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In which I invade the mountains of Utah January 19, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking.
Tags: , , ,
View from the summit of Mt. Agassiz.

View from the summit of Mt. Agassiz.

Last night I sprained my ankle going down the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse on my way to dinner in downtown Sylva—taking the steps too fast, obviously. Therefore I was unable to perform my duty today as co-leader of a scheduled Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing with Clyde Austin. This afternoon, as the day becomes sunnier and more pleasant by the hour, I fume at being stuck indoors. As I cast about for a way to pass the time, it occurs to me to victimize you, my faithful blog readers, with a second post on the same day. I hope to be back to hiking in the Smokies very soon, doing something worthy of writing about here.

In March one year, maybe a dozen years ago, I traveled to Park City, Utah, for a business conference. Not such a bad place to go! Compared with Salt Lake City, Park City is something of a Sin City, with a history of lively saloons galore. It has morphed into a ski resort town, still bustling with pleasantly sinful activity, of course.

I figured I’d tack on a couple of extra days and do some hiking while I was out there. I’d never done any hiking in Utah. The Wasatch Mountains may be the best-known peaks of the state, but the Uintas are closer to Park City, so they were my pick. I still haven’t made it to the Wasatch, but since then I’ve visited the La Sal Mountains in southeast Utah, a beautiful and underrated area.

The Uintas are a long line of mountains running east-west. The state high point, Kings Peak (13,528′), stands in the wildest part of these mountains, involving a trip of two or three days and generally reached from across the Wyoming state line via the Henry’s Fork drainage.  That was not a practical option for me, especially in March, when there’d be plenty of snow to deal with.

The Highline Trail runs 96 miles along the Uintas and can be accessed via the Mirror Lake Highway not far east of Park City. I decided on an acclimatization hike up Bald Mountain (11,943′), a popular trail hike close to the highway, just 2.5 miles to the top with 1100′ elevation gain. The next day I would venture a short distance along the Highline Trail and bushwhack from there to the summit of Mt. Agassiz.

So I headed off for Bald Mountain. I’d brought all my winter gear with me, and it was a good thing I did.  The trailhead was easy to find, but soon I saw that the switchbacking trail was completely lost under the same fresh, deep powder that the Park City skiers were enjoying.

This has happened to me more than once out west. Because the trails usually follow gentle, switchbacking routes that sidehill up the mountain, there is no ridgeline or stream valley to give you an idea of the route, especially above treeline or even in the lower forests with their widely spaced trees. Trying to follow a trail like this in untracked snow has led me to fail on two different mountains, Humphreys Peak in Arizona and Cucamonga Peak in California’s San Gabriels.

Well, the one thing that helped me out here was that Bald Mountain really is bald, and it’s obvious where the summit is. So I decided, “Forget following the trail! I’m just going to head straight up!” Luckily I had my trusty snowshoes with their aggressive crampons. And I went up. And it was extremely steep. But I made it, and I could see my destination of the next day looming up not far away.

I got everything ready and made a very early start. The map showed me that it didn’t really matter exactly where to leave the Highline Trail. When I got to the vicinity of Mt. Agassiz, I should simply head north.

My route from the Highline Trail to Mt. Agassiz's summit.

My route from the Highline Trail to Mt. Agassiz’s summit.

I followed the trail past Scudder Lake and went a little ways past a trail junction before making my bold assault on the mountain. I soon found that the situation here was quite different. I didn’t have deep snow to deal with—it had blown and/or melted off the side of the mountain. I did have to deal with ice, so I used my ice axe and crampons.

Getting up the slope was hard work, but the distance wasn’t that great. I reached the summit with its views of gnarly mountains striped with snow. I was pleased to discover a climber’s register at the summit cairn. The last climb had been recorded the previous September.

It was with great satisfaction that I wrote, “Jenny Bennett of Gloucester, Massachusetts,” and recorded the date. A woman! Doing it solo! From some dumb little town in Massachusetts! Ah, I felt so smug about that.

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You can make out the Wasatch in the distance.

You can make out the Wasatch in the distance.