Friday, July 29, 2016

The Highest of Highlines

 In the summer of 2014, I hiked the Uinta Highline Trail, an elegant line traversing the Uinta mountains from east to west. We scaled snow-covered mountainsides, enjoyed amazing vistas of alpine basins, almost got blown away by a strong thunderstorm, and created a ton of great memories.

Over time, several different route options have developed. On the western end, some people end their hikes at the official trailhead, while others end at Mirror Lake. This is a fairly insignificant difference though, as the two are separated by just a couple miles of trail. Things are a lot less clear, however, on the eastern front. Some people hike west from Chipeta Lake - a 70-mile hike. Others head west from Leidy Peak - an 85 mile walk. Others begin their hike at US 191 - just south of Flaming Gorge - a 100-mile trek.

When Corona, Sherpa, Griz, and I hiked in 2014, we hiked from the Chipeta Lake trailhead. We enjoyed it greatly - but I always wanted to check out the Leidy Peak area.

Fast-forward to 2016. My pack is packed, I've got my well-loved (read - DEET-smeared) High Uintas Wilderness map with me - but I don't know where I'm hiking this weekend. I'm sitting at work when I come to the realization - this is a perfect time to hike the easternmost section of the Highline Trail.

But I'm not really interested in the Highline Trail per se. I've found the Highline Trail to be a bit overhyped - it often stays in the trees, well below the ridges that form the highline of the Uinta Range. So I decide to do a little experiment - can I find a better line for the westernmost section?

My objective is simple - scout a line between Leidy Peak and Chipeta Dam, staying on the ridge for as long as possible. On the way back, explore some of the other ridges in the area, and hike the Highline Trail itself, just for comparison's sake.

It rains on Friday evening. I turn off the pavement, onto dirt. The trailhead is 25 miles down the dirt road - and the Subie is up for the challenge of some sloppy roads. An hour later, I arrive at the trailhead, car smeared in mud from bumper to bumper. Just what she likes! It turns out that my adventures in slop are just beginning.

I hike in perhaps half a mile through thin forest just son the edge of treeline. I set up camp under a couple pines and fall asleep. Sometime during the night a few patters of rain fall, but I'm content in my nest.

The next morning I awake, and staring me in the face is a 1200 foot climb up to the summit of Leidy Peak. Leidy, in my opinion, is the "proper" starting point for the Highline Trail - it's the easternmost 12'er in the range, and the easternmost point above treeline as well. It's a pretty gentle ascent - but I'm huffing and puffing anyway. Nothing is easy at 12,000 feet - somebody stole all the oxygen! 

From here, navigation is easy. I cruise westward, over various bumps on the ridge. The so-called "Highline Trail" is 2000 feet below me, in the trees - and I'm enjoying life up on the ridge. There's one easy scramble section - but nothing that can't be solved with an adventurous spirit and some careful foot placement. The south side of the ridge is gentle, while the north side is punctuated with a half dozen glacial cirques. It reminds me that this range could be glaciated once again - if ever the climate cooled by just a few degrees [adjusts tinfoil hat].

The clouds are starting to build. Nothing major, but I definitely want to get down off the ridge. The forecast for these few days is pretty spicy - it sounds like there will be afternoon thunderstorms each day. I descend down a talus slope to a tarn above Chipeta Lake. As I near treeline, a few sprinkles begin to patter around me. By time I reach Chipeta Lake itself, moderate rain is falling, and a little thunder growls in the distance. I timed it perfectly! 

I wait out the storm while eating my lunch in the trailhead privy. I must admit, neither the food nor the ambiance is all that great, but at least it's keeping me dry - and away from the ravenous hordes of mosquitoes waiting for me. After a few hours, it has cleared up and I'm on my way - covered head-to-toe in DEET...

