Ed Carter, utahvalley360.com
Forty years ago this summer, the federal government officially recognized the value of Utah County’s “Wonder Mountain” when the U.S. Forest Service designated 10,750 acres as the Mount Timpanogos Scenic Area.
By the time of that 1961 designation, however, thousands of Utahns and non-Utahns alike already had discovered the beauties and mysteries of this unique urban mountain wilderness.
For most of the 20th century, Mt. Timpanogos defined Utah Valley. Before Novell and WordPerfect, before Geneva Steel, even before Brigham Young University’s swelling enrollment numbers put Provo on the national map, Utah County was known as the home of the “sleeping maiden” of Timpanogos.
And that’s just how Eugene L. “Timpanogos” Roberts wanted it.
In July 1912, Roberts led a small group of BYU students on what would become an annual ascent of the 11,750-foot Timpanogos.
From that annual pilgrimage grew everything that Mount Timpanogos represents today: a federally designated Wilderness Area, a huge outdoor playground, the subject of legend and song, and inspiration for a cottage industry or two.
But Roberts’ promotion of Timpanogos also sowed the seeds of destruction. The act of helping people enjoy the mountain carried the potential for destroying its value.
Today, with 20,000 hikers annually traversing the mountain’s trails, only education and self-restraint will keep us from loving the mountain to death.
A MAN’S LOVE FOR THE MOUNTAIN
Roberts got the idea for the annual Timpanogos Hike while serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Switzerland. It was there in 1908 that Roberts watched 5,000 Catholics ascend a hill to worship at a shrine.
Roberts vowed that day to duplicate the pilgrimage in his native Provo. For Roberts, the Timpanogos Hike always had religious underpinnings.
“Roberts felt the Lord reveals himself to man powerfully in nature and that a stern climb in utter beauty would be spiritually good for anyone,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1957.
THE LEGEND BEGINS
The Sports Illustrated article also noted a curious legend created by Roberts. Published by BYU in 1922 as “The Story of Utahna and Red Eagle,” Roberts’ legend said that long ago the mountain god Timpanogos had demanded the sacrifice of a beautiful young Native American woman.
As the woman, Utahna, ascended the mountain, a young man from a neighboring tribe followed her and prevented her from jumping from a cliff. Believing Red Eagle to be the mountain god Timpanogos, Utahna consented to live with him in a beautiful cave.
Eventually, though, Utahna realized Red Eagle was mortal and so she threw herself from the summit of the mountain to her death. After Red Eagle died of a broken heart, the mountain god joined their hearts to create a formation known today as “the great heart” of Timpanogos Cave.
The skyline of the mountain came to resemble Utahna’s reclining figure.
With reference to the annual hike and the legend, the 1957 Sports Illustrated article concluded, “The hiker who reaches the summit today, then, has alternate satisfaction from looking down at the small world below — a spiritual uplift and perhaps some pagan pride at having conquered the largest sleeping Indian in the world.”
Roberts went on to several remarkable achievements. He served as head coach of BYU’s basketball team, wrote sports columns for the Deseret News, coached an Olympic gold medal-winning high jumper and completed 18 years as a professor at the University of Southern California.
But Roberts always was best known for his connection with the mountain he loved. His vision of a community pilgrimage on Timpanogos caught on; in the middle of the 20th century, the annual Timpanogos Hike attracted thousands of participants not only to scale the peak but also to witness a nighttime spectacular at Aspen Grove. The bonfire program grew to include music, stories, dramatizations and ceremonies.
In 1928, Roberts advised hikers, “Prepare to remain on the mountain until late afternoon. Many people hurry up and then hurry back. This is a mistake. When going through heaven, take it easy.”
By 1970, the number of hikers who reached the summit on a single day had reached 3,500. Officials from the Forest Service and BYU, concerned about the environmental impact of so many hikers, discontinued the annual affair.
Fourteen years later, Congress passed the Utah Wilderness Act, which converted the acreage of the Timpanogos Scenic Area into a Wilderness Area. As such, the federal government prohibited campfires, groups larger than 15 people, bicycling and shortcutting on Timpanogos.
