I’d never been pounded like that before: driving rain, dime sized hail, and thunder and lightening so powerful that the basin seemed to be rocking back and forth. Flashes of lightening, followed by an almost instantaneous boom, had me wondering just how close the strikes were. “August in the Uintas” I thought to myself. I made a mental note to thank two people: the folks at MH for their tent building prowess, and my wife for letting me spend the extra money on one. It was about this time that the sound of someone yelling brought me back to reality, so I zipped up my rain coat, jammed on my hat, and left the vestibule of safety one more time to go tent to tent in an effort to keep the six teenagers under my watch warm and somewhat dry…
This trip report blends two efforts to summit Kings Peak in the High Uinta Wilderness area of northeastern Utah. Coincidently, the two trips took place exactly one month apart: on August 6th I made a three day backpacking attempt with six scouts and another adult scout leader, and on September 6th I made a day hike attempt with a friend. I’ll preface each section with either “August” or “Sept” to keep the story clear, but I have a feeling you won’t need the help.
After a three hour drive that mainly consisted of me shooting down attempts to buy military grade fireworks after crossing the Utah/Wyoming border, we pulled into the Henry’s Fork Campground at noon. After a quick lunch and gear sort, we hit the trail intent on camping near Henry’s Lake to avoid the crowds. From there, we would strike out early for the summit on Friday before returning home Saturday. For a three day trip of this kind, I like to keep my pack weight under 40 lbs. For a three day trip of this kind with teenage boys, my pack was in excess of 60 lbs. Thankfully the elevation gain to our chosen campground was very mild and we made decent progress to the Alligator Lake split. During the first few miles we encountered several large zombie like groups returning to the trailhead, many of them wearing red “Kings Peak 2009 or Bust!” tee shirts. I liked their enthusiasm, but it seemed little remained other than the screen printed variety. I stopped one of the larger undead humanoids wearing a red t-shirt and asked how their trip had been. “Went up to Dollar Lake yesterday, bad storms so we’re coming back.” is all he whispered before shuffling off. I looked at the condition of the many of the boys and wondered if they had been better prepared would the result have been different even despite the bad weather. About a half mile past the split, the 30% chance of forecasted showers turned to 110%. We sheltered under some trees where I issued the order to break out the rain gear and pack covers. It was at this point that my illusion (despite a gear check the night before) we were somehow more prepared than the others began to unravel.
I began hearing such things as “I didn’t bring my rain gear because it was heavy” and “I didn’t bring any long pants” and “what’s a pack cover?” One of the boys had even decided he wanted to go at midnight the morning before we left… My friend Mike and I distributed the extras we had brought, exchanged wry smiles, and we continued on as a collection of half protected, semi-dry scouts. Our rain protection gear ranged from Mike’s watertight shell to Justin’s white t-shirt and black basketball shorts. We hoped it might pass, but the strength of the storm seemed to be increasing as we made our way to the basin. I looked at our group and tried to make a decision about stopping and camping, or continuing on. If we stopped where we were, we would have no chance to get to the top of Kings Peak the next day. We were passed by a group on horseback made up of men and gear who were well protected. I remember wanting to join their group... We continued on and the decision was made for me when we got a two hour weather break. During this break we covered the remaining ground to the Elkhorn crossing, staying to the right as we made our way up the basin toward Henry’s Lake. A mile from the crossing we took a break on an open patch of grass and enjoyed the warm sun for a few minutes. The boys suggested camping here, but I suggested moving on and we were soon underway again. In hindsight, I probably should have listened, but I wanted to get us as close as possible for a summit attempt. At 6 pm, an hour after leaving the clearing, the heavens opened and the storm did not let up until midnight.
Todd and I pulled into the Henry’s Fork Campground Sunday night around 7:30 pm. We grabbed a camping spot, threw up the tents, got the fire going, and were soon enjoying the cool late summer evening. The 40% chance of showers were nowhere in sight as we watched the fire and commented on how few people were up there. We packed our bags for the following day and settled in our tents at 11 pm. I watched the clock every 15 minutes until my alarm went off at 3:30 am. I was so excited and a tad nervous for what we were trying to do I wasn’t able to sleep. Turns out Todd was the same way, and we shared a laugh together and decided we should have just started at 1:30 when we realized we weren’t going to be able to sleep. The mostly full moon was amazing, and headlamps were quickly turned off as we made our way through the forest quickly. Just after the Alligator Lake split we saw a headlamp up in front of us, and shortly after that I saw the gun its owner was holding. The bow hunter motioned us over and told us that five minutes before we crossed into view a bear had strolled along the same path. Todd and I exchanged glances and about four thoughts went through my mind: “was this guy telling the truth,” “the wind was such that we should have smelled it” “bear spray really isn’t that heavy that it should get left behind” and “we were making enough noise and I’m big enough to probably wrestle with it anyway.” Our hunter friend accompanied us for two more miles before silently slipping away to try and spot some elk. I felt like Frodo meeting Aragorn.
