The story of this May 2005 ski trip started in earnest in mid-March of the previous year. Of course I've been casting salivating looks at the North-Northeast slope of Mt Powell every time when we skied by enroute to the Kings, but I also realized that it would take an extraordinary combination of great conditions and great shape to ever be able to bag Powell on the way back from the annual Kings Peak run.
The Swanson bothers organize the Kings runs since the age when Steve and Larry were crazy tough kids with all-downhill gear. The year 2005 trip was officially the 32nd, and if I recall it right, they skipped some years early on. Typically, the brothers would start breaking the trail at least a couple months in advance, and eventually extend it, maybe a mile or two at a time, nearly to Elkhorn Xing.
But year 2004 wasn't a usual one. Larry was down undergoing chemo, and the snow conditions sucked big way, so Steve just couldn't get the prep done. He enlisted some oldtimer friends, such as Alexis Kelner (author of 'Wasatch Touring' but more of an armchair skier) and 82 years old Milt Hollander, but just to be sure that the job is done, he also invited some young blood (Rob and myself). The two of us figured that we'd zip into Elkhorn Basin in a nick of time, and hatched a plan to continue on to Flat Top, to sneek a peek at the famous Red Castle on the other side.
When Steve heard about our idea, he immediately told us they've been that way with Larry. In fact, he said, they've been there on their FIRST historical run to Kings. Back then, gas field roads to Henrys weren't plowed yet, but there was a lot of winter logging in the area. So they took a logging road East off China Meadows road, thinking that it'll bring them over to Henrys Fork. It was dark when they reached a dead end and spent the night there. They took off before dawn, and soon it's become clear that they weren't in Henrys after all. Instead, their plowed road brought them somewhere near the ridge separating Henrys from Smith Fork!
Well, what else to do, the guys pressed on South and eventually dropped into Henrys Fork by the way of Flat Top, made the summit, and ... couldn't quite figure out how to get back to their car from upper Henrys Basin. It was a raging blizzard by then, their uptrack was completely obliterated, and it was getting dark. The Swansons correctly figured that their car must be parked on a spur road off the main road to Henrys, so they may as well continue down Henrys to the road, then on to the plowed spur, and finally to the car. What they didn't know was that from the summer Henrys trailhead, it was about 8 miles to their spur, a good deal of it uphill - and then almost four more to the dead-end where they left the car! When the brothers finally reached it, it was 21 hours on the move.
Having retold us this story, he also showed us the turnoff which they took back then, an unmarked straight cut through the young pines springing up on the former clearcuts. That's how I first learned about Dahlgreen Creek access.
The snow in March 2004 was awfull, the ever-collapsing breakable crust which may make you mentally exhausted even before it drains you physically. It took me and Rob whopping 5 hours to reach Elkhorn Crossing. We continued for another mile, flagging the route through the meadows and fully knowing that our track won't last even a day in this windy cirque. The crust kept collapsing, and it was clear that we are not making it to Flat Top. So we called it a day.
Fast-forward to 2005. Having mapped Dahlgreens road on topos and satellite images, we are now convinced that it provides the best early - or late-season access to skiable snow. The turnoff, at 9,500 ft, is the highest you can get on consistently plowed roads in this part of the Uintas. And if you can drive up Dahlgreen's, you may get all the way to 10,000 ft elevation.
We leave Salt Lake at 6pm on 5/21/05 and stop in Evanston to grab some beer (of course) and a bite to eat. It is kind of funny to find our car, with a ski rack, parked next to a boat trailer between a liquor store and a triple-X video joint!
Lotty's Diner in Evanston is the traditional pit stop for Swanson brothers' annual Kings Peak ski run, and we are not about to break with the tradition on this attempt to ski Powell. My own theory about Lotty's goes like this:
"Before a high-altitude, 20-30 miler ski trip, eat at least two slices of prime rib for dinner, then sleep in the cold.
This will tell your body that the tough times are coming.
Next day, you are guaranteed constipation, and you don't have to carry much food."
It is still twilight when we reach Dahlgreen's turnoff. Just three weeks back, when we skied Gilbert, it was all snowed in. But now, the road is driveable! It is kind of cool to watch Henrys Narrows from up above as we drive. 4.5 miles later, we settle for the night - and by the way, I doubt if it will get cold enough for my prime rib buffet theory to work :)
But at 4am, everything is frozen. The dawn barely lights the Eastern corner of the sky when we put on the skis a quarter mile up a logging spur road. Minutes later, we are at the saddle with the official sign for the trail leading from China Meadows up towards Flat Top.
The trail, marked with cairns, contninues along the Western edge of the old overgrown clearcuts, and then we loose it. Much to my surprise, we find the trail again on the ridge overlooking Henrys Fork, good half mile East of the Big Meadow where it is supposed to be, according to the map! (I guess that this ridgeline trail continues up the Western-most of the logging roads from here?). And boy did somebody spend time making trail blazes on the trees!
The snow refroze on the meadows and openings, but not, unfortunately, under the shade of the trees. So it is a bit of a struggle up the trail, and it takes us about 4 hours to reach the overlook near the unnamed lake just South of Elkhorn. Now the views South and East open like in a fairy tale! Gilbert and Gunsight and Henrys Peaks with huge avalanches scouring their sides, and Kings Peak, still unbelieavably white, and to the right through the trees - our destination!
As the trees part near the timberline, the snow finally becomes consistently firm, and our pace improves. It is now about mid-way through our 10 mile treck to the summit.
3 miles into Flat Top traverse, the North Summit looms ahead at last! And then, just above 12,000 ft, Red Castle is finally opening up. The first of the 3 goals of the trip is now accomplished - all what's left is to get to the top of the Flat Top, and then to Powell.
The snow disappears briefly at the 12,100 saddle at the base of Castle Butte - but the view of Red Castle gets better with every mile. From the small 12,600 plateau crowning the Flat Top, Red Castle and frozen Lower Red Castle Lake are right across the valley. Tokewanna dominates the skyline beyond to the West, and Mount Wilson - to the Southwest.
Ahead, across a shallow saddle to the South, looms our destination. It is a bit hard to gauge how steep are the slopes. And we don't want to cross steep snow on a hot day like this one, having seen so many humongous avalanches on nearby peaks. So we decide to cross the low part of the saddle, along the snaking black line of scree, and maybe a bit beyond, and then just to boot straight up. It is really not as steep as it seemed. From the North shoulder, a short, nearly flat stretch of the ridge leads to the summit.
Just 40 minutes after leaving Flat Top, we relax at the North (main) summit. The Middle summit ahead is probably a nudge more challenging because of a dual cliff band guarding the approach.
Kings and South Kings loom on the South-Eastern skyline. It is 1 pm. Now back to the skis, and the fun part begins!
The temperatures really soar, but there is nothing a little paraffin can't fix. Once we reach a small stash of warm-weather clothing, food, and water left on ascent at 11,500, I can finally change into shorts :)
Just ahead of a treeline, we have a spooky encounter with a huge cornice. A good advice to all of you - do not bypass this hump on the East side! Then, unfortunately, we get into the trees, where the snow wasn't supportive in the morning - and it didn't get any better in the afternoon. Some parts of our track are thawed to the ground over the course of just one day! The forest part leaves us more than a bit tired, but what fun it is to get back to the car and rinse my salt-crusted face and body with balmy spring water! The patch of snow, in which we stashed the beer, is gone, and the bottles are sun-warmed, but it takes just a few minutes to cool them back again in the remnants of snow in the shadow of pines.