Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Adventures in Utah

(original post 07/02/2013)

This post is mainly to serve as a trip report for anyone thinking about doing similar adventures in Utah this time of year (late June). I will, however, try to write in layman's terms so that non-climbers can enjoy reading it as well.

Day 1: SLC

I got in to San Antonio very late from WV on sunday night. After packing for my next trip at the proverbial eleventh hour, I had time for about an hour and a half of sleep before I had to get up and drive back to the airport for the flight to Utah. When my friend Gage and I arrived in Utah, we were both exhausted. But when we met up with my old roommate from WV, he asked if we wanted to go climbing in Big Cottonwood Canyon. We couldn't turn down a chance for epic climbing no matter how tired we were. So we drove the relatively short drive and before we knew it, we were on the sharp end (lead climbing) doing some fun climbing in the canyon. I was in love with the granite/quartz rock. But diminishing light, increasing winds, and light rain ended the session a little early. 

After that we were really exhausted. But then we got invited to drink local beers at a local theater on classic movie night. They were playing "The Three Amigos." And we got picked up in a Limo! How could we say no to that? So the universe conspired against our plans of getting a good night's rest once again.

Day 2: Zion National Park

We departed in the morning for our five hour drive to Zion National Park. We got there in time to hike the Canyon Overlook Trail. The Canyon Overlook Trail is awesome. It's one of the best effort-to-benefit ratios of any hike I've ever done. We also had time to check out an unnamed slot canyon east of the 1.1 mile tunnel that passes through one of the mountains. As my friend Eric would say, it's approved. Here are a few pics:


Day 3: Zion National Park

We didn't have any expectations about Zion. We just heard it was pretty cool so we went for it. Consequently we didn't really have a plan either. So when we woke up, we just started exploring the Canyons. We found an interesting slot canyon the passes underneath the bridge just east of the main tunnel. We later found out that the name of this slot canyon was Pine Creek Canyon. We quickly ran into a vertical 60+ ft drop off. We scratched our heads for a minute and chatted with some passerbys about the quality of the anchor bolts that could be used to rappel down the canyon. They told us we needed a permit to do this particular slot canyon because it was considered dangerous for the general public and only "canyoneers" could do it. 

Never having heard the term "canyoneering" before (we live in Texas), we took that as a challenge and went about getting a permit. At park HQ we were lucky enough to get a permit (these things are very hard to come by in the summer months). Before they would give us a permit they asked us all kinds of questions about canyoneering and what type of equipment we were using and how well we studied the route, etc. etc. We fudged the truth just a little bit because we had plenty of experience rock climbing and rappelling and figured there was enough overlap in skills that it would be a non-issue.

Basically, canyoneering is rock climbing in reverse. You start at the top of a route and work your way down. We immediately got our asses handed to us with multiple 70+ ft rappels into pools of deep, icy cold water. Then we had to swim with our backpacks, ropes, and metal gear to an exit point. We didn't have wet suits, but neither did half of the other canyoneers we met later on the route. So FYI, if you're planning on doing something like this in any time other than mid-summer, you WILL need a thick wet-suit to prevent hypothermia. We went in late June and the surface temperatures of the canyon were over ninety five degrees. And yet, when you're 800 ft deep into a slot canyon the temperatures are drastically different. I was shivering for about 30 minutes after exiting the last pool.

Another thing we learned about canyoneering is that you have to use every anchor available to you, unless you can safely downclimb without the rope. This was a mistake that we made. We used an anchor point slightly higher than another anchor point and skipped the lower one altogether. When we pulled the rope, there was too much friction in the rope-anchor system and it wouldn't budge. This was because the rope passed around one more rock, adding more friction. We both had to get back into the icy cold water and pull from a different angle to get the rope to move through the system. We both pulled on one side of the rope and inch after inch, we finally pulled through about 100 ft of rope. We never made that mistake again. Good times.

Finally, things were getting easier. Until we came upon the last rappel. This one really tested my fear of heights. It requires walking to the edge of a 100+ ft cliff (with a downward slope to the edge) and clipping your harness to a "daisy chain" sling at the very edge. Then you must set up for a free rappel. A free rappel is where you can't stabilize your self against a rock with your legs. Instead, you take a leap of faith into nothing but air as you're spinning around helplessly while descending. One look down while you're doing this makes you seriously question your sanity.

With the last rappel behind us, we hiked for a couple hours to the nearest road, hitchhiked back to the car, and drove 5 hours back to SLC to couchsurf with my friend Eric for the night. Another night of good sleep was robbed from us, since we had to return the rental car in the morning.

Day 4: High Uintas Wilderness

My friend Brian was kind enough to take us to the High Uintas in the Wasatch National Forest for a summit bid of King's Peak, the Utah state high point. As we drove along, the feeling of civilization slipped away from us. First we lost our data connection on our cell phones. Then we lost all cell service. Then paved roads turned into dirt roads. And then, slowly, farmhouses turned into forests. We were deep into the Wasatch when we got dropped off and since there would be no communication, we arranged ahead of time to get picked up at the same place three days later. Once our ride left us, there was no turning back. We would be stuck here with whatever was in our packs for the next three days. Kind of a strange feeling, but we brushed it off and starting hiking.

