Thunder Mountain

I seem to be drawn back to Lake Reflection every year, one of my favorite lakes in the High Sierra. The lake sits in a bowl underneath the high peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. Cliffs tumble to near the water’s edge and beautiful glacier polished granite slabs line the shoreline. The lake has just enough pines and foliage to give it an  alpine charm that is not found at higher lakes devoid of vegetation. On the way to the wonderful Lake Reflection one passes by East Lake, another Sierra gem. On a calm morning the surrounding peaks reflect in the still waters creating a classic Sierra scene. It’s tough to beat the beauty of these two lakes and that’s the reason why I keep coming back. Full photo album here. The album and photos here are all iphone – maybe I’ll get to the photos from the dedicated camera someday! 

Fortunately, there are enough high peaks in the area that I’ve been able to climb something new each time I’ve visited Lake Reflection. Aside from another opportunity to photograph and enjoy the lakes, the objective this time was 13,550 ft Thunder Mountain, a spectacular peak at the north end of the highest section of the Great Western Divide including Milestone Mountain, Midway Mountain and Table Mountain. The mountain is particularly striking when viewed from the north and is one of the more remote peaks in the High Sierra. I’ve looked at the mountain from all different angles and it was somewhat surprising  to me that I hadn’t climbed it until now, but I’m glad I reserved this magnificent peak for a picturesque and crisp late summer day.

From Road’s End it would be over 19 miles each way to the summit of Thunder Mountain and nearly 9,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain (Strava route here). After 15 miles on trail to the outlet of Lake Reflection from Road’s End, it’s only about 4 miles from there to the summit, but it’s all off-trail and includes some navigation through steep granite slabs and a lot of slow going, arduous talus hopping. While the talus is difficult, the scenery continues to impress and more than compensates for the tediousness. The initial climb up from Lake Reflection reveals awesome views looking back at the lake and Deerhorn Mountain’s rugged north face. Farther up, the dramatic east face of Sky Pilot Peak dominates the view. Upon rounding a corner, one is treated to a fantastic series of rockbound lakes. Unlike Lake Reflection 2,000 feet below, these lakes have virtually no vegetation, but each posses beautiful clear waters with the pyramidal-shaped Thunder Mountain towering above. 

The standard route to climb Thunder Mountain from Lake Reflection ascends to Thunder Pass which is an absolute mess of loose rock, gravel and sand, followed by somewhat more solid class 2 terrain to the south summit and then some exposed class 3 traversing to the summit block on the north summit. In 2008, Bob Burd pioneered a new route up Thunder Mountain that would avoid the tedious climb up to Thunder Pass and deposit one at a notch between the south and middle summits. This notch includes a unique rock bridge/window. Bob’s “east face/east chute” route uses a right hand chute on the east face of the mountain to ascend above the initial cliffy headwall and utilizes some ledges to move into the central/main chute which goes all the way up to the notch. From the lakes beneath Thunder Mountain this route looks steep and improbable for class 3 but once on the route it’s surprisingly straightforward and goes at class 3. Kudos to Bob Burd for trying this route. As a first ascentionist I can understand why there would have been some uncertainty that the route would go as a scramble.  I also second Bob’s conclusion that this is a far superior ascent route versus the extremely tedious climb up to Thunder Pass. From the rock bridge some exposed class 3 scrambling brings one to the summit block which has a class 4 move using a chock stone in a crack. As expected, the summit views from Thunder Mountain are awesome and include everything from the Goddard Divide to the Palisades to Mountain Whitney. I particularly enjoyed the views to Cloud Canyon, the Whaleback and Glacier Ridge. On the way back I crossed over the rock bridge and traversed over the south summit which has nice unobstructed views to a lake south of Thunder Pass with Sierra Crest from Mount Williamson to Mount Whitney rising behind. The south summit also has a nice view looking back to the middle and north summits and the high peaks of the Great Western Divide. In particular, one can grasp just how big Table Mountain is – flattish at the top but surrounded by a myriad of complex cliffs and chutes on all sides. 

Coming down from Thunder Pass I tried to find some terrain that was conducive to plunge stepping and was successful for a couple hundred vertical before the terrain turned into loose rocks. Fortunately some remaining snow patches helped with some of the descent. The descent down to Lake Reflection in afternoon light was delightful and I soon found myself doing the familiar run down Bubbs Creek with evening light on Mount Bago, Bubbs Creek Wall and Charlotte Dome.  As darkness closed in on the canyon I was already dreaming up more reasons to come back Lake Reflection🙂

Full photo album (iphone) here.  I brought my dedicated camera and took a lot of photos with it as well but who knows when I will get to looking at those photos.        

Sierra High Route

Note: All photos from iPhone SE – complete photo album here.

[Updated August 22, 2016 to add Special Note on Inaccurate Free Maps]

The Idea:

The Sierra High Route has intrigued me ever since I heard of the fabled 195 mile trek almost a decade ago. The SHR  parallels the John Muir Trail but about 60% of it is off-trail, opting for higher passes instead of diving down into the forested canyons. The route visits some of the most wild and remote corners of the range and entails some arduous terrain, including much talus hoping, but also plenty of the friendly granite terrain and alpine meadows that make cross country travel in the Sierra Nevada high country so feasible. In all the SHR gains about 60,000 feet of elevation while traversing through 33 passes and most of that elevation gain comes off-trail. Steve Roper designed the SHR and provides great detail about the route in his book, Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, first published in 1982 and now in its second edition available on Amazon (see special note at the bottom of this post on the perils of using “free” maps). Roper divided the SHR into sections so trekkers can tackle sections at a time. It appears this mode of completing portions the SHR has become increasingly popular while thru hiking the entire route in one trip is still a rather rare occurrence. Anecdotally, only about a dozen folks thru hike the complete SHR each year. The SHR also does not lend itself to supported efforts. For one, it’s even more remote than the JMT posing extra difficult logistical complexities. Second, it just doesn’t comport with the ethos of the route. The SHR is intended to be a conduit where one gets off the JMT wilderness freeway and acquires a more intimate experience with the range in remote and wild places. An unsupported SHR feels like the only way to do the SHR in my opinion.

