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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.

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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  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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