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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 window of my Torrey, Utah, office looks out on a hedgerow. It's thick and impenetrably green, another one of those ridiculously effective barriers of suburban chlorophyll. Somewhere behind it is the red uplift of Capitol Reef National Park, but in the months before I hit the SHR I'd been too boxed in–by shrubbery and deadlines–to get out into it. By summer's end, thick around the middle from too little activity and too many nachos, I needed to escape.

I picked the SHR because I'd heard it was long and solitary, a perfect filter for civilization's toxins. A few calls turned up a reputation for brutal topography, but the warning barely registered. I'd hiked the hardest trails in America's wildest parks, and–humility be damned–I didn't find much challenge in them anymore. Sure, pockets of tough terrain exist, especially if you like bushwhacking, but I subscribed to the notion that the Sierra was a thousand miles too far south for true adventure. Need your ass kicked and your soul cleansed? Better go to Alaska.

Or so I thought. A day past Marion Lake, the view from atop Frozen Lake Pass brims with unsettling menace. Below me, a steep pile of refrigerator-size blocks perches atop downsloping slabs and ball-bearing gravel, all set in a corkscrewing 60-degree gully. Even a rope wouldn't help; there's nothing solid to anchor it.

Reluctant to retreat so soon into the journey, I test the terrain by downclimbing the top section without my pack. Minutes later, I claw back to ridgeline, my mind made up: I'm going around. Not only is the descent deadly, but the location is appallingly remote. I haven't seen another person since Kings Canyon, and my satellite phone is getting spotty signals. Even if

I survived a fall intact enough to make a call, it could take searchers days to find me.

So I back down the col, chastened and awakened. These days, 200 miles might not sound like much–not in an era of transcontinental yo-yo's and thru-hiking speed freaks. But this route is the real deal. Curtains up. Lights on. This is some big, bad wilderness. It's showtime.

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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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