The SHR is a route, not a trail, envisioned by Yosemite guidebook author Steve Roper, and first chronicled in a 1982 book. Subtitled “Traversing Timberline Country”, it described a route that tries to stay higher than the nearby John Muir Trail while still avoiding serious technical difficulties. Crossing 33 passes, it was about 200 miles long, mostly above timberline, and included some sections of maintained trail, some obscure user paths, no shortage of tricky terrain over the high passes, and as much cross-country alpine cruising as possible. Soon out of print, Roper later brought the book back out in 1997 under the title “Sierra High Route”.
At that time, it was basically a guide for section hiking, and I doubt if 10 people had ever thru-hiked it. Last year Backpacker Magazine Editor Steve Howe thru-hiked it in a month, doing a daily podcast via sat phone, highlighted by his arduous off-trail experience. Kevin Sawchuck, an expert backpacker and former record-holder on the JMT, called it “My favorite backpack trip of all time.” I suspect the popularity of this route is about to take a significant upswing.
I’m hiking with Andy Skurka. Andy is a good friend, a great person, whom I only half-jokingly refer to as the “King of the Backpackers”. Last year he did the self-created “Great Western Loop”, 6,875 miles of mountains and desert, and the year before hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) thru California in 44 days, averaging 38 miles per day. That’s carrying all of his own gear, navigating, and the average includes all rests, mistakes, and stops … few runners could go that fast even fully supported.
We plan on backpacking this in 10 days. There is a re-supply at Reds Meadow, also the traditional JMT re-supply point, after about 120 miles, and we’ll ship food into there. I can learn a lot of techniques from Andy and look forward to it. We’re squeezing this in starting July 1, which will provide for long daylight and presumably significant snow cover.
I fly into Fresno from Las Vegas, where I had been canyoneering in Zion NP with Jared Campbell. Andy flys in after an exemplary 4th place finish at the Lake City 50 mile trail race. We are met at the airport by two people Andy found on Craigslist, who will drive us to the trailhead for a reasonable fee. The shuttle logistics are tricky, because the route begins on the west side of the range in the South Fork of Kings Canyon, and finishes at Twin Lakes on the east side of the Sierra’s.
We drive thru Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. These are big trees … really big trees. We went inside a fallen hollow Giant Sequoia that used to function as a café.
A 5,000′ climb opens the day. Roper doesn’t mess around with his route. I’m feeling good, but right away we discover Andy is feeling better … he is an extremely strong hiker. He asks to take a few heavier items from my pack to help equalize our respective paces. I am surprised, but he is right, and I agree.
The route goes above timberline right away, and we are thrust into what will become daily routine: scramble up a trailless pass, get out the map, figure out where the next one is, launch across granite slabs, around half-frozen alpine tarns, over slushy snowfields, and into large but solid boulder fields. Study the map frequently, scramble up another pass, try to identify and then get a line of sight on the next pass, and repeat.
The views extend for miles and miles, and consist entirely of sharp jagged peaks, alpine basins studded with lakes, and occasionally a high valley with a smattering of trees. In every direction. After awhile Andy remarks, “This is a big neighborhood.”
We brought Kahtoola crampons, but doesn’t look like we’ll be needing them. There’s plenty of snow, but it’s slushy and suncupped. It may be a slight hindrance, as glissading is impossible and wet feet are inevitable. Indeed, the Sierra High Country is one vast sponge, seemingly the whole range dripping and oozing water. One water bottle is all we need, as delicious clear water is everywhere, cascading, standing, running, falling. We drink constantly the whole trip with nary a thought of purification; if you’re afraid to drink this water, you live on the wrong planet.
The downside are the clouds of mosquitos. This we found surprising also: on the very first day we were engulfed by a swarm, and presumed as we got higher they would give up. This didn’t happen. We reached timberline, and mosquitos were flying into our ears. We took a break on top of the pass, normally a windy and lifeless location, and mosquitos covered our face. We hiked across a snowfield, and they actually followed us across, buzzing all around our heads. What’s with this state? We’re from Colorado; hasn’t anyone told these little buggers they’re supposed to hang out down below and not come up here?
