This ~50-mile stretch of the Sierra High Route took me four days. I left from Reds Meadows near Mammoth Lakes on a Wednesday afternoon at 12:30pm and came out in Tuolumne Meadows on a Sunday at 11:00am with heels on fire – I wanted to make breakfast at the diner!
Day 1: Devil’s Postpile to Superior Lake
July 15th. It began with a pleasant enough jaunt along the PCT/JMT towards Devil’s Postpile, a mind-bogglingly geometric statue sculpted by no other force than Mother Nature. Mostly hexagonal (44.5%) and pentagonal (37.5%) rock posts — some of them near perfect — arise out of the ground up a couple hundred feet. They cracked into this shape when a mass of volcanic lava cooled slowly gazillions of years ago, and then were smoothed off by glacier movement at the top to show their angles. It was great to take this short side-trip loop trail, as I blazed by it while thru-hiking the PCT in 2013 and regretted missing the view from the top.
After visiting the postpile and a brief 3.2 miles on a trail busy with international tourists and their tiny children, I cut off the JMT. Heading west on the Superior Lake trail, I began a long, quiet ascent up and around the West side of Red Top Mountain. I enjoyed shade of the trees while it was very hot outside, and full Verizon LTE data coverage with which to reassure my mother that I was alright by sending her hypnotic, scenic photographs. I never quite got the sense I was alone in those woods, although I never spotted another human on trail until I reached Superior Lake. I thought I might see a bear. Frankly, I was convinced I’d see a bear. Nope.
I only managed to startle two men camped out at Superior Lake. They immediately stammered their best beta: warnings about the mosquitoes and that the “trail fizzled out just ahead.”
Well, the trail did fizzle out, and that’s where my Sierra High Route adventure began1. But not until the next morning, because the climb in the heat had tired me, and I suppose my long morning drinking beer and getting permits and a bear vault and catching shuttles and talking to strangers hadn’t helped either.
Luckily the mosquitoes never materialized, even though I camped fairly near to a lake and a bog. This whole trip became a lake tour, which is rare for me. I avoid lake camping because to me it means bugs, and the water is more stagnant, and I’m not a great swimmer. It’s not like I’m going to jump in an alpine lake when I’m alone. There’s nothing to prove. It’s actually cold and pretty uncomfortable, and I don’t like the idea of polluting headwaters with sunscreen and bug repellant. I set up a nice camp with a view of Superior Lake and the morning’s climb over Nancy Pass, and dawdled my way into unconsciousness. A swim would have been nice, though.
Day 2: Superior Lake to Thousand Island Lake
July 16th. In the morning I tackled that pass, the one that loomed over me all night giving me restless leg and tossy turns. That pass: another one of those SHR straight-up-a-loose-pile-of-rocks affairs. I approached it all wrong, but then spotted some deer, and then spotted game trails, and they led me over to where I needed to be.
Many times that game trails are unnervingly intuitive. Clearly the animals know things we do not about how to move in the wild, and following their paces sometimes just gives me the willies. I got over the cinder block and microwave-sized moraine and over to the tiered granite faces. Several sections were hand-over-hand, with my hiking poles and usually-side-pocket-stowed water bottle lashed down to my bag so that it wouldn’t accidentally fall out when I doubled over to correct my posture or lifted a leg high over my hip. Losing a water bottle this way was a real risk for me. Without my one liter bottle, I would find myself drinking from a one liter pot — dug from my bag whenever I happened to find water. When you have ~15 pounds of gear on your back, every item is a necessity, not a convenience. Certain items bind you to civilization. I suppose with the loss of my plastic water bottle, I would become one of those rambling mountain people who breaks from scurrying around hungrily to sip water from cupped hands, lips cracked into a blissful grimace.
Ah! Water! Wish I could take it with me.
I enjoyed breakfast at the top, some Pop Tarts and Sour Patch Kids.
I marveled at the fact the pass was named after an 8 year-old girl: the first to summit with her party in 1969. It reminded me how Girl Scouts were the ones to re-open Crow Pass Trail in Chugach National Forest in Alaska. Reading Steve Roper’s books and all the accounts I could find about the SHR, it seemed like a man’s game. Mountaineering.
Roper’s book is so carefully and indivisibly worded though, to the fact where I doubt he uses pronouns at all. But he does only mention going solo once in the book, contrary to his frequent use of the words “group” and “leader,” saying,
Traveling solo along the High Route can be an enjoyable, almost mystical, experience.
And that it is. As I dropped down into a little grassy cirque with babbling brooks and innumerable flowers I hated to step on, my eyes were popping and my neck sore from spinning to catch everything, and then I caught a man peeing in the woods. I must be on a trail again. Yes, I’m on a trail again. With the man and his brother and their friend.