The miles were moving quickly by. I kept putting on and then taking off layers in an effort at climate control. The sky was beginning to lighten as we crossed the Elkhorn and continued along. Todd and I stopped to snap some early morning pictures of Kings and to get some food and water as the basin began to open up. I’m not a speed merchant, but I was surprised at how fast I was moving even after no sleep. We had a goal after all, and the cool morning seemed to be encouraging us along. The weather was perfect as the sky began to turn blue without a cloud in sight. Again, the layers came off. We passed three groups of backpackers headed back from the Dollar Lake area. One stopped me, and noticing my current state of short sleeves, asked if I had a rain jacket. I smiled, thought of my scouts, and assured him I had rain gear and warm layers. I also wondered what he thought I had in the fairly large pack on my back? Magazines to read at the summit? I put my defensive attitude away, and soon we were taking a rest at Gunsight Pass, breaking open the easy cheese and wheat thins, GU, and snickers bars.
We stopped where we were, and looked for the most sheltered spots and set up camp. I moved from tent to tent assisting with set-up and trying to calm people down. Tent one held two boys, who despite a lot of complaining, were actually staying pretty dry and warm. The temperature had dropped dramatically and the rain was now mixed with sleet. I moved to tent two…all I heard was shivering. It held one boy who was fighting a losing battle against the water and cold. I asked if his tent had a rain fly. It did, but was lost the last time it was used. The young scout had brought a “sham-wow” with him and he was frantically sponging and squeezing in an attempt to keep his tent and bag try. I admired his moxie, but persuaded him to move to tent three where he would not spend the night alone in a tent hemorrhaging water. I visited tent three... They had set up in a well sheltered area, but with the rain fly half on and half off, one plastic pole splitting in the wind, and three boys crammed in, I was expecting the worst. As they unzipped the door I was greeted by smiles and the smell of twizzlers being eaten. I muttered something about the optimism of youth and then told them the situation. They gladly made room for the fourth boy and promised to keep an eye on him. I openly wondered how the tent was still standing, let alone keeping any water out, but I decided not to investigate and just be grateful. I climbed back into my tent around 8:30 pm, ate some cold MREs, and drifted of to sleep listening to the storm tear into us. I woke up around midnight, and ventured out to clear skies that popped with stars.
Todd and I took the shortcut at Gunsight Pass and wrapped southwest around toward Anderson Pass. The shortcut is easy to follow and there are many cairns along the way to guide you. We contoured higher on the ridge in order to drop out on top of the chute shortcut down to the basin I had heard so much about. One look down this (combined with the almost universal advice I’d received to avoid it) and I knew we’d be coming back the way we came. I don’t mind ascending that type of terrain, but I loathe descending it. It didn't look too conducive to my "big dancing bear" style of descending talus and scree. At 6’7”, 245 lbs, it always turns into a nasty, slow, war of attrition that puts me in a bad mood. We rested again at the large cairn near the beginning of the chute and eyed the prize – I was so excited! We were quickly at Anderson Pass and the views there amazed me. I could also clearly see from Anderson Pass the number of false summits to climb en route to Utah’s high point. You really can’t see this from the traverse over from Gunsight, and I smiled thinking Kings Peak just keeps throwing things at you to see if you really want it or not. It was turning into the perfect day.
At 8 am half of my group was out of their tents and ready to go. Two scouts utterly refused to get out of their tent, and wanted to do nothing that day but hang out around the campsite. I’m not a big believer in forcing anyone to do anything, but the fact was if we were going, we had to go as a group. We eventually got everyone together and sat down to discuss our options. When they are this age (14-16) I also believe in letting the boys help lead their own activity, so I asked them to work together as a group and come to a decision on how they wanted to proceed. They were split 50/50 about wanting to try for the summit and no one was budging. I introduced the unheard of principle of compromise and we finally all agreed to get going, with a goal for Gunsight Pass where we would make our next group decision. We were camped about a half mile north east of Henry’s Lake near a small rounded hill top. From this vantage point we surveyed a route across the marsh bending more south than east toward Gunsight. We began our hike, and our group of eight was strung out over roughly a quarter mile as we approached the base of Gunsight Pass an hour and a half later. We began the moderate climb and arrived at the pass in groups of ones and twos. After a few priceless pictures, and some food and water, I talked with the boys about our options – it was 1:30 in the afternoon.
