Backpacking The Sierra High Route
After graduating college and spending a month on the PCT, I received an exciting invitation. It was from my badass mountain biker/backcountry skier/climber/ER doc (sound familiar?) cousin-in-law Tom, and it was for a week-long backpacking trip in the High Sierra. I’d just hiked the entire JMT, but I knew I had to go back to the Sierras because 1: they’re incredible, 2: it would be my first trip with Tom, and 3: he promised me the trip would be a “fine counterpoint” to the JMT (in other words, way better). The plan was to traverse west to east across the Sierra during the second week of September, mostly following the spine of the Great Western Divide. Our route would essentially be a summertime crossing of the famed Sierra High Route (SHR), a classic ski traverse seen by many as California’s answer to the Haute Route of the Swiss Alps, sans plush mountain huts. Since it is typically done over snow, the SHR is entirely off trail save for the first and last few miles, and it also stays high above tree line for the vast majority of its duration. This means it’s void of people, heavy on talus-hopping, and highly conducive to peak-bagging. Unfortunately for us, a forest fire forced us re-route the second half of our trip before we began, and we ended up leaving the mountains early due to bad weather. These events prevented us from truly completing the SHR (topo of our route here), but even so it remains one of the most physically and emotionally satisfying backpacking trips I’ve done.
To clarify, the SHR I am referring to should not be confused with Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route, or the High Sierra Trail. The former is a 195-mile trek parallel to the JMT that involves about 2/3rds off-trail travel and remains right around tree line for its duration. The latter is a 72-mile trail that crosses the range from Mt Whitney in the east to Crescent Meadow in the west. All three have their merits, and while the SHR described here only measures 40 or so miles, it is also the highest and most rugged in terms of percentage of off-trail travel above tree line. Above all, this route is a wellspring of remote serenity from which an inspiring sense of freedom flows into and invigorates the traveler. We crossed seas of granite slabs and boulders high above crystal clear tarns without a tree in sight. From the depth of basins and atop windy passes we gazed ahead and planned our route, tracing the land’s subtle line of least resistance. With light packs, picking our way over endless talus became a game of flow much like mountain biking, skiing, or trail running. To me, traveling through such sublime terrain in this fashion was a revelation. Like a drug, I feel driven to seek this type of adventure again. However, no matter how much I attempt to describe the inner experience of this trip, feelings such as these may best be translated visually. I’ll let pictures tell the rest of the story.
Day 1: After hiking up and out of the forest we found ourselves above the valley smoke with this view of Castle Rocks. They boast some of the hardest climbing in the High Sierra.
The trail took us to the summit of Alta Peak, which sported hazy views of Pear Lake (shown here) and the Tableland to the northeast.
Tom assesses the route ahead in dramatic fashion.
Moose Lake, with the Tableland stretching beyond. With miles of flat, granite slabs all around, hiking across the Tableland was some of the most pleasant hiking of the trip.
Water break. Tom didn’t bring a filter. Still haven’t heard if he got Giarda, but I doubt he did. Finding water that was anything less than pure snowmelt was uncommon. Also, despite it being late in the summer and a low snow year to boot, lack of water was never an issue.
Big Bird Peak, seen from our first campsite. The smoke tended to creep towards us throughout the day, but thankfully it dissipated with each night’s cooling.
Smoke can result in unusually dramatic sunsets, though.
Dawn breaks after sleeping without a tent above this small lake on perfect ledges sheltered from the wind. The first night sleeping under the stars in a while always fills me with a tingling sense awe and excitement for what’s to come.
Day 2: Daybreak on the Tableland.
Tom and John make their way southeast en route to Big Bird Peak.
Looking north towards Big Bird Lake, from the summit of its mountain counterpart.
We thought it would be fun to skateboard down the apron of the north face of Big Bird Peak. Either that or climb the 5.8 line to the summit.
Looking back at Big Bird Peak and Lonely Lake, cut apart by clouds.
Behold the sharp kiss of granite and sky. After crossing Fin Pass (pictured), the route traverses the southern terminus of Deadman Canyon.
Looking north down Deadman Canyon. I wonder how it got its name?
A tarn punctuates the southern end of Cloud Canyon, just below the western ridge of Triple Divide Peak (to the right and behind). We arrived here after crossing Deadman Canyon and climbing over Copper Mine Pass. The sharp granite formation catching light on the right side of the frame is the Whaleback.
Rising without much shine at camp 2, below Triple Divide Peak (behind). The night before, the three of us took a dip in this lake. To me, rushing in and out of frigid water to warm clothes and dinner epitomizes the simple rituals of backcountry living that make it so satisfying.
Breakfast was abbreviated in order to quickly climb out of the basin and find sunlight.
Looking back at the western ridge of Triple Dive Peak (right). Tom and I scrambled the 3rd class ridge to the summit the previous day. Maneuvering the impeccable granite was pure fun, but unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera.
Day 2: after ascending the pass below Lion Rock, we began another long descent over talus into Nine Lake Basin. Black Kaweah towers on the left. Looking at this, and considering all the other miles of terrain just like it, I’m amazed none of us ever twisted an ankle.
Crossing through Nine Lake Basin, above lakes feeding Big Arroyo river. I think Eagle Scout Peak is shadowed in the distance.
Swirly clouds, swirly algae. Sometimes you’ve just gotta stop and stare because the world sure is purty.
