To Fail to Prepare Is To Prepare To Fail
In writing this narrative I wish to inform more than entertain. Should I become deficient in either effort the reader may bring his or her perusal to an abrupt and final conclusion without the slightest thought of regret. In that same vein, skipping paragraphs or sections is wholly and utterly endorsed; I would do the same in the construction of this short piece were it within the realm of possibility. For obvious reasons, it is not.
In late March of 2008 I joined the Swanson brothers’ annual Kings Peak ski trip (aka The Uinta Beat-Yourself-to-a-Pulp Slog). I was curious and forgot the time-honored aphorism about how curiosity can be fatal to cats and other living beings. Having practiced on touring skis only once, I managed to boldly stride in, boot it to the Kings Peak summit and stagger out shortly before the hour of midnight. The humiliation of the ski out was so indelibly burned into my aching frame and muddled mind that I vowed then and there to never attempt such foolishness again. (See the excellent trip report
titled "Kings Peak - One day to ski, 14 months to agonize over.")
When this year’s trip was announced in the monthly publication of the Wasatch Mountain Club, The Rambler, I began to – this is risky behavior - think, “I have vowed never to ski in again. Okay. I’ll be true to that resolve. But what if I went in with snowshoes? Yes, I could convince several of my winter hiking buddies to do the same. We’d have a cadre of strong hikers to share trail breaking duties and probably get in and out just like the skiers.”
That was the first piece of shell to be broken away on the hatching idea of attempting a one-day snowshoe assault on Kings Peak. I consulted Dave Rose’s Utah Thirteeners for distances and elevation gain and re-read my own narrative of my 2008 experience for approximate times. I consulted my potential hiking partners and several others who had done the ski trip multiple times. In my humble opinion, planning correctly, with focus on reality and not daydreams, is one of the key elements to a successful outcome.
I live in a Salt Lake City suburb. From my house, with good weather, minimal traffic and clear roads, driving time to the Henrys Fork TH is 2+30. I decided we needed to be “on the trail” no later than 4 a.m. That would mean leaving my house around 1:30 in the morning. Or should I say “in the mourning?” Whatever. I had checked on motel accommodations in Mountain View, the closest town to the TH, and they were available. Or we could join others, motor to the TH a day early and car camp at the TH. Or we could hike the 3.4 miles from the winter TH to the summer TH, pitch our tent and camp there. Decisions, decisions.
To make a long story short we, as a group of three, decided to drive from Salt Lake City directly to the TH for the anticipated 4 a.m. start. Two additional snowshoers would camp at the TH, and we would join them there. Sounded good. Five strong trail breakers. Well, it didn’t really sound all that good, but we were working things out as best we could, taking into consideration our individual preferences.
Getting ready to check out the route to the summer TH. Standing at the summer TH during the preliminary reconnaisance trip.
Brent and I had checked out the winter TH (9,000’) one week before the March 28th scheduled ski/hike. Our stroll in balmy 45º temperatures to the summer TH was a piece of cake; there were only three to four inches of hard-packed snow on the unplowed 3.4 miles of road leading to the summer TH (9,450’), an area which includes a parking lot, picnic tables and a pit toilet. But Mother Nature had not closed the book on winter; after our visit she air-freighted two gifts, meticulously wrapped in frosty white crystalline chiffon, from the Pacific Northwest to Utah. And what gifts they were: sixteen inches of fresh snow on the northern slopes of the Uintas. Well, so much for the notion that we would be booting it to the first checkpoint. It was going to be snowshoes the entire way.
A Tough Trip Begins With the First Step
I picked up Brent at 1:25 a.m., Dave at 1:40 and we were on our way to Wyoming under clear skies. The forecast was for a partly sunny day with possible south winds ahead of an approaching storm barreling in on Sunday. We shared I-80 with an occasional passenger car and dozens of semis. East of Evanston we could see evidence of strong winds: the slender alabaster blades of tall wind generators rotating in rhythm with one another. Ominous pinwheels. As we traveled south from Ft. Bridger to Mountain View the gusts blew wave after wave of snow across the narrow two-lane road, and we had to slow in the name of caution. Ten minutes of this convinced us that our planned 4 o’clock start time was in serious jeopardy.
