Check the box, scratch a line through it, and mark it done. I finally stood atop the highest peak in Utah. I still have nine mountains left on my quest for the highest peak in each county, but summiting the highest of them all feels like a huge step toward completion.
I’d had my sights on Kings Peak, at 13,528 feet, for eight years. Back in 2007, I was living in Park City and a friend and I started hiking mountains, calling ourselves the Beautiful Elite Summit Toppers, or BEST for short. Kings was always our ultimate goal. In 2008, I was ready to make a go at it over Labor Day weekend, but a big storm decided to throw those plans into the wind. I summited another high county peak instead (Deseret, though this was before I was specifically after the high points). Since then, I’ve wanted to hike Kings, but never seemed to make another plan for it until it was too late. September brings snow at those elevations, so you’re really limited to July and August, and those eight or nine weeks always seem to fly by.
Jim has hiked it a few times, including a trip two years ago when I got left at home because I was pregnant. Now I’m not pregnant, but with so much extra “baby weight” on me, I’ve been afraid to tackle the king of the peaks. The last couple years, we’ve been busy scratching the easier mountains off the county peaks list, and it’s not coincidental. I haven’t been in shape enough to go after the “big ones.” However, now most that remain are the harder ones – the ones I’ve been putting off until “I can just lose some more of this baby weight.” But Ceci is coming up on two years old and I still haven’t lost the baby weight, so I really can’t wait around for something that clearly isn’t going to happen. Sure, I could work really hard and lose the extra pounds, but I like food and being lazy. I hike a lot when I travel, but I live in the city now and between work and the kid, I just don’t have time in my daily life to make hiking the priority it used to be. I eat really, really well, but my post-baby body doesn’t give a shit about that. So it seems my body and my desire to summit mountains had come to an impasse. That is, until I said “fuck it” and went for Kings anyway.
Grandma and her sisters wanted to steal our kid and take her on a road trip to California (coincidentally, to the same area we’d been a few weeks earlier). We were not thrilled with the idea (to be honest we were completely terrified to give up control like that), but they really wanted to and there was no reason not to let them, aside from that perceived loss of control. And, we thought, it’d be a great time for us to go after Kings.
I got really excited about finally doing it, but it didn’t take long for me to realize it was going to be a lot harder than I was expecting. After all, I am pretty out of shape these days. My nerves started to get to me, but I also made sure to know as much as I could ahead of time. I studied routes and maps, not for fear of getting lost, but to be realistic about what I was getting myself into. I wanted to know what to expect at every turn. I knew it’d be long (very long), that the summit day would be brutal, and that there are false summits. I knew there would be storms and we’d be backpacking in the rain. I was psyching myself up so much that I ended up thinking I had a really good grasp of everything, and that maybe, hopefully, it would be easier than I was making it out to be.
And then we were off!
We got a late start on a Friday morning and the trailhead is a few hours away, so we didn’t arrive at the Henrys Fork trailhead until after noon. We knew it’d be busy going on a weekend, but the parking areas were a zoo. This area of the Uinta Mountains is quite remote and all of a sudden, you come across hundreds of cars. It was a bit bizarre.
We brought our dog Jemma along, because she is a tank and always goes backpacking with us (when dogs are allowed). The other two got left at home. Considering Watson had to be carried near the end of last year’s Thurston Peak hike, we knew he couldn’t handle Kings. Haley probably could, but she’s getting older these days, and one dog felt like enough.
Despite not having backpacked in nearly three years, since before I got pregnant (we’ve become car-camping aficionados), my heavy pack felt more comfortable than I was expecting. The weather report told us we’d very likely be rained on this day, and we were waiting for it. It was always a given that we’d be backpacking in the rain. Storm clouds started to roll over, thunder crashed, but the rain ended up skirting just past us. The day we knew we’d see rain, we got nothing more than a couple drops on us. The clouds and breeze kept the eight miles we hiked in very pleasant. The elevation change was gradual, and I felt great.
