A Personal Account
West Gunsight Peak (snowcovered, left of center), Gunsight Pass, and Anderson Flats viewed from King's summit
A few years ago I would have thought skiing into Henry's Fork basin and summiting King's Peak (13,528 ft.) on the last Saturday of March was something other people did, but not me.
I did do it. Here's the story:
I said goodbye to my wife and my boys Friday morning and went to work. At 3PM I left work and made a stop at REI to rent skis. Then I made one more stop at friend Joe's house to pick up ski climbing skins. I was on the road toward Evanston by 4:15 and I arrived at the trailhead in 2.5 hours. It's not really a trailhead. Henry's Fork campground is 3 miles from the winter car camp but because the road is not plowed, there is an extra 6 miles roundtrip added to the journey.
There were a few vehicles already at the camp area. One fellow introduced himself as Steve from Kaysville. It would also be his first attempt of skiing into King's Peak. I got all of my gear organized and made a bed in my Dodge Caravan, then I ate a dinner of grapefruit and cold pasta with veggie tomato sauce. It wasn't bad, really. I was happy to be eating valuable carbs to give me energy for the morning.
Like every other camping experience I've had, I did not sleep well. And I thought I had the perfect setup: foam mattress, down comforter, lots of space in the minivan. Nope. Although my body was tired, the anxiety and excitement I had anticipating being on the trail in a few hours kept my mind awake. I wanted to get out and be on those skis, adding mile upon mile to reach the distant goal of Utah's highest mountain.
Sometime around 4AM lights shone from within the vehicle parked in front of me. I decided to lay awake for the next twenty minutes and then I arose. First task: turn on the car engine and get warm. Next I went to put in contact lenses, only to see the saline solution freeze almost instantaneously with my lenses trapped and frozen too. I had a little panic there. Could I go without crisp eyesight? Problem solved by letting the heater air flow over the lense case.
At 5AM I was on skis and beginning the trek. The man I met the night before, Steve, followed closely behind. The morning was fully dark, but the sky was clear and stars overhead were inspirational.
After about an hour we reached the campground and continued following the ski track left by those who had started before us. The winter trail does not follow the summer trail. For the first 8 miles we followed the creek, skiing on it or closely parallel to it.
I was glad to see the beginnings of sunrise low in the sky, and soon it was light enough to switch off the headlamp. Along the way we passed openings in the snow were I could see the icy water flowing, but I was never in danger of falling in. However, I made a mental note to remember those holes for when I would be skiing back in the dark. In the first few hours, we passed others, including one skier who was turning back because of blistered feet, and another who was getting nowhere fast on heavy alpine touring gear. We caught up to three snowshoers, men I knew and had hiked with before. They were attempting the near impossible: snowshoeing the 35 miles to King's and back in one day. All three of these men are in their 60s, and I was confident they could do it.
Another hour and we caught up with the lead group. These were the veterans who do this trek year after year. I became one in a line of about 9 people shuffling through new snow, breaking a trail and climbing steadily up the gentle slope toward upper Henry's Fork basin. After a break near Elkhorn crossing, we soon came out of the trees and into the wide open flats of Upper Henry's. There, the majestic walls, castles and peaks lining the fork come into view in one grand panorama. Ahead in the distance The Big Prize, King's Peak, stands framed between West Gunsight and Henry's Fork peak. From this view the peak looks like a massive tri-angular white sail. We did not make a beeline for the peak, however. Instead, we aimed a few miles to the left where we will go over Gunsight Pass and behind West Gunsight peak.
Skiing in Upper Henry's. King's Peak on the right above the notch
Just being in the spacious grandeur of upper Henry's basin is reward for the physical effort. The three primary colors around are white, green and red: snow, trees and cliff faces. A fourth color, sky blue, made an appearance later while we were on the backside of West Gunsight and on the summit of King's.
Skiing toward Gunsight Pass (left)
After what seemed like another few hours I arrived at the base of Gunsight Pass, where everyone had left skis to boot the remaining distance. Because I had to tend to urgent personal matters *ahem* I was the last of our group to go up and over the pass. (Ever tried to poop in a strong freezing wind?) At this point my hunger was fierce and couldn't be ignored. I sat on a rock and tried to choke down half a sandwhich while freezing freeway speed winds swirled around me. On the other side I could see the bulk of the group climbing a steep rocky slope which leads to the high plateau behind West Gunsight. I followed the tracks and picked my way through the mix of hard snow and rocks. It must have taken me an hour or more to finish this part of the climb. I can't overstate how exhausting it was to climb up this steep slope. Finally after reaching topside I began the high plateau traverse (12,000 ft), and finally I could see the full East face of King's Peak about 1.5 miles away. Wind was fierce on this traverse. I could see the gust-assaults coming in the form of thin spindrift and had to turn my back against them until they passed. I made slow progress but kept moving. Suddenly my concentration was broken when I heard a shout and saw something sliding toward me to my right. A climber ahead of me, Michael, had lost one of his gloves and I watched it skid quickly, pushed by the wind, down to where I had been 10 minutes before. I turned around and rushed back downhill to catch it before it became lost for good. I met Michael and he thanked me, then he announced he didn't have time to attempt the summit of King's. He was one of the three snowshoers, and they did not have the advantage of gliding out quickly on skis. Michael instead made a hard right and aimed for West Gunsight peak. On my progress toward the summit of King's, I looked over across Anderson flats several times to see Michael making progress toward his alternate goal, and finally I saw his figure on top of that peak.
