OverviewKings Peak is the highest point in Utah at 13528'. In the summer it can be climbed in one long 24 mile RT/4128' elevation gain day. Access is via a 20 mile or so good dirt road. In the winter this road is only plowed to about 3 miles of the summer trailhead, making the trek an even longer 30 mile RT/4556' elevation gain day. The portion of the road that is plowed is typically a mix of mud and packed icy snow. The going is slow and the chance of seeing another car is close to zero.
Every year the Wasatch Mountain Club has a one day ski trip to Kings Peak at the end of March hosted by Larry and Steve Swanson. People drive up the night before, camp out, get up around 4am and are on the trail by 5am. It had always piqued my interest, but it just seemed too daunting for many reasons. Although I was a good recreational cross country skier, I knew my light weight track gear wouldn't measure up. The length of the trip seemed overwhelming, the drive alone in the dark on an unfamiliar snowy dirt road frightening, and just showing up not knowing anyone seemed too intimidating. I wasn't a seasoned winter camper and the few times I had gone hadn't been too pleasant. It was just one of those trips that you dream about doing, but deep down you know you never will.
In late 2006 I started corresponding with MOCKBA via email regarding geocaching. One thing led to another and he invited me to try backcountry ski touring in early February 2007. I was pretty aprehensive and must have told him about a million times that I didn't know how to do a telemark turn and they'd be waiting for me a long time on the downhills. He told me that I could just zigzag back and forth if I had to, so I marched down to REI, rented some gear, and off I went. I felt like the trip was a big game of chicken, as he, Mike, and Rob kept making seemingly preposterous suggestions as to how much farther we would go and what distant peak we would climb and no one wanted to be the one to dissent. The trip had been rated as "not too difficult plus", the second lowest rating and I hadn't even brought a headlamp. Fortunately, they either decided their plans were unrealistic or they just took pity on me and we finished up just as it was getting dark. (See Rock Slide Canyon Ridge Loop)
I purchased my own gear and went on several more trips with the crew that season. The subject of the Kings Peak trip came up from time to time and gradually it dawned on me that I was capable of at least trying it.
Trailbreaking Session 2007
Prior to the WMC Kings Peak ski trip every year the organizers go out and set a track to Elkhorn Crossing, about 8 miles one way. After Elkhorn, trail breaking isn't as critical since this terrain is more windblown and the snow more consolidated. Larry Swanson and his friend Alexis Kelner, one of the authors of the "Wasatch Tours" ski touring book series, started the process and went a couple of miles past the summer trailhead. MOCKBA, Rob, Mike, John, and I went out a short time later to continue their work (see Kings Peak Tour 07: The Prelude). It was incredibly slow going. There was an annoying break through crust on top of sugary snow. Snow cover was thinner than normal so there were lots of uncovered obstacles to go over and around. The route is mostly directly on top of the creek and there were many pools of open water and sketchy snow bridges connecting them. It took us 7 hours just to get to Elkhorn Crossing at 4PM and we had to ski back in the dark. I had a much easier time than the guys though as I wasn't breaking through as often since I weighed less. Mike and Rob both broke through to the water on separate occasions.
This trip was very valuable to me as it allowed me to see that the drive on the dirt road wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. Although the guys periodically mentioned prior run-ins with various snow banks, I didn't think I'd have any trouble with it as long as I went slow. It also let me see what the terrain was like and be confident I could handle it. There would be no surprises.
Solo Trip 2007I didn't feel comfortable going on the real trip to Kings unless I was confident I could find my way back by myself. I hadn't thought to collect any GPS waypoints on the trailbreaking session, so I decided another practice trip by myself was in order while I could still follow our earlier tracks. So, on Wednesday, March 14, 2007, I got up at 5, was on the road by 6, and at the trailhead about 9. I was going to go as far as I could and turn around whereever I was at exactly 2pm because I wanted to finish in the daylight, collecting waypoints as I went.
I felt kind of sheepish/stupid about doing this by myself and wasn't going to tell anyone. The prospect of running into Larry and Alexis occurred to me, so when a car passed by me on the dirt road, I wondered if it was them. Rats! But, at the trailhead there was only 1 huge snowmobile trailer. Whew! However, as I was getting my act together a car with a ski rack pulled up with two older gentleman and I knew it had to be them. Rats! I introduced myself and got started a little before them since they had some gear fiddling to do. I made it up to 11,200' (12 miles one way) just 1.15 miles shy of Gunsight Pass in a little over 5 hours and turned around. The upper basin was wonderful! The snow never seemed to soften up up there so I had a lot of glide on the way out. Most of the way in the basin I was following someone else's tracks, but didn't sink in very much if at all, when I got off them.
