Ascent of Kings Peak on 1989-05-19

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, May 19, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Kings Peak
    Elevation:13528 ft / 4123 m

Ascent Trip Report

Thursday, May 18, 1989:

I motored on out of Rock Springs, WY pretty quickly, cruising west on I-80. Shortly, I could see the spectacular snowy ridge of the Uinta Range miles away to the south, parallel to the highway. This range, the only major east-west mountains in North America, rose to 13,528 feet at Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah. Needless to say, that was my goal. The approach hike and general terrain promised to be far easier than those of Gannett Peak, and after humbling retreats in Montana and Wyoming, I was pretty determined to finally climb another Rocky Mountain giant.

After an eventless hour on I-80, detour signs warned me that if I wanted Route 414 south I had better get off an exit early, at the business loop for Lyman, WY, so I did, and was soon heading south on 414, directly towards the snowy Uintas through sunny spring fields. After passing through the miniscule hamlet of Lonetree, WY, I took a left on an awful gravel road mentioned in Zummwalt and started following his directions to Henrys Fork Campground, the main trailhead for Kings Peak.

Zummwalt’s directions were good, but the road got progressively worse as I entered Utah at some unsigned point and was led by the rutted track past some oil wells and drilling stations in the warm green forest. The road was covered with huge amounts of coarse gravel that crashed against the bottom of the car and sounded like land mines, and I cringed at the horrible abuse my poor 14-year old Volvo was taking. After 15 miles of this mess, I passed some earth movers and pulled into Henrys Fork Campground, a nice, sunny area in a pleasant grove of trees. It seemed as if the bulldozers a little ways back had been recently spreading dirt and wood-chips around the parking areas, so I parked so as to be out of the way as possible. I was the only car or person there.

I now started getting my backpack in order for the two-to-three day expedition up to Kings Peak, but I was distressed by the warm and sunny trailhead, since I had seen nothing but white on the Uinta crest from I-80. So I attached my A.T. skis and poles to my pack, put on my hard-shell A.T. boots, and after a snack of tunafish and candy and using the campground toilets (primitive but fairly clean), I took on up the trail up towards Henrys Fork Basin.

For the first two miles or so the wide tail climbed gradually through sunny woods, and I really motored, despite my extremely heavy pack with skis sticking up ten feet in the air snagging on vegetation frequently. Not long after leaving, though, my feet began to ache, and I had to stop to put on some extra socks, moldy moleskin and band-aids. My ski boots were not made for dry-trail hiking.

Soon the first little snowbank appeared on the trail, and as it climbed up further and further, past innumerable spring-runoff swollen streams and occasional meadows, the snowbanks became more and more frequent. I tried to walk around it when possible, but with my skis getting tangled in trees this was difficult. Walking through the snowbanks meant dreadful postholing, and I would sink up to my ankles or knees with every step. However, the trail was very clear and definite, and the few times that I lost it I was easily able to find it again.

About five miles up from the trailhead the snow finally looked like it covered the entire forest floor, so I put on my skis and started skiing up the trail, but the ground was bare in a few places, and after a few minutes the trail came to a little snow-free clearing in the woods with a trail sign. I rested here for a minute and decided to cross the roaring torrent of Henrys Fork, which I had been paralleling on its west bank, on a little log bridge that the trail sign pointed to. This was because the route indicated in the xerox maps I had from Zummwalt and the Utah Mountaineering Guide said I had better be on the east side of the creek in the upper Henrys Fork Basin.

So I carried my skis down to the river, crossed it, put them back on, and continued up into the basin. There were now huge open meadows along the trail, and nice views of the peaks at the head of the basin, including the forbidding shark’s tooth of Kings Peak behind two closer peaks. The snow, though, remained intermittent on the ground, and it became very wearying having to take my skis off and put them back on time and time again. To make matters worse, even when the ground was snow-covered, the consistency of the stuff was so mushy that sometimes I even broke through and sank in when on skis. So I postholed/skied/hiked/fought my way upward in the bright sun of late afternoon, through occasional groves of pine trees, frozen marshes, and grassy meadows. Despite the pain of my progress, the scenery in the basin was spectacular.

After ascending a steep snowy slope in dark woods with a tricky crossing of a little brook, I started looking for a campsite for the night. A little while further I came upon pretty Dollar Lake, a small tarn fairly far up in the basin, and just beyond it I found my nice campsite. The snow had melted in a grassy area under a huge evergreen tree, leaving a sheltered little alcove, and there was even a big log running nearby for sitting. It was about 4 P.M., and I had done a solid eight miles from the car, so I called it a day.