We hike until about dark. Our timing always seems to work out real well: after bagging one last pass, we descend until hitting the first clump of high trees, find a flattish spot the deer maybe have smoothed out, and throw down a bivy sack, a pad, and the sleeping bag. Then turn on the headlamp, cook dinner in a separate location to keep smells and bears away from our slumbering bodies, pack up all of it including the pot itself into a massive aluminum bear canister we each carry, stash it also away from “camp”, then walk back and go to sleep. Get up when it gets light, cram the canister into the pack – wishing we’d see either a bear or a ranger to justify this monster – and off we go. Midday we stop for a siesta, to eat, dry our feet, and sometimes wash our socks, running shorts, and shirt.
We go over 5 passes in one day. Another raconteur would list all the passes and our campsites, but I can’t remember things like this even a few hours later, so I won’t try here.
I do remember hundreds of lakes and tarns, streams and rivulets, beautiful clean granite, and some long cruiser meadows in between passes. My main impression is the exact opposite of Steve Howe’s: this is really mellow. The Sierra High Country is very pleasant, very nice. Very California if you will. The granite is so solid, there isn’t enough broken rock to form talus; instead there are extensive slabs of beautiful solid rock. Coming down into timberline, instead of being stopped by an impenetrable wall of willows and krumholtz (dwarf windblown trees), here one gently eases into a few very stately Bristlecone Pines, widely spaced, with a completely open understory providing for easy hiking. Nice! This is the most pleasant timberline country I’ve ever seen in North America (Peru might be mellower).
Besides the solid rock, it’s the climate we can thank. The Sierra’s stop a ton of winter snowfall, which percolates into the ground and feeds the roots of these giant trees (they’re all big, not just the species that are supposed to be big), but then the precipitation stops – there is minimal summer rain, the shallow rooted bushes can’t survive, and so we are left with clear blue skies yet tons of surface water, and open, clear cruising across alpine meadows.
Well, there is a price to be paid in the Golden State. If you want to know anything about ultralight hiking, just go to Andy’s website, and check his Gear Lists – years of experience are right there, in black and white, for anyone to easily emulate. That’s how I packed, but in one particular case, I think we were totally wrong. We were prepared for wind, rain, or cold … and it was never windy, rainy, or cold … instead it was bloody hot, with a high altitude sun beating down all day, and reflecting back off the shiny white granite or snow. I was getting fried, and was not prepared for it.
In two previous backpacks this year, I was in Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon, and perfected clothing that really works for me: white, thin, loose fitting cotton pants; bleached white baggy cotton button-down shirt; and a huge straw hat with chinstrap. I look like a dork – which I greatly prefer to looking like I just walked out of Outside Magazine – but clothes and a hat have been the historical solution to sun protection, and they still work far better than an few grams of slimy chemicals slathered over your bare naked skin. Plus, the mosquitos … did I mention the mosquitos? Again, one can either apply chemicals once every hour in the theoretical hope of deterrence, or one can just do what humans have been doing for millennia … put on some clothes. My black running tights and tight fitting zip turtleneck were unbearably hot, and very ill-suited for these conditions.
Many times on this trip, while slogging up some pass in the midday sun, feeling like I was being fatally irradiated in a microwave oven, spitting out stray mosquitos out that had flown into my mouth, I resolved to never leave home without a 2 oz mosquito headnet topped by a (biodegradable even) straw hat. To be fair, we probably hit the peak of the mosquito and the dry sunny seasons exactly, but my trusty hat goes with me from now on.
We are nearing Reds Meadow, a commercial campground and our resupply point. Actually, we’re not that near, but I’m already thinking “hot shower”. Andy couldn’t care less; he’s used to being out for months; hiking from first light, all day long into last light, then getting up and doing it again the next day … and the next. I like the hiking part, and doing 14-15 hour days feels natural, but I’ve always known I’m not in the same league as people like Andy and Flyin’ Brian; I have stupidly ambitious projects and plans in many areas of recreational endeavor, but hiking for months on end has never been one of them. Like high-altitude expeditionary climbing, I enjoy a taste but not the whole meal; I’m good for 3- 5 days, then it’s time to take a bath, do some yoga, listen to Phil and Paul describe the Tour de France.
Today for the first time, I’m picking up the pace. I can smell the barn door. Andy is wandering off looking for better camera angles, as we’re directly on the Sierra Crest, while I’m eating my Balance Bar on the move, shifting briefly from backpacking style to ultrarunning style. Andy notes we need to be at Reds by 7 pm to pick up our food package, but I’m thinking “who cares about that; shower and a beer is just 15 miles ahead; lets get going”.
