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! 


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


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 Free Maps:

If you’re interested in doing all or part of the SHR, do NOT use the free maps on – do NOT use the overview maps, do NOT use the topo series, and (most importantly) do NOT use the GPX ( 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

Cirque Crest Loop: Windy Point & Marion Peak

The Cirque Crest is located between the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River which form the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Naturally, the terrain is extremely rugged and the scenery is magnificent. The Cirque Crest is one of the most remote areas in all of the High Sierra. Typical access from the west is via Road’s End and from the east via Taboose Pass. Both options entail lots of trail miles and lots of elevation gain followed by substantial off-trail travel making this region particularly suitable for adventure running.  For this exploration into the Cirque Crest region I decided to access from the west side via Road’s End and encircle the western portion of the Cirque Crest including Windy Point and Marion Peak. The route came in over 50 miles with over 15,000 feet of gain and required nearly 19 hours, but it was well worth the effort and I look forward to returning to this rugged and wild region for further exploration. GPS route here.
Windy Point is a grand view of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, one of the most rugged canyons in the world, including Le Conte Canyon, Goddard Creek Canyon and Tehipite Valley, Yosemite Valley’s smaller sibling. The deep chasm of Middle Fork Kings Canyon is surrounded by towering peaks including the fabled Palisades to the east, the Goddard region to the north, and the Cirque Crest to the south. Taken together, this view encompasses the most rugged and wild region of the High Sierra. Windy Point is located about one mile off the Sierra High Route at the end of Windy Ridge that protrudes into the Middle Fork Kings Canyon drainage. For those on the Sierra High Route journey it’s well worth the extra effort to reach this fantastic vantage, a classic view of the High Sierra. Windy Point is also the location of a series of famous Ansel Adams photos and I was privileged to see the same view as Ansel minus the clouds and snow patches in his photos. A comparison of one of Ansel’s photo to mine is provided below.

Ansel Adams Windy Point 1936 (1)

North Palisade from Windy Point, Ansel Adams 1936 (Note: this artwork may be protected by copyright. It is posted on the site in accordance with fair use principles)

North Palisade from Windy Point, Leor Pantilat, October 12, 2014

After a long time gazing in awe at the stupdenous view from Windy Point, I retraced my steps to the Sierra High Route, passing near Lake 10,236 which has a spectacular backdrop of peaks and canyons behind its blue waters. I continued along the Sierra High Route over Gray Pass to a beautiful basin below the Cirque Crest which gradually ascends to White Pass. At White Pass, I left the Sierra High Route and proceeded up the northwest ridge of Marion Peak. This ridge is mainly a class 2 scramble with a some class 3 in spots but most of the exposure can be avoided. It’s a fun route in an amazing setting with excellent views into Lake Basin.  The summit of Marion Peak has a stellar 360 degree view with a sea of peaks all around including the Goddard Divide, the Palisades and the Cirque Crest. To the south, Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge are prominent and Taboose Pass seems close at hand (but in reality it’s quite a trek).

I descended the steep and very loose southeast chute of Marion Peak into a small basin with a couple alpine lakes and then climbed a talus gully toward a ridge spur off the Cirque Crest. Crossing over this ridge entails some class 3 scrambling and then more easy cros country terrain through a remote basin with a few alpine lakes and excellent views to Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge. I was hoping to climb State Peak as part of the loop, but when I reached a small col northeast of the mountain it became apparent that to get from my location to State Peak I would need to engage in a time-consuming and exposed ridge traverse. Since my legs were growing tired and sunset was approaching I decided to save State Peak for next time, which proved to be a good decision as I would not have made it back to the trail before dark. Looking over the maps in hindsight I might have been able to get to State Peak via a different approach without this ridge traverse, which is something to keep in mind for next time. This is an area I’ve been wanting to visit for awhile so it was great to finally get out there and I look forward to exploring Lake Basin in the future including Marion Lake. Actual mileage was ~51 miles. GPS route here.

