Writings

Thoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.

Thru Hiking the High Sierra

Three weeks ago I was chasing a burnt orange sunset over Sonora Pass with my friend Andrew, trail name Sunshine. Sonora Pass marks the northern terminus of the High Sierra mountain range and mile 1017 on the Pacific Crest Trail. We had spent the evening anxiously looking up at thunderheads, and now we were looking up at the stars intermittently so as to not trip over rocks in the darkness. When we laid out our sleeping pads at 10:30 that night I had finished hiking over 400 miles since hopping on the PCT 27 days prior. Sunshine had hiked over 1050.

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For those unfamiliar with the PCT, it runs 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through the mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. Among the highlights are the High Sierras in California and the North Cascades in Washington. Every spring, hundreds of hikers begin in Campo, CA to attempt what is typically a 4-5 month thru hike of the PCT (the unsupported record is 57 days, completed by Anish in 2013). In early April my good friend and cross-country teammate Andrew Muhn began his thru hike, and I was fortunate enough to join him for a month. I met Sunshine at Walker Pass on May 16th (here is an overview map of the California PCT so you can follow along). The timing couldn’t have been better, as I joined Sunshine just a few days before entering the High Sierra.

I’ve chosen and captioned some of my favorite photos from my month on trail in attempt to share our adventure and capture a sliver of the Sierra’s humbling purity. This was my first time exploring the High Sierra, and it would be an understatement to say I spent every day in awe of my surroundings. This trip was also my first time backpacking in the “ultra light” style. Carrying a 20lb pack was enlightening and invigorating to say the least. I look forward to writing more about this aspect of the trip in a separate post. Now, without further ado…


I found Sunshine late in the afternoon at Walker Pass campground with a sunburnt face, pink flip flops, and sparkly blue toenails. It was late in the afternoon by the time we said goodbye to my parents and started hiking. Eventually we settled into a rhythm, and soon enough the miles began flying by.

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After a couple hours we found ourselves high above the desert floor as the evening sky began to take on pastel hues.

 

The next day was ruled by Joshua trees and the lack of water sources.

The next day was ruled by Joshua trees and the lack of water sources.

 

 

Switchbacking into the High Sierra. Finally some trees!

Sunshine is dwarfed by ponderosa pine as he switchbacks into the High Sierra. Finally some trees!

 

Shit thru hikers say: "Can I have some of that Nutella?"

Shit thru hikers say: “Can I have some of that Nutella?”

 

 

I don’t know what mountains these are, but they made for excellent eye candy en route to Crabtree Meadow.

 

We began our Mt Whitney summit attempt in the early hours of May 25th.

We began our Mt Whitney summit attempt in the early hours of May 25th.

 

The sun makes shapes in the basin as the waking colors of Earth return.

Receding shadows cut Guitar Lake en route to the summit.

 

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From my journal: “Traveling in the alpine never gets old–open valleys enclosed by steep granite, mirror reflections of the granite walls in ice cold lakes. Couloirs cutting the walls. Picking out ski lines. Listening to the quiet.”

 

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The lakes below shrunk as we climbed higher, and the light of day revealed endless granite peaks in the distance.

 

We made it to the summit in five hours. Another PCT hiker, "T-Bunny" had summited the evening before and stayed overnight in the summit shelter. We were thankful to follow his tracks but still spent two hours post-holing in 3+ feet of snow.

We made it to the summit in five hours. Another PCT hiker, “T-Bunny,” had summited the evening before and stayed overnight in the summit shelter. We were thankful to follow his tracks but still spent two hours post-holing in ~3 feet of snow.

 

Sunshine traverses back towards the portal junction .

Sunshine traverses back towards the portal junction.

 

 

 

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Forester Pass looms ahead of us. At 13,153', it is the highest point on the PCT.

Forester Pass looms ahead of us (middle of frame). At 13,153′, it is the highest point on the PCT.

 

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Andrew and Frances make their way up the final switchbacks of Forester Pass.

 

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On the way down Sunshine and I played a game of lava monster amongst the snow and rock. The snow was lava. This picture must’ve been before we started playing–otherwise he must forfeit his victory!

 

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Looking back towards Forester Pass and East Vidette peak. I was hiking down a set of switchbacks on my way back to camp when I looked up and was surprised with this view. I sat there for nearly an hour, just looking.

 

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…and looking.

 

 

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The day after that we hiked over Kearsarge Pass and hitched into Bishop. Here sunshine assesses our eight day resupply. Critical items: avocado, bacon, snickers/3musketeers, nutella, poptarts.

 

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Sunshine prepares the fixins atop Glen Pass. Yes that is spinach. Pro tip: if you want your spinach to last for more than 2 days, put a paper towel in its bag. Otherwise you may have to do what I did and eat half a bag of nearly rancid spinach in one sitting.

