Attempt 1 - October 24th, 2015.
The last 3 weekends I have been hiking into Henry’s Fork Basin on the trail to King’s Peak searching for early season ice first ascents. The trailhead is on the North Slope of the Uintas, and you have to go up I-80 past Evanston, Wyoming then enter back into Utah. Not sure if anything would be in, I decided to go scouting alone. No snow on the trail but the peaks around 11,000’ had snow. About 8 miles in I saw ice at what looked like 1 mile away. Not quite climbable yet but one good storm would change that. Pretty psyched, I planned the next weekend to go after it.
Attempt 2 - November 1st, 2015.
I managed to talk Keese Lane into joining me and we left Salt Lake City at 4:30am and arrived at the trail-head about 7:00am. The trail was still mostly snow free but water was frozen along the way. With the added weight of 50lbs of the lightest ice and rock gear around we went much slower than I anticipated. The climb was also 3-3.5 miles further than I expected. The final hour of the hike we were postholing through a foot of snow and finally made it to the base of the talus leading up to the ice. It was almost 1:00, we had already hiked 10 miles and we were hours behind schedule. Realizing that we still had 4-5 hours to go to get to the ice, climb it then descend to the same point then tack on the 10 mile return trip on and we knew we were too late to make it work so returned without climbing any ice.
Attempt 3 - November 8th, 2015.
I suckered two new partners into going with me, Angela VanWiemeersch and Matt Tuttle, and left Salt Lake at 5:00pm Friday night. This time the dirt roads leading to the trailhead were covered in snow and we did not reach the trailhead until after 9:00pm. It was 7° F outside so we knew we were in for a cold night. We had planned to try to hike 7-8 miles Friday night but with 6-8 inches of snow on the trail and temps dropping to –3° F while hiking, we decided to camp at about 5.6 mile in and finally crawled into our tent at 1:00am. We expected cold but not this cold. Temps plummeted during the night and we had to put on all the clothing we had inside of our 0° bags in order to stay warm. A sleepless night caused us to skip the alarms and we stayed in camp hours longer than we should have. Finally the sun hit camp and we reluctantly made our way into the snow and started hiking around 9am.
The snow was getting deeper and deeper and the climbs on the far side of the basin never seemed to get any closer. We were exhausted from postholing but finally made it to the same spot I turned back from the week before at 1:30pm. Later than the previous week.
We had put too much into it already so continued on. The hike up the talus was only .5 to .75 miles but gained 1000’ and took us well over an hour to ascend. Finally at the wall about 12,050' in elevation, the ice looked great! I racked up in the late afternoon light, glad to feel the warmth of the sun before heading into the shady corner to start the climb. While racking up, heavy bouts of spindrift were coming down the ice every minute or two. This was going to be fun! The ice started out brittle and remained a mix of brittleness yet sticky the next swing almost the entire way. Passing through the first vertical crux, I felt the accumulation of the last two days effort plus the elevation, lack of sleep and not enough food or water hit me. Standing on a sloping ledge before the second vertical crux with wave after wave of icy cold spindrift enveloping me, I debated whether I should bail off the ice screw and cam I placed in the rock? I'd come too far to fail but I could not afford to fall here either. We barely made it through the night with a tent and sleeping bags, a night up here in the open could be deadly. There was nobody within a day's walk and we had not seen anyone on the 30 miles of dirt roads to the trailhead. Pushing aside the doubt, I went for it. Swing, kick, swing, kick, swing kick. The spindrift was becoming oppressive. My face was frozen, my jacket soaked and hands numb. The cam and screw below were bomber, I just had to get off the vertical step to a slight ramp where I could rest and get in another screw. I kept thinking back to advice a mentor had told me: "Often it's faster and safer to place gear where you need it, NOT where you want it."
I finally made it to the ramp and quickly slammed in a screw. Another 40' of narrow and thin ice remained but it was lower angle and had lots of spots to rest. The rest of the climb was a blast, although at that point I was done with the spindrift (Imagine snow crystals the size of salt pouring over you for 30-40 seconds at a time, every few min. The cloud is so think it coats everything. You cannot see. When you breath in, you choke a bit and it works its way into ever gap in your clothing, quickly melting and running down your body in cold rivulets. At least it keeps you awake!). My sunglasses were so coated I could no longer see so took them off and stashed them in my jacket. The climb had been in-your-face, even in the easier sections. Full value! I reached the transition from ice to snow, placed a screw at the lip...just in case, and pulled over. I had only taken two steps when I heard a "whoomph" and was knocked off balance by a heavy slab of wind loaded snow collapsing and avalanching around me. Luckily I had one tool buried deep and the slabs 5' to 6' in diameter and a foot thick rushed passed. I yelled "ROCK" (it doesn't matter what you knock off a wall while climbing, always yell ROCK!). Matt and Angela braced below, seeing all the snow cascade down the wall, expecting me to come down with it. Once the slope stopped, I moved on, mindful of the hangfire (more slabs of snow ready to avalanche) above and to my left. It was a small section but still a risk. Finally I reached a short section of ice and was able to drill two holes to place some cord and a rap ring in a V-thread. I backed them up (Always back up a V-thread, just don't fully equalize the backups so you can test the strength of the anchor.) with another screw and a nut and headed back down. In a longer climb, I would have belayed Angela and Matt from above, but this was just under 100'. Both Angela and Matt wanted to lead the route rather than follow. We had come so far already, why not?
By the time both had finished climbing the sun had set and we still had to get off the mountain. The talus slope had a short easy 5th class section that was hard enough going up unroped in the light. Trying to down climb in the dark was not a good option, so I rigged an anchor, leaving a few stoppers behind and we rapped 200' to get over the short cliff. From there we just had to put our heads down and punch it back to the tent. Matt left his headlamp in the tent so we had him go between Angela and I, hiking through the starless night for almost two hours before he noticed a glow coming from inside his backpack at a water stop. His headlamp was actually in his pack and had turned on somewhere along the hike back. This allowed us to speed it up a bit and we hiked along, grateful our tracks from the hike up weren't completely filled in from the wind. Falling stars and the howl of coyotes punctuated the night and we trudged along reaching the tent at 9:00pm.
We crawled inside the tent, covering ourselves with warm down bags and started boiling water to cook some dinner. Angela needed to be back to town to go to work at 7:00am the next morning so after a 2 hour rest, we packed up and pushed through the forest to get back to the car. A little after 1:00am we arrived at the car, 23 miles round trip for a single 95' first ascent. Trivium WI4. Now just another 3 hours drive until we get home...
Was it worth it? F@&k no! But at the same time it was totally worth it. The climb was a classic and close to the road it would get climbed all the time. But more important than the climb was the time out with friends. Each of us wanted to give in at some point but as a team we were able to keep going, pushing past what we thought we could do. We made it back safely and had a big mountain-type adventure not far from home. The perfect way to start off a new season of Beehive Ice!