We set up base camp near Dollar Lake, purified some water (I’ve had parasites from the Uintas before, I ain’t risking that misery again), and busted open the booze. I packed in a small carton of red wine, and Jim brought along a flask of High West’s Campfire whiskey. I’d be saving my wine for the next night, but took a few sips to help relax my muscles. We made a dinner of dehydrated rice and beans, packed up our day packs for the summit day, and settled into our tent early for the night. Missing our kid, we looked at pictures of her as a newborn on my phone, and set an alarm for 5am.
This high in the mountains, thunderstorms tend to roll in every day after noon. You need to get an early start hiking to ensure you can be off the summit by the time the skies darken. You definitely don’t want to be up there when lightning strikes! We woke up at 5, sat ourselves up 15 minutes later, and hit the trail by 6 (hey man, we needed our caffeine) with just enough light of dawn to not need our headlamps.
Within the first half mile, I could tell how sluggish I was. Despite having a much lighter load than the day before, I felt like I had no energy. “I’m just tired still,” I told myself. “I’ll hit my stride within an hour.” But I didn’t. The only time I ever hit strides was the brief periods of flat or downhill hiking. Every uphill step, no matter how mild, slowed me down to a snail’s pace.
There are a few routes up Kings Peak, but only one true trail. While it’s much longer, we decided we’d take the true trail. It has some unnecessary elevation drops (which you then have to regain), but it’s the trail for a reason. It’s longer, but it’s easier and less dangerous.
The other oft-used routes up are shortcuts. One is incredibly dangerous, and no one should use it, but so many people do. It’s the Anderson Pass chute, 1,000 feet of loose rock going straight up in just a quarter mile. For every few steps, you lose one. For every ten seconds of hiking up, you have to stop and breathe for just as long. Any person above you inadvertently kicks down rocks (that you better hope miss your head and your knees). The more people who use it, the more dangerous it becomes. The only time it should be used is as a rapid descent to get off the mountain quickly in case of a dangerous storm. Jim took that route up and down the first time he summited Kings back in 2007. When he hiked it again two years ago, he took that route up, but came down the long way. He’s finally at the point where he says he’ll never do use the chute again. Not that he was reckless with his life in any way before, but once you have a kid, you make different choices. What may have once seemed like fine choices become apparent to be, in fact, stupid choices. Getting older and not as spry may have something to do with it too.
The other shortcut was one I was willing to take a gander at. From Gunsight Pass, it supposedly picks its way up across the mountain, but I’d found limited information on it. Our route, the true trail, takes you up Gunsight Pass, and then down the other side. We figured we’d take a peek at the shortcut from the top of the pass, and see what we wanted to do. We didn’t see anything though, and so few people were out yet that there was no one to follow. We’d stick to the plan of taking the true trail down into Painter Basin and back up the mountain a few miles down.
It was very smooth sailing heading down the other side of Gunsight and into Painter Basin. I finally felt like we could make up some time after my slow start. After a few miles, Jim was starting to get really worried that we were hiking too far out into Painter Basin. The trail became spotty in a few places, grass even growing over it with such little use, but huge cairns would dot the horizon ahead of us. I assured him to think about why else there would be these giant cairns out here if it weren’t to encourage use of the real trail. I’d read that apparently 90% of Kings Peak hikers take a shortcut, meaning this actual trail gets very little use. Finally, just up ahead, we could see a large sign. As I promised him, it was the junction where we’d start heading back toward Kings. This trail really does take you out of the way, but it also makes for very manageable and safe elevation gain.
We started our ascent again and, unsurprisingly, the uphill slowed me down. Still, I puttered on and we came across hundreds of sheep. Jemma did so good and didn’t chase any of them. Now Anderson Pass (where some people come up the scree chute from the other side) was just ahead of us, and from there it’s less than a mile and an 800-foot scramble up to the top of Kings. By now, we were starting to see A LOT of people coming from the shortcuts, or insane trail runners coming up the trail behind us (having started all the way back at the trailhead from 3 to 6am). Until then, we’d practically had the whole trail to ourselves.
