Thursday, December 17, 2015

The first climbs up the massive and towering Mount Nebo

       This photo clearly shows the triple peaks on Mount Nebo, from south to north.
                                                                  Photos by Ray Boren.

By Lynn Arave

MOUNT NEBO is the tallest Wasatch Mountain Peak, higher than the more famous Timpanogos Peak.
Actually a triple peak, with the north one being 11, 928 feet sea level and the most-often accessed "South Peak" sitting at 11, 877 feet.
According to the Garfield County News of Sept. 4, 1936, William W. Phelps, a Mormon Pioneer songwriter and editor, was the first known person to climb Mount Nebo, back on Aug. 24, 1849, about 25 months after the first Mormon Pioneers arrived in the area.
Phelps scaled the peak for scientific observations.
It is not clear which of the three Nebo Peaks that Phelps climbed, nor which route he used to access the summit.
"Rearing its majestic peak 12,000 feet above sea level, towering Mount Nebo commands the entire scenic panorama of Juab and adjoining Sanpete Counties," the Garfield Newspaper stated. "The towering grandeur of this massive peak represents one of Utah's greatest scenic assets."
In the summer of 1933, a CCC Camp was located in the area of Mount Nebo and that crew began construction on the scenic loop road that goes around the peak.
Mount Nebo is named for the Biblical Peak of the same name, in the Moab area, tallest one, near where Moses "died" (though he was translated and taken to heaven in Mormon belief).

             Ravell Call on the South Nebo Summit. A "knife edge" leads to the other two peaks.

-The Deseret News of Aug. 3, 1887 records one of the other early climbs up Mount Nebo. Here a party of 7 men left Mona on July 22 that year, on horseback and rode up a narrow path in Willow Creek, or Mona Canyon.
This party camped the night part-way up and good thing, because they noticed it was much further to the summit than they initially believed. Their account "precipitous ledges" and a "cold wind" over snowbanks, amidst the "witches' rocks" and "fields of broken, shifting slate."
The second day, on the summit, a government surveyor, William Elmbeck, was there and they used his large telescope to survey the vast area below in all directions. Elmbeck estimated the elevation to be 11, 943 feet and that one of the other peaks was some 30 feet taller. (This suggests they climbed the South Peak.)
"Altogether, Mount Nebo is not difficult of ascent, but it is not safe to those unaccustomed to the saddle, and far to rough and hazardous for ladies. Our train of seven horsemen made a pretty sight along a steep serpentine, down which some of the Nephi horsemen occasionally rode at break-neck speed," the article concluded.
-That 1887 hiking group was oblivious to the fact that a young lady, a "Miss Bardwell," had successfully climbed Mount Nebo in the summer of 1881, according to the Salt Lake Tribune of Aug. 18, 1881. The Tribune referred to her climb as "a great feat" -- and she may have done it alone!
-The Deseret News of June 18, 1898 reported a climb of Mount Nebo North Peak by a Salt Lake City Sunday School teacher, E.G. Rognon, and five male class members. They erected an 8--foot-tall wooden pole on the peak. They thought this was significant, since government surveyors then believed incorrectly that peak was 11, 992 feet above sea level and their stunt made it an even 12,000. The group also put their names in a tin can and left it on the summit.
-The heyday of Mount Nebo came soon after.
Indeed, "Aloft on Mount Nebo; Utah Peak has beauty of Alps; Grandeur in view" was a March 1, 1920 headline in the Salt Lake Herald Newspaper.
By then a "safe trail" to the summit had been made from Salt Creek, also today's most-used path. This path was constructed in 1919 and some 82 people climbed to its summit on Aug. 6, 1919, the start of an annual mass group pilgrimage to Mount Nebo. an estimated 3,000 people in the summer of 1919 enjoyed camping on the backside of Mount Nebo in the Salt Creek area.
-The Manti Messenger Newspaper of July 31, 1925 reported that the Kiwanis Club of Nephi was a sponsor of an annual hike up Mount Nebo. It was held Aug, 5 that year, under a full moon, so that hikers could enjoy the sunrise at the summit.
That Salt Creek trail to Mount Nebo was referred to as the "trail of a thousand turns." The story also referred to Nebo as a "solitary sentinel of the southern Wasatch."
By 1927, the annual hike was still held on the night of a full moon, Aug. 12, that year, complete with a bonfire and full festival at thje Salt Creek camping area. The only concerns reported were for proper sanitation and fire hazards.

                            Another view of the Mount Nebo summits.

-An annual hike up Mount Nebo probably continued for some years after. It likely died out for the same reasons that doomed the much more popular annual summer hike up Mount Timpanogos -- too many people on the mountain at once for proper safety and conservation. 

-Here's what myself and Ray Boren wrote about Mount Nebo back on Sept. 11, 1994 in the Deseret News:

Atop the rocky crag that is Utah's South Nebo Peak a metal box nestles in a clutch of anchoring stones. Lee Taylor and his 14-year-old son Brandon, who live in Mona, visible in the valley far below, put the container there last June, along with the notebook and pens inside. They just thought it would be a good idea.

"I can't believe we made it! This was our first hike. We're dead," wrote one unidentified hiker. "A helicopter picks us up now, right?""Whew! They need a Coke machine up here," scribbled another.

Since the box and notebook were placed there three months ago, dozens of proud hikers have signed their names. Some have offered commentary anonymously, and a few have even taken a shot at pen-and-ink art.

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," as a writer aptly put it a half-century ago - is actually the highest 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.

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.

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.

As a hiking destination, though, Timp has always been more popular than Nebo, undoubtedly in part because of its proximity to the Provo area and Brigham Young University. The great mountain's waterfalls, hanging valleys and small lakes add to its scenic lure. Nebo offers intermittent groves of aspen and pine, and outstanding views in almost every direction once hikers reach its long ridge, but doesn't have quite the wealth of enticements Timpanogos has.

That doesn't mean adventurers haven't considered Nebo a challenging rival. In 1930 there was an effort to make its peaks as popular a destination as Timp's top. That was the year of the first of the fabled BYU-sponsored mass hikes up Timp - and an attempt was made to also begin an annual trek to the top of Nebo that year.

On July 4, 1930, Harrison R. Merrill, a Deseret News reporter, 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. . . .

"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."

His description rings true to this day.

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