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.
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.
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)