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At least this kind of maiming would be painless and fast. How long will it take someone to realize that we’re dead? When will they find Danni and I’s burnt bodies under this yellow tarp? How long can I possibly crouch in the lightning position before my knees fail to ever straighten again?

This is what went through my head as we hid from a September thunderstorm in a cluster of trees at 11,000 feet. The storm broiled for an hour. The closest lightning strike was on top of us, but most of them were at least a half-mile away. It hailed six times. We didn’t die. We agreed that huddling together under the tarp was akin to the blood oaths we used to see kids make in movies. I felt grateful for Danni’s friendship because she made me giggle a lot. We learned that Nature’s in charge. After the storm, we watched sunset turn the sky the color of seashells and I was glad for the day.

Day 1 (Thursday, September 8th)- Hayden Pass Trailhead to about 3 miles along the trail

Danni and I at the Hayden Pass Trailhead (Bryon Powell photo credit).

Three days prior to that storm, Bryon dropped us off at the Hayden Pass Trailhead at the west end of the Uinta Mountains’ Highline Trail. Our destination was 78 miles to the east, the Hacking Lake Trailhead. If all went well, we’d see Bryon exactly four days later.

We shouldered 25-pound packs (Mine was filled mostly with food, I think I was afraid of someone stealing my lunch out there. Or starvation.) into the evening, into the High Uintas Wilderness, into a forest dripping wet from an afternoon thunderstorm, into absolute silence. When it got dark, we set up a tarp-tent, ate couscous from a bag, hung our food in a tree, and put heads to damp Earth.

The High Uintas Wilderness sign on the west side of the Highline Trail (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

In the tarp-tent, Danni studies the map (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Day 2 (Friday, September 9th)- From about 3 miles along the trail to the west side of Deadhorse Pass

At 6am the next morning, we rubbed our eyes awake and began the ritual of packing camp, making hot food and drink with the backpacking stove (Trailside coffee is, perhaps, the bestthinginthewholewideworld!), and walking the trail. A few forest miles later, we ascended Rocky Sea Pass.

I climb the west side of Rocky Sea Pass on the Highline Trail (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

Rocky Sea Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Looking down the east side of Rocky Sea Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

It was both an easy ascent and descent with wide views that made for much clicking of camera shutters, gesturing and pointing, and general giddiness for our adventure. We agreed, too, that it was a rocky sea.

From the pass, we could see where the trail was headed. In the below picture, you’ll see a pyramid-shaped mountain on the right side called Explorer Peak. We’d turn left and head up a valley before reaching the ridge containing that peak. At the head of that valley was the next pass, Deadhorse Pass.

Looking east from Rocky Sea Pass at our direction of travel on the Highline Trail (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

When we reached Deadhorse Pass some 13 miles later, the clouds were acting like Class III rapids. Because I’ve spent time on above-treeline ridges in storms and wish to neffereffer do that again (Read: I’d rather stab my eyes out with tent stakes.), I made us wait things out. Turns out, though the clouds looked mean, it didn’t storm for a long time. Turns out, we waited until the next morning to go over the pass. Turns out, we had our only altercation with mosquitoes there. Turns out, Danni is a most patient human being.

Danni waits out the storm and mosquitoes on the west side of Deadhorse Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

When the storm blossomed, it made pea-sized hail, rain, and thunderclaps about a mile-and-a-half away. We sat it out in our tent, me staring at drops of water on tent walls and Danni napping.

Hail outside our tent on the west side of Deadhorse Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

After the storm, the setting sun kissed the mountaintops with rosy-red light through disappearing clouds while we ate backpacking meals and watched.

A post-storm sunset on the west side of Deadhorse Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

 Day 3 (Saturday, September 10th)- The west side of Deadhorse Pass to the east side of Tungsten Pass

Danni’s watch alarm shocked us to consciousness at 4am. On trail by 4:53, we sought to make up lost miles on our 20 miles/day requisite average. A dark, windy, and exposed mile brought us to the top. Deadhorse Pass is a long ridge marked with a confusing number of cairns. We couldn’t find our way off it until light crept into the eastern sky.

