For the fifth straight year, LifeOmic hosted a wilderness retreat for its entire staff of over one hundred along with several invited guests and professional guides. The company pays for people to fly in from all over the country with many of them coming in a couple of days early to stay at my house in Park City. Since the house is situated on a mountain at 7,800 feet above sea level, the stay provides a bit of acclimatization that helps prepare the low landers for four nights in the Uinta mountains at an elevation of about 10,500 feet. 

On Monday morning, we headed out in a succession of small buses for the roughly one-hour drive into the woods. The Uinta National Forest is a huge expanse of wilderness covering nearly one million acres at the northern edge of Utah. Unlike the rest of the state, which is mostly arid and desert, the Uintas is a lush expanse of forest filled with pine, fir, and aspen along with hundreds of alpine lakes stocked with trout by the Forest Service. Our camp site was a four-mile hike from a trailhead and surrounded by mountain peaks topping out at about 12,000 feet above sea level. We organized into several pods of individual tents in the shadow of Mount Watson and Notch Mountain.

The sky was clear for the incredibly scenic drive into the mountains, and everyone was excited to start the adventure. Since the company is growing, roughly half the employees were new to the event, and many had never slept in a tent before. The same was true of the invited medical experts who came from major cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. Most had never spent time at elevation or had done anything more than backyard camping, so they had no idea what to expect.

I was on the first bus of twenty or so who arrived at the trailhead around 11am. The weather was perfect with brilliant sun and temperatures in the mid 60’s. It took us roughly an hour to make it to our campsite, stopping frequently to let people rest and encouraging everyone to stay well hydrated.

Our events are managed by a fantastic wife-husband team (Shaun and Weston) whose outfitting company is called Inspired Summit Adventures. They do a great job of giving everyone a taste of alpine adventure without letting it be too painful. We schlepped most of our personal gear in on our backs although the guides had already pitched individual tents for everyone but me and had prepared four-inch sleeping pads that increased comfort immeasurably. I have my own gear and prefer to pitch my tent far from everyone else to really get the wilderness experience.

Camp this year was next to an idyllic lake with Mount Watson in the background. After throwing off my heavy pack and setting up my tent, I walked back to camp under a surprise rain shower. It took me a minute to realize that the odd bouncing of the droplets was because it was actually hail. At camp, several people were shivering under a canopy, and we waited a few minutes for the stray cloud to pass and for the sun to burst forth again. The weather is strange at ten thousand feet with temperatures seeming to swing by twenty degrees just from a small cloud passing in front of the sun. Soon we were peeling off layers and enjoying the streaming solar waves. We enjoyed a lunch of ground lamb and Greek vegetables with the luxury of some crumbled feta to sprinkle over top and the rest of our party arrived in bunches over the course of the afternoon. Our vice-president of science communications, Paige, is an avid silks aerialist, so we brought up an iron rig that she used to perform and give lessons. No, it’s not your average wilderness camp.

One of the most pleasant surprises for me was to find that the ten or so guides had formed a huge stone ring and pile of wood that could only mean one thing – a campfire! Utah had instituted a state-wide fire ban months earlier and I had given up hope of being able to have a real fire, so I couldn’t help but whoop for joy when I realized we would have the real thing rather than the propane substitute that I had been expecting. As the sun started to go down the fire began to crackle, and we all settled comfortably around with our puffy jackets on. I had a great time meeting old friends and making new ones as the camp began to fill, eventually to around one hundred total LifeOmic team members, guests, guides, and cooks.

Although our retreats involve a little roughing it, the one place where we tend toward “glamping” is the food. The guides had brought out a full field kitchen and meals were provided by local chef Adam Ross and his team from the Twisted Fern restaurant in Park City. It was far from the sort of freeze-dried mush that I’ve had to endure on other mountaineering trips.

Like most of our party, I didn’t sleep particularly well Monday night. Even still, it was enjoyable to settle into my sleeping bag and feel the warmth build to the point that I could strip off layers. When I woke up the next morning the sun was streaming through the seams of the tent and the chill quickly dissipated. I walked to camp ready for some coffee and hot breakfast, both of which met expectations. Like the rest of the week, Tuesday was cloudless and relatively warm with highs approaching seventy. I joined a group of around ten led by my friend and climbing partner, Blake Summers, who is an experienced Utah Mountain Guide. Blake and a couple of other guides took us to a nearby crag they had christened the “LifeOmic Wall”. This year, Blake had bolted a couple of routes and let me get the first ascent on both. The first was an easy 5.8 and the second a chill but fun 5.10a with a nice little roof problem. I had a blast climbing both and watching the other members of our party, most of whom were relatively new to rock climbing. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip was admiring a Swiss cancer researcher from Chicago named Roger as he top-roped a couple of routes. He was delighted when I called out some helpful suggestions in French and came down with a huge grin on his face in response to his success. That night in camp, he announced that he had been scheduled to fly to Geneva but had cancelled his trip to extend his stay in the mountains. It’s that sort of reaction that gives me joy and makes it so much fun to introduce people to high altitude adventure. It wasn’t that Roger finished the route (he didn’t), but the fact that he conquered his fear and gave it his best shot. Roger’s forty feet up a 5.7 was more fun to watch than experts crushing on much harder routes.

