In 2001 I tagged along with my friend Scott Wesemann as he made an attempt at climbing Utah's three tallest peaks in a single day, starting from an advanced base camp at Dollar Lake in the Henry's Fork basin of the Uinta National Forest. Along with Scott was a reporter and photographer from the Deseret News. Unfortunately, Scott was unable to complete the hike due to severe altitude sickness. The reporter was unable to finish, also. However, along with the photographer, I was able to complete the three summits in a little over 13 hours. My accomplishment made for a two page, full color spread in the Deseret News and was coined the "Utah Triple Crown". I thought I was pretty cool.
Over time the hike began to make a little buzz in the world of "peak-bagging". People were making attempts at it themselves. But it wasn't until 2008 when I was back in the Uinta's to try for a one-day attempt at summiting King's Peak car-to-car that I realized just how far people were now taking it. Upon completing our one day excursion we stopped to make a note in the trail/summit log and to see who else had attempted a one day hike up to King's. What I saw was startling. Not a month earlier someone by the name of Davy Crockett had not only done the Triple Crown, but had done it from the car, not from an advanced base camp. And he did it in a little more than 14 hours and 40 minutes. Unbelievable. As I returned to work the following Monday a friend who I had hiked with found Davy's trip report online and shared it with me. In his trip report he sited my 2001 hike and the Deseret News article. I sent over a comment on his report telling him who I was and how amazed I was at what he did. I also mentioned that he had now motivated me to go back and try it again, this time also starting from my car. And that's when I started to get more serious about trail running.
Jump ahead two years to yesterday; Thursday, July 15, 2010. I had been planning this run for several weeks and thought I had a good gameplan in place. Davy's original attempt had accrued roughly 37 miles in distance and over 17,000 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss. His trip took him over all three peaks in their order of height, from highest to lowest; King's Peak, So King's, and finally Gilbert Peak. I chose a different strategy. I figured that if I did Gilbert first, then went over East Gunsight Peak to Gunsight Pass I could knock off some back-tracking and extra mileage. I also thought that if I came straight down the face of King's Peak after summiting South King's that I could knock off even more mileage. I mapped out the trek online and my mileage came up to a little over 28 (in actuality it came to 29.2), significantly less than Davy and an attempt made by someone else last year.
As with most of my trips onto the Uinta's I was joined again by Scott. He would not be accompanying me on my attempt at the Triple Crown due to some knee issues, but was going to try and beat his previous best time at doing just King's Peak car-to-car. We met at my house at 9pm on Wednesday night and after a quick stop to gas up and grab some snacks we were off to the trailhead. We arrived at the Henry's Fork camp ground at just about midnight and quickly set up a tent. We had intended to start hiking around 4am, but with the late drive in we decided to push it back to 5am. Neither of us slept much. We were up and moving around by 4:30am and after some oatmeal and a banana were standing at the trailhead at 5:20am ready to go. With nervous hands I pushed the Start button on my gps watch and we were off up the trail . . . at a nice steady walk (I would not touch my watch again till I hit stop at the finish). My plan was to start out slow and maintain that slow speed for the next 10 hours. Within a hundred yards or so we moved into a jog, talking and enjoying the scenery as the morning dawn began to light up the forest around us. We could hear the river running near us and could feel the cold on our skin as wind lightly pushed down from the basin ahead. After about a mile and a half I started to push the pace a little more and lost Scott. Unfortunately, I was also fighting some cramping in my diaphragm. It slowed me down to a walk a couple of times, but eventually went away.
Elk Horn Crossing is the first major time indicator on the run or hike. At the 5.3 mile mark it is a good gauge at how well one is doing. Last year, while doing a one day run of King's with two friends (ironically, one of them being Davy himself) I had gotten to Elk Horn in 53 minutes. This trip I would get there at 1:02:00, nine minutes slower. I wasn't worried though. My intention was to move slower overall. My next and first real major goal was to get to the summit of Gilbert Peak (elev 13,446) in 3 hours. It would be a little more than 10 miles into the trip and I would gain 4,200+ feet of elevation, with more than 3000 of that in the last 2.5 miles. As I rounded Dollar Lake at mile 8 I was having a hard time picking my route up the north ridgeline that leads to Gilbert plateau. As I came around the south side of the lake I stumbled up a cow moose and her year old calf. I got pretty close and we stopped to stare at each other and I got a good photo, then quickly moved on as I didn't want to make her angry.
From there I had to find my own way up the ridgeline as there was now available trail. I threw myself directly at the west face and made my own switchbacks, at times following game trails until I was on top of the steeply angling ridge. In less than half a mile I had ascended more than 1,000 vertical feet. The unfortunate part was it had taken its toll on me and I was getting pretty tired. I worked hard to stay on top of my energy and electrolytes, so I took a moment to have an energy gel and take a salt pill. Looking back down at where I had come from I was amazed at the beauty and unbelievably happy at the opportunity I had to be there.
