Conquering Utah’s King
My up-and-down relationship with Kings Peak, Utah’s highest point at 13,534 feet, began when I was eleven. Somehow, my dad convinced me to join him on a journey to its top at that early age. Now, having experienced Kings Peak a couple more times in my life, I realize that I must have been a pretty determined or stupid kid. On that note, I must be a pretty determined or stupid adult. Here are the details of my most recent trek to the top of Utah.
In early July, my dad mentioned a desire to hike Kings Peak again, an undertaking no one in my family had pursued for 15 years or so. Next thing I knew, Jason and I were preparing backpacks and buying new gear for this expedition. Then, we were getting up at 4:30 AM, after only two hours and 20 minutes of sleep, to drive out to the High Uintas.
Not familiar with Kings Peak? Well, here’s what reaching it entails. The Henry’s Fork Trail, the shortest route to Kings, requires just over 27 miles of hiking roundtrip. Across those nearly 30 miles, 5,436 feet of elevation are gained and lost again. The trek takes most people at least three days: one day to backpack about seven or eight miles to Dollar Lake or Henry’s Fork Lake and set up a basecamp, another day to reach the summit and make it back to basecamp, and one final day to descend back out of the High Uintas. Kings Peak is rated a Class 2, strenuous hike by Don Holmes, a classification that is only surpassed by the highest points in six other states. Its apex has 40% less oxygen than sea level.
Our group, which consisted of seven members, included two senior citizens and two young teenagers. Yup, not exactly what one might call the fittest of scoundrels. Yet, with a little gumption, a bit of positive peer pressure, and a few Weird Al songs, you’d be surprised what the human spirit and human foot are capable of.
Within an hour of commencing our hike, the weather seriously dampened some of those humans’ spirits. It started raining and thunder and lightning began filling the heavens with a thumping light show. Then, all hail broke loose. We spread out along the edge of the trail near the patchy cover of conifers for about half an hour while hail whacked and bounced off us like rubbery gravel and rain soaked into our clothes without regard to our rain jackets and ponchos. After that quenching, the youngest member of our group, Miles, seemed to lose his thirst for the adventure. Yet, with some encouragement and coaxing, we eventually made it to Dollar Lake, our destination for the day. We were able to find enough dry wood to light a fire and dehydrate our sopping shoes until they were just damp.
The next day, we got up at 6:30 AM and began the toughest part of our expedition. From Dollar Lake, it’s about 13 miles to the top of Kings Peak and back. Several shortcuts exist but some of them take longer than the established route due to tricky terrain. For the regular path, you first climb to Gunsight Pass, which is higher than Mount Timpanogos at an elevation of 11,888 feet. Next, you dip down 600 feet into Painter Basin. Although Painter Basin is bypassed by all of Kings’ shortcuts, it’s one of the prettiest parts of the hike in my opinion. You emerge from Painter Basin with a steady climb to Anderson Pass, Kings’ saddle, which tops out around 12,700 feet. Nothing but small alpine grasses and mosses grow past Painter Basin; the terrain is mostly rock and prolific fingers of flowing water at that point. Beyond Anderson Pass, Kings Peak stares sharply down from another 800 feet up, a giant mass of immense stone slabs where no marked trail exists and sudden cliffs plunge around every turn.
All of our group made it to Anderson Pass. However, only three of us journeyed further. Ryan and Benson were experiencing a mix of exhaustion and elevation by then and the results were not good nor speedy. While others in our group waited on them, Miles, Jason, and I started our ascent to the summit.
Miles did remarkably well, especially considering his age. He complained a bit but kept on climbing. However, being responsible for a young teenager made me a bit nervous; Jason and I kept him between us the whole time. Around 13,000 feet, we all started suffering from elevation sickness. I began feeling lightheaded, dizzy, and sick to my stomach. The others experienced similar problems with Miles exhibiting a severe headache. Dizziness and cliffs aren’t a particularly good pairing but we took frequent breaks to mitigate the misery.
Several false peaks veil the length of the climb to Kings’ crown. Believing we were nearly to the top a few times only to discover that we couldn’t actually even see the top yet was a little disheartening but we eventually made it to the one-and-only true summit. There, we enjoyed Whatchamacallits to celebrate our challenging victory.
I mentioned that shortcuts to Kings Peak exist. One cuts off two miles of the journey by skipping Gunsight Pass via a 1,300-foot rockslide. This rockslide is “by far the most dangerous place on the trail” according to some experts. And no, I am not quoting myself as an expert here. As we have on all past hikes to Kings, my family took this rockslide on our descent to save some time. Every time I do this slide I am reminded that I hate doing this slide. It’s crazy steep and each step taken produces the fear of slinging rocks onto the people below you, a reasonable concern since that is the most dangerous thing about the slide. On this occasion, a recent mudslide was still churning out water, boulders, and mid-shin-deep mud on one side of the slide, just another layer added to our chute apprehension. Still, we made it back to camp before nightfall without incident.
Although we lucked out weather-wise on our summiting day, no lightning or precipitation, we got rained on again the next day as we were backpacking back to civilization. Fortunately, it was drizzle compared to the first day because the storm didn’t really let loose until we were back in our vehicles. Less rain = better spirits = faster hiking. What took us six hours on the way in only took us four hours to backpack out.
On a side note, I’d like to point out a personal obstacle I encountered during the execution of this outing. Backpacking poses a dilemma for planners. Planners like to plan for everything; yup, that’s where the name comes from… you are smart. I am a planner. I’m the one that remembers to pack everything everyone else forgets. But, backpacking necessitates only bringing the most needed essentials. I had a tough time shrinking my list of supplies to backpacking size.
Kings Peak was an absolutely amazing and utterly exhausting experience. The delicate wildflowers and harsh highlands were stunning. I missed my bathroom. I’ve hiked to Kings Peak during every decade of my life so I’m good for another ten years or so, right?