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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