Many people remember their first exposure to Utah's unique Uinta Mountains. Cordell Andersen's initial trip six decades ago was likely more memorable than most.
So memorable that the now 76-year-old returned to Utah after living in Central America for 40-some odd years and has since logged more than 1,500 miles in his beloved Uintas.
Back in 1952 the then 16-year-old and recent California transplant left his summer construction job and hit the road with some "kids from the neighborhood." They drove from their Provo homes over Wolf Creek Pass, past Defas Dude Ranch and parked in the dark at the trailhead.
"We hiked the whole canyon in the dark. One of the kids fell off the trail into the creek. We heard him yelling and went back to help him," Andersen recalled of that first trip into the Uintas in 1952. "We didn't know anything about lightweight backpacking. We had whole watermelons, cans of pork and beans and Hires root beer in glass bottles."
Andersen's first full-color glimpse of the Uintas the highest mountain range in the lower 48 states to run east-to-west came at dawn as his tired teenage eyes soaked up the wonder.
"I had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area thirsting for books on mountain men, trappers and the mountains. I lived vicariously through outdoor books and magazines," he said. "That was the first day I saw it all for the first time. I'll never forget it."
That trip to the Uintas set the hook on Andersen. He ended up taking a 15-day backpack trip with a couple of buddies soon after graduating from high school and took every opportunity to journey to the Uintas. Andersen isn't sure when it happened, but at some point during those early adventures he "sort of made a vow to sooner or later explore as much of the Uintas Mountains as possible."
It turned out to be later.
Andersen served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central America and then moved to Guatemala where he started a family, went into business and continued to help the people in that country. The work was exhausting, the people were amazing and the country was beautiful, but the siren call of the Uintas kept ringing.
Andersen moved back to Utah (Springville) in 2002 and quickly set about exploring all the places he had yet to see with his own eyes. He did a couple of warm-up trips and then hit the trails for a 27-day Uinta Mountains expedition that took him 236 miles. His pack weighed 83 pounds when leaving the Highline Trailhead.
"To be in shape for that expedition I hiked several times a week around my farm in Guatemala with a 100-pound bag of fertilizer on my back. I guess that helped prepare me," Andersen said. "That trip just whetted my appetite. In spite of all my efforts, there were still plenty of places I hadn't been to in the Uintas."
So Andersen created the High Uintas Wilderness Project with the original goal of traversing 1,000 miles. But he kept finding new places and new excuses to spend more time in the Uintas. Since he restarted his project to explore the range he loved, the boy who hiked in the dark on that night so long ago has logged more than 1,500 miles across the Uinta Mountains.
Technology has allowed Andersen a chance to share his adventures with the world in a way he never dreamed imaginable during his first trip to the mountains. His website www.cordellmandersen.com is constantly updated with tales of his journeys, incredible pictures of places few people have ever seen and slide shows featuring his narration over the pictures.
"The dream was always to put together some kind of a book. Not just a fishing book or a backpacking book," Andersen said. "I want to create a book on the Uintas unlike any that exists."
Andersen spends hours researching the human history of the Uintas and combines his travels to the mountains with his knowledge.
While he has been studying mountain men who spent time in the Uintas, Andersen has developed a special interest in people known as tie hackers.
"They were lumbermen sent into the North Slope of the Uintas in 1867 to make railroad ties with their broad axes for the transcontinental railroad," he said.
Andersen has found all kinds of known, and many undocumented, ruins of the tie hacker culture. Relics of the tie hacker past in the Uintas include ghost towns, remote cabins, splash dams and previously unphotographed artifacts.
"Without these guys the West would not have been won," he said.
Andersen admits that he commits the cardinal no-no of hiking by going alone on these long journeys but he does not encourage others to do the same.
"I hike too slow for most people," he said. "I stop and take pictures of wild flowers and wildlife and do some fishing. I understand the dangers and I make sure to tell people I shouldn't be doing it alone."
Andersen carries a satellite phone and a SPOT Personal Satellite Tracker in case of emergency. He came close to using it this past summer after taking a tumble over a deadfall that he was sure should have left him with a broken ankle in the middle of nowhere during a serious downpour of rain and hail.
"I was throwing my poncho over my head and I lost my balance. I went backwards over a dead log. I was hanging there with my pack on my back just sure that my ankle was broken," he said. "I finally was able to wiggle out of the pack and grabbed a root to pull myself back up."
Andersen had not quite completed his goal for that trip, but had what he called a "Forrest Gump" moment and decided to head for home.
He was flown out of the Uintas by helicopter during one trip where a gastrointestinal malady left him weak and dealing with what he believes was his only case of altitude sickness. A friend he had been talking to on the satellite phone decided Andersen's life was in jeopardy and called in the cavalry.
Andersen said he feels like he probably could have made it back home from that trip, but appreciated that he had the phone and had been able to keep in contact with someone during his sickness.
Andersen says he plans on making good on his plan to visit the last few remote areas on his list, but his future trips may focus more on his book efforts.
"Right now I'm concentrating on research for the books," he said. "But I'll keep making it to the Uintas as long as my body can get me there."
Video on hiking in the Uintas
To read about Cordell Andersen's adventures in Utah's Uinta Mountains, visit www.cordellmandersen.com