West Gunsight PeakIt was March, still winter, but warmer temperatures and more daylight, the best time to try for winter ascents of Utah 13000 footers. I had the same grandiose plan as last year, I'd first try for West Gunsight and if successful come back on my broken track and try for at least one other in the area.
Utah 13000 footers are a long way to go in the summer and even farther in the winter due to access roads being unplowed. West Gunsight would be 28 miles round trip with just over 4000' feet of elevation gain. Unfortunately, most of the elevation gain comes at once, after a long gentle approach. 28 miles might seem like a long way for a day trip, but it was the easiest one I had left and I've only done three others. Quite a few of them will be over 40 miles round trip.
Winter snow in the high peaks area of the Uintas is typically of terrible consistency, with a nonsupportable crust on top and sugar underneath. Sinking in to ones knees with skis on happens a lot, but the snow only takes skiing on once to firm things up. There was no way I could ski 28 miles in those conditions in one go. I did two trail breaking trips with no particular thought of when I'd make the actual summit push.
My first trip was on Monday, March 3. The trailhead is an almost 3 hour drive from my house, the last 18 miles or so on a plowed dirt road. The road isn't bad to drive on when it is frozen, but in the middle of the day when it is muddy and slushy, it's a mess. I drove up Sunday night, slept in my car and took off the next morning at a casual pace. The first 3.5 miles are on an unplowed dirt road that leads to the summer trailhead. These went pretty easy as the first 2.8 had been snowmobiled with light snow on top. The last .7 miles weren't too bad as they had at least been skied on, but there was more snow in the tracks to slow me down.
The route to West Gunsight shares most of the route to Kings Peak. In the winter, the accepted wisdom is to forgo the summer trail and ski directly on top of the frozen Henrys Fork Creek. The tracks I was following quit less than .5 miles into the creek and then I was on my own. It wasn't too bad, but I sunk into my knees and had to dig out my skis every 5-10 minutes. Twice, I went in all the way to my thigh and one of those times banged my knee bad on a rock. Nevertheless, I thought it went better than previous year's trailbreaking trips when I seemed to sink in with every single step.
There are pros and cons to skiing on the creek. It's usually pretty wide and has a gentle grade. The summer trail goes up and down, but the creek, being a creek, only goes up. At the beginning, the summer trail traverses across a pretty steep hillside which gets a lot of sun. This section in particular would be tough to ski.
The downside to the creek are the occasional obstacles--fallen trees, large rocks, and open water. Each year is different. Some years it's almost entirely frozen and some years there are large pools of open water to ski beside. In the early morning or the evening the snow bridges previously skied on are solid. However, the picture below, taken on a 2009 Kings Peak trail breaking trip, shows what can happen in the middle of the afternoon on a warm day.
This was a large pool year and there were some places that I wasn't sure I could get through without collapsing into the water. However, with very careful skiing and packing down of snow, and a lot of cringing, I made it about 3 miles in the creek. I had just bypassed two very large annoying logs and didn't like the looks of what was ahead. There were lots and lots of depressions in the snow, signalling poorly frozen areas and the potential for deep collapses. So, I said to heck with this and abandoned the creek for the summer trail which fortunately happened to be close by at that point.
The snow on the summer trail was a lot better as there were fewer collapses. The trail was obvious most of the time, but at other times it was so open that anything could have been the trail. I went to about 1.7 miles shy of Elkhorn Crossing and then called it a day, skiing 14.1 miles round trip.
Three days later I was back on Thursday, March 6. It had snowed a few inches in the meantime, but it was so light and fluffy, that it didn't seem to slow me down. My track was always obvious, making it easy to follow. If I happened to step off of it though, then the snow was likely to collapse. I skied 1.4 miles past Elkhorn this time for a total of 20.66 miles round trip. Elkhorn Crossing is the dividing line between the dense woods and the more open Henrys Fork Basin. Once in the basin, there was more collapsing. You are skiing on the tops of willow brush sticking out of the snow and they create air traps underneath. I turned around at 11am after skiing for 6 hours and made it back to the car around 3 for a 10 hour day.
After this trip, I thought I could make the summit on my next trip. It would be 2.7 more miles of skiing and then a mile on foot to the summit. When I got home that night I was too tired to look at the weather to see when a suitable day might be. When I looked the next morning I was dismayed to see that the very next day's weather was perfect, sunny with virtually no wind, and every other day in the forecast significantly less so, with high winds and snow predicted. I just didn't feel up to heading out again that very evening, but I let it kick around a little bit and realized that if I didn't, I might not get another chance before it snowed significantly. So, off I went.
It had snowed lightly during the day, but it was supposed to clear up overnight and be bright and sunny on Saturday, March 8. The predicted wind speed was only 5-9 mph. Winds that light only happen about once a month in winter. More typical are 35-55 mph gusts. When I arrived at the trailhead about 8:30pm, it was still snowing lightly, and the next morning when I awoke at 4am, it was still at it, but the snow was very, very light density, and there was only about 3" new. Nevertheless I was worried the forecast was off and it would snow all day. However, little by little the clouds disappeared, and within a few hours, the sky was bright blue. It was 15F when I started at 5:17 am in the dark. The new snow wasn't enough to obscure my old tracks and it was easy to follow them to Elkhorn Crossing.
When I got to the open basin just past Elkhorn however, I couldn't make out my old track from just 2 days before at all. It was just a pristine expanse of white. The weird thing is that when I got home and looked at my pictures, I could clearly see it in the picture below, but not in any of the others.
