A thunderstorm rolls away, a curtain of angry rain sweeping east. The leftover air is cold and humid. Danni and I shoulder our packs and unceremoniously walk down the trail. From the Mirror Lake Trailhead in the Uinta Mountains, we begin our trek of the 80-mile Highline Trail.
The Highline Trail reaches east-west through the Uintas’ remote-as-hell, ain’t-no-cell-service-up-there core. Between Mirror Lake on the west and Hacking Lake on the east, the trail climbs and descends six notable passes and spends much of its time above 11,000 feet altitude and treeline. The route is a bona fide trail in some places and a cairned direction of travel in others.
In life and backcountry travel, I have two main fears: starvation and lightning. I once spent six weeks working at an archaeological field camp in northern Tanzania, among the terrain and wild animals most people take safaris to glimpse. So remote was camp that our food and water were in short, rationed supply. The experience taught me that perpetual hunger sucks. Over a decade ago, I interned at a national park in Texas, assisting scientists of various disciplines with field research. One day, an ornithologist and I were caught on an exposed ridge during an unprecedented morning thunderstorm and lightning struck everything but us. I cried like a baby and acquired another life-lasting fear.
Under yielding skies and with a backpack laden by enough food to take a small militia with us, I think, our journey is in the free and clear. While I will be proven very wrong, it doesn’t happen tonight. We hike for one hour—three miles—before finding an earthen platform covered with conifer needles for our ultralight tarp-tent. Like marmots, we perch on a smooth boulder to eat dinner. Our laughter makes the walls of the tarp-tent glisten with condensation before we even fall asleep.
The Pace of Nature
Danni and I are not only experienced in wilderness travel, but we are also ultrarunners. We run races, mostly on trails, well in excess of a marathon. It is our intent to use our endurance ability to cover the Highline Trail’s 80 miles in four days, so we are walking before dawn. The sun is a yellow orb about 15 degrees above the horizon as we crest our first pass. On Rocky Sea Pass, we surf an ocean of salmon-colored talus.
Noise below us catches our attention, two backpackers emerging from treeline. We learn that they will finish their thru-hike at Mirror Lake today. They are a day late: the same thunderstorm we followed down the trail yesterday forced them to bed down below this pass. “We weren’t going over this sucker in that storm,” one of them says, waving his trekking pole at the rocks. The other adds, “The pace of nature, Emerson said something about it, right?”
Thirteen miles later, we screech to our own stop below the crest of the next pass, Deadhorse Pass, where the trees thin into just rocks. Gray clouds boil overhead. It’s impossible to tell who would win the race over the pass, the thunderstorm or us. Danni knows about my lightning fear, so she says, “We’ll wait until the storm ends.”
Mosquitoes chew on us and rain incrementally splatters this side of Deadhorse Pass. The weather takes all afternoon to reach its detonation point, and we bed down in the tarp-tent when it does. The world becomes a symphony of sound: pea-size hail pinging tent fabric, thunder’s crackle-y claps, and Danni’s catnap snores. The storm rattles on until almost dark and this bivy becomes our campsite.
A Long, Exquisite Way
We assault Deadhorse Pass in the black of early morning. Our pre-dawn head start goes haywire at the pass because we can’t find where the trail dives off the other side. We pace in an icy wind, waiting for light, kicking rocks. This curse becomes a blessing because of the twilight view. Deadhorse Basin, on the far side of the pass, is white. “It’s magic,” exclaims Danni. Hail coats everything: the trail, trees, grass, wildflowers. It is a gut punch of pretty, so, once we’re among it, we fire up the camp stove for coffee to help us enjoy it a little more.
Red Knob Pass, the next wave of sky-high rocks, sobers us up. Duct taped to a directional sign is a poster for Eric Robinson, shredded by wind and water. Eric is a hiker who never came back from his thru-hike of the Highline Trail about a month ago. The search for him was well publicized in my hometown, Park City.
The route here, about three miles from Red Knob Pass to treeline on its east side, is more a game trail than anything created and maintained by humans. We meet two backpackers, and one says, “This is a tough section of trail to follow, and today it will be more so.” The hail hard pack covers everything, including the hint of a trail.
Staying on piste proves impossible even though we creep attentively along. We agree to travel in the right direction, by way of map and compass, until we reach the forest. If don’t encounter the trail by then, we’ll search side-to-side until we do. Dipping below treeline without a trail seems a bad idea.
This is a time consuming but effective means of relocating ourselves. In the process, we stumble upon a historic cabin and a beaver dam that’s almost as big. And, we talk about Eric. Did he become sick? Lost? Was he a victim of inclement weather? A wild animal? Miles later, at a trail junction down in the trees, we find another of his posters. Danni and I hold a mini-vigil and I say a silent prayer to whoever might be listening for Eric to rest in peace.
Later, the trail empties into the end of a flat-bottomed valley filled with grass and shouldered by that same coral-colored talus. The valley must be four miles long, and it possesses not a lick of trail. Volkswagen Bug-sized cairns instead guard the route. At the head of this valley is a final grunt to 12,200-foot Porcupine Pass. A skinny, switchbacking trail up pink rocks: the situation now feels familiar. A late afternoon breeze prickles my skin, which is sweaty from the uphill effort. The view from Porcupine Pass goes a long, exquisite way and is filled with ripples of rock emerging from green forests.
We walk through several miles of alpine terrain before popping over tiny Tungsten Pass. Darkness is an hour off, so we call it a day. Our trip is half over and I’ve consumed about 20 percent of my food, so I feast. I fill my stomach to the point of discomfort but forget about it when Danni gasps in the direction of east. A giant, milky disc slings itself above the horizon. The full moon blankets the night with silver light and we don’t need headlamps.