As I crested the plateau I could see the summit of Gilbert Peak. I knew I would have to ascend two distinct false summits, something I was mentally prepared for. This was my third time up to this peak so I knew what to expect. With tired legs I made my way in the warm morning sun towards the summit of Utah's third tallest peak. I passed still frozen pools of water and had to cross over severely rocky terrain before I started climbing the very steep rocky slop to the eventual top. I generally do really well at altitude, but I haven't been above 10,000 ft often enough this year so that by the time I hit the 13,000 ft mark I was getting pretty dizzy. I never had to deal with nausea, but on uneven terrain foot placement is critical and doing so while even a little dizzy is dangerous. I focused that much more as not to take a wrong step. Regardless, even as careful as one can be, when you are moving over car-sized boulders that are precariously situated on top of each other it is unnerving when they move, even if just a little. This would happen all day long. I reached the summit of Gilbert Peak at exactly the 3 hour mark. I stopped for photos and to resituate my waist pack and was off again only six minutes later.
My next goal was to get to East Gunsight Peak (elev 13,263) in under an hour. Scrambling back down Gilbert Peak was actually fun. I was warmed by the sun, even with the strong wind. I took a little steeper way down to the plateau and actually scared myself once of twice, but I had moved quickly and was making great time. I was poised to reach the summit of my second peak in just 45 minutes, at 3 hrs 45 min. My stop on top of Gunsight Peak would be even quicker. I snapped a couple of quick photos, took a short video, and I was off to the south to descend 1500 ft to Gunsight Pass.
Looking back at Gilbert Peak
Peak #2, East Gunsight
In 2002 I had descended this scree slope with Scott. It is very technical and challenging. Just staying on your feet is a chore. At that time I chose a direct route down the scree and treated it very much like a ski slope. This time I would angle more west towards Gunsight Pass. I was hoping to cut down distance and time. However, what actually happened was that the terrain was rockier and more difficult to travel on and I had to navigate down two cliff bands. In all, I doubt I saved any time and probably wasted more energy than I needed to. I had wanted to get to Gunsight Pass at just after 4 hours, but I got there at 4:18:00. Below is a photo of my descent towards Gunsight Pass.
Looking back at my descent from E. Gunsight Pk
Once back at Gunsight Pass I would angle back up and west towards the Anderson Plateau. I saw a scout troop along my same trail that were just cresting the tricky cut-off and I made it a goal to catch them. As I crested the scree slope I saw them 100 yards off resting. When I approached they asked how I was and I responded that I was pretty tired. They asked if I had started from the car and I told them 'yes', but that I had also just gone over the two mountains behind us. 'Shocked' would be a good word to describe their reaction. I didn't stay long and quickly made my way west towards Anderson Pass. Half way along the plateau a hiker who had also started from the car that morning came along. We chatted for a while and I learned that his name was Chris and that this would be his 43rd state high-point. After this summit he only had 7 more to go before he has climbed the tallest peaks in all 50 states. Amazing. I stayed with him for about a half mile then pushed on ahead. I passed a few other people along the trail, but found myself alone at Anderson Pass. I assumed at this point that Scott had already summited King's Peak and would shortly be on his way down. I really looked forward to seeing him.
Making my way up the King's ridge would be one of the hardest things I've ever done. My energy was low and my legs were wrecked. Normally I pride myself on how quickly I can move through this section. I love rock-hopping and scrambling through cliff bands. This day I just didn't have anything in the tank to push myself. That being said, I did pass two different groups and beat them to the top by 10 minutes. Along the way I ran into Scott who was on his way down. He looked great, fresh. I don't think he's ever seen me when I'm having a low point, but that day he was witnessing one of my lowest ever. I had to apologize later because I don't think I was being very nice. After our quick chat he headed down and I pushed to the top. When I reached the summit there was only a father and his two sons there. I had reached the summit of Utah's tallest mountain in 5hrs 39min 50sec. It was nice that it wasn't busy. I've been up there before when there were 50 people on top and it's annoying. I chatted with the father and he was impressed with what I was doing. I took a little longer stop to eat and rehydrate. My total stopped time on the top was about 15 minutes. I kept the clock going on my watch the whole time.