As Congress considered passage of the Utah Wilderness Act, several conservation groups and individuals urged the addition of acreage that had not been part of the Timpanogos Scenic Area. Primarily, these groups called for the government to protect Big Baldy and other acreage on Timpanogos’ southeast side, as well as a portion of land on the northeast side of the mountain.
Tom Stevenson, former president of the Salt Lake City-based Wasatch Mountain Club, told the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Public Lands and Reserved Water that inclusion of those areas “would enhance management options.”
The move also would have increased the size of the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness Area to 14,500 acres, but Congress declined the invitation.
Today, however, some still clamor for enlarging the Wilderness Area in the interest of preserving Timpanogos.
“That’s not a dead issue,” said W.L. Scott, wilderness and trails manager for the Pleasant Grove Ranger District of the Uinta National Forest. “The bottom line is to look at what’s good for the resource.
“Are we going to be able to turn the mountain over to our children and grandchildren in the condition that we received it?”
Today, Mt. Timpanogos offers two of the most popular hikes in the state. The steepest route to scale the mountain begins at Aspen Grove in the North Fork of Provo Canyon.
That trail, built in the early years of the annual Timpanogos Hike, presents difficulties for Forest Service officials charged with maintaining it.
Hikers who take shortcuts facilitate erosion, which can cause irreparable harm.
“One of the things that bothers me is shortcutting trails,” Scott said. “People don’t realize the cost of maintaining trails. That’s even greater when we have to rebuild trails.”
If the current Aspen Grove trail is destroyed, Scott said, officials and hikers will be left with few if any other options because the steepness of the slope makes rerouting the trail unlikely.
The Timpooneke Trail begins in American Fork Canyon and also reaches the summit. The Timpooneke Trail is not as steep, and horses are allowed. The Forest Service plans to rebuild a toilet near the spot where the Aspen Grove and Timpooneke Trails converge, in the basin below the summit and near Emerald Lake.
Although the Wilderness Area implementation plan allows the use of helicopters for construction of toilet facilities, Scott prefers to use animals and people to haul in materials. He believes that approach more closely follows the intent of the federal Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Utah
WILDERNESS ACT OF 1984
Forest Service officials like Scott preach the gospel of “tread lightly,” or “leave no trace.” A pamphlet produced by the nonprofit Colorado organization Leave No Trace proposes an experiment:
“Go into your backyard. Stash a wad of toilet paper behind a tree, dig a fire pit, and trample through a favorite bush. Now watch carefully until it all disappears … No luck? We have the same problem in the wilderness. Impact lasts.”
With somewhere between 300 and 800 hikers on a typical summer weekend — and as many as 1,800 hikers on a busy weekend like the Labor
Day holiday — Timpanogos sometimes does not seem very remote from civilization. At about 4 p.m. on Saturday, however, things go quiet.
“It seems like a wilderness at that point,” says Glen Meyer, who spends most summer weekends on the mountain as director of the Timpanogos Emergency Response Team. “It doesn’t seem like a wilderness when you’re sitting there with a hundred other people.”
The heavy use of the Timpanogos trails has prompted some official thought about whether a cap on the number of people entering the Wilderness Area would be appropriate.
With the population of the Wasatch Front growing at a rapid rate, usage on Timpanogos is only expected to go up, Scott says. Concern for hiker safety and the need to preserve the mountain could someday dictate that a limited number of permits be issued for entrance to the Mt. Timpanogos Wilderness Area.
However, such an extreme remedy can be postponed or avoided through hiker education and conscientious use of the mountain, Scott said.
Few people know Mt. Timpanogos like Pleasant Grove resident Joe Hilton. Hilton, 76, lives just blocks away from the foothills of the mountain he has explored for more than six decades.
Until 1957, Hilton spent several weeks each year maintaining a Utah Power & Light pipeline that ran along the lower reaches of Timpanogos’ south side. He also hunted, skied and hiked on Timpanogos.
Even today, Hilton frequently can be seen on a mountain bike heading up Grove Creek Canyon. He doesn’t usually try to reach the summit, but instead spends time exploring smaller peaks such as Mahogany Mountain or Little Mountain (the one with the “G.”)
