You may not believe the headline, but National Geographic just named the Henry's Fork trail to Kings Peak as one of the top 10 treks in the entire world. And really, who has ever heard of the Uinta Mountains?
The easiest thing when doing a climbing story is to talk about the summit. We’ll get there, but first, do you know after completing a trek like Kings Peak, you may not remember what you look like?
Think about how many times a day you see your face. In the morning brushing your teeth in the mirror, the reflection off the car windows, digital photos, social media, your email avatar, etc.
But by the fourth day in the wilderness, the vision of yourself becomes warped. So much so, when you make it out, you’ll be surprised by your reflection. You’ll study the lines around your eyes, the color of your flesh and you’ll inconceivably conclude, 'I guess that’s what I look like.'
The standard route on Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah at 13,527 feet, is essentially a Class 1 climb with some Class 2 boulder scrambling near the top. But like most mountains, you can take harder routes to the summit, which we planned to do.
Either way, Kings is a long elevated journey at 28 miles roundtrip, which means a lot of gear and months of training beforehand.
My alarm went off in the middle of the night and I woke up the kids and cellmate to say goodbye, the most emotional part of travel. For the first time, I wouldn’t be going to the airport alone to start a climb trip, as an Ashland resident, Chad Emmons, was my climbing partner.
The pre-dawn airport drive was to long-term parking. We shuttled in silence with the other travelers to the terminal with my 45-pound travel tote. The poor shuttle drivers don’t make the tips they used to because no one carries cash.
You can actually bring your own alcohol on a flight, but it has to be in small, 3-ounce containers, and you have to give it to the flight attendant when you board and they have to decide how much to give you during the flight. But we had no need for drinking anything but water. For now.
The four-hour direct flight from Columbus to Salt Lake City was a breeze as Delta had TVs in back of the seat, something airlines have moved away from due to the personal device takeover.
There were no issues with the rental car pickup and we were off to the Salt Lake REI outdoor store with the foothill mountains all around us.
Salt Lake City exists in a valley surrounded by mountains. Brigham Young picked that spot to settle because God told him to. Coincidentally, it was the only flat area.
We had to stop at REI because you can’t fly with stove fuel. We tested the fuel cans in the parking lot and the sunny air felt hot, but not humid.
Kings Peak is in the northeast corner of the state. To get there from Salt Lake, you have to travel up to Wyoming and back down as there’s no way through all the mountains.
The red rocks along the highway matched all the Arches National Park postcards you’d see.
We exited I-80 in Wyoming one exit early, as I wanted to stop at Fort Bridger. Those who played the “Oregon Trail” computer game growing up are familiar with the location.
It was an authentic tourist stop as everything had been preserved through the centuries. The staff were in Old West costumes of wool and long skirts. It was a history thrill ride for a dork like me. It's insane to think about covering thousands of miles of that terrain with just a covered wagon and hope, hundreds of years ago.
I tried to get a yoke of oxen, but no one wanted to trade with me that day.
It was a solid 45 minutes of driving on packed brown forest roads to the trailhead. There was no cell reception, so having archaic paper directions saved us.
Tall, skinny pine forests lined the roads, and we could clearly see the dark outline of the Uinta Range in front of us.
The coal mountaintops and remaining snowfields were indicators the range had serious elevation. A lot of times big ranges were hidden from the road, but you could see Kings Peak all the way in, although we didn’t know what we were looking at originally.
The trailhead welcomed us around 4 p.m. and the lot wasn’t very crowded with cars. A note was placed on our dashboard one you could see it through the front windshield:
“If this car is still here at Sunday at noon, please call the ranger and Denis Fox (my father) at 419-***-5555.”
Usually, I text my cellmate something similar, that if she hasn’t heard from me by a certain time, something went wrong and she needs to call for help. But there was no service. The note would have to suffice.
“I don’t like leaving that note, doesn’t make me feel good,” Emmons said.
As another backup, there was a registry at the trailhead, so if we didn’t sign out in four days, conceivably, someone would notice. But by that time I would have probably eaten Emmons.
