This 23-mile stretch of the Sierra High Route took me almost three days. I left Tuolumne Meadows Saturday June 13th at 7am and came out at Twin Lakes on Monday the 15th at 4:30pm. Granted, I’m usually able to hike 23 miles in one day, that’s when there’s a trail and I don’t have three unusually steep mountain passes to get over. Over three days I had my ass handed to me by this route and once finished, tentatively decided to not continue hiking it.
Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Cascade Lake
June 13th. I was originally set to leave on June 5, and was posted up in Tuolumne acclimating to the elevation, but rain came in and wasn’t letting up so I postponed. I’m actually glad it worked out this way, because I not only avoided rain but snow, too. I spent a week waiting it out in Mariposa with 2- and 3-legged friends.
The day before I finally hiked out was spent at Tuolumne Meadows visiting with PCT hikers I’d met in the months prior — good, mellow, like-minded company. It was fun to talk trail talk and when the sun went down they stoked the fire and shared s’mores with me. Many of them had hiked through the unseasonably late snow in the High Sierra and so I bounced ideas off them. There would still be snow on parts of the SHR, so should I bring my crampons (Kahtoola Microspikes)? I decided to leave them behind but took my snow gaiters; in retrospect I would have taken the spikes but not the gaiters. Or maybe had I worn the gaiters my ankles wouldn’t have gotten so bloody torn up postholing. Being as I had just decided to do this route in May, I had had very little time to prepare, and had spent most of that time other things. Therefore, in the hours before going to bed on June 12, I looked at my paper map and got re-acquainted with my mirrored compass.
The Sierra High Route as it heads out of Tuolumne Meadows is fairly established trail all the way to the Great Sierra Mine, and even slightly beyond. There was also unexpected (and unmapped) trail between Fantail Lake and Spuller Lake, and towards the end of this bit, trail picked up much sooner than expected northeast of Matterhorn Peak while descending Horse Creek Pass (again, not on the map). This observation leads me to the overarching theme of this trail report, which is this: the Sierra High Route is no longer as remote, unpopulated, nor pristine as it was ten or twenty years ago. Nor does the statistic suggesting that only 30% of the SHR is on established trail seem true any longer. Big surprise! But it was a surprise to me, as I entered this hiking experience having only read Steve Roper’s book as my preparation. And although I would venture to say 50% or more of the SHR is now on existing trail, easily found though not yet on topo maps, that does not make it much easier to hike.
The first 5 or so miles of my hike were steadily uphill, and led to a boggy plateau southwest of Gaylor Peak. For my effort — all my blood pumping hard — I was regaled by an eager greeting party of mosquitoes. Flailing desperately in my version of the “go-away-mosquito” flamenco, I frantically donned my rain pants and jacket over my running shorts and bra. I had chosen not to bring bug repellent, a decision I hated myself for. Turning north under the shadow of Gaylor Peak, climbing, sweating my ass off inside “breathable” rain gear, I spotted another hiker ahead of me. He seemed to be sailing up the hill, and with a tiny backpack. What? I thought I’d be alone out here! How did he find trail way over there? Who is he?
Feeling defeated, I paused to take some water, smoke a cigarette, and eat some Snickers snack. This isn’t at all what I thought it would be. Can I catch him? What if it’s some fancy ultralight hiker? I’d feel shabby next to that. Who am I? What the hell am I doing?
The Great Sierra Mine is accessible via a short trail from Tioga Pass on highway 120, which cuts through the Sierra east-west. The mine is now a mess of piles of rubble, and imploded piles of rubble, having probably been abandoned sometime in the 1880s. The walls of the main hut are three feet thick. Miners worked throughout the year extracting silver, and must have suffered some incredibly cold winters, as in the winter of 1979, snow was measured 800 inches deep nearby. As I stumbled up to the hut, stifling in my rain gear and finally stripping it off, I looked up to see several people perched casually on the hill above it, soaking up the sun. All at once I realized that I was surrounded by tourists, not backpackers. Oh! Parts of the SHR, especially this section and the section around Reds Meadow, border roads and civilized areas and harbor much more multi-use traffic. Again, my preparation being poor, this was all a shock. I guess somewhere in my head I supposed I would be striking off to hike another planet. Naive, yes!