“Did you see me peeing?”
Does it matter?
We are now three of us on the Minaret Lake Trail for about fifteen minutes, and I can hike more mindlessly and let my eyes wander from the ground to the Minarets around me, and the men with their large, external frame backpacks. Now that’s something I’d like to do someday: put on a large, external frame backpack and take a difficult hike. I do honestly wonder sometimes if the aesthetics of it offer some other sort of arcane insight, like those self-flagellators must earn from their discipline.
At the outlet of the lake I yelled back to the men, “Do not follow me! Go right!” They take the trail around the north end of the lake, while I hop rocks around the south side. Why don’t I just take the trail? Roper, why doesn’t the High Route just follow the trail? It’s there. The trail looks at the Minarets, the route puts me in the path of falling minarets, and again, I’m… OH I GET IT. I am already self-flagellating. I do not need the large, external frame backpack. I have found other ways to punish myself. Oh. Why aren’t I on the trail again?
I am hiking the Sierra High Route.
And when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. Always. Anyone who knows me knows this is true. To a fault. And some of my closer friends know it irks the shit out of me when people say they will do something and never do or said they did something and didn’t. So when I say I’m hiking the Sierra High Route, you take that at face value. There will be no hiking around the north end of the lake on the foot path. I will self-flagellate my way around the south end. Because it’s so much better than the north end somehow.
As I am younger and faster and carrying half as much weight on my back, I meet the men at the head of Minaret lake and catch up to them on their tortured climb up a severely steep, loose face to Cecile Lake. I ask them, or rather tell them, “We must be out of our minds!” I then announce my heart rate must be 120 at which point one of them literally nearly dies laughing and/or falling off the side of the mountain. Oh God, be careful, mister, sir, guy, whoever you are with the large external frame backpack! It’s insanely loose and steep. Someone is going to die.
“120? Mine is about 180 when I’m walking down the sidewalk!”
I like these guys.
Although I initially understood that they were headed to Cecile or Iceberg lake to camp and then back out the same way, they were actually doing a loop back around by Ediza and Shadow lakes, and to do that, were enjoying part of the SHR and its trail-less, death-defying splendor down from Minaret Lake and around Cecile Lake. Well, actually, I managed that section and though I could see them having lunch at the top, above Cecile Lake, and later occasionally peering over the steep cliff above Iceberg Lake they’d need to navigate down with their large, external frame backpacks. I soaked my hot feet in the remarkably ice-free Iceberg Lake outlet and had some Biltong, dried pineapple rings, Panda licorice, Walker shortbread, and a new kind of Snickers XTREME bar, with 20 more calories and boasting “all peanuts and caramel.”
I had also tucked the airplane sized tequila I found on trail into my pack for a finish toast. Sorry, dear friend of RLH (1930-2014, RIP) I understand your desire to memorialize your loved one, over my dead body will you leave trash in the wilderness. I did leave behind one of your cairns, which is also a problem. Steve Roper himself wrote:
I recommend that High Route backpackers dismantle ducks (cairns) wherever they are found — unless there’s a very good reason for them.
When you are so tiny, under the stars and amidst mountains that dwarf you a jazillion times, you realize that you — and logically your dead loved ones as well — are simply not a good enough reason for a cairn. Tangentially, I wonder how so many men got the idea they could name such immense things as mountains and stars after themselves, their surnames being more important than say, a descriptor or compliment. I much prefer “Red Peak” over “Virginia Peak,” and “Neenameeshee” over “Mt. Sill” for examples, but nobody cares what I think. It’s Virginia Peak now. Take away names, take away cairns, we are so much smaller and less important than we think we are. It’s alright to be lost and feel small.
I felt small out there, but not as small as I might have felt say, had I not found tequila.
So, skip ahead two days to when, together with a good-humored Austrian woman drinking hot tea, I toasted RLH and my SHR section finish at the Tuolumne Meadow picnic tables, with that blessed Cuervo.
Salud RLH! Your friend has good taste.
The route down off of Iceberg lake and toward Thousand Island Lake was more of the same. Difficult climbs and descents, and rounds about cirques full of ragged boulders, with jumps over tiny dissolving streams and from buried rock to buried rock. I have by this point become a little obsessed with not leaving footprints. Seeing footprints on the High Route is occasionally reassuring, but then I get upset that it’s there and will probably be there forever. Less and less this route gives its visitor the feeling of being its first. I hop from rock to rock where I can, turning it into a rather neurotic game. (It’s not a craziness if you’re aware of it, right?) Well, I’m not the only one, because Roper himself states,
By stepping on rock or gravel as much as possible and on wet areas as little as possible, one barely leaves a trace.
