Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mount Nebo: Highest in the Wasatch Range

  Above: Three different views that highlight the three different peaks of Mount Nebo, the    first two photos  just below the south summit and the third on top of the south peak.                         Ravell Call is shown in both lower  pictures.

By Lynn Arave

"Cold, austere, a triple pyramid of limestone, Mount Nebo rises under the central Utah sky, the final exclamation point in stone of the Wasatch Mountains."
Still appropriate today, that was an accurate description of Mount Nebo by Harrison R. Merrill, a Deseret News reporter, on July 4, 1930.
Harrision  went along with 33 BYU students and faculty members on a Nebo hike, then a nine-mile trek to Nebo's southern summit.

Merrill noted how much drier the terrain was along the Nebo route compared to Timp's water-blessed trails. That is, until a big rainstorm hit and drenched the hikers. The group also reported seeing elk.

Twenty-seven hikers reached the summit, and Merrill described his feelings while on top:
"Eleven-thousand feet above sea level, like specks along the ridge pole of the world, we sat down and feasted," he wrote. "While our eyes gorged, we ate our lunches beside a little fire that sent its pinion pine smoke toward heaven. It was a huge altar. . . .

Other peaks along the Wasatch range may be more legendary (Mount Timpanogos), more classically elegant (Mount Olympus) and simply more imposing because they loom so dramatically over metropolitan and suburban enclaves (Ben Lomond, Lone Peak).

 But Nebo - the Wasatch's "final exclamation point in stone," - is actually the highest Wasatch Peak of them all, at 11,928 feet above sea level.

 Even so, many who may have thought they trudged to Nebo's uppermost pinnacle didn't. The main trail winds its way up South Nebo, the southernmost of three peaks, which tops out at 11,877 feet and earns a notation on the official state highway map. But North Nebo is 51 feet higher.
(Yes, there are actually three different Nebo peaks, though to the casual observer below on I-15, it looks more like just a single peak.)

The highest Nebo was "discovered" in the late '70s when new measurements were made by the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey. A proposal was made to christen this previously unnamed northern high point "Mona Peak," in honor of the community at the foot of the mountain's western alluvial fan. 
However, the Utah Committee on Geographic Names decided the entire mountain had been known for too long as just Nebo, and so North, Middle and South Nebo peaks are the specific references now found on any up-to-date map or hiking book.

The skyscraping muddle doesn't end there, either. North Nebo Peak shouldn't be confused with North Peak, a "mere" 11,174 feet above sea level and just over a mile farther to the north.

Since the principal trail ends at South Nebo, most hikers stop there too - with good reason. After a steep and eventually air-deprived climb to the south peak, it's an additional 11/2-mile scramble, most of it along a precarious knife-edge of rocks, to the higher pinnacle. Those who attempt this adventure get to visit Middle Nebo Peak, too, at 11,824 feet above sea level.
Mount Nebo is also where the Wasatch Mountains dead end on their southernmost point. North-wise, they run all the way to Soda Spring, Idaho.

Nebo, like many a Utah village and eminence, is a Biblical namesake. Mentioned in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 34:1), the original Mount Nebo was the peak from which Moses saw the promised land before he left this mortal coil.

The first Nebo is a part of the Pisgah Mountains, east of the north end of the Dead Sea. It is the second-highest peak in the Dead Sea area - 2,631 feet above sea level - behind Mount Shihan at 3,494 feet. However, because the Dead Sea is 1,312 feet below sea level, the Middle Eastern Nebo's climb is more like 3,943 feet, which would be just over half the Utah Nebo's vertical rise.

Perhaps the first Mormon settlers who caught sight of the peak in the late 1840s thought it had a great prospect of their promised land, and so they named it after a prominent scriptural landmark.

In fact, with all the Biblical-named communities in the Nebo area - Jericho, Ephraim, Goshen and Abraham among them - settlers obviously enjoyed using titles from scripture. Book of Mormon names were also popular in the area, from Deseret and Lehi to Manti and Moroni.

But the mountain Nebo is most often linked to is its sibling - sometimes called its twin - to the north, Timpanogos. Both rise spectacularly from the valleys below, both approach 12,000 feet high (Timp is 11,750 feet above sea level, 178 feet fewer than Nebo) and both are in Utah County - although the three Nebo peaks actually straddle the Utah/Juab county line.
Nebo offers intermittent groves of aspen and pine, and outstanding views in almost every direction once hikers reach its long ridge. It is the solitude and serenity that rule here. Unlike hiking often-visited Timpanogos Peak, you may have Nebo all to yourself.

(Adapted from a Sept. 11, 1994 article in the Deseret News by Lynn Arave and Ray Boren.)

-Photos by Lynn Arave, Ravell Call and Ray Boren.

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

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