Oh my gosh, where to even begin?? We came, we conquered, we laughed, we wanted to cry, we prayed we wouldn’t die... Haha. The weather made for the slowest trail conditions and a whole lot more “adventure” than Bre and I bargained for. But on a day that nearly everyone else turned back before the summit (except the serious mountaineer who has done 5 of the 7 Summits & his buddy) — WE DID IT!!! And right after I completed a road marathon. I’m pretty proud of that! It may have been crazy, but it was epic and memorable and (99% of the time) so fun!!!
|Virtual Boston #2!!!|
Buckle up, this story is going to be LONG! Summary: Crappy/slow trail conditions. Icy rocky ridges. Little bit of altitude sickness. Wildlife. Total darkness. Freezing temps. Frigid winds. The highest summit in the state! #memories 🥶🖤
I come from a long line of serious hikers, so King’s Peak has been on my lifetime to-do list since I was a little kid. King’s is the highest mountain in Utah at 13528 feet, and the shortest trail to the top is 26.8 miles round trip. Toss in an 8-hour round trip to get there, and it’s quite the ordeal! The summit is normally approached as a 3-day hike, but @bre_fontaine pointed out that the distance was pretty dang perfect for a trail Virtual Boston... How could we resist?! We hit the King’s Peak trail on Friday the 11th, less than 48 hours after I finished my road virtual Boston.
It had snowed in Utah on Tuesday (September 8!), but the snow had all melted off the local mountains by Thursday. We thought there *might* be snow near the top of King’s since it is higher, and we checked the weather for the mountain and saw the frigid temps so packed accordingly. What *wasn’t* on the forecast was the new snowstorm that came through the night of the 10th/early morning on the 11th! King’s is 4 hours from my parents’ house, in the high Uinta’s — so we had no idea. We were still driving in flat land, 1.5 hours from the trailhead when we noticed there was a dusting of fresh snow on the ground. Yikes. “Let’s just turn around and come back on Monday when it’s 80 degrees again,” I half-seriously suggested. Of course, logistically, we were committed at that point!
You can run a mountain when it’s dry, and you can run a mountain in crunchy snow. What it is very difficult to safely/realistically run in is mud, slush, and ice. I’ll give you one guess which conditions we ended up with, with a fresh melting summer snow. Bre and I had pushed back our start time in favor of more sleep, and we maaaybe regretted that when we saw what we were in for!
Basically, the first 9 miles are a gradual incline through the forest and then a gorgeous open valley. The trail can be rocky in parts so you have to pay attention, but that 9-mile stretch *should* be super runnable both up and down! Then there is a rocky ridge called Gunsight Pass, where you scramble up boulders to about 12K feet altitude at mile 10 before heading back down into another valley (about 10500ft altitude). From there, it’s 2.5 miles winding back around and up to the base of the final giant pile of rocks AKA the 1-mile summit climb.
When you’re hours from cell service (if you get hurt, you’re screwed) and in frigid temps (wet feet for hours = BAD), you have to not be an idiot. So for that first stretch, we ran where we could — where the trail was drier/less slick or still crunchy snowy — but had to carefully meander around puddles and mud pits and ice. We made good time for the conditions, but it wasn’t nearly as fast as it would have just days before when the trail was normal. We were deep in the forest when we spotted definite fresh cougar tracks in the snow. I’ve chaperoned enough field trips to know the identifying traits in the prints and it was both super cool and terrifying to see that a giant mountain lion was roaming around just like us.
We were at least well prepared with lots of food and multiple layers to work with, and we’d shed and add layers as needed. The valley was beautiful and the sun was shining, so we were running in our tanks for a good stretch there. We spotted the two biggest bull moose either of us had ever seen, just about 500yds away! So we paused and watched them until they thankfully headed off in the other direction & we headed to Gunsight.
The wind really kicked in as we made our way up Gunsight so it was getting cold! I wanted all the layers, but saved my jacket for when I knew it’d be even colder. At the top of Gunsight, we knew we were running into time troubles, but just kept pressing on! Summit or bust. We used a filter to refill our water from a mossy stream (you have to really trust those filters, ha!) and made our way to that final giant pile of rocks.
We’d passed a few groups making their way back down and asked them all how the summit was... only to hear they’d all turned back early because of the conditions & time. I’m sure they thought we were crazy to hear that & just keep heading up! Finally, right before the final mile, we ran into a lady who said she had turned back but her husband — a serious mountaineer who has done 5 of the 7 summits — was up on the summit with his friend. It wasn’t long before could see their tiny specks descending & we were anxious to chat!
The guy (we should’ve asked his name!) was supposed to do Everest this spring but it was canceled due to COVID. I told him that out of ALL the events in the world to be canceled for COVID — that’s the worst so he wins. We asked about how long he thought it’d take us to get to the summit from that point (under a mile left) & he said 1.5 more hours, and nearly the same down. It was getting late for a summit push and I said we figured as long as we were back down Gunsight before dark, we’d be okay. He agreed and asked where our camp was, and we said: “The parking lot.” Haha! He laughed and was like, “... Yeah, just be down Gunsight before dark.” And then we wished each other well and went on our way — knowing we had to move relatively quickly to make this thing work.
That task was easier said than done as we made our way up that never-ending final scramble up the pile of big wobbly rocks — with snow laced throughout and ice that was difficult to see in the ever-increasing shadows. This was hugely complicated by the fact that I was starting to experience some altitude sickness symptoms, namely headache and dizziness. Needless to say, balance is kind of important while climbing through icy, wobbly boulders... and mine was suddenly just so off.
