In late 2006 I started corresponding with MOCKBA via email regarding geocaching. One thing led to another and he invited me to try backcountry ski touring in early February 2007. I was pretty aprehensive and must have told him about a million times that I didn't know how to do a telemark turn and they'd be waiting for me a long time on the downhills. He told me that I could just zigzag back and forth if I had to, so I marched down to REI, rented some gear, and off I went. I felt like the trip was a big game of chicken, as he, Mike, and Rob kept making seemingly preposterous suggestions as to how much farther we would go and what distant peak we would climb and no one wanted to be the one to dissent. The trip had been rated as "not too difficult plus", the second lowest rating and I hadn't even brought a headlamp. Fortunately, they either decided their plans were unrealistic or they just took pity on me and we finished up just as it was getting dark. (See Rock Slide Canyon Ridge Loop)
I purchased my own gear and went on several more trips with the crew that season. The subject of the Kings Peak trip came up from time to time and gradually it dawned on me that I was capable of at least trying it.
Prior to the WMC Kings Peak ski trip every year the organizers go out and set a track to Elkhorn Crossing, about 8 miles one way. After Elkhorn, trail breaking isn't as critical since this terrain is more windblown and the snow more consolidated. Larry Swanson and his friend Alexis Kelner, one of the authors of the "Wasatch Tours" ski touring book series, started the process and went a couple of miles past the summer trailhead. MOCKBA, Rob, Mike, John, and I went out a short time later to continue their work (see Kings Peak Tour 07: The Prelude). It was incredibly slow going. There was an annoying break through crust on top of sugary snow. Snow cover was thinner than normal so there were lots of uncovered obstacles to go over and around. The route is mostly directly on top of the creek and there were many pools of open water and sketchy snow bridges connecting them. It took us 7 hours just to get to Elkhorn Crossing at 4PM and we had to ski back in the dark. I had a much easier time than the guys though as I wasn't breaking through as often since I weighed less. Mike and Rob both broke through to the water on separate occasions.
This trip was very valuable to me as it allowed me to see that the drive on the dirt road wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. Although the guys periodically mentioned prior run-ins with various snow banks, I didn't think I'd have any trouble with it as long as I went slow. It also let me see what the terrain was like and be confident I could handle it. There would be no surprises.
That summer, I tried to go on one 8-11 hour day hike a week to as high of an elevation as possible to build up a good base. I made 8 trips to the Uintas, climbing Lamotte; all 3 summits of Powell; Kletting, A-1, and Bald Mt.; Agassiz; 12625 and 12606, both south of Beulah; North Cathedral; Beulah; and 12140, north of Beulah. In addition I did shorter hikes closer to home.
Winter rolled around and it was back to skiing. Every weekend I headed out with some subset of Rob, Mike, MOCKBA, and Sharon to the western Uintas. It was always nice when Sharon was around since then there were two of us to talk the guys out of doing something that would land us out past midnight. As it was, quite a few of our trips finished well after dark and most were over 18 miles in length. I doubted that very many other people did this week after week and thought relatively speaking, I'd be in good shape for Kings.
Again, I kept looking for an excuse to chicken out. With a low of 6 degrees, a blustery wind, and an 80% chance of snow forecasted, I thought I had found one. How fortuitous. But Thursday, the day before the drive, I got a call from Michael Hannan, aka Moogie737, who inquired as to whether I was going and if I wanted to caravan to the trailhead with him. The last time I had spoken to Michael, he still as yet had never even tried cross country skiing. He said that he had skied up Millcreek Canyon (a gently sloping unplowed road) 4.5 miles one way that morning. Things had gone well and he was interested in giving Kings Peak a try. Well, he shamed me into going. I figured that if some guy who had only gone x-country skiing once was willing to go I had no excuse not to. By this time the predicted low had risen to 19 and that didn't seem quite so bad and the 80% chance of snow was only supposed to amount to an inch or less. I was in.
Michael and I drove up in separate cars because we both wanted to sleep in our vehicles. We skipped Lotties because we wanted to do the driving in the daylight. We arrived about 7pm and met some other campers. We turned in early before the folks who had eaten at Lotties got there. About 9:10 I looked out my window and watched MOCKBA and others scurrying around. The stars were out in full force and it was hard to put much credence into an 80% chance of snow.
I didn't sleep very well, but did better than the year before. My alarm rang at 4am. I sat up a few minutes later, just in time to see a snowshoer and skier glide by. I was going to have a lot of catching up to do. Sometime before 5, MOCKBA politely inquired when I might be ready and I told him, Mike, and Rob to just go ahead. Michael also was ready way before me and I told him to go ahead as well. I finally left camp at 5:20am, again the last person. This time I didn't feel demoralized, just incompetent. I can only imagine how much longer it would have taken me if I had to pack up a tent and sleeping bag and move gear into my car. At least it would be easy to find a place to pee.
