Friday, September 2, 2011

The WURL Attempt #1, BAIL

The Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup (WURL) is an extremely aesthetic traverse that links the Cottonwood and Alpine ridge lines with the lower peaks at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  It has been dreamt of by many, but first accomplished in August of 2007 by the prolific Jared Campbell, in 21.5 hours nonetheless.  Since then it has seen one known completion by Nik Berry in an astounding 17:48.  The traverse has gotten a lot of interest, including by us in the winter when we attempted it on skis.  The vast majority of people that try it in a day fail.  


Take a look at the numbers alone and it's easy to see that most people just don't have the preparation.  At over 30 miles long with approximately 21,000 vertical gain it may sound feasible.  But, what people don't realize is that a HUGE portion of the traverse is class 3 boulder hopping with short portions of 4th and 5th class climbing.  Other than the approach and descent to Wasatch Drive, the whole thing is between 10,000 and 11,000+ feet, making altitude a factor.  Another of the many contributing factors to the high attrition rate is the necessity to cross over Hidden Peak which offers the easiest option to bail imaginable... a free tram ride.  

The Line (divided into thirds):

For some reason, the "first ascentionist" started in Ferguson Canyon and ended out Bell's Canyon.  I understand the perverse beauty of starting and ending just off Wasatch Drive, but other options seem more aesthetic.  But, from Ferguson, the ridge above Stairs Gulch is obtained and followed to the Broad Fork Twins.  Then every peak is passed to Mount Superior, including Sunrise, Dromedary, and Monte Cristo.  

From Superior, Cardiff Peak, Toledo Peak, Flagstaff, Davenport, The Honeycombs, Patsy Marley, Wolverine, Tuscarora, Point Supreme, Devil's Castle, Sugarloaf, and Baldly are summited before one lands on Hidden Peak.  

Then, one ascends AF Twins, Red Stack, Red Baldy, White Baldy, the Pfeifferhorn, South Thunder, Upper Bell's Peak (Bighorn), and Lone Peak before exiting out Bell's Canyon and finding oneself on Wasatch Drive.  

Our Goal:

Naturally, it was to set the record on the damn thing.  Or at least go as fast as possible, have fun, and finish.  We sort of managed 2/3. 

Records and Rules:

When playing this contrived game of fastest known times, one has to compare apples to apples.  That's not always possible given weather/snow conditions, but the route should be the same.  Jared did it first and says he stayed, "very true to the ridge line" between BF Twins and Lone Peak.  I don't doubt him, but what does that mean?  There is a section before Devil's Castle that looks horrendous to traverse (we didn't), and I wonder if he traversed every last bit of it.  Nik did the WURL without knowing of Jared blog and may or may not have stuck to the entire original route above Alta (he was blazing fast regardless).  

Our Attempt: 

Summit of BF Twins, Photo by BH
Brian Harder had some time off that coincided with the latter part of my vacation so we went looking for something "big".  The WURL fit the bill and we decided to do it two days before game time.  That left me scrambling to recon the approach up Ferguson and to stash water and food on Toledo Peak and Hidden Peak.  That done, BH rolled into town on Wednesday evening and we enjoyed a deluxe pre event meal prepared by my cute pregnant wife.  

The alarm sounded at 2:00a.  After a quick breakfast and drive, we were on the trail at 2:50a.  Hiking up Ferguson Canyon in moonless night, I was glad I had hiked up the day before to get us on the right track.  Once the overgrown trail faded into a maze of game trails, we were "onsighting".  Luckily, we connected a few meadows with some old growth pines along an indistinct ridge that took us to a small cliff band.  There, we traversed right and eventually found ourselves looking into Deaf Smith Canyon.  Having nailed the upper Ferguson approach, we followed the ridge over Stair's Gulch and up to the BF Twins just as the eastern horizon was becoming visible.  

Brian on another summit with the majority of the Cottonwood Ridge in front of him
We snapped a few pics and then quickly dropped off to the east.  I was suddenly chilled by a strong and ever present wind and was grateful to have listened to little brother, who suggested I bring a jacket.  Then the peaks started rolling under our feet as we boulder hopped the angular talus.  We were moving fast and efficiently, but it was tedious work.  The rock along the Cottonwood Ridge is loose and the exposure is at places, quite high.  The consequences of a misplaced step range from a sprained ankle to a gnarly laceration to much worse.  
Down from O'Sullivan and looking toward the end goal...
Majority of Cottonwood Ridge behind us.  Photo by BH
We paused on Monte Cristo to call JD, who said he wanted to come up and support us with food and drink and run part of the ridge.  Over Superior in 6:21, I thought we were moving well.  Nik had given splits at the Pfeiff and on Lone in his report and 13.5 to the Pfeiff seemed completely doable.  We paused just before Toledo Peak at our first water cache and then moved on to meet Jason on Flagstaff.  He had seen us on the ridge and TT'd his way up, through the brush, so as to not delay us.  This, on the heels of a FKT on the Pfeiff the day before.  