Atop the pass and on our descent trail, we encountered hail. First, a smattering of it, then enough to make the skinny trail sketchy, then a world coated with it like snow. We traveled into the epicenter of yesterday’s storm, and my heart pounded with the white-scape’s beauty.

Danni descends Deadhorse Pass just before sunrise (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni is all smiles on the sunrise descent into Deadhorse Basin (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Deadhorse Lake at sunrise after a hailstorm (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

A frozen flower in Deadhorse Basin (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

It’s all about basin, pass, basin, pass on the Highline Trail, so our next ascent was to Red Knob Pass. For 10 more miles, we found hail remnants. At 11,800 feet, we also found a small herd of domestic sheep. I wanted to ask how they fared in last night’s violence, but they were skittish and kept their distance.

Domestic sheep near Red Knob Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Frozen hail hear Red Knob Pass on the Highline Trail (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Me on Red Knob Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

Danni descends Red Knob Pass into another hail-filled basin (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

We lost the trail after Red Knob Pass. It’s a stretch to call the Highline Trail a trail. It’s a trail in places and a cairn-ed route in others. Though the cairns are often the size of a European car, they can be far apart and out of sight of each other. The ability to read a map and navigate by land features is imperative of a successful journey out there. Once we relocated the trail, we descended into the forest.

We were headed to Porcupine Pass, but it was miles off at this point (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

This fellow was almost a month missing from the Highline Trail. May you rest in peace, good man (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

One of the big kicks I get about open terrain is tracking one’s progress across it (Danni took about 10,001 photos of me during our four days together. 9,996 of them show me looking at the map.). In the below photo, which looks west from between Red Knob and Porcupine Pass on the Highline Trail, you can see Explorer Peak. It was on the other, west side of that peak that we camped last night.

View looking west back toward Explorer Peak on the Highline Trail (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni and I are photographed by passing backpackers on the Highline Trail (photo courtesy of Meghan M. Hicks).

The distance between Red Knob and Porcupine Pass was a long, beautiful way. Once solidly above treeline, we followed gigantic cairns for the final, three-mile approach to the pass.

A typical above-treeline rock cairn on the Highline Trail near Porcupine Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Me climbing Porcupine Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

From Porcupine Pass, we traversed another above-treeline valley and the wee Tungsten Pass before calling it a day on its east side. We assembled our tarp-tent at probably 11,500 feet on the softest of grass, then gobbled up backpacking meals and chocolate, re-hydrated on lake water, watched an almost-full moon rise, and felt good about our 21-mile day.

Our tarp-tent under an almost-full moon (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

  Day 4 (Sunday, September 11th)- The east side of Tungsten Pass to the west side of North Pole Pass

Whatever fatigue we felt last night was gone when the watch alarm beeped. It was cloudy and spitting rain, which made for a creepy, Halloween-like, predawn moonset over Tungsten Pass.

Our first challenge was the Highline’s tallest pass, Anderson Pass, which climbs to just over 12,600 feet and sits on the flanks of Kings Peak.

Danni hikes toward Anderson Pass with Tungsten Pass as the low point in the background (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

On this day, the pass was socked in with fog. As we ascended, I wondered about how thick the fog would become, whether it would become perilous to travel the exposed trail. I needed not worry: we could see for a quarter-mile and that was plenty. In trip pre-planning, we toyed with the idea of summiting Kings Peak as we passed. After all, it’s Utah’s high point! The peak was socked in with clouds, so we skittered speedily down the east side of Anderson Pass.

Danni hikes into the fog on Anderson Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Me looking a little haggard on Anderson Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

Danni approaching treeline again with Anderson Pass behind her (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Danni self-portraits us on our lunch break (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

The middle part of this day was filled with time spent on horse-destroyed trail in the trees. Danni and I became downtrodden by the trail’s terrible condition in this most remote place. We were 20 miles from any road! I spent a lot of this time plotting the letter I’ll write to the Wasatch-Cache-Uinta National Forest administrators who allow this damage, probably in the form of permitted outfitting groups.

