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High Uinta Wilderness – Day 9: 21.Aug.2014

21.Aug.2014 – Rainbow Lake

This morning I awoke early to cloudy skies, a light fog on the lake surface, and the chattering of fastidious chipmunks and squirrels preparing their stash for the oncoming winter.

I watched a pair of deer – a large mule buck and his doe – meander out of the woods on the far shore, and graze in the shoreline grasses for a few minutes. Then a bit of sunshine peeked through, and they wandered back in, out of sight.

As the sunshine became stronger, a light rain began to fall, delivering almost imperceptibly tiny droplets softly onto my tarp and barely dimpling the lake surface. The backlit droplets hitting the lake surface created the illusion of a zillion shimmering diamonds.

A wind gust howled through the trees on the ridge behind me, bringing a chill that made me put me down jacket on. A squirrel then emerged from behind the fir trunk next to my shelter, looked right at me, cocked its head, and squawked, as if to say, “Are you not paying attention to the weather? Get going already!”

A typical mountain morning.


We hiked about five and a half hours today, down Fish Creek to its confluence with the West Fork of Rock Creek and down its spectacular gorge, and then along the main fork Rock Creek and Upper Stillwater Reservoir to our trailhead.

At the truck I ate my final “trail snack” – a packet of cream cheese mixed with a packet of smoked salmon and rolled up in a tortilla.

We stopped for gas and coffee in Duschesne and arrived at the bustle of the Park City Walmart at sunset to pick up some groceries before retiring for the night at the Dew Drop Inn and beginning the process of re-entry…

“I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.” – Christopher Knight, The North Pond Hermit

Until next time, Godspeed –

Photo: Reviewing our route circumnavigating the Rock Creek Basin in the High Uinta Wilderness.

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High Uinta Wilderness – Day 8: 20.Aug.2014

20.Aug.2014 – Four Lakes Basin

Last night came with a lot of steady, rousing, cold rain. It was the first night of the trip where I slept chillier than I’d like.

In the middle of the night I slid on (slinked into?) a pair of polypropylene see-thru tights. They constitute my base layer bottoms. They look like women’s nylons, and weigh a scant 1.6 oz. they are horrible to wear against the skin (you poor ladies) so I wear them at night over my trekking pants, which creates a nice warm sleep for my legs.


As the rain slowed down and the dark turned to light, I heard the cute tapa-tapa-tap of a woodpecker in the fir tree that the head of my tarp was tied to. It made me smile.

Then I heard the second one start in at another tree towards the foot end of my tarp. And then a third to my left. And then there was more.

It’s the first time I’d heard woodpeckers in surround sound and at any other time it would have been neat. But I was not done sleeping.

I wrapped my windshirt around my head inside my parka hood to muffle the morning reveille and went back to sleep.


When I awoke the rain had stopped and there was one teeny patch of blue sky visible above the cliffs to the west.

The surface of Dean Lake was glass-smooth save the little dimples that indicated the lazy feeding of trout on dead and injured midges that had been knocked down by the rain last night.

I made coffee from my bed, drank it, wrung yesterday’s rain from my socks, slid into my sopping wet and cold shoes, and emerged from my tarp.

I saw my shadow. Today might be a better day.


I sat down on a flat rock near my tarp and a curious nuthatch came to visit me about 8 feet away. It cocked its head while I was journaling on my iPod as if to say, “Strange thing you’re doing, there…” It pecked its head down here and there, eating huckleberries from my private patch. I was happy to share and I was more fond of it than I was of the woodpeckers from earlier this morning.


I couldn’t resist the urge to string up my tenkara rod and see what sort of trout Dean Lake would give up.

Within a few minutes of shoreline stalking, I finally found a target. It was clearly a well-colored male brook trout, as I could discern its red belly and white-tipped fins through the sunlit, smooth water surface with my polarized glasses.

He was cruising the shoreline at an impressively slow pace, apparently lacking the urgency one might have if he knew winter up here was only a few weeks away.

I cast my fly a few feet in front of him and his apathy turned to fury in short order as he shot like a rocket towards my fly, engulfing it like it was his last meal.