After lunch, Blake took another group of us to a more challenging climbing area next to Cliff Lake roughly a half-hour away. I led a delightful 5.8, set a top rope, and then laid down in the sun on a comfortable rock to enjoy watching the others. Blake offered to let me take a crack on a 10c that had shut me down a couple of years earlier, but I declined due to the rapidly descending sun and we marched back into camp for a great dinner of pasta and beef. I was pretty beat and headed back to my tent shortly after dark. One thing I’ve learned from past trips is that it can be hard to find an isolated tent after nightfall, so I had brought a solar-powered lantern that I hung on the outside. After scrambling over a couple of rocky outcroppings and starting to worry that I’d have to swallow my pride and go back to camp to ask for help, I saw the little beacon a few hundred feet away and headed in that direction. Greatly relieved, I unzipped the door and settled into my little shelter. After too little sleep, I got up and walked back to camp excited for the day’s primary activity – climbing Mount Watson.

Topping out at about 11,500 feet, Mount Watson didn’t seem a particularly imposing objective. I actually bragged to a couple of others that I planned to run up and then hurry back down to watch another group of first-time rock climbers. But some combination of 65 years and two consecutive nights of poor sleep took its toll and I found myself laboring more than usual to get to the top. We took a steep ramp up the east flank of the mountain that was slow going because of the slippery small rocks and sandy soil. It turned out that the top of the mountain was one giant talus – a huge mound of rocky plates a foot or two in width. Think of a cowboy hat with the rim around the top and a slight indentation in the middle. It was as if the top quarter of the mountain had shattered into millions of flat stones with the center collapsing a few feet toward the earth. When I got to the summit on the west end of the mountain, I felt strangely light-headed but sat down to enjoy the spectacular views. By the time we started back down the dizziness was gone but returned at the most inopportune time as we hit the steepest part of the descent. My hopes of quickly skipping from plate to plate on the way down gave way to fear of falling on the shifting rocks. I had to resort to using my hands in some sections and suffered a couple of falls that thankfully resulted in only a few scrapes. Happy to finally be down, I hiked with the others back to camp for a late lunch and a much-needed break.

In addition to all these opportunities for thrill-seekers, we also provide more chill activities such as painting lessons, photography seminars, yoga, mushroom hunting, and even song-writing sessions. I was pleased to see more of our attendees participating in these calmer activities, showing that there’s no competitive pressure to risk life and limb.

One of the many emerging traditions of our retreat is a team relay race. Every year, Weston comes up with a list of activities like pitching a tent, paddle-boarding across the lake blindfolded, and clipping a succession of quick draws on a rope. I dubbed my team the Wolverines to which our chief scientist, a Michigan State grad, vigorously objected. I was innocently thinking of a cool animal, but Tom’s mind immediately went to his college nemesis, the University of Michigan. Despite the naming controversy our team won by a significant margin, which I naturally attributed to my rope skills but was probably due more to one of our members’ prowess with a bow and arrow (another event). My larger contribution was probably deviously tangling the climbing harness for the competitor following me at the quick draw station. Regardless, we enjoyed another delicious dinner of tenderloin and sweet potato followed by wonderful conversations around the soul-warming campfire. 

Since some of our group would be leaving the next day, Tom had arranged a treat that was a surprise even to me – champagne and caviar. I can’t prove it, but I bet it’s a first for a group outing in the Uintas.

I greatly looked forward to sleeping in the next day and then hiking back to Cliff Lake where I was hoping to cross off my little 10c route. I was determined to get some good sleep that night and took an Ambien at some point. I still didn’t fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning and woke up feeling almost drunk. I made my way to camp expecting the cobwebs to clear after a cup of coffee but ended up falling into some weird stupor in front of the dying campfire and triggering this flattering photo.

After being pulled back from the 23rd dimension by Blake, I grabbed my harness and shoes to set off with a few other avid climbers for the half-hour hike to Cliff Lake. The hike helped me metabolize the remainder of the sleeping aid and I felt much better to be back on the rocks in the sun. I quickly led the 5.8 again and enjoyed cheering the others on as they tackled that one and a nearby 5.7. 

