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HIKING NEBO: NAMED FOR A BIBLICAL MOUNT NEAR THE DEAD SEA, HIGHEST PEAK OF THE WASATCH IS AN ADVENTURE.

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.