I brought him to shore and was impressed by his dimensions: 12 inches and about as fat as a mountain brookie can get. I released him for another day, and caught half a dozen more to round out a fine morning of fishing.


We left Dean Lake on a compass bearing through the trees, passing by Dale and Dayne Lakes en route to the secluded and remote Allen Lake, home to Utah’s trophy grayling fishery…


In the late afternoon, we dialed in a new compass bearing about due west to Bedground Lake, and the 4LB trail. We proceeded southwest to Rainbow Lake, circumnavigated its boggy shoreline to its opposite shore, and discovered a beautiful campsite on the south shore point for our final night on the trail.

I pitched my tarp on a tiny rock ledge overlooking the lakeshore hoping to be somewhat protected as this evening’s inevitable thunderstorms blew through.

I rebuilt the firepit, built seats, collected wood, and sorted wood by size (my friends call this J’ing the firepit, for my strong Myers-Briggs trait of everything needing to be in order and looking the right way).

We had a nice fire, Dan went for a swim, Chase composed music, we talked about math education philosophy, and we made our final dinner feasts with all of our leftover ingredients.


We finished the evening reminiscing about past trips and epic days in the mountains. Dan and I (and now Chase, for the past two years), have shared miles, storms, exposure, alternative trip exits, talus, trout, and more: the Winds, Beartooths, Yellowstone, Canadian Rockies, Sierras, and the Uintas. Where will we be next year?


As I crawled into bed, swirling winds, the patter of raindrops on my tarp, and booming in the distance made me wrap my windshirt around my head in my down jacket hood, in preparation to muffle the noise of the oncoming tempest.


Photo: Tarp camp at Rainbow Lake.

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High Uinta Wilderness – Day 7: 19.Aug.2014

19.Aug.2014 – A Cold Front in the High Uintas

Late last night high winds and the disappearance of the stars signaled the onset of a cold front that was predicted yesterday by high cirrus clouds streaking across the Uinta sky.

This morning it is 40 degrees (*F) and raining, and we are engulfed in the clouds here at Margie Lake.

We slept in.

During a break in the storm, I got up and fished, catching several Margie brookies until the rain came again. I retrieved the Ursacks, brought them to my mates, and we cooked and ate breakfast in our shelters.

The rain came down harder so we hunkered down for the morning.

Under my tarp, I repaired Dan’s Thermarest pad, which had a glue-dot repair that I did on another trip with him several years ago. It seems that the glue dot failed, resulting in severe bubbling of the overpatch. I ripped the old patch and dot off, cleaned the wound, and used Loon UV Wader Repair to seal the tear. Not having any sunlight to cure the glue, I used the nifty Loon UV pen light to do the job. On top of this went the Thermarest glue-dot-and-overpatch kit. I wonder if this repair will last for another several years?

Suffice it to say that a big fan of the Loon UV glue and UV pen!


Another break in the storm came at noon so we decided to make a run for Rocky Sea Pass so we could cross the divide into Four Lakes Basin.

A beautiful trek past Uinta Lake led us to a cairned route past the Uinta Lake buttress through more tundra, talus, and bogs to the vast basin below Rocky Sea Pass.

By now the temperature had dropped and the rain became more severe. We only briefly contemplated camping below the pass but instead decided to go for it.

The climb to the pass went without drama but we were wet and cold by the time we reached the top.

We did our best to stay hydrated, nourished, and moving, and the drop in elevation on the west side of the pass into the trees was a welcome reprieve from the cold at higher altitudes.


We met a goat-packing party camped at Pigeon Milk Spring and tried to infer where the name came from. It’s a strange little spring with the milky glacial color of something in the Olympic Range but ran warm enough to support a vibrant growth of bright green water plants at its source. Giving up on trying to understand the naming convention, we then had a cursory discussion about how to milk a pigeon.


We then stopped at the junction of the Four Lakes Basin And Highline trails and took a break from the rain under the canopy of a big spruce. I made my usual midday lunch which consisted of Seabear smoked salmon with cream cheese spread on pilot biscuits.

