Mount Timpanogos, towering over the sprawling development of Utah Valley and the placid waters of Utah Lake, is our state’s best-known peak—and has been for over a hundred years. In the first decades of the twentieth century, local hikers and students began to recreate on it.
The essay reproduced below, published in the fall 1981 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, is the first account of which we are aware of a winter ascent. Two local men reveled in the challenge and danger of scaling the mount’s face in deep snow. After reaching the peak, they slid down the glacier on the mount’s east side, continue to Stewart Ranch (now the location of Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort), and camp at a small resort called Wildwood in Provo Canyon.
Accompanying the account are photographs taken by Brimhall and his companion LeGrand Hardy, a map showing their approximate route, courtesy of John Judd, and a few more contemporary photographs of the summit of Timp in winter.
A Winter Acquaintance with Timpanogos
By Dean R. Brimhall
Originally published in Utah Historical Quarterly 49 (Fall 1981): 340–47.
Dean Robertson Brimhall (1886-1972) was the son of Flora Robertson and George H. Brimhall, president of Brigham Young University during 1903-21. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from BYU in 1913 and master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. At the time of his adventure on Timpanogos, February 1916, he appears to have been teaching psychology at BYU.
In August 1917 Brimhall married actress Lila Eccles (1891–1980) who was later a professor of speech and theatre at the University of Utah.
During his early career he was involved in several business enterprises, but after 1933 he was employed by the federal government in various posts. After his retirement in 1951, Brimhall developed a keen interest in pictographs and petroglyphs, becoming an expert on Utah Indian rock art. He served as a member of the Board of State History from 1965 until his death. In 1971 he was made an Honorary Life Member of the Society in recognition of his contributions to the study and preservation of Utah antiquities.
This account of Timpanogos in winter is from Brimhall’s papers house in the Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, which granted the Society permission to publish it. A few typographical errors have been corrected.
It is hard to be conservative when one is by nature a radical, but conservatism has little chance with a man who has a passionate interest. Hardy and I make no claims for conservatism in matters dealing with mountains. If our doings and sayings concerning Timpanogos seem lacking in temperance we have no apology. No man can be a lover of the high places of the world and keep that calm tranquility so fitting to the vegetable kingdom.
The winter of 1915–16 will be long remembered as one of the old style. Snow was knee deep for weeks in the valleys, and the mountains were hardly ever free from storm clouds. Every time the sky cleared the great king of the Wasatch Range stood out in marvelously white majesty. He seemed to say, “Come up and conquer me if you dare.” The sharp white point some twelve thousand feet out in the cold clear ozone never looked so mockingly exciting as it did after some long snowstorm when clouds had hid it for threefold the time they had hid the valley.
One day was all we could give to the climb, and that day was Saturday. We shall not tell of our first trial and our defeat. It is a long story, a glorious one to us, but no one cares to hear how someone nearly reached the top.
So far as we know or have been able to find out, no one had ever climbed the peak in winter months, and we now have reason to believe that no one is likely to have greater natural difficulties, in the way of ice, deep snow, and low temperatures.
It was three fifteen A.M. when we filled the radiator of the car with hot water. A few turns of the engine, a fitful sputtering which settled into a steady hum and we were ready. A shot half of joy and half of mischief for the benefit of some sleepy neighbors, and in went the clutch. A short spinning of wheels, a biting of chains and we were off. Our lights sent out their friendly shine over the immaculate mantle of snow but lost their luster in the brightness of the light of a full February moon.
The ten mile ride to the Jex ranch at the mouth of Dry Canyon was not without its thrills. Two feet of snow with only wagon tracks for a broken trail is not conducive to fast driving, but it does not lack in fantastic skidding and unexpected plowing into the unbroken banks at the side of the road, and that too, in the most inopportune places. Life was sweet and wholesome.
At three forty-five or thereabouts, we had our snowshoes on, our lunch, light but nourishing tied to our belts, our kodaks in places and our bamboo skis [ski poles?] in our hands. Not even the strange silent beauty of the mountain in the moonlight halted us, for past experience had taught us that “keep going” is as necessary in climbing mountains as it is in climbing towards a university degree. For the first half mile Dry Canyon was wet to the extent of three to five feet of snow in level spots and as much as twenty-five feet in drifts. How we gloried in the carrying power of our snowshoes without which it would have been impossible to have gone more than a few hundred yards.
Then we came to the first part of the snowslide. We had both seen bigger ones in the Alps; we had seen marks of mightier ones elsewhere in the Rockies, but for sheer ruthless savagery due to speed, we had never seen its equal. Clearly visible from the valley, we saw how it had started near the top, nearly seven thousand feet away, gathering speed, mass and momentum until here and there great gouges into the banks of earth on either side of its path told the story of its mad flight only too plainly. How we wished for brighter light than that the moon gave, so that we might have recorded a part of the sight in the little black boxes strapped to our sides.
