| 7 Days of Frustration in Utah`s Uintas
Colin and I spent all winter trying to decide where to go with this week... After learning Durango's difference between what an "open" road vs. a plowed road ruled out the Weminuche (our first choice), we had it narrowed to the Sangres, Uintas, and California. The week before we left had nearly 2 feet of snow fall on the Sangres, Utah got hit with a little less and California looked clear. None of us really wanted to drive the 16 hours and since the forecast looked pretty good in Utah, we decided to head that way. Craig was a late and welcomed addition but I think he just wanted to come along to witness this madness....
We started with the most aggressive plans possible (kind of my mantra) and would adjust as we went. We hoped for 13 peaks, to be shutout is actually pretty embarassing. Regardless, I don't think there was much that we could have done differently besides head for Mount Whitney. Anyways, if you are curious, here is our story...
3/20 - pick up Colin at 4:30 and head for Mountain View, WY. We met Craig at the Pizza Hut at 10:00 and were hiking under blue skies at noon (just to make sure the snow was nice and soft for my snowshoes.)
All that has to go where?
We followed some snowmobile tracks from the winter TH and met the riders about an hour up the trail - a very nice couple from MV that took a couple of pictures of us and later e-mailed them..
A little deep, but still in good spirits
3 idiots wandering up the road
I made the summer TH around 2:15 and Craig/Colin followed with the sled around 2:45. I took over the sled duties and initially I didn't find it all that difficult. .. Then the snow got deep and soft and I was postholing to my knees (on the good steps it was only about a foot deep - otherwise it was thighs or worse). My shoes were actually ruining the sled path so I handed it off to the skiers for the rest of the trip (at least until we got back to the summer TH). Craig took one for the team and actually took it over pretty much full-time. At one point, I fell in belly-deep and called Colin over for some assistance. After a complete comedy of errors, I pulled Colin down on his back (still in skis) while managing to bury myself further. This should have been a sign of things to come, but we were still in pretty good spirits. We only managed to make it to Alligator Lake by around 6:00 and holed up in an awful campsite along the creek. Other than a nearby water source, it really didn't have much going for it, other than somewhere to get off of our feet. If you wandered anywhere but our tent platform, you were sinking to your thigh... at minimum (I crashed chest deep when I tried to take a picture of the area). This was a far cry from hoping to get to Dollar Lake or at worst, Elkhorn Crossing.
First Camp Site... Not our best work
3/21: We slept in since the previous day took a ton out of us (not to mention the 6+ hours in the car). We had a weather day built in to our plans, so we would just get up the trail and weigh our options from there. We were back on the move around noon again, just to make sure to maximize my postholing opportunities in the afternoon sun. About 100 feet from camp (I had the sled once again), I was trying to move 2-3 feet of snow when I gave up with the river approach. After a class 3, mixed ice climb with a sled and ~70 pounds on our backs (you know, pretty standard stuff) we found the summer trail and followed the ups and downs above the creek. When things opened up, I once again had major issues trying to take a step that sunk less than a foot into the snow. Postholing sucks, with snowshoes is miserable, with 9 days of gear on your back is flat out unbelievable. Eventually, I caught up to Craig and Colin who were waiting for me after finding a suitable camp spot a little shy of Elkhorn. Since the skis were skimming the surface pretty easily, Colin circled back and took my pack the last 1/4 mile to camp - I continued to posthole, but at least I wasn't dealing with the extra weight... thanks Buddy.
Starting to get a little too soft for comfort
Once at camp, we made ourselves at home. Craig/Colin cleared a platform while I dug out a kitchen and living room. I also trimmed some trees to make a suitable bathroom. This site was very comfortable and we knew we'd be here for the remainder of the week. Our initial plans included a camp in Painter Basin, but we knew any more camp moves was completely out of the question with the snow quality.
3/22: Mount Powell attempt...
Colin/Craig head for Powell
We were on the trail by 8:30 and the morning snow was much more suitable for my snowshoes. The north slopes of Powell are so gentle, Craig and I came up with this outrageous scheme of my attempting a sled descent. We strapped it to my pack and headed up the trail. After meandering through trees (and hearing several "Whoomps" that got our attention), we came to the base of a windblown ridge that would provide easy access to the upper tundra. Coming to the base of the ridge, we entered a bowl and the slopes above us looked very unstable.
