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West Mountain South and North Summit Trail

Mid-week last week, the last race of my summer racing season was officially cancelled. I’d anticipated that it was coming, but I’d been holding onto a last vestige of hope that because the race would be small and held on the trails, they’d find a way to make it happen, safely. With the cancellation of the Wilderman, an ultra-distance off-road triathlon, my summer officially opened up.

Faced with beautiful training weather and a desire to test the fitness I’d been building since my speed record on the Collegiate Trail and final race of last season, I realized that the only way I’d have a competition to look forward to and train for was to dedicate myself to doing what I could on the local trails (within cycling distance) and see what speed records were out there for the taking. Luckily, I live in an area with a ton of trails that are lightly trafficked, which allows me to get out on those trails and still maintain social distancing (without needing to stop by, say, a local gas station for fuel). This summer, then, I’m going to try to set the speed records, called Fastest Known Times (FKT), on the significant major trails within cycling distance of home. I’m not going to go into much detail about the FKT attempt itself in these trail reviews because those will be in the book I’m writing about FKTs and ultramarathons, but I’ll share pictures and stories of the trails themselves here. At the end of the day, the trails themselves are the story, along with the story you write when you visit the trail yourself.

The first trail on my FKT list was the West Mountain Trail. From Summit Post, west mountain is described as, “the seemingly inconsequential desert-like mountain . . . the highest peak at 6,904 ft is located near the south end of the mountain and contains a survey marker which officially names the peak West Mountain 2. There is a triangulation station and shed on the highest peak; nonetheless the peak [South summit] still has a feeling of remoteness and solitude. In contrast the 6,804 feet peak [North summit] at the north end of the mountain is littered with several antennas and various other communication devices.” West Mountain is located on the edge of Utah Lake, and is number 74 on the list of Utah’s Peaks of Prominence, which means that the summit rises over 2,000 feet from it’s surroundings. The officially definition of prominence is “the height of the peak’s summit above the lowest contour line encircling it“.

Climbing from the North side, the trail is gently sloped (in fact, it’s a dirt road, and cars routinely drive up there, in part because of the technology up there). The true summit of the mountain, the South Summit, is remote and rises to 6,904 feet. It isn’t possible for a car to get to the south summit from the south side, and the trail (as I learned) is incredibly steep and technical. I began my speed record attempt from the south side, in part because FKTs should be of note (read: difficult) and notable (read: someone should want to do it). All told, the distance by trail from the base of the South summit to the North summit and back again is 9.1 miles. According to my GPS watch, that included over 3,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss). The first 2,000 feet occurred in about the first mile of the trail.

The trail to the South summit begins at a parking lot that is shared with an unofficial shooting range. While I never felt like I was in any danger, I heard shots throughout my entire time on the trail. From the parking lot,  the trail immediately starts climbing and doesn’t stop climbing, with a few false summits, until it reaches the peak. Along with being steep, the trail up to the South summit is extremely technical. In places that are less steep, large scree-like rocks litter the trail, making every step uncertain. The steep portions are so steep in places that I felt like I could have crawled without much effort; in those places the gravel and dirt make each step unstable. In some cases, I would slide down as much as I had stepped forward because the ground was so unstable. It was a steep climb up, and I couldn’t help but remember that I’d at some point, have to come back down this trail too.

On the way to the South summit, there are two false summits. A false summit is when you think you have reached the summit because where you are climbing to is hiding the real summit behind it. Twice I was sure that I must be almost to the top, only to reach the top and see an even higher summit behind it. The good thing about false summits, however, is that they usually have a bit of a descent after, which allowed me to catch my breath and get in some quicker paced running. There is nothing quite like running along the edge of a mountain; the views are breathtaking and the feeling is, in my opinion, life-changing.

Finally, I reached the peak of the South Summit. It was much colder up at the summit, like all summits, and the wind whipped. Since I was pursuing a speed record, I only paused to take a few photos before I was on my way to the North summit. The trail to the North summit was much less technical, with the exception of a few places, than the trail to the South summit, and I felt like I flew through those miles. There were, like all good gaps (or notches, or whatever you call the mountains between two peaks), fulls of ascents and descents and some technical terrain. All of the trail was runnable. The view to the West was of Utah Lake; to the right, I could see Utah valley. It was stormy and I was racing, so I didn’t slow down, but I think I’d like to return from the North side to see those views again.

I reached the North summit in good time. Like the description from Summit Post describes, it does feel closer to habitation – there are a lot of towers and an observatory on the North Side. I ate a quick snack, and returned back to the South summit. The trail back to the South summit was a wake-up call to what would await me as I headed back down to the base of the mountain and my car. The descents started to get steep. Running steep descents on technical terrain has never been one of my strengths, and my legs were already exhausted from my hike the day before and the steep climb to get to the summit. I like to run the mile I’m in, but already my thoughts were returning to the inevitable steep descent that awaited me on the way down from the South summit.

Moving quickly, I hit the South summit and, as anticipated, the trail literally fell away from the summit so steeply I couldn’t see the trail until I was literally standing on the edge. I jumped down and half ran, half slid my way down to the false summit. The first descent was the steepest, and I feared what would happen if I lost my footing or my balance. A few times my foot caught on the edge of a rock, and I pitched forward, catching myself at the last minute with my other leg. As hard as this has been to learn, the best thing to do on these descents is trust that my feet will find the ground and to let gravity do the work, but the last mile and a half were the most terrifying miles of the day (and, perhaps, ever). That ascent/descent is no joke. The AllTrails app describes the trail as moderate, perhaps because of its length, but with the technical terrain and quick elevation increase, I’d characterize it as hard.

Finally, after ten heartstopping minutes, I made it back to my car. Finally, I took a break (but not before pausing my GPS watch, of course, to record the record attempt). In retrospect, the trail was beautiful and beautifully challenging. If you make it through the first two miles, the trail levels off, and the ability to literally walk on mountains to reach the North summit is worth the effort. From an FKT perspective, my time was 2:32 – good enough for a new record. I’m looking forward to a summer of local trails and adventures (and, hopefully, a racing season come the fall).

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