I met up with Larry again (heading in) just as he was approaching Elkhorn crossing and Alexis (heading out) another mile or so after that. By this time the snow had softened considerably and it was somewhat slow going. The first thing in the morning, the crust was really solid, but now, if my skis veered off course by as much as an inch, I'd drop at least a foot every single time. Conditions could only be described as annoying. I think it took me longer to do this section on the way out than the way in. Larry and Alexis were much heavier than me and I wondered how much they were sinking in. Some of the snow bridges were definitely on the scary side. The final stretch on the road was fine.
MOCKBA informed me that I had come out too early and on the trip all the way to Kings, I'd be coming out much later and everything would have had a chance to refreeze by then.
WMC Kings Peak Trip--March 31, 2007The big day approached and I was looking for an excuse to chicken out. A major storm was predicted and I was hoping the approach would be snowed in, but no such luck. Wanting to drive during daylight and also get a good nights sleep, I opted to skip the traditional group dinner at Lotties in Evanstan and drive by myself directly from my home to the trailhead. I arrived as the sun was setting to discover no one else was at the winter parking area. However, car tracks continued on the unplowed section and not knowing if others were going to stop where I was or continue on I elected to continue on. I drove another 3/4 mile through fairly deep snow with my Subaru Legacy until I reached another car with someone sitting outside. It turned out to be Brad Yates, a person I actually knew but hadn't seen in several years. Brad regularly leads MSD (most difficult) hikes for the WMC and I had been on several of them, but not for awhile. He told me that pretty soon a ton of other cars would be arriving and had me position my car just so to provide maximum parking area for the onslaught. We chatted for awhile and then turned in. I lay awake for hours wondering when I was going to start hearing car doors slamming and it gradually dawned on me that no else was coming. They had all stopped where the plowing stopped. I wasn't happy as it was, but if Brad hadn't been there, I think I would have been totally freaked out, thinking I had made some horrible mistake by driving on a very isolated unplowed dirt road in the winter. Brad had a big honking truck, I just had the Subaru.
Not having done much winter camping, I wasn't sure exactly what to bring so I brought everything I could possibly imagine using. I planned to sleep in long underwear, 200 weight fleece pants, a fleece sweater, and a down jacket inside of three sleeping bags. I spent most of the night peeling off layers one by one.
I had brought a cooler and a warmer. The warmer consisted of a cooler loaded with thermoses of boiling water and several other bottles of water that started out from home boiling. I put everything in there that I wanted to stay warm including my banana. The warmer worked a little too well as it cooked it and a slimy faintly yellowish ooze was everywhere. When I first opened it up upon arrival I was afraid I'd melted my boots, but they turned out to be OK.
Because of the change to Daylight Savings Time, I was under the mistaken impression that people would be starting out at 6am, not 5. I set my alarm for 4:30 thinking I'd be up 30 min before everyone and with saving 3/4 mile with the drive, I'd be out in front. Well, shortly after I awoke I began to see people gliding by while I was floundering around trying to get ready as fast as I could. I didn't get started until 5:48 and was the last one out of camp, totally demoralized.
Since there had been a recent snow, I knew there was a chance that I'd catch people since they'd have to break trail. I passed 4 stragglers on the way to Elkhorn crossing where I finally caught up with MOCKBA and Rob. Soon, the rest of the group appeared. From that point until Gunsight Pass, which we reached around noon, the group mostly stuck together. On the other side of the pass the wind was absolutely foul and was blowing wet snow around. I spent a lot of time putting on more clothes and trying to figure out how I was going to see since my prescription glasses were in danger of becoming coated with a layer of ice. By that time, everyone else had gone.
Everyone before me had elected to keep their skis on. Being a recent convert to backcountry skiing I wasn't sure I was comfortable with this. I had only brought half skins and I was doing some slipping on the way up to Gunsight Pass and the terrain on the other side was even steeper. I took off the skis and started booting it by myself. I quickly realized that there was no way I was going to be able to break trail all the way over there alone. The other's blown over ski tracks were of no help to me at all. I would be pushing myself to the point of total exhaustion and I didn't think that was a good thing to do in such an isolated place. However, I wasn't ready to turn around yet, so I decided to go to the top of West Gunsight/Dome Peak elevation 13103' which I had never climbed. I had been to the summit of Kings twice before in the summertime. As you are traversing over to the base of Kings, this peak is on your right. I reached the top about 2PM. It wasn't Kings Peak, but I supposed it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. At least I had gotten to the top of something.