He also describes how steep slopes can be descended in a zig-zag fashion to avoid creating man-made washouts. I found several of such washouts started along the route where people struggled and slid down steep slopes. Obviously so many people had attacked the same face, and perhaps without regard to their contribution to the overall negative impact. Dulled slopes blank of vegetation – it had all been erased by boots scraping downward. It made me start to believe that perhaps — perhaps — it is time to develop some of the more difficult, and less-remote portions of the Sierra High into actual trail. I say this because in some portions the traffic is so obviously heavy and destructive, that it would be overall better for the environment on the route to turn it into one trail instead of it being a widely trampled swath as it is in places. Yes, I said that. And perhaps if it cannot be sustained as one footpath in these troubled spots, then cairns might be set up so that hikers fall into line and a trail forms organically. Here is where Steve Roper might cringe, that his advice that each hiker take his own line actually causes the exact type of destruction he feared when he decided to publish his prize route. In view of this reality, I imagine Roper would issue a revision stating that backpackers must ultimately create definite trail in these delicate, trampled spots. Because we all have the dirt’s best interest in mind, of course. And we all care about the people behind us, and the animals and the plants, too. Of course.
More of the Same
My goal to attain Thousand Island Lakes on my second day out was ambitious, but I managed to be there by 6pm, destroyed. My feet felt like they’d been massaged for 9 hours solid by an angry Swedish masseuse with hammers for hands, and my achilles were starting to look a little swollen and boggy. My aching, sunburned thighs screamed “mercy” when I tried to stretch them. To the east of the lake the sky was dark and rumbled occasionally, but lucky for me it blew off to the southeast. I slept dry, but uncomfortably. Again, I had relative mercy by the mosquitoes, and camped in peace. However, the lake water was full of swimmy things and since I don’t use a filter, I guess my morning coffee and oatmeal was high protein. I felt terrible cooking those little critters to death. What’s gross is I did try to filter them out — with a bandana I found sitting on top of the unnamed pass just south of Garnet Lake. They weren’t tadpoles — though there was some of those, too — but these little tiny black swimmers and even smaller red ones.
Day 3: Thousand Island Lake to Blue Lake
July 17th. Friday’s itinerary was too ambitious; I was not able to make my goal of hiking all the way to where the High Route hits the Islip Pass pack trail. I thought if I could just hit that “real” trail, then it would be smooth sailing from there out to Tuolumne on established trail (I was wrong). Anyway, the hike out of Thousand Island Lake over to Blue Lake for the night was intimidating and very slow-going except for the last two mile stretch, and the first stretch away from Thousand Island Lake, which had a distinct path.
It took me a while.
This was the first day, even counting the day when I got lost on the SHR, where I felt like I was constantly making wrong choices. I felt like my lines were all bad. I was certain that I was missing tracks and descending things too early, hitting all the toughest and stupidest lines, and doing a lot of unnecessary climbing and dropping. I beat myself up just assuming that other more experienced mountaineers would intuit better tacks. Maybe, maybe not. I was pretty proud of myself at times, such as when I bouldered up a granite face where the route met the northern Twin Island Lake, and walked over the bluff above the lake to its outlet. I was then even more self-satisfied to find that the bluff dropped gently enough to the grassy lake shore. There, to my great relief, I found that the river crossing Roper describes as “significant,” “three feet deep” and “twenty-foot-wide” to be a simple matter of a solid leap.
That said, twenty minutes later I was looking at a 600 foot sheer drop off a cliff I was approaching all wrong. There’s nothing worse than when you have to regain elevation you’ve erroneously dropped while “contouring,” as Roper puts it. I guess it wouldn’t be such an athletic feat if it weren’t for the lack of oxygen at that elevation, and the heat, and the backpack, etc. Anyway, once I got around that cliff and straight down its other cliffy cliff side, I was in Bench Canyon.
[Bench Canyon] is a fairyland setting… isolated clumps of whitebark and lodgepole pines rise alongside massive granite boulders, and on the hillside to the north is a twenty-acre meadow that in midseason is blanketed by more wildflowers than the mind can comprehend… Amid such splendor, it is nearly impossible to avoid cavorting like a child.
True ‘nuff, Roper. But it’s difficult to cavort like a child when the Swede has been at you with her hammers all day, all you want to do is sit and desultorily chew half a king-sized Snickers bar.
Hello gorgeous world. Here I am. Is it OK if I sit here a while? …and other pea-brained thoughts. I think I am sun-stroked. Oh, well. I’ll sit here a minute.
