|What:||One day hike/snowshoe trip to the summits of 11611, 11656, Paul Benchmark (12307) and Bluebell Pass Peak (12036)|
|Where:||Uinta Mountains, Utah, 5.15 miles SW of Mount Emmons|
|Length:||21.6 miles round trip|
|Elevation gain:||5725 feet|
|Start location:||Swift Creek Trailhead|
|Date:||May 17, 2008|
|Round trip time:||15 hours 15 minutes, 5:25am to 8:40pm|
|Time to furthest summit:||8 hours and 13 minutes|
|Participants:||MOCKBA and myself|
list of the 115-118 (depending upon how you count) Utah 12000 footers with 200 feet of prominence. After a ski tour to Coffin Peak in April I was looking for another 12000 footer that I could bag this time of year. I thought that the trailheads would still be snowed in, but my ski friends MOCKBA, Rob, and Mike relayed that the Swift Creek Trailhead was accessible by car as of May 4. They had done an exploratory ski tour and headed up the Swift Creek drainage in the general direction of Paul (12307). I got out my maps and noticed the nice gentle ridge running south of Paul, 5.15 miles south west of Mount Emmons and 7.4 miles southeast of Wilson Peak. In addition, there was another 12000 footer, Bluebell Pass Peak (12036), 1.5 miles north of Paul. Both of these seemed ripe for bagging. The only problem was that they were a long way from the trailhead. I mapped out a route and Bluebell Pass Peak was over 9 miles away with a 5500' total elevation gain. To simply come back the same way would be another 1400' of gain. It sounded like a big day, a technically easy but strenuous trip. Alternatively I could go all the way to Bluebell Pass and descend to the east via the Swifts Creek drainage, virtually downhill all the way back, but still a long 18 miles round trip through completely unfamiliar territory.
I sent email out to everyone I knew who might be interested. I got several no's and one offer to go on a trip at a later date. So, I planned to go by myself leaving Thursday May 15. MOCKBA hadn't responded at all and I thought this was a little odd since he had previously expressed some interest. Finally I got some email from him the day before that didn't quite make sense. But after several email exchanges it became apparent that we were in disagreement about what the phrase "within the next week" meant. There was further confusion about when his conflicts were since we were each talking about different weekends, but we finally figured things out and agreed to leave Friday May 16 and hike the following day.
We set out late Friday afternoon from Salt Lake City headed for the Swift Creek Trailhead and campground. Instead of driving the quickest way to Duchesne along route 40, we opted to take route 35 through Wolf Creek Pass, which had just opened up for the season the day before, so that MOCKBA could check out the terrain for a future ski tour. As we got close to the trailhead, we also checked out forest roads 271 and 196 leading to Center Park, also for a future ski trip. Every time we crunched over a big rock or a downed tree branch I couldn't help but remember how he had mentioned earlier that his spare tire was flat.
The snow had melted completely off of the dirt roads and they were well signed all the way to the Trailhead at the Swift Creek Campground. The campground was completely free of snow at 8100' and the water had already been turned on.
Soon we began to encounter soft intermittent snow patches. At about 10500' there was mostly snow and by this time it was firm enough to walk on without sinking through. Treeline was reached about 10700'. Somewhere along the way MOCKBA realized he had lost his sunglasses out of an unzippered jacket pocket. I checked all of his pockets too and sure enough no sunglasses. What a blow. The sun hadn't been too strong up to now since we had been in the trees and it was still early. However, it was about to be blazing down on us and reflected back by the snow. When we broke out of the trees I lent him my brimmed hat. My sunglasses were prescription so we couldn't time share them.
On the way to our first peak (11611) we made a point to stop at N40 38.823 W110 22.992 where there was supposed to be a temporary benchmark LO1049. We looked around awhile and MOCKBA finally spotted a metal bar sticking up and we assumed that that was it. We continued up the snowy south side of 11611 and upon reaching the summit were surprised to find that the north slope was bare. The same thing would hold for 11656 and Paul as well. The south sides of these slopes had snow while the north sides were bare. Go figure. We speculated that the north sides must get more wind and the snow there is blown off, but who knows. I had anticipated cruising down the north sides of all of these slopes on consolidated snow, but instead we had to pick our way carefully down seas of boulders.
