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 back 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 day. 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 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. Island
  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

Sierra Adventures Update

It’s been two months since I last blogged but it’s not because I haven’t been busy. Between a hectic workweek in the Bay Area and weekends filled driving to and adventuring in the Sierra I haven’t had a chance to blog. This post will serve as a summary of recent trips with links to full iphone photo albums. I might blog on some of these adventures in the future. I actually brought my dedicated camera on all these trips and took just as many photos with the camera (if not more) but haven’t had a chance to go through the thousands (literally) of photos yet so all photos in the albums and below are from the iPhone. The good news is the iPhone photo quality has improved to the point that resolution is satisfactory for mobile device or computer screen viewing and it’s just so much easier for me to get photos up quickly (images below are lower resolution; ask me if interested in higher resolution). By using both the iPhone and a dedicated camera this also meant that I spent twice as much time doing photography as I used to, which was already a lot!

  1. Tablelands, Big Bird Peak, Alta Peak (June 18th)An early season trip across the Tablelands to Big Bird Peak which has a fantastic view of the Great Western Divide, the Valhalla, and Big Bird Lake. On the way back I stopped by the gorgeous Moose Lake which still had some floating icebergs and continued up and over the Alta Peak massif.
  2. Monarch Divide and Granite Lake (June 19th): A hike up to Granite Basin, Granite Pass and up the Monarch Divide to a balcony overlooking Granite Lake on one side and Volcanic Lakes basin on the other.
  3. Mammoth to North Lake (June 25-26th): A two day fastpack from Mammoth Lakes to North Lake via the Sierra High Route including Mammoth Crest, Shout of Relief Pass, Bighorn Pass, Gabbot Pass, White Bear Pass, Feather Pass and Puppet Pass. The trip also included a climb of Feather Peak, my second time on this outstanding summit.
  4. North Fork Big Pine (July 2nd): A trip with Erica up the North Fork Big Pine to the foot of the Palisade Glacier including stops at first, second and third lakes and Sam Mack Meadows. The turquoise waters of Second Lake are some of the most beautiful in the Sierra.
  5. SHR Ansel Adams (July 3rd): A tour of the Sierra High Route from Devils Postpile to Thousand Island Lake and back to Agnew Meadows via the River Trail. The trio of lakes beneath the Minarets are always a favorite spot to visit!
  6. SHR Headwaters (July 4th): From Agnew Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows the long way up and over North Glacier Pass and into the stunning cirque beneath Mount Ritter that forms the headwaters of the North Fork San Joaquin River. The route passes by beautiful Twin Island Lakes and Blue Lake on the way to Blue Lake Pass. Unfortunately the back half of the route on the Isberg Pass and Rafferty Creek Trails to Tuolumne Meadows is a relatively mundane stretch of many miles.
  7. Mount Farquhar (July 9th): A jaunt up Sphinx Creek to a mountain that has always piqued my interest when passing by. The scramble route up the main gully to the summit is super fun and the afternoon views of the impressive north face of North Guard Peak are even better.
  8. Deerhorn Mountain (July 10th): Another mountain that has always drawn interest, particularly from the vicinity of Bullfrog Lake and Mount Rixford. Deerhorn is a beautiful mountain and I found the scramble to be enjoyable. The views from the top are tremendous as the mountain is centrally located for an excellent vantage of the Kings-Kern Divide and Great Western Divide. I also really enjoyed the Vidette Lakes.
  9. Evolution-Ionian Loop (July 16-18th): A 2.5 day tour through the Evolution and Ionian Regions including summits of Muriel, Goethe, Spencer, McGee, Hansen, Scylla and Solomons.
    • Route: http://caltopo.com/m/N88G   
    • Day 1 Photo Album: Late start at 1:30 pm from Sabrina but still time for Muriel and Goethe on the first day. Muriel might be lower than surrounding peaks but it has a great view of Mount Darwin and Mendel. The traverse from Muriel to Goethe is a fun bit of scrambling and evening light descending the slopes of Goethe to Darwin Bench was amazing.
    • Day 2 Photo Album: Day 2 started at Darwin Bench with a field of lupine and a great reflection. The summit of Mount Spencer is well worth the ~1500 ft climb from Sapphire Lake (JMT) with a wonderful 360 degree view of Evolution Basin owing to its centralized location. The afternoon destination was Mount McGee which has piqued my interest each time I’ve been in the region. The route up McGee included passage through the lovely Davis Lakes, which turned out to be the biggest surprise of the trip in terms of exceeding expectations. The uppermost Davis Lake has mineral sedimentation creating a wonderful turquoise color but the real treat was the lowest Davis Lake which takes on the appearance of a fjord as at twists and turns between rocky buttress. The climb of Mount McGee is a bit of a grind but the view from the summit is one of the best I’ve seen with an aerial view looking down at the Davis Lakes immediately below with the Goddard Divide creating a rugged background. After enjoying the Davis Lakes one more time I took Starr’s route over the Goddard Divide and had lovely evening views from the crest of the divide before descending into Ionian Basin for the night.
    • Day 3 Photo Album: The day started with wonderful views from Scylla and Hansen and then a beautiful walk through the Ionian Basin to Mount Solomons. Solomons provides a great vantage of Charybdis and the Sierra Crest in the vicinity of Muir Pass. From Solomons I went directly down to Muir Pass (staying off steep snow since I had no traction device) and then up to Echo Col for more great views of lake 11428 and Black Giant. The end of the route took me through Sabrina Basin.
  10. Rodgers Peak (July 23rd):  The afternoon views from Rodgers Peak were swell, but the wildflower meadows on the way down (above Rodgers Lake) were stunning; possibly the best display I’ve seen in the Sierra. Having summited Rodgers Peak a couple years ago, I knew the best light would be in the afternoon so I got a late start from the Rush Creek trailhead (after the 5 hour drive from the Bay Area) and almost suffocated from the heat before even arriving at Gem Lake! Rodgers Peak provides outstanding views since it sits a triple point of the Ritter Range, Cathedral Range and the ridge trending SW to Electra and Foerster that separates the Merced and San Joaquin drainages.
  11. Echo Peaks (July 24th): A short trip up from Tuolumne Meadows but high rewards with excellent vistas of Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, Mount Lyell, Mount Maclure, Mount Florence and the Clark Range. To the north we could see Mount Conness, Matterhorn Peak, Tower Peak and a myriad of other peaks and domes in northern Yosemite.

