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Doin’ the WURL

When I first starting hiking and running in the Central Wasatch after a few seasons of only really skiing there (and then in the summers mostly mountain biking in the foothills) I had a thought:  “Wow, it would be pretty amazing to traverse the ridgeline that almost encircles Little Cottonwood Canyon; maybe do it over the course of a buncha hikes over the summer. And you could call it something cool, like the LCC Horseshoe!”  But despite a few disparate outings doing short sections as random day hikes, I never got around to it.  Fortunately, the Wasatch endurance crowd has someone who is not only far more talented and motivated than me, but also more creative:  Jared Campbell.  Because around that same time, Jared was thinking of the same thing, and then actually went out and did it, and not only did he do it over the course of a summer, he did it over the course of a single day.  And fortunately he was more creative than me and my lame moniker of the “LCC Horseshoe” and called it The Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup, or WURL. 

If you are an endurance runner type in Utah the odds are pretty good you’ve heard of the WURL and have an inkling of what it is, even if you didn’t know the actual acronym.  Starting in Ferguson Canyon very near the 7-11 at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon at 5000-odd feet and climbing up to the ridgeline that in turn runs to the top of the 11,000-odd foot Twin Peaks, then simply takes the high ridge route all the way to the top of Mount Superior, around the top of what most people consider to be the general Alta area, over the top of Snowbird, and then run the ridge from there out to the top of Lone Peak  – which towers over the southern Salt Lake Valley – and then down Bells Canyon effectively back to Wasatch Boulevard.  36-odd miles, 18-19,000 feet of vertical, and kinda endless scrambling along a jumbly, bouldery ridge that makes for slow going.  So much so that range of times that people have done on it is more akin to a 100 mile trail race than a typical “short” ultra of 36 miles. 

Jared has done it several times, and  – being Jared – did both a website on it and for years had the FKT (another acronym:  Fastest Known Time) of sub-17 hours.  That got chipped away at by a few notable folks in the Mountain West enduro community, then last year Jason Dorais decided he needed to put it away on his third outing and was almost an hour faster than Alta’s Joey Campanelli (who is one of the best, having one of the proudest accomplishments in the country by crushing the record at the Nolan’s 14) at 14:40; for reference, roughly the average time on Jared’s site is about twice that!   The same day Jason’s wife Stacey blew away the wo’s FKT by a ways and went 19:30; again, in many cases half the time of other women. 

But Derek Gustafson and I had no lofty aspirations of speed; we just kinda wanted to do it.  As Derek succinctly put it:  “it feels like a merit badge I should have.”  And when I told brother Paul that I was giving it some thought he replied “Of course you are.  Everyone else knew you were going to try it before you did!”   Derek and I have talked a little about doing it as a two-day, but since neither of us had done anything really long and dumb for quite some time, we decided that it was high time. I’d been struggling with a sore lower back for a chunk of the summer and couldn’t really run very fast, but I’d been on the bike a fair bit and had done a few 6-ish hour hikes, and Derek had done pretty well at the infamous Rut 28k a coupla weeks prior, so why not hike/scramble, and maybe if we take long enough, it’ll be a two-day adventure anyway! (that said, I did do a geeky spreadsheet on anticipated times at various points along the way; let me know if you are interested in seeing/using it).

I had targeted the September full moon period:  maximize summertime fitness, see if my back healed up with PT work, cooler temps relative to our blistering summer, and a nice moon to see something over a long night.  We settled on Saturday the 18th , but a quick conversation with former SLC National Weather Service director Larry Dunn made us change plans; a cold storm moving in that afternoon, with possible accumulations of snow.  The prospect of endless 4th class scrambling at 11,000 feet in a snowstorm was not even a consideration, so Derek moved/canceled some Friday meetings and Ashley dropped us off at the trailhead at the warm hour of 10:30 am on her way to hike to the Red Pine Ridge to drop a key stash for us. 

When to start is a point of some consternation; the trail up the start and the “middle” quarter is the easiest section, so people try to figure out ways to do the easy sections in the dark and the most challenging in the light, but the truth is that it’s simply hard, you’re gonna be tired, headlamps work well, and just start whenever and give’r for a longggg time. 

