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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|