Saturday, August 4, 2007

High Sierra Route Record, August 2005

Sierra High Route

The Timberline or Sierra High Route is a 195 mile route scouted by Steve Roper and described in his book Timberline Country. It roughly parallels the John Muir Trail, but in contrast largely remains above timberline and consists of about half cross country travel. It has 60,000’ of elevation gain, nearly 50% more than the similar length John Muir Trail. It crosses 32 passes all but three of which are un-marred by a trail. To hike it requires the ability to negotiate class II/III cross country and absolute confidence in navigation and route finding. Steve Roper’s book divides it into five sections and suggests that each section would be best tackled over a week. I was looking for a little tougher challenge and have set aside nine days. Not that I wanted it to be miserable: I wanted a trip tough enough to challenge my physical prowess but easy enough to enjoy. I wanted intensity and a small portion of desperation but I also wanted time for celebration and quiet respect. I wanted to walk a line between full exertion, full alertness, and full exhaustion. In short, I wanted to be fully alive. When it was done I wanted to bring some measure of this type of living back to my everyday life.

With every “project” backpack trip I like to understand the experience I’m looking for before I leave. Before I left for the John Muir Trail in 2004 I was committed at all costs to speed. I wanted to set the record and knew there would be misery involved and no time to stop and enjoy. That’s not what I’m looking for on this trip. I want a trip that will be physically demanding but I want more than a pure physical challenge. I want time to contemplate the more spiritual elements of the alpine zone.

Why do I backpack? It’s to experience a way of living generally unavailable today. Our lives are so cooperative and specialized it’s hard to see the results of your actions and decisions. In days gone by it seems that people were more directly affected by their day to day actions. If they planted and the weather cooperated, they ate. If they cut wood and kept it dry, they stayed warm through the winter. Backpacking lets me see the results of my decisions and preparation. Every decision before and during the trip has consequences that reverberate throughout the trip. Every step can bring you closer to your goal or result in a twisted ankle. The feedback is immediate. Lightweight travel amplifies the importance of each decision and places a premium on things you can’t carry in a pack: experience, imporvisation, and knowledge.

Friday August 19, 2005 2pm

My GoLite Speed pack modified for lighter weight sat by my door. Inside was a home made tarp and bivy sack, a 13 oz Nunatak sleeping bag, and assorted personal items. Carbon fiber hiking poles and a matching bear canister filled with 6 days of food sat beside my pack. A pair of Montrail Hurricane Ridge runners sat on my bear canister. I had carefully chosen my gear for the conditions I was likely to encounter and kept the base weight to 7 pounds. With the required 2 pound bear canister, 6 days of food, and 4 pounds of water I would start hiking with a 25 pound pack.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

I woke at 5:50am with the first light and left our bandit camp by Mammoth at 6:30am after breakfast. Dad drove me to the Taboose Pass trailhead and I started hiking at 8:35am. While the route “officially” starts at Cedar Grove I started at Taboose because of transportation. It’s a long drive to either trailhead, but my father, sister, brother-in-law, and niece had a backpack trip planned on the eastern Sierra and could drive me to Taboose Pass. This shortened the trip by about 6 miles and 3000’ gross elevation gain. I would have liked to do the whole route, but I didn’t feel too cheated. I led a trip the previous summer from Cedar Grove along Steve Roper’s “official” route to where I intersected it in the upper Cartridge Basin on this trip.

It was already 91F when I left the trailhead and there was no breeze chattering the branches of the desert scrub or cooling me. The trail sits in a desert filled with sage, sand, and lava. Taboose Creek gives a curving line of more varied and verdant life as it spills onto the desert. Then it’s sucked up by the Los Angeles/Owen’s Valley water project and the extra life provided by the creek is gone. The trail went up in fits and starts like an old rollercoaster and I was excited wondering what the ride would be like. The canyon walls were steep, and fresh crushed aspen and pine gave evidence for the power of the season’s avalanches.

