On the summit

Kings Peak, 13,528ft

Date climbed: 11:44am 8/13/2011

Kings Peak (13,528ft)
Highest Point in Utah
~27 miles
7:15am – 5:45pm 8/13/2011
Matthew and Eric Gilbertson

Author: Matthew

“Yeah, I’ve actually only got three state high points left,” we overheard a dude on the summit of Kings Peak say proudly to another hiker.

Our ears perked up. Could there really be a fellow hiker here on top of the highest point in Utah who, like us, had also climbed the highest point in forty seven states? We were impressed. We had to hear more about his feat. “Wow, so you’re working on the state high points too?” we asked incredulously. “Which three do you have left?”

“Rainier, Gannett, and Granite,” he responded. (That’s Washington, Wyoming, and Montana, respectively.) But then his story began to erode. “But I don’t count the ones on the East Coast,” he said, “they’re not worthy.”

Not worthy? Are you kidding me? Now them’s fightin’ words. I bristled at his egregiously insulting statement. “You don’t count the ones on the East Coast? Well there’s some pretty nice mountains out east like Mt. Washington and Katahdin,” I responded. He had never heard of them.

“The mountains out west here are a lot taller,” he countered.

The discussion was heating up. “How many mountains are on your list?” Eric asked.

“Well, I don’t count Alaska and Hawaii, so…” he trailed off. “…so eight are on the list.”

“How many have you done?” Eric asked as politely as possible.

“Well, five.”

Now Eric and I hadn’t intended to publicly insult the guy right there on the summit, but when he says the mountains on the East Coast aren’t worthy he’s got it coming to him. A few minutes later another dude on the summit inquired “so how many state high points have guys done?”

“Kings Peak makes forty-seven,” Eric answered, “so now we’ve got only three left.”

Our pilgrimage to the highest point in Utah began—nervously—in the back of a taxi in Cambridge the previous afternoon. Eric had an advisor meeting which was scheduled to end at 1pm that he couldn’t miss, which made catching a 2:45pm flight with bags to check difficult to accomplish via the T. So I was to meet him with all our bags in a taxi at 1pm sharp right in front of his lab. We wanted to make this a quick and stealthy getaway.

Now it’s not that Eric’s advisor wouldn’t permit him to go on the trip, it’s just the simple fact that he didn’t need to know about it. Eric would make up for lost work the following week, but we might as well just make the trip invisible to his advisor so that no questions were asked that didn’t need to be asked.

PHASE 1: getting to the airport

So shortly after 1pm, Eric strolled casually out of his lab meeting as if he was off to the restroom, but then quickly hopped with me into the waiting cab. We were off…sort of. Turns out that it was the taxi driver’s first day on the job. At first we thought he was taking us on a shortcut to the airport but we ended getting a tour of all the red lights in Boston. We finally made it to Terminal B and hopped onto our plane with just ten minutes to spare. Phase 1 of the journey was over, but there were eight more phases of the trip that we needed to execute flawlessly.

PHASE 2: flying to SLC

We arrived uneventfully at 9:30pm local time and picked up a rental car at the Alamo counter.

PHASE 3: driving to the Kings Peak trailhead

Our route took us from Salt Lake City through southwestern Wyoming and then back into Utah. There’s not a whole lot to see in southwestern Wyoming in the dark (or in the light either) so we needed to switch drivers to stay awake.

After passing through the metropolii of Fort Bridger, Urie, Mountainview, and Robertson we turned off onto gravel “Billy Bob Roads” (as we like to call them) and headed south into Utah’s Unita Mountains. We wound around for a good forty-five minutes before arriving at the trailhead. We had expected it to be a popular weekend but were still shocked at the number of vehicles at the trailhead. Cars and tents were parked everywhere, probably 100 cars in all. Well, we thought, this means we can camp wherever we want. We finally got to sleep around 12:30am.

PHASE 4: climbing Kings Peak

Starting the hike

But “sleep” before a big adventure is always a relative term. We were lying down with our eyes closed but that didn’t mean we weren’t thinking about the climb. For me it’s always tough to get a decent rest before a big adventure. My brain would prefer to focus on the excitement and anticipation of the next day. It also didn’t help that the temp dropped below freezing that night, causing us to shiver a little in our summer sleeping bags.

The 6:30am cell phone alarm jolted us awake for good and it was time to get moving. We had a big day ahead of us. We weren’t exactly sure of the mileage that we faced; online sources said anywhere between 25 and 30 miles. We read that most people take three days in all: hike to the base on Day 1, summit on Day 2, and hike out on Day 3. Well we didn’t have that much time since it was just a three day weekend. We had other business with the highest point in Idaho

King Peak in the distance

the next day so this trip needed to be efficient without any fooling around.

The trail to the base of the mountain is pretty level and well-behaved so we were able to engage our mental cruise control and think about other things besides where to place our feet. We were trying to plan our attack on the remaining high points. We’d do King’s Peak today, Borah Peak (Idaho) tomorrow, Mauna Kea (Hawaii) in a few weeks, and finish on Guadaloupe Peak (Texas) sometime in the fall. But King’s Peak would turn out to be less of a cakewalk than we had expected.