Once we left the paved road, yet another natural hazard slowed our progress. Snow and ice buildup on the “plowed” road was plentiful, much of the snow having been blown back on the road after a plow had cleared it away. We drove as fast as we safely could and reached the parking area at 4:15. There was already activity in and around several of the cars where enthusiasts had slept. Here at the north end of the Henrys Fork basin the wind was still in play, but at a tolerable level. Thank goodness for that because the temperature was near 16º.
The good news? We would be underway by 4:30. The bad news? Our other trail breakers were not there. One had decided not to go and the other had opted to ski in and out. So Dave, Brent and I quickly strapped on our snowshoes, swung our packs on our backs, donned our warmest mittens, gripped our trekking poles and started out. The skies above the basin were crystal clear; the Milky Way was spread out like a delicate gauze curtain. The new moon had occurred two days earlier. We formed our single-file line and began hiking, buoyed up by celestial inspiration.
Breaking up a long hike into bite-sized pieces is a good thing. To contemplate the idea of mushing for thirty miles in one day is overwhelming. But to think about hiking first 3.4 miles, then 5 miles, then 2 miles, then 2.8 miles, then… Well, you get the picture. Mentally, we had divided our trip into shorter segments and attached time-related goals to each one. Our calculations indicated a need to average at least 2 mph for the entire trip. Two miles per hour doesn’t sound like much, but we had to factor in the cold, omnipresent winds, the time required to change gear and clothing and the absolute necessity to take in plenty of calories. We had also learned through experience that fatigue plays a role in pace. We planned to take as much time getting out as it would take to hike in. That’s just the way it is.
Skiers passed us as we made our way through the 5” to 6” of fresh snow cover. The grade was gentle; our headlamps provided more than ample illumination in the pre-dawn darkness. The sporadic breeze was chilling but never long-lasting. We arrived at the summer TH at 6:10 a.m., slightly behind schedule. But we felt fresh and looked forward to the next 5 miles, a lazy twisting and turning stretch above the river which would bring us to checkpoint number two, Elkhorn Crossing.
It wasn’t long until we began to realize that the river trail would present unique challenges. It wasn’t the frequent holes in the snow cover which gave us a glimpse of the swift flowing creek underneath our path that caused consternation. Nor was it the random detours to circumvent fallen trees which bothered us. No, it was the ugly frustration of post holing. Post holing in boots is almost pleasant compared with post holing in snowshoes. All of the fresh snow on top of the older more consolidated snow made for a thick but soft layer which held up as skiers slid over but caved in under our more direct weight. Brent had the most difficulty of all of us because he was a light-heavyweight while Dave and I tipped the scales in the welterweight range. But even Dave or I would often “punch” through unexpectedly, one of our feet plunging as many as 12 inches through the powdery crust and precipitating a rash of grunting and moaning as we engineered the excavation necessary to regain our footing. Such unwelcome activity hurt us in two ways: it not only slowed our pace but
Still over the river but able to put away our headlamps.
it sapped us of energy which we would need for the remaining hours of our journey. In baseball parlance, we now had one strike against us, and the umpire appeared to be giving the pitcher the benefit of the doubt.
The advent of dawn was helping us to forget the miserable postholing.
Dawn slowly lit the broadening basin, the soft glow of sunrise gently commandeering the eastern heavens. Puffy clouds loitered overhead before setting sail for Colorado. We labored with dogged persistence, Brent exerting the most effort. At open meadows which
Our first view of Kings Peak - it's there, look hard.
appeared like a sheet-covered oasis we would stop to catch our breath, marvel at the tough going and collectively look forward to Elkhorn Crossing, the waypoint marking the end of the river experience. After what seemed an eternity we reached this goal; a skier was relaxing on his back, skis jammed into the deep snow like pickets.
Three amigos at Elkhorn Crossing. Brent turned back, Dave & I continued.
It was 9:55; we were now 30+ minutes behind schedule. As we took a much-needed break Brent announced that he was going to return to the trailhead. He felt that he was a burden to us and running out of steam. His reasoning was not welcome nor was it encouraged. But we had known each other for a long time; we had hiked together often enough to respect individual decisions. It would not be dangerous for him to return and he would wait for us, thinking we would be back “around nine o’clock.” Dave and I honored his choice, albeit it with reluctance, and resumed our journey, crossing our fingers that the going ahead would be better suited for snowshoe travel – no more manky snow above the river bed.
