Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Summer 2015 Uintas

The Uintas seem to be evolving into "my" mountain range.  There are a lot of places therein that I'd love to see, and for logistical reasons, it's much easier (and cheaper!) for me to get there than any other Rocky Mountain destination, to say nothing of the Sierra Nevada or Cascades, which are quite a bit more difficult.  Also; since I've been there on more than one backpacking trip, I now have more experience there than any other single location.  And the more I get to know them, the more I find it easier to go back there rather than explore somewhere fresh.

Eventually I'll move on.  I have very strong desires to backpack, say, the Teton Crest Trail, see the major sites in the Wind Rivers, do the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Loop in the Elk Mountains, go back to the San Juans (which I also saw as a teenager), hike in the Gros Ventre, Idaho Sawtooth Mountains and the Montana Beartooth Mountains, and many more besides.  I've also got wildly enthusiastic desires to do some other hikes at seasons that aren't compatible with "mountain hiking" season; the Chisos Mountains and other locations in Big Bend National Park, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Canyons of the Escalante area, Zion National Park, the Patagonian Andes, the Southern Alps, the Blue Ridge Mountains, etc.  But for 2015, it seems likely that my efforts will again be in the Uintas.

I tossed around a few itinerary ideas a few days ago, but my ideas have since evolved a bit.  It's early, obviously, so they may change yet again--many times, even--and they may end up even being adapted on the fly, since I certainly learned last summer that that's a totally doable option.

While I'm at it, I'm including an itinerary for a putative third trip to the Uintas, maybe with my next son, who'll be old enough a little bit down the road.  I think concentrating my western end of the Uintas into South and North of the main ridge is a smart strategy; while my central/eastern Uintas is pretty much just coming down from the north (the southern approaches are very long.)  And I may yet, one of these days, through-hike the entire Uinta Highline Trail.  If I do so, it'll be on yet another separate trip, and it's debatable which starting point I'll pick; the Chepeta Lake one (the shortest) which concentrates on the High Uinta Wilderness Area and is the nearest trailhead that allows you to traverse the entire wilderness, the Hacking No 1 Lake in the shadow of Leidy Peak, which is longer, and which is completely contained on one Trails Illustrated map, or the actual beginning of the trail at Hwy 191 north of Vernal.  The eastern High Bollies part of the Uintas is on a separate map, I hear it requires some route-finding and dodgy trail conditions, and lacks much of the scenic drama that comes to the west and central parts of the range, so many hikers clip it in the interest of getting more bang for their hiking buck.  There are other options too, I suppose; but those are the three main options.  I'm currently leaning towards the middle one if I can pull it off.  But that's a discussion for another day.

For the 2015 trip, my itinerary would look like this:

  • Arrive on the Mirror Lake Highway around mid-day of the first day.  Have reservations already in place for a campsite at, maybe, Moosehorn camping area (or Mirror Lake itself if available.)  Set up tent and climb to the trailed summit of Bald Mountain.  Come back down and spend the evening in camp.
  • Spend another full day hiking out to Notch Mountain (not to be confused with Notch Peak, which is in a totally different area of Utah), doing a loop which allows me to hike through the actual notch.  Maybe summit East (or West) Notch.  Keep in mind, that while I like a few summits, I don't want to get into the trap of feeling like summiting is the whole reason that I'm going.  That strikes me as a kind of metrics driven, joyless experience that I want to avoid, and is in fact one of the main reasons I want to get into the wilderness in the first place is to avoid that very attitude.  But a few peaks here and there is fun, a nice accomplishment, and something that I want to share with my kids.  After this, spend the night in the same camp again.
  • Break camp early and set out from the Highline Trailhead, making for Naturalist Basin.  Shouldn't have any trouble getting to either Blue Lake or Faxon Lake before it's too late, and then have plenty of time to explore the basin in the afternoon/evening after camp is established.  Again; peak-bagging?  Aggasiz and Spread Eagle are right there.  Could do one, but not likely that I'd do both; certainly not on the afternoon in which I arrive in the area.  I do want to thoroughly explore the upper bench, however, and the ridge that separates Naturalist from Middle Basin.  This will likely take a day and a half, so my plan is to spend two nights in the same campsite, and not rush myself the first afternoon that I arrive, expecting to do too much in one day.  By the way, between this more thorough exploration of the area and the more brusque exploration I had last year, I'll probably have seen enough of Naturalist that I'm ready to explore other areas from this point on and leave Naturalist alone after that.  Unless I have some unforeseen opportunity to take someone else there that really wants to see it, of course.
  • After two nights in Naturalist, I'll break camp early, head back to the Highline Trail, and rather than heading back west to the trailhead and my car, head east to Rocky Sea Pass.  Following (more or less) the itinerary of Peter Potterfield from Classic Hikes of North America, I'd then spend two nights in Rock Creek Basin, exploring what I can of that enormous and less trammeled area.
  • I've now spent six nights out, and should be close to wrapping up.  If I can swing one more destination out of the trip, I'd head back early the next morning to the car and get to the East Fork Blacks Fork trailhead, where I can do one more rather ambitious loop.  Taking the Bald Mountain trail (no relation to the other Bald Mountain mentioned on day 1) I'd see if, depending on how long it takes me to get back to the car and get my car to the new trailhead, I can make it all the way to the Red Castle area for the next night, where I'd set up camp by one of the three Red Castle Lakes.  Most likely I'd stay on the trail, but there's also an interesting possibility of doing a significant ridge walk from Bald Mountain's summit all the way to "Squaw Mountain", i.e. Peak 12,990, and from there down to Upper Red Castle Lake to set up camp.  Of course, ridge walks are a bit iffy, especially when you're trying to do them in the afternoon, when the weather in the Rockies can turn nasty, so I also have the option of sticking to the trail if it feels smarter.
  • From Upper Red Castle Lake, there's an off-trail route (or perhaps an old trail that's fallen into disuse) that allows you to cross a lowish pass and end up just to the west of Porcupine Pass, where you can rejoin the Highline Trail.  From here, an above treeline hike of several miles past Lambert Meadows and Mount Lovenia takes you to Red Knob Pass.  This gives me the opportunity to turn onto Trail 102, the East Fork Black Forks Trail.  But I'd probably want to set up camp one more time before getting too far along this trail, and then early the next morning, climb up to "Wasatch Benchmark", or Peak 13,156 and gaze the the wonder of Tokewanna.  There's another ridge walk potential here; from "Wasatch Benchmark" I can continue on the ridge to "Northwest Wasatch" (13,039) and on to Tokewanna itself, where there's a gentle northeast ridge that heads back down towards the trail.  This avoids prolonged hiking in the trees where I can't see anything.  I could also, of course, go up the ridge of "Wasatch BM" a ways, take a good look at the scenery from that vantage point, and then just come back down and bushwhack through the open meadow slash alpine tundra that rings the ridge rather than heading lower into the trees.  Either way, by the end of this day, I'm back at my car and heading towards Vernal, my backpacking experience behind me.  
If all of this were to pan out, that ends up being two nights in the Bald Mountain area, two nights in Naturalist, two nights in Rock Creek and two nights on the final loop.  Do I really have eight nights to spend?  Not sure.  That's a long trip.  And as I discovered last summer, I might get tired of it before I spend that much time, especially if I'm not sleeping well, not having good weather, or otherwise just get done before I'm done.  If that ends up being the case, I'd rather cut the Rock Creek stuff out instead of the last leg, but of course, we'll see what ends up happening.  Lots of variables could conspire to change my plan.  A perhaps better (although optimistic) way to shorten the trip by a day or two is if I have a good day when I arrive in Naturalist and see more of it than I expected, I can leave the next day.  I could also cut Rock Creek Basin short, spend a day and half in it, and then start hiking back, making camp at Scudder Lake just a mile or two from the trailhead.  This would also make it much easier to get an early enough start to the last leg of my trip that I can actually hope to maybe do the ridge walk and get to the Red Castle area before it's too late.  But I might feel rushed in Naturalist and Rock Creek.  I'd have to play that by ear.