Once past the mine, traffic died out almost completely, except for one fellow out with his dog to study the interesting geology around Spuller Lake. Alone and finally beyond the trail, I got to choose my own adventure. The adventure was relatively mild except that when it came time to climb over mountains, I chose to go straight up them rather than zig zag my way up. The novelty of making so many wayfinding decisions caught me off guard; I hadn’t done any exploring like this since I was a kid in Alaska. I was trying to not trample and crush the delicate alpine plants and tiny flowers and so there was a lot of rock-hopping and moving over granite slabs this way and that. Long steps, short steps, huge steps up, backtrack, turn around, take a picture, turn around, almost fall over, a couple long steps, some quick steps. You get the picture. There is no cadence when there is no trail. I probably looked like a drunk.
Being as it was only my second day at elevation, I was also very out of breath. So once I was alone, I was thankful for it. I could let it all hang out, so to speak. There was no longer anyone out there to see my awkward walk, and my ridiculous hat and mosquito net and rain gear costume changes.
I quickly figured out that Roper’s description of the trail doted more on trail highlights than directions on how to get anywhere. Combined his book with a good topographical map; however, and one could figure out where Roper was trying to lead. Many of the routing he was suggesting left a narrow window for interpretation, and that left evidence of others having interpreted his words similarly, but not quite yet a trail. In other places, as I’ve mentioned, a path or trail had formed as many people had over time chosen the same direction. If you were to stop and soak in Roper’s indulgent descriptions of the landscape and its geography, botany and wildlife, the scene comes alive and you are distracted from your labored breathing, pounding heart, and burning quadriceps. This route is absolutely spectacular.
However, it is also absolutely terrifying. This section had three mountain traverses that terrified me, starting with getting around the foot of Mount Conness. I fell and scraped up my back before I’d even started it. Then I got over and halfway down it despite not really being sure I could. Off to the west in the far distance two hikers on a trail leading to Conness Lakes started hollering at me, something I took to mean encouragement. The upper face was snowy and the parts without snow were either slippery with melt or unstable. This was my first true backcountry scramble, and though I was shaken up I had to stay exactly alert.
Once I was down it to relative safety, I was so ready to stop and sleep. Even though it was only 7pm. This was truly the longest short hike I have ever done. No wonder the ranger at Tuolumne looked at me funny when I said I was going to do it in two or three days.
Day 2: Cascade Lake to Grey Butte Pass
June 14th. I started the day by chatting with a couple couples camped north of Cascade Lake. They were doing a shake-down for their JMT hike later this year.
They asked me the usual questions, like, “Do you hike alone?” “How is your backpack so small?” “Do you carry a tracking device?” “Aren’t you scared/Do you carry a weapon?”
“No, but I could sure use some Deet if you have any.”
When I pointed to Sky Pilot Col (11,650 feet), and told them my plans, they informed me that another hiker had climbed it this morning.
It looked like he had a hell of a time with that talus.
And then they watched me slowly make my way up the pass. Until you get to the final 210 feet or so of the climb, the going is fairly easy. (That is, if you can keep from vomiting up your heart or exhaling a lung.) The south face of Sky Pilot Col is just a cirque full of loose rock ranging in size from refrigerator at the bottom to pea at the top. I had a hell of a time with it.
Next, a stretch of ever-steepening talus leads up to the left side of this bowl to the final indignity, a short but steep scree slope that most hikers will find offensive.
With way too much food weight on my back and no idea what I was getting myself into, I agree that was an indignity. The backpack was pulling me back when I wasn’t leaning in, but if I leaned in too far, my toes lost hold in the loose tumble of scree. I would take ten steps and then pause for breath, trying to make sure either a foot or a hand had a solid hold somewhere. Ten more steps. Heaving breaths. Don’t look down. Should I be doing this? This is fucking insane. Fuck you, Roper! I’m almost there, and once I’m there on the top, I’m certainly safer than I am here — keep going! The final 50 feet involved more rock climbing and careful decision-making. I was literally glued to that mountain and knew that small errors would have big consequences. But moments later I was breathing again, celebrating with a cigarette, and breaking open a Pop-Tart packet.