We continued on our way to the saddle before 11656 and began our ascent. I had had one major worry about this hike and that was the high predicted temperatures. The area in which we'd be hiking would see lows in the 30's and highs in the 60's. A high low meant there wouldn't be a good refreeze resulting in a day long slog through mushy snow. A high high meant that even if there was a refreeze it wouldn't last very long. We now encountered the feared mush on our way up and put the snowshoes on. But, even with the snowshoes we would occasionally posthole up to our knees. The top of 11656 was bare as were the other three summits we would reach today.
It was just another 240 feet up to our final summit of the day, Bluebell Pass Peak (12036), which we reached a little past 1:30, about 8 hours and 15 minutes after we had started. At the top we discussed continuing further along the ridge to the summit past Bluebell Pass but I was adamant that I had had enough. I heard no complaints from MOCKBA. So our plan was to head west across the summit plateau of 12036 bypassing its wicked looking south side cornice and then head southeast to a gully that we would follow down to the trail. The initial 600 feet of descent to the base of 12036 were bearably mushy and we were able to glissade part way down. However, when we hit bottom at 11400' the snow became miserably mushy and we quickly put on our snowshoes. Unfortunately, we still were doing some bad postholing and the going was slow. This was beyond simple trailbreaking as the snow would collapse underneath with every step, but at least we were only sinking in to our knees and not our butts. After awhile it wasn't quite as bad but it was still bad. MOCKBA led 99.99% of the way and I found that in areas where he was sinking through if I put all of my weight on both poles and stepped gingerly I at least had a chance of not falling in too. If my snowshoe did break through sometimes it was quite hard to get it back out requiring some excavation of snow with my hands. I wasn't happy at all. I wasn't even convinced we were going in the right direction. But MOCKBA had never failed me yet at getting us someplace and he wasn't about to start now. Finally, we hit some bare patches and took our snowshoes off and reached the Yellowstone Creek Trail at about 9600'. We almost missed the trail. MOCKBA crossed right over it without stopping. It was hard to make out in all the snow but I recognized it because there were a few snow-free spots that were completely bare of any vegetation. It would have been a sad day indeed if we had missed the trail and gotten to the swollen, raging creek not knowing for sure which side of the creek the trail was supposed to be on.
The trail started out as mostly snow patches but quickly turned to mostly bare patches and was eventually completely bare. We soon passed a sign that said it was 10 miles back to the campground. Groan! It was past 4pm by that point. I kept anticipating the much dreaded wet sections of the trail but by some luck and magic they never materialized. We encountered nothing that one wouldn't expect along any trail this time of year, and found the trail quite delightful with several scenic views of the creek. We speculated that the trail had undergone a major reroute as when MOCKBA returned home he consulted his hiking guide which cautioned against "3 fords" of the creek and said the trail was "impassable in spring"! I could not imagine crossing that creek and surviving to tell the tale. The down side was that there were several short uphill sections along the way and I cringed at each and every one.
We went a couple of miles and stopped for a long break. MOCKBA had a small fire going in about 5 seconds and in another 5 was cooking kielbasa on one stick and toasting a bun on another. After I ate mine I took the opportunity to lie down and enjoy the warm sunshine. Too soon it was time to go and we began the remaining 8 mile trudge back to the car. We reached the car about 8:40pm, 15 hours and 15 minutes after we had started. It had been a long but very pleasant day.
In retrospect, coming down the Yellowstone drainage was a fine idea as far as the trail conditions went. However, it added an extra 3 miles to the trip over the Swift Creek side, resulting in 21.6 miles round trip. Also, I suspect that the off-trail section on the Swift Creek side would have been easier to navigate, but, who knows?
MOCKBA's sunglasses contraption must have done the trick because the next day he said that his eyes were fine. I was a little sore but not too bad and hope to return to the Uintas soon to climb some other 12000 footers that nobody's ever heard of.