As the afternoon waned, Blake asked me if I wanted to try my 10c route. As my regular climbing partner, he could see how tired I was and gently asked if it was a good idea. If I were unable to finish the route, it would mean either leaving some gear or taking a lot more time. Somewhat indignant at his suggestion that I might not be able to complete a route well under my normal ability, I confidently told him that if he let me have a go I would get it done. He instructed me to get my harness on and I swallowed hard, realizing that there was no turning back now. 

I don’t know the name of the route, but it’s not that bad other than an awkward bulge about fifty feet up followed by an overhung roof at the top that I knew would be a bit of a challenge. Two years ago, I had been stymied by the bulge. But I felt much stronger now and was determined to get through. I was going to be leading the route which means attaching a strap (called a quick draw) to a permanent bolt every eight feet or so and then clipping the strap to the rope connected to my harness. This approach is meant to give the climber the sensation of climbing unaided (“free climbing”) while limiting falls to ten to twenty feet. That’s still enough to scare the bejeebers out of you while keeping you from hitting the ground. The first few clips went well enough, but I grew nervous as I approached the bulge. I felt a huge sense of relief and exultation when I easily pulled the move and continued on up to the roof. After a quick rest (called a “take”) near the top more out of fear than fatigue, I stepped high on a tiny chip with my left foot, smeared my right hand on a small ledge, and cleared the roof to cheers from the small band of onlookers eighty feet or so below. I set a top rope and lowered back to the ground where I received hearty congratulations from Blake. 

I watched with delight as one of our young developers named Pearce successfully climbed the route on top rope and we all strode back to camp like conquering heroes.

Now down to around seventy or so, after dinner we pulled back our chairs to make a large circle around the fire. Shaun asked each of us to share something memorable from the week and we went around the circle expressing our collective sense of wonder at the majesty of the place and how it had affected us. The photo below captures the moment better than I could ever hope to in words.

Photo cred: Nathan Amick

After my best night of sleep in a week, I woke up on Friday morning sad to leave but ready to take a hot shower. I tore down my tent and stuffed my gear that inexplicably seemed to have doubled in volume back into my pack. After laboring to hoist it onto my back, I hiked to camp, had breakfast, and trekked out with the first group. 

The other groups arrived over the course of the next few hours and people started heading to the airport to return to their respective far-flung homes. Everyone was tired but the exuberance was almost palpable. Events like this are expensive and hard to pull off. I don’t even want to think what the liability must be, especially given the risks we take. I don’t want to live in a world where lawyers make it impossible to do things like this. Other than a few cuts and bruises, we got through largely unscathed. There’s no way I could justify the expense of such a trip in hard dollar terms, but I’m convinced that it’s worth it. A young web developer named Grace summed it up nicely by saying “No employee retention program could ever beat this.”

We loaded into the waiting minibus. Discussions were animated until we hit the point of cell service and social media began to ring with the various posts and uploads. After arriving back at my house, I made a beeline for my shower and luxuriated in the sensation of hot water washing away the blood-tinged dirt from my tired body. We enjoyed a buffet of fruit and hot sandwiches prepared by our hospitality manager, Stephanie, and sat in the sun on the deck swapping war stories.

This essay has gone on far longer than I intended, and I’ve had to omit countless details. There’s my Starlink dish that we took out with us that balked at the location change and only connected about once every ten minutes but at least allowed us to get out a few texts and emails. There were our delightful guests who initially thought our e-mail invitations were phishing attacks until they saw the list of highly respected fellow attendees. There were the widespread COVID testing and exhaustive precautions taken by our medical team. There was Blake singing a song he and another guide had composed. And there’s the vast Uinta sky filled with the same stars that thrilled our ancestors eons ago. All I know is that we are privileged to have places like this, and I hope we do our best to protect them for generations to come.

Photo Credits:

  1. Weston Shirey (@westonshirey)
  2. Nathan Amick

Don Brown

Dr. Brown is LifeOmic’s Chief Executive Officer and one of the most successful serial software entrepreneurs in the Midwest. He received a bachelor’s in physics from Indiana University in 1978, a master’s in computer science from IU in 1982, an MD from the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1985, and a master’s in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University in 2017.

Don is an avid outdoorsman who loves hiking, rock climbing, skiing, and snowshoeing with his eight children – especially in and around Park City, Utah.

LifeOmic® is the software company that leverages the cloud, machine learning and mobile devices to improve healthspans – from prevention and wellness to disease management and treatment.



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