Did not get the early start I wanted, but made the Highline Trailhead at 9:20 am and immediately headed up the trail. It seemed like it was going to be a nice warm day so I wore only a t-shirt. The morning air was brisk, but the hiking warmed me until the air temperature could catch up. The trail was fairly gentle and passed through an even lodgepole pine and spruce forest. There were some small ponds scattered about and all around were the massive, gently rounded slopes of the high mountains. A very different landscape from what I’m used to, but it is immensely beautiful.
The trail itself was a bit unpleasant all the way to Naturalist Basin, which was about 7 miles in. It was basically flat, wide and full of big rocks and puddles. It also had significant erosion problems and like most wilderness areas, was loaded with horse crap. I was able to see about 15 deer throughout the day, many of these seemed almost tame and were not bothered if our paths crossed very close.
Entering Naturalist Basin, I found the outlet of Jordan Lake flowing through a high meadow until it plunged into the forest below. Here it was loaded with brook and brown trout, but they were all very small. Jordan Lake is a lovely body of water, but very popular with the Boy Scouts, even during weekdays. Passing beyond this lake, I climbed the gentle terrain to Schaler and Faxon lakes, both above the timberline. I continued above Faxon Lake and up its inflow into the flat upper basin at the foot of Spread Eagle Peak. Here I found an ice area with pinnafied peaks standing 2-4 feet tall; similar to ones I’ve seen in photos on Mt. Rainier and other high icy areas. Also a large ice pack that was situated over the Faxon Lake inlet was melted below for several feet back forming a cavern-like overhang. Though the day was becoming very warm, it was like a freezer underneath.
Time to head up the summit. From my ice world, I climbed about 350 feet to the low spot on the west ridge to an incredible view of the Middle Basin. Hayden Peak and Mt. Agassiz ringed the huge expanse around McPheters and Ryder lakes. The headwaters of Stillwater Fork twisted through extensive green meadows. The problem with these mountains like so many others is the more places you see, the more places you want to go to. Just then the camera decided to quit, damn cheap thing. So here I sit with one of the most awesome mountain scenes I had ever beheld and no way to take a photo. #$&%$#! Just slightly upset.
I took it all in while having my lunch and then decided I shouldn’t continue to the summit because the clouds were looking very dark and had formed a long west to east line just north of the summit. And they were moving like a train, which made for a pretty incredible sight, but seemed a bit close for comfort. But I had come a long way and was so close (you know how it goes), so I decided to sit out of the wind and wait a little while to see what developed. After all, I had all day and the views beckoned to be gazed at for a long time.
After only a short time the storm line seemed to pull further away and to the west there was some clear sky. But I knew out of the emptiness, new clouds could and would quickly form and stack up. But it seemed I had a just enough time to run to the summit that seemed so close. I decided to go for it so up the ridge I hurried over the jumbled rock piles. A large thunderhead to the north was really sucking up the air so the updrafts along the ridge line were quite fierce at times. Soon I made it to the top of Spread Eagle Peak, which at 12,540 feet was the highest point I had ever reached.
The summit has a broad flat back facing south with two similar ridges running off to the southwest and the southeast. The spectacular north side forms a point with northwest and northeast aspects that are very steep and rugged. The whole things looks like a giant eagle pointing north with its wings stretched back behind. The top or back of the eagle’s head is very gradual, nearly flat so it was an easy hike over high alpine tundra to the actual summit. Quite an interesting formation.
The views off the summit were fantastic. I could see down the valley to the flats in Wyoming all the way to Evanston. To the east I could see just how extensive this wilderness is when I could almost see across three wide basins before the horizon swallowed the view; this expanse was only a small part of the range. To the west, the east side of Timpanogos and the rest of the main Wasatch chain were clearly visible. The summit was formed of small boulders in a lush sedge and grass turf. The whole situation mesmerized me a bit and I lost track of the time and the situation until I looked off across the Middle Basin. In just a few minutes of my marveling, a huge gray wall with a base far below me and a top far above me had formed out of nowhere and was rapidly approaching.
Weather formations seem from such high elevation can be quite spectacular and frightening at the same time. It’s hard to get the proper perspective from the low lands. Anyway, it was obviously time to get off the exposed mountain. Instead of returning on the southwest wing, I felt compelled to take a quicker plunge of the steep back. This route is very nondescript and descends a nearly vertical expanse of jumbled boulders. I had barely got off the high flat summit when the hail and wind hit. The ice bullets were only a little bigger than pencil erasers – not enough to hurt – but they sure did sting. Wish I had a heavier shirt.
So I hurried along down this rock pile that didn’t contain a single rock large enough to offer any shelter. It was crumbly with many slippery, cooler sized rocks falling loose from under my feet. I have certainly surfed scree before, but this is the first time I had ever surfed on moving engine sized rocks. Maybe I’m lucky I didn’t break my neck up there. The hail subsided just for a minute but before I could get down the rain came. Dripping wet, I eventually reached the flats below. I could hang out in the ice cave, but it was very cold in there and I was getting chilled as it was.
Fortunately there was a break in the weather as I picked my way back through Naturalist Basin toward the dreary lodgepole pine forest. The hoards of Boy Scouts at Jordan Lake were out fishing and seemed to be having a good time. They weren’t going to let a little bad weather interfere with their outing. The air warmed a little bit and the worst seemed to be over, except my feet where killing me. My new shoes apparently had not yet been broke in well enough, nor were my feet use to my descent method. But I’d just walk easy for a few miles back to the trailhead, then jump in the car for a leisurely drive back home to Brigham City where I’d have a nice shower and eat a whole pizza or something similarly decadent. What a great day! But I would soon find out the fun wasn’t quite over.
About halfway back to the trailhead I heard the first BIG BOOM. After picking myself up off the trail and looking around I saw a major cell reaching 10s of thousands of feet high and rolling across the mountain tops to the north. Had I still been up there, I would have been in grave trouble. Soon this prelude to the regions real storm hit with about an hour of hiking to go. Torrential rain drenched me to the bone; the last miles would be longer and more uncomfortable. But finally I made the trailhead and with water running off me climbed into the car and noted how strange, but nice it was not to have water pouring on my head.
Quickly I sped down the highway toward Evanston and turned west on I-80 toward home. It was soon after that the mega-storm hit. A deep blue, fading to black, all encompassing entity oozed in from the west. I hadn’t seen anything like it since I had lived in the Midwest. I turned the headlights on and struggled with the winds to keep the car on the road as I entered the dark maelstrom. Finally when I emerged through the Wasatch, the worst was over. That night the satellite picture on the news showed the huge crescent storm covering much of the state. It seems some people had died in what was Utah’s biggest storm in years. I was eternally grateful to be home dry and warm and eating pizza and not in the mountains. All I could think was, “those poor Boy Scouts”.