For fun, here's an image I got on GIS of Tokewanna from, it appears, the summit of "Wasatch Benchmark."
What a clear sky!

My next completely separate trip would be a "northern basins" feature, and would have me (potentially) going back to Hell Hole and getting, if not to the summits of Kletting and/or A-1, then at least up in the saddle between them, as well as Middle Basin, and Allsop Lake, probably by making that one a loop and crossing over to Priord Lake for the way back.  If I still have time after that, I'd do my long-delayed Henry's Fork Basin trip as a finisher for that trip, and see about the summit of King's Peak, the highest in Utah.

This all still leaves me plenty to do in the Uintas.  But by the time I've done both of these big trips (or broken them up into components and rearranged them, if it comes to that) I'll probably be anxious to do something else and see somewhere else anyway.  Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado all have destinations that call as loudly as Utah, and some day I've got lots to see in California, Oregon and Washington too.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Naturalist Basin

Prior to posting my own trip report (and poor photographs); I thought I'd link to this image gallery.  From the looks of it, he did the same trip I did, including stopping at Scudder Lake, ringing Jordan Lake by taking the right hand fork in the Naturalist Basin, and then climbing up to Shaler and Faxon Lakes.

Then he did more than I did, by getting up on the ridge separating Mount Agassiz and Spread Eagle Peak, and taking a bunch of pictures from the ridge.  Then he went further along the bench to the Morat Lakes and Blue Lake.  I never got quite that far; I headed for Blue Lakes twice from the floor of Naturalist Basin, but the first time I lost the trail and turned around.  The second time, I found the trail, but was pretty beat and gave up climbing up to the bench rather than continuing on to Blue Lake.  Regrets, regrets!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

For next summer: an epic variation

So, I talked in my last post about a loop from Bald Mountain into Red Castle Basin, an ascent over the passes and west into Little East Fork.

Here's a link to a description of that particular route.

On the other hand, this route here, proposes a ridgeline hike up above Red Castle basin (on the ridge just to the west) which is supposedly an easy walk, also returning via Little East Fork.

It occurs to me, though, that I could combine elements of the two of these.  Go to Red Castle via the first route, and return back to the trailhead via the ridge-walk.  This also gives the benefit that, assuming a two-day trip, you do the ridge-walk early enough in the day to avoid the most likely time of day for bad weather.

You avoid doing the Little East Fork part of the hike, but on the other hand, you get some great, expansive views on both legs of the trip of vast alpine tundra.  I'm seriously considering making this combination of these two routes the final leg of my Uintas trip next summer.  I really like this.

And check out the views, on the page linked here, of the ridgeline hike.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Next summer's trip

I really need to do the "final" chapter of my trip report, up to Naturalist Basin with three nights out (Scudder Lake, Jordan Lake and back at Scudder Lake) and four days, including on the last day, a lot of touring of the Mirror Lake Highway and seeing stuff that I didn't necessarily "hike."  But first, a word on my plans for next year, and a barrage of pictures which I didn't take, but which I've collected over the years from online.

My hope was to go to the Sawtooths with a local friend of mine who grew up in Idaho and hiked the region as a teenager himself.  Due to vacation constraints, it looks like it won't happen.  I'll have to do my own trip, and I won't be able to do it exactly when I'd like to--I'll most likely have to go early in July (actually starting in the last few days of June.)  My hope is that snowfall at the end of the season will be low, but even if it's average, I'll still be pretty good.  In fact, I'll get to see mountains with snow on them--not blanketing them, but providing a patchwork, dramatic contrast in colors with rocks and patches of snow.  I'm actually thinking that this might be a great time to go, but of course, it depends on the snow level at the end of the season, which I can't predict until we get to June, really.