How would I stand up again when it’s time? Were anything to rush me from out of the woods and attack, I’m pretty sure I’d be easy game, lulled into utter complacency by the fairyland setting and my — I’ll admit it — lack of self-care. I’m vaguely aware of being severely dehydrated and I’m sitting several feet away from clear water rushing over sand and granite, tossing stones in it.
The stroll up to Blue Lake was probably one of the easier sections on the SHR, and a relaxing way to unwind for the day. At the lake’s edge I spotted a man camped alone with a large tent and a camera on a tripod. I tried to get his attention with a few “hellos” and “yoo-hoos” but he remained fixated on the lake. Finally I startled him, he turned and gave me a huge white grin on an either very dirty or maybe painfully sunburned face. I ducked down to the tarn below the lake for the night, avoiding a conversation and his camera.
The view was obviously special, and if it wasn’t for the mosquitoes I would have cowboy camped. I haven’t cowboy camped yet on the High Route. Normally I hate pitching a tent unless it’s raining or the mosquitoes are out. Something about the tent on this trail is maybe reassuring to me. After all, I am a ways outside my comfort zone, or at least I’m being led to believe by outside parties that I’m outside my comfort zone. I’m actually fine, only some of the cliffy cliff climbs are a little unnerving because I don’t want to disappoint my mother by falling. That’s all. So yeah, I suppose had I brought my teddy bear, I would have squeezed the dust out of him those nights.
Day 4: Blue Lake to Just Short of Vogelsang Pass
July 18th. In the morning I had coffee on a slab of stone above Blue Lake’s outlet. The stone was still somewhat warm from the day before and was as comforting as a truck-sized stone can be. Behind me on the slope of Blue Lake Pass, I noticed the man from last night has just summited. I would have been curious to have seen how he got up, but I guess I’m glad I didn’t, because as he pointed out later that day when I caught up to him on the Lewis Creek Trail, part of the fun of the High Route is figuring it out yourself. All said, I think I took the wrong approach up Blue Lake Pass. Too many slight but noticeable elevation drops and gains, and too many inconveniencing rocks.
Hey! Who built this trail?
Had I a team and some tools, some mules, and maybe a few years, I could have made the best way up Blue Lake Pass ever devised, but maybe in the end, my way up was as good as any. I did make it to the top after all. And up there I was in great company with my down jacket, a Snickers bar, and Scott Williamson.
The way down off the pass under Foerster peak was deadly but straightforwardly so, and there was no path at all that seemed reasonable, and I liked this isolation, but at the same time it was bewildering and a little creepy, especially knowing that another hiker was out there somewhere. I started to rush towards the Islip trail and I slipped. (HAHA, couldn’t help myself.) But I did – my leg fell into a crevasse up to mid shin and I tumbled, luckily in the direction of my knee folding, and so I avoided breaking my leg or any real injury. Very lucky, especially since I’m not sure that other hiker would have heard my SOS cries. Just before I reached the Islip trail I found ancient evidence of a backcountry camp, with some stacked stones looking like they could have been a foundation, and some sheets of heavily rusted steel. It was right next to one of those classic babbling Sierra brooks — you know the ones that flow over smooth stacks of granite next to pines and twinkling wildflowers. I got the sense I wasn’t alone in this wood, and my guard was up, so I didn’t linger.
When I finally spotted someone, I thought I’d caught up to the other hiker, but in fact, I’d found a trail crew of five. I said hello and answered their question about what kind of backpack I carry (a multicam cordura ULA Circuit with already a good 3500 miles on it and holding strong), and then skedaddled.
Danny, the most outspoken and inquisitive of the bunch, was starry-eyed and I couldn’t tell if it’s because he was hot for me or really was in fact hot for my ultralight pack. I had hiked all the way down 1000 feet to the Lyell Fork before he came bounding up behind me, startling me. Strangely, he simply wanted to know what brand of sleeping bag I used. (I use a Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15º down bag that I got new-used on Craigslist for $280 and cut/altered myself because it was a men’s long. Now it’s a women’s bag with a warm, overstuffed foot box.) It seemed like he had run to catch up to me, just for that! A little weirded out, what with being in the middle of nowhere with a stranger asking me gear questions, I turned the tables and asked him about his work.
Evidently, for approximately 130,000 backcountry visitors to the Yosemite Wilderness each year, there are 5 employees who are in charge of campsite restoration. These five people (3 men and two women as I recall; they really were a scroungy and tired bunch: think hiker trash to the power of 5) walk the trails and decommission camps that are too close to the trail or water sources (less than 100 feet), and campfire rings by moving stones and burying ash. They also pack out trash and re-bury your poop.
