I love the month of March. The snow pack is plentiful; powder days appear suddenly while the sun seems to brighten things a little more often. Skiing sunny powder days seem to revive the soul. It also gets me thinking that spring will soon arrive, which means that the climbing season is near.
Twenty steps, ten breaths. The pattern repeated itself. Once atop the slope we were staring at the east face and south ridge of Kings. We were also staring at 4:30 in the afternoon and the sun setting.
For the first time in months when I leave the office there is actually some sunlight to enjoy. The additional sunlight seems to give me time after work to look at the Uinta Mountains to the east and dream of skiing steep lines and climbing snow capped peaks. Kings Peak, the top of Utah rising to 13,528′, has been a lofty target of mine for the past three years. It’s not that the elevation is so outstanding, but that the trek in to climb it just ups the ante. Eighteen miles one way and about 6000′ gain in elevation.
Kings Peak is elusive
Three years ago my wife Cynthia and I attempted it during February but didn’t even get close. Deep snow and heavy packs sapped our energy and will, but not before I caught a distant glimpse of Kings Peak. March 2-4 had been on my mind for a while, as well as on my calendar. I wondered if Phil and the rest of the SERAC Mountaineering Club were still going up Kings. So I called Phil on Wednesday afternoon to see if they were still going and he assured me that they certainly were. “I’m in,” I confidently told him, despite the fact that neither my wife nor my boss had any idea of my plans. The desire to bag Kings burned inside.
Moments later my boss informed me that he would be leaving for the weekend for Steamboat to see his son ski-jump. One down…one to go.
After a frantic last minute trip to the ski shop for new skins, a fruitless effort to minimize my pack’s weight, and a couple hours sleep I found myself in a van full of gear with Mario Andretti at the wheel, the wheel of “his wife’s” twelve passenger van. Conversations about touring equipment and my decision to bring an alpine setup with touring adapters became the topic for debate. It’s all I have. I’m a skier first and a climber second. My preference is to mix the two.
From Park City the drive takes you east into Wyoming through Evanston and on to Mountain View. Then you head south toward the Uinta Range, which runs east west. The drive isn’t too eventful, that is unless one of the cars in your group misses the turn off to Henry’s Fork and Mario decides to push 100 in the family van on a small two lane highway. Thirteen miles later we caught them, but not before getting a complimentary flash of my life’s events, multiple flashes. “I’m gonna die before I even make it to the mountain,” I thought.
The rolling approach
The first three miles of the approach is similar to skiing on a snow-covered sidewalk. Slightly uphill and never ending. Not the kind of terrain to be skiing on with an alpine set-up using with Alpine Trekkers. In the summer the first three miles are an easy drive that leads to the trailhead but the only motorized traffic that this road sees are noisy snowmobiles. Thankfully there weren’t any around on this particular Thursday.
As we set off on this adventure, it was overcast and snowing lightly. After reaching the true trailhead Ben and I began to set the pace in addition to doing most of the trail breaking duties. Fortunately some friends, Mike and Cheyenne, had come here the weekend prior to break trail and give us important beta on the conditions. Unfortunately they didn’t get too terribly far as the snow was knee deep and a storm was raging. We soon passed their camp spot as what was fairly easy trail breaking became more demanding and complicated.
We passed Alligator Lake and moved through stands of pines, up and down on rolling terrain. As dark approached we could hear the howls of coyotes in the distance, as if mocking our attempt and our somewhat slow progress. Compounding things, I was developing a serious pain in my groin as the muscle that I had pulled a few days before. I was determined to not let it affect my pace, but I really couldn’t break trail very well and I fell back a bit.
It was getting dark and we debated about going on to Elk Crossing. We were still three miles short of our goal for the day: Dollar Lake. I felt bad but I told the group I couldn’t go much farther. I was hungry and ibuprofen was on the menu. We found a great campsite on the edge of a small meadow and once camp was set and food in our bellies I think it really lifted spirits and rejuvenated the soul. But perhaps it was just the ibuprofen kicking in?
The next morning we rose to bitter cold conditions. 3 degrees at 6 am. Yea that’s pretty cold, but it was clear and we knew the mountain god’s were smiling down on our efforts. Still, I got a late start — my boots were so frozen that I couldn’t get the liners in and I then struggled endlessly to get my feet in. I started a fire to warm the plastic so that it would be somewhat pliable. (Ski boots, ya gotta love ’em, but oh how I hated ’em.) Phil and a couple others from the SERAC Mountaineering Club had set out an hour earlier. But it wasn’t until 9 am that I got started — far too late.