Due to the same constraints that made the Uintas convenient last year, I'll probably go there again.  But I want to do them a little bit differently.  See different areas, and accomplish a few of the things that I ended up writing off last time.  And, this time around, I'd like to bring one of my sons; Alex will turn 14 at the very end of the summer (actually it's extremely early in the autumn, but close enough) so he's big and capable enough to carry his own pack and walk all day, scramble up passes and maybe even a few peaks, and whatnot.

Here's my draft itinerary:

  • First day I'll arrive around mid-day on the Mirror Lake.  Get my week-long car pass and a campsite near Bald Mountain in the "official" camping area, rather than in the wilderness per se.  Climb Bald Mountain to the summit (there's a trail that goes from a parking area on the flanks right up to the summit block.)
  • Move the car early in the morning to the Highline Trail parking area and plunge into the wilderness area.  Walk to Naturalist, go farther than I did previously, and set up camp in one of the secluded areas near Faxon Lake up on the bench.  Depending on the time, do some exploring of Naturalist.  If it's late, I'll save that for the next day.  My goal is to spend two nights in the same campsite and wander in the basin for at least a full day.  Might summit Agassiz and/or Spread Eagle Peaks, but if I don't, I'll at least get up on the ridge between them so I can see them up close, look down over Naturalist Basin, and then turn around and look out over Middle Basin.
  • Pack up and head back to the car.  From this point on, I have a few options.  If I can squeeze it in, I'd like to do one of the following three minor trips:
    • Actually, the first option doesn't mean going to the car, it means leaving Naturalist Basin and going over Rocky Sea Pass into the Rock Creek Basin.  Get there and set up camp.  Spend an entire day exploring the Rocky Creek Basin, and then a second night in the same campsite.  Then pack up and head to the car.
    • Take the East Fork Bear River trailhead.  There's a fork in the trail, and I've love to explore either of them for two nights--the west fork goes between Lamotte on the west and The Cathedral on the east, where the east form puts the Cathedral on the west and the Beulah/Allsop ridge on the east, and goes to Yard Peak.
    • Take the East Fork Blacks Fork trailhead, and head southwest to the Red Knob basin, with Wasatch Peak, Red Knob Peak and Mount Lovenia.  Climb up to Red Knob Pass and look over the high views into the basin beyond.  Again; this would be a two night sub-trip.
  • My last subtrip is extremely ambitious.  I might end up scaling it back.  The most ambitious version of the trip looks like this:
    • Park (again) at East Fork Blacks Fork (a prime motivator for doing the third of the three options listed above.  Plus, it's outside of the fee use area, so if I'm bumping up on the timing of my pass, I can park here where no pass is required) and head east to Bald Mountain (no relation to the other Bald Mountain mentioned above.)  From here, try to get to Red Castle basin for the night, and enjoy the scenery around Red Castle.  The next day, head up over Smiths Fork Pass, connect with the Highline Trail, and walk by King's Peak to camp in Henry's Fork Basin near King's Peak.  I probably won't have time to summit this day, so I'll do it the next morning, then pack up and head back.  Can I hoof it all the way to the car and get back to Vernal in an afternoon?  That might be iffy (I told you this was the ambitious plan) so I may need to spend another night in Henry's Fork Basin to pull this off.
    • The less ambitious plan is to not try to squeeze Red Castle and King's Peak slash Henry's Fork Basin into one trip, and just do one of the two of them.  This is really more realistic and more likely.  But we'll see.  I can decide on the fly, really, if I need to.  If I do the latter, I'd probably move the car even further east to the China Meadows or Henry's Fork trailhead.  The latter might not be desirable if I'm in the middle of the July 4th 3-day weekend, as it'll be slammed with weekender summitting folks.  However, it's more likely by now that I'll be leaving the weekend and heading into the first days of the next week.  If so, then I should have much lighter crowds.  The Henry's Fork Basin and route to King's Peak itself is one of the few places in the Uintas that regular has a big crowd, although Four Lakes, Naturalist and a few other basins can occasionally get a few folks as well.
I'd love to have some time while there to summit Timpanogos, but I'm sure that I won't unless I scratch one of the Uinta subtrips.  Oh, well.  Timpanogos will always be there.  One of these years I'll plan specifically on doing stuff in the Wasatch Front and not do the Uintas.  That might be easier when I've got kids going to school out west, which won't be too far from now, really.

Here's a few images of some of these destinations.  Just for inspiration.
Ostler Peak with a little snow.

Mid-Uintas basin--I can't remember off-hand which one this is, but it's in the general vicinity of Allsop Lake and Lamotte Peak, The Cathedral, Mount Beulah, etc.  EDIT:  Did some research.  This it the approach to Allsop Lake on the so-called Left Fork East Fork Bear River Basin.  Yes, that really is the name.  The big peak on the right is Yard Peak (also seen below) and the peaks on the left are the ramparts of "Dead Horse Peak".  The Cathedral is just out of frame on the right (you can see some of it's cliffy slopes) and the vantage point is on the scree slopes of Beulah... but not too far up.

Mount Agassiz and McPheters Lake with some lingering snow (how much snow I'd like to still see when I go, frankly.)

Henry's Fork Basin with King's Peak as the small pyramid in the background in the center.

View to the right of the picture above, also in Henry's Fork Basin.

Self-explanatory.  The same view as above, but closer up and later in the year, with all snow melted away.

A very late season approach to King's Peak, with a light dusting of new September snow.

Red Castle, with all the surrounding mountains lost to perspective, making it look like a lone structure.  Beautiful.

Red Knob Pass and the basin.

Yard Peak from high on the slopes.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sleeping bags

Found a 30° mummy bag that is about the same weight as the Kelty Cosmic Down, but half the price: Cabela's Evader 30°.  Reviews suggest that it is fairly true to its temperature rating.