I booted back to Gunsight Pass and then carried my skis down the steep part. Skiing back to Elkhorn Crossing was quick and fun. There, I met up with Mike Berry who also had gone up to Gunsight Pass, decided not to go to Kings, but wasn't ready to quit yet either. What he had done was to ski back to the vicinity of Elkhorn Crossing and then ascend Flattop Mountain to the west of Elkhorn.
Shortly, Dave Hanscom turned up on his return from the summit. Dave is the other author of the "Wasatch Tours" ski touring book series. I have known Dave casually for many years since he and my husband are colleagues. Dave and I had crossed paths shortly after Gunsight Pass, but all bundled up we hadn't recognized each other. I hadn't even known he was coming and it was a total surprise running into him.
I made it back to the car by myself by 7:30 without landing in the creek. I was really motivated to get there as quickly as possible because I didn't want to be the last one out since I was afraid the car might get stuck. Fortunately, I had no problem driving back to the winter parking area.
That summer, I tried to go on one 8-11 hour day hike a week to as high of an elevation as possible to build up a good base. I made 8 trips to the Uintas, climbing Lamotte; all 3 summits of Powell; Kletting, A-1, and Bald Mt.; Agassiz; 12625 and 12606, both south of Beulah; North Cathedral; Beulah; and 12140, north of Beulah. In addition I did shorter hikes closer to home.
Winter rolled around and it was back to skiing. Every weekend I headed out with some subset of Rob, Mike, MOCKBA, and Sharon to the western Uintas. It was always nice when Sharon was around since then there were two of us to talk the guys out of doing something that would land us out past midnight. As it was, quite a few of our trips finished well after dark and most were over 18 miles in length. I doubted that very many other people did this week after week and thought relatively speaking, I'd be in good shape for Kings.
Trailbreaking Session 2008
Once again a pretrip trailbreaking expedition was organized. Larry, Steve, and Dave Hanscom arrived first and got cracking. The slackers Mike, Rob and I showed up about 45 minutes later to help out. It seemed like it took forever to catch those guys but we finally did and then took our turn at trailbreaking. Conditions were so much better than last year. With abundant snowcover most of the obstacles were covered and I felt that I was skiing in a straight line instead of zigzagging all over the place. There were still a few open pools of water, but not nearly so much as last year. We made it to Elkhorn Crossing around 2pm and then spent some time exploring before we returned to our car while it was still daylight.
WMC Kings Peak Trip--March 29, 2008
Again, I kept looking for an excuse to chicken out. With a low of 6 degrees, a blustery wind, and an 80% chance of snow forecasted, I thought I had found one. How fortuitous. But Thursday, the day before the drive, I got a call from Michael Hannan, aka Moogie737, who inquired as to whether I was going and if I wanted to caravan to the trailhead with him. The last time I had spoken to Michael, he still as yet had never even tried cross country skiing. He said that he had skied up Millcreek Canyon (a gently sloping unplowed road) 4.5 miles one way that morning. Things had gone well and he was interested in giving Kings Peak a try. Well, he shamed me into going. I figured that if some guy who had only gone x-country skiing once was willing to go I had no excuse not to. By this time the predicted low had risen to 19 and that didn't seem quite so bad and the 80% chance of snow was only supposed to amount to an inch or less. I was in.
Michael and I drove up in separate cars because we both wanted to sleep in our vehicles. We skipped Lotties because we wanted to do the driving in the daylight. We arrived about 7pm and met some other campers. We turned in early before the folks who had eaten at Lotties got there. About 9:10 I looked out my window and watched MOCKBA and others scurrying around. The stars were out in full force and it was hard to put much credence into an 80% chance of snow.
I didn't sleep very well, but did better than the year before. My alarm rang at 4am. I sat up a few minutes later, just in time to see a snowshoer and skier glide by. I was going to have a lot of catching up to do. Sometime before 5, MOCKBA politely inquired when I might be ready and I told him, Mike, and Rob to just go ahead. Michael also was ready way before me and I told him to go ahead as well. I finally left camp at 5:20am, again the last person. This time I didn't feel demoralized, just incompetent. I can only imagine how much longer it would have taken me if I had to pack up a tent and sleeping bag and move gear into my car. At least it would be easy to find a place to pee.
It was snowing lightly but was really warm. My thermometer said 28 degrees. The snowflakes softly illuminated by my headlamp were a magical sight. The snow conditions were perfect and my waxless fishscale skis were gripping great.
