I saw the flash and heard the crack in the same instant, and that’s never good. We weren’t quite running, more like moving as fast as we could to get the hell out of Dodge. I turned my head every so often to make sure I could still see Skip and the dogs. The sky was unloading everything it had down upon us. I was terrified. I still had my head about me- keep moving down the trail, be careful where you put your feet, go faster- but there was little doubt that we were in bad fucking shape. This was not a good place to be. We had no one but ourselves to blame; well, ourselves and perhaps the draw of Red Castle.
We had arrived the previous day under sunny skies: me, Skip, Randy, Jeffrey and a whole gang of dogs. As soon as we hit the trail, the heavens turned from blue to white, then quickly to gray and finally to rain. Drizzle rain drizzle rain repeat until we had knocked out the six and a half mile hike to Broadbent Meadow. The rain hadn’t destroyed our morale by a long shot; soon Randy had found us an excellent campsite in an island of small spruce and pine trees in the middle of the meadow. Though the sprinkle persisted, we eventually had our camp set and a fire started. Beers and whiskey went down easy and before we knew it, the sky was breaking up. Red Castle, not a mountain but still a damn fine piece of rock, towered in the distance, its buttresses blazing orange in the alpenglow. It was a site that words could do no justice in describing; only in the then-and-there could a person appreciate a moment like that. For some it is savoring a perfect vintage of wine, or diving into the azure water of the most tropical seas; for me it is the beauty of the mountains. Moments like that one stir me to my core, and I will always seek them out as long as that is their effect. But, I digress…
The weather continued calm and cloudy. Our fire was hot, our clothes dry, and our bellies full with beer and rehydrated backpackers’ food. The only disturbance was a howling band of coyotes that broke the midnight stillness. In the morning we rose and had breakfast together. The sun beamed down upon us, giving no hint as to any foulness in the cards. Randy and Jeff broke down camp, packed up and took one last look at Red Castle. “Sure wish we were headed up there with you guys,” they lamented before heading north through the meadow, down the trail to the trucks and then back on the road home. Skip and I put out the fire, buttoned up camp and headed south towards our goal.
There had been talk of a summit attempt. I had done some research and it turns out that Red Castle isn’t that tough to climb, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either. A long approach around a curving ridge will put just about anyone with some gusto on the top, but I had my doubts that either of us had that type of effort in us on this day. And despite the gorgeous 65 degree elements we were hiking in, the weather could become a factor. The forecast had called for only a 30% chance of showers, but as a good friend once told me, things can get a little crazy at 10,000 feet. No, no…no summit. We would head for Red Castle Lake and enjoy this fine afternoon in style.
The trail, once simple and smooth with only occasional obstacles had now become rocky and swampy. A group with four horses passed us by, then a group with 6 horses, and after all those there was a backpacking couple who were heading down the trail. We were excited to know that the lake was emptying out. A few white, puffy clouds had formed in the sky, shading us from the bright sun now directly overhead. The lower lake came into view; it was a real beauty: smooth glass waters surrounded by a grass covered shoreline. We made our way to the south end of the lake and posted up. Skip and his trusty lab, George, sat down by the shore while me and my mutt, Janna, ate a lunch of cheese, apples and dog treats on a big rock. I snapped off a few photos of our surroundings and became aware that the conditions were about to change.
The skies to the north were still blue, but to the east, west and south something was stirring. The puffy white clouds had quickly taken on an ominous dark grey color. I recalled a moment from the day before when I gazed up at Red Castle and thought, “wow, it looks really bad up there.” The rock formation had been shrouded in hideous looking clouds and a layer of heavy rain. Now I looked at the Castle and realized the dark potential the clouds behind it carried with them. Skip must have realized it too, because soon we were both packed up and ready to roll. We discussed the idea of heading to the upper lake (a two-plus mile round trip with 600 more feet of elevation gain) but came to the conclusion that we better head back now. I think the dull roar of thunder from the west helped our decision. We began the trek out, retracing the steps we made not an hour before. The sky directly overhead was still sunny, but man did that change fast. Too fast.