Along with the base layers, warm "beanie" hat and wool socks, that should be a nice, comfortable bag, and not really much larger in size than what I carried in the Uintas.

I continue my goal of effective lightweight backpacking without buying really expensive gear.  This seems like a good pick; even without sale prices, it's going for about $90 (vs. $170 for the Kelty).  If I can find it late in the winter season or in the spring on sale.

If I take my next hike without a stove, I can save almost $100 from my budget of items that need picking up, but I'll need to spend, without question, about $200-250 on some gear improvements, no matter what.  This will include new shoes, a new sleeping bag, a new pillow.

Friday, October 24, 2014


I kinda sorta wanted to see the movie Wild coming up soon.  I "follow" the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) on facebook, so I've seen lots of promotional propaganda about it.

I tried to read the book, believing it to be a book about hiking the PCT.  It turns out, of course, that it's a book about a fundamentally unlikable person dealing with the totally predictable consequences of a string of really terrible choices that she's made, and her coming to peace with them.  It would be one thing if it were an actual repentance and redemption type story, but it's not.  It's just coming to peace with what you've done wrong, and the quixotic acceptance of your mistakes as "essential" for getting you to where you are in a given moment.  A strange, perverted sense of nirvana, certainly.

Of course, not strange enough to prevent SJWs, feminists and others from swooning with delight at a celebration of perversity. I gave the book up in disgust after about 20-25% and wondered how in the world it came so highly recommended before discovering that it was a darling of the Oprah book club.  No wonder.  She still wasn't even hiking yet.

That said, I was kind of hoping that I could still watch the movie for the scenery, if nothing else, hoping that I could somehow manage to force myself not to retch and gag on the ridiculous premise of a ridiculous person (who, let's not forget, is actually a real person, and these are actually real events.  Just tragic.)  However, since the movie will be rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language, I won't.


Hell Hole Basin

My initial plan had three separate hiking trips into the Uintas, separated by a return to my car and a drive to a new trailhead.  I ended up canceling the third trip after an exhausting evening with no sleep, which caught up to me after several nights of poor sleep--next time I'll be sure and remember that bringing some sleeping pills, some kind of lightweight inflatable pillow and a sleeping bag liner (or a warmer bag) is essential!  I did, however, take the first two trips, although the second one was slightly abbreviated from what I had initially intended.  I also summitted no peaks or high passes, as it turned out, and other than some sidehill scrambling near Kletting Peak and some off-trail exploring of the alpine tundra on the high bench of Naturalist Basin near Faxon and Shaler lakes, I spent too little time in the truly high places of the mountains, otherwise spending my time in the forested basin floor on trails.  I have some regrets about wimping out on a few of my goals and not accomplishing them, but at the same time, I need to go back with a few improvements to my gear, some improvements to my training and fitness, certainly some better shoes that give me a bit of ankle support to scramble over loose scree fields with more confidence, and a few other minor improvements to my kit and program.

I'm also divided in my mind on the merits of summits, to be perfectly honest.  It strikes me as setting the kind of metrics, objectives and goals that you take vacations in the wilderness to get away from, at least to a certain extent.  You can get equally good views without going all the way to the summit; a good high pass or ridge might even give you better views in may respects than summit views.  A lot of backpackers fall victim to this mentality, not just with regards to "peakbagging" but with regards to miles hiked per day, weight saved in your pack, and other considerations that have only marginal utility if your ultimate goal is to go out in the wilderness and relax, enjoy yourself, forget about things like the time, the exact date, and all of the metrics-based lifestyle that we've unfortunately saddled ourselves with.  But on the other hand, without goals, you accomplish very little, and summitting a peak or two here and there is certainly a satisfying experience.  And some passes and ridges; if you're up there anyway, are close enough to the peaks that it'd be silly not to take a little bit of extra time to finish the job and stand on the summit block for a little while.

In any case, my goal for sometime in the next couple of years or so is to make it back to the Uintas and do--more or less--the trip I originally planned, without compromises, with some of my boys, and with any luck, with slightly better weather (I was a bit thwarted in my desire by rarely having much sunlight or clear views.  Lots of clouds.  A fair bit of rain, although the only heavy rain was the last night that kept me up.)  I may not summit Agassiz or Spread-Eagle or "Henry's Fork Peak" or whatever, but I hope to summit King's Peak at least, and get up on the ridge between Agassiz and Spread Eagle, and look out over Naturalist and Middle Basins at the same time.  I might even spend a night in one of the non-wilderness campsites along the Mirror Lake Highway, and summit Bald Mountain (which has a maintained trail all the way to the summit, actually) while I'm at it.

But enough about what I'm going to do next time.  This time, I started off by driving from my sister-in-law and her husband's place in Vernal, UT to the Mirror Lake Highway, which took most of the morning.  I stopped in at the ranger station, got a parking/use pass for a few bucks, and left my car at the small parking area near the gate with the closed forest service road to start a first hike to Hell Hole Basin, with Hell Hole Lake in the shadow of Kletting and A-1 peaks, which I had half a mind to summit while I was at it.  I started my day off in a light drizzle, and was treated to off-and-on light rain most of the rest of the day, along with the sound of somewhat distant thunder here and there.

That afternoon, I had to hike 3-4 miles along a forest service road (that has been closed to vehicular traffic for some time) going steadily but relatively easily uphill until getting to the actual trailhead, which was somewhat discretely hidden behind a little hill.  Once on the actual trail, there was a register.  A party of three horse riders had come in (and left again) three days prior to my use of the trail, and unless someone came and went without signing in (which certainly wouldn't be unheard of; I'm a bit wary myself of freely giving information to a federal government agency about my comings and goings) I had the entire place to myself for the entirety of this hike.  I tend to believe that that's true.  I certainly didn't see any sign of anyone else having been there terribly recently.

