Occasionally I read a summitpost page that states that such and such a peak hardly ever gets climbed in the winter. Then it goes on to say there are probably only a handful of winter ascents a year at which point I say "Ha! that's not hardly ever, that's a lot!". In the Uinta range of Utah, some if not most of the 13000 footers have probably never, ever been climbed in calendar winter. The biggest impediment is the remoteness. Let's take 13,165 foot Tokewanna Peak. The easiest feasible route starting from where plowing ends is 38 miles round trip via the East Fork Blacks Fork. My friends and I tried it each of the last two winters and did not make it. This year I finally did, solo.
Michael R. Kelsey climbed Tokewanna the last week of March in 1997 as recorded in the 3rd Edition of his book "Utah Mountaineering Guide". Whether or not this constitutes winter is left to the individual as everyone seems to have their own definition. No matter, his trip is impressive, because he didn't just do Tokewanna, he did a loop trip going up the Left Hand Fork of the East Fork Bear River and down the West Fork Blacks Fork, taking side trips to Wasatch BM and Tokewanna over a 5 day period. At the start, he got dropped off by a snowmobile so he was spared the boring approach, but he finished up on foot on the Mirror Lake Highway. If Mr. Kelsey were to go directly to Tokewanna from the Bear River Snowpark on the Mirror Lake Highway, this would only be about 36.4 miles round trip, shorter than 38, but you start at a lower elevation and have to go up and over two passes along the way.
In February 2013, Mike, Glen and I had a plan that we would ski 6.4 miles down the snowmobiled Blacks Fork road, set up a base camp and from there in one single day, breaking trail all the way, ski 21.5 miles round trip to the summit via the Middle Fork Blacks Fork. On the third day, we would ski out. I thought we had a snow ball's chance in hell of success, but I went because of fear of missing out. What if they made it and I didn't go? On the supposed summit day, we spent 7 hours and 12 minutes skiing 5.5 miles towards our goal and then turned around. Trail breaking was tough. I wrote about it in more detail in this TR. Note that 21.5+6.4*2 comes out less than 38. This is because I have now deemed this route unfeasible in winter, at least by me.
Heading back to camp in February 2013
In January 2014, we had a better plan. I had discovered that the forest service rents out the East Fork Blacks Forks guard station. On the first day we would ski 11 miles on a hopefully snowmobiled road to the cabin. On the second day, we would ski 16 miles RT to the summit by a much easier route than the previous year. On the third day we would slog the 11 miles back to the car.
Day 1: Mike, Glen, Lubos, Suzanne, and I set out for the cabin. Lubos and Suzanne were only skiing to the cabin and back. Only Mike, Glen, and I were trying for Tokewanna. Unfortunately, the road was not merely snowmobiled. Logging was going on and it had been plowed to a 0-2" base and then compacted repeatedly by heavy machinery, resulting in a very slick and uneven surface. Even though the road had been plowed, it was still gated, locked, and marked "Road Closed" so the poor unfortunates of society could not drive on it. Getting to the cabin was a real slog and I was particularly slow and way behind everyone else because my skis gripped poorly on the slick snow.
Day 2: I set off a little before Mike and Glen to start trailbreaking with all of us thinking that they would catch up soon. Well, they didn't. The route starts out with a 4 mile long almost flat section paralleling a stream, a mix of big meadows and open woods. Each time I would get to the far section of a meadow I'd look back expecting to see them but I never did. I finally gave up wondering where they were, because I knew. They were sinking in up to their eyeballs and I wasn't. These guys are stronger and faster than me, but they also weigh more. Occasionally, the snow would collapse on me and I'd sink in to my knee, but usually it was just normal tough trailbreaking, not horrendously tough trailbreaking like they were experiencing.
Thoughts of what should I do ran through my mind. Should I wait, or should I keep going. We hadn't considered this possibility. There was no chance of their getting lost as my tracks were obvious. I kept going because I figured they eventually would catch up even if it took hours and I could help them out some by going first. If I stopped and let them catch up, I might not be fast enough to stay ahead of them.
