Saturday, August 16, 2014

Life Elevated

(Note - this post comprises the second half of my big western adventure this summer. I hiked the Uinta Highline Trail with a group of AT veterans. For part one of this series, click here. For Corona Sam's account of our trip, click here)


Each mountain range has a unique character. The Whites are steep, rocky, and wind-scoured. The Wasatch are cut by deep, distinctive canyons. The Tetons are improbably jagged. And the Uintas are home to expansive basins, punctuated by red ridgelines.


This would be our rhythm for the next days. We (Griz, Sherpa, Corona, and I) camped at the base of a given pass, crossed the pass early the following morning, and hiked through the next basin to reach the base of the next pass. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a rhythm that gets in your blood. The trail almost seems to have its own internal metronome, ticking off passes every 10-15 miles. It imparts a unique simplicity to life that isn’t often found in the world of meetings, traffic lights, panhandlers, and ringing phones.

We got an early start on Tuesday morning, knowing that we had a three-hour drive just to get to the trailhead. The trail started in a lodgepole pine forest, and for a few miles I was afraid that most of the hike would consist of meaningless miles under a generic forest canopy. But, after a couple hours, we started to climb. Soon we reached treeline, and had our first views down into those expansive basins of the Uintas. I had been at high elevation for the better part of a week, but the other guys were not used to the thin air yet. The first pass, North Pole Pass, was challenging for all of us. There’s not too much oxygen at 12,200 feet, especially when you’re packing six days of food. We also had our first experience with the afternoon thunderstorm pattern. Due to having driven three hours to the trailhead, we were still finishing up lunch atop the pass when the billowing clouds started to roll in. We were all too happy to scamper down below treeline after one particularly loud crack of thunder just about blew our socks off.

The evening was rather delightful. We set up our tents by an alpine lake, built a fire, and Sherpa and Griz went fly fishing. I took the opportunity to take some neat sunset pictures. The lake was glassy-calm, and provided picture-perfect reflections of a nearby mountain. Due to the mosquitos, it was an early bedtime.

Knowing that the day’s hike was entirely below treeline, we meandered out of camp around 8:00. The hike was marshy in spots, but we made good time, and were within a few miles of the evening’s camp by time lunch rolled around. I absolutely hate carrying any more water than I absolutely have to, so I was hiking dry. I remarked to Griz, “What do you say we lunch at the next water source?”

Sure enough, within five minutes, Corona pointed out a cheery stream trickling across the trail. I took a quick look at it, didn’t like what I saw, and kept walking. Since we’re all thru-hikers, and refuse to backtrack for any reason, as soon as I walked by it, there was no turning back. Which is rather unfortunate, actually, because we started to climb some inconsequential knoll. A knoll that didn’t have water. And lasted forever. Thirty minutes later, we caved, and had a dry lunch at the top of the aforementioned rise. I’ve been banned from ever choosing a water source, ever again.

After a couple more hours of hiking, we made camp in Painter Basin. The mosquitos were particularly ravenous at 11,000 feet, at the cusp of timberline. Just ahead was Anderson Pass, the highest point on the trail at 12,700’.

The next morning, we were hiking by 6PM. The weather was forecasted to be dicey for the next three days, and we wanted to be over the pass before the storms rolled in. By this time, I was in terrific high-altitude shape, having been above 8,000 feet for a full week. Anderson Pass was long, but fairly gradual, and before I knew it, I was at the top. A couple minutes later the other guys joined me at the top. Kings Peak is a mere .8 miles from the trail, so I took the opportunity to summit it. The others pushed on, and I told them I’d see them in camp that evening. I summited Kings at about 9:00, took a couple quick pictures, and got off the mountain in a hurry, as the clouds were already starting to build. I had the summit to myself. However as I was headed down, I met several large groups of Boy Scouts (of course!) heading uphill. I warned them that the weather was falling apart, but they pushed on anyway. I arrived back at the pass, picked up my pack, and started descending down the west side. Sure enough, a half hour later, a storm moved in over Kings, and lightning started striking the peaks in the area. I’m sure that if someone had been struck by lightning, we would have heard about it in the news. But don’t ask me how all those people managed to avoid getting zapped. Given its popularity, it’s really a wonder that more people don’t die on Kings.



I headed across Yellowstone (no, not that Yellowstone) Basin, as the clouds continued to boil above me. The area offered scant tree cover, and much of it was entirely above the timberline. I hustled, hiking at three miles an hour in order to beat the deteriorating weather. Right as I got to the top of Tungsten Pass (more of a high spot than an actual mountain pass), it started to rain. I scurried down the back side of the pass, took a side trail downhill for a quarter mile, and finally found some protection in the trees. I waited out a storm under a particularly lush pine tree, and hiked on to find Sherp, Griz, and Corona. They had set up camp at North Star Lake, a wonderful lake above treeline at 11,400’.

