Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 3

Day 5

About 10:30 last night I felt Kye growl against my leg and then I heard her. She was alert and there was something beyond the area we had tied the food bags that she didn’t like. Then she barked…there was definitely something out there as she never barks otherwise. I hollered at Jerry but neither of us heard anything. He got up to check out the area but still nothing. Kye finally relaxed and we went back to our sleeping bags. It was still a little unnerving as I completely trust my dogs’ instincts…they’ve never let me down yet.

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We awoke to a chilly morning but with blue and cloudless skies, finally. There was a thin layer of ice on the water in the dogs’ bowl and Colby had ice on his tent. I had a small amount of condensation but nothing my camp towel couldn’t handle. My quilt was the wettest it had been on this trip so far but it quickly dried in the morning sun.

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We left Summit Lake and climbed through the trees until we were once again above treeline. We wouldn’t be facing any more large passes and we climbed in and out of small alpine valleys and saw dozens of alpine lakes all surrounded by the majesty of various Wind River peaks. Each day was just getting better and better as far as the scenery went and I was quickly running out of words to describe just how amazing it was…things were starting to get a little repetitive on the vocabulary front in trying to describe how amazing everything looked.

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Finally we climbed out of our last mini valley and looked out towards Elbow Lake, and in the distance the backside of some of the jagged spires of Titcomb Basin…there are truly few words to describe the view. Photos couldn’t do it justice although we took an awful lot in an attempt to capture the beauty and serenity of the landscape. Sadly smoke from Montana fires inhibited the views slightly but at least we could see them.

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For a couple of miles the trail wound between black-rock tarns of clear water before finally rounding the corner and circumnavigating Elbow Lake. We stopped for lunch just above the creek crossing and then hiked up and over a small pass to look down on Upper Jean Lake. The views remained staggering and we were now much closer to the serrated teeth of the peaks of Titcomb Basin and they truly were jaw-dropping. We said goodbye to that valley and dropped down to the valley of Lower Jean Lake. The views were still gorgeous and we could see glaciers on the peaks to the south but the peaks didn’t quite match up to those we had just passed. Jerry kept swearing he was done taking pictures, and said so at least a dozen times…right up until the next view came into sight.

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With Lower Jean Lake at our backs we crossed the bridge at Fremont Crossing where the guys got all gushy about meeting Andy Bentz as we got water. Rarely does one run into a hiking legend on the trail (who also owns the company Pa’lante packs) but we did and we chatted for a while about backpacks and various trails as everyone loved on Kye and Cody and took pictures of them. As we crossed the bridge the guys lamented about not having taken a picture with Andy and I made a comment relating the situation to Justin Beiber and teenage girls.

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With our celebrity meeting out of the way we hiked on. Black clouds were appearing and rain was looking imminent. I pre-empted the coming storm and put on my poncho as the guys pulled on rain jackets. Of course the rain didn’t end up being as bad as it looked but one does get a little gun-shy after an experience like we had on day 3 and we hid under a tree for 10 minutes while the worst of it passed and the sun came out.

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Very quickly we were removing rain gear and sweatshirts in the hot sun as we hiked on. The now-glistening rocks made for a very pretty view. More rain clouds were coming in as we reached the turn-off for Island Lake and Titcomb Basin and I quickly put my poncho back on before the rain started to fall again.

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With the first drops of rain we looked for a suitable campsite for the night but they were few and far between as level, dry ground within the area’s camping requirements was minimal. I waited out the rain beneath some pine trees where we thought we might camp with the dogs and the packs while Colby and Jerry checked out other possibilities.

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In the end we stayed put and got tents set up just as the sun was coming out…just long enough, and with a decent-enough breeze to dry everything out. Of course the sun didn’t stay for too long and came and went all evening. It made for a chilly couple of hours before bed but we all curled up under our quilts and Jerry and I talked as he ate his cold re-hydrated meal (not appealing when you want something hot at the end of the day).

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Finally it got dark enough to head to bed and the wind died down making it a cold, clear, crisp night.

Day 6

I slept pretty rough last night. I woke while it was still dark with a raging headache and something that felt similar to the flu. I fumbled around with my first aid kit cussing that the superglue had leaked and melted everything plastic. Thankfully the ibuprofen was still good and I downed a few and finally fell back to sleep.

I slept until 8:30am, and while it was needed it was was to our detriment as we got nailed with ticket from the NF rangers for camping too close to the trail. I was awakened by rangers’ voices chatting with Colby and Jerry. Big Oops. I waited until they left before I let the dogs out and extricated myself from the tent…I still wasn’t feeling great.

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We finally left camp just before 10am to hike into Titcomb Basin. The trail went by Island Lake and it was definitely the busiest place we had yet seen. I was having serious pain in the gluteus muscle in my right hindquarter and only hiked to the beginning of the basin, half a mile beyond the trail junction with Indian Pass. It was close enough for me to appreciate it and really feel small in the grand scheme of the range.

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The jagged peaks of Titcomb Basin were like teeth grating against the sky and were certainly some of the most impressive I have seen. I enjoyed the views and the sun for an hour while Colby and Jerry headed deeper into the basin.

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Around noon I loaded back up, talked a passing group into relaying my destination information to the guys and headed west. It was slow going as every step upward with my right leg was painful and I figured the guys would catch me sooner rather than later. I stopped often, taking very pleasant naps in the sun at Island Lake (where I also had lunch) and Little Seneca Lake.

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I talked to more groups about passing on my destination information, and probably told the first ten groups I passed…I didn’t want to miss connecting with the guys before we camped.

I usually don’t choose to be alone in grizzly bear country, even with minimal bear presence (hence this being a group trip), but the trail to Titcomb Basin is one of the busiest in the Wind River Range and thus I felt safe enough to hike alone.

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With a few more stops on a trail that followed the edge of Seneca Lake, and couple of short and steep climbs I finally reached Hobbs Lake around 5pm…it took me that long to hike such a short distance with the pain in my leg. I found a great campsite with room enough for three tents far enough off the trail and away from the lake to be legal. It was a gorgeous spot looking over Hobbs Lake, although sadly it was also extremely busy and there were a few loud groups but at least we had a site…many groups came by looking for a camping spot and struggled to find one.

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Colby showed up thirty minutes later just as I was starting to put up my tent. We both cooked and waited for Jerry to arrive, which he did around 7pm…later than expected, but understandable as he had spent considerable time exploring the end of the basin and the route to Knapsack Kol.

The night drew in quickly and it hit me that this would likely be the last camping night I would spend in the US before returning to the UK. The week felt like it had flown by but Monday night felt like it had been an age ago. I was ready for the trip to be over as I was ready for a hot meal (of real food), a shower and a beer but I was also sad that this was the end and I was only too aware than just 6 miles lay between me and my truck.

Day 7

For the second day in a row we awoke to zero condensation inside our tents or on our quilts. It was a still morning but the breeze was picking up quickly and it was cold…it smelled like snow. With as busy as Hobbs Lake was it was difficult to find some privacy, let alone find some soft ground in which to dig a cat hole…so I was out of bed briefly at 6:45am to take care of business in the best place I could find without an audience.

For the second morning of the trip I left my base layers on but I also left camp earlier than the others, at 8:15am, to get a head start. I knew that Colby and Jerry would catch up pretty quickly and I hiked fairly slow. The first hour was ups (which really slow me down) and downs and within an hour they had both caught up.

The scenery was minimal, compared to what we had been hiking through recently, and we passed a few lakes, crossed a few meadows but mostly the last six miles were flat, easy and surrounded by trees (it would have been a much easier first day if we had hiked in a counter-clockwise direction). We passed a lot of groups going in, most with packs many times larger than ours (especially Colby’s and Jerry’s), who all looked and smelled very fresh…we all knew we smelled appalling at that point.

Finally, just after 11am we arrived back at the trucks and had a celebratory soda, beer, Red Bull…or all together…before we headed into Pinedale.

Once more we ended up at the Gannet Peak Lodge (where we had stayed last year), a clean and moderately-priced motel (for the area) where more beers were consumed, much-needed showers were taken for long periods of time and pizza was ordered. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying mindless entertainment (watching Deadpool) before heading out for dinner to the Wind River Brew Pub again (another repeat of last year).

Monday morning Jerry and I said goodbye to Colby as he headed home to eastern Wyoming. Jerry spent most of the morning getting ready for his next hike…a 10 day excursion back into the Wind River Range to do Andrew Skurka’s Wind River High Route with another member of White Blaze (whose trip report and pictures can be found here). I helped with shuttling but headed back to the Bighorns on Tuesday morning after a final night of camping with Jerry and Pat.

***

After-thoughts

The 2018 trip was so different from the 2017 in many ways and not just because of the route. The dynamic of the people can make or break a trip and this year was just as good as last year albeit in a different way. The scenery was definitely more spectacular and the trail was certainly tougher. We picked the toughest uphill climb to do on our first day (to the detriment of one of our party) and got rained on (and thus very cold) to the point that it was getting dangerous for myself and made that particular day far less enjoyable than it could have been.

For the first time on a backpacking trip I consistently drank the water without filtering. I do not necessarily condone or recommend this for other hikers but it was a choice I made after my experience in the Wind River Range last year. The sources I didn’t filter were only fast-flowing high alpine streams and creeks that had a very, very low risk factor. I did filter when the only water source was from lower-elevation lakes or slow-moving rivers (so for the first 48 hours, the Green River and Hobbs Lake). I would do the same thing again but having a filter or chemical treatment back-up is vital.

As with other multi-hiker trips backpacker talk centered around things like Dyneema count, quilt comparisons, pros and cons of cook vs no-cook, cat holes and poop, trail habits, trail names…and how a backpacking date would tell you all you ever need to know about someone. There is no hiding anything on a backpacking trip…if you have a wedgie you fix it, everyone makes prolific use of the “farmer blow” and everyone knows when you have to poop.