Ascending Powell... Sled in tow
Ridge used to gain Powell's N. Slope
We bypassed the base of the slopes (just in case) by heading up and over a small mound. Once on top of the mound... "WHOOMP," it felt like we dropped 5 inches. Colin turned back to remark but his jaw just dropped. I turned and the two of us watched the side of the mountain fall. The slab was probably 6' deep, 150' across and the run-out fell about 300 feet down within feet of where we would have been if we hadn't used our mound. We were in a very safe location so it was a sight to behold.
Oops... Did we do that?
Once on top of Flattop (I guess you could give us credit on that summit), the hiking was very fast, but a pretty big front was coming in. Fearful of a whiteout, we bailed. The last thing we wanted to do was get lost up there since we would have to find our same ridge for any hope at a safe descent. Once back in the trees, it became apparent that my blisters that I got in RMNP a few weeks earlier reopened which would plague me the rest of the week. It started snowing pretty hard within 10 minutes of getting back to camp.
Kings and Co.
Hiking Powell's N. Slope
Gilbert and the Gunsights
Powells Summit from our Turnaround
3/23: Keeping Busy in a Storm...
We had no idea that this was a storm that would end up dumping 2 feet in the Denver area... we saw a 20% chance in the forecast before we left. Anyways, it has snowed throughout the night and didn't look to be stopping any time soon so we figured we'd try and break trail for an attempt at Gilberts' North Slope the following day. Craig was having some boot issues since he was trying to use his mountaineering boots with his AT setup. He let the inevitable run its course and he would have to ski back to the car the next day to get his AT boots.
Stream while breaking trail for Gilbert
Home Sweet Home
Craig back at Camp
Colin and I should have set a good start to the route up Gilbert though. We got back to camp around noon and Colin took a nap while Craig and I sat around camp in our couch made from our packs and the sled. After Colin woke up, we ducked into the tent to get out of the weather and heard what sounded like 4 or 5 slides happen up the valley. We all agreed that this was the worst snow pack any of us had ever seen... as a disclaimer, I am a sort of novice to this winter thing, but Craig has a few decades of experience and hadn't ever seen anything like this. One thing is obvious, we need to stay on our toes and be very aware of our surroundings.
3/24: Gilbert Attempt... This is starting to get ridiculous
We awoke to clear skies and it looks like the storm brought about 6-8 inches of new snow. Colin and I went up the trench we dug the day before while Craig went to the car for new boots and into town for some extra stove fuel. If we could just gain the north slopes, we'd be home free. Problem was simple though, too much snow, too steep, and too dangerous. From where we left off the day before was a nightmare. There is a trail on the map in summer up a gorge/break in the ridge. We dodged the continuous "Whoomps" and tried to find that route. Once in the gully the conditions worsened and I was pretty much plunging waist deep with every step. We tried about 3 or 4 different routes until we finally gave up and went back to camp. Of course, by this time we were well off of our approach trail and we just descended the stream bed. Colin went on ahead and the snow held him on his skis pretty well, not so much for the snowshoes. He cleared a felled tree but when I took my last step before hoisting myself up and over, I plunged through the snow and fell neck deep in snow under the log. I basically had to swim through the powder behind me before I could dig myself out. The rest of the way back to camp was the usual knee-thigh deep snow and my frustration reached my limit.
Both of us were pretty angry at this point but we wanted to make the most of a bluebird day so we wandered up the basin to lay a trench for the following day's attempt at Kings. Shortly after Elkhorn Crossing, Colin took the valley route while I split to higher ground toward Dollar Lake and the summer route... there were just too many willows down in the basin (which I came to realize were basically mine fields for my snowshoes.) We both needed the alone time too to cool off and regain our composure. The most ironic thing about this day is that if we had just started up the valley, we would later find that the route to Gilbert/Gunsight from the pass is very straightforward and would have been easily managed and we would have also broken the trail to Kings.
Since we were running low on fuel, we had come up with this crazy scheme of "fishing for water" in a sink hole at the base of a summer waterfall along our path home. It was a fairly deep pool and our path skirted the outside of the waterfall and the pool was about 5 or 6 feet almost straight below us. Since Craig was heading for town, it wasn't necessary, but I thought I'd give it a try regardless just to have a little fun and see if it would work if I was ever in a similar situation. My small topped nalgenes were a little tricky since they would float with the mouth above water, but the wide-mouthed ones were filled very easily. I actually took pride in a very minor battle won during this debacle. Craig got back to camp around 6 and gave us the good news that the basin seemed to be "uphill both ways." This news would come back to haunt us later.