My Philosophy: 

Through my various adventures over the years in and around the SHR I’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge and finally felt familiar enough with the terrain and the new (for me) complexities of ultralight, unsupported multi-day travel to attempt the route last summer. However, I had a vision for how I wanted my trek to look. Much more than any fast time, I wanted clear, crisp days with excellent visibility. Above anything else, I wanted to experience and enjoy the scenery when it was at its finest, and not dulled by wildfire smoke or obscured by afternoon thunderstorms.  When the time came to set out for the route in the summer of 2015, the historic Rough Fire was poised to explode in Kings Canyon and become the largest fire ever in the Southern Sierra. I held strong to my vision and opted not to join Brian Lucido on his SHR trip which included thick afternoon smoke during the first couple days and cars trapped at Roads End for weeks. Unfortunately, the Rough Fire continued to burn into autumn and the starting point of the SHR at Kings Canyon remained closed through spring 2016. I would have to be patient and wait until summer 2016 to make my SHR vision come to fruition.

Fast forward to spring 2016 and the SHR continued to intrigue me as much as ever. After a few successful overnight trips honing in on my gear and nutrition plan I was ready once again. After waiting patiently, the weather pattern I had envisioned appeared. There would be no chance of afternoon thunderstorms, and most importantly, there would be no wildfire smoke to reduce visibility. I had done the preparation and now it was time to enjoy the route. 

My Story: 

Focusing on the drama or giving a play-by-play is not my writing style so I wont attempt to do either with this write-up. Instead I hope to focus on aspects that I think are interesting and hopefully useful. For a detailed description of the route, it’s essentially a requirement that one purchases Steve Roper’s book which does a fantastic job describing the SHR in detail including an excellent account of the history of exploration in the Sierra Nevada.

My preparation for the trip entailed many weekends in the Sierra Nevada climbing peaks and gaining acclimation. I did a few overnight trips to become familiar with my gear setup and nutrition needs. Many of the outings included climbing peaks with more technical scrambling and more rigorous off-trail travel as compared with the SHR. Thus, when I was doing the SHR, I often felt like the route was less taxing than my normal weekend routes. 

Luckily there was very little drama on my trip, and that was by design. I’d like to think that my meticulous, some might say excessive, preparation is responsible for eliminating most of the drama. However, my trip was not without problems as there are almost always glitches on multi-day trips for which one must adapt. At the end of Day 1 I turned my ankle and the zipper on my sleeping bag broke. The ankle turn was only a grade 1 sprain and my walk down from Dusy Basin to LeConte Canyon the morning of day 2 was painful, but without swelling or discoloration I knew that it would ultimately be ok. Once I started ascending toward Muir Pass and the pressure was taken off the impacted ligament I became more confident that this ankle turn would not impact the trip. This close call may have even been a blessing in disguise proving to me that I was one careless step away from having to abandon the route. If I wanted to see all of the beautiful scenery that the SHR has to offer and complete my multi-year vision, I would need to make sure that I did not injure myself! From that moment on, I maintained a laser focus when rock hoping on the often unstable talus rocks. The broken sleeping bag zipper was something that I had to adjust to. I wrapped my bivy sack tighter and made my sleeping bag into more of a quilt to negate the drafting of cold air. It was not ideal but it would make do. That just about sums up the drama! 

Nutrition: 

A big part of the puzzle of undertaking something like the SHR fast is dialing in on nutrition. One must carry enough calories, and the right kind of calories, to negotiate the dozens of passes and arduous off-trail terrain. My food for the trip would be a mix of high calorie to weight ratio solid foods combined with more traditional energy gels and chews for endurance activities. I would start with ~20,000 calories which equates to around 9.5 pounds.

Dinner and breakfast:

  • I relied heavily on a granola mix including pumpkin seeds, pecans and cashews. This amounted to 5000 calories, or a quarter of all calories I carried.
  • Sunflower seed butter
  • Norwegian flat bread, a seed-filled, dense cracker
  • First Endurance Ultragen for a recovery drink each night

During the day:

  • Picky bars, Epic bars, energy waffles, Gu gels and Clif shot blocks. This mix of energy foods was easy to consume on the go and would provide the necessary carbs and fat to power me throughout the long days.

Electrolytes:

  • Nuun and Gu Hydration Tabs
  • Gu Electrolyte Capsules
  • SaltStick

Gear Considerations and Night Travel: 

In particular for a fast attempt at the SHR (vs. multi-day efforts on trails), one must carry the appropriate gear to enable some rest and relaxation at night. First, a lot of the SHR is not efficiently navigable in the dark so there is some built in down time during the “cold hours.” On many sections traveling at night would result in more energy wasted than progress made. Even more importantly for me, I was there to enjoy the scenery first and foremost and I wouldn’t be able to do that in the dark. I didn’t want to miss ANY of the scenery! What would be the point passing through some of my favorite parts essentially blindfolded? Thus, I would reserve any night travel for sections of mundane trail.

Second, the SHR mostly travels above 10,000 feet so even in the warmest periods of the summer it gets rather chilly at night, often into the 30s and even below freezing. This fact, coupled with the tendency for my core temperature to plummet immediately after stopping at the conclusion of a long day, meant that carrying the appropriate gear to get my core temperature back up was critical. I also new that the crisp and pleasantly cool (below average) afternoon temps that would be to my advantage while moving during the day would also produce colder nights. Thus, I needed to prepare for overnight temps below freezing. Indeed, I would find frost next to my bivy on most mornings.

Third, the arduous off-trail nature of the SHR does not lend itself to efficient round-the-clock travel. Too much strain on the muscles without appropriate recovery in the early stages, both in terms of duration and intensity, could spell extreme difficultly on the many difficult passes that appear in the later stages of the route. Much more than any on-trail adventure like the JMT, one must be strategic when and how to up the intensity. Instead I took a more balanced approach focusing on sustained, moderate intensity movement. The pace I attempted to establish was by no means pedestrian, but it was also not at a level that I knew could become problematic to maintain, and in the worst case, potentially result in a blow up (exhaustion, muscle cramps, etc.). I also planned to build in a considerable amount of rest in the early stages of the trip to ensure that my legs would remain reasonably fresh to enable me to maintain the same pace into the later stages of the route. If I felt good towards the end I would be able to up the intensity and put in some longer days. After all, I always prefer to finish strong!

