Spring in Utah is unpredictable.
The morning may dawn bright and clear, the afternoon can be warm and inviting, and by nightfall you have an inch of snow. It’s not uncommon to have temperature changes ranging 50 degrees in a 24 hour period, but that’s all to be expected in the mountains. The locals here have learned to adjust to the ever-changing forecasts, so rain, snow, or blistering sun the canyons are flooded with hikers, bikers, runners, and climbers all itching to stretch our winter-weary legs in spring.
For those of you who don’t already know, or haven’t already guessed, I am an avid hiker. Last summer I went hiking nearly every weekend after my work and school responsibilities were finished for the week. Due to my busy schedule, my hikes are usually only last a few hours along well-known trails. One trail in particular always stood as a challenge to me, a the narrow, muddy turn off that leads to the peak. Moderate in length, but difficult in gradation and composition, I yearned for the challenge of Squaw Peak.
Racist, sexist, and all-around ugly name aside, Squaw Peak trail is one of the most scenic routes in the insanely beautiful Rock Canyon. Every year winter storms and spring avalanches washout paths and create new challengers for hikers to maneuver. The exact hike is never the same two years in a row. Through small forests, meadows, arid patches, and over mountain streams: Squaw Peak Trail (which is in the process of being renamed) leads it’s travelers through several miniature ecosystems in a short time. Only handful of miles from canyon floor to the tallest peak, the total steep climb takes the average climber 4 hours to ascend and 7 hours to make the round trip from the canyon mouth and back again. The truth is, the trail isn’t that difficult. Young teenagers, training runners, and couple’s walking their dogs all frequent this trail, what is unique about this trail compared to the many others in this valley, however, is that you will rarely see anyone climbing it alone.
I’ve now climbed Squaw Peak twice. The first time was back in June of 2016. These were the early days of my hiking adventures, before I had invested in a good pair of hiking boots. Wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of tennis shoes I set out around noon with my roommate Dave. I was vastly unprepared and had no idea what I had gotten myself into. If I had been alone, I would have quit.
The trail was a steep, muddy mess. My snows were wholly inadequate for the trail and I spent almost as much time slipping and falling as I did walking and climbing. I was covered in dirt, mud, and sweat. I was hot, sticky, and starting to cramp as my period was to start the following day. Dave, however, was undeterred. He helped me over the slick mud, shooed me around rattle snake nests, and helped me spot the nervous deer hiding in the trees. Several times, when I sat down on the exposed roots and overturned rocks of the trail to catch my breathe and clean my muck-caked shoes, he offered words of encouragement.
“We’re almost there!” Dave would tell me in his thick Kentucky drawl.
“You said that a mile ago!” I’d whine, but still stand up and keep walking.
When we did round our final bend, I was glad I had stuck through it despite my complaints. I was elated. The view was incredible! The entire valley, and even parts beyond laid out for miles under my feet. I could see the entirety of Utah Lake, and the outskirts of the Great Salt Lake beyond. I could see the large Universities in the valley as little dollhouses, and felt like I could jump from mountain top to mountain top the way people jump across rooftops in a movie. There was nothing separating me from the sky other than a boulders. As Dave and I were joined by a few more intrepid hikers, I watched the birds soaring, mere feet away, and wondered what it must be like to jump from this height and simply glide down toward the water below without fearing the fall. Suddenly, all the aches and pains of the day was worth every cut, bruise, and blister. I hugged Dave for convincing me to carry on.
That was almost 3 years ago.
Dave has moved back home to Kentucky, and I hadn’t made the hike since. Every time I tried, I couldn’t push myself beyond the first few miles. I’d start out strong, but my motivation and enthusiasm would dampen as quickly as the gradient would rise. I hated to admit it, but also couldn’t deny that despite having climbed this mountain before, it was a goal I couldn’t reach on my own.
This weekend I tried again with my friend Steven. We decided to make a full day of it by bringing along lunch in an insulated backpack. Much to my surprise, the first 3/4ths of the hike passed by quickly. We hated and walked through the trees, stopped for lunch by a still-dry canal bed, and started our ascent without incident. I was almost convinced that I could have made the trip alone until we hit the snowline.
It’s still early in the hiking season, so higher elevations still have lingering snow-pack. As spring catches up to the peaks, the snow is just beginning to thaw, turning the canyons into a slushy deathtrap. With only about a mile left to climb, I would have turned back without Steven’s encouragement.
Every step was either a slide, a slip, or a sink in the two feet of slush. Progress was labored and unbearably slow. Even in high-grip, water-proof boots, my jeans were from multiple falls, and my ankles were sore from over-correcting my balance. I hate snow even in the best of circumstances, so I utterly despise snow when I have no choice but to slog through it. As uncomfortable as I was, it couldn’t have been half as bad for me as it was for Steven who had chosen to wear chacos. Still, Steven’s attitude stayed bright and cheerful despite the discomfort. After-all, we were almost to the top.
With Steven’s encouragement and some grim determination- we did make it to the peak. Despite having made the trip before, I was no less proud on this occasion as I was 3 years before. This spring has been colder and wetter than average, finally ending a decade long drought- but even the approaching storm couldn’t dampen my pride. Once again, with the support of a friend, I did what I couldn’t do alone.
On our trip back down, half-skiing on the packed ice as a light rain began to fall, we lost the path. Once again, I found myself appreciating having a friend to share the journey with, as my lack of direction would have left me hopelessly lost in the canyon with a fall-bruised body, tired feet, and a short temper. Thanks to Steven, we both made it down in good spirits, decent time, and no worse for wear than when we started out.
As we headed home for a well-earned dinner, I kept thinking about all the times I couldn’t make the trip. I thought about how and why having a companion made a difference. Part of it was accountability- knowing that someone would know if I just gave up. Another part of it was support- having someone there to tell you that you can do it. But, the biggest part, I think, is having someone to share with. Dave and Steven shared the rough parts, the breaks, and beautiful scenery, and the sense of accomplishment with me. Knowing I didn’t have to struggle or enjoy alone was the lift I needed to make it through. As tired and beat up as I was, I carried through just as much for my hiking partner as I knew they were carrying through for me. That’s how friendship should be: sharing, support, and reaching goals together. That lesson, and of course the view, are the most important things I’ve taken from the top of Squaw Peak.