We had our sights set on Dean Lake so we headed up the hill to 4LB and veered off trail at Jean Lake.


We are camped in the beautiful meadows on the east shore of Dean Lake, all alone.

We cooked under the shelter of a large spruce which provided a welcome awning for a meal of pizzadillas fried in the Fry-Bake. Hot fried food tasted especially good tonight and boosted morale.

We have a big, hot campfire to warm up and dry our trekking clothes, and we stayed up late telling stories, laughing, and warming up.

The cold and wet trek took its toll on us today and are a bit relieved that the rain has let up some. Maybe we have a promise for some blue sky tomorrow as we spend the day exploring this basin to see what sort of fish inhabit these lakes.


Photo: Uinta Lake

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High Uinta Wilderness – Day 6: 18.Aug.2014

18.Aug.2014 – Alone on the Rock Creek Shelf

I find it kind of funny that most guidebooks to the Uintas calls anything more than 10 miles from the trailhead “remote”.

However it didn’t really dawn on me until this trip. We’ve only seen a handful of people, and only then in a single place (Dead Horse Lake).

We haven’t seen a human soul otherwise in the six days we’ve been out so far.

Sheep and cows, of course. Elk. Mule deer. Mountain goats. And today, a mama moose!

But no people.


I awoke this morning to an eerie grayish orange alpenglow on the mountain cliffs west of my tarp. I didn’t think much of it until realizing that the gray was from storm clouds that were beginning to let loose on us. Fortunately it only rained for a half an hour or so but the wind and cold made me pull my quilt over my head.

The next time I woke up the skies were blue and the sun had warmed our camp in the Reconnaissance Lake basin.

I started in on my morning ritual:

1. Take a photo of the morning light at whatever view was visible out of the front of my tarp.

2. Pour water in the Jetboil, fire it up, and make coffee.

3. Read, pray, and write until the others woke up.


We descended from Reconnaissance Lake down its outlet stream to the quaint Triangle Lake, which sits on a dramatic bench with an expansive view of the basin to the south.

At Triangle Lake one can follow the easy tundra and sparse talus down its outlet stream to the trail in the trees, or climb northwest through talus and cliff ledges to a high bench. We chose the latter. It’s prettier and not terribly strenuous to get up or down from it.

We arrived at Helen Lake, and the first bit of trail we’ve seen in a few days. Helen marks the start of the Lady Lakes chain that consist of lakes named after presumably memorable women: Margie, Rosalie, Gladys, and Helen. It should not therefore be so surprising that right next to Helen is a lake called … Lightning! A tribute to the feistiness of our girls, no?

We took a long break at Helen to fish. We caught several big, fat brook trout here in the shadow of Peak 12,622 which provides a breathtakingly scenic backdrop to Helen Lake.

From Helen Lake, we climbed up to 11,000+ feet again and traveled south along the bench past Gladys Lake.

Emerging from scrub trees while hiking, I was alarmed by a big dark brown animal in the trail perched up on stilts.

It took me a moment to register that it was a mama moose. She … (walked, scampered, gangled?) off in the trees clearly looking alarmed so we were nervous that she might have a calf nearby. As we continued on the trail, she emerged from the scrub trees about 25 feet from me in a full trot back to where we had spooked her. It was freaky to have her that close.

She returned to her “spot”, stared at us to make sure we would be going along our way, and started munching willows in contentment. We storied on to the south.

We left the trail again just north of Rosalie Lake and made our way along the base of a cliff band to Margie Lake for camp.


Margie Lake is surrounded by mountains in a very scenic bowl.

Our camp is situated back from the lakeshore with Peak 12,070 looming above. Chase and Dan are pitched in the tundra on the lake’s bench, while my tarp is slightly higher tied to a few trees and willow bushes and protected a little from the winds in the open terrain here.


We had fast fishing for pan-sized brook trout here, and they indeed ended up in the pan.

The fish here are healthy with pink meat.

Chase cooked them quite plainly with satisfaction, I took a more culinary path.