My sleep setup included the following:

  • Mountain Hardwear Mountain Speed sleeping bag: overall I was pleased with the performance of the bag but the zipper is just awful: always getting caught and, as I found, liable to simple break in the field!
  • Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer hooded down jacket: I love this jacket. It kept me warm and the hood over my head was key to getting my core temperature back up.
  • Ultimate Direction Marathon Jacket: I used the marathon jacket extensively during the trip and for only 3.3 ounces it did an amazing job keeping me warm. In the evenings I would put it on top of my shirt and in the sleeping bag I would put it on top of my down jacket to provide that extra warmth. (note: if any chance of rain was in the forecast I would have replaced the UD Marathon Shell with the UD Ultra Jacket, which comes in at only ~2 ounces heavier but provides much more protection from wind and rain).
  • SOL Escape Lite Bivvy: The purpose of the bivy was to give me another 10 degree temperature rating on my sleeping bag. Without this bivvy I would have almost certainly been cold most nights. With the bivy I was comfortably warm.
  • Thermarest Neoair Xlite: The gold standard for light inflatable mattresses. Perhaps just as important as sleep was giving my muscles a few hours to relax and recover for the next day of movement. Sleeping on hard, cold ground would make that difficult to accomplish. The Neoair weighs about as much as a non-inflatable pad, packs down smaller and would give me a cushy surface to rest on any surface, including rock slabs.
  • Gossamer gear polycro groundsheet: This sheet of plastic doesn’t look like much, but it’s remarkably strong and extremely important to protect the inflatable mattress and otherwise keep gear off the ground surface and clean.
  • Liner gloves: These were useful on the cold mornings to keep my fingers warm.
  • Ultimate Direction Midcap: coming in at only 0.5 ounces, it seems like a no-brainer to carry this little beanie. I wore this hat every night and every morning. It kept my head toasty. Like my mom always says, staying warm starts first with the head!

Other gear included the following:

  • Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles: These poles are extremely versatile and were up to the task of the rugged SHR. I was able to easily pack them away when I did not need them and the tougher aluminim build (vs the lighter carbon fiber ultra distance) was worth the extra weight. The ultra distance pole is not really designed for off-trail travel and a broken pole is just extra weight. The distance pole performed well.
  • Black Diamond SPOT headlamp 2016: This headlamp was lightweight and provided more than enough light for my few hours of use during the night.
  • Hydrapak Ultraflask XL 20 oz: This large soft bottle fit perfectly into the front pocket of my Ultimate Direction 30 Fastpack. The tube and bite valve meant only needed to turn my head to get a sip. Unlike a water reservoir, the Ultraflask was super easy to take out and refill.
  • Water bottle: I wasn’t ready to rely on a soft bottle entirely in case it sprung a leak so I brought a hard water bottle. It turns out the soft bottle held up fine and 95% of the water I drunk was from the Hydrapak Ultraflask. I basically only used the water bottle for mixing recovery powder.
  • Anker 10000 mAh portable charger: Used for recharging electronics including my Suunto Ambit 3 Peak watch and iPhone. This was more than enough charging capacity for my needs.
  • iPhone SE: Used for photography and navigation as necessary (with GAIA GPS App downloaded)
  • SPOT Receiver: The SPOT custom and OK buttons worked fine when engaged but I was quite disappointed with the performance of the tracking feature on this trip. There were a couple erroneous tracks and sometimes there was hours between tracks even though I set it to fix every 30 minutes. I obviously did not know about this shortcoming when I was out there which is even more frustrating. This failure is a little bit of a head scratcher: my iPhone can triangulate GPS to within 16 ft in a matter of seconds but the SPOT can be miles off or not even obtain a fix for hours at a time. The technology is obviously there but SPOT remains spotty…
  • Miscellaneous items: sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, small first aid kit, blister kit, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.

SHR gear

So how would I carry all this food and gear comfortably?

  • Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30: The Fastpack 30 has plenty of space (and more) to carry all my food and gear for at least 5 nights. The integrated vest structure allows for comfortable transport and the numerous front pockets provide for easy access to items during the day including the Hydrapak Ultraflask XL, energy food, sunscreen, chapstick, iphone, SPOT receiver, etc.  While all my gear fit into the Fastpack 20, I preferred the Fastpack 30 since it has a foam back panel that provided me some structure to comfortably carry the load, which was around 17 pounds at the beginning of the trip. For lighter loads less than 14 pounds I would likely use the Fastpack 20.

And now, for the perhaps the most important piece of gear: footwear!

  • La Sportiva Akasha: The sticky, rugged outsole provided the traction I needed on slabs and talus while the cushioning gave my feet the comfort they needed to keep moving without any pains for the entire day. The roomy fit also kept blisters to a minimum and any shoe that can survive the rigors of the SHR is a winner!
  • La  Sportiva Long Distance Sock: A new product for La Sportiva this year, these socks were extremely comfortable and were up to the task of protecting my feet and keeping blisters to a minimum.
  • Injinji Compression Toesocks: Provide a ton of compression to help reduce muscle soreness. My calves in particular are susceptible to becoming tight during long days of intense activity and these socks were able to provide the level of compression that would alleviate tightness.

Strategy: 

My plan for the SHR was loose and flexible. I would basically keep moving during the daylight hours and rest during the night. I had no specific destination to reach each day, only to keep moving until ~8 pm when I would find a suitable place to rest overnight. For the reasons described above, I knew that rest would be critical and I did not want to miss any highlights by bumbling around at night. When my energy levels during the day lowered, I would tell myself that it’s all about movement. If I kept moving as much as possible during the day, even at a pace that felt sluggish, I would still make substantial progress by the end of the day. The periods of low energy often happened during the heat of the day and made me thankful that I picked a relatively cool weather pattern to do the SHR (I don’t like heat). Thankfully, these periods of low energy would be relatively short since the temps would cool quickly in late afternoon with a breeze and I was diligent about eating food and drinking water with electrolytes. My goal was to smooth out the highs and lows that are inevitable on multi-day efforts and I feel like I was effective in execution.