I wasn't sure if I could catch people this year because there wasn't much trailbreaking to slow them down. I figured I could at least catch Michael since this was only his second time on x-country skis and he was unfamiliar with the territory. I met up with Larry Swanson and Cheryl at the summer compground and finally caught Michael about 7:40am. I thought he was doing great for his second time on x-country skis. He was a little awkward at getting around obstacles, but on straight stretches he looked good! We played leapfrog to Elkhorn Crossing which we reached about 9am, where we met up with Rob and Mike.
Elkhorn Crossing is a major milestone because this is where you start breaking out of the trees into Henrys Fork Basin and get great views of Kings Peak, East and West Gunsight Peaks, and Henrys Fork Peak. Up to this point there hadn't been any wind, but that quickly changed. In the upper basin, we would get hit with huge gusts of swirling snow. I ducked behind one of the few trees and put on some more clothes. I didn't remember this part being windy at all last year and thought if it was this windy here, how was it going to be on the other side of Gunsight? I was dreading finding out.
Michael, Rob, Mike, and I all played leapfrog as we approached Gunsight Pass. We met Signe (the snowshoer I had seen first thing in the morning) on her way down from Gunsight complaining she wasn't feeling well. I was really impressed by how far and how fast she had come since in my opinion snowshoeing is much harder work than skiing. We also met Dave Hanscom coming down complaining of a sore shoulder.
As the terrain gradually steepened, I decided to save energy and put on my skins. I stopped twice to do so in spots I thought weren't so windy only to be pushed off balance by unexpected gusts. If it was windy enough to blow me around, it was certainly windy enough to blow my skins away so I gave up. I stopped a third time and finally was successful. This area was completely open and there was nowhere to take shelter. Michael caught up to me as I was messing with my skins and he remarked that he'd be lucky just to make it to the top of the pass.
We saw a big pile of skis stashed at the base of the pass and followed suit. I left my poles too since I planned to have my 8 oz. ice axe out, purchased especially for the occasion, and didn't want to have to worry about what to do with my poles later. On the way up to the top of the pass I met two people coming down and they said it was even windier on the other side so I spent considerable time digging out my goggles and face mask only to abandon them a short time later since I'd rather breathe than be warm.
I booted up to the top of the pass and really didn't think conditions were any worse than what I'd already experienced. Both were bad. Gunsight Pass was reached at 11:55am.
In my pretrip planning I had thought surely I could make it from Gunsight to Kings in less than 3 hours. Now I was about to find out. As the crow flies, it is 1.6 miles from the pass to Kings, and Kings is only 1,640 feet higher. How hard could it be? But, people aren't crows and the terrain doesn't rise up at a nice steady grade. As you traverse around West Gunsight, 13103 you even loose some elevation. Even so, it is less than 2 miles and perhaps at most 1,800' of gain.
Rob and Mike were long gone and it was just me and Michael. We could see people ahead in the distance, but their tracks were quickly blown over and it was like we were trailbreaking from scratch in many places. Usually, we could tell where they had walked but it was so windblown that at times I wasn't even certain if we were on their track at all. I wondered if they had traversed below us, but it was hard to tell. This wasn't the nice lock your foot in place snow of the Wasatch, put instead was dry slippy slidey stuff over hardpack. During this section Michael and I stuck to each other like glue to benefit from each other's trail breaking, but Michael I am sure did most of it. We finally crested the southeast ridge of West Gunsight, 13103 and found the other side to be more rocky than snowy. We took a break near the base of Kings, the first time I had sat down all day.
Ahead of us on the steep slope we saw various specks ascending. Again, in many places it was like breaking the trail from scratch, but at least now our route was clear. As we neared the crest of the ridge, earlier summiters were already descending. First came Jan and Ramon. I had crossed paths with Jan skiing in Millcreek Canyon all winter and had run into Ramon there once. Next came MOCKBA who had made an amazing recovery from a broken leg in an auto accident this past summer. He is a true inspiration, having hiked at times on a broken leg and crutches. Just four months earlier he had complained "Feels good to have the season restarted, but boy am I out of shape!"
Next we saw Rob. Rob had had to break trail all the way up the final stretch by himself, since he also had trouble following the trail of those who had gone before and it was Rob's trail we were following now. We finally caught up to Mike who had skied carrying snowshoes all the way to Gunsight and was now using them. Just as we were reaching the summit, we crossed paths with a group of 3 whom MOCKBA had referred to as a "family". If they really were all members of the same family this was truely impressive. Most families I know wouldn't have been patient enough with each other to make it all the way to Kings Peak. It turns out that these three were two brothers, Andrew and Dan, and their friend Anna.