My 7th time on top of Utah's tallest peak
Feeling refreshed and with more energy I made my way down the tricky south ridge towards South King's. I was happy with my progress and was looking forward to finishing my last peak before heading down. It's not easy to see in pictures or from the summit of King's, but there are three different small saddles between the two tallest peaks. They aren't challenging, but can be frustrating as you have to navigate up and then down again multiple times. I knew going up So King's that I would face a false summit again, but I had forgotten just how false it would be. Not only is there more to climb after ascending the first false summit, but you literally have to repeat what you just came up. It is steep, tricky, and because it isn't climbed often the rocks are loose and extremely precarious. Whatever energy I had ingested on to of King's was long gone and it was all I could do to get to the top. I reached the summit at 6:22:08, completely exhausted. . . . and I still had 13+ miles to get back to the car.
Looking back at the three peaks I had summited that day, from So King's Peak.
It's amazing how accomplishing a goal can give you new life. I just climbed Utah's three tallest peaks and done so very quickly. Now all I had to do was get back to the car safely and maintaining a solid pace and I would have the speed record. Instead of climbing back over King's Peak like most people would to descend back to Anderson Plateau, I chose to traverse from the saddle between the two peaks across to the front, east side of King's and go straight down the face. I had heard of it being done before and had traversed the whole peak back in 2001, but in neither situation was snow involved. I had to do one major snow crossing that was about 100 ft long. Had I slipped crossing that snow I'm not sure if I would have been able to stop myself and hit the rocks 500 below. That was a scary several minutes and extremely tiring. As I continued to traverse north and down the slope of King's I continually sent boulders careening down the mountain. They never went far, but even if all they did was shift, if I had gotten between or under one of them I would have been in serious trouble. It is also really taxing on muscles and ankles. As I made my way down I decided to slide down the large snowfield on the face. It was dangerous, but not as bad as the one I had traversed and I was confident I could arrest myself if I were to get going too fast. This was actually really fun and aside from a frozen behind I probably saved more than 10 minutes on my descent. It wasn't long after that that I was back on Anderson Plateau and moving quickly back to Gunsight Pass.
The snowfield I descended.
Looking back at King's Peak from Anderson Plateau.
While making my way down the Gunsight cut-off slope I noticed I was alone. I was in a good mood, my energy was back, my legs felt ok and I only had 10 miles to go. I started loudly singing to my iPod and thoroughly enjoyed this part of the trail. I reached Gunsight Pass at 7:28:24. I knew that if I could run the next 10 miles in 2.5 hours I would achieve my dream goal of completing the Triple Crown in under 1o hours and crushing the previous record by 3.5 hours. When I reached the bottom of Gunsight Pass I stopped to refill my water bottles from the spring and to my surprise Scott was coming behind me from the switchbacks. I was very happy to see him and shocked that I had gotten ahead. He had slowed way down to preserve his knee and had take a long break higher up. It was fun to share stories and talk about how we felt. My friend Chris from earlier in the day had shown up not long after and commented that he actually heard me singing, helping him find the right path through the scree slope. That made me laugh really hard.
Scott and I took off again and it was nice to run with company again. I let him lead and he actually set a good pace. But after a mile or so he stopped to readjust something with his gear and I kept going. I wouldn't see him again until he reached the bottom. It was a beautiful day, we had great weather and a slight wind, and all I had to do was keep a 12 min/mile pace and I was going to get in under 10 hours.
Scott running down into Henry's Fork Basin
I've hiked or run this trail on seven different occasions and every time the same thing happens; I get back to Elk Horn Crossing and it becomes a death march for the last 5.3 miles. I was determined to not let that happen this time. I focused on making sure I stayed hydrated and ate plenty of gels and took extra salt. Because of that I was able to run almost the entire way back. I stopped a couple of times to answer questions by shocked hikers. They all reacted the same way and were amazed at what I was doing. For most of them, I don't think they were able to fully grasp what I had done until they were further into their hike and could see the magnitude of the peaks laid out before them. I reached the bottom, running faster than I had all day with a huge smile on my face. I had done what I set out to do and beat the Triple Crown record by roughly 4 hours. My total time from when I left the car till I returned was 9:41:46. I briefly talked with a father and his two kids in the parking lot and then organized my stuff and sat in the river for 20 minutes. It was a life-saver. Then I changed my clothes and packed our gear away. Scott finished almost exactly one hour after me. I was really proud of what he was able to accomplish. Congrats to Scott!
This achievement was a culmination of a lot of goals. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been able to do it. In a way, I'm glad I got to do it by myself. I learned a lot about myself and what I can accomplish. It isn't the farthest I've ever run (this was only 29.2 miles) nor the longest in duration, but it might be the most challenging due to the difficulty of the terrain, altitude, and overall elevation gain and loss in such a short amount of miles. It is a beatable time, for sure, but whoever tries will need to know the course very well because so much of my success was simply being able to take a more direct route. Had I done the same course as Davy or the guy who did it last year (I know what course he took and it was shorter than Davy's, but longer than mine) I am not sure I could have beaten the record. As it is, I kind of hope it stands for a little while. It's really cool to see how things come around full-circle.