We hit Reds at 5:10 pm. The first person we see in the parking lot – I am not making this up – immediately exclaims, “Hey, aren’t you Andy Skurka!?” I love it; normally I’m the recognized one, but in this game, Andy is The Man, and this affords me the opportunity to zip unimpeded over the the campground office, whip out the credit card (at 5 grams, the best piece of gear you can carry), and book ourselves indoor lodging, 2 meal tickets for the buffet dinner (and a straw hat), and without breaking stride, go over to our cabin, wash the grime off my poor body, wash all my clothes, hang them to dry, put on my only redundant clothing, a pair of nylon shorts and t-shirt, and go back to the office, where Andy is still holding court on the lawn with the PCT thru-hiker contingent. It’s all good; after waiting for me at the top of every pass even while carrying my unused crampons and other weight, I can at least beat him to the dinner table.
We leave Reds after a pleasant 15 hours. No rush. We go thru Devils Postpile National Monument. These remarkable formations of basalt cooled into renowned examples of columnar jointing, are very benign and seem to contain zero connection to the Devil, but the interpretive signs note the first white men here were sheep herders, which means they were from Spain, which means they were Catholic, which means they were preoccupied with evil. Thus the name.
We leave the JMT after a short but speedy section, then we’re on smaller trails, then are following some faint climber paths up into the famous Minarets. Our minds do play games … on one hand we’re here to enjoy traversing wonderful off-trail routes in the high country … slow going, but beautiful … while on the other, each time we drop onto a trail, we privately think, “Alright, I’m really knocking down some miles now!” Or maybe that’s just me.
The Minaret Day seems to go on … Roper really doesn’t mess around … while never taking us over anything technical, he keeps us way up there, all day long, right at the edge of technical, each traverse appearing to be quite difficult, only to have ledges and ramps appear at our feet, exactly as described in the guidebook, affording relatively easy passage during a long continuous day. He did an excellent job. While someday a Sierra expert might take Roper up on his suggestion to vary, wander, and improvise the Route to one’s own satisfaction, at this point few hikers will find the current description wanting.
Andy postulates that the Sierra’s are the “best mountain range in the world”. This is a very interesting idea, and I think about it. I’ve always liked the Tetons … really good climbing, hours away from good beer and pizza; I live in Colorado … any mountain in the State can be climbed while starting from and returning to my own bed the same day; the Olympics are really good … vast, green country, with fine wine and seafood at the end of the day … hmm, is there a pattern here?
The Sierra’s are very pristine. Or are they sterile?
The Sierra’s are the ultimate example of our American concept of public land management: “Wilderness”; “No Trace”; “Humans are bad”; “Untouched”. These concepts are strangely unquestioned in our minds. And in the Sierra’s, these concepts are magnified by the super clean rock, the clear weather, the strict and long-time management policies, and the fact that there is no gold or silver in solid granite, and thus no old roads or trails or habitation.
The best range in the Colorado Rockies is certainly the San Juans, where one cannot travel a mile without encountering an old cabin or wagon track. This actually doesn’t bother me, and I don’t think the deer, the fish, or the flowers could care less either. What these remains of human activity do is bother our sense of what the outdoors is supposed to be like. It’s not about the environment or protecting it, it’s about protecting our values and egos.
In the Alps people are actually encouraged to go up high, the mountain culture is one of the attractions, (and the people, thus enlightened, vote to pass far better environmental protection laws than we do here). The polar opposite of the Sierra’s however, is Nepal. In that part of the Himalaya, you are walking next to the people who are just going about their day-day affairs. There are no roads between villages, so they walk, on trails, just like you are doing when you’re there. So instead of being elite, special, and “getting away from it all”, you are all mixed up with the culture, the populace, the commerce … and the old man next to you wearing flip flops and ragged cotton pants and shirt is dropping you and your $500 Gore-Tex outfit like a bad habit on every uphill. The super high-tech contents of your pack cost more than his entire house. There’s no wonder we want to “get away from it all” … but why do we then try to bring it all with us?
Andy could be right. I don’t know. Depends on what you like. I do know this:
The High Sierra’s are an extensive uplift of some of the best granite on earth, rising 14,000 feet straight up out of a warm and dry Mediterranean climate, and to this day remain largely untouched by humankind.