I started to see some stars and it wasn’t anything overly dramatic, but was simply not an ideal situation. Listen, I live in California, and even with my visits to Utah, my Garmin only estimated my altitude acclimation at 3K feet. This was 13,500 feet and there is about 40%(!) less oxygen at that altitude than sea level. Plus, my body was compromised heading into this having just run a marathon. So yeah, when I started feeling off... I knew what it was, I knew WHY it was, and I knew I just needed to get to the summit and down as quickly as possible — for both the altitude sickness AND the impending darkness.
It’s hard to move fast over icy, wobbly boulders when your balance is off, though! We definitely didn’t have time to deal with twisted ankles or broken legs or split open heads. So it felt like this catch 22 and I just tried to find the sweet spot, keeping all 4 points of contact by holding onto higher rocks while I found my footing. This was clutch when I stepped on a boulder that wobbled and proceeded to slip on its ice — I slammed my knee into the boulder in front of it pretty violently but was able to “save” it otherwise. (My knee is still swollen, though!)
Bre had said on the drive up that she saw grown adults sitting and crying in the middle of the boulders on a perfectly clear day before. Gosh, that suddenly seemed like a nice idea. Haha! This dang pile of giant rocks was never-ending, and doing it in icy shadows with dizziness with the time crunch... I started to feel anxious about it all and worried about the “getting down the whole mountain” part. But then I reminded myself of an old favorite adage to “Stay in the Moment.” It doesn’t do any good to worry about what might or might not happen. Right there, in that moment, I was still fine. And I was almost to the top of the highest mountain in Utah! And despite the crappy conditions, well, this crap is still pretty dang fun.
I focused on taking deep breaths (to combat the thin air rapid shallow breathing) and making steady progress — and I finally made it to the summit!!! What a glorious pile of rocks. It took less than the 90 minutes the Everest guy had predicted, so it felt like a victory, too.
Normally we’d sit and eat and hang out for awhile, but we tried to keep it quick because it was 5pm & the race was officially on to get down Gunsight (the other rocky, icy ridge) before dark. The trail is on the east side of the summit, so nearly the whole thing was in the shadows on the way down and we kept pushing to get to some sun.
We made it down to the valley and said peace out to that pile of rocks. I had to pause for a potty break *again* (not usually a thing for me, but frequent urination is another one of those altitude things!) which is a little stressful when you’re chasing sunset on a freezing mountain! We caught a pretty sunset at the top of Gunsight and safely scrambled down before the light faded at dusk. Phew!
And also, now what? We had those 9 miles left and we’d assumed the mud would have dried up a bit and we’d be able to run the rest of the way down. I still had a headache but was feeling much better with the decreasing altitude (I’d also crammed in more calories, too). Since we hadn’t planned on the dark, we didn’t bring headlamps and only had our cell phone lights (& luckily extra chargers), but they were good enough. Let’s run this thing!
Or... not. More of the snow had melted and it seemed like the trail was nothing but puddles in some parts! And bonus — temps were now below freezing so there was even more ice, and it was even harder to see because it WAS pitch black dark and all. It was mind boggling that the trail could be even less runnable than earlier, and yet here we were.
9 flipping miles to go in the pitch black wilderness in known bear country where we knew for a fact there were also giant moose and at least one big mountain lion roaming around. Just me and Bre. In 25*F frigid temps. And did I mention there’s no cell service for a solid 1.5 hours after you start driving home from the trailhead? We’d run for maybe 30 yards only to have to walk gingerly around puddles/mud pits/ice for the next 70. Getting to our car was going to take FOREVER.
Guys. You literally couldn’t PAY me to do this. “Go wander in the wilderness where you saw cougar tracks and giant bull moose and bear warnings, in the complete and utter darkness for a few hours, with just one other girl.” Yeah.... no. And yet, here we were!
We kept thinking we’d get to run around the next corner. We’d have to mostly walk this mile, but surely we’d run the rest after that. Ah, the beauty of optimism, eh? For safety purposes (and also fun, but at that point, mostly safety), we took turns blasting whatever songs we had downloaded on our phones and sang along. You want to be as loud as possible to keep the wildlife away! Our lungs were feeling it, which didn’t do any favors for my already, um, “pitchy” singing voice (to put it nicely). So... sorry you had to listen to that, Bre! We talked loudly to each other and also told whatever wildlife was listening that we are moms so they can’t eat us. ;)
Those miles were like the twilight zone... going on and on, blending together, and yet also passing faster than they should have? When we hit the final 5K and were walking around huge puddles and trying not to slip on icy patches, the time started to get painful (“We can run this far in less than 20 minutes, and it’s going to take a freaking hour!” Haha.). With about a mile and a half to go, I was like, “I don’t even care anymore. I don’t care if there’s ice, I don’t care if there’s mud, I don’t care if I get hypothermia from the puddles, I don’t care if there’s a BEAR...” And we laughed because it was just all so ridiculous at that point!
We’d neglected to take pictures of the sketchy parts since we were just getting through them, but I took a quick video of Bre on the final stretch. Hallelujah — we survived! I’ve never been so happy to see a parking lot in my entire life!!! What. A. Day.
27+ miles, 6234 feet of vert, moving time 8:28, total time 11 hours. We hopped in the car, blasted the heater, and hit the road to civilization so we could tell our families we were alive. So dang grateful I had Bre with me to make it a fun adventure when it could have been a nightmare. That's a long time to be trudging through the mountains with a person, so it's a good thing we like each other! By the time I finally made it back to my parents’ house, I had been up for a full 24 hours.
An exhausting, epic 24 hours.