Henrys Fork Peak - Get In and Get OutHenrys Fork Peak & Cliff Point Lightning Strike*
September 16, 2008
Zeejay, Brent & Moogie737
(*Lightning strike in the sense that we made the trip in one long day.)
Leaving Cottonwood Heights in Salt Lake City at 4 a.m. sounds crazy, and maybe it is. But with a solid 2.5+ hours of driving just to reach the Henrys Fork TH ahead of us, we had to plan so as to reach the beginning point of the hike shortly before sunrise. We made it. Total actual driving time was two hours and thirty-five minutes, and we were not slacking when it came to holding the speed limit. The oil-covered dirt/gravel roads south of Mountain View were startlingly drivable.
Zeejay had driven up the previous evening, and as we pulled into a parking spot next to her silver Subaru Legacy, she popped out with a broad smile of relief on her face. After a bit of small talk, pack adjustments and last-minute visits to the TH restroom we were on our way. Our goal was to hike the 10+ miles into the basin and ascend to the summit of Henrys Fork Peak (aka Fortress Peak), and then possibly march over to Cliff Point. Henrys Fork Peak is a bona fide Utah Uinta 13er, but Cliff Point does not make every list. However, because it IS on some lists, why not do it if you have the time?
To make our goal of getting in and out before dark we were going to need a steady, moderate pace the entire day. My left leg was bothering me a little bit – I suspected a pinched nerve – but other than that we felt ready. The advantage of making a lightning strike attempt lies in the fact that backpacks are light; we were carrying only the essentials and had no need for overnight baggage.
We departed the TH at 6:50 a.m., about 20 minutes before official sunrise in Salt Lake City. The air was crisp, the refreshing kind of air one would expect to find in the final week of summer at an elevation of 9,400’. The early morning skies were fading from gray to light blue with no sign of clouds. A light breeze ruffled the aspen leaves which were beginning to fade from green to autumn yellows and browns.
We caught a brief glimpse of a tall cow moose as she loped up the slopes to the west, but until our return in the afternoon she would be the only sign of big wild life we would see. We checked our watches at the Alligator Lake turn off sign and again at the Elkhorn Crossing intersection. Fifty minutes to the first sign and one additional hour to the Elkhorn junction. There we stopped for a 10-minute break, resuming our hike exactly two hours after our initial steps. The sun was now flooding the basin with warming light; the skies had become ocean blue.
After crossing the Henrys Fork River and breaking out on to the east bench of the broad basin we easily crossed the willows area which at times can be the epitome of a muddy, wet quagmire. But today the path was dry, almost dusty, except for several narrow stream crossings. The wondrous hulk of Henrys Fork Peak, Cliff Point perched on her west flank, rested stoically at the southwest head of the sprawling basin. Fresh snow had frosted her cake-like layers of quartzite, making her even more majestic in appearance than normal.
Our elapsed time to the small grove of trees west of Dollar Lake was 2+45. The book – and who would dispute the sagacious wisdom of the book? -says that the distance to this point is 7.2 miles, so we felt fine about our pace. We took another break at the 3-hour point and from there dropped down into the belly of the basin, Brent leading the way to the base of the infamous “shortcut” chute. We had talked about the pros and cons of taking that chute, but since Brent had done it twice before and neither Zeejay nor I had ever done it, we conceded and allowed him to lead us there. Was that snow high in the chute? If so, would it prevent us from ascending that route? We would find out.
At 3+50 we reached the base of the chute (11,400’). Wow, it was steep and did not have the markings of what one would call an inviting way. But Brent insisted it was “not bad” and he led up. At first the boulders were big and solid. That configuration soon gave way to smaller boulders, more unstable and likely to tip. Then we encountered scree and talus, the mix changing every twenty or thirty feet. The frustrating combination was unrelenting; the pitch was a solid 35º. The dirt was frozen in spite of having been in the morning light for an hour or more. When the final 1/3 gave way to a covering of crusty new snow, I didn’t know whether to chuckle or curse. As it turned out, the snow was far better than the loose stuff, and we were happy to reach the top in less than one hour. I told Brent that I could only think of, maybe, two hundred other routes I would rather take than that chute. He laughed.
