Where fear and anxiety collide

36 miles of ridgeline, 18,000 feet of elevation gain and a band of black clouds

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Emma Murray | Boulder Weekly

I was at the entrance to Devil’s Castle when the first lightning bolt struck. From where I stood, on the rocky ridge connecting Unnamed Peak 10,864 to the Castle like a sleeping dragon’s spine, I could see thick, low-hanging clouds bubbling a few mountain peaks west — right where I was supposed to go.

I took another few steps forward but stopped short as thunder ricocheted between Little Cottonwood Canyon’s peaks. I’d been moving for 13 and a half hours at this point, but I’d only covered a little less than 17 miles; picking through the ridgeline’s technical terrain was tricky, slow going and exhausting. Imagine crawling up a sharp, skyscraper Jenga tower, and then back down the otherside — over and over again.

It was 8:30 p.m. and I had a decision to make. If I could finish this route — the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup, otherwise known as the “WURL,” an entire circumnavigation of the canyon’s ridgeline — I would be the first woman to ever do so solo. Only 35 people had ever managed to finish, most between 23 and 30 hours, and only four women, as far as I could tell from research online.

But, staring at the bruise-colored clouds, it was hard to determine whether the storm was going to stay or pass over. I was in high exposure territory — at some points my skull was the highest object for miles — just as much as I was in high ego territory. Being the first woman to complete the route was an incredibly motivating prospect.

Earlier in the day, I’d already spent 20 minutes pressed against a boulder as hail ping-ponged off the surrounding rocks like an eerie percussion interlude. At the storm’s decrescendo I’d re-emerged — going up and over the next peak, Monte Cristo, was my fastest option to safety at that point, in case the precipitation came back. Otherwise I was facing a thousand-foot drop to the canyon’s floor on either side of the ridge, or a multi-mile backtrack to the last reasonable gully descent. Monte Cristo was all-hands-on-deck terrain, and as I worked my way up its now-wet “fifth class” rock (read: full-on climbing), I started to consciously even out my breath. Even as my foot slipped and my heart dropped, I kept my lungs even, in and out, in and out. By the time I’d reached the summit, thankfully, most of the rock was dry and the clouds had lifted so I pressed on.

Where I stood at Devil’s Castle was just shy of the WURL’s halfway point. Ahead of me, I was looking at another 14 to 15 hours of movement, scrambling from peak to peak, keeping three points of contact on rock at all times — the kind of mountain travel that requires near-constant mental engagement, constantly evaluating and reevaluating route finding, rock quality, hand and foot placements. No daydreaming, nor, I thought watching the sun drop behind Lone Peak (the WURL’s final summit), no night dreaming either.

When I started, I estimated the WURL might take me between 26 and 30 hours to complete. The 36-mile ridge follows up and down the 20-plus mountaintops that loop around Little Cottonwood Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City, like an elongated horseshoe. Ski bums know this area as Alta and Snowbird. If you stand on the valley floor, you can imagine me running clockwise across the entire skyline. But here I was, past the horseshoe’s vertex, sitting at what would look like a “J” if you’d mapped out my route thus far.

I first heard about the WURL last summer, while staying with two friends in Salt Lake City. When I realized that not only had no woman ever done it solo, no all-female group had ever finished it either — meaning a man had been present on every single successful mission — my first reaction was “why?” That thought quickly morphed into “why not,” and eventually “why not me.”

Come spring, I was researching maps of the WURL, had applied to and received a grant from the women’s running organization Trail Sisters, and reached out to as many people as I could find who’d completed the route. Generally, the warnings I received were about the unforgiving terrain (“I implore you to scout this with people who know the route intimately before attempting the whole thing…” an elite ultrarunner told me — which I, admittedly, didn’t do, leaving all my navigation and route-finding decisions to game day). I received some specific notes, too. “There are a few areas of high-consequence choss,” one wrote back, naming Devil’s Castle first. “Also,” they added, “there is 0 water up there.”

I didn’t love the idea of going solo, but when my first partner and then my second partner couldn’t make it, I decided I at least had to try.

Devil’s Castle: the jagged peak, left of center.


In the five or so miles leading up to Unnamed Peak 10,864, the slow-going rocky ridge gave way to an actual
trail connecting a few summits. It was smooth and joyous, but during that time, bending around the horseshoe, I’d been staring at Devil’s Castle’s jagged skyline. The rippled gray rock, pointy and bare, looked devilish indeed.

