Sierra High Route Part 3: Piute Pass to Reds Meadow

Day 1: Piute Pass Trailhead to French Canyon

July 24th. This hike was kicked off with a pleasant hitch in a big truck from a fellow named Kelly. Kelly had just dropped his niece “Sierra” off at Mt. Whitney so that she could summit, and was headed back to Bishop where he was visiting family. Kelly and his niece had just finished the John Muir Trail (JMT) and had themselves hitch hiked, so he was eager to “pay it forward.” He was not only super fun to chat with, but he stopped by Great Basin bakery in Bishop (so much better than Schatz FWIW) and bought me a coffee, a muffin, and a baguette to pack out, AND he drove me all the way to the Puite Pass trailhead. With such luck and grace in the morning, it was inconceivable anything could go wrong.

Well, a couple things could go wrong. Having been caught unawares with a ride all the way to the trailhead and out of cell range, I missed some housekeeping issues. I had forgotten to ask somewhere for bleach to refill my new little dropper bottle. Yeah, I use bleach to sanitize my drinking water on short hikes. That was okay this time because I had brought my new SteriPen (a UV light water sterilizer). I tried to put concerns aside, and enjoy the gentle hike up Piute Pass along the creek. For me the pass was unremarkable compared to others, except for the colorful and rugged, jagged gigantic peaks rising up on all sides of it, so grand they were practically impossible to photograph. As usual, the views back down into the valley were spectacular.

Looking east from somewhere on the east side of Piute Pass.Looking east from somewhere on the east side of Piute Pass.
Walls east of Piute Pass and dry tarnsWalls east of Piute Pass and dry tarns

The other side of the pass opens up into the expansive Humphreys basin, where all the mountains are distant and yet still so obviously magnificent it lends to that “big sky” look you get in Montana. The skies were clear, just dotted with a few small clouds. Perfect. As I approached the route from a spur trail I noticed a few hikers and a pack team. Their silhouette perched on the horizon was something out of a Western movie, timeless, but again, almost impossible to capture with my (iPhone) camera. I sat on a rock waiting for the hikers to disperse because even from this distance I could tell that they probably weren’t on the High Route – their packs were simply too bright and large.

Puppet Lake from Puppet PassPuppet Lake from Puppet Pass

Then again, atop the second mountain pass of the day, a few hikers popped their heads up over the crest. They wore bright, but small packs. They didn’t seem to have too much time to chat but I did learn that the younger couple had already hiked the SHR. I presumed the older woman with them was her mother. They were looking for the easiest way down the mountain, and while they did that I made it half way down the hardest part, taking several class 4 drops and actually enjoying them. Looking up I could see the family trio were really struggling with the easier way. I was making progress. I was becoming a stronger backcountry hiker.

Hikers choosing their route down. They've done this before.Hikers choosing their route down. They’ve done this before.

This made me think of another , who had also set off to hike the SHR around the time I did, but had only gotten in several miles before returning to the JMT. The main reason she couldn’t do it (according to her hiking partner)? She’s tiny and her legs are short. This makes total sense: the SHR involves massive step-ups and drop downs, all day long. Shorter and/or less flexible folks would just be at a mechanical disadvantage, no way around it other than tons more work.

Puppet Lake and some playful dark-eyed juncos.Puppet Lake and some playful dark-eyed juncos.

Once at the lovely Puppet Lake, I set down my pack and went about purifying some water. As I had done a thousand times on the PCT, I scooped up a liter in my cooking pot and dipped in my SteriPen. The light didn’t turn on. That’s strange. I charged it all night. So I plugged it into my auxiliary battery pack and headed down the hill, granite scenery gradually becoming green. At the creek running down French Canyon from French Lake (I assume French Creek?) I tried my SteriPen again. Nothing. It seemed broken, despite being brand new. I was disappointed, not only at my purchase, but having carried a useless bauble in the woods, and above all — I had yet another hike ahead of me with no means of treating water except boiling it! Luckily, I’d brought one of the larger sized isopro fuel canisters this time. I would be able to boil water many times.

Where I was standing when I realized my Steripen didn't work.Where I was standing when I realized my Steripen didn’t work.

I camped on a flat sandy shelf halfway up the ridiculously steep climb up from French Canyon, because my feet couldn’t take me any further. Again the SHR had turned me into a moping lump of sparkless flesh. I went through all the routines best I could, and tucked in to sleep early.

