon, with longer weekend runs, to nearly dying after only three miles. I built up to an 8 mile (road) run over four weeks, did a couple 14-ers in Colorado, and hiked a couple sections of the WURL that I hadn’t done before.
In the original training plan I was supposed to do the WURL on July 12-13 with the full moon. It turned out I had a lot going on at work, and I didn’t feel prepared to do it. I hadn’t trained and I could hardly run 8 miles!
Yet, it was there beckoning. With tax busy-season’s 60-70 hour work weeks quickly approaching, and the possibility of moving this winter if Tristan gets a job out of state, on Wednesday I realized this could be my last chance to make an attempt. On Thursday I asked Tristan what he was doing early Sunday morning… like maybe a hike? He kindly agreed that he would help, though he was annoyed about the short notice. On Friday, my friends Chris and Heidi Voss agreed to hike up to a pass to bring me food, water, and gear. I was already more prepared than the first time, when I had only planned to resupply once.
On Friday I got everything organized and ready to go. I decided to act casual and go to bed at a normal time and set a late alarm since my biggest mistake the first time was being anxious and trying to get up early. But who was I kidding, I was anxious.
July 20th, 2019. I woke up long before my alarm and tried to sleep, but gave up at 6:30am, after laying awake for over an hour. Well, 6.5 hours of sleep was better than the three I got the first time! I ate a hearty breakfast and headed out the door around 8am. A half hour later I was on the trail, but this time I knew the trail because I had now done the route a few times.
It was a hot morning and a hot day. I sweated and swatted (mosquitoes) my way to Twin Peaks, then Sunrise, and to the top of Dromedary. Then I got worried. I was at the scary part, one of the only parts of the ridge I hadn’t been to since the first attempt. This time it wasn’t so bad. I think three additional years of ridge scrambling experience paid off and the class 5 climbing on lichen-covered crappy quartzite wasn’t a surprise this time. From Superior I cruised over Flagstaff, Davenport, and the Honeycomb Cliffs.
Right on schedule (8:40pm) I got to the pass before Wolverine, where I met up with Chris and Heidi. I hadn’t been feeling well. My stomach hurt so I hadn’t felt like eating. I knew not eating meant certain failure, but trying to get down one bite of a protein bar just made me feel like puking. I sat and rested for about 45 minutes. I was able to get down fruit snacks, a baby food pouch (favorite snack of the WURL goes to these), and some mashed potatoes. I refilled water, picked out the best snacks, stashed a jacket and pants in my pack, Heidi offered a prayer of protection, and then I was off!
I felt pretty dang refreshed after the break and was able to power about halfway up to Wolverine before pulling out my headlamp in the fading twilight. Luckily I had done this part of the hike a week earlier (S. Ridge of Superior through Snowbird’s tram). This would be only my third time doing the approach ridge to Devils Castle, and the first time in the dark. I think this is one of the sketchiest parts of the WURL. I know, that might be surprising… unless you’ve done it… in which case you understand. Devils Castle has some 5th class climbing and down climbing, sure, but lots of people have done it so it’s pretty clean. On the other hand, this long approach ridge is choss heaven, with lots of ups and downs and lots of loose rocks on a very narrow ridge. I took my time, testing everything I grabbed or stepped on (as I did throughout the whole endeavor). Devils Castle, Sugarloaf, Baldy, and Hidden all went off without a hitch.
I started running behind schedule. I originally planned to meet Tristan at 7am, but now thought 8 or 9 was more likely. The ridge to AF Twin Peaks was harder and steeper than I remembered. The bolts dotting the ridge were a nice reminder that people usually have ropes on them in this area. The distance and height of Red Stack surprised me, as well as how technical going up to Red Baldy was. It had been a couple years since I did that section so my memory failed me there. White Baldy was, as usual, a pain. From the approach ridge which is horribly gravelly and steep, to the ridge, with it’s massive boulders, there’s a reason that although right next to the Pfeifferhorn, almost nobody does White Baldy.
I could see Tristan waiting patiently for me on the ridge. He had been there since about 6:30am, it was now about 10am. I felt horribly bad, knowing that he could’ve slept more and spent his time doing homework, but instead was waiting for me. As I got closer some guys in full trail-runner kit started yelling encouragement to me, “atta girl!” “you’re doing so great,” “wooo!” I’m not usually one for that kind of encouragement (reminder, I’m not a racer), but this time it was actually encouraging. Some people congratulated me, and ever the pessimistic-realist, I reminded them I wasn’t done yet. From the Pfeifferhorn it is deceiving how much is actually left. Sure, it’s only 5 miles to Lone Peak, but that’s 5 miles of rugged ridge.