This particular backpacking trip was very bittersweet for me. It was my last trip in the US before my move back to the UK but it was also amazing and I’m glad that this particular trip WAS my last one as it leaves me with some amazing memories. As mentioned last year the bond I created with Doug and Jerry continued this year; Jerry was there right along with me and we both missed not having Doug with us and lamented his absence. Colby was a lot of fun to have along and definitely added a positive and fun vibe to the group. Who knows where the next trip will take us, but we are already contemplating the TGO Challenge in Scotland.

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Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 2

Day 3

We got out of camp a little earlier than planned and were covering the last couple of miles to the top of Porcupine Pass (the second one of the same name in the less than a month for me) by 8:45am.

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The first few switchbacks were tough but the trail soon opened up into a gorgeous alpine valley surrounded by towering peaks of granite on all sides and a fabulous view of the 2000ft descent we had made yesterday, and the 2000ft climb we were now doing.

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At the end of the valley we stopped for a quick snack break before the final switchbacks to the top. The weather was partly cloudy and perfect for climbing in open terrain and we stopped to soak in the next valley of absolutely stunning beauty.

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Pictures were taken in abundance before we started down the nice and not-too-steep switchbacks on the north side of the pass. I kept stopping to take pictures, not just of the views ahead but of the pass and Jerry and Colby behind.

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We filled up with water at the first creek crossing, grabbed a snack and I pulled my poncho out and stuffed it at the top of my pack…black clouds to the west looked pretty ominous. We followed the trail into the trees and within five minutes we were feeling the first raindrops and then hail. We all donned rain gear quickly and continued down the trail. The hail petered out and soon it was a light off again-on again shower. But eventually it got worse and the rain became more persistent and was less like a passing rain shower and more like a blanket of wetness. We hiked on and thunder grumbled around us.

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With a large pine tree providing a dry respite just off the trail we took a break. I was doing okay but wasn’t sure how I would do if the rain continued. We waited for 20-30 minutes in the shelter of the tree before I started getting cold and was beginning to shiver slightly. Despite the rain I knew I had to get moving to stay warm.

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Despite my poncho keeping most of me dry my hands were getting wet and they were going numb with the cold. And wet plants drenched my feet. I was starting to worry about me staying warm and what we would do as a group if the rain continued…I knew if it didn’t break soon I would be facing some serious issues. Jerry kept a check on me to make sure I was doing okay (he admitted later he was worried about me too).

Finally after another 20 minutes of steady rain (not torrential downpour thankfully) we started to see a break in the weather. Sadly there was a creek crossing that had only one log for the crossing (and it was a no go as it was wet and slippery) so with already soaked and frigid feet I just barreled through the water, cussing the whole way. And on the other side of the creek, just as we reach a beautiful open meadow and the trail junction to Green River Lakes (30 miles from our starting point), the sun came out and immediately began to warm and dry us. I was beyond thankful.

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We crossed another creek, thankfully by log bridge this time, and covered the final switchbacks to Green River Lakes and crossed yet another creek. I took my shoes off for this one as my shoes were finally starting to dry and I wanted to keep them that way. Of course there was a log at the crossing that I had completely missed but it gave me a chance to get my now-stinky feet and socks clean. As we crossed the meadow at the southern end of Green River Lake we got our first glimpse of Squaretop Mountain.

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We finally turned north on the Highline Trail aka CDT (Continental Divide Trail) and circumnavigated the lake, all the while getting some quite impressive views of the aquamarine-colored lake and Squaretop Mountain. The trail was mostly level and we made good time, conversing with another hiker briefly and asking about camping spots ahead. He mentioned one but also that another group of six guys had seen a bear sow and cub in the area ahead of us…thankfully it was a black bear and not a grizzly.

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We hiked on a short way and found an amazing campsite 100 yards off the trail and just below Squaretop Mountain…and probably one of my favorite campsites of any trip in the Winds so far (including last year’s trip). We were watching the weather closely and wanted to get camp set up before any more rain came in.

 

 

 

 

 

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We got settled and ate, and most stuff had dried out from the night before when the rain, lightening and thunder hit about 6:30pm. We scurried for our tents. Thankfully we had been watching the clouds encroach on the valley and all gear had already been safely stowed in protective DCF cocoons.

Rain and thunder continued for almost two hours before finally abating at about 8:15pm. We were glad to see the end of it and made a move to hang our food bags before we completely lost the light.

Day 4

We awoke to mist and fog shrouding everything, including our tents. It would break briefly and then come back in and it certainly provided for a couple of pretty pictures of Squaretop Mountain. But it was not a morning that was conducive to wanting to crawl out of warm sleeping bags and even the dogs were shivering a little.

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Everything was damp. Even my camp towel couldn’t get my tent dry this morning although it got it close and the dogs soon warmed up as I let them out of the tent and they enjoyed 20 minutes of running and playing together.

We eventually got on the trail and I was still wearing my fleece base layers and gloves to stay warm. The sun was starting to break through a little and after a mile or so I packed away my gloves and base layer top.

 

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The trail continued for another four miles on a pretty level trail beside the meandering Green River. We crossed a couple of fairly wide and deep creeks that required some serious balance and careful stepping to stay dry on rocks or logs. Jerry, who doesn’t hike with hiking poles, had the toughest time and started crawling across the logs on the first crossing. On the second crossing I had the guys hold the dogs back so they didn’t try to follow me immediately as it was a precarious crossing. Kye, as always, tried to rush across the log and slipped a couple of times but the double log bridge meant she didn’t fall in.

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Eventually the trail split and we crossed the now-raging Green River via a foot bridge and climbed above it. The sun was beginning to come out more consistently and make the day warmer, finally…we were all glad for the warmth. Another mile and a half put us at the base of the switchbacks and before the climb I packed away my base layer pants; it was still chilly but I didn’t want to sweat in my sleeping clothes.

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The switchbacks were a pretty easy climb and we stopped for views of distant waterfalls and peaks as we hiked up, eventually crossing Trail Creek were we ran into the six guys on a guided family trip who had seen a black bear sow with her cub not far from where we had camped the night before. We chatted for a while and climbed the final switchbacks to Trail Creek Park.

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Soon the trees deserted us and we we surrounded by grey boulders, green meadows and fields of talus all interspersed with reds, golds and blues of wild flowers. It was a beautiful sight and just kept getting better as we hiked up through the valley, each step providing a better view.

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Eventually, after much stopping to take dozens of pictures, we reached the plateau that is Green River Pass. It was not an up-and-over pass like I was expecting but was an open-ended expanse of rocks, emerald carpet and alpine lakes glistening in the now-warm sun. It was stunning.

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We reached the end of the plateau and looked over Summit Lake towards a grove of trees that looked like a good place to camp. We were high and exposed and wanted a little protection if a storm came through. But the skies remained clear and the sun, despite the wind and chilly air, was very welcome.

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We had camp set up quickly so everything could dry and then sat for a while and enjoyed the view as the sun set and the moon rose. Soon it was too cold to remain outside of the tent and we all departed for bed.

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Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 1

Our first up-close views of the peaks we would be hiking through, and the too-friendly local wildlife:

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Day 1

We started pretty slow this morning as we all stayed up too late and enjoyed a few beers but we did manage to make it out of Elk Hart Park by 9:30.

From left to right: Jerry, me, Colby and Dave

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For 3 miles the trail wound down through the pines with some great views to the north. I lead for a while as we climbed down into the valley. In planning this route I knew we had a decent climb ahead but apparently I had missed the steep descent beforehand and by the time we reached the lake and then the creek after a few miles my legs were like jelly and were visibly shaking with the exertion. On the way down we passed a couple from Rochester NY coming up which was crazy as Jerry lives about hour from there.

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We grabbed a bite to eat Upper Long Lake and took some pictures before crossing a nice bridge over Pine Creek. The sign mentioned the trail was technically abandoned, was not suitable for pack stock and was not maintained. A lot of blow down trees confirmed this.

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The initial climb wasn’t too bad but once over a low saddle it got super steep and made for some tough going. However in the steepest section the trail was generally clear and easy find. It was here that Dave started feeling the affects of the altitude and of not having hiked as much as the rest of us. We paused to wait for him to catch up several times but it was obvious he wasn’t enjoying himself at all. Words of encouragement were spoken as we stared out at the views from the Crows Nest.

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From the Crows Nest onwards the trail leveled out considerably and we were all appreciative of the mostly-level trail for a while. We stopped to get water at a lake below the trail and then it started to rain. It wasn’t serious rain and just a summer shower that last for half an hour but it was enough for us to don rain gear for a while.

And then we ran into a big old moose with wonky antlers that trotted across the trail. He stared at us, we watched him and I was glad Jerry had finally seen one in the Winds. Our last trip here and proven to be utterly wildlife-less with the exception of a deer and a couple of marmots.

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We moved on and had another short climb up and over a saddle. Thankfully this one was nowhere near as steep as the torture we had endured earlier when I had been wondering who the asshole was who’d mapped this route…yup, me.

From the top of the saddle the trees opened up into grassy rock-strewn meadows with yet more stunning views of northern peaks. The trail remained on a moderate decline but was, in most places, level and we finally reached Trapper Lake sooner than I had anticipated we would. This wasn’t a bad thing at all. We took another break and Dave was holding up well…he was definitely hurting though.

From Trapper Lake we had a little over a mile to our intended campsite for the night at Section Corner Lake, a short climb followed by a rocky descent dropped us out on the edge of the lake and we started scouting for a campsite. The first we came across was nice but wouldn’t see the sun early but the other place that looked decent was very rocky and would have been hard on the tents.

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We got camp up quickly although Dave struggled to find two good trees for his hammock. And when you’ve had a tough day the last thing you want to deal with is struggling to set up camp and deal with more frustration. We all ate dinner and hung or tied our food bags away from camp as dusk settled in. We then talked for a while, Jerry, Colby and I trying to be encouraging to Dave to focus away from the pain and be positive about the trail for the next couple of days.