We had received a grim reminder that we needed to be careful:  around September 12th a WURLer fell 200 feet while scrambling down off one Dromedary and died; while I believe it’s the only fatality specifically associated with the WURL, there have been plenty of other injuries/rescues, and FoxNews made sure that we were aware of what we were getting ourselves into.  The odds of a rock rolling out from under you or slipping on ballbearing scrabble on top of granite get much higher when you are quickly stepping on many, many thousands of steps and getting tireder as you go. 

Despite the warm temps and the knowledge that it would be a long day, Derek and I went at a good clip and got to the summit of the Twins in 3 hours (it’s most common for folks get a very early morn start and do that section in the dark, which actually has some spice on the ridge above the abyss of Stairs Gulch).

I saw a lot of this, which I knew I would throughout the day:

Above Stairs Gulch

At the top of East Twin I was psyched to see that the stash I had left near the top a month ago was still mostly intact:

Only partially eaten by varmints

As we boogied down the ridge from the Twins and towards Dromedary we saw another person going our way, and when we caught him we asked what he was up to, and indeed he too was WURLing.  I must say that he didn’t quite look the type; yes, he was tall and lanky, but he was wearing Nike road running shoes and basketball shorts, and when he asked if we wouldn’t mind if he stayed with us as he could my first thought was of the recent fatality and injuries up there, but he seemed to be moving well and said he’d done nearly all the sections and we said sure.  He introduced himself as “Ammon, like the guy in the Book of Mormon!”  I said, well, we weren’t really the types who would easily make that connection, and the only namesake I knew of was the government rebel anarchist Ammon Bundy, but I wouldn’t hold that against him!

Ammon turned out to be a very nice kid and was moving well, so it worked out just fine.  At one point Derek was in the lead and executed a pretty spicy little move on the north side of the ridge with a couple hundred feet of air below him, and as I hesitated before following Ammon asked “does that go?”  Well, Derek is already past it, so yes it does, but…..I moved through, then wasn’t quite sure what to do; just keep moving and don’t look back?  Act like there was something I could do to keep Ammon from falling to his death, when there wasn’t? any possibility of that?  In order not to be a total dick I felt compelled to stop and watch as he did a pretty big and awkward variation on what Derek and I had done, and I breathed a sigh of relief probably larger than his as he jumped to safety. 

Derek and Ammon on the ridge between LCC and BCC
Looking across at Lone Peak, our anticipated finish

Soon enough Ammon was gone, and we scrambled over Monte Cristo and Superior, and as we got to Cardiff Peak Derek was about to take the shortcut trail but I said “hey, we gotta get this peak; it’s only 30 secs out of the way!” so we did.  We were surprised on top by a dapper young lad wearing not only slacks and a nice shirt, but also a tie!  I asked him what was up with the getup, and he said “I’ve got a wedding reception.  “Oh, at Alta?”  “No, in West Valley City!”  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, but tried to quickly pivot and say something like “Well, it’s a bit of a detour to hike 2000 feet up from Alta to this ridgeline, but you’re well-prepared for the wedding!”  To which he replied “I’m supporting my brother in the WURL!”  Ah, Ammon’s brother!  Got it.  He did offer us a bottle of water, as per Ammon’s texted instructions….

The most dapper dood on the WURL that day for sure!

At Pole Line Pass we got our first “real” stash; Derek’s pal and Black Diamond colleague Kolin Powick was kind enough to haul a bunch of provisions up the South Ridge of Superior and then deliver it down at the pass the day prior:

that is an enthusastic support crew!

We went up and over the scrabbly section past Pole Line (where a friend once had an arm broken from a rock kicked down from above!  Be careful….) and hit the trail section on the ridge above Alta, and as we approached Grizzly Gulch got another benefit from the September start:

Nice aspens

Our buddy Aaron, a WURL vet, had shot me a note earlier that day asking how he could help, and he kindly ran supplies up to Catherine’s Pas for us, where we had not only another feast:

psyched to have nice friends deliver food and water!

But also bumped into a coupla doods on an evening hike who were willing to take our stash detritus out for us.  And not only that, but Derek got a message from another pal/colleague who had grabbed our stash trash from our Pole Line, which was great; we knew we weren’t going to be very keen to go hiking again shortly after our hike! 