All day, the weather had given us hints that it was not stable and sweet via distant thunderclaps and occasional rain splatterings. When the sky decided to rage, it really raged. While we crossed an open meadow, it started to hail hard. We sprinted across the meadow and into a clump of trees. There, we set up the yellow tarp to wait out the storm.

Hail came in waves, interspersed by cold rain. At first, thunder rumbled a mile east of us. Then, it came from within a half-mile away and in all directions. We ditched our trekking poles and backpacks–all the metal in our possession–under a tree about 30 meters away. Then, just once, lightning made a scary cloud-to-ground strike somewhere right over us. An hour later it was over and we were walking again.

We hiked past Fox Lake after the storm (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

We hiked until a bit before dark, which put us on the western flanks of North Pole Pass. We spent the remnants of daytime eating and otherwise trying to get dry and warm after the day’s dousing. We also spent time, on the heels of another 21-mile day, debating how and if we’d complete the last 20 miles separating us from our destination at Hacking Lake. As we lay our heads to sleep, we decided it was up to Mother Nature. Would she yield and allow our passage?

  Day 5 (Monday, September 12th)- The west side of North Pole Pass to the Chepeta Lake Trailhead

The answer to that question is no.

We arrived to the Chepeta Lake Trailhead, where a forest service road intersects the Highline Trail, at 10:40am and about eight miles into this fifth day. Hacking Lake was 13 miles to the east and our pick-up time was 6.5 hours away. In good weather, we could cover the distance without issue.

It was already starting to hail and the upcoming section of trail promised eight above-treeline miles. The prospect of making a potentially dangerous sprint through thunderstorms was, to me, not worth the fear and possible consequences. I sat on the ground, rubbed my fingers in the dirt, looked at Danni, and said, “I don’t want do it.”

In a fine demonstration of friendship, Danni simply shrugged her shoulders in support. With that, we walked down the forest service road through intermittent sun, rain, and hail. About five miles later and 70 total miles into our journey, a nice man in a shiny truck drove us to cell phone service, to where we could contact Bryon for a diverted pick-up. And this is how our trip ended.

(I’ll leave out a full reveal on the second ride we received from the man whose dog puked on me, the waitress at the Chinese restaurant who wouldn’t come close because our shoes stank, and the beer we cheers-ed in a Park City bar that evening. Those are good stories but this tale is already long.)

I’ll end, instead, with photos from the first miles of the last morning, our sunrise passage across frosty North Pole Pass.

As we climbed to North Pole Pass, the now-past-full moon set (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

Me on North Pole Pass (Danielle Coffman photo credit).

Up there, I felt bliss, and wonderment, and gratefulness. And love. There were moments of this trip where I was frightened, and wet, and a little bit cold. Those difficulties will, when I look back on this voyage, cloud the edges of my memory. Perhaps rightfully so. But, when you’re in a place as beautiful as North Pole Pass–or anywhere on the Highline Trail–with a friend as dear as Danni: it all becomes love.

Danni on North Pole Pass (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit).

34 Responses to “Backpacking the Uinta Mountains’ Highline Trail”

  1. Ewa says:

    What an adventure! I am envious. On my JMT I had nothing but perfect weather. I almost wish I had one decent thunderstorm… but then again, maybe not.
    Love the pics, as usual.

    • Meghan says:

      Ewa, this trip would have been a piece of cake with good weather. Part of me wished for Mother Nature to have a little mercy on us, while another part of me felt like we were tougher for gritting out the storms. :) Thanks, girl!

  2. Danni says:

    LOVE indeed. Great report.

  3. Awesome! I can’t believe you guys averaged 20 miles a day while having to sit out thunderstorms. Beautiful recap :)

    • Meghan says:

      Karen, thanks! We didn’t actually average 20 miles a day, we fell about 10 miles short of that average over the course of four days because of the weather. Oh wells, what an adventure!

  4. Phil says:

    Sounds like it was a great adventure! Nice pics. Congrats.

  5. It love the pictures. It looks like the trail is fairly well maintained. Did you find that you needed to travel by map / compass at all?

    Also – what type of elevation change did you encounter and where is the closest airport (major).