A solitary juniper appeared and introduced me to his neighbor a Jeffrey Pine. A small grove of red fir appeared adding their sweet and pungent smell. A single leaf pinion faded into the distance as I climbed. Finally I moved from the heat of the south facing slope to the cooler shade of the north exposure and its’ red fir forest. Huge ramparts of granite appeared to block the way, but the trail dodged right following the creek as it sliced between the steep walls. As I rounded the corner, a steep 200’ cascade appeared and the smell of willows was in the air which had cooled to 75F by the breeze. After only two hours I already had a painful heel blister. It was still a very long way to Twin Lakes.

As I continued to gain elevation, the trees showed evidence of the many tough winters they’ve faced. Many of the trees had been bent by the snow or topped by an avalanche. Their branches were thin and many on the windward side were dead. I share an empathy with the struggles of high alpine trees. Sometimes when I’m having a tough day I pause and my mind pulls up the image of a specific tree at a specific place, adds snow, an icy wind, and imagines the toughness required just to survive. This resolute image strengthens my determination and makes my difficulties disappear.

I continued to climb past small streamside willow, purple heather, and the occasional grassy meadow. Up I continued past where roots can grasp hold of a meager living but a full life. Here life is simpler, containing only rock, air, and snow. Soon the raucous call of a Clark’s Nutcracker welcomed me to the top of Taboose Pass.

The trail from Taboose Pass to Cartridge Pass follows the early route of the John Muir Trail before Mather Pass was carved into the granite ridge separating the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River. It was abandoned many years ago and is so over grown that I chose a cross country route across a steep talus field. This route turned out to be more difficult than what I was trying to avoid. I stopped by a small side stream 800’ above the Fork of the Kings for a drink and snack. The view was so expansive I couldn’t capture it in a picture. I sat on a sheet of granite with a stream cascading by. Across the canyon I could see the Bench Lake plateau and Mts. Ickes and Pinchot. The stream was surrounded by small willows, grass, and a riotous assortment of purple lupine, purple and white mint flowers, yellow marigolds, and blue asters. A golden eagle soared by just below eye level. Only the gush of the stream and a distant wind broke the silence.

My day became tougher from here. My late starting time means my planned 12 hour day will end at 8:30—in the dark. In the Lakes Basin I almost stopped at 6:30pm on a sheltered wooded ledge. However, feelings of loneliness drove me on over Frozen Lake Pass. My campsite just south of Mather Pass was very close to where my wife Carol and I stayed over 10 years ago. While the day started as a balanced day it turned into an athletic push. I hoped tomorrow would be easier. I wished for more company than the babbling stream and the full moon.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The meadows of the upper Mather Basin were covered with frost in the morning. The moon had just crossed Frozen Lakes Pass for its day of sleep when I awoke and I started hiking just as the sun hit the tip of Vennacher Needle. The south side of Mather Pass was in the sun, but after crossing the pass I was in cold morning shade nearly all the way to Palisade Lakes. What a valley! The lakes are filled from numerous small streams that pour in from all sides. There are small stands of whitebark pine and so many flowers it felt like spring despite my late summer date. The few mosquitoes were mostly blown away by a light breeze. After six miles on the John Muir Trail it was time for cross country travel again. I ascended the steep but technically easy climb up Cirque Pass where shooting stars decorated the meadows. Small cascades gushed exuberantly over rocks and through their crevices. It took 40 minutes to cross to Potluck Pass where the view of the Palisade Group was nothing but grand. Their solid grey spires slashed with random stripes of white rock and snow were a cause for celebration.

Crossing from Potluck to Knapsack Pass involved picking routes through multiple short cliff bands that were invisible until I was on top of them. I often had to backtrack 100’ to go forward 200’. My route was interrupted by a lakeside cliff on the south shore of Barrett Lake but I decided to wade across instead of climbing around. Water always looks shallower than it is. My wade was waist deep and my log book and a topo map got wet before I had finished crossing. The five hours it took to get from Palisade Lake to the Bishop Pass Trail began to feel like unpleasant work. The descent into LeConte Canyon took a hot hour but minor thunderheads helped cool the ascent of Muir Pass through this glacially carved canyon. There were stands of hemlock, whitebark, and lodgepole each with their distinct aroma. I predicted a late crossing of Muir Pass and was proved correct at 7:20pm when I arrived. The last of the day’s sun faded from the Muir Hut as I descend to the outlet of Wanda Lake for the night. I hoped for an easier tomorrow as I cooked dinner by headlamp.