At six fifteen, we were looking over Little Mountain and were within two thousand feet of the top. Then came the first hint of approaching day, seen in the faint eastern glow that apparently was struggling to take a place where brilliant moonlight now held supreme sway.
The apparent nearness of our goal seemed to give us permission to stop. Yes, I am glad we decided to rest here, though had we known what lay ahead we should perhaps have missed the glories of the wonderful dawn contrasted with the setting of a moon now a ball of gold sinking softly and silently into the dark purple of a western sky over the distant Oquirrhs. The world was the fulcrum of the balancing planets. The twinkling lights of cities and villages lining the shore of icebound, snow-covered, Utah Lake, showed clearly that night still reigned below and that thousands of our fellow kind were sleeping, blissfully ignorant of what was to us a vision of matchless beauty. Words died on our lips and only incoherent jumbles of subdued exclamations reached our ears as one of us saw some new color or silhouette, or found some new object grown fantastic in the unusual light and perspective.
“Two thousand feet more, and not yet sunup,” said Hardy. How easy it seemed, yet both of us knew something we did not care to admit. We were whistling to keep up courage. We knew that those two thousand feet meant some thrills that might stick to our memories when many of our friends were forgotten.
There were two paths: We might follow the ridge and have a dozen icy cliffs to scale as well as treacherous icy snowbanks for pathways, or we might go up one of the great furrows that line the face at the point we now had reached. These were filled with snow, how deep we could only guess. We chose the ridge, but we are not sure whether we did the best thing or not. One of the most astonishing difficulties of our route was the scaling of the great drifts which for some queer reason or other had formed on the ridges. We had expected that the snow would be blown from these places but found that to be the case only here and there; elsewhere the wind had built many big shelf-like drifts, where an unsuspecting climber might easily find himself suddenly precipitated into the depths so far below that I almost lean backwards as I express the possibility of a fall.
From this level on, we encountered the most peculiar phenomenon. The ledges were literally plastered with snow. A mighty storm from the northwest had unloaded some millions of tons of wet snow to the tune of what must have been a terrific wind. Only by working our way to the southwest side of the ledges were we able to ascend at all. One great shelf so excited our admiration that we decided to get a picture of it. I borrowed Hardy’s camera because it was larger and had a much better lens than mine, and began to climb out to a point that would give me a good view. A slip meant a long slide, then a tumble over a low ledge, then another long slide and then—I don’t know what. But all the comfort I received from the chuckling companion sitting serenely above me was, “Don’t you dare go off down that canyon with my Kodak. What would there be left of it?” A joke is usually a good nerve tonic however, so I got the picture.
My memory is altogether too full of items concerning the rest of the ascent. The story, as I have already said, is a long one, too long to be given in details to any but those whose passion is mountains.
Five hours to make two thousand feet. It does not sound so bad. We had climbed the first five thousand in three hours. Yet, the going was of the right sort for real enjoyment. Life seemed very full when we began the “sprint” of the last fifty feet for our first sight of “the other side.” I think that it must have been exulting impatience more than fatigue or rarity of atmosphere that half choked me during that last mad hurry. But whatever it was, the climb and “sprint” made me no less breathless than the sight that seemed almost to shout back at me: the great jumbles of towering peaks and furrowing canyons stretching away to the east, north and south, as far as light travelled to us in straight lines. The immaculate covering of white was little less astonishing, not even a bit of underbrush showed through the great depth of snowfall; not even a coyote track, and best of all not the slightest sign of the biped, genus homo.
We were on the ridge, we were on top, but happily not on the highest point. To the north a half mile or so away was the flagpole. It was not much higher than the point we had reached, but we wanted to stand beside that pole. The only possible path from here on was perhaps the one that involved the most spectacular part of our entire journey: the way led along places where the slightest misstep to the right meant an almost perpendicular fall of from three to seven hundred feet. To the left it meant a slide and a plunge over ledges equally as dangerous. But we got our pictures. We fairly shouted for joy as we touched the steel pole that meant we had succeeded. There is no use trying to describe what we saw from that peak. Hundreds of people climbed it this summer to see in summer clothes what we saw in the heaviest winter garb. I climbed Storm King yesterday, a peak overlooking the lordly Hudson. Its precipitous sides do not rise quite two thousand feet from the tidal river below, but the rich green verdure, forests, miniature lakes, villages, the distant cities of Newburg, and West Point with its Military Academy nearer by were in their most beautiful summer dress. I sat for an hour studying the landscape, yet both myself and companion declared our intentions to return some months later when we would need snowshoes. Winter scenery of mountains has a beauty that few people know.
Despite the almost constant wind over the peak, the snow completely hid any sight of the monument except that made by the flagpole itself. Though not as deep as in some places the great drift that streamed out as though it were a mighty pointed cornice was the largest of any that we had seen. Hardy thought it was strong enough to hold him, but I refused to take his picture standing on it until he had tied a rope around his waist and to the flagpole. Had the shelf broken off there was some chance of being saved when bound in this fashion, otherwise we might have dug him out some months later in the valley a thousand feet below.