After pitching my tent, the evening was spent eating the dry food I had brought (I had left my stove as extra weight) and lounging out in the tent as darkness fell. The wind picked up considerably and it got awfully cold once the sun went down, but by wearing my hat I kept my exposed head warm (I never could stand using the head closure on my sleeping bag).

The only further incident that night was that I kept hearing what sounded like a roaring noise from outside, and I could have sworn that there was a mountain lion circling my tent. I went out to investigate after a while, only to determine that the sound was a tree groaning in the wind. Also, while listening for these sounds, I kept hearing jet airplane noises—very depressing, considering that in all probability the nearest human to me on the ground that night was some twenty miles away. I was truly alone in the heart of the Uinta wilderness.

Friday, May 19, 1989:

My little LCD alarm clock beeped me up at 5:30 A.M., and I uncomfortably put on my clothes in the freezing cold and staggered out of the tent. I saw the tree that was causing the noises I had heard last night, and I then ate my breakfast of candy, gross breakfast bar, and tunafish before putting just some extra clothes in my pack for the trip up to King’s Peak. The pack was ridiculously underpacked without sleeping bag or tent, but it was all I had. I then put on my boots, strapped on my skis, and started skiing up in the frigid morning twilight. God, was it COLD!

The snow was now extremely hard, like a rock, and after about twenty minutes of uphill skiing through the occasional glades of trees in Henrys Fork Basin I decided to simply walk on the hard snow, so I took my skis off and attached them to my pack, but since my pack hardly had anything in it they flopped around like crazy. Despite this handicap, I made superhuman progress up toward Gunsight Pass, passing over a series of exposed turf terraces and the last trees up at the very head of the basin. I could see the sunshine on the mountain walls to the left, but it would be a long time before it hit the basin floor.

I soon came to the steep slope of snow and boulders leading up to the pass, and I huffed and puffed my way up, taking frequent rests but still making excellent time. I arrived at the top of Gunsight Pass sooner than I thought I would, just as the sun struck me for the first time. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.

At the pass I left my skis, intending to use them to descend back to my tent, and took only one ski pole with me as I now started a long traverse around an unnamed peak to the west of the pass. It was a steep slope of mostly snow, and my goal was to avoid having to descend to the valley below only to have to regain the lost altitude when I climbed the final pyramid of Kings Peak. But the traverse was a real pain, especially the boulder fields that had to be crossed that were full of loose rocks, but the snow was still hard and I effortlessly crossed the snowy sections of the steep slope.

It took longer than I expected to contour all the way around the unnamed peak, about an hour or two, and finally I rounded a corner and saw the impressive summit pyramid of Kings Peak towering over a little flat area at the head of the valley I had been above. The peak was completely covered with bright white snow.

I crossed the little flat area and decided to simply head straight up the snowy slope, instead of avoiding it by going around to the north and picking up the ridge that could be followed to the summit, above the slope. However, that snowy slope was the ultimate killer hike. The snow was now soft and mushy, and the effort of hiking uphill when you are sinking in up to your knees was brutal. I tried zigzagging, cutting long diagonals, and going straight up, but nothing seemed to get me any closer to the top of the incredible white wall where I was trapped. My rests became longer and longer, my feet wetter and wetter, and my mind more and more numbed by the magnitude of the task I had set out to do. I finally decided to simply head straight up when I discerned a summit crag in the whiteness above me, and after frequent rests I saw that the crag was not the summit, but on the ridge a little below the top. I staggered on like a zombie, changing the angle of my path whenever a new, higher crag came into view, finally climbing hand-over-hand over a pile of rocks to a plaque in a rock near a small cairn. Kings Peak at last. It was 1 p.m.

I rested for a while, and ate some candy and drank some water while drinking in the incredible view—I could see over 100 miles in all directions, including the snowy Wind River Mountains to the north, in the cloudless cobalt-blue sky. After my fatigue from the punishing climb had faded, I took some pictures of myself, explored the jumbled rocks of the immediate summit vicinity, and decided to get on back down.

I decided to try glissading down the snowy slope I had just climbed, so I sat down and pushed off, but the snow was too mushy for me to get far. I was able to make some progress, and on the steepest part of the slope I once actually got up some speed, but my weight was plowing too much snow out of the way, which built up in front of me and slowed me down too much to keep me going. Also, I was getting my ski-pants and parka totally wet, so I decided to just plunge-step on down. This was fun, too, since every step down I took my foot slid a couple extra feet forward in the mushy snow, and I was shortly back at the flat area at the base of the pyramid. I could see my downhill path very clearly behind me, especially where I had tried to glissade.