In the morning I would learn that less than a mile away, there was a camping nirvana southeast and north of Merriam Lake. I would also re-learn that I hate my tent. The Big Agnes UL-1 would be great for someone about 6 inches shorter than me, but for me, it’s a tight, damp coffin. Being tall, you win some, you lose some.

I am still looking for the perfect tarp to replace my custom (jury-rigged) UL-1 rain fly set up. Having so rarely used my tent body (the bug mesh part), I’m over worrying about cold, bugs, and other critters. Most the time I cowboy camp anyway, but sometimes it rains…

Day Two: French Canyon to Lower Mills Creek Lake

July 25th. Surprise! This was a very difficult day of hiking. I was looking forward to getting into Bear lakes Basin, namely because another group who had done this hike recently had expressed regret on skipping this basin. I was charmed by the approach to Feather Pass: amidst flat stretches of granite, so many islands of bumps with trees on them, and so much cascading water. I took a long break to reward myself, half expecting — dreading — more hikers would come up behind me. It was so quiet except the sound of water and birds and coming winds, my stove boiling water for my late morning coffee.

Approaching from the southwest, Feather Peak reminds me of a certain PCT hiker named Apache, who always hiked with a spectacular large hat brimming with feathers. It’s very clear how Feather Peak got its name. All the lakes with bear names; however, nobody but the namer knows why they would be called that. Chances of finding a bear up there above timberline: nil. They are not bear-shaped. Strangely, the bear lake names even continue into the next basin. And was the scenery of those particular basins any more noteworthy than anywhere else on the route? Not according to me. That is to say, it was pretty fucking noteworthy.

Looking back at Lake Italy from my improvised route up Gabbot PassLooking back at Lake Italy from my improvised route up Gabbot Pass

I do agree with Steve Roper that Lake Italy is practically unattractive. It is surrounded by drab grey mountains and the water takes on their drab grey color. An unmarked path leads all the way around the north side of the lake, making the ascent up Gabbot pass less than mysterious. I cut off the path a little early and made my own route, which probably contributed to my total exhaustion at the summit.

The view to the north from Gabbot Pass (which was — get this — named because it’s between Mt. Abbot and Mt. Gabb) is on par with the view from Horse Creek Pass under Matterhorn: wonderful. Jutting peak buttresses take their turns adding shape and color far off to the distance, the last thing your naked eye can see being Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. Unbeknownst to me, the lovely cotton bed of haze settled on those two bumps was likely forest fire smoke from the human-caused Willow forest fire southwest of Yosemite Valley. I was in for a surprise the next morning.

Mount Ritter and Banner Peak from Gabbot PassView down Gabbot Pass of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. I didn’t realize I was seeing forest fire smoke, not clouds.

Gabott Pass was exceptionally difficult to descend from on the North side, despite there being worn paths in some areas. There was a lot of technical rock hopping and steep loose scree slides. I did not make it very far before again, my legs just refused to take me any further. Amidst thousands of mosquitoes which seemed more interested in getting gobbled up by lake trout than with biting me, I scarfed down some well-boiled ramen and a mint chocolate protein Clif bar. I tried my best to eke out the chore ritual, but it was just so hard. The fatigue. The elevation.

Who needs a kaleidoscope when you're this high?Who needs a kaleidoscope when you’re this high?

Maybe a lot of people who hike in pairs and teams don’t realize that when you hike alone you have all the chores to yourself. There’s nobody to pitch the tent while you boil water. There’s nobody to laugh at you while you do the mosquito dance. And there’s nobody to snuggle with when tears could turn to icicles at night.

But there’s also nobody there to appreciate the heart-galloping joy at just being able to be totally alone, which is how some of us like it. I recently chatted with hiker Reverend Dude, a 2013 PCT section hiker and 2015 JMT finisher, with quite a few Sierra backcountry miles under his belt. He gave me the dead man’s stare as I acknowledged that I like to hike utterly alone in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. It looked like he was waiting for me to “get it,” but get what I don’t know. I know it can be dangerous, I know I’m supposed to feel lonely — what else am I missing? Am I missing something?

No. I am not missing anything.

And what I don’t know can’t hurt me yet.

Sunset on an unnamed peak from my second cowboy camp on the Sierra High Route. Sunset on an unnamed peak from my second cowboy camp on the Sierra High Route.

So I cowboy camped at 10,850 feet, nestled as a tiny dot in the enormous scalloped mountain shelf dug out eons ago by glaciers. Thank goodness for emergency blankets. In the morning I found the water in my water bottle had turned to ice. I sleep with my electronics in my sleeping bag to keep them warm. Nobody got lonely, there were no tears. All was well.