I believe most people call that part of the ridge at which the glacier begins the saddle. It was here we obtained two of our best pictures. One of the eastern or back part of Timpanogos and the other of a large ice crevice. In true glacier fashion the mass of snow that had collected in the magnificent amphitheatre below, had moved several feet and left a number of deep beautiful crevices. Down into one of these went my companion, always bent on seeing the bottom of everything. Again the rope was tied to his waist for safety. He found footing at one point and turned the Kodak my way. I don’t know how many hours of exhausting climbing labor is required to climb from Emerald Lake to the saddle, but we must have made the descent in less than a minute. I might not have made the trip as I did but while standing debating whether I should slide or take the slower but evidently safer method of digging my toes into the snow and going down a step at a time, I suddenly felt my feet fly out from under me and I was on my way. Using a pointed end of his snowshoe for a break, Hardy too said goodbye to the top and with almost motorcycle speed we soon reached the place where Emerald Lake should have been.
We had decided to go down the east side and through North Fork to Provo Canyon rather than return the way we had come. I am glad we did. There was no underbrush in which to become lost, no rocks to avoid, there was no trail to follow, only here and there a ledge to work our way around. The “Falls” which I believe are more than forty feet high were hardly distinguishable.
There were several incidents during the descent any of which would make an interesting and exciting story. There were times when our feet went out from under us so unexpectedly that only good fortune saved us from slides which I do not like to think about. Lower down in the Canyon we found the remains of a porcupine which told us that some coyote had been mighty hungry. Then there were two bunches of feathers, a few bones and some red stains in the snow, mute evidence of the way of the Wild and the law of talon and hooked beak. There were slides crossing the faint North Fork road too numerous to mention. There was the old Stewart cabin with only the roof showing. It was a much longer trail than I had remembered it to be, perhaps because it happened to be the end instead of the beginning of the journey, as is often the case with those who try for the top. It was after ten in the evening, or rather in the night when we finally felt that friendly glow warm us as we saw the summer camp houses loom up thru the bare and scraggly trees along the roaring North Fork stream.
Let the reader imagine, if he can, if he has ever felt that intense satisfaction which comes with the sight of rest after a long period of strenuous effort and success. Let him imagine what sitting down by a roaring stove, eating, dreaming, talking, bragging, recounting the incidents of the trip, with the fervor that must have been experienced to be felt. Let him imagine the anticipation which the sight of food brought to our appetites that had been sharpened to an edge which only the out-of-doors will bring. Then he may understand in part, what we felt as we sat and gossiped, and told each other that our friends who knew this life that we were living would be proud and glad of our doings. Barrie never created a Peter Pan who felt more heroic than we two “boys” felt that night.
No troubled dreams disturbed our sleep. What did we care about the fact that a ten mile hike awaited us in the morning? Ten miles back to the car we had left those many hours before. We wondered what the farmers about the place would be saying of our doings or rather what they would think of the fools who could find pleasure in what to them must have seemed ridiculous. But the ten miles disappeared so easily that we did not realize that we were there until we found ourselves filling the radiator with water from the stove of a nearby farmhouse.
Not even a frosted ear to show as a result of a most intimate acquaintance with the hoary old king of the Wasatches. Hardy says he hopes he is the first to fly over with an aeroplane but he will have to hurry if he beats me.
 Brimhall’s friend LeGrand Hardy, a BYU student and later a physician.
 Dry Canyon lies north of Provo Canyon, east of Orem.
 The Dry Canyon trail up the west face of Timpanogos rates 3 on a 1-5 scale for steepness. Beginning at an elevation of 5,200 feet the trail reaches 8,400 feet in three miles. See Shirley Paxman et al., Utah Valley Trails: A Hiking Guide to the Many Scenic Trails around Provo, Utah (Salt Lake City: Wasatch Publishers, 1978), p. 11.
 Probably Little Baldy, a peak at 7,696 feet.
 The highest point on Timpanogos is 11,750 feet.
 During 1917-18 Brimhall was an instructor at Columbia. Possibly he climbed Storm King above the Hudson River and wrote this account at that time. However, later dates to 1925 are also possible.
 They seem to have slid some 1,300 feet down the glacier above Emerald Lake on the east side of Timpanogos.
 The North Fork of the Provo River.
 Possibly Stewart Falls above present Sundance.
 The cabin of John R. Stewart was located at present Sundance.
 Probably Wildwood, a summer camp area established in 1906, where the North Fork of the Provo joins the main river down Provo Canyon.
 Brimhall’s interest in aviation dated from at least 1908 when as an LDS missionary he watched Orville Wright’s first power-plane flight in Germany. During 1926-35 Brimhall was president of Utah Pacific Airways. He capped his federal career by serving as director of research for the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
All images from the Dean R. Brimhall Collection, Special Collections, Photographs, University of Utah Library, February, 1916.
Contemporary Photo Gallery
The following images represent Mount Timpanogos in the years following the 1916 expedition.