These five looked a little pissed, except Danny, who was starry-eyed. It’s not like I can’t imagine why. They’d have a dream job if so many backpackers didn’t basically SUCK.
After getting most the way up the other side of the Lyell Fork canyon, I sat for a much-needed break. This trail is so difficult that not only was I hardly making 15 miles in a long sunrise-to-sunset day, but I wasn’t really having any time for breaks or to enjoy the scenery. The cliff I sat on overlooks the nascent Merced River, and off to my right, the north, is another one of those stacks of smooth granite, down which plummets a waterfall never quite left to fall through air. Under these falls the granite is black with some sort of ectoplasmic slime. I imagine that were I to slip over the edge, it’d be like that one time I rode the Kraken at Sea World in Orlando until I conquered the beast, except there would be no photo and I would most certainly die instead of conquer. Damn, I must be hungry with thoughts like this. Eat, fool! I drool on myself once while eating more biltong, dried pineapple rings, Panda licorice, Walker shortbread, a packet of tuna in oil, and some Sour Patch Kids for dessert2.
Back on Track
Officially on trail for the rest of this trip! I really, really am. I feel much safer, but also disappointed. Just as I was getting used to accepting the challenge offered by bushwalking my way over high passes and through timberline country, I’m spit out on manicured trail.
I therefore picked up my clip (I usually hike quickly, even sometimes half running down hills) and was down the the Lewis Creek Trail by 2:30pm. There at the trail juncture sat the other camper from Blue Lake, Sam. He didn’t look nearly so burned sitting in the shade, and was in fact an amiable and quite handsome older guy out for a solo loop — and careful about it so as not to worry his wife. So far, neither Sam nor any other hiker I’ve met on the Sierra High Route is a thru-hiker. Wait before you go thinking I’m a thru-hiking snob; it’s just that I want someone who is also doing the whole thing to compare notes with3. A section is shell-shocking yet tolerable. A thru-hike is another beast. I am on the hunt. Thru-hikers know other thru-hikers better than anyone and there’s no way around that but than to walk further.
A little while later as I was rinsing off in the Lewis Creek, a classic Sierra flow rushing over smooth slabs of Granite, Sam mozied by very slowly, each step very deliberate. He had said his knees hurt, but surely — going at that rate — he couldn’t have stayed ahead of me all day. I suspected either Sam was faster than he let on or I was much slower than I thought. To compound this humbling realization, I decided I wouldn’t make it over Vogelsang Pass that night. My legs were done, and what with the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp on the other side of the pass, run as a franchise by a hockey team-owning corporation, I just didn’t want to land tired in those strange lands full of horse shit and backpackers with so much money they hiked on the backs of mules. And more honestly, my legs wouldn’t move any more.
Meanwhile, a new drama had opened up in my simple backcountry world: I had lost my tiny eyedropper vial of bleach. My only manner of sanitizing my drinking water was gone, probably swept down Lewis Creek into the Merced River and now bobbing in Lake McClure. Ugh. I hope someone finds it and doesn’t try to lubricate their eyes with it.
What makes this saga even more intriguing is that somehow it continued not only all the way to Tuolumne, but all along my next SHR stretch as well. I went over 68 miles in the High Sierra without any means of water purification…
Day 5: South of Vogelsang Pass to Tuolumne Meadows
July 19th. The rest of the trip over Vogelsang Pass and down to Tuolumne Meadow was so covered in pack animal shit and busy with backpackers doing the High Sierra camp circuit that you can read about it a million times anywhere else on the Internet. Of course it remains beautiful, but it is civilized wilderness and very highly impacted compared to the rest of the route. I put on my blinders and galloped down the hill, just barely missing the cutoff time for pancake breakfast, and still never seeing that bear that I totally thought was going to poke his head out at any moment. I had a burger instead, stuck out my thumb, got a ride and a twenty dollar bill from a kind and fascinating woman named Ruth, a ride to Mammoth from Johnny (Jelly) and his friend whose name I am embarrassed to have forgotten, and a ride from Mammoth to Lone Pine from Guillermo.
1) On this section there was faint established trail on the Sierra High Route from minaret lake all the way to Iceberg Lake outlet (except the scrambling section around said lake) and from the Thousand Island Lakes basin clear up to Catherine Lake (excepting the scrambling section). This trail will not yet be found on any map.
2) My theory about trail food: always surprise yourself with what’s at the bottom of the bag, so that you never get tired of any one thing. If your bag only contains bars, soon you will not only despise bars, but you will lose weight.
3) I have since found those people to compare notes with and our notes are along the lines of, “ARRRRHGHGHHHHG! ROPER!”