From this point, I had another 3-4 mile hike, all uphill, to the cirque at the end of the hanging valley between Kletting and A-1 peaks and the ridges that lead up to them.  This was not a very well-maintained trail, and clearly gets relatively little use compared to other trails that I hiked later in the trip (such as the Highline Trail, or the spur that leads to Naturalist Basin and Jordan Lake.)  A friend of mine who lives not too far away from where I was hiking had also given me the heads-up via Facebook that there had been some really gnarly weather in the area in the week or two before I arrived.  I saw evidence of this; the trail also had some clearly pretty freshly downed deadfall, often blocking the trail.  Honestly, if the horses hadn't come by a few days earlier, leaving prints and spoor that I could follow, I might have struggled a bit to make sure that I was on the trail.  That said, with or without the trail, I couldn't have gone too far astray as the way up the hanging valley is blocked in by ridges on both sides that you could hardly cross without realizing it.  Along with the stream babbling its way through the bottom of the valley, my capacity to get actually lost was pretty minimal.

One thing to keep in mind is just how exactly freaking high the Uintas are right from the get-go.  The trailhead where I parked my car was just under10,000 feet.  My destination for the evening was nearer to 11,000.  The peaks around me were both over 12,000 (although as I said, I never got completely to the top.  Got within a few hundred feet, though, most of the way up the ridge.)  It didn't take long for this to tell on me, and my low elevation acclimatization.  By the time I arrived at Hell Hole Lake, it was raining, I had some seriously uncomfortable altitude sickness, and I was pretty beat--6-7 or so miles in a single afternoon is a pretty long hike to start off with.  I'd had to book it to get there before dark, and really barely made it.  Luckily, a decent night's sleep and some Excedrin with caffeine cleared up the altitude sickness just fine by the next morning.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?

One odd and annoying aspect of Hell Hole Basin, at least the days that I was there, was that it was riddled with sheep carcasses.  I don't know why the sheep were dead, but I saw at least half a dozen dead sheep, in various stages of decomposition, scattered around the basin.  Proximity of dead carcasses to the semi-developed campsites made them undesirable, so I had to press on a little farther to find a small "island" in the midst of a marshy basin floor.  It was dry, sheltered and secluded, but extremely rocky, making for a somewhat uncomfortable evening, even with my pad.  I saw the ranger a few days later and they remembered me.  I gave them a heads-up that there was some significant trail blockage and a bunch of dead sheep in the area, so I think someone probably went up within a few days to have a look and hopefully help clear it out.

Although the rangers told me that there was a (very small) population of black bears in the Uintas, I know for a fact that hanging your food is a recent practice, and most hikers had not done so and been fine for years on end in the area.  I didn't want to take the chance, but for this first night in Hell Hole, with a pounding headache, steady cold rain, and at least half a dozen tempting sheep carcasses probably making a more delectable target than my backpack, I didn't--I just stuck my pack under a small stand of pine trees and put the rain cover over it, set up my tent as quickly as I could, and crashed early.

I woke up to a sunnier morning (that sadly only lasted until about noon, if that) and felt much better.  I took a few Excedrin for good measure and decided to make an attempt on the peaks.  Unfortunately, although A-1 peak was fairly easy to identify, Kletting was not--from my perspective inside the basin, it was hard to tell which high point on the ridge was actually the peak, and I misread my orientation slightly, assuming that I was further along the more or less north-south ridge than I actually was.  I bushwhacked through the forest towards what I thought was the peak and quickly started scrambling up the fairly steep scree slope.  Scree, if you don't know, is made up of loose piled rocks and small boulders--much looser, sometimes than they seem.  I got fairly high up, near the top of the ridge, before it became quite obvious that I was not aiming for the actual peak, but for a smaller subpeak further north than I thought I was.  I decided that I could probably side-hill along the side of the ridge until I was within range of the peak and find a good route to the top from there.

In this I was a bit frustrated as well; the scree slope was much more difficult to navigate successfully than I had thought, and I found myself slipping several times, twice even nearly twisting my ankle when it got caught in a rock that fell out from under my feet.  I cliffed out twice and tried to go up and over the cliffs to continue forward.  From the highest vantage point before I quit, I could see the route that I had intended to follow (I had read some pretty good beta on Summit Post before coming) but having misjudged my position by about a mile or so, the only way I was going to get there was to go down all the way back to the forest, bushwhack towards the small un-named tarn that I could see from my new vantage point, and then climb the ridge at that point which headed towards the saddle between the peaks.  And frankly, after my near misses, I wasn't in the mood to deal with more scree just then.  Heck, just getting down from where I was was going to prove easier said than done.  Somewhat reluctantly, I decided to abandon my peaks and head down so that I could pack up my campsite and hike several miles back to my car, get to the next trailhead and find a decent place to set up camp the next night, and I was feeling decidedly pressed for time.  This is, again, in retrospect part of the problem with setting aggressive goals and metrics and hard deadlines for where you have to be.  What I should have done is just stayed another night in Hell Hole and gone on to Naturalist the next day instead.  Especially since I ended up dropping the third of my hikes entirely, I actually had much more time than I thought I would have had this early in the trip.  But I didn't know that yet, I only knew that I had a lot of places to be and only so much time to be there, and I wasn't yet prepared to even consider the notion that I'd lop off portions of my plan

When I wasn't worried about twisting my ankle, or exactly how I was going to proceed, I quite enjoyed the scramble up the ridge, and the views I had when I was near the top of it.  What I kind of wish now that I had done was deciding that after abandoning my summit attempt, I'd still at least have made it to the top of the ridge and looked over the other side at the basin on the other side.  Granted, I would have seen the Mirror Lake Highway on that side, but it still would have been a great view.  Another missed opportunity.  I discovered also that my first trip in a long time, and the first one that I planned and undertook on my own, that I needed to experiment a bit, find out what worked, find out what didn't work, and learn from my mistakes.  For me, not really getting some high ridgeline views was a mistake, even though foregoing the summits of the peaks themselves was not.

