Middle Basin – July 23 & 24, 2011

This is another one of those trips I’ve been eyeing for a long time now, but for whatever reason just have never got around to it.  This route takes the “shortcut” from the Highline Trailhead to a small pass south of Hayden Peak, and descends into Middle Basin, which I’ve heard is one of the prettier alpine basins in the entire range.  My plan would be to hit the shortcut, bag Hayden Peak, descend into Middle Basin for a night, then wake up early, and climb to a small saddle on the east of Agassiz, tag the summit of Spread Eagle Peak, perhaps Agassiz as well, and then descend to Blue Lake in Naturalist Basin, and loop back around to the car on the Highline Trail.  Seemed pretty reasonable for an overnighter, and plenty of options to lengthen or shorten miles depending on how I felt.  I’d also heard varying reports of the route’s difficulty, and whether it was prudent to carry overnight gear over the two passes.  Of course, snow is still a small concern up in the high country too, so there was certain to be a little bit of adventure seeing how much effort this would take.

On Friday afternoon, I met up with my dad at Trial lake for a few hours.  He was doing some fishing and I wasn’t particularly in a hurry, so I grabbed my rod and reel.  I think we stayed a total of two hours, and I caught a dozen or so on a Jake’s, and two on a fly and bubble.  Not a bad way to kill some time.  I ran up Bald Mountain quickly for sunset, only to be cursed once again with zero clouds, and a rather boring sky.  Clear skies have become the norm for me so far this summer in the Uintas.  Makes for great peak-bagging weather, but it sucks for photos.

I slept in my car Friday night and hit the trailhead early Saturday morning.  I found the route up the ridge pretty easily, with some minor route-finding.  Once out of treeline, the ridge approaches a small band of cliffs that seem improbable from below, but they go at a fairly easy 4th class scramble for about 20 vertical feet.  Pretty easy, even with a pack.  I then skirted the next band to the left and hopped some boulders up to the ridge.  My first view into the basin caught me by surprise.  Damn, that’s a lot of snow!  I was in Amethyst Basin a week ago, and expected there would be less, since they seem comparable.  What’s more, I left my axe behind at the last minute, after climbing Bald the night before, looking across the valley, there didn’t appear to be much snow.  I did take the micro-spikes though, which ended up being a good choice.

The short class 4 scramble up the cliff face - hardest section of the Highline Shortcut


After gaining the saddle, it was off for the summit of Hayden, which is pretty straight forward climb.  Only tricky part is right at the end when you come upon some vertical cliffs, and you actually have to go around the back for an easy scramble to the summit.  Great views from the top, and a satisfying Uinta summit, especially considering how prominent the peak is from the Mirror Lake Highway.  Glad to finally get up there, and quite surprised to have zero snow the whole route.  Descending down into the basin would be another story…  Back at the saddle, it was now getting to be early afternoon, and the snow was getting a little more sloppy.  Even with micro-spikes on I was sliding around a bit, but after some careful negotiation I was on relatively flat ground again.  In the snow, I was happy to have a light pack to help with balance, but I think it’s a pretty doable route for backpackers to get across when it’s dry.  Gotta have a tolerance for knee-busting boulder-hopping though, and some steep scree-skiing.

Hayden Peak summit view, looking into Middle Basin and Mt. Agassiz.
Summit ridge to Hayden Peak.
Obligatory summit pose...
Approaching McPheter's Lake, still tons of snow and ice. Ostler and Spread Eagle Peak visible behind the lake.
Ryder Lake, late afternoon. Where are all the friggin' clouds? Blue skies make for very blue reflections in the water though...
Ryder lake, Agassiz reflected.
Ryder Lake, nearing sunset.

Up and Over to Naturalist Basin

I set up a minimal camp just beyond Ryder for the night, hoping to catch a nice sunset and sunrise, but yet again, no clouds.  Quickly snapped a few photos and headed off for the next saddle while the snow was still hard.  My original plan was to ascend the gully closest to Spread Eagle Peak, but the snow looked a little more dicey and steep, so I opted for the saddle closer to Agassiz.  It was probably a good decision, but in order to get to Spread Eagle, I had to scramble over a small little bump in the ridge.  Turns out to be rather tedious boulder hopping, and added another 45 minutes or an hour to the summit.  No big deal, but probably not ideal, unless Agassiz is the intended target.

From the saddle, it looks like a quick and easy walk up to the summit.  There is nothing difficult about it, but the walk was way longer than I expected.  Figured on an hour or two tops, but I think I returned to my pack after closer to 3 hours, and a handful of false summits later.  S.E. is a very cool summit though, and the views to the east are pretty killer.  Not really a noteworthy summit, and I’m not sure how frequently it is visited, but it was pretty reasonable.  I next turned my attention to Agassiz, but I was starting to feel a little deflated, and some clouds (finally!) were building up over the summit.  I made it to the last saddle before the final 1000 foot climb, and rested for awhile.  The clouds got thicker, and the lure of being back to the trailhead in a few hours proved irresistible.  So I bailed on the last peak of the trip, and headed down the snow patch to a half-frozen Blue Lake, tried to find the trail amidst the snow, and eventually made my way back to the Highline.

It was an excellent mostly-off trail solo adventure, and pretty good conditions.  Could’ve done better with a few clouds, but who can complain about awesome weather in the mountains?  Left Agassiz undone, but it’s an easy summit, I’ll be back for it again soon.

First light hits Mt. Agassiz, reflected in a small lake.
Hayden Peak and Ryder Lake.
Climbing the snow slope up to the saddle with Agassiz. Good snow early in the morning made quick work.
Approaching yet another false summit on Spread Eagle Peak, with some nice wildflowers.
View from Spread Eagle
Summit ridge heading up to Agassiz. Finally, some clouds start building... Not great timing.
A little thunder bumper moves through on my way out. Morat Lakes.
The view looking east from Bald Mountain, into the heart of the Uinta Range.
Route map and details.