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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.

Descending on easy trail, high on fresh air, I reflect on the Sierra, the most beautiful of ranges. The impact of its graceful aesthetic on visitors like John Muir almost singlehandedly created the modern environmental movement. And its recreational history goes back almost 150 years. Long before backpacking became a sport, people like Joseph Le Conte, Theodore Solomons, and Norman Clyde threw home on their backs and got lost here for weeks at a time.

Steve Roper, the father of the SHR, is a throwback to that era, and to the early days of the ’70s backpacking boom. A Berkeley boy who became a Yosemite dirtbag climber, he betrays a bit of hippie still, sprinkling his sentences with ‘mans’ and frequent profanities.

“Climbing and hiking get you out into nature and away from these horrible f***ing cities, all that traffic and war and pestilence and sh**,” he tells me when I call him for pre-trip beta. “It gets you out, and you’re there, man.”

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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  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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