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

Lake Basin Fastpack Loop

I have been wanting to get into Lake Basin since I looked down into it from the summit of Marion Peak last fall and Mount Ruskin has looked intriguing from the summit of Arrow Peak so I decided to combine the two in a two day fastpack loop and include Bench Lake, one of my favorite spots in the High Sierra. I started from Road’s End up the Copper Creek trail and it was quite warm. I would have rather started before the sun came up but the necessity of a permit and waiting behind other visitors asking questions precluded that. It was a relief to reach the relative cool of Grouse Lake and start this section of the Sierra High Route to Marion Lake. I was familiar with this stretch after my Cirque Crest loop last year, except this year I had an even better view across the Middle Fork Kings Canyon from Windy Ridge and Gray Pass. This area is simply spectacular with the “Windy Peak Lake” perfectly situated in the foreground of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, Le Conte Canyon and the breadth of peaks surrounding the Middle Fork from Mount Goddard to the Palisades. The clarity on this afternoon was amazing and confirmed my opinion that this is one of the grandest views in all of the High Sierra. I continued from Gray Pass to White Pass and finally Red Pass before descending to Marion Lake in the early evening.  Strava GPS route hereMarion Lake is nestled in a granite bowl with the Cirque Crest and Marion Peak towering above, but what makes this lake so special is its vibrant deep blue color. Marion Lake is the bluest lake I have seen in the Sierra. I’m guessing this is due to the depth of the lake and a mineral deposit from the adjacent white granite cliffs. While Marion Lake was lovely and I took many photographs of its spectacular setting and reflections, it was also infested with mosquitoes so I continued up Lake Basin, passing by several beautiful lakes in evening light before finding a suitable camping spot with far less mosquitoes. My fastpack setup was adequate for the relatively warm temps and I got several hours of quasi-sleep before getting up around 6 am. I traversed through upper Lake Basin and ascended to Cartridge Pass where the old trail can still be followed. From Cartridge Pass I ascended the southwest chute of Mount Ruskin. The lower part of the climb was class 2, transitioning to class 3 in the upper slopes and finally a stout but fun old school Sierra class 3 summit block that had some exposure.   The view from the summit of Mount Ruskin was one of the best I have seen in the Sierra and I’m not saying that because it was a recent summit. I have stood atop many summits over the years and this one was very memorable. The clarity was amazing and the entire southern High Sierra was at my feet from Whitney to the Kings-Kern Divide to the Great Western Divide. The centerpiece view was Arrow Peak and its picturesque north face towering above the Muro Blanco of the South Fork Kings River. The addition of this photogenic arrow-shaped peak makes the view even better than the one I experienced standing atop Arrow Peak last year, which at the time I thought was the best. To the north the view was also breathtaking and included the striking Palisades, the Goddard Divide, the White Divide and the peaks of the Ionian Basin. It was a marvelous 360 degree panorama and the mid-morning light was ideal so I spent a lot of time reveling in the panorama and filling up my memory card. I have been to many places in the Sierra and I must admit that after repeatedly seeing the same general views from slightly different angles and knowing the names of virtually every peak and major feature int the range, there is less “mystery” factor and therefore less excitement than I used to have. However, on this day I was just as excited as on my first trips in the Sierra.  There are still ways the High Sierra can captivate and inspire me after all these trips, I just have to be more creative finding them! After a long stay at the summit, I finally packed up and headed down toward the lakes beneath Cartridge Pass. This is a marvelous area and the lakes are perfectly situated to frame Arrow Peak in the background. A great day seemed to be getting even better as I strolled along the shores of the lake taking multitudes of photos. I picked up the old Cartridge Pass trail (fairly easy to follow) by the lakes and took it down to the South Fork Kings River.  In the lush meadows near the river I spotted a large black bear and I made sure to give the bear plenty of space as I passed. It kept eating and either didn’t notice me or, more likely, didn’t care enough to acknowledge my presence. I crossed the river and headed up steep talus slopes to Bench Lake. I could have taken a use path along the river all the way up to the JMT, but I wanted to see Bench Lake again and this direct route would save time and distance. Bench Lake is a gem of the High Sierra and I was happy to be along its shores once more. After a dip in the lake and lunch it was time for a long trail hike and jog back to Road’s end via Pinchot Pass. In the past I had only seen the area around Pinchot Pass in the dark or under cloud cover so I failed to appreciate the beauty of this region, but I found it to be quite scenic with a palette of rock colors and beautiful Marjorie Lake which also possesses a deep blue (but not as blue as Marion Lake). I enjoyed the entire stretch along the JMT and the descent toward Castle Domes, chatting with many thru-hikers along the way and the backcountry rangers. The final few miles down to Road’s End seemed to go on longer than normal since the added weight on my back resulted in a slower pace than usual, but I still made it back at sunset. This was my first fastpacking experience and it turned out very well. I used everything I carried and didn’t really need anything else. While I can reach anywhere in the High Sierra in a single day, there is something to be said for being at the right place and the right time for the golden hours – sunrise and sunset – and having the time to really enjoy the scenery as I was able to do on Mount Ruskin and Bench Lake.   