Sub 5 Days: 

My initial analysis (even before last summer) was that it would be feasible for me to complete the SHR in under 6 days while still enjoying the scenery. Thus, heading into my attempt of the route I figured a finish of around 5.5 days was most likely. I was on track for exactly this type of finish as I came into Reds Meadow and I was actually assuming it would be a 5.5 day finish until the afternoon of day 4 around North Glacier Pass. At this point a light bulb went off in my head. I knew that if I could reach the north side of Blue Lake Pass I could potentially finish in under 5 days. This would require me to complete a difficult off-trail portion before sunset, but once completed, I would be able to cover some distance on the Isberg Pass and Rafferty Creek Trails in the dark. This would set me up for completing the last section of rugged off-trail travel north of Tuolumne Meadows during the daylight of day 5 and ultimately a sub 5 day finish. I was more than OK to cover some miles along the mundane trails at night since they tend to be hot and dusty during the day and there is virtually no scenery to enjoy along them. It seemed like a plan and the seed was planted so I set off around Lake Catherine with renewed vigor. The scenery from North Glacier Pass to Twin Island Lakes is astonishingly wild and rugged – some of the best on the entire route – and just the type of awe-inspiring beauty to get me super excited. I was grateful for the opportunity to be at this spot on such a beautiful day and enjoying every second. For the next few hours I would seek to reach Blue Lake Pass before sunset, inspired and motivated by my surroundings as evening light took hold of the land. I ultimately made Blue Lake Pass well before sunset and traversed the beautiful meadowy benches beneath Foerster Peak depositing me on the Isberg Pass Trail before nightfall.

From this point I would need to do about a dozen trail miles to set me up for a sub five day finish including the steep climb up Vogelsang Pass. I stopped for dinner at the Lyell Fork of the Merced River and then took a second break at Florence Creek to gather myself for a sustained effort up the steep switchbacks to Vogelsang Pass. I was soon over the pass and descending toward Vogelsang Lake. At this point I had a decision to make: keep going through the night or stop to rest for a few hours. If this were an all-trail effort I would have more strongly considered going through the night since I continued to feel good. However, I remembered Brian Robinson mentioning that the last few passes along the SHR were some of the hardest on the route. I knew that the prudent decision was to give my legs some rest in advance of these tough climbs and consume some more calories. I stopped at Vogelsang Lake and rested on a granite bench for a few hours. When I woke up I knew that I had made a good decision as my legs felt light again and I was able to run much of the way from Vogelsang Lake to Tuolumne Meadows. At this point I knew that I would have enough time to negotiate the arduous off-trail section from Great Sierra Mine to Horse Creek Pass entirely in the daylight hours and ensure a sub 5 finish. In fact only the last 2 miles of the SHR are on true maintained trail where running is feasible and I was happy to reach this section with plenty of daylight to spare.

The Finish: 

I arrived at Twin Lakes at 8 pm, 4 days, 16 hours and 45 minutes after beginning at Roads End in Kings Canyon. I was obviously tired, but not destroyed. My physical and mental spirits were in remarkably good shape. It appears the worst things that came out of the trip were burned lips (note:you can never use enough lip balm) and tight shoulder muscles.  In fact, I had a lot more soreness and mental exhaustion after the JMT FKT a couple years ago. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that the majority of the SHR was fast hiking vs. running and much less night travel compared to the JMT, which can be very taxing mentally and physically. Or perhaps I’ve learned a thing or two about multi-day efforts? My time happens to be a new Fastest Known Time, of which I’m grateful to have obtained. However, I’d be just as a satisfied with my experience had it not been an FKT as I was able to accomplish my top priority of enjoying the stunning scenery even more than I could have ever imagined. I realize that I am lucky to be in an era where I can proceed with my style of enjoyment and photography while still also achieving a benchmark time and redefining what is possible in terms of efficiency for a route like the SHR.

Highlights: 

The Sierra High Route is a highlight real with numerous favorite spots along the way. One of the great advantages of multi-day travel is the ability to see sunrise and sunset at many of these remote spots when the “Range of Light” comes to life. Here are some of my favorite sections:

  1. Windy Ridge and Gray Pass: The view overlooking lake 10236 and the Middle Fork Kings Canyon is astonishing. It’s one of the great views of the high Sierra. In the past I’ve visited Windy Point which is a very worthwhile diversion.
  2. Marion Lake and Lake Basin: This stunningly blue body of water is tucked in underneath the granite cliffs of the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak. Above Marion lake lies several large bodies of water in Lake Basin that are equally beautiful. With no maintained trails entering the basin one can find solitude among natrual splendor.
  3. Palisade Basin: The Palisades are the most rugged and alpine subrange within the entire Sierra Nevada. The SHR passes immediately underneath these monolithic peaks crossing over rocky passes, green meadows and lovely lakes. I was able to see evening light as I passed through Palisade Basin on the way to Knapsack Pass on Day 1.
  4. Evolution Basin: For both the SHR and the JMT, the Evolution Basin is a highlight. Everything from Wanda Lake down to Evolution Lake is marvelous and some of the most classic Sierra scenery available.
  5. Bear Basin: Bear Basin is among my favorite spots in the entire Sierra Nevada. In particular, Ursa Lake and White Bear Lake are particularly stunning. Both lakes feature the rugged Seven Gables and Gemini peaks towering above their rocky shorelines. It was a treat to pass through Bear Basin during sunrise on Day 3.
  6. Upper Mills Lake: A pristine lake situated at the foot of the north face of Mount Gabb, the highest peak in the region. The lake is surrounded by an amphitheater of cliffs and is one of the more rugged and wild spots on the route.
  7. Cotton Lake and Izaak Walton Lake: Cotton Lake sits on a white granite bench which contrasts marvelously with the reddish rock of Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain at the headwaters of Fish Creek. Izaak Walton Lake is situated among steep granite slabs tucked in beneath Mont Izaak Walton.
  8. The Minarets: Always a favorite, the trio of lakes beneath the striking Minarets are tough to beat. Each of the lakes – Minaret, Cecile and Iceberg – are amazing and I simply can’t rate one above the other. It’s all amazing and always a pleasure to pass by them and gaze in awe at Minaret spires towering above.
  9. North Fork San Joaquin Headwaters: The entire stretch of the SHR between North Glacier Pass and Blue Lake Pass is features some of the most rugged and wild terrain on the route. This is a land of cliffs, waterfalls and remote lakes. The beauty is austere and surreal and I love it!
  10. Conness Lakes: Set between Mount Conness and North Peak are a string of magical lakes, each with a different tinge of glacial sediment resulting in a range of colors from blue to bright turquoise. The SHR descends a lovely granite ramp from the East Ridge of Mount Conness down to these lakes providing a swell view of these lakes for the entire duration of the descent.