With darkness all around us and the clock saying 9pm we all headed for our respective tents for what hinted at being a cold night.

Day 2

I slept like a rock and I couldn’t believe I didn’t wake up until 7:45am. I never sleep that late when I’m backpacking, and especially not on the first night. I hollered at Jerry who sounded like he was just waking up.

Dave dropped off my bear bag and said he was heading out shortly so he could get a head start and not slow us down. We showed him where the trail was across the creek and he headed out.

We took our time packing up camp to give Dave a decent head start and left camp at 10am…the latest I have ever gotten out of camp. We backtracked to the lake slightly and followed the trail around the water’s edge before turning north again up the valley.

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With only a granola bar in my belly I struggled with the uphills more than I had the day before and was soon left behind…something I found myself agreeing with Dave about was that it was kinda demoralizing to be at the back and not with the group. I could certainly understand why yesterday was so hard for him on that level.

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I caught up to Colby and Jerry at Round Lake and grabbed a snack before we headed down. We were keeping our eye out for Dave ahead of us but didn’t figure we would catch him quite that quickly as he had an hour or more on us.

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With a few calories in the system we circumnavigated Round Lake and met up with the connection of the original trail we were supposed to take. The sign was on the ground and the only obvious trail was the one we would have come down. We checked the GPS and got on the right trail for 1/2 a mile before making a brief error and having to back track slightly. It was also the time we were beginning to wonder where Dave was and worry was starting to niggle at us, but he still had a decent head start and my pace certainly isn’t speedy.

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The climb from Round Lake was brief before the trail plateaued and then peered down at Palmer Lake. At the far end we could see two guys and one was wearing similar clothes to Dave. Sadly the person turned out to be a young man fishing with his friend, and not Dave. We were now getting more worried as the guys hadn’t seen a solo guy backpacking by himself on the trail.

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We made slow progress to the top of the hill and then enjoyed they awe-inspiring views of Palmer Creek Canyon.

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We descended amid stunning wildflowers along a steep and rocky pass to a low, rock-bound creek that showed obvious signs of being a raging torrent at other times of the year. It was this creek we followed for a while until losing the trail in the marshy areas where there were few signs and only hoof prints to go by.

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With the aid of the GPS again we managed to keep on track until we found the trail again (after a ridiculously steep climb up a tall embankment) and continued our way down the valley with magnificent walls of towering granite that made us feel extremely insignificant ahead of and beside us. It was also through here that we came across our second and third moose of the trip as we disturbed a momma moose and her calf. She eyed us with uncertainty while the calf did what his instinct told him to do and ran (or trotted) away up the hill.

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We passed a couple of guys camping prior to the trail intersection and stopped to ask if they had seen Dave, and gave them his description. They hadn’t seen him and some serious concern was starting to set in. With no way to know where he was; if he was on a different trail, if he was backtracking, or even if he was truly lost we were starting to question if and when we would need to hit the SOS buttons on our GPS units.

We tried not to think about it too much as we crossed another creek and started our climb towards Porcupine Pass, which, while moderately steep wasn’t too bad. Two miles below the summit of the pass we crossed another creek and eventually, after much hmming and hawing, we decided to make camp there and blitz the pass in the morning.

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With tents set-up and dinner cooking our thoughts were very much on Dave and what had happened to him. Colby and I both theorized that he had taken a wrong turn at the badly-marked trail junction north of Round Lake and had followed the trail back around to Trapper Lake as the rest of the trails had been obvious and well-marked…and that was the place we could easily have made an error without a good map.

We continued talking as the sun sank behind the mountains and finally, just as Colby was about to turn his InReach off we got a message from someone at The Great Outdoor shop to say that Dave was fine and would be hiking back out the same way we had hiked in, and going back to Elk Hart Park. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief and knew we would all sleep better for knowing that. We felt bad but there was little we could have done at the time.

With dark clouds drawing in and a few raindrops starting to hit us we all withdrew to our tents for the night and listened to the thunder grumble away to the south.

Gear Review: Klymit Static V Insulated LITE Sleeping Pad

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Specs: Weight – 19.6oz, Size – 72″L x 23W x 2.5″ thick

This was the first pad I bought for backpacking and I have been in love with it ever since. I first went with this pad due to the price to weight ratio as I couldn’t afford the super-light Neo Air XLite or XTherm pads at the time. As a side and stomach sleeper I knew I needed an inflatable pad that wasn’t insanely heavy but still insulated for the cool alpine nights common to my favorite backpacking locals.

Initially the V-shaped baffles took some getting used to and I wasn’t sure I quite liked them but after a few nights of pretty decent sleep I started to really like them. Part of the baffle design on this pad means that I can feel where I am on the pad before I fall off the edge, even in a semi-conscious half-sleep state.

Unfortunately during my Solitude Loop Trail trip the pad started leaking air and I had to re-fill it overnight, but generally only once. I sent it in for repair upon my brief break off trail (when my water filter froze overnight) and replaced it with an Exped Downmat with vertical baffles. I didn’t like it at all after using the Klymit pad and realized how much I’d come to like the V-baffles and size of the pad. Klymit was extremely quick at fixing the leak (user error) and sending it back to me at no charge.

And there comes the other thing I like. The 23″ wide Static V is wider than most pads of 20″ which helps your time asleep feel a lot less constrained to staying in one spot all night…you can actually move around and not fall off the edge.

The construction and durability of the fabric used has been great. I have my dogs in the tent with me a night and during an occasional thunderstorm they have jumped on me and the pad, or at other times walked over the pad or pushed against it with claws at night. I have seen no ill repercussions of these dog-related incidents and no punctures or leaks.

The one leak I had, and it was partially due to user error and also the one thing I don’t like about this pad, was at the valve location. I had not been careful about holding the base of the valve when closing and tightening the valve cap and had created a minor leak due to too much torque on the valve base. I am now more careful. However, the valve still protrudes at a right angle and sticks up from the pad which makes a vulnerable point when you roll it and stick it in a pack…I would much prefer to see a flat valve incorporated on this pad similar to the one on the Exped Downmat.

I made one modification to this pad and that was to add strips of silicone to the underside of the pad to help reduce slippage. It works to a point but the pad tends to move around more when I move around than actually slipping on the DCF tent floor.

This is definitely another piece of equipment I highly recommend and wouldn’t hesitate to buy another one in the future or buy and give as a gift. You really can’t go wrong with this pad for the price, quality and Klymit’s Limited Lifetime Warranty.

 

Backpacking a Bighorn Lake Loop: Lily Lake, Lake Solitude and Misty Moon Lake, August 2018

Day 1

After a night camped at 9500ft in my truck I awoke to a very chilly morning and waited for the sun to peek over the peaks before I stirred from beneath my comforter and blankets. I turned the dogs loose and then we headed for the trail head at West Tensleep Lake.

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I filled out the wilderness permit and shoved it in the box and made use of the bathrooms before heading back to my truck to get a little more organized. I didn’t start the day well as I set my pack down on my big toe…this might not sound bad but my pack has an aluminum frame with a rounded corner…and that is what I set down on my toe. It was that nauseating kind of pain and I cussed up a storm…thankfully no one but my dogs could hear me.

With everything loaded we headed up the trail towards Helen Lake. For the first couple of miles the trail was fairly level and mostly dirt pack and we made good time. We had left the trailhead at 9am and the sun was already getting warm. Since we were not in any rush we paused often to eat a snack, get some water or take a picture…or five.

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The first couple of miles were a mixture of open meadows, creeks and pine groves. Soon the granite peaks began to grow around us and the trail, while still moderate, got a little rockier and a little steeper…but with the climb came the views. I stopped and talked with a couple from Illinois for a few minutes before heading on up the trail. We chatted about my experiences the Wind River Range from last year as they were heading there at the end of the week and I would be heading there in 10 days.

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By the time we got to Helen Lake we were ready for a nap and lunch. I was experimenting with some lunch choices and although I rarely carry canned food I had decided to try out Bumble Bee’s Chicken and Cracker snack box…it was actually not bad. I ended up with too much chipotle chicken and not enough crackers and ended up putting the chicken on my cheese too.

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The views from the south end of the lake were stunning and the breeze kept the flies and mosquitoes away (I had not brought any bug spray) and we spent 45 minutes in the sun napping and eating before finally making a move to cover the next 2.2 miles to the familiar-to-us Misty Moon Lake.

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The trail continued to climb and although it was now a little rockier it was never to the point of roughness like it was on the Uinta Highline Trail. First we passed Marion Lake and took in the views of Cloud Peak beyond before finally climbing up the saddle to look down at Misty Moon Lake.

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Misty Moon Lake (and the Fortress Lakes above it) are one of my favorite parts of the Bighorn Mountains and we took another break as I filled up with water so I could take in the majesty of the place. I was glad I would be coming back through on my way out. I let the dogs play in the lake while a very angry Marmot squeaked very noisily at us for half an hour.

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It was soon 2pm and we had a shortish climb ahead before finally going down again. The pass had no name but climbed up from Misty Moon Lake into the Middle Paint Rock Creek drainage. We could see for miles. It was now getting pretty hot beneath the glare of the sun and we took a couple of breaks on the way down when we could find the shade of a tree. Plenty of creeks, both seasonal and year-round, crossed our path and the dogs were able to cool off and drink without plundering my supply of filtered water.

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About half way down the valley I started to notice tire tracks. I thought I was seeing things but sure enough I saw more and then two parallel lines of flattened grass. I was PISSED. I was still in the wilderness where any kind of wheeled or motorized equipment is prohibited. This wasn’t just a non-motorized trail (although even the part of trail 120 outside of the wilderness was a non-motorized trail) this is a foot and stock trail only…and the more I saw the tracks the more mad I got…and they hadn’t even tried to stay on the dirt trail, they were all over the grass.

