Hallucinating in the Utah Outback
In the summer of 2004, I flew to Salt Lake City to begin my quest to climb the highpoints of Utah and Idaho. On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of “degree of difficulty” with Alaska’s Mt. McKinley rated a 10, Idaho’s Borah Peak is considered an 8 and Utah’s Kings Peak a 7. At 12,600 feet, Borah is not quite as high as Kings (13,500) and it is a relatively short scamper (3 ½ miles, one-way) but Borah is very steep. In fact, it is the steepest of the 50 state highpoints
Kings Peak, on the other hand, is very remote and upon arriving at the trailhead, requires a 14-mile hike just to reach the base of the peak. Kings Peak is one of the least climbed state highpoints because of this inaccessibility. While Borah is climbed in a day, Kings typically is done in 3 days because of the distanced involved. I decided to tackle Kings Peak first, thinking that the very gradual altitude gain during the long trek in would give my body a better opportunity to adjust to the altitude.
I had hoped to do Kings with my daughter, Kea, my friend Jim Lundgren and his daughter, Ashley. Three years earlier, Jim and Ashley joined me in Japan to climb Mt. Fuji, the nation’s highpoint. We had a wonderful experience and I was anxious to share the Utah experience with Kea, as well. As it turned out, none of the three was able to join me. Left to doing this one solo, I decided I would push myself a bit and do Kings in two days: to hike in as far as I could go on day 1, climb to the summit early the next day, and then hightail it back out the 14 miles to my car before nightfall of day 2.
This was my first overnight trek in the mountains and I carried about 50 pounds on my back: a tent, sleeping bag, food, water, extra clothing and gear. I had spent the previous night in a motel in Evanston, Wyoming, a small town in the state’s southwest corner near the Utah border and after a two-hour drive the next morning, found myself at Kings’ remote trailhead. I left my rental car around noon in delightful 67-degree weather and I lumbered up the trail, feeling the full weight of my pack. By 5pm, I had hiked about 10 miles and my altimeter registered 10,000 feet. I decided to stop here and set up camp. I was in a high valley, surrounded by majestic peaks. And from this vantage point, I could see my goal, the summit of Kings Peak. I thought my day’s exertion would allow me a restful night’s sleep but the altitude caused me enough of a headache that I slept an hour or two, at most.
At dawn, I arose eagerly and prepared for the climax of my mountain adventure. I ate a modest breakfast, filled my bottles from a nearby stream and treated the water with iodine tablets. Rather than carry my large backpack, I filled a small daypack with the bare essentials for the climb and left all other possessions in my tent. This lighter pack allowed me to move faster than the exhausting day before. I was rejuvenated and ready to head out.
The trail ahead offered a gradual and winding 4-mile hike to reach the base of Kings Peak. However, I chose a more direct approach, which took me across the valley floor straight for Utah’s highest summit. This shortcut would cut my distance in half, I reasoned, and I preferred a steeper, more direct approach anyway because it’s just so much more exciting & fun.
My first challenge after reaching the other side of the valley floor was a long and steep, rocky chute, rising 1,200 feet up an incline sloped from 30 to 60-degrees. It took some time to gain the top of this chute: two steps up were too often followed by one or two steps back as the loose rocks underneath my feet gave way. Once on top, though, the summit pyramid was all that lay before me: a very large heap of rocks that rose an additional 1,500 feet to the summit. After a short break for lunch, I continued my ascent. Two hours of upward-plodding brought me to a final, precarious slab of rock, shared by a man and his two sons. I had finally arrived at the top of Utah!
The climbers who shared the summit with me were the first people I had seen since a handful of hikers near the trailhead the day before. They were awaiting the arrival of a friend who was making his second attempt on this remote peak. Their friend, Richard Carey, arrived just as I began to start back down. I visited with him briefly and discovered that Kings Peak was Richard’s 50th state highpoint. I felt privileged to witness the culmination of his peak-bagging dreams. He now belonged to an elite group of adventurers who had also climbed, hiked, walked or driven to the top of all 50 states!
It was on the way down from the summit when I realized how exhausted I was. My lack of sleep and the grueling two days were beginning to take a toll on me. It was a chore working my way down through the rocks. I tried to focus on every step now as any misplaced one could easily result in a turned ankle…or worse. Most climbing injuries occur during the descent when bodies are tired, muscles spent, and one’s mental guard is down a bit.
