Off-trail in the High Uintas
It was August, and angry thunderheads gathered as I drove toward Uinta Canyon Trailhead. The windshield wipers fought a losing battle with the deluge I tried to mentally prepare by telling myself that this was only a foretaste of things to come. Weather in the Rockies is famous for its quicksilver disposition. About half an hour before reaching the trailhead, the clouds retreated and yielded to beautiful sun and patchwork blue. In the distance, a black island of cloud hung doggedly above the Uintas’ rounded peaks.
The trail begins near the outskirts of the U-bar Ranch. As we unloaded gear from our cars, I surveyed the scene ahead. Uinta Canyon receded northwards into the clouds like a giant geological rain gutter. The Uinta Mountains are an east-west running offshoot of the Rocky Mountains. Some guidebooks and websites have tried to boost the Uintas’ uniqueness by claiming that they’re one of only two east-west running mountain ranges in the Unites States (supposedly sharing that honor with the venerable Brooks Range in Alaska). However, as many as forty other ranges within the U.S. can claim this distinction. It isn’t these mountains’ geographical orientation that sets them apart. Dense forests, alpine meadows, and innumerable lakes bespeckle the Uintas’ sprawling landscape. The forests here are home to a menagerie of creatures including black bears, mountain lions, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, lynx, and pine marten. Wolverines have even been spotted roaming these forests. What really sets the Uintas apart is their vastness and variety.
We finished securing our packs and shrugged them onto our shoulders. My back protested at bearing the weight of seven days’ provisions. We stumped up the trail to a chained livestock gate that spanned the narrow track. The gate shrieked as it opened and closed. Our small group was immediately swallowed by the forest. Dark lodgepole pines stabbed upwards at a soft underbelly of cloud.
We traversed one pine-carpeted valley after another, cresting bare ridges in between. On the second day we left the trail behind. We sloshed across marshes, skirted around deadfall, and gradually pressed deeper into the mountains. Each ridge offered spectacular views of the surrounding basins. On day four we topped the final ridge standing between us and our destination. Surveying the surrounding land revealed nothing but unbroken wilderness in every direction. To the north, the central spine of the Uintas stretched either way off into the distance. The peaks, ridges, and dense green forests rolled and stretched around us.
On the fourth day, I began to notice a psychological shift. It’s hard to describe, I believe that one’s perspective changes in the backcountry. Life’s stresses look a bit different when they’re enfolded in the arms of a billion-year-old mountain range. You find yourself thinking about rocks and trees, or the fact that these forests that have been wordlessly reproducing for uncounted millennia before your arrival.
Late on the fourth day, we crested a final broad ridge. The afternoon sun was sliding towards the horizon. I trudged across the ridgetop plateau towards the north edge, where the earth began to plummet again towards the next valley floor. This north slope was much steeper than the south side we had just ascended. It looked like things might get dicey. My brother had voted for circumnavigating this ridge, rather than crossing. Perhaps he had been right.
I perched on a boulder to size up the slope below. A cluster of stunted pines peered downward with me at a distant sunlit meadow. The slope dropped out of view below, but I had a good idea what it would contain: great quartzite blocks that shift precariously when stepped upon, rolling against their brethren with disturbing growls. The last time I navigated such a slope, I promised myself I would never do it again. While I stood there, reconsidering our route, Mark cheerfully disappeared over the edge. I always hate it when he does that.
The afternoon lengthened, one chunk of rock at a time. Less than halfway down the slope, my legs felt like Jell-O. Balancing on knife-edged, shifting boulders drained my diminishing energy funds. I suddenly recalled a story from years ago. A man from Montana was caught in a rockslide on a mountain like this. His body was never found. But years later a group of mountaineers stumbled across a dilapidated boot, with sheared shin bones protruding from the top. I wondered if that’s all that would be left of me in ten years’ time.
About fifty yards off to my right, my brother John whooped when he finally caught sight of a green field below our last stretch of slope. We clambered down the final hundred meters and lay on our backs gazing up at the ridgetop. From a distance, the mammoth rocks we had traversed looked like fine red gravel. A cold alpine breeze washed across the meadow. Amidst evening shadows we shouldered our packs again and hiked the last few miles to our basecamp. A bull elk watched, motionless, from a far meadow as we passed.
Our camp was nestled in the upper reaches of an isolated basin splotched with lakes like a painter’s palette. The flyfishing was spectacular. Hefty brook and cutthroat trout rose for every third or fourth cast. They gulped down any flies we tossed their way. We fished for two days, until we grew tired of reeling them in. I traded my flip-flops for hiking boots. The three of us quickly ascended the back ridge of our little basin, aiming for an unnamed peak.
We climbed past tundra meadows, springs gurgling through the rocks, and a high lake opaque with glacial flour. In the next valley, streams and lakes reflected the setting sun with the brilliance of liquid metal. I wondered how William Ashley, Kit Carson, and other early explorers must have felt when they first blazed across these mountains. Remote experiences intrigue me. The only possessions that matter are a few basic tools. Life and thought are distilled. Simplified. I believe that such experiences provide a kind of hysteresis: they somehow live on and change us from within.