The three trout I kept were first poached in a fry bake. After draining the water and deboning the fish, I added a mix of rehydrated Harmony House veggies (onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes), some Montreal Steak seasoning, a bit of oil, and fried the mixture. That was then sporked onto a tortilla and powdered with Parmesan.

Tenkara Trout Tacos.

It was delicious.


Photo: Tarp camp at Margie Lake.

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Photo from our camp this morning at Reconnaissance Lake

Here’s a live photo from our camp this morning at Reconnaissance Lake (18.Aug.2014).

Our shelters are the little dots at the base of the talus field in the lower left part of the photo.

The big mountain is Peak 12,385, the southernmost high point of the Yard Peak Massif, and the most dramatic.


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High Uinta Wilderness – Day 5: 17.Aug.2014

17.Aug.2014 – Walking the Shelf

This morning dawned with clear skies, warm sun, and tiger trout rising to flying ants at our camp along the lightly forested north shore of Dead Horse Lake.

Eden and Mike packed up first. This was to be their last day on the trail and they would walk out the West Fork of the Black Fork River trail, nine or so miles to a trailhead where a shuttle would pick them up. I thoroughly enjoyed their company. I will miss the Rabbi and the Big Persian on the rest of this trek.


Dan, Chase and I left camp en route to Dead Horse Pass.

The terror of this climb has stared us in the face for the past 36 hours. All we could think about was the uncertainty that came with not knowing much about the route, hearing rockfall topple down it in the middle of the night, and wondering how the heck we were going to get through the cliff band safely.

But alas, a trail up and through the pass not only exists on the map but through Real Life Dead Horse Pass too.

Many adjectives can be used to describe the trail, depending on if you are an experienced hiker (“awesome!”), an intermediate hiker (“whoa…”), a beginner (“terrifying”), an introvert (“I need a nap at the end of this”), an extrovert (“I need to post an update to Facebook right now!”), a blind ignorant (“that was pretty”), or a realist (“thank God that’s over”).

Regardless of where you stand, one thing is certain: the north side of Dead Horse Pass is one of the most spectacular trails in North America.

There are views.

There are cliffs.

There is talus, and scree.

There are cairns.

There is a real possibility that a misstep could have really bad consequences.

And yep, there is a dead horse.

The whole experience was a real treat.


We stopped for some time at the pass itself to enjoy food and views. While sitting on the fine scree surface next to the cairn, gusts of wind threatened to blow us back to Dead Horse Lake. Even eating lunch was impossible. So we packed up and proceeded to work our way down the steep trail on the south side of the pass to the Rock Creek Shelf.


The Rock Creek shelf – a series of tundra benches that sit at an elevation of about 11,000 to 11,300 feet – makes up a key component of the Uinta High Route, the 100-mile (mostly off-trail) traverse of the entire range from end to end. I remember it fondly in both of my UHR treks from years past.

The shelf is comprised of tundra benches and small talus fields with several tiny tarns, spongy bogs, and ledge seeps. The walking is easy and because you are traveling on high ledges above the treeline and the trails, the views are vast, with big peaks above you and the huge valleys and canyons of Rock Creek and its tributaries to your downside.


We arrived at Continent Lake for a break and I made a mental note to return here at some point in the future after seeing its … “nice trout” cruising the deep green depths among talus boulders submerged on its shores.

From Continent Lake we traveled around a buttress that separates the Fall Creek drainage (a tributary of Rock Creek) and the Rock Creek drainage. The route from the lake proceed south over tundra, then crosses a talus field to the top of a tiny stand of subalpine where a sneaky ledge system can be accessed.

Accessing The Sneak avoids having to drop down into the trees and on the Highline Trail (boring!). It also avoids traveling across the steep talus field at the buttress toe.

Instead, The Sneak offers flat stone shelves interspersed with tundra and bogs. The views are nice and you get the feeling that you are a cowboy trying to avoid the Indians when you’re walking it.

It’s the sort of place where a Louis L’Amour hideout could be located.