Thoughts on Speed: 

It so happens that the Sierra Nevada is my “home range” and I have spent a considerable amount of time in and around the Sierra High Route. I have climbed most of the local peaks, rested in countless meadows, and swam in many lakes. I am deeply familiar with this country and enjoy the flow of moving fast through this familiar terrain while also taking time to stop and smell the flowers. On my SHR journey, or any trip to the high Sierra for that matter, I do not feel as if I have “bagged” or “tagged” or “crushed” anything. These terms imply that I have somehow conquered the mountains but instead it’s the mountains that have given me everything on my visits to the high Sierra – the inspiration, the motivation and the memories that will last a lifetime. I want these mountains to remain wild forever. There are so few truly wild places remaining in the world, particularly in a populous state like California, where one can find nature in its purest and unfettered form. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit these places that humans will hopefully never “conquer.”

Especially for those who do not get to enjoy this tremendous mountain country on a weekly basis like I do, it is almost a shame to approach the SHR with a singular focus on speed. It’s simply too beautiful with too many opportunities for exploration. In fact, Roper devotes a section of each chapter to local peaks and strongly encourages the SHR traveler to take some (or many) of these tangents. By climbing the peaks and wandering the surroundings one comes away with an even greater appreciation of the Sierra and a greater sense of satisfaction.Through my many travels in the Sierra, I can say with certainty that the precise SHR route is just the beginning and a facilitator of these opportunities and experiences. I highly recommend that one adopts this ethos when planning a trip of the SHR.

With the SHR journey now complete I can say that I am now comfortable with multi-day unsupported efforts and I look forward to doing more of these types of adventures in the future. I have improved my ability to do consecutive long days in the mountains. I know how my body reacts on multi-day efforts, I can recognize the first signs of fatigue, and I can better gauge what type of nutrition I need to keep me going with a sustained effort day in and day out. All of these lessons will surely help me continue to explore the mountains in new ways.

Thanks: 

My unsupported journey of the SHR would not be possible without the help of my good friend Will Gotthardt who generously offered his time to help drive me to the start at Roads End in Kings Canyon and pick me up at the finish at Twin Lakes near Bridgeport. Will always puts me at ease before events and has always believed in me so having him there at the start was invaluable. The car shuttle for the SHR is among the longest of all point-to-points and Will made it super easy on my end. Also special thanks goes to my partner girlfriend, Erica Namba, who endured days of me talking about various minutia regarding the route, gear and nutrition selection while providing valuable input on all of the above. She’s also soon to become a physical therapist and provided me with hours of therapy to keep me healthy. A special thanks goes to previous SHR thru-hikers Brian Robinson, Buzz Burrell, Andrew Skurka and Brian Lucido who generously imparted their knowledge and experiences of the route, either publicly on the internet or through direct communication. Finally, thanks to my gracious sponsors La Sportiva and Ultimate Direction. La Sportiva has been supporting my adventures for nearly a decade and their footwear continues to lead the pack when it comes to adventure running! Ultimate Direction makes the best hydration systems, hands down. The immensely successful Signature Series basically invented the running vest category and the Fastpack 20/30 are doing the same for multi-day adventures.

Complete photo album here

Special Note on Inaccurate OnTheTrail.org Free Maps:

If you’re interested in doing all or part of the SHR, do NOT use the free maps on OnTheTrail.org – do NOT use the overview maps, do NOT use the topo series, and (most importantly) do NOT use the GPX (http://onthetrail.org/trekking/shr/). The line is neither accurate nor efficient; there are at least a dozen errors that obviously deviate from Roper’s description and a few of them are major deviations that will lead you astray and/or not complete the route as Roper described and intended. This information is so bad it’s actually a disservice to those interested in the SHR and there should be a bold disclaimer or, better yet, it should be taken off the internet. These maps show up high in any internet search for the Sierra High Route. I quickly realized they were basically garbage and I did not use them at all in my planning for the SHR.

The SHR Passes (* indicates a trail pass): In chronological order from south to north. 

  1. Grouse Lake
  2. Glacier Lakes
  3. Gray
  4. White
  5. Red
  6. Frozen Lakes
  7. Mather *
  8. Cirque
  9. Potluck
  10. Knapsack
  11. Muir *
  12. Snow Tongue
  13. Puppet
  14. Feather
  15. White Bear
  16. Gabbot
  17. Bighorn
  18. Shout of Relief
  19. Duck
  20. Deer Lakes
  21. Mammoth
  22. Nancy
  23. Cecile Lake
  24. Whitebark
  25. Garnet
  26. North Glacier
  27. Blue Lake
  28. Vogelsang *
  29. Great Sierra Mine
  30. Mine Shaft
  31. East Ridge Conness
  32. Sky Pilot
  33. Stanton
  34. Horse Creek

2016 High Sierra Adventure Ideas

I had a great winter and spring compiling 116 waterfalls (as of May 28th) in the Big Sur Waterfall Project visiting as many nooks and crannies in the northern Santa Lucia Mountains as I could find. There will always be more waterfalls to chase in the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness, but as the calendar flips to June most days are now uncomfortably hot and buggy (ravenous biting flies😦 ) in the Santa Lucias and I find myself thinking about the cool breezes and alpine lakes of the high country (but not so  much the mosquitoes🙂 ).  Last year I didn’t get around to putting my ideas list into a blog post but I’m back to the tradition for 2016. These ideas are in no particular order and they all involve substantial off-trail travel and scrambling. I hope to get to many of these, but there will certainly be a few that will have to wait for future years, and at the same time, other adventure ideas will likely come to mind and supersede these ideas. In addition, I hope to do some more adventures in the Trinity Alps and maybe a trip up to the North Cascades to revisit some favorite spots.

