This trip actually began about 2 years ago when I first came out to Utah on an internship. Upon driving into the Salt Lake valley and becoming enamored with all the endless climbing and hiking possibilities, I bought every single guidebook I thought I would use. While that particular summer I only used the climbing guidebooks, I knew I was coming back in 2 years. So, I could use the Uintas and Wasatch Front guidebooks then.
I pored over the guidebook and maps during my last year at college, hoping someday I’d be able to try and tackle the 13ers available from Henrys Fork Basin. All the pictures I saw looked beautiful. And the feat of climbing a 13er in a remote area sparked dreams of grandeur.
One and a half weeks ago, my wife and I hiked in about 5 miles on a scouting trip for this “big” trip I had finally planned to go with my brother. The snow was deep and soft. I was hoping more of it would be melted by time I came back. But it was certainly still winter.
The big plan was to hike into Dollar Lake and camp there. We would subsequently hike Gilbert, Gunsight, West Gunsight (Dome), Kings, South Kings, Henrys Fork Peak (Fortress), and time permitting, Cliff Point. We wanted to do this over 4 days. The weather forecast was turning out to be not so great. But then again, I’ve found that the forecasting here isn’t the greatest. The best thing to do is look outside and make up your own.
As mentioned earlier, the trip began 2 years ago. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), it did not end this time.
The Hike In
My brother flew out late Monday night from Upstate New York (200 ft m.s.l.) to Salt Lake (4500 ft m.s.l, where I have been for about 9 months.) He had been training in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks for a majority of the spring and early summer (anywhere from 2000 ft to 4000 ft). Both of us being ADK 46ers, knowing how hard the peaks can be, and climbing at least half in the winter, we thought we were fully ready for what the Uintas could dish out. However, we both conveniently forgot how hard transition hiking is no matter where you go.
We spent Tuesday packing and arranging gear. By the end of it, I was pretty proud of my 60 pound pack. It was significantly lighter than my first winter backpacking trip in 2009 where I had an 80 pound pack. I lugged that bag 8 miles over 1800 vertical feet to the Uphill Lean-to in the Adirondacks. So surely, a 60 pound pack for 7.5 miles over 1700 feet to the Henrys Fork Basin would be easier, right?
My brother and I drove up to the Henrys Fork Trailhead after dinner, arriving around 8 pm. We found out that my car is very uncomfortable to sleep in. We “got up” at 5:30am, finished rearranging out gear, signed into the trail register and left around 6:10am.
In the register, a group of 2 from Backcountry.com had ascended Kings Peak (UT state high point) and bivouacked on the summit 2 days prior. I would love to see the gear they used and read their trip report…
No more than 1000ft into the trail, I realized I had forgotten my visor in the car. I dropped the pack, ran back to the car, got the visor, and ran back. At this point, it would have been better just to call it a day. But we didn’t know what the snow was like ahead.
The trail was very nice, apart from being flooded for about 50% of its length. About 4.5 miles in, the snow was finally deep enough to put on snowshoes. Being as it was still early, the snow held together fairly well. (And by fairly well, I mean it held up to about 50% of our steps, as opposed to 10% after 11am). This was with floatation tabs on the snowshoes.
The hike started getting interesting at 5.5 miles- Elkhorn Crossing. There are/were two crossings: a “bridge” of 4 logs, or what appeared to be a new bridge that sat much higher over Henrys Fork. The log bridge was under the raging Henrys Fork. The new bridge was snapped in half. We progressed about a mile further up the basin in soft snow before we found a snow bridge that was sturdy enough to support our weight.
Now, just less than a mile away from Dollar Lake (our planned basecamp), we tried to reacquire the trail (somewhere under 3-4 feet of snow) that we had lost when staying on the west side of Henrys Fork, unable to cross).
My snowshoe punched through the snow. Only it didn’t stop on ground. It stopped in water. I did this about 3 times in varying locations. Each time it became progressively harder to pull out. While I’m certain I wasn’t over a seasonal tarn, this was a “high ground” area and it was flooded. There were also no grass spots (guess that shouldn’t be a surprise) with trees nearby.
This was 11,000 feet m.s.l. and 11:15am. While I was tired and had a light headache (and sunburnt, although I didn’t know it yet), my brother was having a significantly hard time with the altitude (difficulty breathing and feeling sick). He had essentially halved the available oxygen to himself over 2 days. Clouds were starting to build up. We had lost our drive to summit anything. And once that happens, there’s very little you can do to get it back, especially if you’re exhausted.
As a side note, the basin is certainly a beautiful place. I do wish we could have stayed longer.
We could have potentially set up camp a little further up the trail. However, with my snowshoe-punch-to-water, I saw our tent slowly melting through the unconsolidated snow overnight and ending up in a puddle. The only thing I wanted to set up a tent on was solid ground. I did not feel like pulling off a Titanic. Also, with the snow this unstable, how long was our snow bridge going to last? What about releasing wet avalanches? If it did rain, would the snow be any worse than it already was?
The closest tree-covered patch of dry ground I could recall was back at Elkhorn Crossing. So we began the slow 1.75 mile slog back through snow which didn’t hold up. At Elkhorn, it turned out there wasn’t much dry ground available, especially level ground. It didn’t matter; we set up camp anyway and napped for 2.5 hours. Looking at the clouds building up and realizing there was a good chance of rain tonight/tomorrow, we eventually decided to hike out.
The Hike Out
Making jokes like “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s hike 15 miles with 60 pound packs on for fun!” and “We can hurt today, or we can hurt tomorrow,” we began to pack up our gear again. Thankfully by this point, we only had 1.5 miles of snowshoeing left to go. But the snowshoes were about as useful as water skis in the desert. Once we finally were able to take them off, our speed increased dramatically. The cost of wearing a 60 pound pack for such a long distance (and not properly adjusting my pants belt) caused major problems on my hips. Already bruised, I now managed to scratch off some skin but didn’t find out until back at the car.
Walking through the snowless lower elevations, I contemplated how nice it would be to camp here. But the bed back home sounded much more inviting than a tent at this point.
We made it back to the car at 7:10pm, exactly 13 hours after starting our trip.
Driving back, we looked back at the Uintas and saw a huge anvil-shaped cloud encompassing the entirety of the range.
I plan on going back again in August when there is no more snow. This was an abnormally high snowfall year. Anywhere from 150%-180% above normal. I had originally picked this date by plotting the past 10 years worth of historical snow data from the weather station FPLU1 and picking the earliest date before the summer thunderstorms became commonplace. But in January, we didn’t know we were going to have such a high snowfall year.
In August, I’m not going to need crampons, and ice axe, snowshoes, and other associated winter gear. I would love to do it with my trail runners as opposed to my hiking boots. That being said, I need to get that 60 pound pack down to 45 (or less, including water and food). There’s my summer goal. I’ll also be sure to “train” more on the Wasatch Front since that’s 1 hour away instead of 3.
So what did I get out of the trip? Apart from bruised hips and delayed dreams, I have reaffirmed that transition hiking isn’t for me. Experiencing all four seasons simultaneously is interesting, but extremely difficult to prepare for. I also have a new appreciation for the remote beauty and enormity of the rock fortresses that stood before us. As the saying goes: “The mountains will be there tomorrow. Make sure you are.” Another day, for sure.