It was snowing lightly but was really warm. My thermometer said 28 degrees. The snowflakes softly illuminated by my headlamp were a magical sight. The snow conditions were perfect and my waxless fishscale skis were gripping great.
I wasn't sure if I could catch people this year because there wasn't much trailbreaking to slow them down. I figured I could at least catch Michael since this was only his second time on x-country skis and he was unfamiliar with the territory. I met up with Larry Swanson and Cheryl at the summer compground and finally caught Michael about 7:40am. I thought he was doing great for his second time on x-country skis. He was a little awkward at getting around obstacles, but on straight stretches he looked good! We played leapfrog to Elkhorn Crossing which we reached about 9am, where we met up with Rob and Mike.
Elkhorn Crossing is a major milestone because this is where you start breaking out of the trees into Henrys Fork Basin and get great views of Kings Peak, East and West Gunsight Peaks, and Henrys Fork Peak. Up to this point there hadn't been any wind, but that quickly changed. In the upper basin, we would get hit with huge gusts of swirling snow. I ducked behind one of the few trees and put on some more clothes. I didn't remember this part being windy at all last year and thought if it was this windy here, how was it going to be on the other side of Gunsight? I was dreading finding out.
Michael, Rob, Mike, and I all played leapfrog as we approached Gunsight Pass. We met Signe (the snowshoer I had seen first thing in the morning) on her way down from Gunsight complaining she wasn't feeling well. I was really impressed by how far and how fast she had come since in my opinion snowshoeing is much harder work than skiing. We also met Dave Hanscom coming down complaining of a sore shoulder.
As the terrain gradually steepened, I decided to save energy and put on my skins. I stopped twice to do so in spots I thought weren't so windy only to be pushed off balance by unexpected gusts. If it was windy enough to blow me around, it was certainly windy enough to blow my skins away so I gave up. I stopped a third time and finally was successful. This area was completely open and there was nowhere to take shelter. Michael caught up to me as I was messing with my skins and he remarked that he'd be lucky just to make it to the top of the pass.
We saw a big pile of skis stashed at the base of the pass and followed suit. I left my poles too since I planned to have my 8 oz. ice axe out, purchased especially for the occasion, and didn't want to have to worry about what to do with my poles later. On the way up to the top of the pass I met two people coming down and they said it was even windier on the other side so I spent considerable time digging out my goggles and face mask only to abandon them a short time later since I'd rather breathe than be warm.
I booted up to the top of the pass and really didn't think conditions were any worse than what I'd already experienced. Both were bad. Gunsight Pass was reached at 11:55am.
In my pretrip planning I had thought surely I could make it from Gunsight to Kings in less than 3 hours. Now I was about to find out. As the crow flies, it is 1.6 miles from the pass to Kings, and Kings is only 1,640 feet higher. How hard could it be? But, people aren't crows and the terrain doesn't rise up at a nice steady grade. As you traverse around West Gunsight, 13103 you even loose some elevation. Even so, it is less than 2 miles and perhaps at most 1,800' of gain.
Rob and Mike were long gone and it was just me and Michael. We could see people ahead in the distance, but their tracks were quickly blown over and it was like we were trailbreaking from scratch in many places. Usually, we could tell where they had walked but it was so windblown that at times I wasn't even certain if we were on their track at all. I wondered if they had traversed below us, but it was hard to tell. This wasn't the nice lock your foot in place snow of the Wasatch, put instead was dry slippy slidey stuff over hardpack. During this section Michael and I stuck to each other like glue to benefit from each other's trail breaking, but Michael I am sure did most of it. We finally crested the southeast ridge of West Gunsight, 13103 and found the other side to be more rocky than snowy. We took a break near the base of Kings, the first time I had sat down all day.
Ahead of us on the steep slope we saw various specks ascending. Again, in many places it was like breaking the trail from scratch, but at least now our route was clear. As we neared the crest of the ridge, earlier summiters were already descending. First came Jan and Ramon. I had crossed paths with Jan skiing in Millcreek Canyon all winter and had run into Ramon there once. Next came MOCKBA who had made an amazing recovery from a broken leg in an auto accident this past summer. He is a true inspiration, having hiked at times on a broken leg and crutches. Just four months earlier he had complained "Feels good to have the season restarted, but boy am I out of shape!"
Next we saw Rob. Rob had had to break trail all the way up the final stretch by himself, since he also had trouble following the trail of those who had gone before and it was Rob's trail we were following now. We finally caught up to Mike who had skied carrying snowshoes all the way to Gunsight and was now using them. Just as we were reaching the summit, we crossed paths with a group of 3 whom MOCKBA had referred to as a "family". If they really were all members of the same family this was truely impressive. Most families I know wouldn't have been patient enough with each other to make it all the way to Kings Peak. It turns out that these three were two brothers, Andrew and Dan, and their friend Anna.