Anyhoo, I came down.  Ripped a nice hole in the seat of my pants on the rocks as I descended, so before I took down my camp, I sat on a rock without any pants on fixing them somewhat.  But, like I said, nobody was around for miles.  I could have sat there stark naked and it wouldn't have made any difference (probably would have been a bit cool though, as the clouds came back out and it started to drizzle off and on again shortly.  The wind picked up too.)  I'd like to go back again and take a little bit more time with this area.  Camping in the actual campsites would be much more comfortable, and now that I've been there, I can convert the beta I read to actual useful information by heading straight for the correct saddle and making my way up to it.  From there, would I go on and summit Kletting and A-1?  Maybe.  I'll play it by ear.  Frankly, from the saddle, I don't know that I'd need to.  I'd have great views of two basins from there, as well as a sea of peaks.

After fixing my pants I put them back on, packed up my campsite and hiked back to the car.  I ended up making it with plenty of time to find the next trailhead and get to Scudder Lake for the next night.  Ideally, I'd have spent a second night in Hell Hole Basin, climbed and explored the basin the entire second day, and then packed up and left even earlier in the day, but on the third day.  From there, I could have made it further than Scudder Lake--maybe to Packard Lake or even Jordan Lake.  Although the Scudder Lake campsite was a nice one.

But first... let me take a selfie.  I didn't wear the rain jacket long.  My clothes were quick drying and the rain was really light.  And with all the uphill, I appreciated it keeping me just a little bit cool, honestly.
A glimpse of A-1 and my destination from the forest service road that I had to hike on first.
After already hiking 4-5 miles on the dirt road, seeing this relatively obscure trailhead was a little odd.  Once I got around the little dirt hill there, though, the trail was fairly obvious.  It didn't necessarily remain so throughout the hike!
Recent deadfall completely covering the trail, which you can kinda sorta see running through the middle of this picture.
The Uintas are not undergoing any additional uplift anymore; the only geologic activity they see is weathering and erosion.  Because of this, this is what they look like; completely covered with scree, rocks and boulders, even at the lower elevation where it's mixed in with soil.
Arrival at Hell Hole lake in a light rain.  This is Kletting Peak; A-1 loomed even more impressively just to the left of this shot.
A-1 Peak over the lake, with overcast skies and drizzle making the whole thing look rather washed out in pictures.  Of course, the crappy cheap camera that I brought with me didn't help much there either.  I was worried that I'd lose or break a better camera, so that's another significant regret.  Should've brought a better camera.  Oh, well.  Yet another lesson learned.
If this looks like a poor and uncomfortable campsite... well, it was.  But least I didn't have to share it with any dead sheep.
Kletting the next morning.  This was about the point where I was 100% sure that I'd made for the wrong peak on the ridge.  You can also see the small unnamed lake just below the patch of trees there.  This is also the route that I should have taken up to the saddle between Kletting and A-1 (again; immediately to the left of this shot.)
The false summit that I mistakenly believed to be Kletting for a while.
Looking the other direction (mostly towards the north) you can see how steep the scree slope is and why it was so difficult to side-hill along a nearly 45° slope.
Cliffing out trying to get back on track towards Kletting.  I tried one more time to go up and over this cliff to get around it (rather than go back down and lose all the work that I'd done to get this far) but it was shortly after this that I realized that I was going to have to call it quits for the day if I was to stick to any reasonable facsimile of my original schedule. You can also see the route I should have taken and the small unnamed lake that should have been my guide-post even better in this pic.  I actually didn't quit until I had gone up and come around above these cliffs.
Coming straight down a 45° scree slope can be hazardous to your pants...
Near the end of the second day's hike, almost back at my car, I had fresh run out of water and got to try out for the first time my UV water purification system on water from this here river.  Ahhh.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gear to replace

I like my lists, as you may (or may not) have noticed.  Following my Uintas hike, I've now made a smaller list of gear that I need to replace, either because I did the Uintas hike without it, or because I did the Uintas hike with it and it didn't work as well as I'd hoped.  Next summer--most likely, Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho with a friend of mine and some of his teenaged boys.  I'll take my son with me, who'll be just shy of 14 years old by then; perfect age and size (presumably) to carry a real, full-sized backpack and gear.  Of course, we'll be able to share some stuff--tent, stove, etc. but he'll need to shoulder nearly a full load of stuff just for him.

Need to be replaced

  • Shoes.  I don't really want to go back into the mountains without mid-height shoes.  Besides, by nearly a year from now, my existing shoes will have significantly more wear and tear on them.  Right now, probably looking at some Keen or Merrell $100 light hikers like the Moab Ventilator or the Kovens.  If I'm OK spending a few bucks more, I might have a look at either some New Balance 703s or the Cabela's XPG Hikers.
  • Sleeping bag.  The bag I had was too light.  Wasn't warm enough.  I need to pick up something like a Kelty Cosmic Down bag.
  • Camera.  I didn't like the camera I used at all.  I need a new one, or to at least bring one of our newer, better ones when I go.  I'd like to have my own backpacking camera ideally, though.
  • Compass.  My compass got eaten/dissolved by a leaky DEET bottle.  These are cheap, though.
  • Permethrin.  I'll need to retreat my clothes.  My existing treatment's probably already worn off, or will be shortly.
  • Map.  Needless to say, my Wasatch and Uintas maps won't be much use in the Sawtooth Mountains.
Would LIKE to replace... but don't need to
  • Stove.  I don't have one.  If I plan on cooking anything without mooching off the stove of my friend, I'll need to pick up a JetBoil Zip Cooking system.  This also includes a fuel canister (sold separately) of course.
  • A lighter and some kind of scrubbing pad.  Cheap.  No biggie.
  • Pillow.  I was quite uncomfortable.  Inflatable pillows ain't cheap, though--the Exped Air Pillow is $40 bucks; $50 for the size I'd rather take.
  • Tent.  Although I wasn't unhappy with my tent, really... I'd still love to get something like a Eureka Midori 2, or the Cabela's XPG 2-person.  Probably won't, though.  Too much money.  I do still need to outfit my son too, after all.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gear experiments

Before I post details of the actual hiking in the Uintas that I did, I thought I'd take stock and talk about some of my "gear experiments" and how well they worked--or didn't.