Monday, August 22, 2005

It was perfectly still across Wanda Lake when I got up and the reflections of Mts. Huxley and Warlow were hard to distinguish from their originals. The descent to Evolution Lake was an adventure in gentle meadows surrounded by the most rugged and desolate mountains of granite with chiseled rubble from their formation still filling the canyons at their feet. It was cold with only the promise of warmth as the sun lit the tips of these stone statues. I had breakfast overlooking the glacially carved Evolution Canyon. Glaciers, despite their power to shape, were turned by more solid rock several times as they descended this canyon.

I continued across the relatively level ledges of the Darwin Bench and descended into the first of its lakes. Copse after copse of welcoming whitebark pine greeted me on the way. As I sat by the small lake, the distant caw of a Clark’s Nutcracker and the close up chirps of Juncos complemented the streams’ quiet gurgle as it strained through numerous dark boulders. A curious Junco fluttered just behind me and scolded me for being too close to her nest. It was warm, still, and intimate.

So carefree was my mood that I just about missed Snow Tongue Pass and descended into Paine and Packsaddle Lakes before looking more carefully at the map and realizing that the lake below couldn’t possibly be any of the Wahoo Lakes. I turned on my GPS which informed me I was ¼ mile away: at least if I could fly. The descent to the real Wahoo Lakes wasn’t as bad as advertised as I enjoy hopping along the top of car sized boulders.

From a distance all wilderness looks forbidding. Looking across Humphrey’s Basin, barren rock and scraggly trees is all that is apparent. However when you get closer, a myriad of comfortable and inviting features beckon. My lunch meadow perched above Wahoo Lakes was one of these small paradises. It was a small meadow with a view of Wahoo Lakes, a trickling stream with a dry grassy edge, and a sloped and smooth granite boulder to lean against.

French Canyon was full of mosquitoes and I delayed my afternoon snack until Marion Lake to avoid them. I continued on to the top of Feather Pass at 6:50pm. Feather Pass derives its name from Feather Peak which has such abrupt thin flakes of granite they look like feathers stuck in the ridge. On the descent I broke a pole over a square granite boulder when it plunged deep in the snow and I lost my balance. The soft snow allowed rapid travel and I arrived at Bearpaw Lake only 30 minutes later for my earliest camp. I celebrated with freeze dried blueberries and a hot cup of tea. No moon was out as I went to bed and the Milky Way dominated the sky as it never can in the city.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I started again at 6:30am and hiked over White Bear Pass after greeting a group of four climbers on a bench above Black Bear Lake. I was so focused on the route down to Brown Bear Lake that I forgot to leave my standard marker on the pass. On every pass and trail crossing of this trip, I left four rocks in a square with a smaller fifth rock with my initials, date, and time upside down on the flattest of the other four. Traveling alone is more risky than with a group but I had decided against carrying a satellite phone or personal locator beaconIt might save my life and at worst my wife would take comfort knowing how I met my end. For safety, I also introduced myself and my itinerary to hikers I met.

By my 8:30am breakfast at Lake Italy it was so warm in the still sunshine I took a swim and cleaned up. The sandy bottom deepened slowly and a trickle of water from a side stream provided breakfast water and refreshed my bath. I splurged and enjoyed a cooked breakfast of cream of wheat, raisins, and brown sugar. From Lake Italy the ascent of Gabot Pass was via an easy chute of granite sidewalks and grassy ramps. From Gabot Pass there was nearly 4000’ of descent to Mono Creek, much of it on a trail so poor a deer would be ashamed to claim it. I lunched by Mono Creek and purified my water for the first time on the trip when I was reminded of the upstream trail access by the poorly covered toilet paper just 10’ from the stream. I spent my time whittling a 4” piece of manzanita into a splint for my pole which I crammed into the fractured ends and secured with tape. It was a fix that remained strong for the rest of my trip.