  1. Glacier Ridge and Whaleback: It’s been five years since I climbed Whaleback, one of the cooler peaks in the High Seirra, especially when viewed from Big Wet Meadow. I’ve yet to stand atop Glacier Ridge and see the excellent view of the Great Western Divide from its lofty perch.
  2. Centennial Peak and Colby Lake: Perhaps I’ll find my way up to Centennial Peak and the shores of Colby Lake as part of a two day fastpack including Glacier Ridge and Whaleback.
  3. Deerhorn and West/East Vidette: Deerhorn is a fine looking mountain at the head of Vidette Creek with an excellent perspective on the Ericsson Crags. The Videttes are well positioned for spectacular 360 degree vistas. For access I’ll likely make the familiar run up Bubbs Creek from Road’s End, which was closed for the second half of the summer last year due to the Rough Fire.
  4. Dumbell Basin and Lake Basin: I enjoyed the fastpack through Lake Basin last year and look forward to exploring Dumbell Basin and the remote lakes west of Observation Peak.
  5. Scylla and Solomons: Some remote peaks above Ionian Basin that I still have not climbed. It’s always fun passing through Evolution Basin and exploring the desolate lakes of Ionian Basin.
  6. Tunemah Lake and Finger Peak: Tunemah Lake and nearby Lake 10548 are some of the most remote lakes in the Sierra which in itself is intriguing to me. It helps that the lakes have a beautiful view overlooking the Middle Fork Kings Canyon. This seldom-visited area is definitely worthy of fastpack.
  7. Glacier Divide, Goethe and Pavillion Dome: Glacier Divide has a nice position for views into Evolution Basin on one side and Humpreys Basin on the other. Pavillion Dome is at the end of the divide and promises to have excellent views looking down at Piute Canyon and Goddard Canyon.
  8. State Peak: I was hoping to climb State Peak on my return from Marion Peak in 2014 but ran out of time. State Peak should have an excellent vista looking down the Murro Blanco and the peaks of the Cirque Crest. The route to the peak should also give me a refresher on the climb out of Road’s End which is the start of the Sierra High Route.
  9. Fiske, Warlow and Spencer – Evolution Basin: A collection of peaks to do in Evolution Basin that I haven’t done yet.
  10. Hooper and Senger: When I did the JMT I passed by this area in the dark, but it looked really pretty from Gemini and Seven Gables.
  11. Feather, Merriam, Royce: One of my first climbs in the Sierra back in 2007 so it’s time to return to this beautiful link-up.
  12. Pettite and Volunteer via the Northern Yosemite 50: The Northern Yosemite 50 is an outstanding loop I did in 2011. I have some ideas to modify it and add some new features to motivate me to do it again, including an ascent of Pettite Peak and visiting Rodgers Lake.
  13. Mount Francis Farquhar: With excellent views and a solid 1,000 vertical scramble, this peak is a gem and has begged to be climbed each time I’ve passed it on the way to Mount Brewer and the Guards.
  14. Big Kid: This mountain is nothing more than a colossal pile of rubble, but what it lakes in aesthetics it more than compensates with an outrageous view of the Palisades. It’s basically the sister vista of Sky Haven, which focuses on the North Fork Big Pine Peaks while Big Kid’s focuses on the South Fork Big Pine Peaks.
  15. The Thumb: I’ve been wanting to climb the Thumb for awhile! It’s a beautiful peak with an excellent view of the Palisades.
  16. Mount McGee: Another remote peak with great views of the many surrounding lakes.
  17. Eisen and Lippincott: Likely for the fall when the crazy marmots at the Mineral King parking lot are getting ready to hibernate and not interested in eating my car!
  18. Sierra High Route: The big route that passes through some of the best terrain the Sierra has to offer. The route comes in at over 195 miles with close to 60,000 feet of elevation gain, the majority of which is off trail. I’ve been on most sections of the Sierra High Route over the years so hopefully my accumulated knowledge will allow me to be dialed in on the route. I look forward to refining my fastpacking setup and getting accustomed to long, successive days in the mountains. It should be fun!

McGee Creek & Red Slate Mountain

Fall color has long been replaced by snow in the High Sierra, but this post looks back on a great trip at the height of fall color in McGee Creek Canyon. The word colorful best describes this outing from the yellow, orange and red aspen groves in the lower canyon to the sapphire blue of Big McGee Lake, the turquoise of the tarn beneath McGee Pass and the stunning geology of red, white and gray rock of the peaks. On top of all the color was a dusting of snow on the high elevations. It was a fantastic and memorable day in the mountains on a perfect autumn day! Complete photo album here (I’m now only posting a fraction of the photos on the blog).

The region between Rock Creek and Mammoth Lakes hasn’t drawn my attention as much as other parts of the range, but I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Red Slate Mountain in the summer of 2013 and I’ve come to appreicate the unique features of this region. While Red Slate Mountain is arguably a choss pile, I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to this region finding gorgeous scenery so I was eager to return and see the route in the autumn. The geology of this area is especially fascinating with a palette of rock colors ranging from blazing red to pale white. Along the way we even spotted purple and green rocks. The interesting geology of the region is reflected in the series of photos below. In fact, Red Slate Mountain’s neighbor is aptly name Red & White Mountain with red and white striations throughout its face. Just to the west is the Silver Divide with quintessential gray and white granite I am accustomed to in the High Sierra. While Red Slate Mountain is not an interesting climb via the class 2 route from McGee Pass, the 360 degree view from the summit is outstanding. My favorite vantage was looking down at Lake Dorothy, Constance Lake, and the many other lakes of the Convict Creek basin but entire panorama is breathtaking. To the east the white mountains can be seen and to the south the high peaks of the Bear Creek Spire Group and Red & White Mountain. To the west lies the Silver Divide and to the north the Ritter Range. It’s a sweeping panorama and worthy of a long summit stay to soak in all of the fantastic terrain. The other highlight of the route is passing by a triumvirate of lakes leading up to McGee Pass, each becoming progressively smaller and more desolate as one ascends toward the pass. Big McGee Lake is by far the largest and most scenic with clumps of alpine trees surrounding its shores and Mount Crocker’s north face in the background. In the spring gorgeous wildflower meadows above Big McGee Lake lead to Little McGee Lake tucked in beneath the cliffs of Red & White Mountain. “Mini” McGee is the final tarn below McGee Pass, a desolate place with virtually no vegetation to speak of and crystal clear turquoise waters. This 20 mile roundtrip route makes for an excellent high altitude run as a “one-up” with 6,200+ foot gain, but all downhill on the way back. Complete photo album here