Tristan traded supplies with me. He took the two jackets and pants I never used, the long-sleeve shirt (all I used during the warm night), my headlamp and extra batteries (not gonna need those again), and some bars I knew I wasn’t going to eat. In return I got slightly less than 4 liters of water (I lost my larger waterbottle on Devils Castle), and some better food options. I ate half a Subway sandwich and downed a bottle of high-protein chocolate milk. Again, after about 45 minutes I was on my way. My plan to be done at 2pm was adjusted to 6:30pm.
I hit the Pfeifferhorn, and one of the descending trail runners said I was doing one of his dreams. I told him I was sure he could do it. He was skeptical and asked how the ridge from Twin Peaks to Superior was. I told him it was horrendous the first time, but wasn’t so bad yesterday, but it did have fifth class climbing. I told him the whole thing took a lot of climbing skills in fact, and that he should be comfortable with that if he wanted to complete the WURL. He asked how it compared to the S. Ridge of Superior. I said it was harder, since that’s only 4th class.
I topped out the Pfeifferhorn and Upwop, then on to South Thunder with its three false summits and huge impassible boulders. Instead of three hours it took 4.5. The later it got, the slower I went, the slower I went the later it got. It was a pretty crappy cycle. I ate as much of the other sandwich half as I could, and downed the other bottle of chocolate milk on top of S. Thunder. I scoped out the Notch descent off Lone Peak, down into Bell’s Canyon. It was a no go, full of sketchy spring snow from top to bottom. The steep couloir would not be my descent. I figured Cherry Creek Canyon Logging Trail was a good alternative since it would straighten out the end of the trek.
I was determined to make it down to the base of Big Horn in an hour. Well, it ended up taking an hour and a half. There was a lot of snow in this area still, making traveling a bit difficult. I scaled the ridge up to Big Horn, following the eponymous big horn sheep paths. I’ve considered the ridge between Big Horn and Lone Peak one of the more dangerous areas of the ridge line after a man died up there a couple years ago. As I went up and down and all around to stay safe I kept reminding myself “I can’t die because it wouldn’t be tragic enough.” This is a favorite way to both calm myself, and stay safe while doing sketchy things. It seems to me that everyone who dies in the outdoors is such a tragic loss. They usually have a wife and two kids, work in some kind of humanitarian career, volunteer, are loved by so many people for how amazing/smart/kind they are. I figure I’m pretty safe since I don’t have a wife, or even two kids.
It was around this time that I discovered if I breathed harder than necessary then I could hike harder as needed. I used this technique to climb the hill up to Lone Peak. On the summit I talked to Tristan, and guessed that I would make it down around 8:30-9:30pm. He asked what I wanted when I finished and I said I wanted a gold star… and maybe a raspberry milkshake. I was pretty excited to be done with the sketchy stuff, and have only a hike ahead of me. Of course I went the winter route, around the western edge of the cirque, which I’m sure ended up taking longer than the more traditional “summer route” following the stream down, then crossing the granite slabs. I hadn’t been this way during the summer. The route was half covered in slick snow, so the going wasn’t as easy as I had hoped for after 32 miles and 20,000′ of elevation gain.
Around 8:15pm I made it to the “windy hill” (as Tristan and I call it because it is literally always windy there) where the Cherry Creek Canyon Logging Trail deviates to the west, off the Jacob’s Ladder trail. The trail looked well-used and was actually quite beautiful with the setting sun. There were more wildflowers blooming here than I had ever seen before. Bright orange Indian paintbrush glowed in the golden hour sun, the sagebrush was fresh sage-green, and tiny hot pink and magenta flowers spattered the hillside. I hurried down, hoping to get as far as I could before it got too dark. After about 45 minutes the path became terribly overgrown and I wasn’t sure I was on the right trail anymore, even though I hadn’t seen any other trails coming off the one I was on. Shrubby tree-bushes were scraping over the scrambling scratches on my legs. When I looked at my phone I saw I only had 18% battery left. Only a half hour earlier I had had 25%. In this moment I had a slight breakdown. I called Tristan. I told him I was lost, it was getting dark and I had no headlamp, and my phone was quickly dying. I was scared. He tried to convince to me carry on, and keep going down the Cherry Creek Canyon Logging Trail. I couldn’t do that though. If I was on the trail it was impassible, if I wasn’t on the trail I didn’t have time to search for it before dark. I decided to go back up to Jacob’s Ladder and descend that trail instead. So, I turned off everything on my phone to conserve battery and powered back up the hill as the sun completely set. I arrived back at the junction a little after 10pm.
Two hours, a rubber boa, and a scorpion later, I arrived at the Jacob’s Ladder TH. Tristan, Joe, and Uncle Curt cheered me on and congratulated me with a personalized trophy, sparkling grape juice, and a gold star.