Observation Peak & Palisades Sierra High Route

Aptly named Observation Peak, one of the most remote points in the High Sierra, contains an astounding view of an incredibly wild and rugged region of the range including the Palisades, the Middle Fork Kings River canyon, and the Black Divide. Observation is not a technical ascent, nor is it particularly high summit reaching only 12,362 ft, but its wonderful panorama is one of the finest in the Sierra and makes the long approach well worth the effort. On the way in I decided to utilize mainly trails by running and hiking from South Lake to LeConte Canyon and down the JMT to Deer Meadow, 20 miles of maintained trails just to reach the start of the route up Cataract Creek. On the way back I decided to extend the trip by ascending to Palisade Lakes and returning via a rugged and spectacular section of the Sierra High Route between Palisade Lakes and Dusy Basin passing through Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass, Palisade Basin and Knapsack Pass. The combination of the stellar views from Observation Peak and its namesake lake, and the Sierra High Route underneath the towering Palisades proved to be one of my most favorite routes I have done in the High Sierra. GPS route here.      

There are a several ways to access Observation Peak, but I decided to go from South Lake by ascending to Bishop Pass and then descending from Dusy Basin down to LeConte Canyon. The early morning views of the Citadel and Grouse Meadows were spectacular. I followed the John Muir Trail south to Deer Meadow where I crossed Palisade Creek and made an ascending traverse through an old burn scar to reach Cataract Creek. A little ways up Cataract Creek I found remains of old abandoned trail marked on the USGS map and I was able to follow the faint path most of the way up the drainage until it turns slabby below stunning Amphitheater Lake, one of the great gems of the Sierra and also aptly named. The precipitous cliffs of unnamed Peak 12,141 ft rise immediately from the shores of the lake with its clear blue waters. On this drought year, the traverse above Amphitheater Lake to Cataract Creek Pass was straightforward but on snowy years or earlier in the season the snow slopes leading up to the pass can be very steep. The final slopes up to Observation Peak are largely talus blocks with a few sections of scrubby pine trees. I spent nearly an hour on the summit marvelling at the incredible 360 degree views before returning down Cataract Creek the way I came. Near the bottom, I crossed to the south side of Cataract Creek and descended meadows and open forest back to the JMT, where I ascended the Golden Staircase up to Palisade Lakes. From Palisade Lakes I followed Roper’s route description through a splendid section of the Sierra High Route passing through a series of passes below the mighty Palisades including Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass and Knapsack Pass. Particularly memorable aspects of this traverse were the deep blue waters of Lake 3559m at the headwaters of Glacier Creek and the lovely Palisade Basin including the beautiful Barrett Lakes.

Annotated panorama of the Palisades from Observation Peak (click for larger version): 

Transportation to this adventure run was provided by Buick (General Motors) with a loan of the Verano Turbo model as part of the Buick MapMyFitness Runs Worth the Drive Challenge that continues through the end of August. The Verano Turbo is sporty and sleek but yet compact with a whole lot of power and surprisingly useful bells and whistles. It masterfully handled the curvy mountain roads and I was able to pass the copious number RVs within and outside of Yosemite with ease. It was definitely a fun drive to the mountains to complement and amazing adventure run. This was a “Run Worth The Drive!”   

Mount Winchell & Mount Robinson

The North Fork Big Pine Creek is one of the most scenic areas in the High Sierra including a collection of picturesque alpine lakes, the largest glacier in the range, and some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra in the Palisades subrange. I have visited the North Fork Big Pine twice before to climb Mount Sill. This time, instead of taking the glacier trail all the way to Palisade Glacier, I veered off at Sam Mack Meadow for climbs of Mount Winchell and Mount Robinson. Both peaks possess amazing viewpoints of the surrounding region. The biggest surprise of the route was spectacular Sam Mack Lake, positioned in a desolate, ice-polished granite bowl with a stunning view of the Palisades including Mount Gayley, Mount Sill, Polemonium Peak, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Mount Winchell and Mount Agassiz. Strava route here.

