ONLY one more obstacle remained as we reached the top of King's Peak. We had already hiked and climbed for three days. We had done our part to keep the local mosquito population happy and fed. We had walked through rain and mud. We had trudged up Anderson Pass. Now we faced one more challenge as we stood sucking the thin air at 13,528 feet.
Where do we sit?It was basically SRO on the summit. A handful of people were sitting on the actual crest when we arrived, and a crowd was milling about in the waiting room, munching on trail mix and signing the guest register. They were waiting their turn to pose for pictures at the top of Utah, to peer over the edge of the world, to be, for a moment, the tallest man in the state.
Big mistake: We should have called ahead for reservations.
"Excuse me," a man said as he turned sideways to squeeze through our party while talking on his cell phone. Possibly, he was ordering out for Chinese.
Did Edmund Hillary have days like this? King's Peak draws a crowd. In back-country terms, it was rush hour on I-15. It's popular because it is the highest peak in Utah and commands a great view. Otherwise, it isn't much to look at. It's a large pile of rocks set in the north end of the Uintas. There isn't a plant on it. My theory is that God, when he was finished making the world, had a bunch of reddish rocks left over and needed some place to dump them. Voila, King's Peak. Southern Utah was full, I suppose.
King's Peak is a popular destination in the High Uintas even though - and I don't wish to complain - it's not exactly convenient. People climb it for fun, for some reason, but getting there actually could fall under the category of "work."
I've learned that most people, when you mention the mosquitoes and the rain and the rigorous hiking and the thin air and the pain of lugging 50- or 60-pound packs up and down mountains, have the same reaction: "Tell me again why I would want to do this?"
I did it to join my two sons, Preston and Collin, and their Scout troop on the Utah Rite of Passage known as the "50-miler" - a backpack trip through the back country in which boys learn to a) suffer; b) operate an outdoor toilet, also called a shovel; c) apply huge quantities of insect repellent, which, it turns out, mosquitoes love; d) learn to follow a compass, also known as the Scoutmaster; e) consume mass quantities of squirrel food, called trail mix; f) get dirty; g) hurry and set up their tents every night so they can play with the greatest, most mesmerizing toy ever invented: a campfire; h) earn merit badges for all of the above. It's really just a slice of guy heaven. For a week, nobody takes a bath and phone calls begin to taper off.
We began our trip in a place called Hell's Canyon, which should have been my first clue, on the south side of the Uintas near Duchesne. A half-hour later the first Scout fainted. We finished six days later at Henry's Fork on the north side, near Wyoming, and surprisingly, didn't lose more than a couple of Scouts. I think.
We followed a trail most of the way, but I'm using the word trail loosely here. Most of the time the trail is underwater. If I had to describe the weather in the High Uintas in one word, that word would be "rain." Most of the time you hike in small streams that once were trails. During our six-day trek, we had dry feet for about two hours.
The most striking feature of the Uintas is that it is a land of water. Streams. Rivulets. Springs. Waterfalls. Lakes. Marshes. Puddles. If we weren't hiking through in rain, we were fording creeks and mucking our way through marshes and mud.
We hiked most of Day 1 in rain, then set up a damp camp at Swasey Lake. We hiked most of Day 2 in rain, then set up another damp camp at Five Points Lake. "You know what?" Preston said to me as we were marching up a steep mountain at 10,000 feet, slapping at mosquitoes and straining to catch our breath. "Backpacking is one of those things that's more fun when you look back on it than when you're actually doing it."
But with each passing day, we got stronger. We seemed to adjust to the altitude and the daily routine of hiking. On Day 3, we climbed above the tree line and hiked over Tungsten Pass, dropped into the next basin and walked across a wide valley of meadows and wildflowers and brooks, then made the gradual climb up the other side of the valley to the base of Anderson Pass.
We rose with the sun the next morning and made the steep, 1,200-foot ascent up the switch back trail to the top of Anderson Pass, which put us on the shoulder of King's Peak. We dropped our packs there and climbed another thousand feet to the top of King's, where we huddled with the masses to take in the view for miles and miles in all directions. For most of us, it is the highest place we will ever stand on land.
We beat the traffic down the mountain, picked up our packs and hiked another three hours down into the land of trees and willow and wildflowers again. We stopped at Dollar Lake, where we set up another wet camp in the rain. That evening we saw a couple of moose feeding in the willow near the lake. The Scouts watched them for a few minutes, then returned to their primary duty of poking campfires with sticks.
Two days later we celebrated our return to civilization and non freeze-dried food by eating at the first burger joint we found in Evanston, Wyo. Tired and dirty and reeking of campfire smoke, we already were recounting our adventures in the Uintas. Work or not, it turns out that it was fun, after all - at least now that we are looking back on it.