The ascent of the Laurel Lake “trail” was hot and steep. It was a trail in the old school. This meant a cut through the brush leading straight up the ridge. There were a few squiggles thrown in as a harbinger of the switchback which hadn’t yet been invented. Roots and sticks fell across the trail in an “X” pattern as if warning me not to proceed. I turned on my altimeter to serve as coach. The climb from Laurel Lake to Bighorn Pass was also steep! There was 1000’ to be gained in only 0.6 miles. I won every step with a breath and made pole plants over my head. The footing was excellent on heather and grass. The view of Red-and-White Mountain to the north is one of the most spectacular in the Sierra.

The descent of Shout of Relief Pass just north of Bighorn Pass gave me ample time practicing all of my poling techniques. I carry them when running on easy downhill. I also carry them over large talus. On steep downhill with good pole plants such as grass or sand I palm the butt of the pole and double pole. If it’s slightly less steep I use each pole independently kicking each out and planting it in turn to provide stability and braking. On steep uphill I grab the knob at the base of the grip with my thumb and index finger to shorten them a bit. If it is really steep I grab lower on the actual pole shaft. I find poles most helpful on steep uphill and they got a workout in the 1000’ ascent through soft volcanic soil from Tully Hole to Virginia Lake. I arrived at 8pm wishing I had an extra hour of light to enjoy. Still the alpenglow on the close cliffs and distant peaks of the Silver Divide provided a good show. Then the stars came out for an after dinner light display. I spent extra time looking up at the sky after I went to bed. I decided not to use a tarp and rolled out my insolite and bivy sack in soft needle duff under a grove of Whitebark pine. I wondered if sleeping under pines would influence my dreams.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I got an early start today but the John Muir Trail was a shock. After hiking across talus, meadows, and solid granite for days, the dust and loose rock was a punishing surface. Mix in ground up horse shit and it was a very unappealing dish. This is one of the most heavily traveled and worst sections of the John Muir Trail. After arriving at Duck Lake and despite the steepness, it was a relief to be heading cross country again toward Mammoth Pass via Deer Lake Pass. Here the whitebark pine grows in thickets almost willow like in their ability to thwart the traveler. Although I have a keen eye for cross country travel I ascend greedily and am slow to give up elevation even when a lower route may be easier. Here an easier route was to be found lower on the ridge. I rebated my hard earned gains to the elevation god and descended to Deer Lake for breakfast. Now the siren song of a hamburger lunch at Red’s Meadow sang loud and clear.

After a satisfying lunch and a natural hot spring shower I left Red’s Meadow heading to the steep but beautiful Nancy’s Pass. From Nancy’s Pass I descended to camp in a balcony below the Minaret’s crest formed by a solid formation the glaciers were unable to move. I was close to a rushing stream whose sound filled the valley with pleasant music. The sounds of the stream were overshadowed every few minutes by a massive crescendo of wind that strained through the grove of Hemlocks in which I was nestled. The wind then faded leaving me to enjoy the music of the stream before returning again and again with its great force.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Early sunshine this morning put me in a Sunday mood. Since I was ahead of schedule I meandered slowly through the Minarets. I hiked from Minaret Lake to Cecile Lake where I had a spectacular breakfast and tea. The peaceful Cecile Lake is surrounded by Ken, Kehrlein, and Pridham Minarets to the south and the sinister Iceberg Lake to the north far below. Iceberg Lake appeared even more sinister to me because it was still filled with icebergs and the whole basin appeared filled with snow. Normally I like traveling over snow, but at 9 am the snow was ice hard and the sun wouldn’t hit it for 2-3 more hours. This had the potential to be the most dangerous part of the trip. A small scar on my hand, the result of my father knocking loose a softball sized rock as he ascended this pass above me when I was eight, reminded me of the slope’s steepness. I hoped for better luck.