Buckeye Loop in Hoover Wilderness

Another post from the fall season in the High Sierra, this time from the Hoover Wilderness to the north and east of Yosemite. The Hoover Wilderness and adjacent northern part of Yosemite is largely overlooked for the higher peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the south but features outstanding scenery and tremendous opportunity for adventure where few, if any, other people will be seen. The Hoover Wilderness is characterized by a series of deep canyons draining the east side of the Sierra Crest. The Buckeye Loop visits two of these canyons – Robinson Creek Canyon and Buckeye Canyon. The centerpiece feature of the loop is stunning Peeler Lake which is an alpine paradise of polished granite and clear blue water. Both canyons are extremely pretty with phenomenal vistas, meadows and aspen groves. The Buckeye Loop comes out to around 35 miles including several miles of dirt road from Buckeye Campground to the Twin Lakes road and then a stretch of pavement to the roads end at the Mono Village resort. A car shuttle would shorten the route considerably and avoid some of the miles along dirt and paved roads, but the road running to make a complete loop is tolerable since the views are decent throughout the road section.  Complete photo album here

From the Mono Village, find your way through the maze of RVs to the Barney Lake Trail. This trail is heavily used as the starting point for many trips into the wilderness. The trail ascends fairly gradually through conifer forest and then aspen groves to a nice meadow where one can look up the dramatic Little Slide Canyon to the Incredible Hulk rock feature, one of the most impressive walls in the High Sierra. At this point, the trail begins a moderate ascent to Barney Lake and passes through a lovely old-growth aspen grove that is spectacular during the fall color season. Beyond Barney Lake, the trail begins a more rapid ascent with numerous switchbacks. Once past the turnoff to Robinson Lakes and Rock island Pass, Peeler Lake is close at hand. Peeler Lake is a remarkably beautiful spot with granite slabs descending into the sapphire blue waters. The lake sits exactly on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and has the unique attribute of dual outlets on either side of the lake – one flowing to the Great Basin and another to the Pacific Ocean via the Tuolumne Watershed/Hetch Hetchy. Water from the same source ends up in vastly different places!! From Peeler Lake, enter Yosemite National Park and descend gradually to the northern end of Kerrick Meadow.