Five minutes after departing Elkhorn Crossing we left the sheltered hollow of the river bed route and began the approximate 5 miles in open space en route to Gunsight Pass. Our initial goal was the small glade of trees west of Dollar Lake, a popular camping sight for those who seek to sleep before attempting one or more of seven Utah 13ers located in the general area. We increased our pace; our spirits soared. We were no longer post holing, the snow was firm and the views breathtaking. We could see the rounded summits of Gilbert, Gunsight, and West Gunsight (Dome) and to the west the striated massif of picturesque Henrys Fork Peak (aka Fortress Peak), the inauspicious jaw of Cliff Point and, of course, Kings Peak looming above a steep chute separating the shoulders of Dome and Henrys Fork Peak. Instead of looking like a royal state high point, Kings looked like a pearly blob of toothpaste. Yet this region was truly a vast battle station of behemoths, arrayed in winter armor and silently waiting for a pending attack by a handful of puny ant-like humans.
Dave and I made excellent time to a point west of the evergreens near Dollar Lake. It was 11:25. There we stopped to smear on sun block. Gunsight Pass was the next objective, about 3 miles away. We looked southwest to the inviting snow-filled chute, a shortcut to Anderson Pass, but we assumed the snow would be too loose to offer us any chance of
Views at the southern reaches of the Henrys Fork Basin are spectacular.
shortening our time to Kings Peak. So we put our faith in the ski tracks and tried to ignore the whipping wind as it gnawed and clawed unceasingly from several directions. There are terrain undulations between Dollar Lake and Gunsight Pass, and the ups seemed like uninvited guests, ill-mannered party crashers.
Soon the way to the pass opened up and we recognized the moving figures of a few people near numerous pairs of skis which were sticking up like toothpicks in a sea of meringue. All right! But our time was getting to be on the sketchy side. Would we have the time to summit? At the ski cache (12:47 p.m.) we passed one of the skiers and continued toward the steep headwall cascading down from the wind-blown pass itself. Two or three skiers were near the sway-backed pass, booting it toward the pass and then the cutoff traverse leading to the Anderson basin.
From Gunsight Pass To The Summits - Yes, Summits
With our nifty MSR televators raised Dave and I easily scampered up the headwall, the solid snow giving us fine footing. At the pass the wind was unrelenting, gusting and swirling, jabbing like a skilled boxer waiting for the chance to land a haymaker. It was 1:05. Elapsed time was 7+35. The route up to the east ridge of the basin above us was clearly etched in the yielding blown snow, like a sagging clothesline drooping across and then up toward the south extremity of the face. There a collage of exposed rock and boulders provided easier footing up the steep grade. Dave and I snowshoed five minutes to a small cluster of exposed rocks and paused long enough to exchange our snowshoes for crampons (Dave) and Kahtoola micro-spikes (me).
With our snowshoes safely stowed between two rock slabs, we continued our climb, able now to better grip the encrusted and often icy slant of the slope. We angled our way westward and up, the wind a constant shrieking annoyance. Dave reached the crest of the ridge ten minutes before me; I was feeling the fatigue which had been dogging me since the Dollar Lake area. Dave had harbored the idea that, at Gunsight Pass, we needed be in a position to have a solid chance of reaching the summit within our time constraints. We had done that, and it was clear that he sensed the opportunity and had a little more energy in reserve than I did.
As I crested the ridge and had the broad Anderson Basin and the east face of Kings Peak open up to me, two thoughts passed through my head: (1) I could bag Kings Peak, but it would take a lot out of me; or (2) I could climb West Gunsight Peak (Dome), knock off the only one of the seven 13ers in this geographical area I had not climbed, save some time and assure myself that I would have plenty of reserve energy to make the slog back. I gazed to my right at the 35º slope of Dome’s south exposure. It would be a tough climb. Over on Kings there would be tracks to follow; here there would be none. Over on Kings there would be company; here I would be solo. Over on Kings I would be sheltered from the northwesterly winds; here I would have to battle them in the open.