When in high elevation, the motto is “light is right.” Or “light and fast.” Weight is the number one factor. So what could be in my 31-pound pack?
Well, way too much based on that weight, but also, a few things were missing, I realized later, even after all my experience. This list might be boring and too technical, so feel free to skip it.
Gear list: 3-season tent (with hollow poles and stakes) that has a vestibule to combat bugs and to store your stinky shoes and pack, 15-25F degree sleeping bag (non-down for the poor animals) that can be compressed in a small stuff sack, GoPro, Thermarest sleep pad, two BPH-free 32-ounce water bottles that are certified for boiling water, iodine drinking tablets in case the purifier fails, water purifier pump or filter, rain cover for the pack when hiking, four days worth of food (mostly cliff bars, power gels, sealed meals you just add water to and packaged crackers), small metal stove that screws on the top of the fuel canister for boiling water, waterproof matches and a lighter, GPS (on iPhone), sunglasses, sunscreen (squeezed out of the bottle and into a plastic bag for weight and room), compact backup compass, printed out maps encased in plastic for moisture, toilet paper and a plastic trowel to dig a hole, back up batteries, gloves, winter and summer hat, sandles/Crocs for river crossings and base camp lounging, quick dry shorts, pants, boxers and shirts, a fleece, compression socks, rain jacket or hard shell, camp soap/hand sanitizer, headlamp, day pack, carabiners, blood thiner, first aid kit, pillow case (to stuff clothes in an use as a pillow at night) and I think Emmons brought Cougar food but not sure.
A half-mile into the trail, we pulled out our phones for a quick navigation insurance check. For the first time, I didn’t take my handheld GPS, as more and more mountaineers switch to airplane mode and can still navigate maps and know their locations through a smartphone app.
On my phone, Gaia, on Emmons’, AllTrails. Initially, both apps had us wrong, but AllTrails soon corrected itself and proved to be reliable throughout the trek. The Gaia app was useless half of the time.
The first four-to-five miles, the trail was two-hikers wide, well established and followed a river through deciduous forest. There wasn’t much elevation gain as the trailhead was around 9,000 feet. But the whole area was extremely rocky, so you’d have to constantly look at the ground and make sure your footing was good.
We were averaging 20-minute miles, a pretty fast pace as we were racing daylight.
Six miles in, the woods ended and the trail split around a giant meadow that had a river running through it.
Beyond the meadow we could see the range again, now much closer. The mountain walls were smooth and wavy as you went up, and it looked like thick red lines had been painted, like a barber pole, all the way up.
There was a tree cluster on the other side of the meadow, away from the trail, so we walked about 400 yards and quickly set up camp.
In the backcountry, when the sun is setting and you don’t have your tent set up, the fear will begin to seep in. Take your hand and point it towards the sun. However many fingers you can stack between the orange ball and the horizon, is how many hours of daylight you have left.
With less than an hour left, we were quick to secure the tent and get some peace of mind. In our haste, we failed to realize we were next to several dead trees.
Of course I wouldn’t die on some impossible rock face, but via being smashed by a dead 40-foot pine that crashed through the tent.
There’s no down time when setting up base camp — although at over 9,000 feet we weren’t too worried about bears, as they don’t like to be up that high, we still took the black bear equilateral triangle approach.
You keep a clean camp at one point of the triangle, cook and eat at another and then hang your food at the third point.
Again, we were overly cautious, but I’ve camped in grizzly country and have been conditioned out of pure dread. And earlier this week, musician Julien Gauthier was dragged from his tent and eaten by a "grizz" in Canada. There was no scent of any kind in the tent—no toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen and certainly not late-night snacks.
After purifying water and hanging the food, our headlamps guided us back to the tent. The altitude makes it harder to sleep, that’s why you’ll hear climbers say, “climb high, sleep low.”
I checked my caseless iPhone every hour until I could see the ground getting lighter through the tent’s mesh.
