Blog post by Dr. Don Brown, LifeOmic CEO

For the fourth straight year, LifeOmic hosted a wilderness retreat for its employees in the beautiful Uinta mountains an hour east of Park City, Utah. Because of COVID, only about half the team made it out this year, but we still had a group of about 50 including a few outside guests. LifeOmic is a health tech company largely comprised of biomedical scientists, software developers, and wellness experts, so we were well aware of the dangers of spending time in groups. For that reason, we headed straight out to the mountains, foregoing any preliminary meetings.

The Uinta National Forest is a little known gem, a high-altitude forest covering nearly a million acres of northeast Utah. With hundreds of lakes stocked with trout, dozens of mountain peaks ranging from 11,000 to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, and huge wooded areas, the Uintas are a paradise for hikers, climbers, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Because the elevation averages about 10,000 feet, temperatures are moderate even in the summer and can easily dip into the 30’s and 40’s any night. The first year we held the retreat, we made the mistake of scheduling in October and were greeted by a foot of snow and overnight lows of 9 degrees. I should mention that this is a camping retreat. We literally hike to a relatively remote area, pitch our tents, and live outdoors with each other for a few days. The event always involves rock climbing, scrambles up nearby peaks, ridge walks, and other activities that would cause lawyers to salivate and HR directors to shudder.

LifeOmic always partners with a fantastic adventure planning company called Inspired Summit Adventures run by Shaun Raskin and her husband, Weston. Although we’re sleeping on the ground in tents in the wilderness, Shaun and Weston make it an extremely enjoyable experience. Every year they bring in experienced guides as well as a full kitchen staff that make sure we’re safe and well-fed. The cooks are led by Adam Ross, owner of Park City’s well-known Twisted Fern restaurant.

This year, we set up camp near beautiful Dean Lake. After arriving in buses at the Bald Mountain trailhead, we donned our heavy packs and marched about an hour to the camp site. The weather was unusually warm for the Uintas and we were pretty sweaty when we started arriving in the early afternoon. I hiked in with the first group and surveyed the idyllic location that would be my home for the next four nights. After setting up my tent and unpacking my gear, I walked back to camp to join the others. Believe it or not, this is what the area looks like.

It’s always fun to see how a bunch of city-dwelling scientists and engineers handle extended time in the wilderness with no cellphone service, Starbucks, or toilets. I was a bit nervous because this year we’d be spending four nights in the wilderness instead of two at my house in Park City and two in the mountains as in previous years. Would people get bored and cranky? I had absolutely no idea.

The first day went well enough. As is my habit, I pitched my tent well away from the rest of the group. I’m a light sleeper and greatly prefer to be in a solitary area in the middle of the forest. So I walked over a hill and found a nice place for my tent on the other side, probably a quarter mile from the others. I had learned in previous years how difficult it can be to find an isolated tent at night, so I was careful to note the landmarks that would lead me back in the dark. 

That first night (Monday), we enjoyed a nice dinner around our fake campfire. It was just a series of electric lights because Utah had instituted a statewide open fire ban a few days before. It had been a dry summer and wildfires were burning all over the state. It’s a drag not to have a real fire when camping, but we made the most of it. Fortunately, the kitchen staff had propane tanks and burners to cook on, so it didn’t really impact food preparation. After dinner, Shaun and Weston gave an overview of the coming activities and went over a few safety rules which mainly came down to not wandering off alone. Every year or two, someone gets lost in the Uintas and never makes it back out alive. I followed their remarks with a few of my own – mainly emphasizing that out there, the guides and staff were the experts and that everyone needed to listen to them. 

About 9pm, I put on my headlamp and walked out of our little tent city back into the woods to find my own tiny canvas domicile. I took off my boots and crawled in. The night was cooling off and it felt good to snuggle in. My favorite way to sleep while camping is to wrap a flat sheet around an inflatable pad and use the sleeping bag like a blanket. This was marvelously comfortable, and I ended up getting a good night’s sleep – better than I typically get at home. 

On Tuesday morning, after joining everyone at camp for a nice hot breakfast, I went off with a group to do some rock climbing. I’m an avid climber and enjoyed leading a nice, easy 5.9 route in an area next to another lake about a half-mile from our camp. After the ten or so of us in that group climbed for a few hours, we walked a short distance to another rocky crag that overhung Notch Lake for some deep water solo climbing. This really just means climbing up some rocks and jumping into the water below. Most of the lakes in the Uintas are alpine – fed by melting snow. I screamed as I emerged from the water because it was freezing cold and elicited laughter from the onlookers. 

