OverviewAccording to Scott the Kings-Emmons Ridge is the highest continuous ridge in Utah and one of the highest in the United States. For a backpacker, the recommended time to complete a ridge run, car to car is 4-6 days.
It was on my mind for over two years. Start at Henrys Fork Trailhead on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains, hike to Kings Peak, Utah's high point, hike the whole ridge from Kings to Emmons, hit South Emmons and then Owl, and exit some place on the south slope of the Uintas. The hike would be in the 30 mile range with over 8000' of elevation gain, 5000' of which would be above 12500'. I would climb eight 13000 footers and one 12000 footer. I was planning to do it in a day.
I for sure had my doubts. In the climbers log for the Kings-Emmons Ridge, there were 4 entries, only one of which reported successfully climbing all the peaks in the ridge (although it is not clear if S Emmons was included). Grizz and Fred had spent 19 epic hours climbing the ridge in a loop trip from a base camp in Painters Basin. I was hoping for 20 hours car to car. I figured 6 hours to get to the top of Kings, 7 to get to Emmons, and then another 7 to get out. I wouldn't have the overhead a base camp would entail. Also, they did it on snowshoes and encountered "horrible collapsing snow". I am well acquainted with the horrible collapsing snow conditions of spring time in the Uintas where you posthole to your knees while wearing snowshoes and was content to wait for the snow to be gone, hopefully by mid July when there would still be a fair amount of daylight. Still, the 19 hours these men took to go what I mapped out to be less than 15 miles certainly gave me pause. I had hiked with both of them and both were extremely fit.
I thought of the hike as having three distinct sections, Henrys Fork TH to Kings, Kings to Emmons, and Emmons out. The first section is very easy (relatively speaking of course) and I was quite familiar with it, having climbed Kings 8 times previously. The middle section was an unknown, and the last section was a big problem.
The Middle Section
I wanted to do this hike in 2009 but had a lingering overuse injury caused by too much spring time snow shoe postholing in the Uintas and didn't think I'd make it too far but when I saw a day with a 0% chance of precipitation predicted I thought I'd have a go. Things did not go well and I knew I'd be turning around even before I got to Kings because my leg was already hurting. Never the less, I did the first 4 peaks (Kings, S Kings, Painter, and Trail Rider), climbing 3 new and hard to get, 13000 footers for me, and then descended to Painter Basin and hiked out, back to Gunsight Pass and the Henrys Fork Trail Head.
After this experience I had no desire to do the whole ridge in one go the rest of that summer. However I did have a strong desire to climb every 13000 footer in Utah so I made another trip from the Swift Creek TH on the south slope to climb Roberts and North Emmons in the middle of the ridge. On previous trips I had already climbed Emmons, S Emmons, and Owl on the south end of the ridge.
Now I knew exactly what the middle section would be like, seven miles of boulder hopping. I had hoped for some easy walking tundra in the more gentle sections, but that high up, there was almost none to be found. There were very few places where any dirt could be seen between the rocks. In the flatter sections, the boulders were usually obviously stable and you didn't have to be so careful, but in the steeper sections there were many times when the boulders shifted underfoot and it was hard to go very fast, but surely, I could average 1 mile an hour over 7 miles from Kings to Emmons.
The Big Problem
There is no easy way to get to Mount Emmons. I scouted out three different routes from the south slope and didn't like any of them. The first and fastest was a completely off trail route from the Swifts Creek TH. It was a tough route, much harder than climbing Kings Peak, and involved a significant bushwhack that I didn't want to tackle at the end of a long day. The second was via the Swift Creek Trail and the Buffalo Creek drainage. Even though this route employed 4.5 miles of trail out of 10 (one way) it still involved a significant bushwhack and a very difficult stream crossing. Again, not the best way to end a long day. The third was via the Uinta River Trail and was by far the most straight forward. A well defined trail takes you all the way to treeline and then you just head for the summit. The main problem with this route is that it did not go over South Emmons and Owl and I wanted to include those peaks too. The second problem is that there were many blowdowns across the trail. However, I did it very late in the season (November 9) and it is possible that the blowdowns are cleared on a yearly basis.
There was one other route that I hadn't tried, Scott's Dry Gulch Route. Scott had these choice words to say about it.
The trails marked on the map bear no resemblance to reality.
No marked trails.
You must be able to route-find.
Rather than trying to find any of the old trails marked on the map, we found it easier to route-find.
The trail is completely covered by fallen trees from a blow-down from a huge storm.
The going is pretty tedious.
In addition, he says "Consider this trip to be the Uinta Mountains Ultimate Weight Loss Program!!" with not one, but two exclamation points. Good one Scott, I weigh 112. I can't afford to lose anything!
His description did not match what I was looking for, an easy way down from Mount Emmons. But, this spring I climbed Flat Top BM (12194') which is about the halfway point on the route. I varied it a little to make it more direct, but my way up matched Scott's experience and I was saying to myself "never again". Blowdowns were everywhere and when I would happen across a scrap of trail it wasn't worth following. In addition there were numerous boulders between the trees, not fun at all. But miracles do happen and on the way down I went a slightly different way that looked more clear of trees and stumbled upon a half decent trail which I was able to follow to the start. It was kind of disconcerting following it not knowing where it was going and I had lost my map early in the day which made things worse. But sure enough, it went exactly where I wanted it to, roughly paralleling my up GPS track, and I knew I had found my route down. But the trail wasn't very distinct and I knew I had to be out before dark or I wouldn't be able to follow it. In addition, there was more elevation gain than I had originally anticipated because now I would go over both Lost and Flat Top Benchmarks.