I followed my old track as best as I could via my GPS track, but those things are not exactly precise. I could tell when I was dead on because then I was skiing on a nice firm surface with a few inches of fluff on top. When I was off it, I was sinking in to the old snow and occasionally collapsing into a bush. I was hoping this portion of my track would help me out more, but it was only slightly useful.
I made a really dumb navigation error on my way to Gunsight Pass and instead of staying in the nice easy to ski, gently sloping basin, got sucked into continuing up instead of a very short downhill, and wound up traversing the uneven side of a steep, forested slope. I kept hoping to tough it out and meet up with some easier terrain, but I eventually just bit the bullet and descended back to the basin. The little detour took me time and energy. I was hoping to reach Gunsight Pass by 1pm at the very latest and now I didn't think I'd make it. The bad thing is that I made the same mistake last year, but now it is firmly etched into my brain and I won't do it again, or so I say.
I was able to ski about half way up the steep section to the pass on really nice snow that would make a fun descent, but then it got too rocky, so I parked my skis and continued on foot. It was a few more easy hundred feet up to Gunsight Pass walking on rocks and thin snow cover. It was now 1:12pm. The time could be better, but it really wasn't too bad, considering the fresh snow.
I took a nice sit down, 8 minute break at the pass and studied the way ahead. There was a quarter mile traverse across a steep snowy slope followed by a 400' steep climb up a rocky area. I couldn't see the summit from where I sat, but it was about 900' more vertical feet up from the top of the rocks.
I've done the traverse several times in the early spring on my way to Kings, and it's usually been challenging with slippery snow on top of icy boilerplate, but today, it was firm enough to hold each foot step securely, although the snow was a little deep. The rocky section was a little trickier as some of the snow between the rocks was soft, but some of it was like ice. As I ascended the rocks, I had my first look at this side of the summit and it looked super white. I had expected a lot of rocks to be sticking out. As predicted, there was virtually no wind. What a rarity! I was wearing a single layer and lovin' it. Bright blue sky and no wind, what more could anyone ask for?
There were just a few spots where the snow was hard and easy to walk on, but mostly it was a knee deep post hole to the top. I tried crawling once in a particularly deep spot but that turned out to be even worse as now I had 4 limbs sinking in, instead of just 2. I looked over at Kings Peak, Utah's high point, 1.2 miles away thinking "OMG" and wondering if I was up to (A) the annual last Saturday of March, Wasatch Mountain Club trip to its summit, let alone (B) do it in the actual winter sometime. The answer is yes to A for the 7th year in a row and only time will tell for B.
I made it to the top of West Gunsight Peak about two hours after reaching Gunsight Pass. The distance had only been .88 miles. It was now 3:10pm. This trip was before daylight savings time kicked in so it was going to be completely dark by about 6:45 and I had 14 miles to reach my car. I didn't stay too long. I snapped a few pictures and was heading back down at 3:12.
The way down the summit cone was easy and I made it back to Gunsight Pass at 4:09 and down to my skis 4 minutes later. The pass and my ski stash were now in the shade and I was anxious to get back to the warm sunshine as soon as possible.
I wanted to make as many miles as possible before it got dark so I didn't linger. I got my skis on as quickly as I could and took off. It felt great to be back in the sunshine, but I knew it wouldn't last long. At first my thoughts were to make it back to Elkhorn before dark. When I reached that milestone, I changed it to be back in the creek before dark. It was getting darker and darker and colder and colder, and I was getting hungrier and hungrier, but I didn't want to waste any time stopping while it was still light. I did make it to the creek, just past the 2 very annoying logs, and stopped to eat, put on more clothes, get out a headlamp, and break out a new pack of handwarmers. It was 6:54pm when I got going again. There was a half moon shining directly on the creek. It wasn't enough to ski by, but it took the edge off the darkness to the periphery. I had brought 2 headlamps plus spare batteries as it would be a totally miserable experience to be in that creek in the dark. I was able to make pretty good time, but I had to be careful as I couldn't see far enough ahead to make out the pools of water until I was almost right at them.
I exited the creek bed at 8:01 and was very relieved that all the hard parts were behind me and I had an easy, ever so slightly downhill, wide, 3.5 mile road to follow back to my car. I was feeling pretty good up to now, tired but not exhausted, but then my troubles began. I ate some chocolate and felt sick almost instantly. I had to ski back to the car feeling like I would puke at any moment. What should have been easy was a real struggle. There's a long straight stretch that starts about a mile from the end. I was dismayed when I got there and realized that I still had a mile to go. I was hoping that I wasn't able to notice it in the dark and was already past it. If I could just make it back to the car and sit down and rest I would be ok I told myself. Well, I almost made it, but with 10 minutes to go, I did have to stop to throw up.
I still was feeling bad, the last little bit to the car. I got there at 9:08, took off my gear, sat down and blasted the heat, and just sat there doing absolutely nothing for 15 minutes or so and then I was fine. In retrospect, I think I was dehydrated and should have drunk more during the trip.
Back to my grandiose plan
I had hoped to ski back over my track and do Kings Peak in the actual winter. However, the weather did not cooperate. It snowed significantly the next week, almost completely wiping out my track. Nevertheless I had to at least try. I went back on Sunday the 16th and broke a trail to Elkhorn. Then, it snowed again, and again it almost completely wiped out the track. I went back on Wednesday, March 19 heading for Kings, but there was way more new snow than expected and I called it a day at Elkhorn. It was really cold to boot, about -15F and I find it very hard to move fast when it is that cold. If it hadn't been the last day of winter, I would have waited for a better day, but it was the last day there was and I had to at least give it a shot.