Sunset framing our next many hours

The nice trail section ends abruptly just south of Alta ski lift’s Supreme chair on some sharp limestone crags as a warmup for the classic Devil’s Castle that looms high above Albion Basin. By this time the headlamps were on, and I was happy that I’d scouted this section just a few day’s prior and we were able to make somewhat short work of that, with spots where our headlamp light simply vanished into the void that loomed below the ridge.  Topping out on Sugarloaf Peak we could see the eerily-lit Dark Star of Snowbird’s vastly oversized tram top, where hopefully another stash awaited; Larry Dunn had hiked up the day prior and bought us some wraps and cookies, and the manager said there was a private event happening and people would still be there and we’d be able to get it.

However, as we approached it seemed that the employees were efficient in the event cleanup and we were checking in a bit late, because it was deserted.  However, we found that the door had graciously been propped open, and while we didn’t find our stash, we felt justified in helping ourselves to unsold wraps and cookies in the restaurant fridge! 

The section past Snowbird going over Red Baldy and White Baldy is known as one of the crux sections, with tons of big boulders, steep climbs and descents, and some tricky route finding.  No doubt we moved a little more slowly in this section in the middle of the night than we would have with daylight, but we still felt good and were able to concentrate on our moves and somehow still find things to chat about, despite the many hours of chatting already.

The longest unsupported section is past the Red Pine ridge near the Pfeifferhorn, and we had loaded Ashley up with a surprisingly heavy amount of gear (water is heavy!  As is the singular best power drink:

And we were off for the last few hours of our trek.

Larry had said that the rain would start around noon on Saturday, so it was a bit of a surprise when we saw a few drops fall past our headlamp beams as we were going over Bighorn peak.  The blood red moon (fire smoke) was starting to set in the still-clear west and we hadn’t noticed the clouds gathering from the south and east.  I felt like this was just a coupla spritzes and the rain wouldn’t really ramp up much, but….eventually, as rain is wont to do, it indeed rained.  As we got soaked we abandoned the traditional line along the ridgeline and tried to cut a tangent across in mid-slope to expediate things (to know avail) and finally at the low pass between Bighorn and Lone Peak – the final objective – we pondered our bail options as the rain poured down.  We realized that it was pretty low-angle terrain into Bell’s Canyon from that pass, so down we dropped; while we knew that going up the ridge towards Lone Peak we’d warm up, but as we got a little light we saw the castle of the summit shrouded in clouds, and knew that the infamously rolly rock-filled Gully of Death (my moniker) that WURLers used to get off of Lone Peak would be treacherous at best when wet.  So down we went.

Upper Bells is notorious for being complex terrain, and even now in the light and with a gps track we struggled to find the reservoir and the trail down.  In addition to the rain from the sky, the leaves still on the trees and bushes soaked us continuously, and my tired and now-cold legs weren’t moving very well, and even when we did find the trail it was hard to move swiftly, since there was slick granite rocks embedded in mud; both of us went down more than a couple of times. 

WURLed-eaten shoes added to the challenge

But eventually we bumbled our way down the trail and starting seeing day hikers heading up, and at the bottom found the ever-patient Shannon Gustafson waiting for us; Derek had sent her a text from upper Bells with our woefully-under-estimated finish time. 

Due to our premature bail we didn’t actually complete the route and thus won’t make it onto Jared’s vaunted website, but if the point is to do a pretty awesome little adventure with a great friend that has enough challenge to make it, well, “challenging” then we indeed made our point.

I realized over the course of this that it’s indeed good to periodically do something dumb that stretches your perception of what can be done; even just a very long “day” is a good reminder that we can do unusually-difficult things, which makes most usually-difficult things seem not that difficult!

Many thanks to our awesome support crew:  Shannon and Ashley (who forgave us for not checking in in the middle of the night), Kolin, Aaron, Larry, and Robin.  Yes, people have WURLed without support, but it’s the help and support of friends that enables a much more enjoyable outing. 

And of course, thanks to Derek for being game and tough; Derek is part smartest and nicest human I know and part gazelle, and anyone who’s done an adventure with him knows he’s so solid in so many ways. 

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