We wedged eleven students, four instructors, and fifteen bulging backpacks into Waterford Bus #1 on Monday morning. Our destination was King’s Peak, the highest peak in the state of Utah, with an elevation of 13,534 feet.
Three hours later we spilled out into the China Meadows parking lot to have our last taste of perishable food and use the pit toilets. With packs loaded and stomachs full, we hit the trail. We walked through quiet forests, along streams, and across open meadows. The first three miles to camp passed quickly with games and riddles. The last two miles proved more difficult as we climbed the ridge, fully appreciating the weight of our packs. Most of the students had never backpacked, and there were mentions of sore shoulders, blisters, and aching backs. Our break stops became frequent, and I became concerned that we may fall short of our objective. But just as morale was beginning to wane, the fork for Lake Hessie appeared.
We reached Lake Hessie around 6:00 p.m., dumping heavy packs on the ground and congratulating each other on a successful first day. Camp was set up and students took to the lake to swim and fish. In a technology-saturated world, it was refreshing to see students so excited to spend time with their classmates in the outdoors. Students ate dinner together, shared scary stories around the fire, and gazed at the stars before falling asleep in their tents.
The next day was more challenging than the first. Gone was the novelty of backpacking; students lingered over breakfast, no one eager to get back on the trail. One student even caught a fish for breakfast, supplementing our Quaker Oats with fresh trout. We began hiking around 10 a.m., leaving behind the comforts of the lake for Henry’s Fork, a six mile journey. The first few miles were steep and long as we climbed out of China Meadows before descending into a beautiful valley. Wildflowers were in bloom and we had a clear view of King’s Peak (our ultimate destination) and the High Uinta Wilderness. Our pace was slow, but students stayed positive and upbeat. As we neared Henry’s Fork, we spotted a bull moose and cow drinking from Henry’s Lake. We decided to pitch tents alongside the moose when tired feet and fast-approaching afternoon thunderstorms begged us to stop.
At our leader meeting that evening, we studied the map and came to the grim realization that we were not going to summit King’s Peak the following day. It would be an 11 mile roundtrip with 3000 vertical feet of climbing. Over the past two days, students had barely managed a combined ten miles with an average of 500 vertical feet each day. We decided it was best to adjust expectations and aim for Gunsight Pass, a five mile roundtrip journey with moderate climbing and great views. We gathered students to tell them the news, emphasizing that the trip was not about summiting, but about backpacking with friends and learning new skills along the way. The students were understanding, but disappointment showed on their faces as they returned to cooking dinner.
Our summit day was beautiful. The rains had passed and left the valley verdant and lush. Students ate a simple breakfast of granola bars and grabbed their daypacks, thrilled to be carrying lighter loads. We followed meandering cairns through the valley and then began our ascent of Gunsight Pass. I kept glancing at my watch, impressed by how quickly students were moving with their daypacks. We reached the top of Gunsight Pass at 10 a.m., a full four hours ahead of schedule. The students were thrilled by their progress, and asked if we could still pursue the summit. After a quick huddle, it was decided that we would push on with a firm turnaround time of 2 p.m. We broke the huddle with a, “Hike Yah!” and excitedly rejoined the trail.
Students then faced their biggest challenge of the day: a vertical boulder field to the top of Anderson Pass. The boulder field was a major shortcut, but the rocks were loose and required scrambling with hands and feet. We carefully picked our way up the field, balancing on rocks and hoisting bodies over boulders. The route was more technical than anything we had seen in the past two days and students were nervous. Despite their concerns, students continued climbing until we reached the top. In that moment, I knew we had accomplished something noteworthy, even if we never made it to the summit of King’s Peak. Students had pushed themselves and conquered their fears. We celebrated with sandwiches and high fives. The time was 11:40 a.m.
King’s Peak came into view as we crested the top of the ridge and approached Anderson Pass. Students repeatedly asked for the time, determined to make it to the top. We had decided we were going to summit as a team, no splitting up. We made our way across rocky, uneven terrain, finally reaching the established trail just before 1 p.m. I looked ahead at our final destination, reminding myself of the talk we gave to students the previous night. It’s difficult not to place such value on reaching the top, especially after you’ve spent two days approaching the summit. I could tell some of the students were beginning to lose steam, so I asked them to raise their hands if they had the energy to summit. About half the group raised their hands, the others wanting to summit but unsure if they had the stamina to continue. At Anderson Pass, with King’s Peak in sight, we decided it was best to turn around. I was so proud of the way the students handled themselves in that moment. Not a single student complained or placed blame. We had set our sights on Gunsight Pass and come an extra three miles and 1,500 vertical feet. We may not have reached the peak, but we accomplished far more than we thought possible.
Back to the Bus
Morale was high the following morning. Ten miles remained between us and the bus, an unthinkable distance on day one. But after reaching Anderson Pass, students were confident in their ability to make the mileage. We got on the trail early and settled into a comfortable pace, the steady rhythm of footsteps occasionally interrupted by laughter and chatter. By noon we had already covered five miles, at 2 p.m. we had covered eight. We reached our final campsite before 5 p.m., a place we dubbed, “River Island.” As I watched the students swim in the river and set up camp, I was amazed at how far we had come in a single day. We had operated as a unit, supporting one another and offering encouragement along the way.
As we sat around the fire on our last night, I thought about all the students had learned in five short days. They learned how to cook on a camp stove, how to set up a tent, how to pack a bag, how to read a map. They learned about the strength of their minds and bodies. They learned about setting objectives and teamwork and adjusting expectations. They learned to respect nature and weather and the things outside of our control.
I was inspired by our students to go and try something new, to get outside my comfort zone, and to be comfortable with not reaching the top on my first try. I think I may buy myself a fishing rod. If I’m lucky, I’ll be eating trout for breakfast.