Within moments we were surrounded by storm clouds. The temperature dropped at an alarming rate. Skip took a look at his barometer and announced with some amazement that it was 20 degrees colder. Right on cue, the skies opened up. It wasn’t rain that hit us, but hail. Small, frozen nuggets falling hard and plentiful from the sky. We both thought this was funny, though I’m not sure why. Things became less comical when the hail was joined by a steady rain. Our pace quickened. That’s when things got downright ugly. Lightning danced across the sky, followed closely by deafening cracks of thunder. The hail doubled in size and stung our skin through our rain jackets. The dogs were soaked and pathetic looking; Skip and I weren’t much better off. A monstrous bolt of lighting sizzled above our heads and the instant thunder crack rattled my chest. My head was swimming with panic as I realized the possibility of being killed was now very real. There is no way to describe the terror I felt. I tried my best to keep a cool head, but every time I saw the sky light up I cringed and hoped we wouldn’t become a local news lead. “Our top story tonight, two hikers dead in the Uinta Mountains after being caught in a severe storm.” I didn’t like the sound of that. Keep moving forward…keep moving as fast as you can. That’s all my brain kept telling me, and I obliged with everything I had.
We wound our way down the switchbacks and into the forest. I felt some slight comfort in reaching the trees and losing elevation. However, my momentary relief was dashed by the flash-crack-bang of the storm that was in full swing. I thought about my family, the sadness they would feel if I died out here, how foolish the whole thing was. Why did we stay at the lake so long? What the fuck were we thinking? We knew damn well those clouds were packing a punch, but the beauty of our surroundings duped us into staying too long. It didn’t matter now; we dashed across an open meadow, all four of us soaked to the bone. My boots were full of water, and my rain jacket had quit the fight as well. I was just hoping to make it to the next stand of trees, then to Broadbent Meadow, and hopefully the safety of our camp.
We made it. I think we ran the final half mile or so, and we made it. Skip and I stood in camp, wide eyed and confused. What should we do? We were drenched in water and the storm showed no signs of stopping. Lighting was still licking the sky, but with much less frequency now. “Should we get out of our clothes? What about the dogs? Do you have any dry gear?” Questions were all we had for each other, not solutions. I was shivering. A coherent thought came into my mind: we were becoming hypothermic. This was bad. Skip was the first to act on this realization; he stripped out of his clothes and jumped into his tent. I followed his lead. I dried myself off the best I could and slipped into my down sleeping bag. I pulled on a thermal shirt and my beanie. I was numb. I felt bad that the dogs were both still out in the rain, but there was no way I was letting a soaking wet beast into the tent to dampen the only dry gear I had left. I hunkered down in my bag and slowly the warmth came back to my body.
The rain eventually let up, and I emerged from the tent looking ridiculous. Boxer shorts, sandals, a down jacket and a bright green beanie were my attire. Skip came out in a similar ensemble. It took us the better part of an hour, but we finally got a fire going. Soon we had it stoked good and high, and we dried out all of our gear. The dogs were okay, if not a little bitter at us for making them stay outside. All but two cans of our beer stash had been washed down the river; I was bummed that we lost our suds and ashamed to litter in such a beautiful place. Hopefully some fishermen will find them and do the right thing (drink up!). Our minds had calmed down; the terror of the storm was now behind us. Before the day was out, the skies were calm again, betraying the hellacious forces that had rolled through that afternoon. It was just another day in the mountains, nothing unique, nothing out of character. The next day we hiked out under a crystal blue sky…not a single cloud impeded our view.
I like to think that I know a good bit about the outdoors. I make it a point to learn about nature- the rocks, the trees, the animals and the ecosystems of the places I like to play in. I’ve stood on summits and watched storm cells roll in just one canyon over. I’ve seen the tragic stories on the news; read those stories in a number of books. I’m embarrassed to think that a good friend and I almost bit the big one because we were enjoying the scenery too much, but it’s the truth. The mountains let us off the hook that day, and the next time I’m up there I won’t forget what I learned. I’m glad there will be a next time…after all, we never did make the summit.