    Deep Peace

    • Meghan says:

      Hi Jeff, thanks for stopping by!

      In places, the trail was very easy to follow while, in others, it’s a cairned route that requires map-reading abilities. We never needed to use our compass, however, as the places where the trail was less defined was at or above treeline and topography was easy to see.

      The average altitude of the trail is about 11,000 feet above sea level. The middle 25 miles are all above 11,500 feet and treeline. In terms of elevation gain/loss, there are six major masses and several minor ones. The passes all have long, gradual approaches with elevation gains of 1,000 feet over three miles or something similar, then one, stout climb from the approach, to the pass, and back down to the other side’s approach. Over the trail’s 80 miles, I have no idea what the overall amount of climb is. My guess? 15,000 feet of climb and 15,000 feet of decent.

      The closest airport is Salt Lake City. It’s about 90 minutes from the western terminus of the trail and 7 hours from the trail’s eastern terminus.

      Thanks again for your interest!

  6. Jack says:

    Tonight I was searching for information about Leidy peak area, and found this article, its really wonderful, I do like what you guy experienced.

    especially when I read the words you pray for that missing guy, it touch my heart.

    I will plan next year to try this trip.

    Currently I plan to hunt ELK at leidy peak area from 10/7 to 10/14 alone, drive car to the end of that Hacking Lake road, and walk to the red lake, camp there for 5 days alone, hunting, fishing, cooking, reading, counting star at night……….

    Since this is my 1st time into back country and 1st time hunt, I don’t know whether I can survive there, did you by pass that red lake? how difficulty from the end of Hacking lake road to red lake?

    Or, maybe you like to send some information to me, my email address is: dream_land_there@yahoo.com

    • Meghan says:

      Hi Jack, thanks for your comment and I hope you enjoy it out there. The Uintas are such a special place! I wish I could give you good information about the Leidy Peak area, but we concluded our trip at Chepeta Lake, before we made it all the way to Leidy Peak. Thanks again for stopping by and I hope you enjoy the peace and beauty of those mountains!

  7. Oh, Happy Trails! So glad you got to enjoy these trails AND some quality time with Danni. C’est la Vie!

  8. [...] Blog Backpacking the Uinta Mountains’ Highline Trail [...]

  9. [...] MdS training plan. Why 29 weeks? It was based on when in September I was home and recovered from a backpacking trip. I’m rippin’ through week nine now. I’m still running all my miles, save for the [...]

  10. Ryan says:

    I came across this story while researching our backpacking trip to Mt. Agassiz and Spread Eagle Peak next month. Truly an inspiring story, I would like to make this one of our goals for my wife and I to accomplish within the next ten years! At the ending were you grasped the dirt and decided to call it good touched me. I had to call off a peak one time due to lightning, after spending countless hours to reach the saddle (doesn’t match your story ;) ). Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading this!

  11. Jon says:

    Just found this report. I’m planning on doing the Highline Trail this year, with my dad, but starting from the east end. I did it last year by myself. It was a blast! Reading your story brings back all the memories from my own trip. I think I passed you two on my last day, your first or second day, just West of Rock Sea Pass. I think I mentioned something about a slick log going across a river… I could be wrong. Anyway, great report. I enjoyed it.

    • Meghan says:

      Jon, have fun up there this year! I, too, am considering going back again. I lovedlovedloved all that pink-rock scenery. Gosh, did we see you out there? How funny. Were you by yourself and maybe on the east side of Rocky Sea Pass, down in the woods a bit? I can’t quite remember. Thanks for the note.

  12. Dave says:

    Thanks for the report.I am doing the Highline with my son in August from Spirit lake To Mirror lake. I regret that I will have to check my my Man Card at the trail head do to you ladies and your 20 mile days. Im planning on 10. Nice job very inspiring.

    • Meghan says:

      Dave, thanks for writing. I hope you and your son have a fantastic time! The Uintas are burly, wild place. No matter how you approach this trip, how many miles you walk in a day, just being up there is hard core. Enjoy your trip!

  13. Ted says:

    Really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing. We are making the trek this coming week but have struck out on finding a ride to the Hayden Pass Trailhead. Do you have any contact information on people who act as shuttles? Thanks!