 

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The next day we tackled Pinchot Pass. It was a grind to say the least. Here Sunshine, aka Posthole Poodle, shows me which way not to go.

 

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Looking north from Mather Pass, Disappointment Peak towers over Palisade Lakes.

 

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Long was the climb and mostly snow covered, but after cresting Muir Pass (11,973′) we forgot our tired legs and marched onward in reverence.

 

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Sunshine rounds Wanda Lake en route to Evolution Basin

 

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The monarchs of Evolution Basin: Mt Darwin (R, 13,832′) and Mt Mendel (L, 13,716)

 

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Mendel and Darwin above Sapphire Lake

 

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We passed through Evolution Basin with our eyes stuck on the walls and proceeded to drop into the valley below.

 

 

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We realized we needed to pick up the pace if I were to make it to Sonora Pass. Here Sunshine adds fuel to the fire atop Selden Pass (10,910′) in the middle of a 33 mile day.

 

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Looking north from Silver Pass (10,748′)

 

 

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We took a detour off the PCT in order to finish the John Muir Trail (JMT). The two trails are contiguous for 200 miles starting northbound at Mt Whitney and then diverge at Tuolumne Meadows; the JMT turns southwest into Yosemite Valley, while the PCT continues north. Here, Sunshine passes beneath Cathedral Peak on the way down to the Valley.

 

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To cap off our JMT thru hike we climbed Half Dome via the cable route late in the evening.

 

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After bussing back to Tuolumne Meadows from Yosemite Valley we continued northward on the PCT. Thereafter we had our one and only rainy day of the trip. It was miserable! But even the miserable days are good when you’re on trail.

 

Above the valley, on the brink of the burn.

Above the valley, on the brink of the burn. Photo (c) Andrew Muhn

 

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Four days later, thunderheads loomed overhead on our way up to Sonora Pass. Luckily for us they displayed a dramatic light show rather than dispensing lightning and rain. Photo (c) Andrew Muhn.

 

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The day draws to a close, yet over rock and snow we hiked onwards. Photo (c) Andrew Muhn

 

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We stopped here to eat our last poptarts and watch the horizon slowly burn. After an hour or two of descending Sonora Pass in the dark we finally made it to the road. Photo (c) Andrew Muhn

 


 

From the road we were directed to a picnic area by mysterious signage advertising “The Sonora Pass Cafe–open 2-3 days a year.” We were curious as to the signs’ meaning, but being rather tired we didn’t give it much thought. The following morning we were woken up far too early by a car pulling into the spot in front of us. A man got out of the car and walked about, to and from a nearby picnic table. Sunshine told me he thought the man had given us a stink eye. The picnic area did have “no overnight camping” signs, but we had been told to come here! Whatever, I thought. I was too tired to care. We fell asleep again and didn’t wake until the sun was directly shining us. Wiping the crust from out eyes we noticed the man was still at the picnic table beside us. We also noticed the picnic table was set full of fresh fruit and coffee mugs. We offered him a friendly “good morning!” and he responded in kind, walking towards us and starting a conversation.

“I can tell you guys are thru hikers because of your tiny packs, Tyvek ground sheets and the fact you’re sleeping on a pile of rocks. Welcome to the Sonora Pass Cafe! My name is The Owl, and I’ll be your host. Would you like Coffee or Tea?”

For a moment we were lost for words, but then we remembered our manners–“Yes, coffee please!” We proceeded to feast upon fresh strawberries, grapes, cherries, chocolate cake(!?)…you get the idea.

After saying a last farewell and thank you to The Owl we hitched a ride to Kennedy Meadows North with a very friendly man named Chris. The next day I rode with Chris to Modesto, CA, where I hopped on a Greyhound bus and cruised back to Portland. I snagged a window seat and watched the sun sink into the Pacific as we passed San Francisco. I thought of the sunset we saw on my last night while hiking over Sonora Pass, and I thought of Sunshine hiking north without me. I missed the trail already, but I was comforted by the words of our friend and trail companion Herro:

The trail never truly ends. You just get sucked into town to resupply for longer periods of time.


 

Tired of lugging around your old and bulky pump-style water filter? Do yourself a favor and pick up a Sawyer Squeeze MINI Water Filtration System. Light (2oz), compact, fast, durable, and inexpensive, it’s the choice filter of thru-hikers everywhere. (Pro tip: pick up a bottle of Smart Water and screw the Sawyer Filter directly onto the bottle for a truly ultra light hydration system).

6 Comments

  • Santiiago on Feb 10, 2016 Reply

    I too enjoyed your many posts. Your adntveure was awsome and you both have some amazing memories of going where most of could never hope to follow. Enjoy your next adntveure. Harry

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