The feeling of the group was that due to our slow pace the day before we would see how far we could get before turning around. It seemed like a good plan until we came to Elk Crossing, which is above the tree line. This is where we caught our first glimpse of Kings Peak. It was still far away, but it felt close.
The views in Henry’s Fork basin are phenomenal. It’s like a hidden sanctuary, reserved for a select few. You don’t realize the size of these peaks and their rawness until you far enough in. Not another group of people for miles, perhaps hundreds. I easily forgot about climbing Kings with all these killer lines down 12,000’+ peaks. Yet our objective loomed ahead.
We started to veer eastward toward Gunsight Pass where we would enter Painter Basin. Gunsight Pass is at 12,000′, higher than any peak in the Wasatch. We still had 1500′ and 2-3 miles to go. My pace began to be sluggish as Phil and Ben waited at Gunsight. A crackle came over the radio. The rest of the group had decided to turn around. Although it was getting late in the day, the weather was perfect with no wind.
About an hour earlier, Phil had turned to me and said that each person seems to have his or her own Everest to conquer and that climbing Kings was his. He had been here 4 times and was turned away, rejected. Once he was an hour or so from the summit but it wouldn’t be. This time he was more than determined.
From Gunsight we turned south again traversing a 45-degree snow slope and then up to the plateau which would lead to Anderson Pass and Kings. Phil asked me to lead up the slope. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was the slowest member of this now three-person team and I am leading a 45-degree slope. Twenty steps, ten breaths. The pattern repeated itself.
Once atop the slope we were staring at the east face and south ridge of Kings. We were also staring at 4:30 in the afternoon and the sun setting. The walking was tedious due to the intermittent rock and snow.
After traversing the plateau and climbing the SE face to 13,000′ on the South Ridge, we watched the sun start to drop beyond the horizon. Ben asked me if it would be alright if he and Phil made a dash for the summit and them came down to meet me as I made my way up.
Turn around or keep going?
For the first time I wondered about making it back to camp. We snapped a photo and they took off, leaving me to contemplate my situation. I was drained. All I had was a swig of Kool-Aid left. As I turned to continue upward, I saw Ben surmount a small outcropping on the ridge and then disappear over the top. A couple of minutes later Phil followed. I took about ten steps and suddenly fell, slipping on the rocky terrain. I couldn’t get any purchase on the rock with my alpine boots. I realized that I had climbed as high as I would go. I began to doubt I would have the energy to make it back to camp. I radioed Phil and told him I was headed for camp. It was 6pm.
I staggered like a drunk down the SE face and across the plateau. Just before reaching the steep face that I had lead earlier I heard over the radio that Phil and Ben were on the summit. We exchanged signals with our headlamps, which I had just donned. I turned back to the task at hand. It was now 7:00 pm. Down the steep face and across the traverse to Gunsight, the drunkenness continued. A couple of times I caught myself thinking it would be easier to let myself tumble into the black void below. My situation was grim. After making Gunsight and reaching my skis, I thought the work was through. It had only begun.
Skiing in the dark with only a headlamp can be very illusional. As I descended the rocks and sporadic trees seemed to go by much too fast, despite the feeling that I was barely moving. The terrain became less inclined as I began to pole. The solitude and quite around me was amazing. “Where are the coyotes?” I wondered. Nothing but the stars, the light of my headlamp and the sound of my skis on the firm snow. I knew I was the only person for miles in any direction. My thoughts danced as I kept cruising. After nearly an hour of poling I reached Elk Crossing. Just as I entered the forest my headlamp went dead.
I milked the batteries, turning the headlamp on for a moment then off when the light would fade to black. Twice I ran into trees, thankfully not too hard. I moved out into a meadow that traversed the forest. After what seemed an eternity I radioed camp to ensure I was on the right trail. They assured me that I was indeed headed in the right direction. Later they would tell me that my conversation was filled with incoherent mumbling about trees and redundant questions.
Back at basecamp
As I neared camp I couldn’t ski any longer. The rolling hills were killing me and I was too trashed to put the skins on my skis. I was nauseous and sick from dehydration. Jared came out to offer me food and precious drink. I took off my skis and wallowed up the last rise to camp. I collapsed next to my tent where I lay for nearly 20 minutes. Jared then gave me cup after cup of hot cider. He was my savior. I had arrived at 9:30 pm.
The next morning I learned that Phil and Ben hadn’t arrived back in camp until 1:30 am. They were trashed. Phil looked like death lying there in his tent. Their adventure back from the summit had been one of drunken staggering, dry-heaves, a heaven sent stash of water left behind by those who turned back and more. But for Phil, Everest had been conquered. For me, Kings’ summit is still calling.