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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Hiking The Sierra High Route

On this burly, 210-mile traverse, which crosses 33 passes and barely touches established trails, you can find Alaska-sized scenery, complete solitude, and just enough risk to keep things interesting.

by: Steve Howe

North Palisade, California's third highest peak - Photos by Steve Howe
North Palisade, California's third highest peak - Photos by Steve Howe
Minaret Lake beneath the Ritter Range
Minaret Lake beneath the Ritter Range
Descending Mt. Conness
Descending Mt. Conness
Campsite below Cirque Pass
Campsite below Cirque Pass

The next morning, I cross Cirque Pass on monster granite ramps, then Potluck Pass via a 40-foot rock climb. I drop down into Barrett Lakes, threading my way around tadpole-filled pools beneath the jagged, wizard-castle spires of the Palisade Crest. Days pass, and I settle into the trail's rhythm, my legs and lungs growing stronger. Clambering over tremendous boulder piles beneath North Palisade, I finally reach easy terrain at Bishop Pass. It's day nine, time for my first resupply.

From the ridge, I can almost smell the pizza at Parchers Camp, a cabin resort only six miles downvalley. But I'm immersed in my wilderness reverie, so I make quick work of the detour, sorting supplies and heading right back out. Soon, I'm breezing down through pastoral Dusy Basin, its meandering stream cloaked in deep emerald grasses.

The placid creek rolls over a brink into the deep V of Le Conte Canyon, and I follow it on a magical descent spiced by long slab waterfalls, the twisting bonsai trunks of Sierra junipers, and conical peaks of the Black Divide lording over the far side of the gorge.

I hike on for two more days, September getting colder and the snowfields hardening beneath a nightly rain of shooting stars. Lacking an ice axe or crampons, I cross the Glacier Divide via bouldery Alpine Col rather than steep, icy Snow Tongue Pass. That night, I watch huge thunderstorms rake the open tundra, swallowing the colossal ocher pyramid of Mt. Humphreys in orange-sherbet veils of rain.

Weasels scamper through the rock piles as I crest Puppet Pass, drop into deep French Canyon, then climb again to Feather Pass. On the ascent, I run into the first person I've seen off-trail in 100 miles of hiking. John Miles is a young painting contractor on an eight-day solo. We chat and compare notes, two kindred spirits, but soon branch off, anxious to be back in our own spaces.

Dropping into Bear Lakes Basin, I stumble upon the most evocative country I've encountered. This rocky alpine bowl merges every Sierran archetype–blond granite, clear water, airy vistas, rushing cascades, and flowery meadows–into one died-and-gone-to-heaven setting. Isolated ledges and pockets of tundra are scattered around the azure pools, a perfect maze of meditative perches, each poised at a scenic vantage point, beckoning me to linger. I push on up to the highest pond and camp at 11,760 feet with a sweeping view of Seven Gables and the stairstep lochs below.

Lapping waves rouse me around midnight. A waning moon paints a shimmering silver path across the black water. Low clouds hover above, creating an apocalyptic sky washed in deep blue. The scene is raw and harsh, beautiful in a primeval way, and very cold. The season is sliding toward winter, and my ultralight gear barely suffices. The chill drives me inside, where I shiver until dawn, sleeping in full Gore-Tex.

Shout-of-Relief Pass is a welcome landmark. Supposedly, it's so named because the next 25 miles to Devils Postpile National Monument–and my second resupply–are easy. Sure enough, two fast days later I'm gable-walking down the high pumice ridgeline of Mammoth Crest as hawks whiz past on howling gales.

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READERS COMMENTS

petekandu
May 19, 2012

I did the JMT about four years ago and we had 11 straight days of huge storms and torrential rain including three inches of hail. The river crossings were a nightmare, waist deep and bone chilling cold. Bear creek scared the hell out of me. It didnt stop raining until the day after Muir Ranch I have never been so wet nothing kept it out

Alan Bernat
May 17, 2012

The SHR does seem to be an epic trip. I lived in the Sierra for 10 years and I've lived in Colorado for the last 30 years. Many people in Colorado look at me askance when I tell them how nice the Sierra are. Not that the Colorado Rockies aren't very nice, but the Sierra has that long roadless area from Tioga Pass south. Most of the wilderness areas in Colorado are too small for extended trips (with the exception of two and RMNP). I go to the Winds for extended trips. Still, I miss that white granite, the jagged peaks and really great climate of the Sierra. Another comment, I guess that the author would have seen more people if he had gone a month earlier in the season.

Ronnette
May 29, 2011

As for all the aforementioned comments about lightning and thunderstorms, I strongly recomend reading Shattered Air: A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite's Half Dome by Bob Magic published in 2005. Too much to tell here, just read the editorial review at amazon.com. But basically it's the true story about five experienced hikers that got caught on top of Half Dome in 1985 during a summer thunderstorm when they were struck be lightning; two were killed and the other three sustained life threatning injuries. But the book also contains a wealth of information about everything a hiker/backpacked should know about lightning. Everyone thinks that finding shelter under, next to or near a big granite boulder or slab is a wise thing to do. Not so. Read the book.

Caleb
May 21, 2011

I have been backpacking for the last two summers in high-school and I'm currently working on my orienteering skills. What can I do and what do I have to learn to have the skills to hike this trail when I am old enough? Thanks for the help!!

Steve Kazmer
Jan 21, 2011

Two of my son's and I went to a remote lake up above Florence Lake in the West Sierras. The first night we went 1/2 the distance due to a late start then slept and broke camp early, and hiked to our destination. That afternoon at about 3pm it clouded up and began to lightly rain. By dusk we were hanging onto our tent polls. The wind kicked up and it hailed & rained so hard it sounded like it would come through the tent roof. The thunder and lightening were out of this world crazy. The rain stopped for an hour then began again the same as before. It didn't stop till midnight, also with thunder and lightening. All the streams around us swelled up to within 3' of our camp site. By morning all was well and we had a beautiful hike down. Caught (5) 16” Golden’s & (8) 12” Golden’s. I released all of them.

Tom Cox,, Sr, age 64
May 15, 2009

Mid-July, 2008, en route to Mearrian Lake, had to make emergency camp in four hour thunderstorm at Puppet Lake. We picked small depression between granite slabs between altitude stunted tiny gnarled conifers. Rain/hail started at 3:30 PM and was over at 7:30 PM. Resumed High Route trek in AM with no more rain. Feather Pass, Bear Lakes Basin and Gabbot Pass were absolutely glorious.

Amber
Feb 11, 2009

The JMT is lower, of course, but when I hiked it for 22 days in August, we got zero rain. I agree - if it doesn't start raining by 5pm, no problem.

Scott Sinner
Sep 30, 2008

No, and in my case, cuddle with your hiking partner of the same sex under a limp rain fly and wait it out with a Snickers bar. Seriously, though, thunderstorms in the Sierras are rare and only happen in the afternoon. Watch for buildups, plan accordingly, etc. If nothing's hit by evening, you're in the clear. I did the whole route this summer and we experienced this only once in the 23 days. For more info and learn how to stick it to VVR, email me at scottasinner@yahoo.com

Rick Challenger
Sep 20, 2008

I'snt it dangerous to camp above treeline? What do you do in the case of a thunderstorm?

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