After the 4 mile flat section, there is a 2.3 mile moderately steep section. I made it up that and still no Mike or Glen. Then, the terrain gets really steep and I did not have a good feeling at all about the situation, but still I continued. I made it up the steep section and back to moderate terrain where I had a good view of the peak.
My turnaround point
It was 1:06pm and I was very tired after trailbreaking by myself for 6.5 miles and almost 6 hours. I was at 11,400' and the summit was almost 1800' higher and looked a long, long way away. I thought it could easily be 4pm or even later by the time I got there and I would be absolutely exhausted. I hung out for a while hoping Mike and Glen would show up so we could discuss things, but they were nowhere to be seen. So I started heading down and there was Mike heading up. After not seeing him all day, it was like seeing a ghost. Glen appeared shortly after and we all agreed to turn around. We started skiing down at 1:32 and reached the cabin at 5:04, another failure, but a good learning experience.
Mike heading up
Me heading down
Glen heading back to camp
I asked Mike if he was interested in another try and he said no. I didn't even ask Glen because now in addition to a toddler, he had newborn twins to take care of. So that left only me. I was worried about getting to the cabin and I was worried about staying there by myself. What if the road was even worse than last year? What if I couldn't get into the cabin? What if there wasn't any wood? What if I couldn't get a fire started? What if I burned it down? What if the cooking stove didn't work? Inquiries to the forest service revealed that logging was still being done and I should expect bare spots on the road. The ranger said that it was written into the contract that the logging company had to leave a big enough base for snowmobilers, but it hadn't snowed for awhile. Furthermore, I had to split wood to replace whatever I used. Whether or not there would be any wood for me when I arrived was dependent on the previous group having done this. Hmmm, we hadn't had to split wood the previous year. I added safety goggles and work gloves to my packing list.
I asked my husband if he thought I was capable of splitting wood and he said "no!" There went 95% of my confidence. About an hour later, he said "maybe I should go with you", and there went the other 5%. He offered to go and "keep house" while I was off doing Tokewanna. The problem with his offer, is that I wasn't sure he was even capable of getting to the cabin. Because of work concerns, he wouldn't be able to start skiing until 3pm at the earliest and because he is not in the best of shape, I thought it would be at least 9pm or later when he got there. If the cabin was not so far to ski to, and he could have started earlier, it would have been great.
The next morning I watched a YouTube video on wood splitting, because my husband had never actually done it himself and couldn't give me lessons as I had hoped. It was a hoot and confidence was restored. I had never given wood splitting much thought, but if I had, I would have thought that only people the likes of Daniel Boone could do it, but the outdoorsy looking guy in the video made it look easy. I wouldn't have the same tools as him though, but the basic idea was the same.
Friday morning I set off from my home in Salt Lake City, stopping along the way in Evanston Wyoming to pick up the key to the cabin from the Evanston Ranger District Office. I paid the ranger $80 cash (no credit cards accepted) for two nights and continued on my way to the trailhead, where mine was of course the only vehicle.
Regardless of what the ranger said, there had been a weak, warm storm the previous Monday night followed by cold temperatures so there was at least a good solid fresh inch of very dense snow. An inch may not sound like much, but it was enough to cover any bare spots and the road was better than the previous year. It took 5 hours to ski the 11 miles to the cabin. The last mile was slow because that was where the logging trucks had stopped and I had to start breaking trail. In the meantime, it had started snowing, just hard enough to be annoying, but I was grateful as it would make the ski out better on Sunday.
The 11 mile road to the guard station, Tokewanna lies ahead.
Another view of Tokewanna from the road, note the deteriorating weather.
I sent my husband an OK message with my SPOT satellite messenger, but in truth, I was far from OK, as I couldn't get the [your choice of swear word] door open. Note that when you are by yourself, it is 24 degrees F and getting colder, it's snowing, you're hungry and thirsty and don't have much water left, and it's 11 miles back to your car, it is no longer merely a door, it becomes a [your choice of swear word] door. Well, at least there was wood stacked up on the porch.