I practiced casting a fly-rod with Sherpa for a while, and then set my tent up while a thunderstorm passed. I felt pretty uncomfortable with spending the night above treeline, given the weather condition, and I resolved to camp in a more sheltered spot for the night. But it didn’t stop raining. Around 6PM, the wind started to pick up. Throughout the evening, it got stronger and stronger. My tent is designed to use natural protection from the elements. It’s certainly not designed to withstand 50 MPH sustained winds and driving rain for hours on end. Eventually, the wind, whipping the tent, shook condensation from the walls onto my sleeping bag- it was raining inside my tent. As the wind got stronger and stronger, I realized that my tent simply wasn’t going to keep me dry all night. Around 10:30, the situation was deteriorating. I swallowed my pride, donned my raingear, and ran through the dark, wind and rain to Sherpa’s tent. As I’m sure you can imagine, he was absolutely thrilled to have a wet, smelly dude barge into his tent uninvited in the middle of the night. Mercifully, the rain and wind subsided by about 4AM, after a 13-hour storm. Sherpa, I owe you one.

The next morning, we swapped horror stories of the previous night, and banned Corona from choosing campsites forevermore.

It was a particularly gloomy and cool day. However, given the instability of the weather, the lack of solar heating probably kept the storms at bay, and it merely sprinkled from time to time. We went up and over Porcupine Pass and down the west side, just like every day. Unique for a protected wilderness area, the High Uintas Wilderness still permits grazing in some areas. We ran into an enormous herd of sheep. And of course, sheep are notoriously stupid. As we hiked west through the Lambert’s Meadow area, the sheep kept running away from us, to the west, where we were headed. The bleating of a herd of sheep is almost as irritating as the yammering of a herd of Boy Scouts in the backcountry. After 20 minutes of this nonsense, we started baa-ing back at the sheep. Hiker delirium is real, folks!


 A few hours later, we came upon a bizarre phenomenon, which could be called a “blowdown throwdown”. A fire had ripped through the area rather recently, weakening the trees. We probably crawled over, under, and around fifty blowdowns in a single mile. It was obvious that several of those trees had been blown over in the previous night’s windstorm. The wind had absolutely splintered those trees. I said a prayer of thanks; that was one nasty storm and we all made it OK. That evening, I took great care to select a very sheltered campsite. I’m not making that mistake again! The area was still so wet from the previous evening’s deluge that Sherpa and I couldn’t even keep a fire going.

The next morning we got up and were hiking at the crack of dawn. This would be our biggest day, with two major passes to cross. We had a bit of trouble finding the trail approaching Red Knob Pass, so we simply trekked cross-country until we found it again. Red Knob pass was undoubtedly our most beautiful pass so far, and the day would only get better from there. The weather was gorgeous and the views into the surrounding basins were surreal. We dropped briefly into Dead Horse basin and hiked past Dead Horse Lake. Up ahead was – you guessed it – Dead Horse Pass. Dead Horse Pass rates fairly highly on my sketchiness index.  The trail is cut into the steep mountainside, which works great when the trail is actually clear. Unfortunately, the side we were ascending is north-facing, so it was still covered in patchy snow. We had to climb straight up the mountainside, scree and dirt slipping out underneath our shoes. The vistas were phenomenal however, definitely the highlight of our trip. We dropped into Rock Creek Basin and grabbed some lunch. For the first time in a couple days, the sun had come out and it was nice and warm. We dried out our tents, did some laundry in a nearby stream, and generally spent some time relaxing in the sunshine. After lunch we pressed on, detouring a few miles off the “official” Highline trail in order to take advantage a pretty trail and avoid a particularly nasty, brushy section. We rolled into camp around mid-afternoon, having done 16 miles and two passes. I was wearing down a little bit by this time, having now been on trail for more than a week. I was all too happy to bed for the night.




Our final day dawned bright and sunny. After eating most of our food, we had lightened our packs considerably, and we zoomed down the trail. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Debbie (Corona’s better half) was meeting us at the trailhead with sandwiches and drinks! We sashayed up our final pass, Rocky Sea Pass, avoiding some minor snow fields. For here on out, it would be home territory for me. I had done this stretch in early June, and it was interesting to see the same landscape, devoid of snow this time around. We kept the pedal to the metal all morning, at one point doing 3.6 miles per hour uphill. Having been on the trail for 9 days, I finally felt into the thru-hiker groove right as we were about to end. We blew by a bunch of day hikers as if they were standing still. By 11:30AM, we arrived at Mirror Lake, 75 trail miles from Chepeta Lake. An hour later, Debbie showed up, and we celebrated completion of the trail in style!



Both the Teton Crest and Highline trails were absolutely phenomenal experiences. The Crest Trail is flat-out the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done. The Highline Trail was the fulfillment of a dream, a true wilderness experience, and a wonderful experience with new and old friends (emphasis on the old!). It’s hard to believe that I was only hiking for a little over a week.




Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week: As I descended down the backside of Hurricane Pass in the Tetons, I saw a lady drying herself off with an orange beach towel. Given the fact that they were nowhere near a lake of any size, I wondered (1) what she did to get so wet and (2) why she thought it be a good idea to bring a beach towel into the backcountry. I guess it came in handy, but I’m thinking if a beach towel is a necessity for hiking in the Tetons, you’re doing something horribly wrong. 

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