2014 Adventure Recap

From Big Sur to the High Sierra, 2014 was another tremendous year of adventures. As I did in 2013 and past years (links to past year’s recaps located on right sidebar of homepage), this post lists all of the adventures for 2014 in chronological order with a link to the blog post, where available, or photo album. My most notable adventure the year was completing the John Muir Trail in a new FKT, and in the process holding the FKTs for three of the most famous and iconic trails in the High Sierra at the same time: the High Sierra Trail, the John Muir Trail and the Rae Lakes Loop.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to make these improvements in the FKT/adventure sport in the High Sierra. I also achieved FKTs in the California coastal ranges including Big Sur and the Lost Coast. I have no doubt these times will be lowered in the future. However, much more than any time or split, what stands out the most as I look back on 2014 and my entire portfolio of adventures is the volume of experiences I’ve had exploring wild and rugged places in the mountains. The greatest award or achievement I can find in this sport is not a place or a ranking, but the joy of exploration and discovery of the splendors of nature. Being in the wilderness is a visceral and spiritual experience that is far form the pageantry and commercialization of organized sports. From sea to summit, I hope 2015 finds me on many more adventures!

  1. Cabezo-Molera Loop (January 4, 2014)
  2. Buckeye Loop (January 5, 2014)
  3. Mount Mars (January 5, 2014) 
  4. Big Sur Trail (January 11, 2014) 
  5. La Ventana Loop (January 15, 2014)
  6. Santa Lucia Three Peaks (January 25, 2014) 
  7. Circular Pools (January 26, 2014) 
  8. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 1, 2014)
  9. Stone Ridge Direct (February 1, 2014)
  10. Shouey-Plaskett Loop (February 15, 2014)
  11. Kirk Creek Ridge (February 15, 2014)
  12. Pico Blanco-Little Sur Loop (February 16, 2014)
  13. Cabezo-Molera Loop (February 23, 2014) 
  14. South Coast Adventure (February 24, 2014)
  15. Berry Creek Falls via Waddell Beach (March 1, 2014) 
  16. Cone Peak’s North Ridge & Lost Valley (March 8, 2014)
  17. Partington to McWay, Julia Pfieffer Burns (March 15, 2014)
  18. Silver Peak Wilderness Loop, Lion Peak and Mt. Mars (March 16, 2014)
  19. King Range 50, King Range Wilderness (March 23, 2014)
  20. Boronda Ridge & Marble Peak (April 5, 2014)
  21. Prewitt Ridge & South Coast Ridge (April 6, 2014)
  22. Kandlbinder & Ventana Double Cone via the Drain (April 13, 2014)
  23. Stone Ridge Direct Loop & Cone Peak (April 19, 2014)
  24. East Molera Ridge & Post Summit (April 20, 2014) 
  25. Cone Peak via Vicente Flat FKT & Stone Ridge Descent (April 26, 2014) 
  26. Big Sur Station to Bottcher’s Gap via Ventana Double Cone (May 4, 2014)