Fishing for Water
3/25: Kings Attempt
I woke up to find that the reason that my feet were so cold was that my nalgene leaked a quart of water in my sleeping bag... if it can go wrong it would I guess. After getting up and moving, the 3 of us set off for Kings. This time, the weather took a major turn for the worse as we hit the basin. Clouds rolled in and it looked like another storm was upon us and we had some pretty hefty winds to contend with. We figured we would fight the elements to Gunsight Pass and get a good look at what we were in for. We got near my turnaround point from the day before and the clouds actually started to dissipate and I actually got a little optimistic - if only the 15-20 MPH winds would calm down. We trudged up the valley to the pass and at one point it looked like a sniper took out Colin. A strong gust came at us and Craig and I braced (it moved me and I'm 250 pounds) but Colin was blown clear off of the trail and took a spill. The route up looked descent enough so we decided to give it a go. The climb up to the pass was easy enough but the winds were now blowing around 30 MPH with stronger gusts. Worse yet, the route over to Kings looked anything but safe and the up-and-over West Gunsight looked dicey to say the least.
Approaching Gunsight Pass
We may actually get there...
Approach to the Pass
Emmons from Gunsight Pass
West Gunsight from the Pass
A little wind on West Gunsight
Henry's Fork Peak looking windy
Craig and I toyed with the notion of heading up Gunsight (to our left) but about 50' up the ridge he decided to head for camp. Our conversation was something like this:
Me: "I think it's safe, what about you?"
Craig: "Yeah, just miserable."
Me: "I've lived miserable for the last 5 days, I can put up with it for a couple more hours. I'm going to give it a try." But, then I was suddenly reminded of a Ron White comedy line, "It's not that the wind is blowin'... It's what is blowin' that's the problem." A chunk of icy snow flew up from Painter Basin and shattered against my shoulder. Another 6 inches higher and I doubt I would have been knocked out, but I definitely would have been seeing stars. Even more frustrated and now bruised, I also turned for home.
Back at camp, morale was about as low as you can imagine... but at least we had plenty of booze to settle us down. We decided that if the weather was nice in the morning we'd give Powell one more try but if not, we'd just cut our losses and get out early. I don't think my comment of "I hear California is lovely this time of year" went over very well.
3/26: Getting the hell out of Dodge...
Woke to another snow storm hitting camp... If we didn't have bad luck on this trip, I guess we wouldn't have any. The forecast had a 20% chance on Tuesday (which definitely materialized) but was supposed to be clear/sunny the rest of the days. Oh well, if only all of us had the same margin of error in our professions. Colin and I barely slept and we woke Craig up much earlier than he wanted to be bothered, but Pizza Hut was calling us. We were on the trail a little after 8 am after getting everything packed up. Craig took the sled out and we quickly realized what he meant by "uphill both ways." The going was much easier since our trench was still there for the most part from 7 days earlier so I wasn't postholing near as much (only about 5-10% of the time). The hike out was tedious if anything though. Our bodies were pretty well shot and all of us wanted the agony of the week to be over with. We hit the summer TH around 11:00 and took a quick break before I took over on the sled. I marched off with new purpose and we made the 3.5 miles out in about 1:15. Along the way, we passed by some snowmobilers that were going to try and ski a couloir on Kings north side that is avy prone... good luck with that. We warned them of the conditions but I, for one, was extremely jealous of the snowmobile for the approach to the summer TH and then a very nice dug trench that they would enjoy at our expense as compared to our miserable approach. Also, there should be some records set at the ski race on the following day, I'll be extremely disappointed if not.
We couldn't get to Pizza Hut quick enough and we put away some serious food. Afterwards, the drive back home was uneventful and we got back to families a few days early (we intended to stay back until Sunday.) Glad to be home, I can't help but to laugh at the week. It was a great experience and all things considered, I still had a lot of fun. Would I do it again? Maybe, but anything more than a couple of nights would have to either be done on an existing trail or I need to learn to ski.
Carpet Feels Good...
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