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I bypassed another hiker going up, just outside of the wilderness who had also noticed the tracks and then we moved on.  He had mentioned Lily Lake, my goal for the day, was only about another mile…and flat terrain for the most part. I saw some really destructive tracks just below the ATV trail where an ATV had torn through a delicate marsh area. People  make me so mad sometimes. Ugh

There were several groups camped next to Lily Lake, which could also be accessed by an ATV trail, and I stopped to talk to a family group of backpackers who had also seen the ATV tracks in the wilderness. Sadly they didn’t know who it was. They wanted to say hi to the dogs who obviously didn’t object and then we moved on. We passed another camping group just before the turn-off whose tires looked an awful lot like the ones I had seen in the wilderness. (I shall be reporting it to the authorities even if they can’t do anything about it).

I had decided to hike a little further so as to make tomorrow a more appropriate day and climbed up and away from the lake for a half hour. I started hearing voices and then the bellowing of cattle so I hoped the park I was hoping to camp in wasn’t full of cows.

After crossing first one creek then another I managed to get myself into a marshy spot and got my feet wet and a little muddy. There were no cattle but it was obvious that there had been a herd there recently and I was guessing that they had just been gathered and were in the process of being moved to a different pasture area.

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It took me a while to find a flat dry spot where the sun would also catch me early…helps to get up when it’s warmer…that also didn’t have a ton of cow pies. We eventually found a spot near the trees and I got my tent set up as the dogs ate and played.

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I had to walk a short way to get water but thankfully I didn’t have to go all the way back to the first creek although I did find a drier passage.

My campsite was now in shade so I grabbed the dogs’ bed (my sit pad) and went to cook and eat dinner in the sun where we tried to chill out for a while and enjoy the warmth. Unfortunately the biting flies were too much of a problem and we soon retired to the tent to hideout.

As I was in the middle of writing the coyotes started howling…one a little too close for comfort and made me jump. I yelled at it to move on and I heard no more. Coyotes don’t generally worry me but they have been known to attack dogs on occasion…they prefer to avoid people though, especially in the back country.

With dusk falling it was time to go to bed and enjoy the most recent and hopefully the last quilt replacement.

Day 2

I was expecting the sun to rise earlier than it did, and apparently I misjudged the direction I was facing so didn’t quite get the first rays of the early morning like I wanted. It soon rose above the tree tops though and I let the dogs out. It is always reassuring to hear the rough-housing and playing in the early morning as it tells me they are feeling good.

I slowly peeled myself out of my wonderful new sleeping quilt…I was toasty and warm all night and it was FINALLY a bag/quilt that fit me and was comfortable. With the sun now hitting the tent it began to warm up quickly and soon it was almost too hot as I packed things away slowly. I was in no hurry as this trip wasn’t supposed to be about miles.

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I finally crawled out of the tent and a flicker of movement caught my eye. Just down the valley was a herd of cow elk with their calves, many of who were frolicking and playing…it was very cute to watch. I heard one chirp to its mother before galloping off towards her. Slowly they moved up the valley as I watched and ate breakfast. The rustle of my tent and food bag alerted them to my presence but they didn’t seem too concerned as they climbed up the valley and disappeared into the trees and up the trail I had come down the day before.

With the elk now gone I finished packing up as the day got warmer…I was already in a t-shirt and it was before 8am. We hit the trail by 8:30am and immediately had a hard time finding the trail markers although that didn’t last long as we climbed a treed hump and entered Long Park. We traversed the grassy meadow that was now turning brown with August’s heat and the lack of rain and turned north on the next trail we met.

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The flies which had left us alone during the cooler early hours now started to harass once again and they steadily got worse and worse as the next few miles passed. They were swarming Kye and Cody who had dozens of flies covering their hind ends, and more haranguing their heads. It was worse when we stopped so the only breaks we took were short and not particularly restful.

We were due to meet with the Solitude Loop Trail which I had done two years ago. I would take it for a short way west before heading to Upper and Lower Paint Rock Lakes. However with the dogs looking miserable and being tortured so completely (they bothered me, and bit me, but no where near as much as the dogs) I made the decision to cut the hike a little short and instead of turning west at the trail junction I turned east towards Lake Solitude.

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After a quick break to stuff some candy in my mouth and a short steep climb above the creek the flies seemed to lessen slightly, especially when I killed at least a dozen of them buried into Cody’s fur. I had made the right decision. We covered the mile to the lake quickly and then followed the second mile around the lake to our campsite.

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While I could have rested for a while and potentially made the next 2.3 miles up to Misty Moon Lake to camp, where there had been no flies the day before, the sun was feeling pretty brutal and I knew the climb was pretty open and steep. I was also aware that the Misty Moon Lake area also has a wag-bag requirement and I have no desire to be packing out the poop.

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So even though it was barely noon I set up camp and had lunch. The flies were still irritating but just about tolerable…until they bit you. The dogs, still, had it worse.

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With lunch done we went to filter water and play in the lake. The dogs cooled off a little before we found some shade and spent most of the rest of the afternoon napping or taking pictures. The friendly neighborhood pikas were very accommodating in having their pictures taken although I’m not sure if it’s just because this one was young and curious.

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I ate a small dinner of instant mashed potatoes and melted cheese, which was quite good although way too much for me to eat and I sat deliberating my cold-meal options for the upcoming trip in the Wind River Range…I get a little tired of cooking and I’m rarely hungry enough to eat much.

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I had though about fishing once it cooled down but the wind just didn’t cooperate and was just a little too much from the wrong direction for my little 4-wt fly rod on a large lake. The fishing had looked amazing and the water was clear, cool and very deep. When the wind had finally settled it just felt too late to pull out my rod so I just sat and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains and threw a stick for the dogs for a while.

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With the sun gone it cooled down fast and we retreated to the tent with squirrels yelling at us from the nearby pine trees.

Day 3

I slept pretty good and my quilt was definitely a little too warm for the overnight temperatures. I waited until the sun was touching the lake before I let the dogs out and crawled out of my sleeping bag. It certainly wasn’t cold and I took my time packing up. No one in any of the other camps was stirring and I was on the trail before I saw anyone else get out of their tents…I have never been able to sleep like that on the trail.

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Just as I remembered the climb was a steep one up to the waterfall and then beyond. Most of the trail was was actually in shade except for a half mile stretch that followed a cliff towards the head of the valley where it crossed the creek. We took a quick break but the flies that had been absent for the first hour were now haunting us again. I am glad we didn’t push to get to Misty Moon Lake the day before as the flies were still bad up high.

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The views once you reach treeline on this section of trail are truly breathtaking and over all of it loomed the Bighorn’s highest peak, Cloud Peak at 13,171ft. There were many tents at the base of the Middle Rock Creek Falls which is where most people camp who want to make summit attempt.

With the flies being a constant nuisance we pushed on and finally crested the divide between the Middle Rock Creek drainage and the West Tensleep drainage, and arrived back to where we had been not two days before. The views continued to amaze me even though I had only just been there.

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Once we dropped down below Misty Moon Lake the flies seemed to virtually disappear. I am not sure on the reasoning why there would be such a difference in such a short distance. I was thankful they were gone and not bugging the dogs as it was hot and we needed to take a break so we chilled in the shade of a large pine tree for 20 minutes before moving on.

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It was 11am and it was already hot at 11,000ft so I could only imagine what it was like back in town. We took our time hiking back and stopped often for water. It is times like that I don’t envy the dogs’ mostly-black coats but I always make sure they don’t overheat or overdo it. Plenty of creeks crossed our path so the dogs got plenty of cold water to drink and I only had to filter and refill at Lake Helen.

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At the head of Lake Helen, barely a mile below Misty Moon Lake, a decent-sized bull moose wandered out of the trees 100 yards below us. He stared at us for a moment before wandering off into the trees…in the direction of the trail. That was not good; if there’s one animal other than a grizzly bear I don’t want to tangle with it’s a moose. Cautiously I continued along the trail making lots of noise and called out to the moose. I didn’t want to spook him and I kept my eyes peeled.

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The bane of the trail at this point was the dense pine brush that kept visibility to a minimum to either side and suddenly, to my left, behind a tree and not 20ft from the trail the moose spooked. Initially I didn’t know which way he was going and I was definitely jumpy that he’d come at me. Thankfully he headed into the trees, but still in the direction I was going. I continued on slowly, still making noise and still unsure where the moose had gone. I finally reached the end of the pine grove and saw the bull just off the trail, a little further than before and at a slightly safer distance from me.

My legs were shaking and my adrenaline was definitely pumping so as soon as I was a far enough from the trees I sat down for a few minutes to still my jelly legs. The dogs, who had been very interested in the moose, behaved impeccably during the entire ordeal.

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With my legs feeling more steady underneath me we continued on. I warned the next couple of backpacking or hiking groups I encountered about the moose and its proximity to the trail so they could be prepared and aware and no one would get hurt.

We passed multiple groups hiking up the trail including a couple on horses with a pack horse, and two gentlemen leading pack horses in a separate group. A few loose dogs were frustrating as always when not kept under control but none were aggressive and the most friendly of which Cody just wanted to hump.

Finally, at 2:30pm we got back to the trailhead and was surprised but pleased to see that a national forest ranger was sitting in the parking lot. I had hoped there might be one around but didn’t really expect it. I reported the ATV tracks in the wilderness and which party camped at Lilly Lake I suspected it had been due to the matching tire tread. The ranger appreciated the report and mentioned they had another ranger in that area whom she radioed to call in the report. All in all the timing worked out well.


While I was a little bummed to cut the trip short and missed out on some things I wouldn’t have had the moose experience if I hadn’t, nor would I likely have been in a place to report the illegal wilderness ATV use in such a timely manner and place. Sometimes things happen for a reason and the trip, while plagued by, well, a plague of flies, was still a good trip. Sadly it will also be my last backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains and that makes it a little bittersweet.

Gear Review: Osprey Aura 50L

Specs: Osprey Aura 50L, size medium, weight 4lbs 3oz with brain

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The night before my Collegiate Peaks Loop attempt the vertical stays in my Arc Haul bent and my only other backpacks were 400 miles away in Idaho. I had one choice; to drive the 120 miles to Colorado Springs and the REI to purchase a new backpack so I could get on the trail.