During the climb Eric and I began to philosophize on the use of the internet in planning our trip. We had

Making sure to tag a small snowfield near the summit

bought our tickets online, used Google Maps to plan our route to the base of the mountain, Summitpost for the route descriptions, and Google Earth satellite photos to select possible campsites and record GPS waypoints for the route. It amazed me that everything just worked out. You simply type in your credit card number and get a flight all the way to Utah. You follow the maps and you actually get to the trailhead. You follow the route description and get to the top. The trails all exist. Kings Peak exists (well, we would find that out later). The whole time you’re trusting everything you see on the screen, not giving it a second thought. In the days before internet it all would have been much tougher to coordinate.

Matthew crossing the plateau near the summit

With our legs on cruise control and our minds free to discuss the nature of reality, at 9:30am we reached the base of the climb—the climb up to Gunsight Pass. So far it had just been a little walk in the woods. At this point the hike turned into a genuine mountain climb.

We (especially me) were expecting at least a little altitude sickness on the climb to the 13,528 ft summit, so we made sure to breathe very deliberately and forcefully, a known tactic to mitigate AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). We were hoping to summit quickly and get down from altitude fast enough to dodge the signature symptoms of headache and nausea.

The climb started out comfortably, although we couldn’t climb too fast without gasping for air. We assumed a slower pace and climbed through Gunsight Pass. Soon the trail leveled out and we were walking through a rugged talus field. From the aerial photos it looked like this part would be flat and easy, but in reality we had to carefully plan every step over the boulders.

Along the climb a group of “ultralight” hikers passed by us on their way to the top. Looked like they were

Matthew on the summit

aiming for a speed record. The lead guy was wearing nothing but a thin pair of shorts and a small vest with pockets.

We kept climbing and reached Anderson Pass, the last flat ground before the summit. We took this

opportunity to hike across a little snowfield, even though we could have gone around it. There’s just something tantalizing about hiking on snow in mid-August. Soon the shorts-only dude passed on his way down. (He ended up finishing in just 4h47mins, which must surely be a new speed record for Kings Peak.) A few deep breaths and slow steps later we were on the roof of Utah.

Except for some wind turbines 30 miles away in Wyoming there wasn’t a single manmade structure in sight. For 360 degrees around it was nothing but mountains and valleys. It was especially cool to see some valleys to the south that were completely undeveloped, with no sign of human involvement. Such undeveloped valleys are rare because that’s usually the easiest ground to develop. Luckily, though, we were in the High Unitas Wilderness which meant that no machines or buildings were permitted.

Summit panorama

It seemed that some of the surrounding peaks like South Kings Peak and Gilbert Peak were actually a little taller, but we took the internet’s word for it that we were on the tallest ground in the state. We completed the traditional high point rituals with a photo of both of us jumping, Eric juggling, and our arms raised on the summit. And then it was time for the most recent ritual addition: the summit panorama.

Eric juggling 6 rocks on the summit

We hung out for a little while with the rest of the high point crowd and decided it was time to head down. If we weren’t on a tight schedule we would have hung out for hours on the top because the view was so spectacular. But we had scheduled an appointment with Idaho’s Borah Peak the next day and needed to get moving.

The descent turned out to be far more difficult that we expected. Our time at altitude was starting to take its toll. We had been at sea level 24 hours earlier and now we were above 13,000ft. We needed some more time to make some red blood cells. I was starting to get a headache and didn’t feel like eating anything. To make matters worse we had run out of water and were getting dehydrated. A seemingly insignificant little rise suddenly turned into Heartbreak Hill. From past experiences on Denali and Shasta we knew that the only remedy was to get downhill ASAP.

Matthew on the summit

Before long we found a little creek draining a melting snowfield and filled up our Nalgenes. Soon we were back at Gunsight Pass, and finally reached the base of the climb. For us it felt like the hike was pretty much over, although we still had 11 miles to go. Most of the hikers we had passed that day were incredulous that we would be attempting to do Kings Peak in a day. But it didn’t seem like such a big deal to us. We had just finished the climb, it was 3pm, and it was all gradual downhill from here. Easy, right? But one dude ominously asked us, “You guys headed back to the trailhead tonight?” “Yep,” we answered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” was his reply.

The hike out was agonizingly long. Because of the possible need for crampons on the snowfields I had unfortunately chosen to wear hiking boots instead of more comfortable/traditional tennis shoes and I paid for it in the form of some painful blisters. (Later that night when I removed my boots I discovered seven large broken-skin blisters.) To make matters worse we both had a dehydration headache and hadn’t been able to eat much the whole day. We slowly staggered on, thankful that Borah Peak the next day would only be seven miles. We took a quick break and both guessed that we only had a half-mile to go. I whipped out the GPS to confirm, but I just about threw the GPS against the ground when I saw that we in fact had 3.5 miles left.

Back at the car at last and ready to drive to the Idaho highpoint!

“Ughh,” I groaned. “How can we still have 3.5 miles?” The morning ascent had flown by, but the descent was feeling like a completely different trail. Well, at least we had the GPS to tell us the truth. At 5:45pm Mountain Daylight Time we finally made it back to the trusty Chevy Cruze. I threw off the boots, hopped into the driver’s seat, and we sped off towards Idaho.

We figured that we could rest in the car just as well as we could rest at the trailhead. We could bask in the glory of having climbed the highest point in Utah while we drove to the highest point in Idaho. We had executed the first 4 Phases of the trip flawlessly, but still had 5 Phases left. To see if we reached the top of Borah Peak you’ll have to refer to Eric’s Report.

More pictures on the MITOC Gallery

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