Luck I had. The “trailed” portion of the descent was snow free and the traverse above Iceberg Lake, while over icy snow, had enough of a use trail that with poles it was just passable. I planted both of my poles before I took the next step. After finishing with the snow, I again began to feel lazy crossing above Lake Ediza. The contrasts between the rugged volcanic minarets, Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak and the gentle meadows with meandering streams and heather couldn’t have been more complete. I was with the meadows.

After crossing Glacier Lakes Pass, the descent to the first of the Twin Island Lakes was a route finding challenge. Cliffs dropped off to the left and only one route appeared passable. Even at lake level it was tough to get to the outlet. I had to climb over a rounded dome and descend a talus gully. In the heat the wade across the outlet stream was refreshing and a good chance to wash my pants. The trip from upper Twin Islands Lake to Blue Lakes Canyon continued the navigational challenges. Endless cliffs and canyons each only 40’-200’ deep didn’t show up on my topographic map but certainly slowed my progress. I felt a great sense of relief after crossing the spur guarding a safe and easy descent into Blue Lakes Canyon. At 6pm I had only Blue Lakes Pass to cross before entering Yosemite for the night. I had a quick snack to fuel up which was accompanied by a hoarse sounding coyote’s barking. Blue Canyon is beautiful—a miniature and unspoiled Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. The minarets are seen to the east, the Silver and Mono divides to the southeast. Better yet, I was back into Yosemite granite. The Reverend Thomas Starr King summarized his feelings about granite in 1860: “Great is granite and the Yo-semite is its’ prophet!” Granite was a lot easier to travel over as well as being clean and beautiful.

I camped just below a small ridge coddled in a small granite basin with a comfortable backrest. As I cooked dinner the Clark range across the canyon accented by the sunset provided the evening’s entertainment. The sunset slowly changed the sky from yellow and orange to red, progressively deeper shades of purple, and finally black. I slept with a family of whitebark pines with a soft mattress of needles. One of the smaller pines playfully explored my bivy sack with a low branch whenever the wind blew.

Friday, August 26, 2005

I woke at 6am and finished the last cross country mile to the Tuolumne Meadows Trail. I forded the Lyell Fork of the Merced in the cool morning shadows and headed as quickly as I could toward Tuolumne Meadows with visions of another shower and a chicken quesadilla in my head. The 22 trail miles from camp to Tuolumne Meadows wrapped up in 8 hours. It was a long and focused push which strangled much of the beauty. The Tuolumne Meadows area is a place that’s better to slow down and enjoy.

The lodge cafeteria was closed for lunch but I did have a shower. I called Carol and talked to each of our three children. I found it unsettling how home routines continued without me and how the mundane details of life seemed to overshadow life itself. Yet somehow the haircuts, the new teachers, and the daily discipline reflected the bigger principles of life. I knew it was time to resolve the metaphor I was living into my everyday reality.

Beyond the noise of Tioga Road the contrasts of my normal life and the life I was living here came into greater focus. In the mountains I am at my best. I have more commitment and identity in running and backpacking than in any other part of my life. I can do things that most people wouldn’t consider possible. This trip has been a perfect fit for my skills and fitness. At home I feel average by comparison and impotent in my ability to make a difference. I can’t solve the problems of a chaotic and confusing world. I can’t even help many of the patients I see. And yet I can’t live here forever.

In two days more I knew I’d be going home. I wondered where my home really was. Whether it was hiking 14 hour days over rough passes or teaching my family about honesty, commitment, and compassion? Whether it was crossing rocky passes or taking care of patients that current technology can only help so much? Deep inside I knew that I had to return and somehow I bring the lessons I’d learned on this trip back to my everyday life. As I left the mixed forest and emerged into Gaylor Lakes’ grassy basin my mood lifted. I felt stronger and ready to return home.