Mount Stewart & Eagle Scout Peak

The Hamilton Lakes and Kaweah Gap region is one of the most dramatic and inspiring spots in the High Sierra. Considering how many times over the years I’ve visited the area it’s easily among my favorite spots to explore. I consider it one of the best spots for adventure running in the Sierra Nevada with a long runnable approach, fun scrambles and most importantly, jaw-dropping scenery. I’ve climbed most of the named summits in the region over the years, including Eagle Scout Peak and Mount Stewart on separate trips, but this time I would tag both summits together since they make logical sense as a pair. While it makes for a long day, both summits are class 2 scrambles and not very far apart. On this visit I paid particular attention to timing of best light for photography and made sure to be at the right place at the right time.  I spent several hours shooting photos and I hope the results reflect my efforts. On this post I’m introducing a new format for this blog – from now on I’m going to only post a few highlight photos from each adventure in the body of the post with a link to a full album on Google Photos where it’s easier to navigate through the larger set of photos and see full size versions. The complete photo album for this trip is hereTotal mileage for Eagle Scout and Mount Stewart was 50 miles, of which 40+ miles was out-and-back on the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadows to Kaweah Gap. The first 11 miles to Bearpaw Meadows is on well groomed trail with gentle ups and downs making it very runnable. Beyond Bearpaw Meadows the trail descends to cross Lone Pine Creek before ascending in a rocky stretch of trail to round a shoulder into the Hamilton Lakes drainage. After crossing Hamilton Creek the trail is in ascent mode all the way to Kaweah Gap but the incline is fairly moderate throughout. The Hamilton Lakes amphitheater is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra with towering granite faces of the Valhallas including the famous Angel Wings rock wall, Cherubim Dome, Hamilton Dome and many other sweet rock features. At the head of the amphitheater on opposite ends lies Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak making them a perfect pair to tag on the same day. The area is so beautiful I haven’t figured out how to spot taking photos each time I visit, including nearly 200 photos when I did the complete High Sierra Trail for an FKT. From the beautiful sapphire blue waters of Upper Hamilton Lake the trail switchbacks before traversing to a spectacular view overlooking the lake and Angel Wings. The trail then reaches a picturesque tarn and then Precipice Lake.  At aptly-named Precipice Lake, the sheer cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak tumble right into the waters of the remarkably clear lake. This stunning view was immortalized by Ansel Adams in 1932 with his shot “Frozen Lake and Cliffs.” Shortly after Precipice Lake, one reaches Kaweah Gap which opens up a new world of scenery in the upper Big Arroyo River drainage including the Nine Lake Basin and the Kaweah Range. From Kaweah Gap, go south for Eagle Scout Peak and north for Mount Stewart. Both climbs are straightforward and offer different, but both marvelous, perspectives on the Hamilton Lakes and Nine Lakes Basin areas. The view of Precipice Lake from the summit of Eagle Scout Peak is particularly inspiring. The overhanging summit block of Eagle Scout Peak is indeed the precipice with the clear blue waters of Precipice Lake 2,000 feet below the sheer cliffs. Meanwhile, Mount Stewart offers an amazing view of Sabertooth Ridge, Tamarack Lake, and the rugged north side of Black Kaweah.  The complete photo album for this trip is here. 

Onion Loop

The Onion Loop provides an excellent sampling of the high country above Onion Valley in a complete loop with minimal repetition. The route includes excellent views throughout, fun scrambling, several alpine lakes and the three primary summits that reside along the Sierra Crest in the region: Dragon Peak, Mount Gould and University Peak. Onion Valley and Kearsarge Pass are a major gateway to the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park so the main trail up to the pass and adjacent lakes are quite popular and somewhat crowded. However, this route eschews the main trail for all but a mile and entails a considerable amount of scrambling and off-trail travel with grand vistas and spectacular scenery. GPS route here.

The first part of the route ascends the steep trail to the Golden Trout Lakes where Dragon Peak, the first summit objective, towers above the pristine alpine lakes. Dragon Peak is an outsanding summit with a fun class 3 scramble. In particular, the final summit block includes some exposure and a traverse across a narrow ledge. The views from Dragon Peak are stellar and include the deep blue Dragon Lake immediately below and the entire Rae Lakes Basin. Mount Clarence King and Mount Cotter show there impressive east faces and to the south the view includes layers upon layers of peaks including Mount Rixford, the Kings-Kern Divide and the Great Western Divide. It’s a fabulous spot and the author’s favorite summit of the three on this loop; well worth enjoying the summit perch!    After descending Dragon Peak, the traverse to Mount Gould goes as entirely class 2 by staying on the west side of the crest or class 3 if one chooses to stay on the crest proper. Mount Gould is a large massif with a broad plateau. The actual summit (by a few feet) is on the SE side of the massif but there is another high point on the northwest end of the plateau that is worthy of the extra effort for a grand vista of the Rae Lakes basin and down the south fork Woods Creek drainage. This subsidiary summit on the NW end of the plateau contains some measuring equipment and transmitters which I would rather not be there, but it doesn’t distract too much from the amazing vista. While the NW summit of Gould has the best view looking north, the SE (actual) summit has the best view looking south including the Kearsage Pinnacles and Lakes, Kings-Kern Divide and Great Western Divide. The actual summit of Gould is a fairly small pinnacle with a few class 3 moves, most easily done when approaching from the west. The author’s favorite view from this perch was East Vidette with its classic triangular shape rising above the Kearsarge Pinnacles with Deerhorn Mountain and the Great Western Divide forming the background (pictured in the black & white photo above). From Mount Gould traverse a couple ribs to a broad sandy slope above Kearsarge Pass where the sand enables a remarkably efficient plunge step down to the pass. From Kearsarge Pass, the next objective is the north face of University Peak. Descend a short distance on the Kearsarge Pass trail to a bench above Heart Lake and then take a use path to the lake. From Heart Lake, traverse cross country over some talus and alp pine slopes to beautiful Bench Lake. Aptly-named Bench Lake sits at the foot of University Peak in a lovely setting of granite and pines. From Bench Lake, the most efficient route to University Peak’s north face is to take the solid slabs starting on the east side of Bench Lake. The slabs transition to more talus and large block as one ascends. One can keep most of the ascent at class 2 or opt to tackle some class 3 to keep things as direct as possible. Near the top the terrain grows steeper but the climbing is still largely class 3 with some easy class 3. The final traverse to the summit is on a surprisingly broad ledge on the north side of the ridge with a few more scramble moves near the top. Overall, it seems the north face of University Peak gets a reputation as a harder scramble than it actually is. Most of the route is a class 2 slog and the scramble portions have little exposure. The views from the route overlooking the chain of lakes between Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley is fantastic. Moreover, the view from the summit into Center Basin, Forester Pass and Mount Stanford are excellent. From the summit of University Peak traverse sandy slopes on the west side of the ridge to either University Pass or a shortcut chute north of University Pass. Here is where the route becomes quite tedious with a lot of boulder hoping that is unavoidable in the glacial moraine area. As one travels down to Robinson Lake, there is still quite a bit of talus, but also sections of easier terrain, and the last few hundred feet down to Robinson Lake are on slabs and pine forest. From Robinson Lake it’s a fairly short trip down the trail back to Onion Valley.