Day Three: Lower Mills Creek Lake to Purple Lake

July 26th. Although this day promised a lot of existing trail (which by now I’ve come to love-hate), it was still a tough day as it included two pretty big climbs: Laurel Lake Trail, and the climb to Virginia Lake. My work down from Lower Mills Creek Lake down to the trail that leads partway up to it was tricky, as I kept picking up traces of trail and losing them, and then stumbling upon it again. Short of hiking it again several times I will never know for sure, but I suspect that there is non only one, but two or more paths leading down from Gabbot Pass to Mono Creek. Roper’s book gives a general suggestion, and the terrain hems in the possibilities. Within the range of possible, I believe not one but several trails are forming, as people are never quite aware of the others. Or, if they are traveling in teams, each hiker is taking his/her own path. Returning below tree line into thick forest was a green treat, however, I was starting to realize something was amiss. The SHR was not a route, it was not a trail: it is several trails.

Steve Roper would just die.

Another thing was amiss: dozens of flies hounded me all the way up the grueling hike straight up the Laurel Lake Trail. How this torturous little trail ever earned its own permanent sign from the forest rangers is beyond me. For one, it doesn’t even really lead all the way to the lake. Secondly, each switchback on this trail can be no longer than 5 yards long, most are fewer than two yards long. In other words, you go straight up the gully. Finally, those flies! Why in all of the Sierra, are the bugs consolidated in Laurel Lake Trail?

There was actually a path up beyond the trail most of the way to the Lake, occasionally tapering off then picking back up. This bit was up and up and up, leading to a trickier bit on the Silver Divide, where you mount a pass over Rosy Finch lake, then circle up high as you can without losing elevation over to the pass to the right (north). Granted, this whole time you might as well be on the moon for the strange landscape. As much as you stare at it you’re not going to figure it out or judge the best route. It’s probably best to just take a shot at it. That’s what I’ve been learning on the SHR. If it looks too hard, you probably haven’t tried it yet.

Bighorn Pass, false summit after false summit.Bighorn Pass, false summit after false summit.

It took me a long time to get over this obstacle. When I finally got up the first pass after a couple false summits, I turned back to survey my conquest.

My eyes were broken!

The mountains south of Laurel Lake were all blurry. The view over Rosy Finch Lake was blurry. Later, the view from Silver Divide was blurry, too! I had noticed some vision changes after my last SHR section, but this was different. This was forest fire smoke. Only thing is, there was no way to tell where the fire was; I was surrounded by smoke on all sides, and it was quickly thickening.

Assessing the situation on top of Bighorn Pass. Smoke seems to be creeping in from the south, not the north.Assessing the situation on top of Bighorn Pass. Smoke seems to be creeping in from the south, not the north.

I went into panic.

And a plane flew overhead. I hid from it, paranoid they might be evacuating the area, and then I ambled north. Jittery.

And I thought I heard voices.

I got whimper-y thinking I might not be able to complete my hike. I got whimper-y, feeling bad for squirrels and bears and beetles and things that couldn’t run fast enough. Like myself. I couldn’t run. There was no trail, and no way of knowing whether to head north or south — my only two real options at that moment.

I heard voices again. But I saw no one.

On top of Silver Divide, an older couple came from the West, a remarkably odd approach which they remarked on as they approached. So I wasn’t losing my mind.

I did ask if they knew about the fire and the man declared it must be coming from the South. The woman asked why I was not using my hiking poles. I humored her and unfolded one of them for the descent. I pointed out what a shame it was that the entire exposed side of the pass had been trampled loose by hikers, denuded of any vegetation. Just a broad, dusty, grey facade. Perhaps a little trail work should go in? Or even cairns in this scenario, to solidify a route? The man announced that Steve Roper would just die. He had just talked to Roper and…

Wait. Someone name-dropping Roper on the Sierra High Route? This was too much for me.

Okay guys, enjoy your hike!

And I started straight down the eroded mess of a pass, thankful to the woman for suggesting I use my poles. The descent was a breeze compared to most the others; the mountain just unfolded easily, right in front of me. My pole was there to slow me down a bit and sometimes to catch me. As the couple had pointed out, I had a long way to go to Purple Lake, but I was going to get there. Just around the corner, the SHR merged with pack trail, and then the JMT. It’d be smooth sailing after that.