I now had to make the traverse back to Gunsight Pass, and this became an utter hell. I couldn’t find my tracks from the morning, since I hadn’t punctured the hard snow surface, and now I was postholing deeply with every step. So I just blindly tried to contour around the unnamed peak at the same elevation, but soon became very fatigued and discouraged by the soft snow. I was now trying to stay on rocky areas to escape the snow, but they were few and far between. To make matters worse, I was contouring too high, soon finding myself on the wrong side of some cliffs, and I also noticed huge overhanging cornices above me showering my route with ice pellets—I hoped to hell that they wouldn’t collapse and bury me.

The only good part of the return traverse was that I noticed that the valley below me was full of snow and would have entailed equally poor footing. After what seemed like tortuous hours I finally rounded a bend and saw Gunsight Pass, and it even took forever for me to make it there once it was in view. I was now utterly exhausted, my feet were totally waterlogged and sore, and I had a long way to go. However, as I rested at the rocky cairn in the windswept pass, I could look forward to finally using my skis in downhill mode.

So I carried my skis to a patch of snow, put them on, and started down, but my snow very soon gave out and I had to take them off and hike across some broken talus, carrying my skis and cursing like crazy, until I put them on again where I could see that there was snow clear down into the flat upper part of Henrys Fork Basin.

The run down to my tent was a blast. I first made wide, clumsy turns down the steep slopes coming down from the pass, then schussed across the flat upper basin before steering towards the right side of the basin and the trees there that concealed my tent. I did have to take off my skis and hike a couple of times across bare turf terraces, and once I skied into a grove of trees and found myself trapped in the dense foliage.

Now I started looking for the lake and my tent, and I also found myself ravenously thirsty—I hadn’t brought enough water, and all the snow I had been eating hadn’t helped too much. While trying to find familiar landmarks on the right side of the basin I came upon a small lake, not the one I had camped by, but water nonetheless. So I stopped and drank like a desert survivor, right from the lake, giardia be damned, getting my boots wet by crashing through the slush on the lakeshore. After crossing the lake’s outlet and filling my canteens, I skied down a steep, treed slope that led right to my tent on the shore of my bigger lake. I had missed the upper lake in the morning by going around it to the east, and I saw that that would have been the better return route as well. I considered myself fortunate that I found my tent with little hassle.

I now rested, noted that it was 4 o’clock, but decided to plug on and reach the car. Another lousy night in the cold tent didn’t appeal to me, but my safe, snug, warm car did—a lot. So after a short rest, I stuffed my tent and sleeping bag into my pack, and set back off down the basin. It was, as expected, a nightmare trip. I had to take off and put on my skis at least ten times as the snow appeared and disappeared, and occasional steep and treed slopes tested my skiing technique on my inadequate gear to the limit. It was mostly flat at first though, and I had little problems with route finding, since I remembered quite a bit of my upward trip.

Most importantly, I found the log bridge over the rushing waters of Henrys Fork, a stream that I would not have been able to cross otherwise. Once across I put on my skis for the last time and had a horrible run over mushy snow and patches of bare ground on a narrow path through thick woods. After this, the snow was so intermittent that I put away my skis for good on my pack and resigned myself to pathetic postholing through the occasional snowbank in the trail. My retreat from Kings Peak was now a miserable slog.

My feet, encased in hard-shell plastic boots and totally waterlogged, now were in intense pain, and I knew that I had at least several major bleeding blisters per foot underneath my squishing socks, but I was too tired to do much about it except plug on for the car down the interminable path. My physical deterioration was matched by my mental state, as I became preoccupied with finally seeing “orange metal” (my car) and started deleriously singing songs from Blood on the Tracks over and over. Basically, I was one seriously hurting dude.

It was starting to get a little dark by the time I had cleared the last snowbank, and I kept trying to remember the scenery along the path without much success, severely underestimating the distance of the approach hike I had made the previous day. Miles later than I had expected it, deadly miles of forest, swollen brook, meadow, and maddening but imprecise deja-vu, the trail descended a short slope to the gate, and I openly rejoiced upon finally reaching my “orange metal”. It was just after sundown, around 8:00 P.M. or so.

The campground was deserted again (I had not seen or heard a single soul during the entire hike), and my first order of business, after dropping my cumbersome pack, was tending to my poor feet. Although they had dried out a bit on the last few snowless miles of trail, my socks were still pretty wet when I peeled them off, and I was appalled by the huge, oozing, painful blisters on my heels, lower shins, and especially on the tips of my big toes. I put on dry socks (aaah!), just haphazardly threw my pack and skis into the car (now very disorganized), ate a little food, and comfortably crashed out as total darkness fell and it got frigidly cold again outside.

Kings Peak is the furthest snow-covered bump in the center skyline in this picture taken in Henry's Fork Basin in spring (1989-05-19).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4088 ft / 1246 m
    Trailhead:Henrys Fork CG  9440 ft / 2877 m
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Skis, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cool, Calm, Clear
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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