Conness Peak & North Peak

After a few years I was looking forward to revisiting Mount Conness. My first time up Mount Conness was in 2007 (including North Peak and some excellent photos) and the second in 2011 via Young Lakes so it seems I’m on a four year schedule. I also visited the beautiful Conness Lakes a year ago. It was nice to see some familiar sights again and also discover more of the beauty of this region. Mount Conness is one of the most prominent and recognizable peaks in Yosemite National Park. The 12,589 ft peak is the highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada north of Tioga Pass and sits on the Sierra crest straddling the Harvey Monroe Hall Research Natural Area in Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park’s eastern boundary. The immense southwest wall of the peak is nearly vertical and contains several challenging and famous rock climbing routes. Staring down this face from atop Mount Conness is breathtaking. On the north slope of the Mount Conness hangs a small glacier which is one of a handful of remaining glaciers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This glacier produces a characteristic silty runoff that drains into the beautiful Conness Lakes. There are three primary lakes in the Conness Lakes basin, each with a different color. The southern lake is relatively clear reflecting little to no glacial runoff into the lake. The western and highest lake has direct runoff from the Conness Glacier and therefore the most silt concentration of the three lakes. The northern lake, which is the lowest of the three, contains a mixture of clear water from the southern lake and silty water from the western lake producing a stunning aquamarine color. The Conness glacier is badly receding and I can easily see the difference in surface area and ice mass from my prior visits. Without the glacier and accompanying silt, the lakes will lose their magical colors which is sad.

To the north of Mount Conness and the Conness Lakes is North Peak, a 12,242 ft summit with excellent views, a sweet scramble route and some famous ice climbing chutes (in season). The northwest ridge of North Peak is a very enjoyable scramble on excellent rock. Accessing the northwest ridge entails passing through scenic Twenty Lakes Basin with North Peak’s north face the primary feature towering above and reflecting in the lakes. The northwest ridge is mostly a class 3 scramble with the exception of a series of impasses along the ridge. It seems there are several variations to overcome these impasses, but staying on the ridge proper will require some more technical rock moves in the fourth class or low fifth class range. After the impasses the ridge steepens with some excellent scrambling on solid rock with considerable exposure on both sides including the sizable McCabe Lake a thousand feet below. The scrambling is fun that I’d like it to continue to the summit, but alas the summit plateau becomes flatter with more second class scrambling for second half of the ridge to the summit. After enjoying the views from the summit, the trip down to the Conness Lakes via the south and southeast slopes is a cruise with mostly sand to aid in plunge stepping down the slope.  From Conness Lakes a great route up to the Conness Plateau is via a ramp consisting of very friendly granite slabs that leads all the way to the East Ridge of Mount Conness. This fortuitous ramp is included in the Sierra High Route and provides a natural balcony for viewing the lovely Conness Lakes with North Peak as a backdrop. The ramp leads directly to the east ridge with stupendous views throughout. Once the east ridge is crossed to its south side, it’s a fairly straightforward traverse around to the slopes above Alpine Lake where the plateau can be gained via Class 2 slabs and talus. Cross the Conness summit plateau to the final class 2 scramble up the summit block of Mount Conness and enjoy the view to Tuolumne Meadows and Half Dome on one side and the Conness Glacier and Conness Lakes on the other. Walking down the west ridge a short distance will reveal and excellent view of the long and skinny Roosevelt Lake, tucked in a classic glacier bowl between Mount Conness and Sheep Peak. The Twenty Lakes Basin and Conness Lakes region are immensely scenic with access that is relatively short and easy from Saddlebag Lake. This is therefore a popular area, but I was still able to find some solitude. In fact, the only place I saw people was at the Conness Lakes.  Strava GPS hereHigh on the slopes of Mount Conness at ~11,600 I was lucky to stumble upon a family of 10 (!) white-tailed ptarmigans. If it were not for a couple of the other birds making their characteristic low-pitched hoots, I might have walked right on by. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest member of the grouse family and lives exclusively in an alpine environment. The plumage varies at different times of the year ranging from mottled gray, brown and white during the summer to all white in the winter. This cryptic coloration allows the bird to blend in with it’s surroundings and avoid detection by predators. Indeed, the ptarmigans that I spotted could easily be mistaken for rocks! The bird subsists in the harsh alpine environment by eating seeds, flowers, seeds and leaves. The ptarmigan was absent from the Sierra Nevada until 72 birds were introduced from Colorado in 1971-1972. The birds have since successfully reproduced and expanded their territory to the region between Mount Ritter and Tower Peak. The current climate and the alpine environment characteristic of this region is suitable for successful breeding. It is unknown whether the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada before the introduction. One theory holds that since there is not a continuous alpine environment from the Rocky Mountains or Cascade Mountains to the Sierra Nevada the bird was never able to access the Sierra Nevada. Another theory holds that the ptarmigan once existed in the Sierra Nevada but became locally extinct due to either colder, snowier conditions in the Pleistocene (which negatively affect breeding) or hotter temperatures in the Holocene (that create critical heat stress). Either way, the ptarmigan is very sensitive to climate change. As the bird lives in the high country, a warming climate could potentially shift their habitable zone above the highest peaks.