Thursday, June 9, 2022

Ten Years of Lake Blanche

June 9, 2012. Ten years ago today. I'd arrived in Utah mere days earlier, and was eager to get out and explore my temporary home for the next three months. The first item on the list was a hike up to Lake Blanche, an icon of the Wasatch Mountains.

I'd drooled over mountains for years, depicted beautifully in the model railroad magazines I'd spent my childhood reading. I had climbed a few mountains of eastern Spain where I'd spent a college semester. But despite that, I'd never actually spent time in the high alpine. This mountain foray was a new and long-anticipated experience.

I made all the typical mistakes. I clad myself in cotton from head to toe. I misidentified every single tree I passed. I carried myself with a youthful overconfidence, even haughtiness. I came down with dehydration-related headaches. 

But I was transfixed. The high alpine was just as idyllic, just as stark, just as captivating as I imagined it would be.

2012. Excuse the dodgy digital photography

Lake Blanche was just the beginning. I explored a new Wasatch destination nearly every weekend that summer, climbing several 11,000-foot peaks and reveling in the wonders of the high alpine.

Along the way, I learned quite a bit. I learned the importance of hydration in an arid climate. I learned how to deal with altitude and how to pace myself. I stopped wearing cotton and started carrying the Ten Essentials. At the end of the summer, I took my first non-failure backpacking trips. By the end of that summer, I was well on my way to being the outdoorsman of my aspirations.

Equally important were the lessons I learned about myself. I'm a truly terrible athlete. While I've always been active and/or played sports, genes simply don't work in my favor. In four years of high school swimming, not once did I manage anything other than a last-place finish. I have several friends in their 60's who can still hike circles around me.

But that summer I found my niche. Even given its limitations, my body could still propel me thousands of feet upward, to beautiful places and unforgettable experiences. Sure, I might be a little slower than the average person, but I really could do it. That summer gave me the confidence to tackle the Appalachian Trail the next spring and launched a solid decade of adventure.

2012. Cotton from head to toe.

An annual tradition has developed - an homage to that first, transformative hike. Every year, on the first Sunday after Memorial Day, I hike up to Lake Blanche after church with some friends. Objectively, it's a terrible idea:

  • It's always at least 95 degrees.
  • We don't start until about 1pm, so there's never any room left in the trailhead lot. We end up parking about a half a mile down the road.
  • We do the climb during the heat of the day. Nobody's ever passed out (yet), but it's always sweltering.
  • I tote a watermelon three thousand feet up to the lake.

...but terrible ideas make for quirky and fun traditions. 

2016. Nothing better on a hot day! (Photo: Clara Gelderloos)

This year, things were a little different: no companions and no watermelon. I did it on a Thursday, ten years to the day after that first hike. After two major foot surgeries in the past fifteen months, I needed to keep a rather ponderous pace. I'm still working back into shape, and it's unclear how the past year's foot odyssey will affect my future hiking capabilities.  

Nonetheless, this Lake Blanche hike represents a hope that the next ten years will be as fruitful as the previous ten and that the foot can recover enough to make backpacking possible again. It's also a celebration of ten years of adventure, and ten years of living in a place that's become my home.