Friday, February 25, 2011

High Uintas Wilderness, Utah, September 2007

MountainGuy News©
Moose Tipping, Anticipated Starvation, and
Other Improbable parables
Volume VII

High Uintas Wilderness, 2007

 Looking west from North Pole Pass, 12,226 feet.


The High Uintas Wilderness is nestled in the northeastern corner of Utah, just south of the Wyoming state line. The two states are separated by a cattle grate and a barbed wire fence, which are generally sufficient to keep both the human and the bovine populations from intermingling.

Our trailhead into the High Uintas was at Hoop Lake Campground, a broad, shallow lake in a lovely aspen and pine-lined bowl amongst some well-rounded rubble mountains. The campground itself was well-maintained, and attended by a chatty camp host who, as luck would have it, had lived and worked in Fremont, California for seven years before returning to his native Wyoming some 35 years ago.

Hoop Lake is a bit off the beaten track, but not too hard to find. One exits Interstate 80 at Fort Bridger, drives through Mountain View and Lonetree, and just past Bruntfork, and then turns right at Wyoming state highway 295. Wyoming state highway 295 is a dirt road. Since we were looking for a state highway, Rick and I drove right past it and all the way to McKinnon before we realized our mistake. However, our confusion is understandable. We had stopped at a supermarket in Mountain View to pick up the last few things, and were astonished to find a produce section stocked with nectarines, peaches, at least two types of plums, melons, and no fewer than six types of lettuce. So it goes without saying that if the supermarket can stock arugula, a paved highway should not be too much to ask. But in defense of those who designated the road as a state highway, it was two lanes a lot of the way.

We followed that dirt road for 11 miles, past “Hole-in-the-Rock”, which is an accurate description of that geologic marvel, over the cattle grate, and on up to Hoop Lake. The campground was largely deserted, save a few intrepid campers, the chatty camp host, and several highly intoxicated fishermen.

Rick and I, who just happen to hail from Fremont, California, arrived at Hoop Lake about 11:30 Saturday morning. This was a fortunate byproduct of not knowing exactly where we were going or how long it would take, and I was happy to have a long day at 9,200 feet to acclimate to the elevation. Sadly, a third member of the California contingent, Dan T., had to opt out of the MountainGuy expedition this year because of some wussy shoulder reconstruction. I hope he has a better excuse next year.

 Campsite at Hoop Lake.

The Colorado contingent, Oliver, Kevin, and Dan S., did not arrive until 5:30. This was later than expected, but the passage from Colorado was slowed by Kevin’s ambitious plan to drive all the way from Boulder to Hoop Lake (about 400 miles) on three gallons a gas by drafting behind large trucks. A safe and sane practice to be sure.

With the full complement of MountainGuys on hand, the party started in earnest. A fire was lit for the barbecue, beers were quaffed, and, in keeping with tradition, the food for the entire seven-day trip was laid out on the table to be sorted and divvied up. In years past this had been a highly technical operation, in which each food item was discussed and evaluated for nutritional value, calories, and chocolate content. However, this year was bit different as we were welcoming back a prodigal MountainGuy, Rick, who had been a no-show for the prior three years, and we were opening up the doors to two new guys, Kevin and Dan S., who had but two days of MountainGuy experience under their belts. As a result, the food sorting did not follow the traditional, highly nuanced script. Instead, if we had to choose between two items, Dan would choose both, and if there was some question about quantity, Dan chose it all. Simple, straightforward, and really damn heavy.

In an effort to keep things simple, dinner that night was nothing special: a nice Teriyaki New York Steak grilled over the open flame, fire roasted corn, potatoes cooked in the coals of the fire, and a small salad that featured six types of lettuce, arugula, and minced white peaches with a raspberry vinaigrette. This was served with a nice Bordeaux, and followed by fresh chocolate ├ęclairs for dessert. In other words, just your robust, traditional, mountain fare.

The dishes done, bellies full, the MountainGuys were treated to a fine sunset followed by a spectacular display of shooting stars. Well, maybe not spectacular, but really good. Okay, not so good, but several small meteors limped across the sky trailing a dim tail, a truly excellent omen at the outset of the trip.

Day 1: Hoop Lake to Island Lake (8 miles)

Despite the promising omen of shooting stars, the weather deteriorated throughout the night. By morning, there were gale-force winds whipping the surface of the lake to froth, and dark clouds were scudding by. No rain had materialized, but it was only a matter of time.

In keeping with long-established tradition, I was the first to arise, emerging from the tent shortly after first light to engage in the near-sacred act of heating water for coffee. Surprisingly, Kevin was up and about at about the same time. Early morning is a great time to be up, but it does come early and it’s usually cold. Other MountainGuys have made bold promises about rising early, but few have ever followed through.