To my delight, JD had brought a McSkillet burrito for me and an Egg McMuffin for Brian.  We laughed at our absurdity as we ran on the easier terrain, eating McDonald's.  Below the Honeycombs, we parted ways and Brian and I were left to find a trail.  We ran north and then contoured back along the ridge to the first summit, then the second, then down to Twin Lakes Pass.  From there, the monotony continued as the summits of Patsy Marley, Wolverine, and Tuscarora passed under our feet.  8:54 to Tuscarora.  That was half of Nik's total time.  Halfway?

Devil's Castle looming ahead
Then we descended into Catherine's Area, accidentally missed Point Supreme while entranced by a section of runnable trail, and then once again hit the ridge.  We cruised for a while and then were completely halted by a very rugged and bushy section heading up to the subpeaks before Devil's Castle.  This forced us off the ridge and onto an unpleasant side hill traverse before we decided to cut the drainage and head up for a notch high on the ridge, just before the Castle.  This decision took a while to make and I felt all our momentum dissipate at once.  My psych plummeted and I felt a record to be out of reach.  

BH getting chossy
The rather fun scrambling over Devil's Castle restored my mood, but the urgency was gone.  I got a text from buddy CC who said he could see us on Sugarloaf.  I replied we were blown and questioning.  He advised that we take it easy for a while and just press on.  Baldy was boring and the uphill was becoming a chore.  I still felt great on the flats and running down but Brian's knees were starting to bother him, which resulted in slower down hills.  

Exposed moves high on the Castle
Same section from opposite side.  Photo by BH
Disgusting cold Ramen. Photo by BH
On Hidden Peak in 11:20, I was amazed it took 5 hours from Superior.  I pulled out my food cache and was displeased with my hasty selection.  I ate peaches, cookies, cold ramen, drank cold beef stock (really disgusting), and refilled my bladder/bottles.  Brian, repulsed, ate some peaches and jerky and left the rest.  Then we had a discussion about the marginal benefit of continuing versus the instant gratification of taking the Tram down.  In the end, my stubbornness won out and Brian continued out of sense of duty to partnership even though it was clear that he was no longer enjoying our walk.  

Long way left...
White Baldy summit ridge. Photo by BH
We trudged up the Twins and traversed to Red Stack, no longer running anything.  The ascent of Red Baldy was mildly entertaining as the crappy rock kept us engaged as we tried not to trundle blocks of death on each other.  White Baldy was a welcome change as the rock type switched to granite.  That is until the summit ridge where the large blocks proved more difficult to negotiate quickly than the smaller quartzite.  A long, tedious descent towards the Pfeiff found us above Red Pine Lake, again contemplating our future.  

We were 23.5 miles into the traverse with over 16,000 vertical gained thus far. 15 hours had elapsed and  Brian was done.  He said he had "cracked", but I think it was more a case of having accomplished enough to be pleased with the day and not feeling the need to prove anything further.  What is the WURL to him?  The guy has climbed high end stuff all over the world and doesn't need to stumble around Bell's Canyon in the dark to be happy.  Maybe I'm more insecure or still in need of finding my limits.  I wanted to go on even if it meant watching the sunrise a second time (sounds pretty stupid now as I type).  But this time, I felt the same sense of partnership Brian had felt at Hidden Peak. 

The tough decision to bail was made and I chalked the day up as some great reconnaissance.  Sitting in the warm afternoon sun it suddenly felt peaceful and we relaxed for 20 minutes before beginning the descent out the standard Pfeifferhorn trail.  

I learned some valuable lessons about the physical nature of this traverse as well as about partnerships and success.  The traverse will happen.  I'll try again and again until I do it in the style I want.  Those miles and miles of ridge line will continue eroding, but will always be there.  Good partners however, are hard to come by.  At times they will hinder ones goals as I have done to Brian on a few occasions in the Tetons. But mostly, a good partner enhances the experience and make success, however that's defined, more likely.  

My watch data.  It died just before the summit of White Baldy.  Brian's watch had total vert at 16,150 and I estimate distance, including exit out, to be 27.5


  1. Curious - Do you feel that the 'calories burned' measure is anywhere near accurate at 2165? 15 hours of steady movement - I'd suspect way more than that was burned. My guess would be more like 5-6,000. Just wonder what you think about that...

  2. Great effort! Looking forward to reading about you crushing the record. I've done it all in sections and it's a beast.

    Nice to see you starting up Ferguson. Hard to call it ultimate if it doesn't go from valley floor to valley floor.

    God speed!

  3. Adam, that watch doesn't take into account HR or elevation gain/loss. It's wildly inaccurate and is based solely on if one were running on flat pavement.

    Noah, Thanks for the encouragement. There will be no "crushing" on this one. 17:48 is phenomenal but we'll do our best. Hopefully soon...

    Valley floor to valley floor - perversely attractive.

  4. ummmm so i ran up pfiefferhorn with a bottle of water, dying of thirst but not sipping it as to aid a friend in need... and you didn't even make it to the pfiefferhorn!! now i'm a litter-bug :-(