Finally, we observed Brian who had carried his skis the whole way, put them on and begin his descent. There is no way I'll ever be able to ski like that. I don't even aspire to it. It's just out of the question.
A few more steps and we had made it. The time was 3:05pm. It had taken over 3 hours to go less than 2 miles. Thankfully, it wasn't so windy on this final stretch and was only a little windy on the summit which had been blown bare. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and headed down. We still had a long way to go. Steve Swanson was close behind, the 12th person to summit that day. Twelve people, pretty impressive I thought.
Mike, Michael, and I stuck fairly close together on the way back to Gunsight Pass. We could see Andrew, Dan, and Anna ahead of us. As they got close to the pass they made an abrupt descent of about 200' and then climbed back up to the pass by a less steep route. I thought this was odd but as we got closer, the snow became pretty hard and it was difficult to keep from slipping. Presumably, they had chosen to avoid this section. Michael and I both had ice axes, and Mike had a ski pole with a claw. I did slip, self arrested quickly, but then was stuck. The snow seemed too hard to kick my feet in and any movement at all seemed to result in a further slip. I contemplated a controlled slide down to a softer spot. I probed carefully around with my right foot trying not to move my upper body and finally found a soft spot. In the meantime, Michael had climbed down and let me rest my left foot on his axe. I chopped a few steps back to where I had been and we were off again.
We got back to the pass sometime after 5pm. Mike waited for Steve Swanson to make it back safely, while Michael and I headed down to our skis. Things had gone great up to this point, but now a wee bit of difficulty arose. It quickly became apparent that Michael didn't know how to ski downhill. The sun was sinking lower and we were 13 miles from our cars. Groan! I skied a short distance ahead and then waited what seemed like an eternity while he slowly made his way down, falling repeatedly as he went. I had counted on a speedy exit to the trailhead and was starting to wonder about my reserves and what would happen to me if I stayed with Michael back to the car. Mike caught up to me as I was putting toe warmers in my boots and cracking open a pack of hand warmers. We discussed the situation and Mike said that Steve was planning to do "sweep" and Steve would look after Michael. It seemed too good to be true!
Sure enough Steve showed up and we explained the situation to him and he very willingly and pleasantly said he would shephard Michael down. That man is an absolute saint! I can not gush enough about him. He has hosted this trip for 35 years, made it to the summit over 30 times, and year after year watches to make sure everyone gets out safely. At this point I could say something like "and he's 69 years old!", but that would be kind of like someone else saying "ZeeJay made it to the top and she's a woman!".
Mike is much faster than I am at gliding downhill so I told him to go ahead and that I would be fine. I had skied this terrain before, was quite comfortable with it, and had a GPS to back me up just in case. So, Mike took off and I skied the 13 miles out by myself. The upper basin was now very pleasant as the wind had died down completely. I was hoping to get out of the creek before dark, but had to turn on my headlamp with about 10 minutes to go. All the way down, anytime I hit some little obstacle I imagined what it would be like for Michael in the dark. There are several places where if you are not careful, you can land in the water.
I made it out of the creek bed and back to the unplowed road. From there it should have been an easy 3 mile, almost flat, ski back to the car. But, unfortunately I began feeling a little nauseous. Even though I was making fairly good time, I couldn't wait to get it over with. I just wanted to get back to the car and lie down. I was wishing I had prepared my husband for the possibility of my driving back the next morning. I finally vomited and after that everything was fine again and my energy level was restored. I saw headlights in front of me a few minutes later and knew I had made it. It was 9:20pm when I reached the cars, exactly 16 hours after I had started.
Larry got out of his car to talk to me and was looking a little worried. I told him I thought it would be another 2 hours until Michael and Steve showed up. He was clearly concerned. I drove home not feeling very good about the whole thing. I felt like I had abandoned Michael and if the tables were turned, I don't think he would have left me. But, I did what I felt I had to do and life goes on.
I was just dying to call Michael the next morning to see how he was doing and to see if he and Steve had gotten back OK. However, I didn't want to call too early and I figured he'd be in church anyway so I waited until the afternoon. I was relieved to find him in good spirits. He had gotten back to the car at 11:30 pm. Steve had stuck with him all the way to the unplowed road and then waited for him at the end with Larry and Cheryl. What a guy!
Michael was in such good spirits that the two word phrase "next year" came up several times in our conversation. He mentioned that he would get his own equipment and practice extensively before then. As for me, when I got back to the cars I told Larry he wouldn't be seeing me next year. He replied that next year was a long ways away. I have to admit, 2 days later, I started thinking about next year too.