I tried everything I could think of, windows, the other door (had a different lock), other buildings, pushing hard with my body, and pounding the knob with the handle of the axe that had been left on the porch to rust. Believe me, it was very tempting to whack at the wood door with the other end of the axe, but I knew I was capable of getting back to the car so that was not a serious option. In the end, it was clear that when I pushed on the door that the modern lock to which I had been given a key was already unlocked. The lower ancient lock that controlled the door knob which wouldn't turn, was the one locked and I didn't have a key for that one. Well, I must have pounded the knob with the axe handle 100 times to no effect. As I was doing this I thought about Albert Einstein's famous quote that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Expectations and hopes are two different things and on the 101st time the door opened. This was pure luck, I must have somehow gotten the latch to retract. This had all taken about an hour and I was emotionally and physically drained.
The plan had been for me to drop my pack and do some trail breaking for the next day, but with the door incident and the falling snow, I just didn't feel like it. The first thing I did was stick a chair in the door opening, then I started a fire in the wood stove with one match, ta da!, verified that the cooking stove worked, got the overhead propane lights on, got some snow melting, and then calmed down. I carefully examined the door and adjusted the locks correctly, but just to be safe, whenever outside, I never closed that door completely the entire time I was there and also unlocked the other door from the inside. I had previously debated whether or not to lock the door while out skiing, but now the answer was clear, it wasn't getting locked again until I left.
Now it was time to try splitting wood. As long as I was able to get the maul in the right spot, it was easy, and felt like a mini miracle every time a big block of wood cracked in two. This first day, it was very satisfying and fun.
The snow stopped over night, not really amounting to much. It cleared for awhile, but when I woke up it was back to all clouds. I was on the trail by 6:56am. It was 0 degrees F, cold, but not totally terrible. Since it was cloudy it seemed like a very long time for things to warm up. It was time consuming to work my GPS as I had to take my heavy mittens off each time. I had hiked the trail in the fall to get a track on my GPS so it would be easy to follow. This worked well and there was less floundering through brush than last year. The route was a mix of long meadows and open woods. Here's a picture from last year.
Tokewanna on the left
The snow was thick and heavy and trail breaking was slow. It got colder before it got warmer, but finally I was done with the flat part along the river and turned westward and upward toward Tokewanna. I thought I was moving at a snail's pace because not only did I have to break trail, now I had to go up as well. After a few hours of this, I called it a day. If I had pressed for the top I would be thoroughly exhausted and I didn't think that was safe, especially being by myself. So, at 12:36 with 2400' and a little over 2 miles to go, I called it quits. This seems kind of early, but I quit because I wanted to preserve my energy for an attempt the next day. If I pressed on and didn't summit, then I would be too tired to try the next day as well. My thighs were killing me from repeatedly lifting them up through the heavy snow. Also, the weather was deteriorating, it went from merely cloudy to the summit being socked in.
Getting back to the cabin was no picnic as it felt like I was still breaking trail. I got back at 3:50 and started splitting more wood while it was still warm (just above freezing). Splitting wood was now a little less fun, but still satisfying with plenty of mini miracles as big chunks split into two. I learned my lesson from the previous night when the cabin got uncomfortably hot, and made a significantly smaller fire this night.
I couldn't decide whether it was a good idea to try the next day or not. I hurt all over. My neck hurt, my back hurt, and my thighs were sore to the touch. Also, I had not reserved the cabin for another night. I hoped the ranger wouldn't mind receiving another $40, but if another group showed up, I'd have to ski out. I thought chances of this were pretty close to nil as they would not be able to pick up the key on a Sunday and when I had made inquiries, there had been no other reservations. I kept my options open, got all ready, and set my alarm for a 5am wakeup and then would decide. When I woke naturally at 4am, I thought to heck with it, I hurt too bad, and turned my alarm off, but when I woke again at 4:40, I thought "I'm going for it", reasoning that sliding my legs along a broken trail was significantly different from lifting them up through heavy snow.
