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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.

Think you can’t find life-altering adventure in the Lower 48? Think again. Right under Yosemite’s nose is an extra-burly route that gave our battle-scarred veteran more than he bargained for: more scenery, more solitude, and more jaw-tightening risk. Join him on an Alaska-size trek across a landscape of irresistible power.

The pond is so blue I can’t tell if I’m descending to a lake or climbing out of a hole into the sky. The question doesn’t even seem weird to my oxygen-starved brain, still ditzy from clambering across 11,500-foot Red Pass. I’ve barely begun this trek, and already things are feeling surreal. They don’t get any more normal once I reach the uncanny blue oval, its translucent sapphire water so clear I can see 20 feet down.

I strip for a quick baptism to wash off the 6,400 feet of climbing and five passes I’ve crossed since joining the Sierra High Route at Kings Canyon two days ago. The cold slap of September-cool water reorients me. The map says this is Marion Lake, at mile 23. Only 160 miles to go.

Conceived by climber Steve Roper in 1977 and first published in his book Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, the SHR is a classic mountain journey similar to the John Muir Trail (JMT), but with a huge difference: It touches trails only grudgingly, and it rarely dips below 10,000 feet. Steep, rocky, and often hazardous, it’s thru-hiked only half a dozen times each year and requires more self-reliance and routefinding skill than the average trail hiker possesses.

Yet every inch is also achingly beautiful. Since I left Road’s End in Kings Canyon, I’ve been staggered by the flower-filled meadows, skyscraping cirques, and clear streams flowing over polished granite slabs. If there’s a Shangri-La in the Lower 48, the Sierra may be it. And if there’s a Shangri-La in the Sierra, the lake I’m crawling out of might get my vote.

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 *** 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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  1. bobbz

    Hmmm….I grew up in the Sierras, worked for the Forest Service in the Sierras, read books about the Sierras, and rarely heard it referred to “The Sierra” except in geography class. I can’t fault Backpacker for calling it the Sierras. The Sierra Nevada IS the mountain range, no question about it, but if you’re going on a camping or backpacking trip, you don’t go the the mountain range, you go to the Sierras—the Sierra mountains, or Sierras for short—any of hundreds of mountains that compose the range.

    Profile photo of bobbz

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