  27. Big Creek Reserve (May 10, 2014)
  28. Prewitt & Boronda Wildflowers (May 11, 2014)
  29. Humboldt Redwoods – Bull Creek, Rockefeller, Founders (May 23 & 26, 2014)
  30. Jedediah Smith Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  31. Damnation Creek – Del Norte Coast Redwoods (May 24, 2014) 
  32. Prairie Creek Redwoods (May 24 & 25, 2014): Fern Canyon; Rhododendron 
  33. Patrick’s Point and Trinidad (May 25, 2014) 
  34. Goat Mountain (May 31, 2014)
  35. Mt. Bago and Mt. Rixford via Road’s End (June 1, 2014)
  36. Granite Balconies (June 8, 2014)
  37. Complete Lost Coast (June 15, 2014) 
  38. Roof of Yosemite Loop (June 23, 2014)
  39. Virginia Peak via Viginia Lakes (June 28, 2014)
  40. Arrow Peak Northeast Ridge via Taboose Pass (June 29, 2014)
  41. Conness Lakes (July 4, 2014) 
  42. Observation Peak and Palisades Sierra High Route (July 5, 2014)
  43. Whorl Mountain & Sawtooth Loop (July 12, 2014)
  44. Mount Davis (July 13, 2014)
  45. Redwood Creek & Sykes Hot Springs (July 27, 2014)
  46. Tower Peak (August 2, 2014)
  47. John Muir Trail FKT (August 15-18, 2014)
  48. Pyramid Peak & Window Peak Lake (August 31, 2014)
  49. Electra Loop – Electra Peak and Lyell Fork Merced River (September 7, 2014)
  50. Black Giant, Charybdis & Mini Evolution Loop (September 13, 2014)
  51. Santa Lucia Wilderness (September 20, 2014)
  52. Montaña de Oro State Park Loop (September 21, 2014) 
  53. Andrew Molera (September 28, 2014)
  54. Ericsson & Genevra (October 4, 2014)
  55. Crique Crest Loop: Windy Point & Marion Peak (October 12, 2014)
  56. Red Mountain Basin Loop: Mount Henry and Red Mountain (October 26, 2014)
  57. Stone Ridge and Cone Peak Loop (November 2, 2014) 
  58. Diving Board (November 8, 2014)
  59. Wildcat Point, Cold Mountain & Tuolumne Domes (November 9, 2014)
  60. Pine Mountain Ridge, Reyes Peak and Haddock Mountain (November 15, 2014) 
  61. Cathedral-Tunnel Loop (November 16, 2014) 
  62. Dutra-County Line Loop (November 22, 2014)
  63. Pt. 2866 (Soda Peak) (November 22, 2014) [coming soon]
  64. Boronda Turkey Trot (November 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  65. Pico Blanco North Ridge (November 28, 2014) [coming soon]
  66. Marble Peak 50k+ (December 6, 2014) [coming soon]
  67. Big Sur Condor Loop – Anderson Peak Direct (December 13, 2014) [coming soon]
  68. Berry Creek Falls Loop via Waddell Beach (December 20, 2014) [coming soon]
  69. Soberanes Loop (December 21, 2014) [coming soon]
  70. Summit Rock-Castle Rock Loop (December 25, 2014) [coming soon]
  71. Big Sur Paradise (December 26, 2014) [coming soon]
  72. Alta Vista and Ewoldsen Loop (December 27, 2014) [coming soon]
  73. Coast Ridge including Twin, Cone, Mining Ridge, Marble and Timber Top (December 28, 2014) [coming soon]

Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak & Bench Lake

Arrow Peak and Bench Lake have been on my list of places to visit for several years. The iconic view of Arrow Peak towering above Bench Lake was one of the first images of the High Sierra that inspired me to explore the range when I first moved to California. However, a relatively long approach over Taboose Pass and an even longer drive from the Bay Area to the trailhead likely deterred me from getting it done. On an ideal early summer morning I finally made it out to Bench Lake to see in person what I had dreamed of all those years. Often times such anticipation built up over a long time can result in unrealistic expectations, and commensurate anticlimactic experiences, but the scenery surpassed even what I had imagined. Bench Lake is a Sierra gem with a priceless view as aptly named Arrow Peak reflects in its waters. The objective for the day was the 2,700 vertical foot Northeast Ridge route up Arrow Peak which is front and center when viewed from Bench Lake and looks quite intimidating from that vantage.  However, once on the route one discovers that the technicality is limited to a class 3 scramble with just enough exposure and steepness to make it an engaging and fun route.  Combined with the outrageous views en route, the northeast ridge of Arrow is one of the most aesthetic scramble routes in all of the High Sierra. This region of the range is probably the area I have spent the least amount of time so it was great to finally get out there to see the amazing scenery and dream up future routes in the area.  GPS route here.

The logical approach to the Bench Lake and the Northeast Ridge of Arrow Peak is via Taboose Pass, an infamous pass that starts in the sage-filled desert of the Owens Valley and climbs 6,000 vertical feet to the pass in a consistent ascent with little shade. Starting before dawn, I found the trail reasonable and a fairly efficient way to reach the crest and the incredible beauty that lies beyond. In other words, I hope to be back to Taboose Pass soon. I can’t say as much for the access road which is totally beat up with large rocks everywhere. In many ways the access road is in worse shape than the trail!  While having a low clearance vehicle doesn’t help, this road wouldn’t be much faster in a high clearance vehicle. Most of the obstructions are large rocks buried in the sand so it doesn’t seem like it would take much machinery to improve this rough road dramatically, but I guess the poor condition naturally regulates visitation. When I’m driving under 10 mph I start to second guess why I’m driving at all (as opposed to running). Next time I will likely park my car at the end of the pavement and jog up the east slopes of the Owens Valley to the trailhead.

Bench Lake and Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge close-up: 

As mentioned, the Taboose Pass trail starts in a desert environment with sage and sand. The going is slow for awhile until one enters the Taboose Canyon where the tread improves. The trail steadily climbs along the north side of Taboose Creek before crossing the stream and entering the only shaded part of the climb in a beautiful pine forest. The shade is short lived and soon the trail is back to switchbacking through open talus slopes. The grade eases up towards the pass where there are numerous small tarns and the terrain gradually shifts from rock to tundra. At Taboose Pass one enters Kings Canyon National Park and is greeted by a lovely view down the South Fork Kings Canyon, the Cirque Crest, Bench Lake and Arrow Peak. The connector trail from Taboose Pass to the John Muir Trail is an amazing stretch with glorious meadows and astounding views. Turning south on the JMT for merely a hundred meters brings you to junction with Bench Lake. Judging by the faint tread it seems as if few through hikers bother to take the time to visit Bench Lake. This has served the Bench Lake area well as it seems unspoiled for such a beatiful spot. The trail to Bench Lake gradually descends through pine forest passing a couple small lakes to reach Bench Lake, a Sierra gem with one of the finest views in the range.

