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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

Roper's eureka moment in creating the SHR–recorded in a July 26, 1977, diary entry–came on a backpacking trip in the Laurel Creek area. "I was with my wife and sister-in-law," he recalls. "Around the campfire that night, I looked at my maps and went 'God, you could actually do a timberline route the whole length of the Sierra!'"

He didn't want it to start at Whitney ("too high, too crowded, too much talus"), so he spent the summers of 1978 to 1980 reconnoitering the route. "It took me three years because I was so f***ing lazy," he laughs. "The research was the fun part, just going in there with friends, or alone. It was pretty easy to write, you know, just a guidebook, so I had to pad it with birds and trees and all that natural history sh**."

Roper's nonchalance belies an almost religious passion for the region's history and landscape. "The country, those lakes," he says, "are some of the most beautiful places on Earth. They call it the gentle wilderness, and it sure is, especially with the weather and you're always hiking on those slabs, with all the birds, and the little gardens of wildflowers. One guy wrote me last year and told me he ran the thing in six days. Seems pretty f***ing stupid."

It's hard not to agree, but I discover that Roper has his foibles, too. Chief among them is a tendency to sandbag. I discovered this first at Frozen Lake Pass, then again as I muddled through an obtusely described descent below Izaak Walton Lake. Now, as I pass the halfway point, I occupy a few minutes composing a Roper-to-reality phrasebook. "Beginning hikers might have trouble" means hairy Class III scrambling. A "frustrating" descent means hellishly loose leg-breaker talus that seems to go on forever. And euphoric purple prose generally covers up a serious routefinding challenge. Other than that, he's spot on.

Mammoth Crest comes ahead of schedule, and I face the resupply with ambivalence. I'd keep going, but I need the food and warm gear in my box, some glue to fix a boot sole, and I've promised to meet my brother-in-law, Jeff Kirstein, and his wife, Nancy, who'll join me for the next four days.

I spend two claustrophobic nights holed up in a Motel Six watching Jerry Springer and Telemundo as frigid arctic winds blow volcanic dust through the town of Mammoth Lakes. Jeff and Nancy finally arrive, and we punch northward into the jagged Ritter Range, with its dark, twisted Minaret Spires.

Laughing and joking, we scramble endlessly along rock-bound shorelines. At Cecile Lake, the view is pure Himalaya: Banner Peak rises like a monstrous pyramid above us, lacking only the summit plume of an 8,000-meter giant. Four days later, on the west shore of Thousand Island Lake, we hunker down in a whitebark grove as winds pummel our tents, and in the morning, my friends bid adieu. Watching them skirt the lake, I suddenly feel tiny, vulnerable, and intimidated by the huge ridgeline I must cross westward.

Slowly, I climb to Glacier Lake Pass. The ponds are thickly iced, the streams choked with crystalline shards. The birds and marmots are silent until noon, when the sun briefly thaws the landscape again for a few hours.

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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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