As I have my gear dialed in to my 62L (49L main compartment) Arc Haul I knew I didn’t need anything larger so the Aura 50L seemed to be a good starting place. As soon as I put the pack on it fit like a glove and kind of felt like I was being hugged from behind. It was a novel concept and feeling.

Of course I don’t ever just try one but I dismissed many out of hand due to belt designs. Gregory, REI’s own brand and others all have belt attachment set-ups that “bulge” in the same way that the ULA Circuit does, and I found it uncomfortable and miserable to wear. That really left me with a choice of Osprey packs with their mesh and Anti-Gravity or Airspeed suspensions.

In the end and after walking around the store for 10 minutes with 20lbs on my back I went with the first pack I tried: the Osprey Aura 50L in size medium.

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At a little over 4lbs the Aura is heavy for a 50L pack but without the brain (something I have zero need for) it comes in at around 3.5lbs. While still not light that puts it not much heavier than my Arc Haul (with all the add-ons and mods) and with the AG suspension you can barely feel the pack on which makes up for the extra weight.

My only issue with Osprey’s sizing is the discrepancy between height and belt size. I am very slender, petite woman (5’5″ and 112#) but I have a 19″ torso and as such I needed the pack in a medium size. However, the belt on this size can barely be made short enough for a skinny person, but at least it IS adjustable. I had to bury the movable wings behind the pockets on the belt as far as they would go and I still almost run out of webbing to tighten on the buckle.

With my odd sizing issue aside this pack fit my gear great and in almost the same manner as my Arc Haul. The compartment design is different and has a sleeping bag compartment with  zipper access. I do not use this but the compartment divider is movable so it can be turned into a single-compartment pack. The bottom of the pack slopes up from the frame which means it does NOT stand up on its own…a feature I find very frustrating on any pack and I don’t like to lean my pack against rough surfaces in case they get torn or snagged. However this is a minor annoyance and since I carry my dogs’ sleeping pad on the lower back straps the pad keeps it from falling over unless I am packing it.

The first day I had it out I constantly wondered at how little I could actually feel this pack on my back or hips despite the 27lbs I was carrying for 5 days of hiking. Again I was reminded of being gently hugged from behind. I often forgot the pack was there. My legs of course felt the weight especially when climbing up from the trail head, but the pack felt like it was part of me.

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Osprey, in the past, has made some dumb design moves…including hip belt pockets that are impossibly small, compression straps that cover pockets and water bottle pockets that could barely hold a pencil when the pack was full. This pack seems to have addressed most, if not all, the design issues that previously plagued Osprey backpacks. The hip belt pockets are spacious and could hold my good aka not-small point-and-shoot camera in its case, plus chapstick and a small bottle of contact lens solution. On the other side I could fit a king-size packet of M&Ms, my pocket knife, four cheese sticks and at least one other snack of the day.

The water bottle pockets are no longer covered by compression straps, although they do cross the very bottom of the pocket. The pocket is large and bulges, unlike the flat pockets of before, and the elastic at the top is almost too tight but fits and holds a Smart Water bottle in it perfectly. The side pockets have two holes…one on top and another pointing towards the hiker while wearing it so bottles are easily reachable while wearing the pack. The 1L Smartwater bottles I favor were too tall to take advantage of the side openings though as my elbows would hit them but I liked the thought that went into that design.

I found the stretch pocket on the front of the pack a little too tight for my liking and it doesn’t fit very much stuff in it when compared to the Arc Haul’s more spacious but similar-sized (LxW) front pocket where I can carry my tent if necessary. It is a good place to carry tall slender things and that is where I carried my shovel, bug spray, tent stakes, Anker battery and long-handled spoon.

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I made two modifications to the pack. First I trimmed down the ridiculously-long belt webbing…when pulled tight to secure the hip belt the ends hung down well below my knees. Secondly I added the two mesh pockets from my Arc Haul to the same location on the Aura…it works if you get inventive. (I did not use these on the Wind River Range trip). I love these top mesh pockets for my water filtering stuff, extra snacks, maps, my GPS SOS device, phone, mini-tripod and FA kit. Eventually I removed some of the straps I found myself not needing and removed the divider between the sleeping bag compartment and the main bag.

I carried this pack again (my Arc Haul had developed another issue despite the broken stays being replaced extremely quickly by ZPacks) on my Uinta Highline Trail trip with 30lbs of gear, food and water and the suspension continued to keep the pack very comfortable at that weight. It also accompanied me in the Wind River Range as the stays ZPacks had sent me were the newer-length for their 2018 packs, not the 2016 model which were longer. It served me well again in the Winds for a 7 days trip and remained comfortable and suitable for the long food carry although it felt like it dwarfed the packs the guys carried (an MLD Burn and a Superior Wilderness Designs 35L).

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Overall I would recommend this pack despite the slightly heavier weight when compared to other 50L offerings and I almost prefer it to my Arc Haul for comfort.

 

Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 3

Day 5 – Kidney Lakes to Whiterocks Lake

It wasn’t the bright sunny morning I was hoping for but the light wispy clouds weren’t particularly ominous but I packed up quickly and was on the trail by 7:50am, just in case they turned into something more serious.

The trail mostly wound down through pine forests before splitting several times. I had located the oddly-named Fox-Queant Pass that hadn’t made sense to me yesterday (it is the pass south of the one I was aiming for).

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Eventually the trail led us to Fox Lake which was below North Pole Pass. I had hoped to be at the base of the pass by noon to beat the afternoon thunderstorms but I managed to make it by 10:30am which was awesome. I grabbed a bite to eat and watched the gradually-building cumulus clouds in the west…the kind that eventually turn into thunderstorms. With that in mind I started the climb up North Pole Pass.

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I think this pass was my absolute least favorite pass to climb, initially because it was in the trees and had no view and then because it was steep and nasty and rocky, and I didn’t know where the top was…not to mention I was keeping a sharp eye on the possible rainstorm behind me.  I generally don’t mind the steepness of climbing the passes because you can see the top and have a goal, but not this one…it just kept going on and on and on. It’s only saving grace was the very pretty waterfall/canyon that we had to cross a few times.

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It was gorgeous at the top…endless alpine tundra and rocks and beautiful views in all directions but I was more worried about the storm building behind me and couldn’t fully appreciate how stunning it was. I was in a hurry to get off the high plateau and get to lower, safer ground. North Pole Pass was unlike others in that they were generally a saddle between two higher peaks and there was a very short distance between the up side and the down side whereas North Pole was a wide and  expansive tableland. This was not a place you would want to be if a storm came through.

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After a mile of hiking across the tundra and passing the wilderness boundary sign the trail finally started to descend just as raindrops were starting to spatter but there was no thunder…yet. Thankfully the trail was easy to follow and the cairns were obvious and we slowly descended into the valley. The impending storm had not yet materialized and the storm looked to be going around us to the north. I didn’t stop until we hit treeline and there we took a much-needed break. After a quick look at the map and being thankful that the rest of the day we would be below treeline I set my sights on Chepeta Lake, three miles from our location. The hiking was fairly easy and the trail was decent and we made pretty good time.

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Chepeta Lake was also a trail head and parking area and I chatted with one guy about the weather forecast (an obsession for me in a place like this) and about where I was aiming to camp that night. The map showed a great location before two final passes and just below treeline at Whiterocks Lake….he said it was 4-4 1/2 miles. That didn’t sound encouraging and I wasn’t sure I could manage another two hours of hiking although it was barely 4pm and I certainly wasn’t ready to stop for the day as there is little to occupy my time once camp is set and 5 hours of downtime would be way too much.

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The trail on the map looked pretty consistent and level, staying at around 10,500 ft for the entire distance so I decided to see how far I could get, even if it wasn’t quite to the lake. As the map promised the trail was level and easy to hike (the best section of the trail I think) and we made it to the lake in an just over an hour and a half. At the lake the sign said 3.5 miles so we made good time. Storms had been going around us pretty constantly and the growl of thunder to the north and south was pretty consistent but the skies above us remained clear and blue with a few clouds. I was thankful.

It was also the first time I got the chance to walk by and photograph a large herd of elk in a long meadow.

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I decided to make for the creek at the far end of the lake and we found several decent, flat campsite locations in the trees not far from the creek. A deer almost wandered into camp before bounding off as dusk set in. I finished the normal camp routine and chores for the night, including filtering water with my now-leaking dirty water bladder and went to bed which is when I usually write my journal entries.

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For some reason my phone kept booting me out of my app for an “Unlicensed App” but of course I was in airplane mode and had no service so couldn’t fix it. Writing usually fills up the last half hour before I sleep so without that to do I stared at the roof of my tent as the sky darkened and twiddled my thumbs for a while as I listened to the passing of deer and elk in the night.

Day 6 – Whiterocks Lake to Hacking Lake Trailhead

It took me a while to get to sleep last night as I was stressed about today’s weather. I set my alarm for 5am so that I could be hiking by 6 when the light was just about bright enough to see the cairns. I didn’t have too many miles to hike to the truck, about 8 from camp to trail head, but all but the first mile were above treeline with absolutely no cover. I was hoping for a good weather window.

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I was awakened at 2:30am by the low grumblings of a thunderstorm which slowly got closer and which was directly overhead 20 minutes later. I pretended to continue to sleep so the dogs would think I wasn’t worried…I think it worked as they didn’t overreact too much when the thunder was loud and almost overhead. Unfortunately I was also now very much awake and barely snoozed until my alarm went off.

It was a very cold way to pack up camp but we were hiking before 6am, and I managed to spook a cow elk who must have been sleeping in the brush not 30 feet from the tent when I went to put my back pack on. How I had not disturbed her before that point I don’t know.  We managed to spook several deer and at least two more herds of elk as we climbed to some unnamed pass to Dead Man Lake.