Andy can now smell the barn door. Why not get this done? More passes, more amazing half frozen lakes – don’t want to slip on the snowfield and slide down into that sucker – although it would make for a great photograph – and then a drop into the top of a forested valley. I’m still amazed at how big these trees are, how open the understory is, and how easy the walking is even while not on a trail.
We power up one of the last big passes, feeling good about that, and amble down to a tiny lone stand of Bristlecone’s for the night. We are 4 hours from the end, could finish this by headlamp tonight, but that would be poor style; we are backpacking, here to enjoy the experience, not accomplish a goal. Andy reminds me of this; he even makes a point on his hikes of never hurrying at the end of the day; it disrupts his flow, and makes him think he’s supposed to get somewhere instead of just being where he is.
Besides learning state of the art lightweight backpacking techniques, this trip is a passage for me. For years I have been a pioneer, doing some notable trips, and now I’m a follower; Andy is the stronger partner. My era is passing to people like him; 10 years (or less) from now, sitting with my cane next to me on the front porch, I will read his name in print, and happily recall, “Hey, I did a hike with that guy once.”
This transition feels really good. Besides loving this trip, I am very grateful for this opportunity, and very happy to have experienced such an outstanding partner and person as Andy Skurka.
We hit Mono Village the next morning, after “about 8 days”, jump in the lake so as to be presentable to tourists, then hitchhiked into Bridgeport in the Owens Valley. Kevin took about the same amount of time as us doing it in the same style. Neither party was going all out, but our transit times are probably the quickest on this route by a factor of many days. While on the trip I often dreamed of coming back and doing it alpine-style … leave most of the gear behind, run the trail sections, have fun quickly scrambling the passes … 5 days … but I may be too old for this sort of thing, and the SHR would be a tough one to run: off-trail navigation does not come easily at night.
After a night in Bridgeport we board the Eastern Sierra Transit bus to the airport, and fly out of Reno that afternoon. It’s a little odd being on the plane wearing only our somewhat smelly running shoes, skimpy running shorts, and never-be-clean-again t-shirts, but forgive us, we just did the Sierra High Route.
Andy’s SHR Trip Planner (added 9/11/08)
Andy has extremely impressive (and free!) wealth of information here
Complete Photo Albums:
There are two types of backpackers! Decide which you are and plan accordingly:
#1 Mobile camper – You go out there because you like to camp. You move your camp each day, a process which is tiresome and not a highlight of the trip. You carry a lot of gear, because comfort in camp is paramount.
#2 Hikers – You only camp in order to continue the hike (the exact reverse of #1). Therefor, comfort while on the trail, not in camp, is paramount. This means mostly one thing: lightweight. Remember, there is no such thing as a heavy, comfortable pack!
If you are #1, do not thru-hike the SHR. The PCT is forgiving and even social, but the rough terrain and isolated conditions of the SHR will make for an difficult experience. Instead, pick a section, hike up to it, camp and day hike around for a few days. Section hiking the SHR is not a bad plan.
Carrying a backpack thru this terrain that weighs more than 35 pounds is not only be unnecessary and not logical in this age of lightweight methods and materials; it would be dangerous.
You will need a permit, and you will need a 2 pound bear canister (both obtained in advance via mail order).
I recommend using clothes instead of/in addition to chemicals for sun and insect protection.
The water is excellent, and the weather often is.
Oddly, it’s drier in the higher southern Sierra and wetter in the north, which is lower.
Navigation is key; it’s not hard due to the long sight lines, but the map must be handy and consulted constantly.
Cooking – An alcohol stove (cat food can) and Ti pot. One water bottle (wide mouth for mixing drinks), one Platypus (for camp and backup).
Sleeping – lightest down sleeping bag, lightest bivy sack, lightest pad, a tent/tarp for backup.
Shoes – we both used La Sportiva Fireblades, an excellent trail running shoe. Boots are not optimal; besides risking blisters, they provide poor grip and control on rock, and take energy due to weight.
Clothes – Light again. Plus one pair extra DeFeet socks and t-shirt. Good sunglasses from Julbo. Mosquito headnet. Hat!
Food – Except for Balance Bars, all my food was from bulk bins of natural food store (no packaging to throw away).
Other – maps, pages cut from Ropers book, compass, Petzl Tikka XP headlamp, footcare products, Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), TP, credit card. Camera, with shoulder holster for quick access. We carried a cellphone due to long transit times before and after.
If you’re not sure if you need it, you probably don’t … except experience.