Nature is honest. It won’t back down or be nice when things get hard. That’s why it’s the perfect place to understand yourself and your limits.
I recently went hiking in the eastern part of the Uinta mountains. It’s a rather remote area but well known for its beautiful lakes, forests, and mountains. My plan was pretty simple. We’d follow a mix of trails and ridge lines to do a loop of many different mountain peaks. From the maps, it looked to be about 15 miles total. The weather also looked fairly good for the morning and there was only 10% chance of rain for the afternoon, according to the predictions. We had a couple different topo maps and a compass, so I thought everything would be good.
For the first half of the day, everything went as planned. We got to hike through the nice pine forest until timberline then suddenly had a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, lakes, and forests. Down in the forest, it was almost hot, so I didn’t pack my heavier and warmer clothes with me, but above the timberline, a cold wind was blowing. There were a lot of clouds but we continued on. The worst clouds seemed to be north and west of us and the prevailing wind was blowing from the southeast towards the northwest, so I didn't think any of the storms would reach us.
We reached the top of Marsh Peak in good time and had a little break. With such a long loop, planned, I was eager to keep going, so a short time later we got to the second mountain and after a slightly more difficult hike, to the third peak. By now, the winds were a little warmer but the storm clouds were coming our way. If we continued the loop, we’d have a very long way to go before any good shelter, so we decided to backtrack. About halfway there, the storm hit. Icy winds and hail whipped at us, tearing our rain ponchos as we tried to keep going towards some shelter we had seen back on Marsh Peak.
Thunder rumbled through the clouds around us. I knew it would be dumb to stay on top of the ridge, so we ducked below the ridge line on the side where the winds weren't blowing. Without the fierce winds, it wasn't hard to feel warm again, but the lightning and thunder took there own time in going by. When the storm calmed for a brief time, we trudged up the rocky slopes through the biting wind and hail to find the better shelter.
Once there, we had a nice break. There wasn't a lot to do while the storm went by. Eventually it passed and the sun came out again. By this time, it was late afternoon and we were already exhausted by the hiking. A good hike always has limitations depending on the weather, but a much more important limitation would keep us from getting back to camp that night. As we came down to timberline, we looked and looked but couldn't find where the trail had ended. Our maps, although good from topography, were too old to show the trail we had followed.
We searched through the meadows at timberline for about an hour then decided to go a certain direction, hoping the trail was that way. All the other ways had steep slopes and cliffs, and neither me or my brother remembered passing any of those on our way up. At this point, my directions and our exact location on the topo map were still a little vague. We overshot our mark and ended up in a different basin than we intended to and had to hike back up another steep slope.
We were at the limits of our endurance and daylight, but at least we knew where we were on the map and what direction the road had to be. With that knowledge, we kept going east, because it was the only possible direction the road could be. Steep forest terrain with lots of deadfall isn’t easy to hike quickly through, but as the sun was setting, we crossed a stream that seemed to directly mirror one on our map. We almost reached a second stream, which meant we were following the map well, but stopped as the last light of twilight was fading.
Since we hadn't found the road yet, we were forced to face the fact that we would have to stay out in the forest for a night using only the things we had brought with us. When out in nature, one of the truest limitations you have what you can do with what you're carrying. My brother had some good tools for starting a fire and some water purification tablets. We both had our rain ponchos for making a temporary bed. I had what was left of our food (one-third of a bag of chips), a water filter, some flashlights, and a head scarf that could be used to keep our heads warm.
With all this, we made a fire to warm up. In crossing the first marshy stream, my water-resistant shoes had failed slightly and let a tiny bit of water in, so I had to take those off and try to dry my feet and socks out with the fire. Luckily, our warm little fire was able to help. My brother had a small cutting tool and made a bed out of some pine branches while I gather what firewood I could from the nearby dead trees. With the earlier rains, it wasn't easy, but I found some dead lower branches on a nearby tree that worked well enough.
With the fire going well and plenty of fuel, we started to warm up some rocks while trying to get comfortable in our little bed. It wasn’t comfortable enough or warm enough to sleep for more than short little bursts and we’d have to trade positions often. At about 4 am, we let the fire burn down and tried to use all the rocks to stay warm. Eventually, we got through the miserable night and relit the fire to wait for the brighter light and warmth of the later morning hours.
At around 8:30 am, we left our little camp and set out to cross the second stream. After that we headed mostly east, but also slightly uphill, desperately hoping to find anything that would point us the right way. As we reached the top of the hill, we found a lot of cut stumps then finally a real road. We celebrated and hiked down the road and were back to the car in less than an hour from breaking camp that morning. Soon, we were on our way back home (and to find somewhere filling to eat), but our time out in the Uintas will long be remembered. We came face to face with our limits in more ways than one, and we emerged from the woods stronger and wiser than before.