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I lied when I said yesterday was my least favorite pass…today was worse.

This no-name pass had no trail, rough footing and sooo many rocks…plus it was a lot longer and further of a climb than it looked from the treeline. It wasn’t much fun, but the sky was blue, the sun was slowly turning everything gold and the views were amazing…it certainly could have been a lot worse.

We trail then led in two directions…one in a steep descent to Deadman Lake and the other over another pass to the north. Now why the Highline Trail goes down to the lake only to have to climb back up again is a mystery to me but it would have been perfectly feasible to stay on the higher trail and cut across.

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I, however, followed the trail that was on the map and hiked down to the lake, through a herd of cows who eyed us suspiciously, especially the dogs. We paused for a break at the sign post before starting our climb to Gabbro Pass…the final pass of the trail before the Hacking Lake TH. We gave wider berths to the small pockets of cows and calves despite the fact that they were all pretty much standing between the first half mile of cairns. It was the only section of trail today that was easy to find and follow, even if it wasn’t as easy to hike.

And this was where I started to get pissed off…after negotiating around the cattle. Not only were the cairns tough to find but there were also random cairns that didn’t actually have a point…I wasted at least half an hour wandering from the only cairn I could see to the next cairn I could see a mile away but 90° in the wrong direction only to have to recross the meadow and rocks back to the only other cairn I could now see. There seemed to be a lot of random cairns strewn about and it got confusing. It was only due to my GPS app that I was able to fully determine which was the actual right way to go. (Coming up from Hacking Lake TH this trail would be easier to navigate as the lake would be an obvious and visible point to head to). This half hour delay would prove to be worse than imagined.

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Now on the right track we crossed Gabbro Pass and took the north trail around Wilder Lake. It was a prettier option (vs the southern trail) with views looking down the valley and over the lake, and less climbing was involved at the other end since it didn’t go down to the lake level. It was a little rough and overgrown in parts so seemed like it was less used. Eventually the trail turned upward again and we were climbing towards Leidy Peak and again we had to gently ask some cows to move along on their merry way.

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Although the sky had remained clear and blue all morning, and still was above me, just over the ridge to the north there were black clouds building in a line of succession that looked like it ran for miles. I thought about trying to wait for it to blow by but they were, at that moment, only dark clouds and I made the final ascent to the top of the ridge which was actually more of a plateau like North Pole Pass. The clouds weren’t looking better, nor were they looking worse and at that point I had no choice to go on.

Once again I went to the wrong cairn and had to backtrack after visible cairns disappeared and I again made use of my GPS app. Once I located the right cairns on the plateau they were easy to follow and I finally reached the intersection of the north and south trails aroud Leidy Peak. The Highline Trail goes to the north so that is the trail I took…and yet more misleading cairns, up, down, back etc. I was relying heavily on my GPS as I didn’t know which cairns to trust anymore.

And this is where that lost half hour from earlier was really missed…and less than half a mile from the truck. Initially a short, no lightning grumble-storm came through but I kept hiking as it was pretty minor but following that came a major thunderstorm. It was as if the black clouds hit the head of the valley and magically transformed into some growling, drooling monster within minutes. This one was serious.

Lightning was visible and the thunder was loud…it was overhead and I wasn’t going to take unnecessary risks. We had just reached the very scrubby, low evergreen trees that were the beginnings of treeline and I dumped myself and the dogs by one of the larger groups of trees that would be useful. I grabbed my poncho just as the rain started to pour…then the marble-sized hail came, all during which the thunder banged and crackled overhead and lightning sizzled around us. I witnessed a lightning strike not far from where we sat and the gunshot-like sound had Kye pretty scared, running back and forth and not knowing where to go until I got her calmed down and under a shrub.

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Eventually the backside of the storm came over and I risked getting up and moving on in the direction of the trail head. I no longer had cairns to navigate by and was relying solely on my phone to get us to the right place. Another storm was already growling on the heels of the last one and I was almost jogging in order to get to the truck before it hit. At least we were now near taller trees, although the lightning hit we had seen earlier didn’t give me quite the confidence in their safety.

In my hurry to get to the trail head I manged to roll my ankle, although not badly this time, stumble, trip and do a complete 180° tumble finally landing on my backpack with some of the contents spilled out on the grass, and complete with a nice bruise on my arm…not what I needed with the encroaching weather. I quickly gathered my fallen belongings and secured them in my pack before walking, slower, to the trail head. I came across two backpackers and a trail sign at the same time and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of my truck. It was definitely a day of frustration and emotion and probably my least favorite day on the trail. But it was over and I was headed back to Wyoming and what passes for civilization out here in the untamed west.

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Trail After-thoughts

While the trail and the Uinta mountains are gorgeous I don’t know that I would choose to do the trail again. I say this for two reasons: 1) The constant threat of thunderstorms, and the reality of multiple thunderstorms a day made for a very stressful hike. I was constantly watching over my shoulder to watch the weather and calculating where I needed to camp and hoping I wouldn’t get caught in a storm. I was actually extremely lucky in that the only storm I truly got caught hiking in was in the last half hour of the last day; most people I talked to got caught in multiple storms on multiple days during their hike. I don’t count the two night storms that came through as I was safely ensconced in my tent and generally below or at treeline. And 2) The tread of the trail was a lot rockier and on a lot more of the trail than I care for which made hiking it pretty tough. There are always exceptions and if I was to hike it again I think I would go the opposite direction and aim for early to mid September when thunderstorms are less likely.

Water was crazy abundant, even at the end of July and on a dry year, and the longest dry stretch started maybe two miles east of Anderson Pass for several miles to Kidney Lakes. This obviously isn’t a problem unless its a hot day and you didn’t filter enough at the previous location. Even though the map lists all permanent and seasonal creeks (of which 99% were flowing) there are dozens of springs and other seasonal creeks that aren’t marked. I was surprised at how much water was available at the top of some of the passes or above treeline…it seemed like every 10 ft I was stepping over a water flow. Some of it was easy to get to and others were tougher or would be hard to filter from but were fine for the dogs.

The highlights of the trail for me were the basin between Dead Horse Pass and Red Knob Pass where the turquoise blue of Dead Horse Lake surrounded by towering granite cliffs took my breath away, and Anderson Pass and Kings Peak.

Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 2

Day 3 – Lambert Meadow to Yellowstone Creek

No one ever wants to be awoken by the sound of rain on the tent but that’s exactly what woke me at 6:30am; it was not the sun to warm the tent I had wanted and positioned my tent for. It showered briefly and quit and I laid there with my hat over my eyes until the second shower passed. It did not bode well for a pleasant day of hiking.

I let the dogs out and packed up faster than I ever have before as I watched another band of rain move in from the west but thankfully it missed us this time and we only got a few sprinkles from the edge of the rain cloud.

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I broke my morning record yet again and was out of camp at 8am…still not sure how THAT happened! I knew I wanted an early start as I was hoping to cross at least two passes before the thunderstorms moved in.

I had attempted to put the worst of the early non-pass climbing behind me yesterday but there was still some rocky trail to navigate. There wasn’t much and after about an hour the trail leveled out at around treeline. We made good time and took a break at 9:30 when a family of four, three kids and their dad, passed us going the other direction. I asked them where Porcupine Pass was and the answer was not what I wanted to hear. It looked to be about 8 miles from Lambert Meadows where I camped last night so after an hour and a half I was wanting to hear something closer.

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It was a day for cairn hunting as I lost the trail several times where cairns were needed but non-existent. The irony of this is that there are so many places on the trail where there are dozens of cairns in places where they aren’t needed. It can get frustrating and was the first time I pulled my InReach out to check my location and where the trail was…I was on it, I just couldn’t find the cairns. I did eventually find them and eventually we climbed into the grassy alpine tundra to begin our gradual climb to Porcupine Pass.

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The pass didn’t look that far away and certainly didn’t look like a tough climb…then of course I pulled out my map and realized I was looking at the wrong saddle. I seem to have a habit of mistaking passes! I kept an eye on the weather behind me but at that point, well above treeline, I was committed to the trail and the pass.

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The trail slowly climbed across green rolling tundra before turning sharply into the scree field and climbing steeply up to the pass. I was still watching the weather but when we were maybe two hundred yards from the top I watched a band of rain moving to the south of us. It didn’t look ominous but I pulled my poncho out as it started to spatter in our direction. Then 100 yards from the top the thunder started to rumble. I quickly took a seat and watched the storm build above and to the south of us. I waited and watched for a while. Eventually I made a mad dash for the top and over the crest and quickly descended. The storm was still now directly east of us and heading over Kings Peak with what looked like torrential rain. It looked amazing from my point of view but I was glad I was nowhere near it.

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I took a break and had to pee. I only realized Shan was walking up from North Star Lake towards Porcupine Pass as I got done…hopefully he was too far away to see anything or was just watching the ground as he hiked. We chatted for a while and I gave him his car key fob that I hadn’t been able to store in the place he had asked me to leave it.

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With the weather still threatening we both moved on. To the south black clouds and thunder rumbled, and just on the other side of the ridge to the north thunder growled but other than a few raindrops I was spared the storms. I was thankful. Tungsten Pass was ahead of me and I’m not sure it could really be classified as a pass…it was more of a low saddle/ridge vs a pass.

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It was starting to look black behind me, the way the weather was coming to me, and I hurried over the pass and down the other side, passing a lake or two in my bid to get to lower ground. Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah loomed ahead of me and to its left was the saddle that was Anderson Pass…the highest pass on the Highline Trail. It was what I would be doing tomorrow.

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The trail was either downhill or flat but still rocky and I was careful where I stepped. I had removed my ankle brace as it was causing other issues. We crossed a no-name creek where I got water as I was out, and had been since I had crossed paths with Shan. I was pretty parched as I hadn’t wanted to stop with black clouds behind me.

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Just before we reached Yellowstone Creek I found a great campsite and I quickly unpacked and put my tent up in record time as I watched yet more storms move in, but they continued to go around us and stayed north.