Eventually The Sneak dumped us onto the main Rock Creek Shelf southeast of Jodie Lake with easy walking around the rim and one of the Uinta’s best views: the Yard Peak massif.

After stopping to refill water at a brook-fall dripping over a 15 foot cliff (and then drying in the sun because I got soaked standing under the drips), we made our final push for the day to Reconnaissance Lake (11,145 feet) to make camp.


Reconnaissance Lake is one of the Uinta’s most scenic views, tucked right up against the Yard Peak massif.

From our camp on the lake’s south shore on a tiny tundra patch next to a talus field, we have expansive sunset views down valley, massive cliffs overhead, and of course the beautiful Reconnaissance Lake itself.

Chase and I fished a bit this evening and he slayed the brookies in the tiny ponds that have formed in the outlet stream bogs south of the big lake.

It’s cold, windy and exposed here and reminds us that we are in the mountains. Tonight was the first night of the trip where I actually had to cook dinner while wearing my down parka.

I spent extra time staking my tarp in a low, storm pitch with extra guy lines before going to bed, listening to the wind whistling in the cliffs above and feeling the fatigue of mountain travel in my feet, thighs, and back.


Photo: Trekking through “The Sneak” – a system of narrow ledges between 11,080 feet and 11,120 feet south of the buttress that divides Jodie and Continent Lakes.

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High Uinta Wilderness, Day 2: 14.Aug.2014

14.Aug.14 – Explorer Peak

An epic day in a Wild Place is made with two ingredients.

First, it requires a healthy mix of uncertainty and adversity.

Second, it is best enjoyed when you don’t believe it can happen to you on the day you don’t expect it.

Today we had both.


I wore my down parka (an 8.1 oz hooded anorak custom made by my friend Ben Smith at Goosefeet Gear) to bed last night to stave off the cold. (You need some insurance when you’re only packing a 14 oz down quilt and sleeping at high altitudes in stormy weather.)

This parka packs a punch – it’s very lofty, with big baffles, 900 fill down, and 10d fabrics. It’s the highest warmth:weight garment I’ve ever owned.

So within moments of the sun peeking over the horizon this morning and delivering its blazing rays into the east-facing opening of my tarp, I was overcome with the suffocating sense that I was trapped in a feathery oven.

In a panic, I shot out of my tarp, rolled onto the dewy tundra grass, stripped down to my underwear, and started panting, inhaling gulp after gulp of fresh cool mountain air.

Then I felt a raindrop.

And then another.

Incredulously, I looked behind me to the west and observed the Armageddon-gray clouds of another storm.

I turned back to the east and swear I saw the sun wink at me.

Then, remembering that not only was I standing in my underwear, I was rapidly getting wet in the process. Still wiping sleep from my eyes and having no interest in spending a great deal of time processing the confusing circumstances that I found myself in, I dove back under my tarp and into my sleeping quilt.

Three seconds later, the deluge hit, and the wind was blowing it all directly into the open end of my tarp.

I thought of the irony of being a bit peeved at having pitched my tarp towards the eastern sunrise alarm clock, and then moments later being peeved again about pitching it with the open end towards the incoming wind spilling from the northeast over Cleveland Pass. (But oh the views I had with this pitch!)

In no state to argue with Mother Nature or God, I simply denied that anything dramatic was happening, draped my rain jacket over my head, put in earplugs, and went back to sleep.


I awoke an hour later to scattered sunshine, dry skies, the chattering of a pika scampering in the talus behind my tarp, and an intense craving for a cup of coffee.


This is the part where we took the possibility of an epic day for granted. Heck, we only had about a four and a half mile walk.

So we lounged around camp.

We scrambled in talus, read books, wrote in journals, composed music, talked to pikas, and rested in a beautiful place.

We left camp at 1:30 in the afternoon…


The trek from Cleveland Pass into Ottoson Basin is not to be missed. The trail is carved into talus below The massive cliff bands on Mt. Cleveland’s west face, and then drops into the serene meadow tundra and subalpine forest of the lower basin. There is no trail past Mt. Cleveland, and the walking is easy and beautiful.