I’d been struggling the whole morning, but from Anderson Pass up to the top of Kings is what really sapped me. It was brutal. Elevation likely played a role. My highest peak until this point was 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak (the highest in Arizona), and this was nearly a thousand feet higher. No matter what it was making me so slow, elevation or exhaustion, it was taking its toll on me. I knew there were false summits, and to expect them, but each one punched me in the gut a little harder. I was practically crawling up the mountain at a snail’s pace. I actually just wanted to call it. Truly. I didn’t care that I was a quarter mile from the top. I was done. I can’t even explain how done I was. I’d never been so done of something in my life. Jim pushed me on.
When we truly reached the top, I promptly laid down on a big rock. The very first view I got from the top of Kings was looking straight into the clouds. After a couple minutes, I sat up to drink my summit beer. Yes, we hauled those up the mountain too. They were worth the extra weight. It was then that I was actually glad I summited, but it’s not for the reason you might expect. I was most happy about summiting because it meant that I NEVER HAD TO DO IT AGAIN. I was able to swear off the mountain forever, and that made me so happy. Done. Done, done, DONE. You know, except for the bit about still having to get back down.
The scramble back down to Anderson Pass was quicker than I thought. While I’d felt like death on the way up, I was flying down. With so many miles under our belt already for the day (having taken the longer trail), we decided we’d follow some other hikers down the shortcut to Gunsight Pass. They were on the summit with us, and had taken that way up, saying it wasn’t too bad and that there were cairns. I was tired and really did not want to have to hike an extra five miles, so we decided to go for it. It wasn’t bad. Jim didn’t love it, but I was very happy to have cut off the extra mileage and elevation gain. Taking the trail back, we’d have had to go back down into Painter Basin, then back up and down Gunsight Pass. This shortcut took you straight down to Gunsight. It was a little sketchy at times, but nothing that made me uncomfortable.
When we reached Gunsight Pass, we could clearly see the trail back up, and I can only assume it was the dark light of dawn that hid it from our view during our ascent. Once at the bottom of the pass, my legs and back were killing me, and my feet ached. From here it was easy sailing back to camp, but every step hurt and it took a while before we finally made it “home” and were able to sit down. Our backpacking chairs were waiting for us in the tent and it was glorious to sit in them while I rubbed my feet in the dirt. We ate dinner, drank wine and whiskey, and gave Jemma some serious massages.
The next morning, our plan was to pack up early and hike back out to our car, but we awoke to thunderstorms blasting our camp. We waited one out, started to pack up, then got blasted with another one. We couldn’t even heat up water for coffee as the fire kept going out. Like seemingly all storms this weekend, they ending up blowing over pretty quickly and we were still able to hit the trail by 7:45. Three and a half hours later, we reached the car and downed cold beers that we’d stashed in a cooler in the car. Beer never tasted so good!
Then the really crazy thing happened. Less than 24 hours after vowing to never hike that mountain again, I was already dreaming of our next trip. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I had no energy the entire summit day. Hiking uphill, while exhausting, is something I love to do, and I didn’t love any of it on this day. I noticed it right off the bat, even at dawn. Something was off for me, and I feel like I can work around it next time. I can carb up the night before on pasta instead of rice, which always makes me feel like I have rocket fuel under my ass. And most importantly, now I know exactly what to expect at every step of the way. I can’t wait to go back and see how much it kills me. I’d wager it doesn’t kill me nearly as much.
This is the funny thing about mountains. They cut you down to size and they break you. They give you relentless pain, and then make you crave it all over again. Does that make me a masochist? I’ve now summited the highest peak in Utah, and my highest mountain ever, at damn near my highest weight ever. I guess I don’t have any more excuses for not going after the “hard ones.” Nine left to go.