  • Cheap vs. expensive specialty.  For the most part, I avoided expensive specialty gear from pricey brand-names like Mountain Hardware, REI, First Ascent, Marmot,  etc.  I bought my backpack in the Meijier sporting goods section for $50 fer cryin' out loud.  My conclusion, primarily, is that brand doesn't matter.  I was perfectly happy with my pack, my headlight, my sleeping pad, etc. even though they cost only a fraction of the expensive gear recommended by Backpacker Magazine (who, of course, pays their bills by advertising for backpacking gear suppliers.)  There were, however, a few notable exceptions.
  • 50L backpack plus a "fanny pack" for items I wanted to have more on hand--a lot of folks will tell you that a 50L pack for a longish expedition is pretty small.  I did OK, though--and I really liked the fanny pack addition to keep stuff handy.  I will admit that if I'd been backpacking in an area where I needed a bear canister, I'd probably have been in trouble without a 65-70L pack, though.  I kept my needs a little light by never planning on spending more than 4-5 nights out without returning to my car and moving to a new trailhead--conveniently reloading my pack while I'm at it.
  • Permethrin treated clothes.  Not sure.  I didn't get bit by any mosquitoes or ticks, certainly, but that may well be because I was there when the mosquito season was more or less over, too.  I'd like to try this experiment again.  I brought some 100% DEET spray in a pump bottle as a backup.  It ended up leaking in my pack and ruining some of my gear, by essentially starting to dissolve and destroy the plastic.  I'm not keen on bringing more again.  I'd also like to get the "real" Permethrin treated clothes; the way that bug-proof clothing actually does it, instead of the backpackers permethrin, which wears off quickly.
  • No cook food.  I'd make a few changes to my food, but not many.  This worked out well.  I was certainly tired of eating the same stuff day after day, but then again, I appreciated not having the weight of a backpackers stove, or worrying about having to prepare anything.  Most likely I will by a Jetboil Zip cooking system before I go backpacking again, but not because this particular experiment was a failure.
  • Lightweight sleeping bag with hat and base layers.  This didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.  Not because the concept is bad, but because I should have known that a 40° bag for $35 that actually performed as advertised was too good to be true.  I was cold every night; at least a little.  Next time around, I'll pick up a Kelty Cosmic Down sleeping bag--about the cheapest of the "nice" sleeping bags, and use that.  It'll probably take up a little bit more space, but not much, luckily.  Having a small sleeping bag is an important consideration.  Speaking of sleeping well, I'll also bring sleeping pills and some kind of inflatable pillow.  The worst part of my trip was not sleeping as well as I'd want, and not feeling rested the next day.  Without that, I could have had fun for several more days than I actually ended up doing.
  • Athletic shoes instead of hiking boots.  This was another mixed success.  For the most part, I enjoyed having lightweight, comfortable shoes that didn't need any breaking in.  However, it's important to note that this hiking advice was developed in the Pacific Crest Trail by through-hikers.  The PCT is famously a smooth, easy trail for walking on.  The Appalachian Trail, by contrast, is notoriously rocky, which leads to more sore feet if the soles of your shoes aren't sufficiently hard, and more possibility for turning or twisting an ankle in low-cut shoes.  Start wandering off-trail, especially in a place like the Uintas where above tree-line has a mass of loose rocks, and your possibility for an ankle injury goes up dramatically.  I spent some time on steep scree slopes, and I did not feel secure in my ability to withstand ankle injuries.  My shoes ended up being a limiting factor that contributed to my lack of success (and later, lack of attempts) on any of the summits in the Uintas.  Of course, it's not a false binary--$35 athletic shoes at J.C. Penny's (what I ended up spending) or $300 Asolo boots, of course.  For my next excursion, I'd like to split the difference, and get some high-top hiking shoes of an athletic variety.  I mentioned earlier some Cabela's XPG mid-hikers as a strong contender for what I'd like.  New Balance also has some that are about the same price, and another pair that are even cheaper (albeit also lower--but probably high enough to protect my ankles if they start to roll a little.)
  • I'm also going to ditch the rain pants.  I didn't get any really hard rain, but even if I had, I think the Frog Toggs jacket would have been sufficient.  My hiking clothes are sufficiently quick drying that I'm not worried about sitting around wet and catching hypothermia or anything like that.  To be honest with you, I didn't even use the jacket except for a brief moment the first day--it was sprinkling when I started out.  I ended up putting the jacket away after about 45 minutes or so of walking and never got it out again, even when I got caught in some other rain storms.  But like I said, I never ended up hiking in any really strong, hard rain either.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff National Monument

Last time I posted, I was all packed and ready to go.  I've now been back home for almost a month.  Time to start talking a bit about my trip!

I road-tripped to the Rockies from my home in the northern Midwest.  One advantage to this was that I could see things on the way.  I stopped for the first night of driving in mid-Nebraska.  It occurred to me that if I got off the interstate, I wasn't really going very far out of my way to see Scott's Bluff; a location I'd always wanted to see both because it's kinda fun and scenic, and because it's historical, as a pivotal location on three pioneer trails; the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Mormon Pioneer Trail.  Not only did I stop at a few historical markers in Hwy 92 (namely Ancient Bluff Ruins and the Brigham Young North Platte River crossing site) but what I really stopped for and got out and walked a bit were at Chimney Rock and the National Monument itself.  Chimney Rock doesn't have any maintained trails, but there is a small visitor center.  If you continue past the visitor center to the small dirt road to the right, you can go to a small turnaround, where there is a use trail (i.e., not maintained, but developed by persistent use) that heads to the base of the monument.