Back at camp, I got to hear stories from the other groups that had engaged in a myriad of different activities. Some had scaled nearby Bald Mountain, a beautiful hike with about 2,000 feet of vertical gain. They had enjoyed some cell reception up there and had been able to send a few text messages and even make brief phone calls. Others had walked through a lovely meadow for a more relaxing day. Still others had done yoga or paddle-boarding on our lake. One of the great things about our retreats is that you can choose to be as active as you like. So over dinner, we all exchanged stories and laughed about the day’s adventures. The only bad news was the one of our members – Christian, a young, fit software developer who had brought along his bride of a few weeks – had developed serious altitude sickness during the night and had started vomiting continuously. It had taken a couple of the guides three hours to walk him back to the trailhead. But they got him out and drove him back to my house in Park City which was a couple thousand feet lower in elevation. A few others had suffered from headaches and poor sleep that first night, but thankfully nothing more serious.

I retired back to my tent early that night, stripped down, and got comfortable in my pseudo-bed when I thought I heard voices. Sure enough, the voices became more distinct and I was able to pick out my name. Worried that something was wrong, I called out. It turned out to be Shaun and Weston. The guides had brought my large reflector telescope to camp and no one knew how to use it but me. I threw on my clothes along with a puffy jacket and walked through the brisk night back to camp. When I got there, I saw a group of people standing around the telescope and pointing at the sky. I was amazed to see a brilliant celestial dome filled with more stars than I had seen in years. The milky way looked like dazzling streak and both Jupiter and Saturn were shining brightly just a short distance apart. 

After a few minutes of fiddling, I brought Jupiter into view with the four Galilean moons clearly visible – three on one side and one on the other. As different people took turns looking, I smiled at the audible gasps of wonder. It was amazing to me how many of our party, including guides who had spent decades outdoors, had never seen the moons of Jupiter or its distinct bands. The reactions were even more gratifying when I trained the scope on Saturn. One person exclaimed “It looks too beautiful to be real – more like an emoji of Saturn than the real thing.” One after another, guides, guests, and employees took turns looking at one of the most wonderful objects in our galaxy with reactions ranging from “No way!” to “That’s f’ing unbelievable!” After everyone had their fill of observing, I returned to my tent, glad to have come back to set up the telescope.

The next day, Wednesday, was especially fun. One of our guides, Blake, is an avid rock climber and had spent the last six or seven years putting up routes in an area on the side of Bald Mountain that he called the “Cobra Zone”. This area is especially cool because you have to climb about 40 feet up to a ledge about four feet wide and the routes start there. It’s a spectacular view down into Murdock Basin. Blake is particularly proud of a route that he named “Aaron’s Hot Venom Injection”, and rightfully so. I think it’s the most beautiful 5.9 I’ve ever climbed. It starts off in a corner and requires you to step out into space onto a small ledge and turn another corner onto an extremely exposed face with the ground far below and views out into the entire valley. 

That day, Blake picked five of us to do the hour or so hike to get there and spend the day climbing. All but one of us had some climbing experience. After we made it up to the ledge, I led the 5.9 and set a top rope for the ones who didn’t want to lead it. 

The highlight was watching one of our guests climb the route, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine named Paul. Paul is a very fit guy who stands about 6’3” and has size 15 feet. We didn’t have climbing shoes big enough for him, so he gave it a go in his tennis shoes. 

Even on top rope, Paul was shaking like a leaf as he made the first few moves to get up about ten feet. From there, he had to make the scary move to step out onto the ledge, reach around the corner of the rock, and pull himself around. We could tell that he was struggling to overcome his fear, but I had to laugh out loud when he took a deep breath and muttered “This is the ball sack moment.” I had never heard it expressed quite like that before, but we all knew exactly what he meant. After a few seconds of hesitation and much unwanted advice called out from the peanut gallery below him, Paul made the step and pulled himself around the corner. He was clearly elated both to have made the move and to still be alive. He managed to pull himself up another twenty or thirty feet before he declared exhaustion and we lowered him back to the ledge. Along with three of the other guys, I then climbed a much more difficult 11b that Blake calls “Ten Bolts to Freedom”. It was pretty ugly as we all scrambled to find purchase and fell multiple times. After getting our fill, we lowered and rappelled back to the ground and hiked back to camp. We were exhausted and banged up, but we marched back into our settlement like triumphant warriors and enjoyed dinner with the others. Back at camp, I was stunned to see Christian. I called out “What the heck are you doing here?” He smiled broadly and said that he was feeling better and had wanted to come back out. Further, he admitted that he had actually summited Bald Mountain earlier that day. The father in me wanted to scold him, but I couldn’t help but admire his fortitude and was relieved that he had recovered so quickly. 