    • Meghan says:

      Ted, I wish I had a good shuttle idea for you, but I don’t have first-hand knowledge. Two leads, you could call the Samak Smokehouse (http://samaksmokehouse.com/), which is located about 20 miles from the Highline Trail’s western terminus, and see if they have any ideas on locals who could help. Or, perhaps try the folks who do mountain bike shuttles in the Park City area (http://www.mountainbikeshuttle.com/) to see if they’d do it or have suggestions for someone who could. Good luck to you. I’m eager to hear how the high country is in terms of snow. If you have a chance to stop back by here, I’d love to hear about the trail’s condition! My best to you!

      • Ted says:

        Thank you, Meghan! I will look into those leads and definitely stop back by with an update.

      • Kathryn Erkkila says:

        Hey Ted, Just looking through some info about the Highline trail and came across these two ladies. Usually I wouldn’t throw this out here but I did the PCT in 2004 and many other longer backpacking trips, thus making me want to help others that enjoy doing similar things. I live here in Samak and haven’t done the Highline trail yet (plan on doing it this summer). The reason I am writing…..if you are serious about your trip please contact me and I would love to help out with your shuttle. My email address is wherekat@hotmail.com. Even if you don’t….you should still swing by the smokehouse or The Notch Pub. Both great places with great food!! I may even be working at the bar at the same time!!

  14. Travis says:

    Just stumbled across this, great job! The Highline trail has been a huge goal of mine for years, I’ve been up most of the drainages, but have yet to link them all together. I noticed you said your pack was only 25 lbs, would you mind giving me a quick run down of what you brought? I haven’t backpacked in about 6 years, and am starting to get back into it, and need to update some of my gear. Thank You for the great trip report, sounds like you guys made a great team!

    • Meghan says:

      Hi Travis,

      Thanks for the note. Cool that you want to get back out into the sport again. I love backpacking so much for all the places it can take you! :)

      It’s been a while since we went on this trip, but I’ll share what I remember from the gear we took. I wore the Osprey Talon 33 backpack, slept in a Marmot Helium sleeping bag, slept on a Montbell U.L. Comfort System Pad 150 sleeping pad. Danni and I slept under a the GoLite Shangri-La 2 tarp without the bug netting. After that it was just warm clothing and food!

      I hope this helps and best of luck to you!

  15. Housermania says:

    Meghan,

    I just wanted to drop you a quick note and tell you that I enjoyed your blog about the Highline Trail. My bro and BFF did it a month before you and went from Hacking to Mirror Lake HWY staying on the 025 the entire way. Your blog brought back so many memories because mother nature also spent her time dishing us a butt kicking. You can check out a video on our trip on the link below.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kCbkS4A-d4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    • Meghan says:

      Hello Housermania boys,

      Well, that was a high-energy vid. Thanks for sharing and clearly you enjoyed your trek through the High Uintas! ;) Thanks for stopping by.

  16. MapLover says:

    Meghan,

    Do,you remember the name of the missing man. Was he ever found and where did the flyer say he went missing at? I do not want to scare anyone but I have family within a few miles of the western terminus of the Uintas and it is well known that there are many strange and unsolvable mysteries of missing persons in that particular mountain range. I just finished a book called “Missing 411, Western States” and I must say it is not the safest place for men of any age to hike alone.

  17. Gary says:

    Great trip info and pics.
    I have hiked and backpacked the uintas for over 40 years.
    Pieced together the highline but not done it in one trip.
    Bucket list item.
    If you hear of a group that is doing the highline in sept of 2013
    Please let me know as I would love to go with them.
    Chapeta lake to white rocks lake is semi tree covered trail but white rocks,
    Deadman to hacking lake is in open country with little cover and period of poor weather. So it was a good thing to not continue past chapeta.
    I used to do uinta trail work for the usfs. Horses, atv’s and foot traffic in volume causes trails to degrade like what you saw. The domestic sheep eat plants rights to the dirt in alpine tundra areas, they also ruin the water we must filter or stir pen.

    LA

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