Garfield County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Ellen (11,522 ft)

Date: January 6, 2006
Author: Ben Knorr

About halfway through climbing Utah's county highpoints, I came to a rough conclusion that I might seek to climb Mt. Ellen last. At the time, it was mostly because I figured it would require a tough vehicle to get close enough to do it. Time went on and the idea of completing in winter came to mind. If I can't drive close enough to it, maybe I can make it an extended winter slog through the snow on a multi-day adventure?

When I completed the remaining counties this fall, I decided 2006 was it. I am comfortable going alone on many mountains but in winter, in possibly harsh conditions, I decided going solo wasn't an option. New Year’s weekend was my first choice but I had no partners that were willing to tag along the morning after the festivities. Luckily, I found a couple guys from Summitpost that were willing to join me (or perhaps I joined them?) on the following weekend.

The Hanksville BLM office (435-542-3461) was moderately helpful in giving us up-to-date information. The first call resulted in "we haven't had too many people up there recently" and some guesses as to conditions. The second call was more or less the same and ditto on the third. All three times, I spoke with different people. The consistent bit of information gleamed from all of them was that there was far less snow in the Henrys than normal (approx 30% one said). No new snow had fallen in weeks. The road to Lonesome Beaver had been repaired since October, when it was in very poor shape at one of the Bull Creek crossings. All three guessed that McMillan Springs was reachable from the west and we might get stuck before reaching Lonesome Beaver (from the north-northeast). One BLM guy recommended against anything less than 4WD and 8 play tires in the Henrys but he did offer that a carefully driven Subaru might make it to Lonesome Beaver without getting stuck. We were to take Dmitri's Subaru, but at the last second Igor secured a 4Runner instead. I suspected this would be a strenuous snowshoe trek for me and a moderate tour for Dmitri's and Igor's skis.

We left Salt Lake City at about 5:30 PM via I-15 south, US-6 east, I-70 west, UT-24 west (or south?), then UT-95 from Hanksville to the BLM turnoff towards Sawmill Basin. We chose the east side since it should offer the most snow for skiing. It was dark upon our arrival in Hanksville but we could clearly see the outline of the Henry mountains in the partial moonlight. As advertised, the road to Sawmill Basin gets rougher as it climbs through the foothills. In a few places, there were some large rocks that we had to drive over that slowed us to < 10 mph but they were short and infrequent. There were many rocks lining the sides of the road that would do severe damage to a vehicle if it were to accidentally brush by or into them. We encountered thin snow on the road before the first creek crossing and didn't need 4WD until after that when the snow made the inclines somewhat slippery (ice instead of mud!). We were amazed when we made it to Lonesome Beaver campground. The snow was still only a few inches deep on the road, so we pressed on to see how far we could get. Once we hit Wikiup Pass, we saw bare ground again with small patches of snow here and there. In the moonlight, it was difficult to see how much snow was clinging on the mountain above -- it seemed unlikely that we would be in anything deeper than a foot. Wikiup Pass was a windy spot to camp but it does have cover in the trees as well as plenty of level ground. Surprisingly, it felt barely below freezing at 11:00 PM.

Once the sun started to rise, we saw that skiing/snowshoeing was definitely out and we might even make it up to Bull Creek Pass. At perhaps a mile up the road from WIkiup, we encountered faceted drifts of snow that kept even the 4runner from ascending. This is all somewhat anticlimactic for me by this point. No epic adventure, no showshoeing for days, no corniced ridges! Maybe 30 minutes after starting out from where we started getting stuck, we reached Bull Creek Pass. Half of the road was snow-covered with drifted snow, and the rest was completely dry. Dmitri found a geocache at the pass and, once we started up towards Ellen, we hit mega-wind. Maybe in the 50 mph range, it was enough to nearly pull my pants off (open pockets!).

There was infrequent snow on the trail on the west side of the ridge. At the first bump on the ridge, we found some hard windblown snow to walk on which was pleasant. The wind was persistent but less strong than at the pass. By 9:40 AM, we were on Mount Ellen. Finally, UT is complete for me!

The celebration was for a few brief seconds: we continued north on the ridge to the top of Mount Ellen Peak for Dmitri to find another cache. Unfortunately, we didn't find the cache under the various rock piles and snowdrifts. The wind was stronger now and on descending back to the saddle I felt as if I was about to be blown over. We decided that this was no longer just irritating wind but a serious problem. We trudged back on the ridge and re-ascended Mount Ellen again en route to Bull Creek Pass. Upon reaching the pass, the wind was more fierce. I was constantly getting blown to the east every time I lifted a foot. I had to walk into the wind and side step south in order to make any progress. At one point, my eye socket felt as if it inflated around my eyeball. The road was much better and we only had some spindrift to deal with on the way back to the car. We were all pooped and had stinging faces.

On the return trip home (in the light this time), below Lonesome Beaver, we saw the devastating avalanche debris from years back. An awesome sight that I've never seen the likes of before. Since we had daylight remaining, we went in search for more of Dmitri's geocaches. Crack canyon (beautiful!), a sandstone slot/chimney (fun!), and pools of ice on sandstone washes finished up the day in style.