Trail breaking galore!
In a typical year, the Swansons take care of the trail prepping for their annual Kings Peak ski tour, but if the snow conditions are tough, it may be too difficult for the Founder Generation folks to complete the job. Like back in 2004 (the year of breakable crusts and deep facets), when Rob and myself helped with breaking trail to Elkhorn Xing. This winter, after a long warm spell followed by a string of snowstorms, trail breaking conditions were supposed to be even more challenging. I asked Larry Swanson about the current status of the prep work, and he replied that they are still short of the two-mile mark past the summer TH. Looks like the right time to step in, then!
At the winter TH - note the winds raging on Gilbert ridge! The ever-beautiful lower gorge: the creekbed winds along little cliffs
We met at 5:45 at Parley's lot - a bit later than originally planned, but just in time for Rob to pick freshly baked bagels from Rich's :P The Wyoming prarie was all snowbound with up to 10 foot fall drifts. The entire range of Uintas glowed ahead in the bluebird morning sunlight.
We set out on skis from the winter pull-out at 9 am. The temperatures were already creeping up after the -9 F night, but one could see the winds buffeting the high ridges of the 13ers ahead.
Trailbreaking actually started for us in a mile from the car this time - there was a track of some sluggish winter campers up to that point, and by the end of the day they relocated their camp another two miles, to the summer campground :)). Larry Swanson and Alexis Kelner's old track was very helpful over the first mile+ beyond the CG. The summer trail also had an old track for about 3 miles after the summer TH, then it wandered off kind of aimlessly before finally reaching all the way to Elkhorn. We hardly used more than a couple hundred yards of it.
Ascending the waterfall, a little steep section of an otherwise super-gentle route There is always burbling water beneath the waterfall
Our track did not exactly follow the traditional route, but stayed close. There were a few more creekbank sections in the lower gorge than usually, to avoid collapsing and unsupportive snow at the segments of the creekbed. Also we skirted the lower big meadow along its West side, that's two miles short of Elkhorn, staying 100-200 yards West of the traditional route, generally close to the creek, first a little bit along the edge-of-woods section of the summer trail and then over a succession of smaller meadows. Otherwise, the gorge, the famous waterfall, the meadows, everything as planned.
Judy leads across a meadow, with Mount Powell in sight ...and I fall right through the track, doh!
The snowpack was reasonably thick but a lot of underlying snow was very sugary. So even with the cold temperatures we've seen numerous snowbridge collapses (including two which sent Mike and Rob into the water ... nothing too bad except lots of ski scraping), and also lots of collapses of last week's feeble crusts at the higher-elevation meadows, especially anywhere there was brush under snow (just compare the images on the right and on the left! :). It took over 7 hours of work for 5 people (Mike, Rob, Judy, John, and myself) to get to the basin beyond Elkhorn, and I am still amazed at these snow conditions. (For comparison, it was 5 hours of breaking trail back in the infamously-hard 2004)
Rob and Judy on the waterfall bypass Mike at a turnaround point, with the ramparts of Gilbert Peak behind
In the basin, we could see that a lot of snow have been stripped from North- and West-facing slopes by the winds. Even in the early morning, Kings Peak looked almost perfectly white at a distance - but by the afternoon one could see a number of dark talus fields there. We enjoyed the afternoon sunshine, and also realized that we are not getting further this late in the day. The more ambitious plans to gain the rim of Flat Top, a mile to the West now, were dashed yet another time. Now, let's the glide back begin!
Hopefully the basin ahead will be wind-compacted on the 31st! Judy and John, with Henrys Fork Peak and Mount Powell towering ahead
At dusk, we were pleasantly surprised to meet Bard Lefevre, a fellow KPT 06
summiter. He was camping half-mile upstream from the CG, with lots of various gear - it looks like his plan was to battlefield-test everything for his upcoming Denali trip, and to enjoy the magic of full Moon night. He did get all way to Elkhorn on our track the following day, and added another hole-into-the-creek to our track in the process :)
Now we just need a few more inches of snow to strengthen the track, and maybe a few finishing touches from Larry, and it should be ready for the 20 or 30 crazy souls pushing for the peak on the 31st of March. Anybody wanna join :) ?