After roughly 45 minutes of ridge work, I stood on Utah’s highest mountain at 12:30 pm, on Labor Day 2009. I had the summit to myself for a while. I had passed a group of four (and their dog) just leaving the summit as I was arriving. I thought about trying for South Kings, but quickly nixed that idea based on my current fatigue. Instead, I decided to enjoy the view, and the effort it took to get there. For some, hiking Kings in one day is not a big accomplishment. For me? I was really proud of where I stood (while realizing I was only half done). I took a few pictures, and then enjoyed the solitude at 13,500 feet stretched out on a big rock. After a while, I realized the time had come to descend and I started on my way down. Just as I dropped off the summit ridge about 20 feet I encountered a group of three making their way to the top. They whooped and yelled upon reaching the top and I was happy for them, but glad I had gotten to enjoy the quiet peace of being the only one there during my time. From Anderson Pass, Todd and I had gone at our own paces (he's much faster than me) and we eventually met back up near Anderson Pass and exchanged stories of our adventures up top. His knee was beginning to act up and we both felt it was wisdom to now focus on making it safely back down to the truck still some 13 or so odd miles away. It was a good moment as we high-fived and began the traverse back across and down to Gunsight Pass where we descended to a spring just above the little pond at its base. Here we filtered water for the first time (some of the best I’ve ever tasted) and kicked back in the sunshine eating and resting for the return trip.
After listening to them go back and forth with each other, I took stock of the situation and made a command decision. One boy had been whispering to me all the way up to Gunsight that he could go no further. Another boy had a recently repaired broken foot with shiny new surgical screws. Two others were lagging farther and farther behind. While our strongest boys declared they would accept no decision but to continue, I broke the news we were turning around at 1:45 that afternoon. Some cheered, some declared it the worst camping trip they had ever been on, but in the end, I think it was the right choice. We arrived back at camp at 4:30. By the time dinner rolled around, and a good fire was going, most everyone had bonded back together and had convinced each other that they could have made it to the top “if they had really wanted to.” Soon all the peripherals inherent in scout camp began to resurface and the wrestling, joking, and jostling for leader of the pack was once again in full swing. We talked that night around the campfire about attitude and adversity…and preparation. The weather continued to hold, and we departed our campsite around 10 am the next morning.
Experiencing the late afternoon/evening light in the outdoors is always one of my favorite things. We left the spring where we had rested and were soon passing Dollar Lake on our right. Here the ipod got broken out and I settled into cruise control as we approached the Elkhorn. I was feeling good, and decided this was not a bad day hike at all. As we eventually passed the Alligator Lake split, I was in a little different state of mind. My feet were hurting, and the path seemed to be extending itself; however, I was grateful that it was only the last three miles or so that I began to feel the effects of no sleep and lots of miles. Still, in the back of my mind was this quiet satisfaction and excitement about the day’s accomplishments. The Uintas are an amazing place, and I have so much more to explore. At 7:30 pm, the Tacoma came into view and my mood dramatically increased. I still had a three hour drive home ahead of me, but I knew a burger stop in Evanston would assist with that. Todd and I broke camp, loaded up, and were soon driving through the streets of Mountain View, Wyoming on our way home.
I learned a lot from both trips. My experience climbing Kings with Todd was one of the best I’ve had outdoors. I enjoy pushing myself a bit every now and then, and I know that I learned from the experience. While the boys I took in August had chosen Kings Peak as their destination, I wonder if I may have pushed my own agenda along the way. Or, rather, expected a bit too much of them? Maybe, maybe not. Often people will rise to the expectations given them. Lying in my tent that first night listening to the fury of the storm, and worrying about the boys, I was humbled. Still, I think those six young men left the Uintas a little stronger, more team oriented, more self-confident, and with a greater understanding of, as well as an appreciation for, nature. I think that’s a good thing for anyone, but especially for today’s young people. If that’s the case, then I consider both trips a success.