From there we turned west and scrambled up dry south-facing rocks and boulders and skirted the eastern Henrys Fork Peak mini-summit to its south. Once we had picked up the ridge line leading west to the massive summit block we were taken with the enormity and complex nature of the ridge. Blocky, flat, checkered with deep vertical cracks, some as deep as four or five feet, the ridge provided a magnificent view of the basin but a scary opportunity to edge precipitously close to a sheer drop of several hundred feet. Each of us kept our distance from that north edge. Taking curious note of the deep cracks scarring the flat ridge-top stones, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if, while mincing along, my weight were to cause the crack to fracture and spill the entire section of ridge cascading down the sheer north side of the peak.
It took us about one hour to reach the summit, the final scramble being reminiscent of so many final scrambles to the top of Uinta 13ers. These mountains are in a continual state of decay, but near the top the fragments are so big that scrambling becomes more a game than a chore. We had reached the summit of Henrys Fork Peak (13,260’) in just under six hours. The day continued to offer plenty of sunshine and invigorating breezes. It was about as close to a perfect day as one could without shame ask for.
After taking a rest break of fifteen minutes we headed out for the downward scramble to the suspect 13er, Cliff Point. It took ¼ of an hour, it was about as flat as “peaks” come, and we took solace in the fact that, 13er or no, we were now standing on its high point (13,064’). Beginning our return, we didn’t bother to attempt Henrys Fork Peak summit again but contoured below its massive block and picked up the captivating ridge line, hop-scotching in careful manner east toward our rendezvous with the dreaded chute.
I really didn’t want to go down, but once again that silver-tongued Brent convinced us to try it. Indeed, the descent was in every way superior to the tiring upward slog. Taking less than thirty minutes to descend through its gaping maw, we rested briefly at the base and at three o'clock resumed our “moderate but steady” pace north to the TH. It was warm enough that Zeejay and Brent zipped off the lower legs of their hiking pants and wore short-sleeved tops. Every now and then we would stop, turn around and unanimously marvel at the beautiful mountain on whose summit we had briefly rested. We were in amazement that we had not seen one other human being the entire day.
On the north side of the Dollar Lake camping area Zeejay remarked that her feet were “killing” her. As we came to a 4-foot wide brook tumbling westward to the basin floor she decided to bathe her feet (I called it a pedicure) for a few precious minutes. We took a break as she pampered her tiring dogs. Brent and I were glad for the opportunity to sit and rest, too. The afternoon sun was sinking rapidly and the breezes seemed suddenly much cooler than they had been just a few minutes earlier.
Zeejay was efficient; her pedicure took only ten minutes total and we were on our way, actually happy to be moving; now there was a distinct chill in the late afternoon winds. Cumulus clouds dotted the western skies, occasionally floating like faded curtains in front of the dipping sun. Soon we were dropping off the east bench where we would follow the river on its east side until ambling across the rustic Elkhorn Crossing bridge.
Reaching the west side of the crossing at an elapsed time of 9+50 we knew that we were now on the “home stretch.” With luck and adequate energy in our legs we would make it to the TH in two hours, give or take a few ticks of the clock. Soon the sun sank below the ridge to our west and we kept moving along, tired but motivated by the relative closeness of our cars and the cold beverages sequestered therein. At the Alligator Lake turn off there is a small boardwalk, and it served as a weathered couch upon which to take a 10-minute break, a chance to just let our legs dangle down.
After resuming our homeward pace we encountered people, two young men looking for Alligator Lake; they were toting packs the size of 55-gallon drums. A few minutes later we encountered another cow moose, this one grazing and thus hesitant to leave the trail. After two minutes of “taking her time” she moved into the brush and we resumed our trek. At the stroke of 6:38 p.m. we reached our vehicles. Our determination coupled with a dose of good luck had allowed us to reach our goals of (a) making it to the Henrys Fork Peak summit, (b) bagging the controversial Cliff Point, (c) making the trip without injury or incident and (d) making it in daylight and in less than 12 hours. Would we recommend it to others? Provided old man weather cooperates, it’s an adventure worth tackling. Would we do it again? Talk to me about that in a couple of weeks, okay?