The sun was peeking over the mountains behind a veil of clouds on the eastern side of the lake when the other MountainGuys started to emerge. The weather settled down a bit as the sun came up, and a breakfast of muffins, ├ęclairs, coffee, orange juice, and fruit did much to enliven our spirits. Camp was quickly disassembled, packs were packed, gas was passed, the cars were loaded, and the whole troupe moved out, caravan style, to the next campsite over, where we had arranged to leave the cars for the week. It was an exhausting move, but boldly executed, leaving no doubt that despite all the early morning milling around, the MountainGuys were ready to hike. By 10:00 a.m., we were on the trail.

Our trail wound its way past Hoop Lake and through a heavily forested area as we ascended out of the Hoop Lake basin. Throughout the Uintas, the hillsides are covered with dense forest below 11,000 feet or so, and broad meadows spread out between the tree-covered hills. The higher mountainsides and peaks are a jumble of rocks and boulders, rounded by age and weather. Despite their well-worn profile from a distance, the mountains are still a formidable lot up close, steep in places, and covered in, as Oliver described it, “crumbly shit.” Rockslides are not uncommon, and at times that first night in the wilderness, we could hear rockfalls along the steep cliffs ringing Island Lake.

Throughout the morning, the clouds would build up and then dissipate, but as the time got on towards noon, the clouds started to close in and turn dark. We were hiking through the forest along a low ridgeline when the rain began to fall. Packs were quickly covered, rain gear was deployed, and not a moment too soon. The rain turned to snow and hail, the temperature dropped, and we found ourselves trudging along through near blizzard conditions. The snow quickly built up to the point that the soles of our boots were almost covered. Travelers of lesser experience may have been tempted to turn back to the comfort and safety of Hoop Lake, where the pit toilets and piped-in water so ease the rigors of outdoor living, but not us. Our resolve never wavered, our stride did not falter, and our fortitude was soon rewarded. By the time we reached Kabell Meadows, about four miles from the trailhead, the sun was out, the ground was dry, and it was time for lunch. 

 Lunch at Kabell Meadows.

Lunch consisted of salami and cheese sandwiches, trail mix, and apple slices. Dan, who does not eat cheese or salami, wolfed down a couple of slices of bread and half a bag of “Tofurky,” all the while expressing grave concern about the quantity of food available. His concerns were not wholly unjustified, as we had but 110 pounds of food between us. For a moment Dan allowed a glimmer of hope when he learned that I carried fishing gear, but his hopes were dashed by the cold reality voiced by our fellow MountainGuys. The more experienced among them had seen me fish, and knew that my fishing would not save anyone from starvation.

The afternoon hike from Kabell Meadows to Island Lake started out well enough, but clouds returned in the mid-afternoon, and rain and snow once again started to fall as we worked our way up and over a steep ridge that separated the meadows from the lake. The intensity of the snowfall did not match the earlier blizzard, but it lasted longer, and we began to wonder if we would be setting up camp in the snow. Fortunately, the snow stopped after half an hour, and by the time we reached the lake, the sun was out and most of the clouds had moved off to the east.

Island Lake is so named because of the island that sits in its center. The lake is ringed on three sides by steeply-sloping hillsides, and though a natural lake, it has been fortified by the addition of a small dam that raises the water level perhaps five or six feet. Our campsite turned out to be a well-worn site with a well-used fire ring that stood about two feet high. There were several other viable sites along the north side of the lake where we camped, but this one offered that ready-to-move-in feel that is so desirable in a first-night campsite, and also sported a large number of flat spots to set out our five tents.

 Campsite at Island Lake.

Separate tents are a great luxury, but are also heavy and inefficient. Rick made several valiant pleas in favor of fewer tents and less weight, but his marketing efforts, while strong on logic, suffered from a surfeit of gas, compounded by the high probability of intense snoring.

Dinner that first night was a delightful chicken curry prepared by chef Oliver, who not only worked hard to create the dinner, but also had to engage in a long debate about more noodles or fewer. Defending the rights of cooks everywhere, Oliver maintained that there were too many noodles and that his delicious curry sauce would not be adequate to flavor them all. Dan, the plaintiff, claimed that we had to eat all of the noodles or there wouldn’t be enough food and that he might perish this minute as a result of anticipated starvation. In the end, a reasonable compromise was forged over the smoky fire: Oliver flavored just the right amount of noodles with his delicious sauce, and the remainder of the noodles was then turned into a soup of pot spoils, noodles, water, vegetables, and spices. Not bad really, though the soup would have benefited from a chance to cook longer.

[Fry onions, apples and curry in olive oil until the onions are yellow. Add chicken and spices, and simmer for five minutes. Add water and reconstituted freeze-dried vegetables. Bring to a boil, then simmer for fifteen minutes. Serve over noodles tossed in olive oil and the occasional pine needle.]

 Dan, Oliver, and Rick, enjoying a bit of late night milling around.