Swallowed Up and Spit Out
We are up and at ‘em in the dark, carving enough time into this third day for big mileage. As we eat breakfast and pack camp, tiny raindrops fall from and the moon sets through swirl-y clouds. It is all the creepiness of Halloween here at 11,000 feet.
Ahead of us is the Highline Trail’s tallest pass, Anderson Pass, at about 12,600 feet altitude. It’s shrouded in fog with about a quarter-mile visibility, enough to spider our way over but too little to see the scenery we know is there. The pass hugs the shoulder of Utah’s high point, Kings Peak. We had planned to tag the summit on our way by, but going higher into the murk is pointless. Instead, we make fast work of Painter Basin.
All day, the weather is fickle, alternating between sunshine and fat splatters of rain. In the middle of the afternoon and with little warning, the skies explode as we cross a wide meadow. Sleet pounds down and we sprint for the next stand of trees. Lightning flashes and thunder ka-blams with a one-second pause.
We build another bivy and wait. I fight an internal battle with my terror of lightning. When I was a kid, I made contingency plans for an array of potential disasters. My strategy for every problem—none of which ever occurred—was about the same: to beat my head against a hard object, pass out, and stay unconscious until the danger receded. It sounded as logical at age eight as it does in the thick of this storm.
I tell Danni this and that I’d consider using the downed log on which we sit as my hard object. She looks at me like I’ve spoken in an incomprehensible tongue. Then she laughs for over a minute. I laugh, too, because it relieves the tension.
I once believed that I was badass when it came to the backcountry. When a buddy sliced his thumb about half off in a remote spot of the Grand Canyon, I organized the group’s self-extrication. When I worked in search-and-rescue, I was most often assigned to the hasty search because my team knew I would take care of myself, navigate everything, and move fast. And, when I didn’t work in search-and-rescue, the team still called to ask about wherever they were headed because I was among one of the most-adventured folks they knew. Now, swallowed up by this storm: I am useless to the world. I do not know what to make of myself.
The weather calms and we walk again, putting in more miles before dark. Soon two backpackers slosh toward us on the rainwater-filled trail, looking drowned and dirty like us. We greet each other and exchange thunderstorm stories before wishing each other luck. Come last light, we pitch the tarp-tent on the approach to North Pole Pass, in one of the last spots of grass before it’s only rocks. Tonight, I can’t eat—which is freakish given my relationship with food—and I have trouble sleeping. I am shaken.
The high, alpine knoll that makes North Pole Pass is covered in gray frost. The sunrise of our final day bathes the frost and everything else, including us, in warm light the color of a campfire. We cannot talk for the beauty.
Three hours later, at 10:30am, I come to rest on the ground of the Chepeta Lake Trailhead, rubbing my fingers into the dirt not unlike a toddler might. This in an alternate Highline Trail access point about 13 miles from our pick-up location at Hacking Lake. The skies are grumbling and miniscule hail pellets peck at my rain jacket. More than half of the miles between here and Hacking Lake are above treeline and I cannot fathom another day of battling my lightning demons. I am defeated.
Danni and I decide to walk down this road until we can hitchhike to civilization. I pray that she is less disappointed in me than I am in myself. We eventually catch a ride with a local oil-field worker. He’s a big, friendly man with a tiny, shy Chihuahua. After a few minutes, the dog warms up to me and curls against my thigh. Two seconds later she barfs and enormous quantity of half-digested dog food on my leg. We burst into laughter.
That night, at the Wasatch Brew Pub back in Park City, we clank thick pint glasses and rehash the trip. Our conversation goes a little like this:
I say, “The Highline Trail swallowed us whole and spit us out.”
She says, “We are less digested than the dog’s puke.”
Me, “What a trip.”
Her, “Maybe you need lightning therapy.”
Me, “I am not flawless.”
Her, “I’m a lawyer. I know no one is. ”
Me, “I love you.”
Her, “Drink beer.”
Me, “At least we didn’t become lost.”
Her, “I’ve never seen someone read a map like you. In our case, getting lost was impossible.”
We both simultaneously say, “Rest in peace, Eric.”
I say, “And, we didn’t starve.”
She says, “You ate a lot of food.”
Me, “I like food.”
Her, “But you don’t like lightning.”
Me, “I can’t believe you snored through a storm.”
Her, “I can.”
I say, “I give in.”
Highline Trail Highlights
Length: 80 miles end-to-end, from Mirror Lake to Hacking Lake (The Highline Trail actually extends another 20 miles east of Hacking Lake, but the trail hasn’t been maintained in perhaps decades. Because of this, most folks consider the route between Mirror Lake and Hacking Lake as the Highline Trail.)Safety: The Highline Trail is remote, and encountering other humans or enough cell service to send even a text message is rare. The trail is not always defined, making map-and-compass navigation abilities a must. Rain, hail, sleet, snow, below-freezing temperatures, and high-altitude sunlight are common environmental concerns. The trail never dips below 10,000 feet altitude.
Gear: Bring something to repel mosquitoes. Wear a sun hat and use abundant sunscreen. Wear shoes or boots with a thick, protective outsole to keep your feet comfortable on the perpetually rocky terrain. Finally, trekking poles stabilize you and your pack and allow you to put extra oomph into forward movement.
For More Information: Traversing parts of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest (801-236-3400) and Ashley National Forest (435-789-1181), a good chunk of the Highline Trail is in the High Uintas Wilderness.