Hilton’s curious discoveries include open mine shafts, fault line openings, onyx, rock art, a natural arch and plenty of people searching for mineral-rich mines left behind by early Spanish explorers.
When he’s not exploring the mountain in person, Hilton often trains a pair of binoculars on Timpanogos to observe wildlife and people. From his home, Hilton watches scores of hikers on busy summer days reach the summit.
“There sure are a lot more people now” than when he started hiking the mountain in the 1930s, Hilton says. “I look up on Timp on weekends and holidays and I can see a hundred people on the skyline.
“If there are a hundred on top, how many are there down below?”
The human impact on Timpanogos has been lessened somewhat since the removal of domestic livestock. Now, cattle trails are gone and so are domestic sheep. In their place are transplanted wild bighorn sheep roaming the craggy reaches of the upper peaks. There are also plenty of elk and eagles — two of Hilton’s favorites to watch.
Like many other Utah County residents, Hilton loves the simple things about Timpanogos.
“There’s a lot of beauty,” he says. “Plus, I need the exercise. If you eat like a horse, you’ve got to work like a horse.”
Hilton also passes on his love for the mountain to new generations. Several of his grandchildren have grown up hiking with him. The teen-agers now outdo their grandpa.
“I can’t keep up with them anymore,” Hilton says. “They take a snowboard up and come right down through the cliffs. No way would I do that.”
GREAT OUTDOOR SHRINE
Timpanogos represents many things to many people. For some, it’s the name of an elementary school in Provo or a high school in Orem. For others, it’s the name of a ballet or inspiration for countless poems.
Both religious and government organizations have taken on the name Timpanogos. World Wide Web-based businesses capitalize on the mountain’s popularity to sell everything from dinner plates to rocks that serve as trucks’ gear shift handles.
For generations of hikers, Timpanogos is a place where memories were made — memories of beautiful wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, sheer cliffs and slippery rides down a dangerous snowfield.
Perhaps Timpanogos, though, is most of all what Roberts first conceived it to be: A place where people go to connect with their inner selves and feel the influence of a higher power.
Viewing Timpanogos as a great outdoor shrine is not as unusual as it might seem. Scott, who came to Utah from South Dakota, found the concept natural.
While in the Black Hills, Scott saw Lakota people resurrect an old Native American tradition of going annually to Harney Peak in the Black Elk Wilderness Area for a spiritual pilgrimage.
Writing in the annual Timpanogos Hike program for 1922, then-BYU President Franklin S. Harris said, “We are all given too much to the confinement of four walls; we need to get out more under the open sky and learn of nature’s ways.
“We cannot be true admirers of the Great Father unless we get out where we can see and admire the work of His hand.”
RESPONDING TO EMERGENCIES ON TIMPANOGOS
In 1983, a pair of Utah County residents who loved Timpanogos formed an organization to assist hikers in trouble. Since then, the Timpanogos Emergency Response Team (TERT) has been a constant fixture on the mountain.
Hikers often tell Glen Meyer, director of TERT, that it’s unusual for a crew of radio-toting rescuers to be in a wilderness area 24 hours a day. His response?
“This is not a normal wilderness,” he says. “The people who hike on Timp are not the same kind of people who go on a six-mile hike in the Uintas.
“If we weren’t there, you’d have 50 search and rescue guys hiking up every weekend.”
TERT functions under the auspices of both the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and the Uinta National Forest. Mostly, the 50 active TERT volunteers just try to maintain an inconspicuous presence on the mountain. Volunteers want to be available to help people in need without impeding the wilderness experience, Meyer says.
TERT has received high praise for its efforts to educate and assist hikers. The volunteers have saved lives and carried out numerous injured hikers.
“(TERT) is one of the things we see as a shining example that should probably be done in other wilderness areas,” says W.L. Scott, wilderness and trails manager for the Pleasant Grove Ranger District of the Uinta National Forest.
Edward L. Carter covered Utah County news for three years at the Deseret News. He is now pursuing a degree at BYU’s law school and teaching journalism at BYU.