Since we didn't have a map (we literally didn't have time to stop by REI before returning the rental car), there was some confusion as to which trail would lead to the summit. There were several trailheads that were very poorly marked. Luckily, I had memorized the trail before I left for Utah and knew basically to head south from Henry's Fork Campground (which also took us a while to find). We basically took a gamble on one and it turned out to be the right one. 

The trail was spectacular. It follows a decently large river off to the left and parallels the valley floor between two tall ridgelines. We threaded our way through the aspen trees and saw a few pikas along the way. We had to cross a raging ice-cold river over three logs that had been put there for crossing. We crossed after only a slight hesitation. Finally, after emerging from the forest, we came into a large meadow that was littered with shallow alpine lakes and sparse coniferous trees. Here we saw meese (that's the plural of moose) and some beavers. We also saw countless types of flowers in bloom.

The curving trail finally revealed the state high points: King's Peak and South King's Peak. Here was this awesome mountain in front of us. Daunting as it was, we had a plan of attack. We may be some Texas boys, but there was no question about it: we were here to kick that mountain's ass! After hiking for about 7-8 miles, we finally reached Dollar Lake just before sunset. A little bit of "altitude high" set in as we set up camp.

Day 5: High Uintas Wilderness

Not much to tell here. We used day five as a rest day. But I couldn't sit around for too long and hiked about 8 miles round trip to get a better look at the peak. Stormy weather turned me around early and I was back at camp by mid-afternoon. We spent some time interpreting the weather forecast for day 6, which would be our summit bid. It said 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. So we decided the only way to safely summit on day 6 would be to wake up at 5:20am and be on the trail before 6:00.

Day 6: High Uintas Wilderness

We hit the trail at 5:45am. It was very cold and hard to get started, but eventually we found a faster pace and made good progress. The plan was to be at the top of Gunsight Pass by 8am. We made it there by 7:45. We had to pass about seven snowbanks on the trail to the summit. I don't know the exact grade of the snowbanks, but I will say that an ice axe wouldn't hurt. You wouldn't want to slide down some of them. Crampons are unnecessary in the summer months. In some cases you can avoid snowbanks by scrambling above or below them.

After a very long trail around the mountain, we came to a steep pitch, followed by a long plateau. Water crossings were plentiful, and we never treated the water before drinking it. It tasted like what it was: snow runoff. That is to say, it tasted better than any bottled water I've ever drank. But just a word of caution: I always purify the water below tree line and I'm very careful about drinking untreated water above tree line. Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and E. Coli are all possibilities at any altitude where animals roam. Generally, the higher you go, the less the chances of getting sick from untreated water. Also, the water must be flowing rapidly. Stagnant water is almost always bad news. Sourcing clean drinking water during a long hike is just as much art as it is science. If you're not sure, always go with some sort of purification. Here is what the CDC has to say about it: backcountry water treatment.

The plateau ended and the pitch steepened to Anderson Pass. After hitting the Anderson saddle we took a hard left and followed the ridgeline through about an hour and a half of class 2 climbing on loose boulders. Finally we made the summit at 11:45. After a brief celebration, we realized we still had big obstacles ahead of us before we could call it a day.

My climbing partner was suffering from a mild case of AMS (acute mountain sickness). It's a form of altitude sickness that causes light headedness, dizziness, slight loss of motor control and loss of judgement. AMS is the main reason that 80% of all accidents on the mountain occur during the descent after the summit. Since the only real cure is to head down to a lower altitude, we knew we had to keep moving.

But the clock was ticking with another hazard as well: the sky was beginning to gray and the wind picked up, followed by a change in temperature/pressure. Being a pilot, I know enough about the weather that it was becoming a concern. But we had a plan just in case of this sort of thing and we stuck to it. We hiked as fast as we could around the "backside" of the mountain. We started hearing thunder claps. By the time we got to the bottom of Gunsight pass we had a choice to make: we could stay low and wait for the thunderstorm to pass over us, or we could climb the pass and beat the thunderstorm back to camp. There were much more trees back at camp, so it seemed like the safer option, but getting caught in a thunderstorm on top of a ridgeline (even if its a pass) would be an extremely dangerous situation. 

We did a quick calculation in our heads and decided to hike over the pass without taking a rest. It was about 500 ft of climbing over half a mile or so. We made it over the pass with the thunderstorm in our rearview mirror and hauled ass back to camp. We considered ourselves lucky, as there were still 2 groups stuck higher on the mountain as we descended. When we finally made it to camp we jumped into the tent. About 30 seconds later the rain came pouring down. After eight plus hours of hiking we were spared getting soaked by only 30 seconds! We couldn't believe it.

We tried to take a nap during the rain storm, but there was a lot of lightning/thunder and it was hard to nap. After the storm passed, we packed up camp and hiked for another seven hours into the night back to the trailhead. We got back to Henry's Fork Campground around 12:30am the next day. All in all, we did about 24 miles of hiking (32 mi total) through rugged terrain with about 11,000 ft of elevation change in 15+ cumulative hours in a single day. Day 6 was probably the hardest summit day I've ever had.

For all the pain and suffering of this trip, would I do it again? I must be at least 10% masochist because my answer is a HELL YEAH!


  1. Nice report JP. Good thing you could pull that rope, I've had to free climb to dislodge the rope before and is no fun! AMS at 13.5K is a bummer.

  2. I forgot to mention to bring DEET spray for the High Uintas. The mosquitoes were like a cloud around us, especially in the open meadow near all of the alpine lakes.