Skiing over yesterday's trail, Tokewanna at right
I was ready to go at 6:08 in the pitch black and reached my previous day's stopping point at 9:46. It was really easy on a broken trail and nothing hurt. I skied another half mile, then ditched my skis by a big rock. This section was the trickiest as it was steep, loaded with snow, and not as rocky as I would have liked. Since most of the route is gentle, I had only brought kicker skins which wouldn't cut it on the steep slope. I went from rock to rock until the rocks ran out and then kicked in some steps and went up on all 4's for about 15 vertical feet and then the terrain mellowed, but was still pretty steep. It was a big open white slope and had been very painful to ski last year both up and down since it had been hard boiler plate, another reason for my ditching my skis early. Today however, it was perfect for booting up and soon I reached an area where grass was poking through.
Getting close to treeline, the immediate goal is the top of the rocky ridge.
Ski stash rock is left of center.
Looking back from my ski stash.
With all the white slopes, I was questioning my decision to boot from the big rock. Usually I sunk in a reasonable amount, but occasionally it was painful. Overall though, I thought it made a nice change from the skis and I could go directly up instead of zigzagging. Then I reached the section I called "little tree hell" and I was sure I made a mistake, but after the initial sinking in to my butt, more prudent steps resulted in safe passage to the other side. After this, I never questioned my decision. The snow was easy to walk on and there were lots of sections with rocks and grass.
Tokewanna and the last bit of "little tree hell". Some sections looked all white ...
... while others were rocky.
Heading up to the low point. Tokewanna is to the left.
I made my way up to Tokewanna's NE ridge and attained the ridge at about 11,960' with about 1200' left to the summit. A big advantage of my chosen route is that you are sheltered from the wind as long as possible. However, once you are on the ridge, you get its full force. Down in the valley in the morning it had been completely calm, but the wind slowly picked up as the trees thinned out. If it had been cold, the wind would have been miserable, but we were having some unseasonably warm weather, and it was probably just above freezing and very sunny, so the wind did not seem so bad. However, the last little stretch towards the top was in the shade and I was very happy to get that over with. Most of the way on the ridge was easy walking, even grassy at times, but towards the top it gets steeper with some minor easy scrambling. I made the top at 12:55.
On Tokewanna's NE ridge, only 1/2 mile and 1000 vertical feet to go.
View of East Lovenia
View of Gilbert Peak
The summit mailbox was missing its door and was filled with snow. It had a crappy wet register in two nested tin cans with no lid and no pencil so it didn't get signed. I took pictures in all directions and then started down. It was too windy on top for a food break. All the way down, I felt like I was racing the shade. Now, a good part of the ridge was shaded and I kept holding out for a nice rock in the sun with minimal wind. That did not come until I was off the ridge and then I had a nice break. It was easy going downhill to my skis. From my skis to the top had taken me 2:36, but going down was only 1:14 and that included a break.
View of Kings Peak et al from the top.
View of Wasatch BM and NW Wasatch from the top.
Heading back to my skis.
Heading back to my skis.
I kept my skins on for the first little bit downhill on hard snow and then took them off and had a delightful ski back to the cabin. The previous day it had seemed like work, but now after having been skied on 3 times and with the afternoon sun waning, it had a nice slick surface and I made it back to the cabin before 5pm with an hour of daylight to spare.
Heading back to the cabin
So, what did I do once I got there? Crash on the bed? Chow down? At least sit down? No, I split wood! It was either do it now or do it later in the dark and cold. I spent about a half hour at it and quit when the maul started bouncing off. That was it for me. Splitting wood was no longer fun at all, but a real chore, but I would be leaving the cabin with both legs intact.
Now I finally got to fully relax and enjoy the cabin without a care in the world. Aah, it was so nice to just sit and not worry about anything and enjoy the warmth of the fire.
The next morning I had to wash my accumulated dishes, sweep the floor, wipe the counters, and tidy up the place. I was out the door at 7:35 and back at the car a little before noon. It was 50F when I got there! and of course my car was once again the only car in the lot. When I got home I received breaking and entering instructions from my husband who knows everything except how to split wood. Hopefully I'll never have to use them, but you never know.
Good ole Subi