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It was still early but the sun finally came out and we all relaxed in the sun for a moment and I prepared the dogs’ meals. They had just started eating when it started to downpour and I hurled my backpack and the dogs into the tent quickly. It didn’t last long and the sun came back out to warm and dry the tent and the ground, and the dogs finished their meals.

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For another two hours we relaxed and snoozed in the sun. The wind had started to pick up and I was getting chilly so we crawled into the tent and I started to write. Not ten minutes after we had made ourselves comfortable it started to hail and storm in a major fashion and right over the top of us. While we weren’t on a high point  (there were high peaks and ridges all around and in we were in a low dell) and there were some trees nearby but it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience and all I could think about were the two aluminum hiking poles holding the tent up!

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The wind gusted and tried to blow the tent over but it held, and the hail tried to bury us, but again the waterproof cuben fiber held up. I was praying for God to just keep us safe and dry. Cody had leapt on top of me at the first loud thunderclap and I just laid on my sleeping pad in the middle of the tent and held him. I’m not sure who needed it more. Lightning didn’t strike super close but it was close enough to be spooky. I knew the chances of being hit were lower than winning the lottery so I was nervous more than scared…but try explaining that to the dogs!

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The storm finally moved on and left us in peace so I could finish writing, re-tighten all the guy lines of the tent and make one last trip to the bathroom with the dogs before bed.

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Day 4 – Yellowstone Creek to Kidney Lakes

All I had wanted for the morning was to wake up to clear blue skies…and that’s exactly what I got. I was thankful. It was crisp and cold and I had had to put my down jacket on in the middle of the night as it was getting pretty chilly.

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I wanted an early start and was awake at 6am, and despite the cold air I packed up quickly. I wanted an early start as Anderson Pass was my only major climb and I wanted to accomplish it before the now-standard afternoon thunderstorms came rolling in. I was on the trail by 6:50am, which I doubt will ever happen again.

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Other than a few deer in the meadow we saw no wildlife as we started the gradual climb to the shoulder below the pass. We were soon back above treeline and I took plenty of time to admire the views before slowly meandering our way across the boulder-strewn grassland. The trail was fairly clear and when it wasn’t the cairns were easy to locate.

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We took a 15 minute break before the trail started the steep upward climb through scree and shale and boulders of all sizes. I heard voices behind us and looking back I could barely make out several tiny figures about a half mile behind me. It was time to climb and I shouldered my pack as I eyeballed the multiple switchbacks above us, most of which couldn’t be seen.

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It was slow going and I took lots of break as I watched the party of about 15 finally reach the bottom of the climb and pause for a few minutes. Then they too started to climb. I was pretty determined not to let them beat me to the top, but I also wasn’t going to kill myself trying to get there first. The climb was a mix between rubble, dirt, shale and boulders…some of which were more than a ton and had landed directly on the trail fairly recently as the trail was still fresh underneath them. That was certainly an eye-opener and I kept one eye on the cliffs above me.

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I was nearing the top (maybe 200 yards away) when the first four of the hikers I had been watching finally caught and passed me. I could have been an ass and not let them by (it was dangerous to step off the trail y’know) but I’m not that mean. I still have no idea how they climbed so fast with packs much heavier than mine…I think it had something to do with them all being young men under 20!

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So some of them (at least not all of them) reached the top ahead of me but I got there in the end and dumped my pack as I talked with the boys and their group leader for a while. Apparently the first guy to pass me had set his sights on me and beating me to the top…how funny that I had been determined to do the same thing. They were summiting Kings Peak and I told them I was hiking the Highline Trail. I got several looks of disbelief about hiking 80 miles, and how light my pack was compared to theirs (one kid had a 90l pack…mine is only 50l and I still have more space than I need) and surprise and admiration that I was doing this all in 6 days, solo with just the dogs. Their group leader asked me all about the trail and some of my gear and then took some pictures of Cody, Kye and me so that not all of my pictures are selfie-style.

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I said my farewells as the other nine in the group caught up and reached the pass and headed down the east side. Now I started running into a lot of groups who were heading up to summit Kings Peak…apparently it’s very popular and almost every group asked if I had been to the top already. My much-repeated answer was “no, not safe for the dogs”. I finally reached the bottom and ran out of people to ask me.

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I reached a trail junction not marked on the map and as a group came up the left-hand trail I asked them if that trail ran into the trail going east-west to Gunsight Pass and down the valley. They confirmed. I asked the following group and they concurred. So that’s the way I went until I realized it WAS taking me to Gunsight Pass, and probably the trail I wanted but going the long way round. I located the correct trail (the right-hand trail I should have taken) but in doing so I rolled my ankle again on an uneven section of ground…it’s always in the places you least expect it.

Gunsight Pass is the notch in the background:

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I took a break and then followed the cairns across the creek. Once across it was another game of find the cairns which is fast becoming my favorite game…not. With the trail finally located we headed east down the valley dipping in and out of the trees. The trail split and the sign pointing to the path I thought I wanted to take mentioned nothing that was on my map. It was definitely confusing and I cross-checked with my GPS to be sure it was the right trail…it was.

Anderson Pass and Kings Peak:

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We crossed another creek and I stopped to pee, only realizing afterwards that there were three hikers in the next meadow…I’m glad there was a tree between me and them or they would have got an eyefull!

I stopped and talked to them and they were also doing the Highline Trail and had seen my truck at the trailhead (good to know). As with most backpackers I talk to, and I talk to most of them as they are different from day hikers…there’s an unspoken camaraderie there…we talked about the trail, the weather, the passes and where we had camped the night before. The final information was useful as I later found out.

I said goodbye and continued on down the trail, climbing yet again. I thought I was done with climbing for the day. We stopped and took a 15 minutes siesta just as the climbing started…it helped a lot but it also meant it was tougher to get going.

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I had only filtered a liter of water at the creek crossing and we finished the last of what I had more than a mile before crossing the Uinta River. It was hot and I was parched by the time we reached the river, as were the dogs, and this was the first water crossing that wasn’t a simple rock hop. There was a slender dead tree across the creek but I didn’t like the look of the fall if one of us fell as we tried to cross so I wandered downstream 100 yards and found a better place to cross. Kye still managed to get wet as, for some reason, she didn’t jump to the last rock and instead went into the water. We backtracked upstream and I let the dogs rest for 20 minutes while I filtered water and ate a snack. As I stood up I got a fly-by from a hummingbird who buzzed me then my pack (they love red) and twice he must have landed somewhere on my pack. Eventually he took off after realizing my pack wasn’t a pretty red flower. Quite cool though.

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It was already 4pm and I was pretty tired already. I realized we would never make it as far as I had wanted to…that had been a long-shot anyway and I pulled the map out to give the trail ahead a look. I remembered what the hikers had told me about Kidney Lake. It was a little over two miles away and seemed doable…I figured I’d be there by 5pm.

What I didn’t count on was yet another steep climb that was more rock scramble than hiking trail for a good portion of the way; it was certainly not fun in any way. I walked up on a little buck at one of the creek crossings and didn’t want to spook him into hurting himself (possible because of where he was standing) so I called out. He didn’t hear me over the water and kept eating. I called louder and finally he looked up, stared at me for a second and then took off.

The exhaustion I felt in climbing, climbing, climbing was getting to me and I was desperate to see the sign for the trail to Kidney Lakes. After much begging and pleading I finally got there just after 5:30pm and then had to wander around for 10 minutes to find a suitable campsite (no rocks, level etc).

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Camp was set up quickly and I had to force myself to eat something even if it wasn’t dinner as I wasn’t hungry, and generally hadn’t been for most of the trip. The lake was warmish, for an alpine lake, and I took advantage of the water to wash my feet off…it felt good and they were pretty grimy after four days on the trail. If there’s one benefit to the rain last night it’s that the trail wasn’t dusty.

I watched the sun on the lake for a while before heading to bed and as I typed I heard some cow elk chirping across the lake. I risked a quick walk in the dusk to see if I could see them but there was no luck there and I went back to my tent to try and get some sleep.

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Backpacking the Uinta Highline Trail, July 2018: Part 1

Prologue

I left Casper and covered 100 miles before camping for the night north of Rawlins, avoiding all the major thunderstorms that threatened the area. I covered the last 200 miles the following day and met up with Shan, my “shuttle” at the turn off for the Red Cloud Loop north of Vernal, UT. He arrived earlier than expected; I was just finishing lunch and nowhere near ready. I hate feeling rushed, even if I’m not actually being rushed…I always forget something. We switched vehicles and gave each other a run down of the ins and outs of the each other’s vehicle. Shan was heading up to the Hacking Lake/ Leidy Peak TH and would be hiking west from there. I was driving his car to the west end and leaving it at the Highline Trail trailhead on SH150, and would be hiking east. It was a good plan.

I headed south, through Vernal and Duschene and got nailed by some torrential rain. The Lexus hybrid was definitely different to drive. I met up with a friend for dinner in Heber City, another final farewell (there seem to be a lot of those lately), before covering the last 50 miles to the trailhead. I had planned on covering a few miles but it was cold and still threatening to storm so I pulled out my pad and quilt and spent a very uncomfortable night in the car.

Day 1: Highline Trail Trailhead to Rock Creek

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Monday dawned clear and blue and I quickly packed up, made final use of real privies and hit the trail by 9am. For a long time there was very little to write home about as the trail stayed mostly in the trees, passing turn-offs to lakes and basins either high or low. We passed several other groups coming the other way, including some solo hikers and others with loose dogs (and only two out of five kept control of their animals…it gets old, especially without even an attempt or a care, and barely an apology).

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As we took a break after an hour of hiking we were passed by a very large, very noisy group of day hikers…there must have been twenty of them. They were all polite though and I ran into a couple of them a few miles further up as they were resting…they were astounded that I was planning to be in the wilderness solo for seven days with the dogs and insisted on taking our picture…they were very sweet and I obliged.

