Uintas Hike ’16: Day One

It was getting late. The sun had set some time ago, and we were working in nautical twilight. If we didn’t find what we were looking for we would need to set up camp soon and start the search again in the morning. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re actively searching for a couple members of your group, but there we were. This was Uintas Hike 2016.

UINTAS HIKE 16 – Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

We met up about 36 hours prior in Salt Lake City. We were are gathering there for Outdoor Retailer’s Summer Market. And when you’re in a location like that, it behooves you to head up into the mountains for a few days. That’s what we had planned for the weekend before the convention.

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Midwest Basecamp and Mountain Matron at the Highline Trailhead (phone case, Catalyst).

The original plan called for an ambitious 45-mile/3-day backpack, but as the date got closer, the mileage was paired back – up until the night before we departed. Vertical feet, high elevations, and some heavy packs demanded it. We finally settled on a respectable first day. We would backpack a bit over eight miles. Half of the vertical gain would occur in the last two miles of our day. The trail would almost entirely be on Utah’s somewhat-famous Highline Line, the elevation of which would keep us above 10,000.

The High Uintas were an impressive sight whenever there was a break in the trees.

The High Uintas were an impressive sight whenever there was a break in the trees.

We spend the previous night in Park City, hoping the elevation would allow for some acclimation. My last venture into the Uintas ended up as a altitude sickness battle. I fought a rapid heart rate, some chest pains, and a headache. Those symptoms won; and I retreated from the High Uintas a day early back in 2014. This year, I enlisted altitude sickness-fighting pharmaceutical Diamox to help. That, along with some puffs of Oxygen+ along the way, kept the headaches at bay.

Signage was there, but a little searching was required at some trail junctions.

Signage was there, but a little searching was required at some trail junctions.

Arriving at the Highline trailhead before noon, we made last minute adjustments, strapped on the packs, and started hiking east. Immediately, we started a descent into the big Duchesne River drainage basin. Even with fresh legs, I took a mental not of the pain in the ass the ascent would be on the return trip to the trailhead. The parking area had been packed, so we saw a number of groups. We were never too far from other people throughout the day.

The trail bottomed out at a stream where someone was allowing their dog to play in the water. For the next five miles, the Highline trail would undulate in 100’ increments, eventually reaching 10,320’ just past Brooks Lake. The trail was a rocky mess, and it seemed we moved laterally in order to navigate the rocks as much we moved forward. My eyes were often necessarily focused on the trail instead of my surroundings.

Stop. Rest. Breathe. Watch. Listen. Chronic Climber Chick soaks it all in.

Stop. Rest. Breathe. Watch. Listen. Chronic Climber Chick soaks it all in.

Horses seemed to not care. What looked like a dangerous trail for them was not. They stepped wherever they pleased, and continued on up the trail carrying their loads.

Mostly within a spruce and pine forest, the trail offers spurs to Packard Lake and Naturalist Basin, as well as some social trails into nearby meadows and stream beds. We hiked on past these. Our turn would occur just before the Highline rose to meet Rocky Sea Pass.

Mt. Agassiz towered over the first few miles of trail.

Mt. Agassiz towered over the first few miles of trail.

As most groups are prone to do, we didn’t always hike together, but we almost always stopped and regrouped at certain points. The last of these points was the East Fork of the Duchesne. It’s merely a small stream where the trail crosses it. Because the day’s climb laid immediately past it, we regrouped there briefly; filled our LifeStraw bottles and downed some Bounce trail snacks.

As I had recalled from a prior Uintas trip, water was fairly plentiful.

As I had recalled from a prior Uintas trip, water was fairly plentiful.

We departed the rest area in order of our arrival: fastest first. The climb would end up being a little over 850’ over a couple of miles. Although the map didn’t indicate it well, on land, there were three steeps sections of about 250’ each divided by intermittent gains and relatively flat, short stretches. The fast folks obviously had a easier time with the gains than the flatlands like me. I hiked, took a short break to attend to my high pulse, then hiked some more. And over and over that went until I reached the highest point for the day – just under 11,000’.

A peak rises above the far side of the Duchesne River drainage.

A peak rises above the far side of the Duchesne River drainage.

I was in the middle, and about halfway through the climb I realized I hadn’t seen anyone in awhile. I got to a nice flat area and waited for fifteen minutes. “They should have come by now,” I thought. “I’ll ascent to the next flat area and wait again.”

When I got to that flat area there happened to be a trail junction. The two group members in front of me were not there. Did they know which way to go? I didn’t know if they had continued up towards the pass, or veered off towards Carolyn Lake. Why weren’t the two members behind me not showing up. I sat for another ten minutes. Finally, I laid out a “NO,” made of sticks on the trail to the lake, just in case they came through after I left. I had to continue on. One of the backpackers in front of me was carrying half of my shelter.

The view from ~11,000', with our final destination, Jean Lake, coming into view.

The view from ~11,000′, with our final destination, Jean Lake, coming into view. Dean Lake is in the far background.

I arrived at our destination, Jean Lake, just before 5:00 p.m. I found my friends and explained that I hadn’t seen our mates even after waiting extensively…twice! We determined we would stay at the lake until 7:00 p.m. If our friends didn’t arrive by then, we head back and find them.

Jean Lake was a beautiful area. Our camp was set up among the spruces on one side of the lake. A large scree field formed the opposite bank. One of the lakes that comprise Four Lakes Basin, Jean Lake snuggles up against the signature red cliffs that identify the Uintas Mountains. While we waited, we put up shelters, took photos and made dinner. One of our group who had started later (and at a different trailhead) found us in time to eat. The Mountain House hit the spot.

The high cliffs above the far side of Jean Lake were spectacular.

The high cliffs above the far side of Jean Lake were spectacular.

Unfortunately, 7:00 p.m. rolled around. Two hours was more than enough time for them to have arrived. We broke camp; at least the parts we had set up. We left Jean Lake and headed back to the Highline. We didn’t know where our friends were, but figured they’d be somewhere along the trail.

Everything was downhill, which made the unexpected three miles not so torturous. At mile three, we would be back at the small stream crossing where we had seen them last.

Little Grunts savors the flavor of a Mountain House entree.

Little Grunts savored the flavor of a Mountain House entree (or two) as we awaited the rest of our gang at our Jean Lake camp.

The sun was sinking as we got closer to the East Fork of the Duchesne. As we got closer, the light was fading from the sky, and we saw a couple of hammocks not far from the trail. It was them. Upon reconvening, we learned that high altitudes had caused them to turn back. Unable to track us down, they wisely made camp for the evening and rested, knowing that we would either return that night or the next morning.

RawTrails met us at the lake after taking the more strenuous Duchesne River trail.

RawTrails met us at the lake after taking the more strenuous Duchesne River trail (socks, Cloudline; boots, Merrell).

We chatted for some time, then started making our second camp of the day. Of course, I had left my entire stake bag (full of stakes) back at Jean Lake. Therefore, the ultramid shelter was pitched with rocks that night. It worked well enough…the rain started not long after I retired to the shelter for the night.

Day one of our Uintas Hike was in the books, and it was an interesting day, to be sure. Three extra trail miles and 800’ of unplanned descent made sleep come easy. Tomorrow would be an easier day…

Day two coming soon!

UINTAS HIKE 16 – Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

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