I made it off the 1,500-foot summit pyramid in good shape and hiked over to the top of the rocky chute. The upper section is the steepest, angled at about 60-degrees and I used my hands to lower myself down. When the slope lessened a bit I was able to descend faster. It was more of a controlled fall, and my biggest concern was hyper-extending my knee. I fell a half-dozen times, I’m sure, as my “run” down the slope got out of control. After one fall, as I was emptying my shoes of small rocks, I noticed a large white tent at the bottom of the chute. A man was standing next to the tent and it seemed he was looking up at me. I was sure he was amused at the site of me running down, falling, running some more and falling again. I was sure he was wondering “what’s this screwball doing coming down the mountain in this manner?” And then I saw another man, walking toward the fellow next to the tent…I was looking forward to visiting with these guys after getting off the chute. Any conversation would be a welcomed break, I thought.
As I neared the bottom of the chute and I looked in the direction of the tent, it was gone...and the two men had disappeared, as well ! I scanned the valley near and far and neither tent nor men were to be found. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was exhausted, sleep-deprived and still at altitude and I was hallucinating. The former conditions caused the latter, I surmised.
I continued on across the valley in the direction of my camp and after an hour had passed, I still had not located my tent. I consulted my GPS and I just could not believe the spot it was pointing me to. And so I continued to search until, finally, I decided to follow the GPS. Within 10 minutes I had found my camp. My mind was continuing to play tricks.
Prior to my trip, I told my wife I would do Kings Peak in two days and so she expected my call at the end of this second day. I could have called her and told her I was staying an extra night but I had no cell phone. I tried to rent one in Salt Lake City but a short-term rental was not available. I wanted to spend another night at this camp, get properly hydrated, have a nutritious meal and get some rest. But I knew if I didn’t hike out today, my wife would likely call the authorities and a search would begin for me. I did not want that to happen ! I needed to gather my things and hit the trail as soon as possible. I had three hours until sunset and ten miles to hike to get to my car. I decided to jettison everything except water, some snacks and a few articles of clothing. I felt awful about doing this. I could have avoided this by having a cell phone.
Carrying only the small daypack, I made good time on the trail. After an hour or so I entered the forest and soon came upon a boy standing in the middle of the trail, about 50 yards away. But what I saw next to him startled me – it was large black bear! It was broadside, right in front of the boy. But as I got closer, I realized it was not a bear but a large black dog, obviously the boy’s pet...and then I got closer still and I was stunned to see that it WAS a bear after all! But a few steps closer…and boy and beast disappeared ! My mind was at it again.
Down the trail a mile or so, I noticed a boy in a white t-shirt, staring at me. And as I got nearer, he too disappeared. I continued at a good clip but wondered if I was on the yellow-brick road on the way to Oz… then I came upon two girls sitting on a log, talking with each other, their backs to me…and then they were gone. A little while later, after coming around a bend I came upon a middle-aged man wearing suspenders, on the ground, on his stomach with his hands and legs behind him and up in the air as if he were hog-tied. He had a look of horror on his face as we looked at each other…and then he was gone!
Finally, as the sun was setting, I came out of the woods and spotted my rental car…and it did not disappear ! I unlocked the car, threw my pack in the back and drove off. I was miles away still from the small town of Evanston but happened upon a nondescript burger joint. It even had a drive-thru window so I wouldn’t have to walk my grubby self into a public place to eat. Nothing tastes better after being out in the mountains than a greasy cheeseburger and a creamy milk shake. What a pleasant ending to my adventure, I thought. I pulled into the drive-thru and a girl’s voice greeted me, “what’ll ya have, mister?”.
“I’ll take a cheeseburger and a shake”
“We don’t have any meat today, mister”
“No meat ?!! OK, I’ll have a shake. What flavors do you have?”
“Anything you want, mister”
“OK, I’ll have a chocolate mint shake”
"We don’t have chocolate mint, mister”
“What flavors do you have, miss?”
“Anything you want, mister”
“OK, then, I’ll have a chocolate shake”
“We don’t have chocolate, mister”
“Miss, what do you have?!!!”
“We have chocolate marshmallow, mister”
“OK, that sounds great, miss. I’ll have a chocolate marshmallow shake”
“OK, mister, please pull forward”
I pulled the car forward, rolled down my window...and the burger joint disappeared !