...which brings us to my favorite schtick, this week's Utterly Impractical Hiking Item. Remember this bit? No? Well then, you much have better things to do with your life than devote a rank amateur's blog posts to memory. My congratulations. Anyway, this week's Utterly Impractical Hiking Item is Ben's 30% DEET bug spray. There's nothing wrong with Ben's, and there's nothing wrong with DEET (except for, you know, its toxicity), There is, however, something very wrong with bringing 30% concentration into this jungle. The 30% will not cut it, folks. Mosquitoes are biting me on areas that I DEET'ed fifteen seconds age. First hatch in the Uintas is no joke. Next time, I'll read the packaging more carefully before purchasing. 

Anyway, returning to the story at hand: I scurry down the trail, smacking myself silly in an attempt to kill the kamikaze mosquitoes that are dive-bombing me. The problem is exacerbated, of course, by the standing water and wet, nasty, spongy marshes everywhere. I'm on the official Highline Trail now, but it seems more like the Highline Lagoon. This paragraph has been brought to you by the Utah Board of Tourism.

Things do improve, though. I arrive at Whitehead Lake and find a delightful little campsite in some soft forest duff. I set up my shelter and dive inside. I only have to kill about three dozen skeeters who managed to join me inside. Insect foes vanquished, I eat some food and fall asleep. 

The next morning comes entirely too early, and I laze over breakfast for a half hour before getting going. The day starts with a climb up to a ridge, overlooking Deadman's Lake. Cheery name, right?. From there the trail dips down to the Lake, at the fringes of treeline, and then climbs right back up to Gabbro Pass, at 11,500 feet. But I'm not going to Gabbro Pass. I leave the trail and climb southeast, skirting unnamed peak 12011. I cross above a lingering snowfield and a beautiful alpine lake. There's supposedly a trail around here, but I don't see it anywhere. No matter - above treeline, it's all hikeable.

I cross a few bumps on the ridge, each one a little higher than the previous. The big obstacle is an unnamed peak at about 11,900 feet. It's steep and I find myself panting, taking frequent rests. The clouds are building a little bit, but it's nothing of concern. I'll be down below treeline long before the weather breaks. 

The grassy ridges have turned to talus. My pace slows. As much as I'd like to hurry, up here, progress is slow. Between the talus (I certainly don't want to sprain anything up here) and the the thin air, I'm not going anywhere fast. 

And then the clouds start to build. Fast. I've only seen storms pop up this suddenly once before - and it involved dodging lightning atop Mt. Adams in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That's not a situation I want to be in. I stow my phone and put on my rain gear. There will be no summit photos today. 

Hail starts to fall. The wind begins to whip. And yes, the thunder starts to rumble. It's only 10:30AM.

I've got no good options. There are only two ways off the ridge - two miles ahead, over  Marsh Peak (12,200'), or five miles back to where I came from. The choice is obvious, but it means climbing the highest peak in the area in a thunderstorm. It's only going to become more dangerous as the day wears on. I might as well make a break for it. I grit my teeth, say a prayer, and keep trudging.

Eventually, I reach the summit right as the hail stops falling. Nonetheless, I'm not enthused about being the highest thing around. I don't even pull out the camera to take a photo. Ahead. Downward. Toward safety.

I reach treeline, and immediately it starts pouring. I set up my shelter and clamber inside. I'm content to destroy my food bag while it storms outside. Thank you Lord.

Eventually the rain stops, the sun comes out, and after waiting for an hour to make sure the weather holds, I'm on my way. But about fifteen minutes down the trail, another cloud comes out of nowhere and it rains for hours. But I almost prefer the rain - because every time the rain stops, the mosquitoes come out to play. 

It's a wet, sloppy slog through the jungles of the Lake Shore Basin. The trails are faint, poorly-maintained, swampy, and generally unpleasant. But that's ok. I've explored some interesting new terrain, I've experienced the rewards of planning my own route, and seen the Highline Trail, or at least my Highline Trail, live up to its potential, high on the ridge.

Another wave of storms rolls through. It's storming an hour before sundown. I've seen this movie before: tomorrow will likely be a washout. I power-hike the last few hours to my car and sleep in the back seat

Higher is better. That's why I go to the mountains. I revel in the big alpine views, the lakes, the ridges, and the lingering snowfields. Mission accomplished. 

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