Skiing the Highline Trail

For some reason, I am obsessed with the Highline Trail across the Uinta mountains of Utah.  I first backpacked across the trail around 2005, did a solo run across it in 2010 to set an FKT, then ran across it again in 2013 to set another FKT. I have wanted to attempt a ski traverse of the Highline Trail and started to plan it in 2014. Snow, weather, ski partners, car shuttle drivers, etc just never seemed to work out to be able complete the traverse.  Eric Bunce and I committed last spring to get it done when we could get the logistics to all line up. We wanted a third person to join us and we reached out to Tom Diegel knowing that he is always up for an adventure. The text string below for inviting Tom would probably sum up our adventure.

Text Message Invite to Tom
Text Message Invite to Tom


I was excited to have a strong set of partners for what I knew would be a very challenging few days (I also now have a feeling these partners may second guess any future adventures I invite them on). We were planning for a traverse Thursday to Sunday, then due to deteriorating weekend weather, bumped up the start to Wednesday.  We knew this risked not having consolidated snow from the last storm, but hoped for the best.

We had everything lined up with a very simple plan

  • Tuesday I would borrow the neighbors truck and loaded my sled.
  • Tuesday night we would get together to finalize gear and logistics.  We reviewed with Emily and Jackie our options for bailing out and the trailheads we could end up at.  None were good options and all involved well over 15 miles of skiing to get to a road plus at least 3 hours of someone driving to get us
  • Jackie would drive us to the trailhead on Wednesday morning and then mt bike in Vernal on her way home.
  • We would ski for 3-4 days using a Delorme InReach to mark our progress and to call out for a ride if we had to bail out.
  • Thursday Evan and Paul would take 2 snowmobiles up Mirror Lake Highway and ski for the day leaving 1 sled and a pack of gear for us at the west Highline Trail Trailhead.  They would stash the sled, key and bag and hope it was all there when we reached the trailhead. They would leave the neighbors truck and my trailer at the trailhead for us to get back home with if/when we finished.
  • We would eventually reach Mirror Lake Highway and drive the sled towing 2 skiers back to the trailhead where our (hopefully) waiting vehicle and trailer would be there for us to drive back home.

As Paul clearly pointed out, what could possibly go wrong with this ‘simple’ plan.

On Tuesday we decided that a later morning start with more sleep would allow us to go longer into the night as our goal was short naps and move as much as possible.  We left Summit Park shortly after 6AM on Wednesday and we were walking up the access road by 9:30 for what we thought would be a 4 hour approach to the Leidy Peak Trailhead that ended up taking us 7 hours with 14 miles and 3700′ climbing as well as some good bushwhacking and lots of trail breaking. By the time we reached the actual start of the Highline Trail, our feet were already in bad shape from being wet for so long from trail breaking through ankle+ deep wet snow. We continued on with hopes of making it to Chipeta Lake shortly after dark. By the time we reached Whiterocks Lake (5 miles from Chipeta), we had to stop for the night due to foot issues. Trenchfoot was now turning into frost nip. We had travelled about 23 miles and climbed 4800′ in 11.5 hours. In the entire time, we took our skins off once and made 8 kick turns through stiff breakable crust.

We lit a fire and setup our bivies and attempted to dry out some socks and boot liners.  This would prove to be impossible and we spent 3 days in wet boots.  I had a restless night for my first winter open bivy, but woke up Thursday morning feeling restless and excited to get moving.

We had a slow start Thursday getting gear situated and feet fixed.  We enjoyed some long gradual climbs and even had a few turns on Thursday. We were able to take advantage of the descent off  North Pole Pass to make good mileage traversing into the massive Fox Lake and Kidney Lakes basin. We were not making great time. We were breaking trail through breakable crust in the mornings; through soft, unsupportable snow in the afternoon; and then back to breakable crust in the evenings. We were expecting to be able to use gravity and cost across some areas, and this just was not happening. We were hoping for ~3mph as an average pace and were making barely over 2mph. We talked about options, do we bail out at Painter Basin for the 18 mile skin to Henry Fork road, do we push on and hop to beat the storm, do we push on and hope the storm is delayed, etc. We sent out a request for a weather forecast via our InReach and the storm was still scheduled to hit us on Friday night. The winds would pick up and by Saturday night it would be -8F wind chills.  We knew we would need to be done by 2 or 3 on Saturday to get out of Mirror Lake Highway before the storm really hit. Day 2 had us covering about 25 miles with 4300′ ascent and 3600′ descent in 13 hours.

We had our decision to push on, we would hope to camp in Yellowstone Basin Thursday night. After the skin from Kidney Lakes to Painter Basin took far, far longer than expected, we were not willing to ski down the thin snow and exposed rocks of Anderson Pass in the dark so we camped at the last stand of trees in Anderson Basin. We had made it around 26 miles in 13 hours. We made a fire to attempt to try boot liners and went to bed with the alarms set for 4:30 to get an early start in order to make it to Rock Creek on Friday. Around midnight, the winds started to pick up in earnest. I had a completely sleepless night as I listed to the wind howl, the trees shake, and tried to keep my already failing bivy system from being blown to shreds. When we woke in the early morning, I knew we could not safely continue on.  The winds was gusting 40mph and was expected to pick up to 60 mph gusts by end of the day.  We would be climbing from 11,500′ where we were camped to over 12,000′ and we had 4 large passes to climb all into the wind. Eric thought we could make it; Tom wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to take risks; After being the person who pushed the others to commit to the finish on Thursday, on Friday morning, I knew we had to pull the plug as we had 40 miles to the snowmobile and we were at our only bail out option. We made the hard decision to bail and sent the ‘come get us’ message to Emily, Jackie, and Ashley at 6AM as we were on our way from Painter Basin 18 miles to the road where we could get picked up. The wind was fierce on Friday. I have skied up to King’s Peak 5 times and have always dreaded the long skate across Henry’s Fork Basin by Dollar Lake. With the massive tailwind, all we did was hold our arms out and get pushed across the flat basin.  Eric clocked us at 20 mph across the flat basin (which was a lot of fun when we hit the breakable crust sections). Once we got to Henry’s Fork Creek the next set of fun began. The snow was supportable for a while as we crisscrossed the creek on questionable snow bridges and eventually was unsupported and we were forced to skin the final ~5 miles to the road. We reached the road and couldn’t get our boots off fast enough as we ate through the remains of our food and waited for Jackie and Paul to come and rescue us. Our bail out was 18 miles with 1600′ ascent and 3700′ descent and took us 7 hours.

Unfortunately, the adventure wasn’t over as on Saturday we had a borrow a snowmobile and go 20 miles back up Mirror Lake Highway to retrieve our exit sled.

I think the trip can be summed up with blisters, sore shoulders, sunburnt lips, long hours on skins, and an even larger desire to go back and ‘get it done’.

Things I learned

  • Really great partners are a necessity for crazy long adventures like this
  • You can actually get frostnip toes and trenchfoot in the same day
  • Before your first bivy, test out your bivy gear – my bivy sack wripped open night 1.
  • The odor that develops when you don’t take off wet boot liners (or skimo race suits) for 3 days is worse than I ever could have imagined

Click on the gallery below to browse the photo gallery and click on each photo to see full size with captions.

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