Deep in the Uinta Mountains

- Paul Jones
Uinta Mountains
Every August, angry thunderheads gather as I drive to the Uinta Canyon Trailhead. Things were no different this time around. As the windshield wipers fought a losing battle with the deluge I tried to prepare by telling myself that it was only a little taste of things to come.

Weather in the Rockies is famous for its quicksilver disposition. You can enjoy clear skies one minute, and rain or snow quite literally the next. About half an hour before reaching our trailhead the clouds retreated, yielding to a beautifully sunny sky. Of course, as we drew closer we saw that a black island of cloud hung doggedly over the Uintas' rounded peaks. The brief taste of sunshine had gotten my hopes up. I should have known better.

Mark left me, my brother, and our piles of gear where the trail starts near the outskirts of the U-bar Ranch. He pulled around and drove his white Tracker back to the trailhead parking lot, which we had passed about a half-mile back on the dirt road. While John and I waited for Mark to walk back and meet us, I surveyed the scene ahead with anticipation. The canyon receded northwards into the clouds like a giant geological rain gutter. Its wide mouth dwarfed the small cabins of U-Bar Ranch huddled in front of us.

The Uinta Mountains are an east-west running offshoot of the Rocky Mountains. Some guidebooks have tried to boost the Uintas' singularity by claiming that they're one of only two east-west running ranges in the Unites States, sharing the honor with the venerable Brooks Range in Alaska. However, as many as forty other ranges within the U.S. can claim the same distinction. Such attempts to make the Uintas sound unique are unnecessary. It isn't these mountains' geographical orientation that sets them apart. Dense forests, alpine meadows, and innumerable lakes paint the Uintasí sprawling landscape. The forests here are home to a menagerie of creatures including black bears, mountain lions, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, lynx, and pine marten. Wolverines have even been spotted roaming these forests. What really sets the Uintas apart is their vastness and variety.

Mark finally appeared around a bend in the road, breaking me from my thoughts. We finished securing our packs and shrugged them onto our shoulders. My back protested at being forced to bear the weight of seven days' provisions. We joined up with the trail a short distance from the road, where a chained livestock gate spanned the narrow dirt track. The gate shrieked loudly, and our small group was immediately swallowed by the forest. Dark lodgepole pines stabbed upwards at a soft underbelly of cloud.

We traversed one pine-carpeted valley after another, cresting tall ridges in between. On the second day we left the trail. We sloshed across marshes, picked around deadfall, and gradually pressed deeper into the mountains. Each ridge offered spectacular views of the surrounding basins. On day four we topped the final ridge standing between us and our destination. Surveying the surrounding land, I could see nothing but unbroken wilderness in every direction. To the north, the spine of the Uintas stretched either way into the distance. The peaks, ridges, and dense green forests around us rolled and stretched in an endless panoramic.

On the fourth day, a psychological transformation began to take place. My perceptions felt somehow more clear. The only possessions that mattered here were a few basic tools and my mind. My only responsibilities were to myself and my traveling companions. I felt like I understood how William Ashley, Kit Carson, and others must have felt when they first blazed across these mountains.

Iím not quite sure what triggered this change in my mental outlook. Maybe it was simply that oneís problems tend to get pushed into perspective when they're enfolded in the arms of a billion-year-old mountain range. Maybe it was walking among forests that had been wordlessly reproducing for countless millennia before my arrival. Maybe it was simply that experience enriches the soul.

Late on the fourth day, the afternoon sun was sliding towards the horizon. I walked across a small ridgetop plateau towards the north rim, where the ground began to plummet again towards the next valley floor. This side of the ridge was much steeper than the one we had just ascended. Of course, the three of us had already expected as much. We knew that taking a shortcut across the ridge would be a gamble. Before climbing we had paused to consult our topo map and cast a group vote. Mark had pushed for crossing, my brother for circumnavigating. I broke the tie in favor of ascent.

I perched on a boulder to size up the slope below. A cluster of small pines near me peered tentatively downward at a distant sunlit meadow. From previous experience I had a good idea of what lay ahead. The intervening space would consist of a steep field of bear-sized boulders. If I didn't place my weight carefully, the quartzite blocks would shift with a sickening growl. The last time I navigated such a slope, I promised myself I would never do it again. While I stood there stewing, Mark cheerfully disappeared over the edge. I hate it when he does that.

The afternoon lengthened one chunk of rock at a time. Less than halfway down the slope, my legs began to feel like Jell-O. Balancing on razor-edged boulders drained my diminishing fund of climbing energy. I remembered reading a story about a man in Montana who was caught in a rockslide on a mountain like this. Search and Rescue teams never found his body. Years later a group of mountaineers stumbled across a dilapidated boot and a sheared femur among the rocks. I wondered if that's all that would be left of me in ten years' time.

Descending a ridge in the Uinta Mountains

About fifty yards off to my right, John hollered when he caught sight of a green field below. We clambered down the final hundred feet of boulder piles and lay on our backs gazing up at where we had been standing three hours ago. From a distance, the mammoth rocks we had traversed looked like fine red gravel. A cold alpine breeze washed across the meadow. Amidst evening shadows we shouldered our packs again and hiked the last few miles towards our basecamp. A bull elk watched motionlessly from a far meadow as we passed.

Our camp was nestled in the upper reaches of an isolated basin teeming with lakes and trout. The flyfishing was spectacular. Hefty brook and cutthroat trout rose for every third or fourth cast. They swallowed whatever flies we tossed their way. For two days we fished. After growing tired of reeling them in, I again traded my flip-flops for hiking boots. Free of packs, the three of us quickly ascended the back ridge of our little basin. We climbed past tundra meadows, springs gurgling through the rocks, and a high lake opaque with glacial flour. In the next valley, streams and lakes reflected the setting sun with the brilliance of liquid metal.

I'm glad I made that trip. I'm intrigued by experience. I'm not sure I could put words to the things one learns in the mountains. If I tried, the words would sound clumsy and inaccurate. Whenever I enter the wilderness, something embeds itself deep inside my mind. The result is something like peace, and greater soundness of character. I don't yet know what it is, but it's something I intend to pursue as long as I am able.