I didn't follow this trail all the way to its conclusion.  Not expecting it to be there, I wasn't really dressed for it, namely I was wearing shorts and the trail is thin and marches through unmowed thick prairie grass.  I did walk far enough to take some pretty decent pictures of the rock itself, and it looks like it continued all the way to the base of the rock were there is a small marker or some sort.  I'd really like to get back to the spot again (maybe with my family; showing them some history as well as some scenery to boot is always a worthwhile activity, right?) and walk all the way up to the marker, at least.  Just need to remember to wear long pants!
Chimney Rock approach.  I didn't have any camera batteries, sadly, at the time, so I had to take pictures with digital zoom on my phone, which are poor quality.  Sorry!

The scenery behind the rock.

More scenery behind Chimney Rock.  If you panned your view about a quarter turn to the right, Chimney Rock would be more or less centered directly in front of you.

Chimney Rock while approaching it on foot.

Closer up view.  You can just see the small marker at the base of the rock.  Unfortunately, as I said above, I didn't get much closer to it than this.
My stop at Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff National Monument was a bit constrained; although I started the morning pretty early, I had to finish this part of the trip and get back on the interstate before it got too late, because I was due at my sister-in-law's house later in the evening on the eastern end of the Uinta Mountains.  If I'd had long pants, I would have walked at least as far as the small marker you can see in the image above, but I didn't, so I turned around and came back quickly to I could proceed a few more miles into Gering, NE and from there to the Monument.

Scott's Bluff National Monument is relatively small.  There's a road that runs straight through it, and a small visitors' center.  From there, you can park your car and hike up to the top of the bluff itself, where there are a few smaller loop trails.  Or, if you're in a rush, you can drive up to a parking area near the top of the bluff and take the loop trails from there.  Because I was concerned about time, I drove to the top, but as it turned out, I hiked almost all of the way down the trail and back up again.  Next time around, I'll probably not even bother with driving to the top.

The entrance.
Either way, you can see most of what there is to see in just a couple of hours or so.  Scott's Bluff is not a pristine wilderness, it's a few hiking trails on a large rock formation next to two small but attractive little towns, surrounded by a vast sea of prairie.  From the top, you can easily see Gering and Scottsbluff, the two towns, as well as the North Platte River, a few other more distant rock formations (including Chimney Rock), and on extremely clear days, some of the distant mountains of Wyoming across the border.
Mormon handcart replica.

Famous view of Eagle Rock and the wagon replica.
Eagle Rock and a different wagon.

The wagon, but instead of Eagle Rock the slightly more distant Scott's Bluff itself...

The hike up the side of the monument is a scenic one, you get to see the saddle from up close, and you get to walk along a trail that hugs the sheer sides of the bluff too.  There is a small pedestrian tunnel that bores through the monument.  The early part of the hike is thus on the south side, but it finishes up on the north side.  It doesn't end at the parking lot, but rather at a far extremity of the north loop hike on the top.

At the Visitor Center looking at Mitchell Pass

Climbing the bluff on the hiking trail, you can see views like this.

Approaching the saddle on the trail.

The rocks of the saddle.  This is as close as you can get to these rocks without ignoring the signs and the rangers and pressing on across the top of the rocks.  I didn't elect to do that.  :)
On the north side of the bluff trail.

South side summit views. with a clear view of the tunnel that bores through the bluff for the hiking trail.

Visitors center from the south summit loop.

North side summit loop.  I tried to catch a hawk in flight here, but I missed.  Still, a nice view.

Further north side summit view.

The actual summit marker.

 After this, I drove to Vernal, UT, which was pretty fun too.  I was on the interstate most of the time, but got off to drive through Flaming Gorge to get to Vernal.  You can't go to Vernal and not look at some dinosaurs.  I didn't go to Dinosaur National Monument (although I'd love to on another trip sometime!) but I did see the dinosaur museum in Vernal itself.

The national monument straddles the Utah/Colorado border and is actually better known as a scenic destination than one that's really all about the dinosaurs.  It was uplifted in the same orogeny that created the Uintas (although the origin of the rock itself is different, it's usually considered the far eastern vanguard of the Uinta Mountains).

Although in spite of that, of course, a number of very productive fossil beds have been found in the area.
My niece in front of a Stegosaurus skeleton.

Allosaurus fragilis.  Always one of my favorites.  And part of my niece's head...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

All packed!

Except food and water.  Lacking anything other than a bathroom scale to weigh it, I weighed myself without the pack, then put the packed up pack on, then added the fanny pack.  Got a base pack weight of 15.8 lbs, which sounds really pretty good, especially considering that I cut a lot of costs by not buying super expensive ultralight stuff, like a really lightweight, great tent, etc.

But the fanny pack was an additional 3.2 lbs.  Combined total base pack weight--and I think it's only fair to combine them--is 19.0 lbs.  Not exactly ultralight, but certainly lightweight compared to the crazy pack weights we used to haul around as teenagers.  I'm not unhappy.  I had estimated a total of 16.5 lbs, but I added a few minor items, and ended up using small bungee cords to hold the sleeping pad in place.  I could have cut off some paracord and saved some weight there, but it's not worth the effort.

I could also shave a little weight by getting rid of a few things--the fanny pack could be repackaged inside the backpack, saving the fanny pack weight.  I could ditch the SteriPEN and camera cases.  I could probably ditch the tarp.

But frankly, I think the fanny pack concept is too convenient.  So what if it adds a pound or so?  Totally worth it to have stuff readily and easily available without having to stop, take my pack off and dig through the side pockets.

The corner of my room looking a bit more organized...