Finally, we observed Brian who had carried his skis the whole way, put them on and begin his descent. There is no way I'll ever be able to ski like that. I don't even aspire to it. It's just out of the question.
A few more steps and we had made it. The time was 3:05pm. It had taken over 3 hours to go less than 2 miles. Thankfully, it wasn't so windy on this final stretch and was only a little windy on the summit which had been blown bare. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and headed down. We still had a long way to go. Steve Swanson was close behind, the 12th person to summit that day. Twelve people, pretty impressive I thought.
Mike, Michael, and I stuck fairly close together on the way back to Gunsight Pass. We could see Andrew, Dan, and Anna ahead of us. As they got close to the pass they made an abrupt descent of about 200' and then climbed back up to the pass by a less steep route. I thought this was odd but as we got closer, the snow became pretty hard and it was difficult to keep from slipping. Presumably, they had chosen to avoid this section. Michael and I both had ice axes, and Mike had a ski pole with a claw. I did slip, self arrested quickly, but then was stuck. The snow seemed too hard to kick my feet in and any movement at all seemed to result in a further slip. I contemplated a controlled slide down to a softer spot. I probed carefully around with my right foot trying not to move my upper body and finally found a soft spot. In the meantime, Michael had climbed down and let me rest my left foot on his axe. I chopped a few steps back to where I had been and we were off again.
We got back to the pass sometime after 5pm. Mike waited for Steve Swanson to make it back safely, while Michael and I headed down to our skis. Things had gone great up to this point, but now a wee bit of difficulty arose. It quickly became apparent that Michael didn't know how to ski downhill. The sun was sinking lower and we were 13 miles from our cars. Groan! I skied a short distance ahead and then waited what seemed like an eternity while he slowly made his way down, falling repeatedly as he went. I had counted on a speedy exit to the trailhead and was starting to wonder about my reserves and what would happen to me if I stayed with Michael back to the car. Mike caught up to me as I was putting toe warmers in my boots and cracking open a pack of hand warmers. We discussed the situation and Mike said that Steve was planning to do "sweep" and Steve would look after Michael. It seemed too good to be true!
Sure enough Steve showed up and we explained the situation to him and he very willingly and pleasantly said he would shephard Michael down. That man is an absolute saint! I can not gush enough about him. He has hosted this trip for 35 years, made it to the summit over 30 times, and year after year watches to make sure everyone gets out safely. At this point I could say something like "and he's 69 years old!", but that would be kind of like someone else saying "ZeeJay made it to the top and she's a woman!".
Mike is much faster than I am at gliding downhill so I told him to go ahead and that I would be fine. I had skied this terrain before, was quite comfortable with it, and had a GPS to back me up just in case. So, Mike took off and I skied the 13 miles out by myself. The upper basin was now very pleasant as the wind had died down completely. I was hoping to get out of the creek before dark, but had to turn on my headlamp with about 10 minutes to go. All the way down, anytime I hit some little obstacle I imagined what it would be like for Michael in the dark. There are several places where if you are not careful, you can land in the water.
I made it out of the creek bed and back to the unplowed road. From there it should have been an easy 3 mile, almost flat, ski back to the car. But, unfortunately I began feeling a little nauseous. Even though I was making fairly good time, I couldn't wait to get it over with. I just wanted to get back to the car and lie down. I was wishing I had prepared my husband for the possibility of my driving back the next morning. I finally vomited and after that everything was fine again and my energy level was restored. I saw headlights in front of me a few minutes later and knew I had made it. It was 9:20pm when I reached the cars, exactly 16 hours after I had started.
Larry got out of his car to talk to me and was looking a little worried. I told him I thought it would be another 2 hours until Michael and Steve showed up. He was clearly concerned. I drove home not feeling very good about the whole thing. I felt like I had abandoned Michael and if the tables were turned, I don't think he would have left me. But, I did what I felt I had to do and life goes on.
I was just dying to call Michael the next morning to see how he was doing and to see if he and Steve had gotten back OK. However, I didn't want to call too early and I figured he'd be in church anyway so I waited until the afternoon. I was relieved to find him in good spirits. He had gotten back to the car at 11:30 pm. Steve had stuck with him all the way to the unplowed road and then waited for him at the end with Larry and Cheryl. What a guy!
Michael was in such good spirits that the two word phrase "next year" came up several times in our conversation. He mentioned that he would get his own equipment and practice extensively before then. As for me, when I got back to the cars I told Larry he wouldn't be seeing me next year. He replied that next year was a long ways away. I have to admit, 2 days later, I started thinking about next year too.