While I was eating dinner that evening, Weston came up to me with a sly grin. “Don, I’ve got an idea for tomorrow!” I asked what he had in mind and he told me excitedly that he wanted to take the entire group up to the first peak of east Notch Mountain that you can see on the other side of our lake (and reflected in it). What’s more, he wanted to pick a few sure-footed members of our party and hike across the entire ridge line. As I looked over at the ridge, I noticed a vertical slot that seemed to be filled with lots of loose rock. I asked Weston how dangerous it was and he just smiled. “Well, it’s pretty exposed with steep drops on either side, but I’d be comfortable taking a few of you across it.” I agreed and we announced the plan for tomorrow to the group. 

The next day dawned pretty much like the previous ones – clear, sunny, and about 70 degrees. After breakfast, almost the entire group set out on the relatively easy climb up to the first peak. 

We had to scramble over large rocky plates and it took a couple of hours to get to the top. We were greeted with spectacular views down onto our campsite and the many surrounding lakes and mountains. We even enjoyed some weak cell reception and I was able to post a couple of photos, including these.

After a few minutes’ rest, Weston instructed the seven of us who would be hiking the ridge to put on our climbing harnesses. There were sections ahead where we might have to rope in for safety. I was secretly somewhat jealous of the rest of the group that would be descending back to camp to enjoy a relaxing afternoon of paddle-boarding and yoga. There had been more than seven people who wanted to do the ridge traverse and I had offered to give up my spot. But Weston and Shaun had quickly shot that idea down, saying “No way. You’re going.” So here I was, putting on my harness and wondering what I had gotten myself into. I do pretty well with heights and don’t mind some exposure but balancing on a knife’s edge with the risk of falling to my death on either side is not exactly my idea of fun. However, except for going around the big slot with all the loose rock, it ended up being fatiguing but not all that difficult. After climbing down the other side of the first peak, we came to the slot. Weston went first and tried to kick down some of the loose rock which prompted a radio call from Blake back at camp asking if we were OK. Weston referred to the slot as a “low difficulty but high consequence” area. One slip and you’re a goner.

But we all made it across with a couple being smart enough to accept the safety rope proffered by a guide perched up on top. On the other side were some spectacular pillars that afforded this unreal photo op.

It took a couple of hours to traverse the ridge but there was no true “knife’s edge” and it was more grueling than dangerous. However, the views were magnificent and justified the effort.

The discussion at camp over dinner that night was especially animated as everyone shared their adventures from the day. While my group had been traversing the ridge, others had gone rock climbing for the first time and still others had done various scenic hikes. 

Another important tradition we’ve developed at these retreats is a team relay race organized by Weston. Every year he ups the ante and this year was his most diabolical. Part of his motivation is to get rid of any leftover alcohol, so each team had to finish a bottle of whiskey while running the race. Fortunately, our chief scientist, Tom, has an industrial-strength liver, so he did most of the work for us, allowing me to get by with a small swig. Events included carrying a soaped up water jug, paddle-boarding across the lake, matching jumbled climbing shoes, and running into the woods to find and tear down leftover fire rings. I was amazed to see Tom bolt off at an incredible speed for a scientist with half a bottle of liquor in his belly and fully expected that we’d later find him passed out in the forest. But he made it back to camp and proceeded to drink what seemed like several gallons of water to dilute the alcohol.

After a wonderful dinner of salmon and bison steak, a local musician sang and played guitar for us as we started to realize that we would be heading back into the real world tomorrow.

As I settled into my tent for the final night, I listened to some coyotes screaming in the distance and fell into another deep slumber. It took me a good hour to break down my tent and pack everything back up the next morning. We all trudged out of the woods to the trailhead, most with a sense of misgiving. There’s something magical about the Uintas that causes you to leave a part of your heart behind. But it felt great to get back to my house where we took turns enjoying our first showers in four days and sitting in the sunshine out on the deck wolfing down beer and pizza. Despite constant eating and drinking, I lost three pounds over the course of the retreat. 

Events like these are expensive, especially for a small company like LifeOmic. But the bonds forged are invaluable. It’s one thing to get snippy in email with someone you’ve never met in person. It’s quite different interacting with people with whom you’ve spent several nights in the wilderness. The friendships formed, the wild ideas discussed, and the resulting war stories become part of the company’s enduring culture. At LifeOmic, we may cut corners in other areas, but we’ll never give up our annual wilderness retreat. Thanks again to Shaun, Weston, Blake, Julia, Adam, and all the rest of the guides and staff who made it such a wonderful event. We’ll be back.