“One Night on Mount Timpanogos,” Tambuli, Aug. 1989, 28
The air was bitterly cold at nearly 12,000 feet as the sun sank quickly across the valley behind the mountains, and the first stars appeared. Thousands of other lights twinkled more than 7,000 feet below me as the residents of Utah Valley began dinner in their warm homes.
I was comfortable in my sleeping bag but puzzled. How could I explain the strange urge that had brought me through snow and ice to the top of Mount Timpanogos in late October? The climb had been cold and difficult. Why had I come?
I was in my second year of law school and though I was an experienced hiker, I hadn’t been in the mountains for months. The first snows of autumn blanketed the upper slopes of the mountain range, but I suddenly had the inexplicable desire to spend the night on the summit of Mount Timpanogos.
It seemed a crazy idea, but at noon I threw my camping equipment into my pack and drove up the canyon to where the mountain trail began.
Was I looking for adventure? Did I simply need a change from the routine of law school? I wasn’t sure.
There were only a few hours of daylight left when I began hiking, so I hurried along the trail through scattered trees. Soon I was climbing the steep east side of the mountain.
After I’d traveled a few kilometers, I was shocked to see another climber on the trail ahead of me. When I moved closer, I could see the hiker wasn’t a typical mountaineer. She was a middle-aged woman laboriously plodding her way toward the summit. She carried only a small pack with no night-time survival equipment.
She said she had been on the trail since morning. She proudly told me it was her first hike ever, and she was determined to reach the top.
“Don’t let your perseverance get you in trouble,” I warned her. “You’re probably not going to reach the summit before nightfall. You’d better turn back soon or you’ll have to find your way down in the dark.”
I continued past her up the trail, certain she would turn back in a few minutes. After all, she didn’t even have a sleeping bag. She could freeze to death if she were trapped on the mountain overnight.
I climbed past a lake on the mountain’s eastern shoulder and began to trudge through fresh snow at 10,000 feet. After a harrowing and exhausting traverse along the steep north slope of the peak, I was faced with an even steeper 500-foot ascent over scattered patches of snow and ice. A fall here would have ended in an uncontrolled slide down thousands of meters.
I finally finished my climb on the knife-edged ridge that was the 11,750-foot summit of Mount Timpanogos. The mountain’s sheer western face fell away at my feet, giving me an incredible view of the Utah and Salt Lake valleys.
I unrolled my sleeping bag in the small, roofed shelter that stands at the summit. The stone floor wouldn’t be too comfortable, but at least the shelter’s waist-high metal walls would keep me from rolling off the mountain.
As the sun set, the temperature began to drop rapidly. I spent a few minutes enjoying the view, then retreated to my warm sleeping bag for the night ahead.
As I slept, I heard a voice in my dreams. The voice was crying for help. The cries continued until I suddenly sat upright in my sleeping bag and realized I wasn’t dreaming. The shouts drifted up from far below, but I heard them clearly through the clear night air.
It seemed impossible, but someone—and I knew who—was wandering the icy mountainside in the darkness and cold.
I pulled on my pants and jacket and followed my flickering flashlight in the direction of the cries. I found the middle-aged woman standing in total darkness on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff.
“I got stuck on the mountain when it got dark,” she explained. She tried to appear calm, but the nervous way she spoke told me she was very frightened. “I got lost. I didn’t think it was this far to the top! I lost both my flashlights off a cliff an hour ago.”
She shivered and chattered as we stumbled back up the ridge. Her name was Jane. Her husband would still be waiting for her, she said, in their car at the foot of the trail.
Back at the shelter, I gave her my sleeping bag and told her to stay in it. She resisted at first, but shivering wildly, finally agreed. I put on all my warm clothes, wrapped Jane’s spare sweater around me, and settled in for what I correctly assumed would be one of the longest and coldest nights of my life.
I was far too cold to sleep and Jane was too excited, so we stayed awake and talked. At one point during the night I was reminded of the famed naturalist John Muir, who had once survived a night trapped on an Alaskan glacier by dancing a Scottish jig until morning. I hoped it wouldn’t get so cold that I’d have to do that.
At 4:00 A.M., with the temperature at five degrees Farenheit, we saw the flashlights of a search and rescue team 1,500 feet below us. I signalled with my flashlight, and shouted the news that Jane was okay. “We’ll be down at first light,” I yelled. “Wait for us.”
Sound carried remarkably well in the still, mountain air. Their distant “Okay!” response was easy to hear.
When the first traces of light touched the mountain, we started down the steep, icy slope. Before we reached the rescue party, Jane and I knelt together in the snow to thank our Heavenly Father that tragedy had been averted. Our prayer at 10,000 feet convinced me that the biblical promise was true: Not even a sparrow could fall to the earth without our Father’s notice, much less my new friend.
When we were finally off the mountain, Jane’s husband cried with joy and relief. He had been sure she was dead until he had seen our light early that morning. The search and rescue volunteers were similarly relieved. They said they remove the bodies of less fortunate climbers from the mountain every year.
What was I doing sleeping on top of Mount Timpanogos so late in the season? It seemed obvious to me then, as it still does to me now, that I was led there to make sure Jane got off the summit safely. I had done something right, following that irresistible urge to climb the mountain. Even at ten thousand feet, the Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.