I Can Get Up, But How Do I Get Back Down?
Two of the passes on this section were knife’s edges. I’m not sure how I got down them. When at the top, you look down, and you can sometimes only see the first 50-100 feet of the descent — it is that steep. There are times when a cat climbs a tree and cannot get back down, and the same thing occasionally happens to climbers. I was aware this might happen to me.
Roper writes the descent from Sky Pilot Col is not “technically difficult;” however, I managed to take a wrong turn by getting excited by my first glissades, ultimately making it quite difficult. My hiking pole is a Black Diamond Whippet, with a cool, built-in self-arrest axe. I’ve carried it at least 3500 miles and only on the north face of Sky Pilot Col got the opportunity to use it as an ice axe. I slid down about 600 vertical feet, totally mesmerized by frozen lakes and rosy finches and cascades of snow melt down verdant mossy rock. There I stumbled upon a view of Mono Lake and finally, the realization that I had slid down the wrong way. Could I just hike out toward Mono Lake and abandon the SHR? No — huge cliff. Would I have to trudge all the way back up toward the Col? Yes.
After this huge mistake, I didn’t make it much further that day. The walk down the correct way to Virginia Canyon dropped below timberline into the most wonderful, fairy kingdom-like setting of creeks and tall grass and flowers and curious deer. At the floor of the canyon I was able to hop over Return Creek. This creek was apparently famous amongst PCT hikers in 2013 when a couple well-known long trail hikers returned to Tuolumne after hiking out to announce that Return Creek was not passable. Other hikers tried within the next few days and found a giant log jam crossing within a mile of the trail. Let that be a side lesson: seasons change all, and always see for yourself.
The hike up from the canyon was either very steep and difficult or I was out of shape and it was hot. Either way, once I got to Grey Butte pass just north of Soldier Lake, I was done for the day. I cowboy camped at 10,880 feet, amidst melting snow, with a spectacular view of Cloud’s Rest and much more. If you’ve never cowboy camped above 10,000 feet, I have to recommend trying it at least once. Don’t sleep. Just stay awake watching the stars. Innumerable shooting stars, so many twinkling things, too much to see, there’s no way to explain it!
I hadn’t seen trace of anyone since Cascade Lake, which was confusing, because I knew someone else had crossed Sky Pilot that morning. Had he steered off the SHR in Virginia Canyon? Had he dived off the cliff overlooking Mono Lake as I almost had? Or was he simply leaving a very obscure footprint? Because, I’d walked through snow quite a bit that day, and had not spied trace of another human being, even going down from Sky Pilot. As far as I was concerned, this mystery hiker had vanished.
Day 3: Grey Butte Pass to Twin Lakes
June 15th. Stanton Pass was another tricky pass on this section of the SHR. Part of the trick is getting enough oxygen, and the other part of the trick is not falling off the mountain. I probably make it sound worse than it actually is. On the other hand, I am an absolute daredevil with very little fear in my bones. When something scares me it’s either because there really is mortal danger involved, or because I factor in the 1,600 times someone has told me to be careful as an indicator of how dangerous it must be. SHR passes often scare me for both these reasons, but most often just the latter. It’s obvious I want to return safely just like anyone else, so other people’s concern for my safety shouldn’t factor as an actual indicator of an endeavor’s dangerousness. But it’s just how it goes. All that said, were I to not have a heavy (30lb) backpack and not be alone (i.e. have someone to crack jokes with for levity), these passes would not seem so dangerous.