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It wasn’t until we were only a couple of miles from Rock Sea Pass that things got a little interesting. I had been watching some black clouds to the south and hoping they weren’t going to develop into a thunderstorm…but that’s exactly what they did. So I hiked for a while until it looked like it was coming our way and then I hunkered down under a tree with the dogs…I certainly didn’t want to get caught above treeline with lightening being a threat. The thunder growled to the south for a while and seemed to be moving east more than north. A couple of passing hikers said there was plenty of tree cover for a while yet and recommended I keep going…so I did. By this time the storm was obviously going around us and I thought it best to get up and over the pass before another one came behind me.

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We finally broke free of the treeline above Pigeon Milk Spring and followed the valley up to Rock Sea Pass…as gorgeous as it always is above treeline, in my opinion, but without the lakes of the Bighorns.

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A final short, steep and insanely rocky ascent took us to the top of the pass and we got our first look at the valley and trail below, as well as the storm churning in the east that had missed us…thanked God for that one a lot. Breathtaking is a word I will probably use a lot in this trip journal…but that’s the only way to describe it. Steep cliffs half encircled the rich green dell below us and ponds and lakes dotted the landscape. Ahead of us we could see Squaw Peak and the pass we would be doing the following day, although I was not sure exactly which one it was.

The trail down went below a small snow field and was pretty sketchy; it was rubble and rocks and boulders, and a little bit of dirt path. It was slow going and I was insanely careful, especially with my bad ankle but I still managed to slip once and fall on my ass…better backwards than forwards though on a trail like that.

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We reached the soft green grass at the base and took a break. I let the dogs sleep for half and hour as I finished the last of the water and snacked on some M&Ms. I thought I heard rocks falling and then voices but could see no one on the trail…I finally located two figures at the very top of the pass who were looking down into the lake-dotted valley.

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After a short rest we continued on through the idyllic terrain; an easy flat trail for a short while that soon dipped back down into the trees. It was here that somehow I rolled my ankle again and hit the ground but with slightly less force than on the trail in Colorado. I had been so careful, especially when going downhill. I picked myself back up and continued on, pausing for water at the creek and taking another brief respite.

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The trail soon split and we turned right and east again as the trail paralleled the river. I continued to be careful about where I stepped as the trail was steep and rocky in places. I spooked a small herd of cow elk in an open, marshy meadow as I turned a corner. I’m not sure how I got so close but I couldn’t have been more than 20 ft from the first cow I spooked. Sadly they disappeared before I could get any pictures.

I lost the trail briefly in the grass but quickly found it (no cairn on the east side apparently) and caught a glimpse of a copper-colored coat through the trees. Sure enough I was rewarded by the sight of a gorgeous and huge bull elk grazing in the pines. I don’t think he even knew I was there until I said “hey bull”. He had a gorgeous rack and I got a good picture or two.

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From that point it was another short and steep and rocky descent (are you sensing a theme here?) to Rock Creek. I hunted for a campsite; they were in short supply but I found a flat spot in the trees just off the trail and made do. The dogs were eager to be fed but I wanted to get the tent up before the rain came…which the sky had been threatening all afternoon.

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They were fed soon after and then swiftly fell asleep while I filtered water and cooked dinner. The final highlight to the day was the doe that walked just beyond the perimeter of camp, stared at me and then took off before the dogs even realized she was there. I spent some time trying to figure out why my camera was no longer willing to take HDR but to no avail and I finally gave up and crawled into bed (I did eventually, accidentally figure it out).

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Day 2 – Rock Creek to Lambert Meadow

I slept okay and woke at 7am. I tried to wait until the sun hit the tent before braving the cold but it was taking too long and I wanted to be on the trail early so I could hit the passes before thunderstorms threatened. I let the dogs out of the tent while I packed up inside. It is always good to see them feeling good enough to run and play when we are hiking as it ensures, to me, that I am not over-doing it with them.

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The trail started off rocky and up…and I was glad I hadn’t attempted it the night before…something I had thought about doing so I would be closer to the pass in the morning. After a mile or two it leveled out and the going was fairly easy although the trail disappeared often in the lush meadows and marshes that were frequent and mosquito-laden. Only once did I have a hard time finding the cairn I needed to direct me but I eventually located it and continued on.

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Fresh cow pies were prevalent…something I’m not sure I like in the wilderness, but I guess the cattle serve a purpose or they wouldn’t be there. I filled up with water at Ledge Lake and checked the sky…a few clouds were skimming across the blue but nothing ominous…and I started the ascent to Dead Horse Pass.

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I had been warned about this pass the day before by a solo hiker who said he would love to do the trail again but probably never would because of this particular pass. So I was definitely nervous.

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The climb was decent but as always, rocky and occasionally non-existent with only cairns to follow. I finally reached the top and was confronted with a Cirque of the Towers-like view with towering cliffs and a couple of lakes below, including the very turquoise Dead Horse Lake.

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The trail was nowhere to be seen and I peered over the rocky ledge to see if I could see where it went…nothing except a faint trail in the scree directly below. It looked terrifying. Thankfully there were two other backpackers who had just come up the east side and directed me to the RIGHT way (don’t ignore the cairns).

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I drained my water and ate some snacks while we took a break before heading down the treacherous trail. I moved my DeLorme InReach SOS device to a place I could reach it better, just in case I fell. While the first couple of switchbacks were definitely nerve-wracking and one wrong move would send you hurtling down 1000ft it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. (This pass, as well as Rock Sea Pass are NOT recommended for horses and pack stock but if you do this trail then coming from the east would definitely be the way to do it as horses do better going up steep than down steep).

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We finally made it to the bottom after several stops for pictures, including one of the horse skull for which (I believe) the pass is named…or some other dead horse. The lake was stunning and looked a little surreal as we circumnavigated it…such a cool color.

That is the pass behind me…and yes, it looks impassable from any distance away:

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From the lake we followed the trail that paralleled the creek before turning off to make the ascent over Red Knob Pass. The climb was fairly easy but I was definitely struggling and my legs had felt like jello all day…but it was still early afternoon and I couldn’t justify stopping for the day.

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After a mile we were thrust above tree line and we were once again following cairns. The trail, which I had seen from the top of Dead Horse Pass, seemed so far above and we were stopping every 100 yards to give my legs a break. We took our last break before the final steep ascent to the saddle and then slowly climbed on a pretty decent trail, albeit with a few rocks.

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I was eyeballing the saddle constantly, watching the pass get closer and closer…but when we reached it it wasn’t the top. Ugh. The views, however, were stunning and I kept taking picture after picture while keeping an eye on the weather although there was nothing to worry about even with the blacker-looking clouds.

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We made the final push to the top and took another break, chugging most of my remaining water before heading down. The descent was easy and soon we were on a flat, cairn-guided trail that traversed the wide open alpine grassland and eventually delved below treeline.

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For another two miles we followed the mostly-level trail beside the creek. Black clouds were now starting to threaten some serious activity but nothing more than a few raindrops appeared. With the storm to the south of us I made the decision to climb 500ft and a mile up to our chosen campsite in Lambert Meadow. The clouds continued to look menacing for a while until they finally started to rumble.

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I was below treeline so didn’t worry too much but once we got close to open ground we took shelter beneath a large evergreen for half an hour as the storm boomed. It never went directly over us and the rain was only cursory, with one decent shower. Eventually I deemed the storm far enough from us to continue and 10 minutes later, and having gone 7pm, we arrived in Lambert Meadow with the storm still growling in the east and black skies shadowing the mountains.

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I quickly fed the dogs and got the tent up, just in case more rain was due but the western sky was sunny and clear and I finished up evening chores before heading to bed at 9pm with the sky a dark azure blue and the almost-full moon beaming down on us.

Gear Review: Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack

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I have used these packs exclusively for 3 years and hundreds of miles with my two border collies. Kye is a 34lb female and Cody is a 40lb male.

When first buying these packs I bought the small for Kye and the medium for Cody, according to the measurements and weight guidelines on the website. Despite this the medium pack really was too large for Cody and I had it cinched down as tight as possible to make it fit. The panniers themselves were massive on him. Recently I replaced his medium pack with a small and it fits much better and has smaller panniers.

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What I love about these packs is how they fit and carry on each of my dogs. The weight is carried over their shoulder and is not suspended from their back like other bags. This creates less fatigue and rubbing.

The fully-adjustable 5-point harness of these packs means that they do well on any shape or size of dog (assuming you get generally the right size), and as long as they are adjusted correctly I have seen absolutely zero chaffing, rubbing or hair wear during or after our backpacking trips. The key to this is not having the harness too tight; it needs to keep the pack on the dog NOT keep the pack in place on the dog. Keeping the pack in place is achieved by correct placement and balance of the pack’s contents, much like the panniers on a pack horse. I have seen several dogs with packs hanging to one side…this is uncomfortable for the dog and causes chaffing and fatigue.

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The panniers themselves, on a size medium, have the capacity to carry about 3-4 days worth of regular dog food (about 2 cups per meal) on each side. I usually only have my dogs carry two meals on each side due to weight more than capacity.

The fabric of these packs has held up extremely well. My dogs generally stay on trail with me but they have been through boulder fields and up talus trails, through scrub, under and over trees, between rock faces and more. The only wear, after 3 years of use, is along the very bottom of the panniers where have often rubbed against rocks, trunks and tree limbs as the dogs have climbed over or around them. Even snagging on large branches has not affected the fabric.

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These packs also feature a grab handle (useful when Kye almost fell between two boulders on Jackass Pass in Wyoming) and a leash D-ring if you don’t want to use their collar (which every dog should be wearing on the trail). The positive aspect about the leash connection on the pack is that a leash is less-likely to get wrapped beneath the panniers than if using their collar.

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All in all these are great packs, they fit well and my dogs love them. Highly recommended. The only packs that I have seen that are comparable in quality and fit are Groundbird Gear Dog Packs but they have a long wait period and are much more expensive. Ruffwear dog packs are readily available in REI and at online retailers.