After a beautiful stretch along Bench Lake’s shores the trail peters out, but off-trail travel is easy through through open pine forest over a small rise followed by a descent to a small drainage at the base of Arrow Peak’s Northeast Ridge. The initial slope up to the Northeast ridge can be accomplished by various routes, but they all converge on the ridge crest where the cliffs on either side make the spine of the ridge the logical route. The lower portion of the route features some scrappy low-lying pine trees that can be cumbersome as they tend to grow into thick, unmalleable bushes. The vegetation scrambling peters out about half way up the ridge leaving clean, enjoyable rock scrambling for the second half. The ridge features some nice exposure, a few knife edge sections, and awesome views in all directions including Bench Lake below, the Cirque Crest, and as one ascends higher, the mighty Palisades. The Northeast Ridge is a long and sustained climb with over 2,700 ft of vertical from its base to the summit. Once on top, enjoy Arrow Peak’s amazing view, perfectly positioned to have one of the best 360 degree panoramas in all of the High Sierra. To the south lies the Kings-Kern Divide, Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Range. To the north is the Goddard-Evolution area and the Palisades. Close at hand is the Cirque Crest, a region of the High Sierra I have yet to visit but near the top of my list for future exploration. Perhaps the most compelling view is down the Muro Blanco, or the South Fork Kings River Canyon.  This is a truly wild canyon with no trails and sparse documentation. From Arrow Peak’s perch I could see the entire length of the aptly named canyon, which is virtually entirely composed of distinctly white granite slabs and cliffs. From Arrow Peak, the easy descent is off the WSW slopes which have some helpful sand for efficient descending. From Arrow Pass, talus and slabs are taken down to the drainage east of Arrow Peak. This drainage has some gorgeous turquoise pools from which to admire the northeast ridge of Arrow Peak. Ascend back to Bench Lake through the forest and retrace steps over Taboose Pass.   

Onion Valley to South Lake

An Onion Valley to South Lake trip has been on my list for a number of years. The route largely follows the JMT on arguably one of the most scenic stretches of the trail and includes Pinchot Pass and Mather Pass (and Glen Pass if all trail is taken). The trip is 65 miles all on trail, but I cut off 5 miles by taking Gould Pass over the crest directly into the Rae Lakes basin instead of Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass. While the off-trail route was shorter, it did not save much time (probably added time) and certainly required more energy. Gould Pass is rated at class 2, but it’s arduous travel beyond Golden Trout Lake. On top of that I made some small route finding errors that cumulatively cost time and energy. Once at Gould Pass, it’s not a cake walk descending into the Rae Lakes basin either. First, there is a steep and loose gully to negotiate and then a lot of cumbersome boulder hopping through an old glacier moraine down to Dragon Lake. From Dragon Lake, a faint use trail heads down to beautiful Rae Lakes where I was excited to finally hit a trail. I don’t regret taking this route with stunning views from Dragon Lake and one of the best photography angles I have seen of Rae Lakes, but next time I will likely utilize Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass to save that energy for all the running that follows on the JMT.

It’s hard to resist not taking a lot of photos and enjoying the spectacular scenery at Rae Lakes, one of the my favorite spots in all of the High Sierra. Once I finally exited the basin I made good progress down Woods Creek and the climb to Pinchot Pass. This was my first time up Pinchot Pass and it’s a long, but gradual climb. From Pinchot Pass I continued toward Upper Basin and the final slog up to Mather Pass. At Mather Pass I enjoyed the beautiful view of the Palisades and then made the descent to Palisade Lakes. From these lakes, I had initially planned to scramble up to Palisade Basin and cross over into Dusy Basin via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass, but extensive off-trail travel no longer seemed appealing so I continued down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. This was a long way on trail and although I was moving fine, it still took a long time. By the time I got to the final climb up to Bishop Pass I was growing tired and as the sun set over Dusy Basin my energy levels had sunk. After hydrating and eating I eventually I made it up to Bishop Pass and down to the South Lake trail head. It was close to 11 pm when I arrived; 18 hours after starting. A “head down” approach could probably yield a time of under 14 hours for the route, but in all the times I’ve visited Rae Lakes, I still can’t keep my head down!  This is a classic segment of the JMT and I will definitely return. Next time I will do Kearsarge Pass and pick up the JMT at Charlotte Lake. I will also aim to use the cross-country route to Dusy Basin and Bishop Pass via Thunderbolt Col and Potluck Pass. Either way you slice it (trail or cross-country variations), this is a challenging route for a single day adventure run, but well worth the efforts with the amazing scenery.