One of the important challenges of endeavors involving long hours of tough work is the ability to make sound decisions at each stage of the activity. Having input from fellow climbers makes things easier, but I was isolated. As carefully as possible I weighed the pros and cons and opted to climb West Gunsight Peak. Self talk is an important component of staying positive, and I was going to engage in more of that during my ascent to the summit of West Gunsight than I had in a long, long time.
Rest-stepping almost the entire way, I reached a spot where I had to turn my back to the gusting tornadic winds. I had seen hundreds of dust devils while living in Arizona, but today was the first time I had seen multiple “snow devils.” There was an eerie beauty in those swirling transparent milky columns, but the accompanying shotgun blasts of snow granules was a stark reminder that being beautiful does not always mean being gentle. I steeled my will to remain focused on rhythm and constancy. My micro-spikes were gripping well; I did my best to stay on wind-scoured hardened snow and to avoid the softer drifts where I sunk eight inches or more before finding firm snow.
During my first break I made a huge mistake from which serendipity rescued me. I took off one of my down mittens so I could make an adjustment to my cap. Somehow I lost the grip on the glove and the wind took it as though it were a cotton ball in a wind tunnel. Screaming “no!” didn’t help one iota. I watched helplessly as the careening mitten hop- scotched across a small rise and disappeared. Crap! I HAD to get that glove! I began plunge stepping as fast as I dared, downhill and over to the edge of the rise. I saw the now small black form come to a stop 100 yards below me, and at the same time I saw Matt, the skier we had passed at the ski cache. The wind stopped blowing just long enough for me to be able to shout, “Matt, my glove!” Matt looked to his right, where I was pointing, and he quickly moved toward the now stationary target. As he picked it up, a wave of relief swept over me. I didn’t mind descending another 100’ if it meant retrieving that necessary piece of clothing. Thanking Matt profusely, I chastised myself for being so careless and then turned to begin, for the second time, the task of climbing the peak. I would not need to use my spare gloves.
With each upward glance the rounded summit neither beckoned nor warned. It was stoic – it didn’t care one whit. It could take it or leave it. I continued with the positive self-talk. I wondered how Dave and the others were doing. During brief breaks I glanced toward Kings and thought I could see a few tiny black dots moving slowly up and down the east side. Were they moving as slowly as I was? And looking up I asked myself several times if what I saw was some sort of false summit. I was hoping it was not. Below the supposed summit was a line of exposed boulders. Smaller outcroppings dotted the slope, and I found the firmest snow a few feet away from them. More self-talk. More swirling snow devils. Short fusillades, flying sandpaper, erosion in action.
Me on the West Gunsight Peak summit - a surprise summit!
At 3:27 p.m. – yes, I looked at my watch – I crested the rounded snow I had believed to mark the summit, and I breathed a sigh of relief to see a prominent cairn twenty-five yards to my east. Yes - with a fist pump. I had been blessed. (It had taken me 2+20 from the pass, 11
Dave on Kings Peak summit.
hours from the actual start at 4:30. More than 14 miles were now behind me.) The wind had eased up, but gusts were still peppering me as I prepared to take a few pictures, eat a quick bite and start down. I have no idea if there was any kind of summit register there, and I didn’t waste one second looking. The sweeping views were magnificent. I later found out that
Kings Peak from the summit of West Gunsight Peak. Henrys Fork Peak & Cliff Point from the West Gunsight Peak summit.
Dave was on the summit of Kings at about the same time. I felt renewed strength and energy infusing my entire being. There is something about reaching a goal that, for me, summons a hidden vigor to the surface, a vigor which tempers will and permeates body and emotion.
Coming Down and Back to the Ski Cache
Making sure to leave nothing behind, I began my descent at 3:42, excited and quickened. My beeline downward trajectory bisected the switchback tracks I had chiseled into the frozen snow during my laborious ascent. Each plunge step granted me excellent purchase. The ascent had taken over an hour, the descent required only twenty minutes. I laughed, “This is fun!.” I half ran to the base of the peak, hurried to the east edge of the basin, and carefully worked my way down the steep slope leading to the snowshoe cache. As I negotiated the icier patches I began to notice how tired my legs were. Fatigue always demands heightened care, and I inched my way down the trickier areas.