The duration in Yosemite is short as the route exits the national park and reenters Hoover Wilderness after a gradual climb to Buckeye Pass. Compared to the trail to Peeler Lake, the Buckeye Trail gets a fraction of the visitation. In fact, the author did not see any humans from Peeler lake all the way to the Buckeye Campground. The trail becomes faint in spots, but the way was never in doubt. Descending from Buckeye Pass into the South Fork Buckeye Creek Canyon includes beautiful views of Center Mountain, Cirque Mountain and Grouse Mountain. At the junction with the trail to Piute Meadows is an old cabin. Downstream of the trail junction is a rugged section of the creek known as “The Roughs.”  After this section, the trail makes a final descent into the Big Meadow of Buckeye Creek. The meadow is aptly-named as it is immense in both length and width. The meadow includes numerous patches of aspen with some old growth groves. The creek meanders through the meadows affording lovely views of the canyon, particularly the rugged flanks of Hunewill Peak, Victoria Peak and Eagle Peak. While the last few miles to Buckeye Camp seem to drag a bit, a hot spring along Buckeye Creek can refresh spirits. The final portion of the loop along the dirt road back to the Twin Lakes Road features nice views overlooking the Bridgeport Valley.  Complete photo album here

Conness Peak & North Peak

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

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

Red, Merced, Ottoway

The Clark Range is a sub-range west of the Sierra Nevada crest in one of the more remote regions in Yosemite National Park. The range divides Illilouette Creek from the main stem of the Merced River and forms the western side of the Merced River headwaters. As the range is set apart from the other high peaks in the region, the views are spectacular and include the entire Cathedral Range and Ritter Range to the east. The view includes a panorama from domes and spires of the Tuolumne Meadows region to the roof of Yosemite on Mount Lyell to the impressive Mount Ritter to the chiseled Minarets. The primary summits in the Clark Range are Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Of the bunch, Mount Clark is the only one with more technical scrambling and the others have class 2 or 3 routes available. For my first visit to the Clark Range I made a tour of the southern end of the range via Mono Meadows with climbs of Red Peak, Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. I started with Red Peak and then traversed the Ottoway basin to Ottoway Peak and Merced Peak. Views from all three summits were spectacular. I especially liked the view to the rugged Minarets group, which are always impressive.  It was nice to see the peaks coated in late season snow, and especially when some afternoon light found its way under a layer of high clouds. Upper Ottoway Lake was still frozen but Lower Ottoway Lake had melted out and was especially pretty on my return trip in the evening. Total mileage ended up being 37.5 miles so it’s a long ways in, but a good early season route and many of the trail miles are runnable in pleasant montane forest. GPS route here

Wildcat Point & Cold Mountain

Wildcat Point and Cold Mountain are two fairly remote and obscure destinations north of Tuolumne Meadows between the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and canyon country of northeast Yosemite. The scenery at both locations is stunning. Wildcat Point is to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne what Clouds Rest is to Tenaya Canyon; a lofty viewpoint perched thousands of feet above a rugged granitic canyon. The primary difference between the two is that Wildcat Point does not have a trail and it’s rarely visited. Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is not a high or remarkable summit by most standards, but its isolated and central position surrounded by deep canyons provides a spectacular 360 degree view, especially into northerneast Yosemite’s canyon country to Sawtooth Ridge. Just to the north of Cold Mountain is a subsidiary peaklet I dubbed “Cold Point” which contains an amazing view of rarely seen Virginia Lake with a sea of granite peaks and domes in the background.  Starting at Tuolumne Meadows I started by taking the trail to Glen Aulin. I ran into quite a bit of snow and ice covering the trail which slowed things down; it was November after all. From Glen Aulin I started down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne but soon turned off the trail to head up beautiful smooth granite slabs toward Wildcat Point. Views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne opened up with each step. About halfway up the side of the canyon I took a shallow gully with a little bit of brush to the upper granitic slopes that were more moderately sloped with easy terrain leading to the base of Wildcat Point, which is more of a dome. After some brief scrambling I was at the top marveling at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne several thousand feet below. The views are excellent from the top of the dome, but the best views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne are further down the ridge at a point where the gentle granite slabs end and a sheer drop into the canyon begins. From this point one can gaze from Tuolumne Meadows to all the way down the Canyon to Pate Valley. Wildcat View provides perhaps the best view of Tuolumne Peak as it rises impressively on the south side of the canyon with cliffs and buttresses leading all the way down to the canyon bottom. From Wildcat Point I traversed a pleasant alpine basin to Cold Mountain, which included beautiful Mattie Lake and another unnamed alpine lake directly below Cold Mountain. The final ascent to Cold Mountain was on friendly granite slabs. Ironically, the summit of Cold Mountain was warm for November. I enjoyed the view over lunch with calm winds and blazing sunshine. Gazing over miles of wilderness in all directions I experienced true solitude as the snowy trail conditions and late season meant that I was the only human around for miles. After my summit break I explored the area, including a visit to a peaklet north of the summit I dubbed “Cold Point.” This spot had perhaps my favorite view of the day with a spectacular vantage of rarely seen Virginia Lake and a sea of granite domes in the background culminating in rugged Sawtooth Ridge and Whorl Mountain above Matterhnorn Canyon. From Cold Mountain I descended forested slopes to Cold Canyon where I found the trail back to Glen Aulin. On the way back from Glen Aulin, instead of returning by trail, I visited a number of domes with excellent views of Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range. The day finished with an delightful sunset from Olmstead Point (the actual point, not the parking lot). Full album here and GPS route here