The route to Sam Mack Lake follows a use path above Sam Mack Meadows to a headwall where one most turn right to avoid cliffs. Beyond the headwall, it’s a straightforward ascent through talus and granite slabs to gorgeous Sam Mack Lake. Beyond Sam Mack Lake I traversed some talus but then found a very efficient route along granite slabs up to the foot of the Winchell scramble. Along the way I passed a high glacial lake tucked in between Winchell and Agassiz with silty glacial waters and some measuring equipment. While the more direct route to Winchell would avoid Sam Mack Lake all together, I feel like you’d be missing out on the great view and also I don’t think it’s any faster since the standard route entails much tedious boulder hoping. The climb up the east arete of Winchell is a fun, straightforward route. The rock becomes more solid as one ascends for some fun scrambling for the last few hundred vertical feet. The summit of Winchell has a spectacular view into Dusy Basin and the Black Divide across LeConte Canyon. The towering cliffs of Thunderbolt, North Palisade and SillI are close at hand.  In addition, there are some unique rock formations on Winchell’s west side that are interesting to look at. Retracing my route from Winchell back to Sam Mack Lake, I was ready for the ascent up to Mount Robinson. This class 3 route had more great views the entire way. There are a number of false summits near the top requiring some bouldering work, but I was soon at the high point admiring another spectacular view. For the descent off Robinson I decided to try a different route down the south slopes. This route started out reasonable but turned very loose and steep in its mid section; not an advisable ascent route but ok for descending. Back at Sam Mack Lake for the third time I enjoyed the view and photographed once again before beginning my return through the North Fork Lone Pine. On the way out the light over Second Lake, one of the gems of the Sierra, was amazing and I snapped many photos of the silty turquoise waters with Temple Crag in the background. Below the lakes I passed through a magical display of fall color along the trail that I will feature in the next blog post.  An awesome day in the Palisades!  Strava route here.

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.  

Sky Haven & Cloudripper

Sky Haven is not particularly high nor is the route aesthetic, but its perch across the North Fork Big Pine Creek provides one of the most outstanding views in all of the High Sierra. The breathtaking panorama includes the entire Palisade Range with venerable fourteeners Split Mountain, Middle Palisade, Mount Sill and North Palisade all in view. At the center is the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada Range, the Palisade Glacier, with its impressive cirque of rock and gleaming snow captivating attention.  Three additional fourtneeners  with less than 300 feet of prominence join Sill and North Palisade to form this cirque and include Thunderbolt Peak, Starlight Peak and Polemonium Peak. In front of the jagged peaks lies the entire chain of lakes composing the Big Pine Lakes basin, including First through Seventh lakes along with Black Lake, Summit Lake, and Sam Mack Lake. A truly amazing and inspiring view!

The shortest and easiest route to reach Sky Haven is via South Lake via the pipeline and then an ascent to Green Lake. Beyond Green Lake is a spectacular high tundra-like pass. Descend from this pass to a natural spring and then begin a cross country scramble through boulders up to the ridge. For those unwilling to engage in more technical scrambling and the effort it entails, Point 12,688 ft along the ridge provides essentially the same view as the true summit of Sky Haven. In order to reach the true summit, travel to the east through quite a bit of tedious class 3 scrambling to the true summit at 12,860 ft. Sky Haven can also be reached via the North Fork  Big Pine Trailhead via a significantly longer approach with more elevation gain (albeit nontechnical). After enjoying the view from Sky Haven I returned to Point 12,688 where I met Erica. After long admiration of the amazing, I continued along the ridge crest to  a small pass near Cloudripper. There is spectacular scenery along the entire route linking Sky Haven to Cloudripper, including close views of desolate Thunder and Lightning Lake. From the pass a straightforward climb leads to the base of Cloudripper and up its final summit block to the 13,525 foot summit. Cloudripper also possesses an amazing view, especially into the South Lake area and points north including Mount Darwin and Mount Goddard. Vagabond Peak was next, but it was more of an obstacle on the way out. I enjoyed the view from Vagabond for a few minutes and then continued down using an arduous descent through boulders down to Green Lake. I figure if I had simply continued along the ridge back to the tundra pass where the trail was located it might have only taken a few minutes longer but would have been more pleasant.  I will definitely be returning to Sky Haven in the future, perhaps to view sunrise from this remarkable vantage! 

2013 Adventure Run Ideas – High Sierra

As always, I have many great ideas for adventure runs in the Sierra.  Listed below are twenty potential trips organized from South to North.  Most of these ideas are rather obscure, but the high Sierra is filled with hidden gems and I expect all of these will not be lacking in outstanding scenery and route quality.  Hopefully I’ll get to several ideas this summer!  All photos by me from last year’s adventures.