Tom scrambles his way up the final choke to the pass below Kaweah Queen (pictured).
Immature cones of what I am fairly certain is southern foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana). Foxtail pine is endemic to California and is the most common subalpine conifer in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. We were all surprised to find the blue cones–we’d never seen them before. We saw them on several other foxtail pines in the area too. Can anyone shed some light on this colorful mystery??
A stand of foxtail pines, dead and alive, surrounding our 3rd camp. A close relative of bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), the oldest living trees on Earth, foxtail pines are long-lived and often remain standing long after death. Using dendrochronological techniques, this makes them a valuable resource for investigating past climates.
Evening light ripples the ridgeline southeast of our third camp by Picket Creek.
Day 4: a beautiful morning for more talus hopping!
…which turned into a not so beautiful day for talus hopping! We were camped at the edge of the trees before the basin rolls over in the distance. After the pass we initially planned to climb proved too steep, we scrambled up and over this one.
Great conditions for busting a lung up to Milestone Pass (Milestone Mtn on the left). You may notice an additional person in this picture. Trevor, a friend of John and Tom, met up with us the previous night at Picket Creek after dropping his car at Symmes Creek TH in order to set up a shuttle.
The gendarme of Milestone Pass. Reaching this point from the basin below was a mix of scrambling, boulder hopping, and aerobic punishment.
Ridges beyond ridges, looking north from Milestone Pass. Table Mountain is in the background on the left. We camped just behind the foot of the first ridge.
Camp 4: of course there would be a perfect flat spot to camp next to this boulder, with Mt Whitney in the distance. At this point in the trip I would have expected nothing less.
Sunrise, day 5: rain on tent, sky on fire. A foreboding start to the day, but breakfast in bed was nice.
Milestone Mtn alights like a beacon in the new day’s golden rays. Unfortunately the sky stayed low and showered us off and on all morning. Doubts arose regarding our plan to climb up and over Table Mountain (13,629).
Table Mountain under the gloom. It was a difficult and disappointing decision to make, but given the weather we didn’t want to risk climbing to over 13,000′. What made this moment truly frustrating was the forecast had called for 10 days of sun. Without another option to salvage our intended route, we decided to cut things short and hike 15+ miles E/NE to Shepard Pass and down to the car.
Looking back, we seemed to have made the right decision.
We followed a trail through open, rolling meadows like this one that eventually brought us to an intersection with the JMT. It was an amazingly satisfying moment when I recognized where we were and fit the pieces of two separate trips together.
Tom descends the steep, southern side of Shepard Pass. Shortly after arriving at tree line it started raining again and didn’t let up until we had dropped almost 6000′ down a seemingly endless chain of switch-backs.
Alas, the cold rain drove me to hammer the descent, and I failed to take pictures of the gradual yet wondrous shift in plant communities as we lost elevation. In a few hours we went from alpine tundra, to dense conifer forest, to manzanita shrubs, and finally to cactus and sagebrush. Tom mentioned this shift is especially incredible during spring ski mountaineering trips–desert floor to snowy summit and back in a day. I promised myself one day I would return to the Sierras in the spring to do some skiing. Doing the SHR on skis seems like the obvious choice.
It’s also obvious that any time spent in the Sierra is special unto itself. I feel lucky to have expanded my mountain exploits into the Sierra this summer, adding to my time in the Cascades and Rockies. By this I am reminded that any single range holds many lifetimes worth of exploration; is it better to explore them all and perhaps miss the deep connection to a single range, or is it more worthwhile to grow roots but always wonder what else is out there? I don’t think there is an answer to this question, but I think human nature tends to land us somewhere in the middle. When it comes down to it, though, the only thing that really matters is that you just get out there, anywhere, and choose your own adventure.
Our 4 day trip wasn’t enough for Trevor, so he decided to choose his own adventure. Since we had a car shuttle in place, he decided to run the High Sierra Trail (72+ miles) back to the western side of the Sierra. The only problem was he didn’t have any running shorts. Regardless, he finished in 20 hours, setting the FKUT (Fastest Known Underwear Time). You can read about his trip here.
Pack & Sleep System:
- ULA Circuit backpack
- Mountain Hardwear Lamina 0º sleeping bag that has lost most of its warmth
- Thermarest Z-lite sleeping pad cut to 3/4 length
- Tyvek ground tarp
- Black Diamond Mega Light shelter (shared by group)
- La Sportiva Ultra Raptor running shoes
- Dirty Girl gaiters
- Patagonia ultra lightweight merino running socks
- Smartwool lightweight crew socks
- Patagonia Capeline 1 bottoms
- Patagonia Capeline 1 top
- Adidas Supernova running shorts
- Patagonia Houdini wind pants
- Patagonia Sun Stretch shirt
- Patagonia Fitz Roy down jacket
- Patagonia Houdini wind shirt
- Patagonia Alpine Houdini shell
- Black Diamond WindWeight gloves
- Original Buff
- Outdoor Research Transcendent down beanie
- Free Range trucker hat
- Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z trekking poles
- Petzl e-lite headlamp
- Tom Harrison Mt Whitney High Country topo map
- Compass (didn’t use)
- 16oz empty Justin’s nut butter jar (Justin’s is the best for cold soaking b/c they don’t have ridges for food to get stuck)
- Titanium spoon
- First aid kit: superglue, duct tape, ibuprofein, gauze.
- Nikon D3300 camera w/ 18-55mm lense