Half Dome’s Diving Board

Two spots are referred to as the Diving Board on Half Dome. The most commonly visited, but unofficial diving board is located near the summit on a small overhanging lip above the precipitous northwest face. This feature has also been named “The Visor” and is the preferred name to differentiate with the official Diving Board (as labelled on the USGS topographic maps) located just west of Half Dome and directly below the northwest face. Discussion of the Diving Board hereinafter refers to the official Diving Board. The Diving Board is the location of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photos, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken in 1927. Ansel was mesmerized by this location and described it as a “wondrous place… a great shelf of granite, slightly overhanging, and nearly 4000 feet above its base…the most exciting subject awaiting me.”  87 years later the Diving Board is just as captivating with the perspective of Half Dome from the Diving Board simply spectacular. The northwest face rises a sheer 2,000 feet and takes on the appearance of a colossal skyscraper. Most of the day the face is in the shade but in the afternoon it is slowly “revealed” from left to right as the sun progresses toward the western horizon. Ansel Adams captured this transition beautifully in his photo, remarking that he saw “the majesty of the sculptural shape of the Dome in the solemn effect of half sunlight and half shadow.” Ultimately, the entire face is illuminated by the afternoon sunlight and the evening progression brings an array of colors from grayish white in the late afternoon to yellow in the evening to orange at sunset and finally reddish at alpenglow.

The Diving Board is not far from the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley, but no trail reaches the point and any route requires some navigation and route finding skills. The most common and easiest route utilizes a use path that starts above Vernal Falls that travels behind Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick to Lost Lake. The use path continues past Lost Lake to a small saddle between Mount Broderick and Half Dome and then descends on the other side of the saddle before beginning a climb up steep slopes to the Diving Board. The more scenic and aesthetic route, known as “The Ledges” takes a different use path uphill from the Broderick-Half Dome Saddle to a series of well-placed ledges that cut across a granite slope. The Ledges route is the rock climbers’ approach to the popular Snake Dike route and other rock climbs in the vicinity. With close attention to cairns marking the path of least resistance, most brush can be avoided on this approach route. When the route reaches the ever-steepening cliffs of Half Dome’s southwest face, the ledges cut across the granite to climbers left. The various ledges are separated by short sections of class 3 climbing and a couple friction moves on the granite. From the ledges there are excellent views of Little Yosemite Valley, Cascade Cliffs, Bunnell Point, Mount Starr King and Mount Clark. Beyond the ledges, the approach switchbacks up to the start of the Snake Dike route. For the Diving Board, leave the approach route before it reaches the base of Half Dome and traverse right across lightly bushy terrain to a forested area in a small bowl. From the forest, travel up steep gravel slopes for the final couple hundred feet of vertical to the Diving Board.

The view from the Diving Board is remarkable. Aside from Half Dome’s massive northwest face front and center, North Dome, Basket Dome and Mount Watkins are prominent across Tenaya Canyon. Most of the major features of Yosemite Valley are visible including Glacier Point, the Royal Arches, Washington Column, Yosemite Falls, Eagle Peak and El Capitan. The view immediately below from the overhanging rock is vertigo-inducing with nearly 3,000 feet of air to the floor of Yosemite Valley. On this day, the black oaks and maple trees in the Valley were in full fall color adding further intrigue to the view at the bottom of the precipitous drop. An alternative approach route to Lost Lake is the small gully between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick. This narrow corridor is situated between too massive, sculpted granite features and is worth the extra time and effort versus the easy usetrail above Vernal Falls. The route to this corridor between Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick begins at the point where the Mist Trail touches the granite of Liberty Cap. The use path traverses alongside the base of of Liberty Cap before dropping into the gully. Once in the gully it’s fairly obvious to head up the narrow corridor passing by some pine and fir trees along the way and a hanging valley with a meadow. The final portion enters a forest of fir and aspen before joining up with the primary use path to Lost Lake. The first dozen or so photos below are from this alternative route through the Broderick-Liberty Gap corridor and the remainder are from the Ledges Route and the Diving Board in general chronological order as the sunlight exposed the northwest face of Half Dome and the subsequent evening light progression. The Diving Board is certainly a spot I will return to experience in different season with varying light angles and clouds. I also hope to visit the spot when it is snow covered.