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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 nights freeze my bottles solid, even inside the tent. The cold is a predator now, dogging my tracks, nipping my fingers every time I pause too long. And then, suddenly, the weather turns warm and I spend an hour lounging on sun-baked slabs in Bench Canyon, watching miniature trout weave through rivulets pouring across the polished rock.

I blow through Yosemite on good trail. The facilities at Vogelsang and Tuolumne are closed for the season, and since no pizza or brews await, I slink across the Tioga Pass highway like any respectable coyote, waiting for a break in traffic and sprinting, unseen, to the safety of the far woods.

North, north, always north. I cross Mine Shaft Pass on a geologic contact zone, my left foot on gray Sierra granite, my right on brick red schist. I traverse Mt. Conness by descending a steep slickrock arête and a half-mile of granite slab, set like a chessboard with house-sized boulders for the pieces.

Packing up the next morning, I'm surprised to see silhouettes atop Sky Pilot Col, my next goal. Suddenly, two of the figures run at each other, followed seconds later by the distinctive hollow crack! of sheep horns colliding. It's a small group of bighorn rams. By the time I treadmill my way up the pea gravel of Sky Pilot, they're long gone, so I skitter down a slope of hardened clay overlain with ball-bearing pebbles. The only way I can descend is to wear gloves, stand sideways, and ride the talus avalanche, dragging my rear hand like a surfer sliding down the face of a wave.

At Soldier Lake, I'm only a day from trip's end. Already, I'm waxing nostalgic, trying to stretch and deepen every moment. I grab my sleeping bag, hike to a knoll above camp, and sit cross-legged watching stars emerge around a scimitar sliver of moon. I've spent 40 years chasing adventure from Peru to the Canadian arctic, but this has been perhaps my toughest–and most magnificent–mountain journey. For the last month, despite the hard work and occasional trepidation, I've slid comfortably into a simple, migratory lifestyle. The immersion has been calming, purifying. I sleep better, feel fitter, worry less, laugh more. I have someone else's legs, and the bags have disappeared from beneath my eyes. (Funny how unhealthy civilization can be, isn't it?)

If winter weren't approaching, if I didn't miss my wife, if I had more supplies, perhaps a hot shower, I'd happily turn right around and do the SHR again. One thing I know for sure: I'll never be the same after this trip. Challenge, scenery, wilderness–the bar has been raised on all of them.

All along this last leg, I've been worrying about Stanton Pass, the last big crossing. In the morning, it looks quite scary. The gully rolls over into an open-book corner with 400 feet of exposure. Fall-you-die country. But just across the canyon I can see Horse Creek Pass, and from there it's just a stroll to the finish line at Twin Lakes. So I lace my boots tighter, cinch my pack, and begin inching north once again.

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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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