  • Triple Divide & Glacier Ridge Loop via Wolverton: I’ve scoped out a big loop with big views. The route starts with the Pear Lake Trail up to the Tablelands and Big Bird Peak followed by a high traverse to Coal Mine Pass and across granite slabs to Glacier Ridge. From Glacier Ridge, another crossing of the granite slabs leads to Lion Lake Pass and a scamble of Triple Divide Peak. The descent is through Lion Lake and Tamarack Lake, ultimately down to the High Sierra Trail. I described the loop in one direction although it might make more sense to do the run reverse with the High Sierra Trail portion first thing pre-dawn.
  • Tyndall & Williamson: Double the fun for these two fourteeners via Shepherd’s Pass and Williamson Bowl.
  • Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak & University Peak: These all look like fun peaks to ascend. Mount Rixford, with its position west of the crest, is a particularly good viewpoint. Dragon Peak looks impressively rugged from the Rae lakes Basin.  
  • Arrow Peak and Bench Lake: An adventure via Taboose Pass that has been on the list for many years, but I haven’t made it out yet to see the classic Sierra view of Arrow Peak from Bench Lake.
  • Observation Peak and Amphitheater Lake: A remote part of the range also accessed via Taboose Pass. Observation Peak is apparently aptly named as it is a great spot to observe the Palisades.
  • Josephine Lake: Rarely visited lake tucked in below Glacier Ridge with views to Mount Brewer, South Guard, and North Guard entailing a steep scramble from Cloud Canyon.
  • Split Mountain: Another fourteener on the list.
  • Palisade Circumnavigation & Palisade Basin: A great route around the most rugged and alpine region of the High Sierra with lots of arduous talus travel.
  • Sky Haven & Cloudripper: Just for the tremendous views of Palisades and hopefully an overnight stay for sunrise. Access via South Lake.
  • Mount Reinstein, Lake 10,232 and Goddard Creek Valley: This loop comes in around 50 miles and looks stunning, passing through some of the most remote and wild terrain in the Sierra.
  • Ionian Basin, Scylla & Hansen: Accessed via Sabrina Basin, this region is near Muir Pass and the JMT, but far away from the beaten path and features spectacular peaks and many high lakes amid one of the most rugged and strikingly desolate settings in the High Sierra.
  • Charybdis & Black Giant: Two more peak in the Ionian Basin. Perhaps I will combine climbs of these peaks with objectives described immediately above and make it a single night fastpacking outing.
  • Bench Valley: Another western approach to the LeConte Divide, featuring a string of remote high alpine lakes off-trail.
  • Evolution Loop: In order to lower the FKT on this 55 mile horseshoe loop, it looks I’m going to have to curtail my photography substantially from the 300+ photos I took last time. Last time I did the horseshoe loop from north to south, but I’m wondering if south to north is actually faster. The argument for south to north is that most of the steep climbing is completed earlier rather than later, which may work better for me as I’ll be able to attack the long and at times steep climb out Pate Valley to Muir Pass early in the route.  Despite it being a long uphill slog from the JMT junction to Piute Pass, it’s fairly gradual and I think most of it is runnable for me if I’m feeling good at that point in the run, whereas the climb from Pate Valley to Bishop Pass is too steep for any running late in the run. I also like the idea of running down through Evolution Basin and Valley.  Finally, the South Lake trailhead is also marginally higher by about 500 feet.  I guess I’ll have to find out if south to north is faster!
  • Volcanic Ridge: Easily the best view of the Minarets and another candidate for an overnight bivy to view sunrise and early morning light. Access via Devils Postpile and fantastic scenery including Minaret Lake, Cecile Lake, and Iceberg Lake. 
  • Rodgers Peak: Accessed via Silver Lake, this is a fairly remote major peak in the region and looks awesome from many of the surrounding mountains, therefore spurring interest
  • Northern Yosemite 50: Classic loop route all on trails from Twin Lakes, including the Benson Lake riviera, a close view of Matterhorn Peak and Sawtooth Ridge, glacially sculpted Matterhorn Canyon, and the lovely Peeler Lake and Smedberg Lake. I first ran this route in 2011, documented here. The complete loop is close to 50 miles, although a short cut via Ice Lakes Pass (off-trail) would shave off some miles and elevation gain to Mule Pass.
  • Stubblefield Canyon and Stubblefield Lake: Remote spot in Northern Yosemite for some fun explorations.
  • Cherry Canyon and Boundary Lake: In Emigrant Wilderness, this area is characterized by smooth granite and clear lakes. A good route for earlier in the season when snow covers higher terrain.
  • Desolation Seven Summits: The same trip as last year, with the exception of taking the trail to Gilmore Lake from Dick’s Pass (instead of the off-trail segment on the ridge) and including Mount Ralston on the way out. With proper hydration and route knowledge I imagine this loop can be done in under 10 hours without too much trouble.