Paradise and Purgatory in the High Uintas

It seems you can't hike anywhere these days without stumbling into a little drama
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It seems you can't hike anywhere these days without stumbling into a little drama

Well, good friend Pete Rives and I just spent 8 days hiking through the Utah's High Uinta Wilderness for an upcoming story. And it was spec-tac-ular. I can't believe it took me 30 years of living in Utah before I finally did the Uinta Highline Trail. The trip began at 10,800 feet, and stayed near or above that level for nearly 80 miles. We saw tons of wildlife, gorgeous alpine basins and cliffy ridgelines. The trout were gratifyingly naive, and the weather was flawless, although it was so unseasonally warm that the elk were lying slumped on ridgetop snowbanks.

Ironically, while we were hiking through this lovely alpine paradise, a search drama was unfolding in the same area.

On Wednesday or Thursday, July 9th or 10th, John 'Giz' Youngerman (61) from Ohio met some Utah hikers enroute to King's Peak (13,528), Utah's highest summit. He apparently accompanied them up Henry's Fork, the standard two-day northern approach to the mountain. On Friday, the group ascended a couloir north of the peak (see map at above link). This steep shortcut eliminates a tedious trail climb south over Gunsight Pass, down into Painter Basin, then west up to Anderson Pass and the mountain's north ridge. The group summited around noon on Friday the 11th, then descended back to camp the same way, splitting into two groups enroute.

Youngerman fell behind on the descent. Both groups assumed he was with the others. Apparently Youngerman followed the normal trail east from Anderson Pass rather than heading north to the slot. After descending to Painter Basin, he missed the obvious trail fork up over Gunsight Pass and became lost. He was noticed missing about 4 p.m. when the others regrouped at their campsite. Some backtracked to look for him, while others hiked out 15 miles to report him missing. Searchers began looking at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning. Youngerman was found around 10:30 a.m. on Sunday the 13th, dehydrated and tired, but otherwise unhurt. The usual media frenzy ensued.

During news conferences post-rescue, Youngerman talked about how he floundered through marshes, and stayed warm by huddling against a log and breathing into his windbreaker. Apparently he didn't have any fire starting materials. He claims a GPS would have helped, but he had a compass, and apparently a map. The open tundra bowls of the Gunsight/Anderson/Painter Basin area would seem a tough place to get lost in unless the weather's bad, especially if you've been looking down off the area's highest peak, which offers a superb view of the surrounding layout.

Some overdramatized news reports emphasized the 'danger' of the Uintas and freezing nights, illustrating the usual media trend of grossly hyping wilderness and mountaineering risk. In fact, while open meadow areas had light morning frost, even at 11,000-foot timberline the weather couldn't have been better. Interestingly, Pete and I saw no signs of a search in the area, although we spotted some helicopters flying point-to-point at rather high altitudes.

We're happy that Giz came out OK. However, this incident, and the associated news reports, illustrate several important themes:

--Don't assume that people you casually hook up with are responsible for you.

--Stay oriented to your surroundings, even if you're following others.

--People often get lost descending from peaks because they're summit-obsessed on the way up. Turn around frequently to calibrate your surroundings.

--Maps, compasses and gps receivers are useless if you don't use them - or know how to.

--Always take enough emergency gear for an overnight, even if it's just a butane lighter for fire-starting.

--Search victims are almost always described as 'experienced' by friends and family. Sometimes it's even true.

For Pete and I - if not for Youngerman - it was a spectacular trip. Flavor-wise, the Uintas are a a blend of Yellowstone parklands and Glacier's banded cliffs, and the Highline is an overlooked classic the equal of any trail in the Sierra Nevada, Cascades, or Rockies. But if you go (and you should) know how to use a map, compass, and yes, maybe even a GPS. Take some emergency gear, and most of all, a good awareness of your surroundings. Drama is for soap operas, not backpacking. Hike Safe --Steve Howe