We were headed to Upper Ottoson Lake, from where we’d then veer to the northeast to ascend the high col on Explorer Peak’s west ridge en route to Crater Lake. We arrived at the base of our objective late in the afternoon, less than a mile and a half from our hopeful campsite that night.

The ascent to the col was steep, through talus and tundra, but otherwise uneventful (Class 1+). We arrived at the top with incredible views of tomorrow’s objective – Red Knob Pass – and the gigantic upper basin of the Lake Fork.


The route down was…

…not obvious.

Cliff bands seem to protect the entire descent into the basin. I spent some time scouting a route up the west ridge of Explorer Peak and found a way down through the first major cliff band via a series of scree-coated ledges. I couldn’t see beyond those ledges and wasn’t completely confident that we’d make it all the way down. The backup plan: spend an extraordinarily uncomfortable night on Explorer Peak’s northwest face, or climb back up and sleep on Explorer’s west ridge, or go all the way back down to Ottoson Basin, which would have required a nighttime descent of a steep talus field.

None of these were great options, so we proceeded down the face, hopeful for something to open up.

After making it through the first cliff band, we downclimbed a short Class 3 section and then traveled north on a system of exposed ledges above another cliff band, which appeared more problematic than the first.

I left my pack and the rest of the party and scouted ahead for a route down, which took a precious 30 minutes.

After briefly paying respect to a golden eagle carcass rotting in the talus, I finally found a difficult but doable Class 3 route through the lower cliff band that would take us to a scree field leading to the basin.

I cairned the entrance at the top of the descent and returned to the rest of the guys waiting above.

We descending a series of Class 2(R) ledges to the cairn. I was the first to downclimb a short Class 3 section, and received heavy packs that were handed down to me. The rest followed. We put our packs on for another 40 yards, where we reached the crux:

A 12-foot vertical cliff band that we’d have to downclimb (Class 4).

I retrieved my 1/8″ Spectra bear bag cord, created a giant knot in one end, and chocked it into a crack on the wall above us, then tied a bunch of hand loops in the cord. I clipped my 45 pound pack to a carabiner and gently lowered it to the bottom of the cliff band.

I then down climbed the vertical face, which thankfully had terrific hand and footholds for my not-designed-for-climbing Altra Lone Peak 2.0 trail shoes.

Upon reaching the bottom, I unclipped my pack and we repeated the process with the rest of the packs. I piled them at the bottom of the cliff to cushion a fall if needed…

The rest of the gang downclimbed the cliff band with ease and we knew we were home free – sort of…

As we put on our packs, alpenglow was waning on the high peaks surrounding us. Sunset had arrived, darkness was looming, and we were still high on Explorer Peak’s northwest face.

We traversed more ledges southward on thin scree overlying downward sloping bedrock shelves, using tiny bushes for handholds – or at least, for the illusion of handholds.

Finally we reached a skiable scree gully that helped us lose lots of elevation quickly and safely, finally depositing us into a moderate descent of easy talus that led to the base of Explorer Peak’s west ridge and a flat basin meadow!

Whew. We dodged a bullet.


It was dark now, so we put on our headlamps.

Clouds came in from the valley below and engulfed us in a blinding mist that made it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead of us. So I figured we’d just take a compass bearing towards Red Knob Pass and stop when the camping looked good.


During our nighttime tramp through meadows and bogs, we heard a thunderous roar behind us – a giant rockslide that lasted several seconds, coming from Explorer Peak’s west ridge.

It was a humbling reminder of the seriousness that comes with travel in high mountains. Hearing that immediately after completing a route where that type of risk is real hits home and leaves one to contemplate their existence. I must have a purpose to be on earth tomorrow…


And so, here we are late at night settled into a nice meadow with Explorer Peak looming overhead and a tiny brook babbling nearby.

We have no idea what type of scene we will awaken too. That excited us!

Stars have been replaced by the blackness of thunder clouds, and we hear the booming is the distance.

All is well. It’s been a five star day.


Photo: Eden and Chase peek over the final vertical cliff band we down climbed as Daniel lowers a pack down to me.

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