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