False summit in foreground and Henry's Fork beyond
At the base of King's, I ate some more food to give me fuel for the last 900 feet to the summit. I could see most of the group on the upper mountain. I climbed steadily over snow and boulders, but progress was agonizingly slow. On the upper third I began to meet the first summiters coming down. One called to me and informed me that the mandatory turn-around time of 3:00PM had passed. Then his partner corrected him saying that the turn-around time had been revised to 4PM because of the extra hour of daylight savings. Still, I knew I was going close to the limit for a safe return. I was nearing the summit and how could I turn around when I was so close? I passed more of the group coming down. They informed me that the summit block was just around the corner.
At 4:25PM I reached King's Peak summit alone. It was quiet, not even much of a breeze was there. The sun shone between harmless clouds. No one was there to photograph my "hero shot" so I turned the camera on myself for a less appealing arm's length self-portrait. Around me three vast glacier-carved basins and the mountains that divide them from eachother stretched to the horizon. The predominant color is white.
I could see the hikers in my group traversing back over the Anderson Flat where they would soon disappear back down the steep slope leading to Gunsight Pass. I was comforted to see Steve from Kaysville nearing the bottom of the mountain as I started down. I caught up with Steve and saw that he was lingering in the area for some reason. "Have you lost something?" I shouted. He had set his pack down before making the final push to the summit, and now he was wandering the area in search of it. I had passed his pack on my way up and knew exactly where it was. I pointed him in the right direction and he found it.
We began to cross the flats together, and I was 5 minutes ahead of him. My hunger was back, twisting my stomach but without the pleasure of appetite. I ate a Cliff Bar and reached for my water tube and was alarmed to discover I was out of water. I was at that point six miles from the nearest water, which I had hung in a tree near Elkhorn crossing. Then I began to feel dizzy. I believe I was feeling the symptoms of dehydration. Although the temperature all day was near freezing, my body is in a constant sweat from all of the physical work. I usually stay warm if I keep moving. Going up and down that peak had me feeling very warm. Now I was in need of water. Thank God Steve couldn't find his pack. I repeat: I thank God he was still there looking for his pack, otherwise he would have been far ahead of me and out of reach. (And fortunate I was there to guide him to his pack!) I let him catch up and then begged some water. He didn't have very much left but what he was able to give me was enough to sustain me. I still had a sandwich left that had water-filled meat and vegetables, and I think I could have gotten to my water stash, but I'm thankful I didn't have that trial. The entire way back my hunger raged, but I didn't attempt to eat much food because without water I could have become more dehydrated.
South King's Peak, once believed to be Utah's highest point
Under the pass, Steve stopped to melt snow and eat dinner. It was getting late and the sun was setting. I told him I needed to keep moving, so I went ahead alone, comforted to know someone was behind me. I skied for what seemed hours and at last I arrived at the tree where I hung a bottle of water. There I also met Michael, whose glove I saved, and Dave, the only snowshoer to summit. I drank up and then clicked on my headlamp. I began the day in darkness and I would be ending in the same darkness.
I was pleased to be making what I thought was quick progress skiing through the trees. There were many "free ride" stretches where I could coast at a little more than jogging speed. Nevertheless, it was a long trek back to the campground and then to the car. The dark didn't bother me. What did bother me was the sensation I had of going in circles. The trail went on and on. Surely I have gone 5 miles!
I thought as I kept moving my exhausted body over the snow. I had taken a few breaks and a few miles from the summer trailhead Steve caught up with me and we skied out together. After what seemed a cruel trick my mind played of going in circles, we finally arrived at the campground. Only 3 miles left to go where I could fire up the car engine and drink an ice cold Coke. Seriously, I could feel a little less physical and mental pain when I had these pleasant thoughts. I kicked and glided pretty well over those last 3 miles, and there were stretches of pleasant coasting. Finally up ahead I saw parking lights. It was the van that belongs to the Swanson brothers, Larry and Steve. These are the guys who started the King's Peak March ski trip over 36 years ago. They host the trip year after year and are the last ones to leave after checking off all the names on the list of participants as they return to the vehicles. I thanked them for waiting and told them there were 3 others behind me. They weren't too pleased to hear that the snowshoers were probably an hour behind me [they were actually 40 minutes behind]. I turned on my van engine and saw the time: it was 12:00 AM. I did a double take. What?!
I expected to see 10:30 or 11 PM. But Midnight! I had been on the move for 19 hours!
I was relieved to be out out of the woods and down safely. It was the most difficult physical activity I have done. Most of the way back my body just wanted to drop and never get up. Doing that was never an option. I was going to make it back to the car if it took me all night. I called my wife from Mountainview Wyoming where I could finally get signal. Of course she was frantic after not hearing from me for over 30 hours. I don't blame her. I failed to mention that it was going to be an especially long day and that I wouldn't be able to call her. That day turned out to be longer than I expected.
So now I know what I'm capable of. Would I do it again? Ask me next year.