Kings Peak, UT, USA
09 September 2018
HIKING DISTANCE: 41 Miles (1.5 Miles)
VERTICAL: +/- 6,580' (+/- 470')
TIME: 21 Hours 53 Minutes
I'd had my eye on Kings Peak since I moved out to Utah for a summer job back in May. With that job nearing an end, I started tracking the weather in the Uintas. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Utah high country. I was actively considering hiking the entire Kings-Emmons ridge, which is 14 miles long and the longest continuous ridge in Utah. The Uinta thirteeners are notorious for long approaches and for this reason are often tackled as overnight backpacking trips rather than day hikes. If you're reading this, then you know how I love challenge hikes, so the 45-ish mile round trip Kings-Emmons Traverse was brutally appealing. The round trip distance from the trailhead to the Kings Peak summit via the Yellowstone Creek Trail is about 41 miles. I (foolishly) figured that a few extra ridge miles wouldn't make a significant difference. Six and one-half dozen, I reasoned. Wrong.
This is the kinda project that I would historically just decide I wanted to tackle, then hop off the couch and...go for a walk. However, I'm painfully out of shape following four months behind a desk. And while I understood this, there was also a part of me that didn't want to believe it's as bad as it is. Still, I planned three trips: (1) the Kings-Emmons; (2) half of the Kings-Emmons bailing at Trail Rider Peak; and (3) an out-and-back assault on Kings Peak. I really thought I could do option one, especially given my willingness to hike unfathomable hours. The thought that I wouldn't at least traverse half of the ridge really wasn't one I'd entertained seriously.
I set out from the Swift Creek Campground a few minutes after 1a beneath a sky full of brilliantly shining stars. I'd gotten just three hours of sleep and fully expected that I'd be walking for at least the next 24 hours, and likely more than that. Kings Peak stands over 13,500 feet above sea level with a prominence in excess of 6,000 vertical feet, making it one of 57 so-called "ultra prominent" peaks in the lower 48. I haven't climbed a major peak since I completed the Colorado 14ers two years ago. Then there's the technical nature of the traverse. The Uintas are cliffy and crumbling. I've done plenty of sketchy climbs, but not sustained like that for 14 miles. All of that and the long approach made for a helluva'n ambitious climb. Probably shoulda shown more reverence from the outset.
The Yellowstone Creek Trail is highly underrated because it just follows the gorge through trees until a few short miles below the climb to Andersons Saddle and up to Kings Peak. But since I'd be walking in the middle of the night, I couldn't care less. In fact, hiking through the forest meant warmer temps and protection from the wind. It also meant more likelihood of overnight wildlife encounters, which isn't really my favorite thing given some past late-night experiences, but that's part of the deal on a project like this one. And of course I saw some eyes here and some eyes there, but I just reminded myself that they're (probably) just deer.
I thought I could gain the summit in seven hours; it took me over nine. Ok, I thought, option two it is. I took a half hour lunch break sharing the summit with a handful of others before pressing on toward South Kings Peak. I could see the first bit of the traverse ahead, and it wasn't particularly inviting, but it wasn't even 11a, so I reasoned that I had some time. I planned to cruise to South Kings, then over to Painter Boy, and finally onto Trail Rider before dropping down the southwest running ridge toward Bluebell Pass to tie into the Swift Creek Trail and follow it back to my car.
It seemed so easy in my head, but the tallus/boulder slope from Kings to South Kings proved a difficult task as my legs were shot, my lungs were burning, and the altitude had sapped my energy. The boulders were constantly shifting under my feet, and I was having trouble following a safe route across the steep, loose slope. It took me over an hour to go three quarters of a mile. No way I could finish option two before dark, and I definitely didn't want to be descending a sketchy slope cross-country by headlamp. I knew I wouldn't get beyond South Kings before turning around, but I figured I'd at least tag it since it was right in front of me. Then it happened: I realized that I didn't really care about South Kings other than the fact that I'd already begun the traverse. This was a classic case of summit fever. Once I realized that, it was easy to give it up and head back the way I'd come.
I took an hour long nap before traversing the upper slopes of Kings Peak to regain the Yellowstone Creek Trail at Anderson Saddle. Then I spent another hour at the saddle on the phone with my girlfriend. Amazing where you can get service these days. Did you know that you can get full LTE service from the Mt. Whitney summit? Ridiculous.
Finally I was back on terra firma. The Yellowstone Creek Trail begins at the saddle and would take me all the way back to my car. Cruiser miles compared to the ridgeline. But the hour was late, my legs and muscles were sore, and the altitude had already taken a toll. I knew I was in for a rough exit, but nothing to be done about it but walk as swiftly as I could, so off I went. Of course the pain of those past early-season fourteeners had faded from my memory, leaving only the bliss of summit bids and gorgeous views. Today was a brutal reminder of what it took to get those views.
If it wasn't for the extra time I spent climbing beyond Kings, I would've made it out shortly after dark. Instead I walked until 11p. And for the last half dozen miles, all I could think was how annoyed I felt that I was still walking. I kept thinking over and over again that I should have just turned around at the Kings Peak summit, that I could be done walking already if I had. But then I remembered the bull moose that I spooked at dusk on my way out. The way he disappeared into the woods and snorted at me as I passed. (It was cool despite my anxiety that September marks the beginning of the rutting season, which typically means heightened aggression in male ungulates. Fortunately he let me pass without incident.) And it's those little things that I might have missed were it not for my misguided ambition. As much as I feel like pushing toward South Kings without ultimately topping out was a waste of time, it's all part of the experience. Like how there are choices I've made in my life that I'm not proud of and moments that I wish I hadn't had to endure, but all of those things have made me who I am. And I couldn't change my guilt or my pain without also changing my heart and my soul. And why would I wanna do that?