It’s getting late in the summer and I was eager to get at least one 12k summit in this season.  I had been plotting an ascent of Mount Agassiz in the High Uintas Wilderness since this time last year.  I mentioned the plot to my frequent peak bagging associate, Jeff, a few weeks ago and we decided it was a go.

Jeff and I had bagged Kings Peak in late August of 2009, and it only made sense that we should summit Agassiz for our 2010 high point.  The mountain doesn’t get the same attention as the other 12k monsters in the Uintas, but glamour does not a worthy mountain make.  The other draw for us (besides the 12,428′ summit) was the chance to spend a night in Naturalist Basin, and area prized for its alpine splendor.

Mount Agassiz stands guard over Naturalist Basin

Jeff picked me up in the valley and we made the hour long drive to the Highline Trailhead.  Driving the Mirror Lake Highway in summer is a treat unto itself… such a beautiful stretch of Utah road.  We pulled into the lot and were greeted by hordes of teenagers gearing up for a couple nights in the woods.  We decided rather than drink the usual beer in the lot we should head out and beat the crowd.  Packs shouldered, we struck out on the trail.  We passed Scuddar Lake a couple miles down the line, then on past the Packard Lake trail.  We came across a group of four and stopped to chat with the last guy in line.  Turns out they were on their last few miles of the entire Highline Trail.  They had traveled the backbone of the Uintas in four nights… must have been one hell of a trip!  I hope to make the same journey some time in the future.  But for now, we had one goal:  get to the basin.  We arrived at the branch trail to Naturalist, and began winding our way up the rocky route.  Soon we came to another fork that we hoped would lead us to our first destination, Blue Lake.

near LeConte Lake, Naturalist Basin

As Jeff and I often do, we got a bit confused as to our desired path.  We took the spur trail for a short distance before happening upon some folks having a picnic at a small pond.  I asked one of them if this was the trail to Blue Lake.  He told me that this small dot of water was Blue Lake.  I knew he was mistaken, yet we could find no trail leading further up the slopes.  After consulting the map, we decided that we must have taken an unmarked trail to the pond.  No bother, we retraced our steps to the junction and headed further up the basin.  After about a mile we began to wonder if we had made an error.  Our concerns were soon verified when we came to Jordan Lake; a beautiful place but on the opposite side of the basin from Blue Lake.  Whoops.  We decided rather than backtrack, we would push on to the upper reaches of Naturalist and make our way cross country.  The mistake turned out to be a fortuitous one; the strange, barren land of the upper basin was beautiful, and not at all tough to navigate.  In just over an hour, we reached Blue Lake, and got a complete tour of the area.

We found a great campsite near the eastern shore of the lake, and set up our tents.  It was already 5pm, so we decided that we would wait until morning to bag Agassiz.  Traveling with us was Daisy the Mountain Dog, Jeff’s trusty pup.  In Daisy’s dog pack was one of the best backcountry treats known to man:  cold beer.  We drank and soaked up the sun on the cliffs of Blue Lake; a moment that easily confirmed the choice to yet again don a heavy backpack and sweat our way deep into the woods.  Night came quickly in the shadow of Agassiz.  It was dark by 6:30.  And cold… quite cold.  The temperature must have dropped a solid 20 degrees in the span of an hour.  We bundled up and ate dinner by the lake.  It was an early bedtime… it couldn’t have been 9:30 by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag.  I dozed off and some time later was awoken by the howl of a lone coyote.  The area around Blue Lake isn’t large, so I knew the coyote must have been pretty close.  The haunting call brought me great joy… all was right in the basin.  The coyote was the lord of this land.

Jeff picks his way up Mount Agassiz west ridge

We woke early, well early by our standards.  By 8am we were on our way to the peak.  Heading straight up the steep slopes, we arrived at the west ridge of Agassiz in a half hour.  The view was already staggering.  Sheer cliffs to our right led down to Middle Basin; Mount Hayden towered across the divide.  We discussed our ascent and began picking our way though the car sized boulders that make up the ridge.  There were only several problems to overcome; for the most part it was smooth sailing.  We squeezed through the final cracks of the ridge and emerged on top.  The summit was a vast boulder field that encompassed at least three football fields; quite a difference from the narrow ridge.  We spotted two summit cairns, the second of which was the true peak.  Buried in the rocks was the standard sheet metal mailbox containing the summit register.  I love reading these things, you never know what kind of goofy stuff hikers might write in them.  Jeff read out a few entertaining entries, and then flipped to the front of the book.  There he found an entry from 1988… I guess Agassiz really doesn’t see that many summits each season.  It was cool to know that someone had sat where we were almost 22 years ago to the day and scrawled the first lines into the register.  I will likely never meet the person who wrote it, but we are forever bonded by a shared respect and joy of the mountains.  I wonder if he would have considered that two guys and a dog would be getting such a kick out of the simple words more than two decades later?

view of Naturalist Basin from the Summit

We enjoyed a snack and took in the view.  We could see all the way to the backside of the Wasatch… Timpanogos was clearly visible.  After enjoying the heights, we threw the packs back on and scrambled back down the ridge to our camp.  Bags packed, we headed out.  Just below us at the Morat Lakes a big group of teenagers were enjoying the water; no doubt they were part of the masses assembling in the parking lot.  We made our way by them and down the steep trail.  As we neared the edge of the woods, we soon realized where we went wrong the day before.  Turns out that the small pond was surrounded by a marshy area.  The water erased any trace of trail in the area around the pond.  If we had searched more carefully we would have surely discovered the trail.  We hardly cared; our wrong turn had yielded some great sights, plus it had added two more miles to our journey, increasing our bragging rights exponentially.  As we made our way back to the truck, my feet and shoulders ached.  Jeff and I were both moving slow by the time we arrived at the trailhead.  The water spigot in the lot was a godsend, I cranked it full bore and doused my head thoroughly.  Mount Agassiz had lived up to the billing in my head, and I’m more than happy to give it the title of “Big One” for 2010.

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