Rolling out of the tent at 6:30 a.m. seemed late to our Ohio-time-zone minds, and we were hiking the route at 7 a.m.
Once again, marathon man Emmons was setting a fast pace as we went along the meadow with the mountain walls on each side. We saw two moose along the way, but wildlife outside of birds was scarce.
The deeper you got into the valley, the higher the rock faces grew on your left and right, until they came together and formed a horseshoe at the end of the basin.
Luckily, there was a small slit in the horseshoe where the walls met at the bottom, but didn’t fill in all the way to the top. Those areas are called, “passes,” where you find a way through the range. Unless you’re the Donner Party.
Gunsight Pass was one of my favorite moments of the whole expedition. We boulder-hopped up a dry slope and then the pass plateaued, allowing for new gazing into a similar valley on the other side. You could look back at all the distance you covered, and get a sense of all that you still had left to do.
It's all baked in the kind of gorgeous that makes your eyes water from not blinking.
From Gunsight, most hike down into the valley, travel around the base of the rock and then make a steep ascent to Anderson Pass that’s right before the actual mountain of Kings Peak.
But there’s a shortcut. Climb over the rounded peak to Anderson’s Pass. The only catch is that it’s a lot steeper and technical to go up and over as opposed to down and around. We had no issues completing the shortcut and cutting a good mile or two from the trek.
Anderson Pass shared similarly amazing views of endless valleys and peaks as they got lighter and lighter and were eventually consumed by the horizon.
All that was left was following the summit ridge for a couple miles to the top.
Unfortunately, marathon boy Emmons didn’t know that going along a ridgeline meant endless bouldering, and going quickly wasn’t a possibility. Finally, I was able to catch my breath.
Bouldering is so good for your mind. Imagine being so locked in on a route that all your are consciously thinking about is the giant rock three feet in front of you. And repeat. For hours.
Yes, that sounds monotonous and torturous, but you’re not thinking about your relationship, if you need to buy milk, bills, rent, mortgage, kids, expectations, failures, tomorrow — all those things are working themselves out in your unconscious. So when you return to your normal existence, things are clearer, easier to process, more streamlined.
There wasn’t much room at the summit and some other climbers were already on the peak so we didn’t stay too long. But managed to get the summit photo —this time I had a flag representing the Ashland High School boys soccer team.
Before I left, I took the blank orange flag to practice and told them it would be an honor to claim Utah for AHS soccer. But they had to make a deal if they signed it. I wouldn’t stop until I completed my mountain goal, and they had to promise to think about a goal they wanted to achieve as they signed the flag, and that they wouldn’t stop until they conquered it throughout the season.
On the downclimb, we could hear a woman’s voice sounding distressed. She needed to climb up a short rock section, but had doubts.
“I’m afraid of heights. I need help. I can’t do this. I’m going to die up here!” she said.
It was hard not to laugh — she really felt that to be the case, but there was no way she was going to die.
Emmons helped her solve the rock problem and we continued to descend, laughing about the whole exchange.
Back at basecamp after climbing all day, it was interesting to notice areas of improvements. Emmons had giant zip lock bags he filled with river water so we didn’t have to keep making that trek. Chapstick for the dry mountain air, duh. Mosquito nets so you don’t have to constantly battle the relentless bugs.
Even though we'd conquered the peak, our view felt more mystical, as although we'd been there, there was still so much to discover about the range.
After hiking out, we had a little time on Sunday before our evening flight, so we climbed around the Snowbird ski resort and ended up taking a waterfall route. That was probably the dumbest and most dangerous thing we did all trip.
At the top, the gondola was running so we caught a ride down to the base of the mountain and had no idea Oktoberfest was going on at the resort. The glass doors slid open and we glided into giant glass mugs of German golden beer.
On the way to the airport, we stopped at a community center for a quick shower in a closed locker room with a heavy echo effect. It cost $1 and having not felt hot water since Wednesday, I began to moan and say things like, "Oh ya, that feels so good."
"Dude, shut up! It sounds like we're having sex in here," Emmons said.