The Utah 13ers – Part 2
It is difficult to write a report of a failed adventure, especially one that has been so long in the planning. Not only am I faced with the difficulty of publicly reporting my failure, but I am equally tasked with reporting back to my sponsors that I didn’t live up to my end of the agreement (at least from a ‘mission successful’ standpoint). I’m hoping that through my writing they will feel they have received the due credit and exposure equal to the investment in myself and my partners.
You might be asking yourselves ‘why 13,000 ft peaks?’ Well, the answer to that can be found in Part 1
of this report. In 2004, one year following my publicly reported Triple Crown (climbing Utah’s 3 tallest peaks in a day) achievement, along with good friend Scott Wesemann, we attempted a hair-brained idea to summit all of Utah’s 13,000 ft peaks in a single trip. While we were allowing for up to 5 days to complete the daunting task, we didn’t even make it out of the second day without Scott becoming severely altitude sick and having to cut our trip short after only two summits (I went on to complete three more). I couldn’t have guessed that nine years later (and after literally dozens of successful adventures with Scott) that what led to our failure in 2004 would be the exact cause for our failure this year.
That early attempt was done with little to no research and I had only been on three of the peaks previously. This year I had spent a great deal more time doing internet research, looking at photos, reading route descriptions, and emailing “Uinta veterans”. But with all my clickety-clack on the computer, I still hadn’t put in any more real work to get to personally know the rest of the peaks. Until this trip I had still only done 8 of the 21 peaks above 13,000 ft. I had assumed going into this attempt that my research and skill on technical terrain would be enough to prove successful on whatever challenges were thrown at me. And maybe it would have had things gone differently with Scott…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
This attempt would still involve Scott and I, but we also invited Matt Van Horn, a respectable peak-bagger and wicked-good ultra runner. He would be a solid addition. We were decked out in Altra Lone Peak 1.5s and Ultraspire Fastpacks, which would be absolutely necessary. We started our adventure on the west end of the 13ers, but still in the relative middle of the Uinta range at the Middle Fork of Blacks Fork. We couldn’t get our car all the way into the trailhead due to poor road conditions and therefore had to start our journey a mile and a half early. The first 9.5 miles were fairly uneventful. The trail meanders through a low valley at 9,000 ft and often disappears threw meadows. Scott slipped on a rock at our first main stream crossing and back-flopped into the water. Being the good partner I am I caught it all on film. More interesting were the number of cabin ruins we came across at mile 5. It’s not unheard of to come across old cabin remains in the back country, but to see this many was strange. We counted at least 10 within a tenth of a mile.
At the base of Mt Tokewanna, just before heading up the northern aspect we spooked a large herd of elk which was spectacular. The peak itself is 13,165 ft and we had more than a 2,300 ft climb to the top. The ascent was very straight forward and we moved quickly. Well, until we got above 12,000 ft, that is. Matt and I soon found ourselves alone and forcing ourselves to slow down so Scott could keep up. As he approached he mentioned he could feel the negative effects of altitude. We hoped that it would pass because we’d been in this spot before and knew if it didn’t our trip would be over almost before it began. Matt and I beat Scott to the summit by 20 min and were already discussing options when he arrived. We forced him to eat a substantial amount of calories and looked to the south at our route to Nortwest Wasatch. It wasn’t anything like what the map showed; rocky, thin, and exposed. It would require significant scrambling and now the sun was setting.
We stayed only long enough to get on some cold weather clothes and started down the south ridge. Matt and I were in good spirits, but Scott was still struggling. At the saddle, about 12,500 ft the calories kicked in and Scott finally started feeling better. We weren’t moving fast, but I was starting to think we might be able to pull most, if not all of this off. Once through the technical ridge and up the easy slope to the summit however, he hit the altitude wall again and slowed to a crawl. As he approached the summit Matt and I had already made the decision to abort the attempt. When Scott arrived we told him our plans, to which he argued and suggested he find his way out by himself, but we had committed long before the start that no man would be left out there alone. We’d press on over Wasatch peak and down to Red Knob Pass and make a decision from there.
It was now well after dark and all of our navigation would be done by map and GPS. We were hoping for an easy cruise along the ridge, but what we thought would be easy was instead gripping. The ridge was incredibly exposed on both sides; one steeply angling to the west, the other a sheer drop to the east. MVH threw a medium sized boulder over the edge and we could hear it careening down the cliffs for over 45 seconds before it stopped. One wrong move and that would be one of us. In Scott’s condition things were now getting a little scary. This type of scrambling went on for about a mile before we finally approached the summit of Wasatch, 13,156 ft. Scott was still a bit behind even though we had waited on several occasions. When he did finally get to the top he looked worse than I had ever seen him (and I’ve seen him at his absolute worst). While he wouldn’t have admitted this at the time, I felt like we were in ‘rescue’ mode and our total focus turned towards getting him down the mountain to Red Knob Pass.