Once back at the rocks sheltering our winter flip flops I brushed snow from a flat boulder and sat down for the first time since beginning the trek. It was 4:25. I waited 35 minutes for Dave to return, and during this interlude I reflected on what we had done and what still lay ahead of us. Unexpectedly, a fox, coming out of nowhere, loped below the snow trail and scampered into the boulders 200 yards to the south. What on earth was it doing there? Comic relief, if nothing else.
The Coming Out Party
Dave & I have a mini-celebration at the ski cache. I took this picture of the north face of West Gunsight Peak 10 minutes after leaving the ski cache.
I congratulated Dave as he arrived, an ear-to-ear grin gracing his countenance. He carried his snowshoes - I had already donned mine - and we hurried down to the ski cache below Gunsight Pass. It was 5:12. We chatted with several of the skiers, and choked down some chunks of Clif bar, readying ourselves for the return. Same segments, reverse order: Dollar Lake, Elkhorn Crossing, summer TH and winter TH. Three skiers launched their return a couple of minutes before we did, and quickly they were only miniature figures in the late afternoon sun. We turned our backs on the ski cache at 5:36.
Further along, West Gunsight and Kings. The "short-cut" chute to Anderson Pass is easily visible. Late afternoon coloring: nothing more beautiful. We kept looking back to enjoy the views.
Snow conditions were favorable; the sunshine granted welcome warmth as we plied the southern expanse of the basin. We stopped to admire the alpenglow on the Uintas and their winter grace and comeliness. There is a siren quality about this country, and we had been fortunate that the nastier elements had, at least today, been tempered. Had it been perfect? No. Could it have been uglier, tougher, and unbearable? Yes. We were taking advantage of what Mother Nature was offering and we were grateful. Both Dave and I were tired, our pack straps were beginning to gnaw at our shoulders and the sun was slipping inexorably toward the western ridges. A small group of skiers passed us, ZeeJay among them. I asked her to check if Brent would like to get back to Salt Lake sooner by riding with either her or someone else. She offered to take care of that for us.
We passed west of Dollar Lake at 6:50, we lost direct sunlight about 7 o’clock and at Elkhorn Crossing (7:54) we stowed our sunglasses, slipped on our jackets again and donned our headlamps. I glanced up to the west where the last vestiges of twilight were fading. A tiny crescent moon hung there like a hammer dent in light blue drywall. Matt caught up to us and from a broken branch eagerly plucked a full water bottle which he had stashed there in the morning. He informed us there was one more skier behind him. He departed two minutes before we did and he promised to let the Swansons know of our whereabouts. We marked our departure at 8:10. As it turned out, Matt would reach the winter TH forty minutes ahead of us. We followed the easy-to-track trail for what seemed forever. How on earth could it take so long for five miles to pass under our clawed footwear? We took frequent breaks and 10-minute turns trail breaking. The packs seemed to become heavier and heavier. Dave was not feeling all that well, mostly the effects of carrying the weighty pack for so many hours. I was doing all right, weary but still far from exhaustion. The last skier passed us one hour before we attained the summer TH.
At long last we made a 45º turn to the left, and the slight incline told me we were leaving the river bed and a mere 100 yards from the summer TH. Hip-hip-hooray! It was 11:10, so it had taken us three hours to march five miles. The final 3.4 miles would be relatively flat. The time was much later than we had calculated, but we were now within striking distance of the finish. We continued to alternate lead position; there was something refreshing in taking turns. Our pace to the cars was steady but measured. There would be no “sprinting to the finish line” for us tonight.
At 12:30 I saw the running lights atop Larry Swanson’s parked camper. Dave had already told me to go ahead as I had a little more energy for the final stretch than he did. At 12:40 I greeted Larry and thanked him for waiting for us. Dave shuffled in 5 minutes later. We had done it, and we were safe. My Honda Pilot was parked close by, compliments of Brent who had driven back with ZeeJay. We had been underway more than 20 hours, awake for more than 24 hours.
I let Dave off and helped him unload his gear around 4 o’clock. I climbed wearily into bed at 4:30. Will we ever do this again? Maybe. Was it worth it? Probably. Would we recommend it? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. All we can say is, “It can be done.” Good luck…