“High consequence choss” rang through my head as I summited Peak 10,864. Choss is loose, sometimes soft, always unstable rock prone to sliding, crumbling in your hand or simply breaking off without notice — a climber’s nightmare.

I took a video of myself stomping up 10,864’s slope. “I’m getting kind of nervous,” I say to my phone. “I’m trying to preemptively practice my breathing, staying calm. The sun is setting,” I exhale forcefully, my lips bubbling. I’m trying to settle the stomach butterflies and regain control over my breathing — it’s getting too quick, my anxiety knocking. “I’m pretty nervous,” I say again before ending the clip.

By the time thunder started booming, I was staring Devil’s Castle in the face. While from the side it looked like a fossilized jaw bone, head-on it looked like Bowser’s rundown fortress: two pillars stood like a gate, crumbling yet resolute. Two peaks beyond it, just off to the left, was Hidden Peak, and atop sat the Snowbird Ski Hut. Inside, my friend Sara, who’d taken the aerial tram to the top, was waiting for me with warm clothes, water and food. A gentle sprinkle descended. I looked up, and that’s when I saw the first burst of light flush through the clouds.

Fear is a chain reaction, like pulling out the wrong Jenga block and watching the tower collapse in slow motion. It starts with a stressful stimulus that revs up chemicals in the brain, ending with a racing heart, fast breathing and alert muscles.

For some, anxiety can also follow stressful external stimuli. But for me, anxiety comes from within; it’s the thoughts I stack up inside my head that manifest self-doubt. Normally I’m capable of pausing when I notice anxiety hit, slowing down, breathing, rationalizing a situation’s reality and understanding when it’s OK to move forward — effectively re-instilling faith in myself and my capabilities. That’s what allowed me to start the WURL in the first place, continue on Monte Cristo and push forward as high-consequence choss loomed above.

In the mountains, distinguishing between fear and anxiety is as important as having the right shoes and enough food. Because I’ve recognized my anxiety is internal self-doubt, I actively try to work through it every time I face a challenge. My fear, on the other hand, is externally caused worry; it’s my instinct telling me something is wrong and that I need to react.

But when I’m tired and I’ve already made what feels like a hundred life-or-death decisions over the course of the day, the two start to look the same. My heart was racing, I was breathing fast and my body was on high alert. All of a sudden I couldn’t tell what was fear and what was anxiety. What should I push through, what should I react to?

Looking at Devil’s Castle, I considered how strong I still felt physically, (even if I was tired mentally); how much hard, scary work I’d already put into the route; and the exciting prospect that I might actually be capable of being the first solo woman to finish the WURL.

What I wanted was to be scared about what was actually in front of me, not what I’d built up in my head. It was so hard to tell. I didn’t want to give up.

So I waited.

Across the canyon I could see where I’d first popped up on the ridgeline after the grueling 6,000-foot ascent, the ups and downs I’d traversed (amounting to 12,500 vertical feet up and more than 8,000 feet down), the small pass where Sara had met me for “lunch,” when I was nine hours in. I’d come a long, long way.

I called Jordan, my fiancé, and relayed the situation. “I’m scared,” I admitted softly, and I think he knew I meant the fear of prematurely quitting. “Trust yourself,” he said, and I called Sara because I didn’t trust myself. I was too tired to make the decision alone. My gut told me to run as fast as I could downhill, away from the clouds, away from the billion joules of energy that coalesce in a lightning strike. But my heart was saying “What if you tried?”

Looking at the lights in the warm ski hut, the sun now fully down, knowing Sara was inside with more food… it was agonizing. If I could just get there, past the Castle, we could weather the storm together. And once it stopped raining and the rock dried out again, just like earlier that afternoon, I could finish.

“It’s a risk assessment,” Sara told me. I closed my eyes, felt more raindrops hit my bare shoulders, tried to distill the root of my emotions. When I quieted everything, listening both inside and out, I realized my heart knew, too: the right decision was to bail.

I recorded another video right before I dipped down off the ridge and followed a rocky funnel down to the valley floor. It starts with a large exhale. “So I’m calling it quits for now. It really sucks. It’s been a long day. I’ve put a lot of work into this,” I say. “But, I can come back. It’s not going anywhere.”