Summiting Mt Tokewanna
Once again, according to the map and route descriptions it appeared the route down to the pass would be fairly casual. We knew there were a couple of small cliff bands, but nothing too difficult. Maybe it was because it was dark and route finding more difficult, but that was one of the most difficult mountain descents I’ve ever made. Two cliff bands involved significant 4th class climbing down a face to loose dirt and scree. We then had to traverse under a cliff band on very sandy terrain, the result of a misstep ending in a series of cartwheels down a 1,000 ft chute. My eye was always on Scott. I’m sure he felt my nervousness was more of a hindrance than a help, but that’s how I generally am; I worry more about the people I’m with than myself. Gratefully, we made it to the saddle without any major incident and now had easy moving ahead of us.
We had all taken enough time off of work to complete the full 13ers, so why not take the long route out of the Uintas. Instead of taking the East Fork of Blacks Fork, we instead headed west along the Highline Trail. Having a GPS is pretty much mandatory out there as the trail fades in and out of long meadows. Cairns (piles of rocks) will lead you the appropriate way, but they can be hard to spot in the dark. At one point, just after Red Knob Pass we got on the wrong side of a snow field and started heading down into the wrong drainage before realizing our error and back-tracking back up. When we finally started down towards Dead Horse Lake we were only 15 miles in and it had taken us more than 11 hours. We stopped to refill and purify water about a mile before the lake. It was almost 5am. I was still very much awake (not sure why), but Matt was getting sleepy and Scott’s body still hadn’t recovered from altitude (we were still above 11,000 ft). We decided to take a nap above the lake and just before heading up the pass on a grassy slope. We pulled out our emergency SOL bivy sacks and crashed for almost an hour and a half. It was still dark when we lay down. We awoke to one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever seen. Dead Horse Lake and its drainage is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in the state. Our lingering to get our things together simply allowed me to take in the splendor of my surroundings and cache a memory I plan to revisit in my head for the rest of my life.
The climb to Dead Horse Pass looks far daunting than it really is. The trail switches back and forth easily up the steep incline, allowing for plenty of time to take in the last views before dropping over to the other side. Once over and into Rocky Basin the trail takes a near direct westward route over to Rocky Sea Pass. It looked really far away. As it turned out, it was. The trail is rugged through much of the section, but still plenty runnable and we made fairly decent time. I was feeling amazing and was moving fast. We found ourselves on the top of Rocky Sea Pass talking to some boy scouts almost exactly 4 hours since leaving Dead Horse Lake. One of the leaders informed us we had about 9 miles to go. Luckily, the trail to Mirror Lake was a net loss.
Dead Horse Lake from the pass
We started down. The farther we got the hotter it got. And while it was a net loss to the finish, there were still plenty of climbs to frustrate us. The trail was also rockier in this last section than at any point until then. Boulders were strewn throughout the trail, making it nearly impossible to maintain any kind of consistent running pace. Scott was beaten down and relegated to walking the last four miles. I sent MVH ahead to make sure we had a ride out, so it came down to Scott and I. We were low on water, he was wrecked, and I was just anxious to get out and see my wife and kids. When we hit the campground and hiked through it we got to our ride at almost exactly 24 hours after starting. Matt and Josh were there to meet us with cold Pepsis, chips, and licorice.
Starting into Rocky Basin
Now, a few days later, it is difficult to look back and feel the pang of failure when it came to attempting my dream. But it was an incredible outing and I loved all of the other parts of the trip I wouldn’t have experienced had we kept going. I also learned several things about the route. It will be epicly hard. Much harder than I had planned. Can it be done at all? Absolutely. Can it be done by me? Definitely. Will I be the first person to do it? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that I need to climb at least the peaks in the middle section before attempting it again (I know exactly what to expect on the final Kings/Emmons ridge). Therefore I may not be able to try it next year as I will have to focus on getting to know the route better. For anyone reading this, the gauntlet has been thrown. Do it if you can. If not, I will return and this time, be victorious.
It’s important to recognize our sponsors and site a lot of the gear we took.
– we used the Fastpack. This 19L pack can do it all and is insanely comfy. I had way too much gear and food and still had a ton of room. I would recommend this pack for anything that requires a significant amount of gear.
Altra Zero Drop Footwear
– The Lone Peak took on the rocks and trails like it was nothing. We crossed a bunch of rivers and our shoes were dry within a couple of hours.
– I used the Boost electrolyte water additive and wow, it made such a huge difference.
Other gear included: SkyCall Satellite phone, Garmin GPS, SPOT tracker, Sony Action Cam, GoPro, DryMax socks, SOL emergency double bivy, VFuel and Hammer energy gels, and literally way more food than I could have eaten in three days.