It’s obvious I’m missing a point here, and that is this: if I were to get hurt on the trail alone, the dangerousness factor would go through the roof. I get it, but I don’t operate my life that way. If I did, there would be very little adventure. Difficult hikes, seat-of-my-pants hitch-hikes, new towns, talking to strangers, bizarre boyfriends, a van that may or may not take me there, who knows where the next paycheck comes from — that is just how I roll. In the strong wind on top of Stanton Pass, I smoked my last cigarette, feeling pretty badass. Suddenly smoking seemed very stupid to me, when for one I was struggling to breathe anyway, and secondly was trying so hard to not die. It seemed so stupid that right then I decided to quit smoking. I have smoked one cigarette since, shared with an extraordinary PCT hiker on goodbye, and have not had a craving. It’s amazing to me that a few moments on a mountain pass flipped that switch in my brain. I had some other epiphanies above timberline as well, which I think also came as a gift… from a difficult hike.
It wasn’t so obvious then, but it’s obvious now that I made it down Stanton Pass. Just barely. Once the boulder field ended and opened up onto a snow field, I took a flying leap from one foot off the last boulder into the snow. The boulder was unstable and tipped forward, and I tumbled head-first into the snow. I was lucky it was snow and not more boulders. Still, joke was on me. Later when I called my mother from the payphone at Mono Resort, I blabbered, mentioning how I had fallen on my head. Note to self: bad idea to tell your mother things like that.
Horse Creek Pass
All I had left to do was make it up and over Horse Creek Pass (10,650, easy from the West side), down the other side, and to the pack trail leading to Twin Lakes. No big deal except the other side of Horse Creek Pass was still snowed in, and steep. I didn’t have my crampons. I didn’t have any experience with snow at this altitude, but I knew there were some special considerations, and was determined to get down to Twin Lakes.
First: getting down the first sections without slipping down the acutely steep pitches to a most certainly uncomfortable demise. At 12:50 when I stepped foot, the snow was only a little slushy on the top inch and still quite hard below that. I jammed the edges of my trail running sneakers into the snow the best I could with each step, trying to edge out a platform to stand on. Each platform was about 2” deep, and slippery. The wind blew very strong from over the pass, making concentration difficult. I stopped every few feet to see how much further I had to go. It seemed like I was making no progress and would never get there. Probably because I kept stopping. And looking down. But no really, I was scared shitless on this stretch.
Another chilling risk was falling through thin snow bridges into Horse Creek and talus deep below. I could hear the creek in the canyon and tried to stay up the sides and away from it, but still, a slip…
Once I got to the snowless slate fields, things eased up, and as I mentioned I started finding paths much sooner than expected. A couple times though the path led me down near-vertical slopes with little purchase. From the looks of it many other people had simply surfed down these slippery rock slides… on their asses? There was quite a bit of erosion as it also looked like everyone had chosen one of any four paths, and all four paths got decent traffic. Not one was any better than the others, but clearly people had always tried to pick the best, all having differing opinions.
The views down Horse Creek Canyon underneath Matterhorn Peak were exquisite, with such clear water, tall peaks, colorful slate, and fresh greenery. Soon enough I encountered a handsome couple headed up the Matterhorn, then I found the actual pack trail, buff and wide, then some tourists, and then I was sailing down wide trail towards a F’Real milkshake and a public restroom sink bath at Mono Resort. Within an hour of arriving at the resort I stuck out my thumb and got a ride from a local all the way into Bridgeport, where I stayed at the famously haunted old Victorian hotel. Horrendously sunburned and hardly able to walk what with my sore feet and quadriceps, I must have been quite a sight for the townies. The next morning I stuck out my thumb again and was in Lone Pine before the sun went down.
It seemed like just as I was maybe getting used to the SHR I was running away from it. The Sierra High Route as a surprise was overwhelming and frightening. It was the Jack in the Box; I was shaken.
My mother knew about my struggles up there because I told her. She didn’t want me to finish the hike. On top of Stanton pass I knew I hadn’t fallen in love with it as I had fallen in love with the PCT. Also, due to the failure of my auxiliary battery pack and a raging case of poison oak, I would be unable to jump right back on trail anyway. So maybe it was okay to not finish it? But still, the inability to finish something I had started nagged at me. That’s not my style. There were some tears, a little bit of fist-pounding.
The next several weeks would be a difficult time of soul-searching and re-settling.
I told myself I was going to hike the Sierra High Route. Am I?