LogisticsAs the crow flies, the two trailheads are only 22.75 miles apart. Sounds like not too bad of a car shuttle right? Well, by car the trailheads are about 200 miles away from each other by way of Vernal, Utah at the eastern end of the Uinta Mountain Range. The distance from our house in Salt Lake City to either TH is only about 150 miles.
The plan was for me to start at Henrys Fork TH, wear a Spot Satellite Messenger (SSM), and have my husband pick me up at the end of the Dry Gulch Road. The SSM would automatically send my husband a message every 10 minutes relaying my location. This way, he'd know if I decided to turn around, and if I hadn't, my approximate arrival time. Also, if I manually pushed a button, it would send a text message to his cell phone which he could check in Duchesne, about 2 hours away from the trail. And, if I encountered some unexpected difficulty and wound up at a different unplanned trail head, hopefully he'd be able to figure this out and I wouldn't be stranded.
The problem with this plan is that I had no way of knowing for sure if the messages were showing up. However after using the SSM for over a year we were confident in its reliability, but still, when you don't get any feedback there is always some small doubt. The start TH, Henrys Fork, is really busy but the end TH at Dry Gulch on most days sees no one. It would be an absolute disaster if I arrived there in the dark, cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted and no one to meet me.
Davy Crockett (yes that's his real name)A couple of days before the big event I happened upon this trip report by ultra marathoner Davy Crockett. Davy did an awful lot of complaining about boulders, all of which turned out to be completely justified. My thoughts were "Uh-oh, if it took Davy that long (about 20 hours), what does that mean for me? I don't plan on doing any running at all and I'm going to have a heavier pack and Davy is way bigger, way stronger, and way tougher than me." But, Davy hadn't gone out the way I was going to. I thought my way would be easier. Davy stopped at Mount Emmons and descended to Lake Atwood and then made his way over Trail Rider Pass and then Gunsight Pass and then back to the start at Henrys Fork. Although he came up with 48 miles, I mapped it out to be between 36 and 37, about 7 miles longer then what I was planning.
Joseph BulloughNormally when I hike to a remote area I wonder when the next person might come along. This time I didn't have to wonder. I knew exactly. It would be tomorrow. Joe was planning on doing a Kings-Emmons traverse the very next day. Ideally we would have combined forces, but Friday was better for him and Thursday was better for me. Also, he was going to go the way Davy had gone, exiting the ridge at Mount Emmons and I had my heart set on a complete north to south traverse. The ridge doesn't just end abruptly at Mount Emmons, it keeps going, and I would too.
Getting ThereWe have two cars in our family, a nice reliable all wheel drive Subaru Legacy and a piece of crap 15 year old Saturn. Usually I get the good car and my husband is content to micromanage the Saturn so that it doesn't boil over. The Dry Gulch Road has many seriously rough spots so we needed to save the Subaru for that which meant I had to drive the piece of crap Saturn to Henrys Fork. My husband gave me very careful instructions about how to cycle the AC on and off to get the fan going to prevent overheating. I was worried. I envisioned being one of those poor people you see on the side of the road with the hood up and steam pouring from their car. He said he checked the oil and when asked how low it was replied "two quarts". I gasped. We had had a very unfortunate episode with the Subaru being driven with no oil in it whatsoever requiring a complete new engine and I sure didn't want to repeat that. But, by carefully looking at the temperature gage and cycling the AC as needed about every 4 minutes, I arrived at Henrys Fork car intact.
The other bad thing about driving the Saturn is that it has no mp3 or cd player and its tape deck has long been defunct. I couldn't even listen to the song.
The other car issue was that ideally we would have had a high clearance vehicle for the Dry Gulch Road. When I had driven it in June in the Subaru on my Flat Top trip my teeth were clenched and I was hyperventilating the whole way down. The previous summer I had two separate exhaust system incidents and I wasn't looking forward to coming home and telling my husband "Oops, I did it again." But on this trip, that road was my husband's problem and I wasn't going to worry about it. Note that on a USGS topo map, the Dry Gulch Road is marked in the same style as the 50 mph superhighway A-1 prime dirt road to Henrys Fork, the best dirt road I have ever driven on.
MosquitoesThere are a lot of mosquitoes on the north slope of the Uintas. (The last sentence should be in all caps.) Last year when I did the first 4 peaks on the Kings-Emmons Ridge, I slept in the car the night before. When I arrived at the trailhead I had cracked the windows slightly thinking "there's no way the mosquitoes will get through cracks so small". I went to the bathroom and when I came back the inside of the car was swarming with them. I killed as many as I could but every time I dozed off, was awakened by their annoying buzz. Finally it got cold enough so I could open the windows all the way so they could find their way out without more coming in.
After hiking I got back to the car just before 9pm and spent another night at the TH. This time I thought I was prepared for the mosquitoes which were swarming all around the car. I would not open the windows until it cooled off. I consciously thought about how I would open the door, jump in, and close the door quickly before any got in. It didn't work. A ton got in anyway and I had another miserable night.
This year I was smart and brought a tent. I planned to get up at 11PM and start hiking at exactly midnight. At 5PM I tried to nap and after not too much success finally got some real sleep at 9:30PM for 1.5 hours.