After crossing Mine Shaft Pass I again had to pick my route carefully among volcanic chutes, ledges, and cliffs. I arrived at Spuller Lake exhausted. I again had the fortune to find a friendly family of whitebark pines who invited me in for the night. I slept well; it had been a tough day.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

It was just too spectacular. I was sitting on top of the East Ridge Conness Pass above the spur that bypasses the cliffs that surround me. The air was so still a dandelion seed wouldn’t have blown out of my open hand. The loudest sound was the pervasive quiet, but there was the distant roar of Conness Creek and Falls which also echoed from the cliffs behind me. I was on a solid granite and feldspar ridge; white, solid, and clean. Across the valley was granite North Peak and just to the east the brown/red volcanic rock of Black Mountain and Mt. Scowden began. The divide between the rock types couldn’t be sharper. Mt. Conness whose glacier is behind me is responsible for the silt that makes the upper Conness Lake milky. Patches of snow dotted the valley and the glacier seemed shrunken from what I remember. It was quiet, distant, and expansive. A cooked breakfast had cooled and my quart of Tang was already half gone when I adjusted the maps for the last time. I knew that it was my last day and that I would soon be going home. I started sobbing at the thought of going home and wasn’t sure if it was from sadness, happiness, relief, or some of each. I knew I was ready to go home.

Sky Pilot Col wasn’t pastoral though. The col divides the white granite from the red/black basalt with a line straight down the middle. These rocks don’t like each other and the results of their battles are the splinters and chunks of rocks that lay like fallen soldiers down the sides of the pass. Yellow cinquefoil flowers greeted me as I crossed the Sky Pilot Col, but there were none of the “Sky Pilots” for which this pass is named.

I had lunch at the grassy outlet of Shepard Lake while watching Water Pipits glean the shore and Yellow-Rumped Warblers lunch in the air catching moths with acrobatic flying. With only six hours separating me from Twin Lakes I contemplated my options. If I hiked out I could have a good meal, a shower, and clean my clothes. But I would be in a noisy and dusty campground. If I stayed, I could have one more night to say good-bye to the mountains. Either way my father wouldn’t pick me up until noon Sunday. I decided to stay because I enjoyed sitting lazily in the soft grass by the lake and watching the birds. I didn’t have to worry about being somewhere, sometime. I spent over an hour enjoying lunch.

The trip across Virginia Canyon from Shepard to Soldier Lakes took two hours. I followed deer trails across the avalanche debris then moved onto wonderful granite slabs—first in the creek, then in the whole cirque. I passed a stand of Whitebark Pine above Soldier Lake and continued my ascent toward Stanton Pass. The descent from Stanton Pass seemed the most technical of the trip. Perhaps I was just worried about getting hurt this close to the finish.

I camped 1000 vertical feet north of Horse Creek Pass. I would have preferred camping on the south side as the view is nicer, the terrain more gentle, and I would have had more time to relax. However, I was concerned about the snow refreezing overnight in a steep chute on the north side of the pass I would descend in the morning. I probably could have taken a slower and riskier route to avoid the snow, but I was glad I hiked on. I paid my respects as I descended below 10,000’ knowing I would return in just a few days this time in the Kaweah range with friends. I had one more night sleeping in the shelter of whitebark pines and listening to the gushing of Horse Creek. I knew I’d be happy to finish in the morning, have a big breakfast at the cafĂ©, and prepare to return home.

This version of the Sierra High Route was much harder than I expected. My time on trail was 13-14 hours each day; dawn to dusk. I never finished a meal without needing a headlamp. I started cooking my dinner with one several times. The Sierra High Route is rugged. It’s not technically difficult but the multiple passes and rock hopping were hard on my body. A trip of 10-12 days preferably with company would have made it more relaxed and enjoyable for me. On this schedule I would have had an extra 3-4 hours each day to nap in a meadow, linger at an overlook, and explore some of the peaks I passed so quickly. For others a longer time would probably be required to make the trip enjoyable. I found it difficult to balance the athletic requirements of my selected pace with a full appreciation of my surroundings. Despite the unexpected difficulty, the tone I set prior to the trip and the short breaks I was able to take helped me have both a physical challenge and a spiritual one. Now that I’m done I’m ready to return to my normal life and face its challenges. I can see the reflection of the mountains’ resolute strength clearly reflected in my everyday life.

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