Until this year, my experience with the Sierra Nevada Range was limited to only a couple short trips in Yosemite National Park. The little piece of the range that I'd seen on those trips along with a few hours spent hovering over maps were more than enough to tell me that I needed to spend some serious time there. So, I began to research the John Muir Trail, a thru hike generally considered to be in the top 5 in the world. It was during this research that I learned about the Sierra High Route, created by Steve Roper as a JMT alternative for those that can navigate off trail and prefer not to drop below timberline. This would be the perfect way to experience the Sierras. Cross country travel offers constant physical and mental stimulation and a sort of freedom that trails generally lack. Also, while the JMT is a backpacker highway, seeing thousands of hikers every year, the High Route, being more difficult and much less famous, offers far more in the way of solitude and wilderness experience. It's been at or near the top of my list ever since I learned about it, and this summer, I was finally able to swing it.
I knew that I didn't want to rush through it. I wanted to take my time, camping at the most beautiful lakes, fishing, photographing, and generally exploring as much as possible. Originally, I figured I could traverse the route comfortably in a little over 3 weeks. Then, I started noticing the many side trip opportunities in addition to the mountaineering that I already had planned. Soon, I had secured close to 6 weeks off of work and I filled every last day with potential extras. I was after complete freedom after all. To rigidly adhere to the high route proper would be to ignore the entire nature of a trip like this.
In the end, I divided the trip into 5 sections. The first section, five days from Onion Valley to Roads End, isn't even a part of Roper's route. For logistics reasons, I had to start on the east side of the Sierras and Onion Valley made the most sense as an entry point. So I decided to make the most of it, hitting Vidette Basin, Lake Reflection, Brewer Basin, and Sphinx Basin along the way. Section 2 would start the official High Route, following it from Roads End to South Lake, potentially incorporating Kid Lakes, Dumbell Lakes, and Amphitheater Lakes into the route. Section 3 was to go from South Lake to North Lake and include a trip through Ionian Basin. Section 4, from North Lake to Mammoth, was all about fishing and exploring, with 3 nights in Bear Lakes Basin and 2 along the Silver Divide. Section 5, from Mammoth to Tuolumne, was to layover at Twin Island Lakes and include a couple days for Lyell Fork and Hutchings Basins. Unfortunately, I just didn't have time for the short stretch from Tuolumne to Twin Lakes. It seemed to make more sense to put a short leg at the beginning of the trip, rather than the end.
For me, going outside is going to church. The earth is my higher entity. Without it, I wouldn't be here. It is responsible for the beginning and the end of life as we know it. I realize that other factors, greater and smaller, have a part in this as well, but it is the earth, the land upon which we reside, the only land that we can even begin to understand, that plays the most significant role in our existence. For that reason, it has my complete devotion. When I head into the wilderness, I get to experience it in its natural state. I get to exist with it, rather than in competition with it, as humans are so prone to do. In some of my best experiences, I've become a part of it, myself, rather than just some resident or visitor, the way I often feel in my normal life.
Given the amount of time I had, my hopes were high for that kind of experience on this trip. This wasn't just to be a nice visit to a pretty place. I was looking at complete immersion into one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. I wanted to leave everything from normal life behind, clearing my head of everything but myself, the wilderness, and our interaction. I wanted to learn this place, how it acts and feels. I planned to work with it, gradually developing a strong connection. Eventually, I would become a part of it, and it a part of me. I have that feeling the second I set foot in Glacier Park, my holy land, and there is nothing like it. It is intense euphoria and comfort at the same time. It is the closest to pure happiness that I have experienced.
In the end, the trip more than lived up to my expectations. The Sierras are a truly magical place and I do have a very strong connection to them now. From the first leg, full of terrain variability, acclimatization, physical and mental exhaustion, gear failures, complete remoteness, and stunning beauty, to the last leg, which used howling winds, smoke, and brown meadows to let us know that the trip was ending at the right time, I embraced my environment and relished the strong relationship that we developed.
As for highlights, interestingly, my favorite times and places along the way were generally not even a part of the SHR. In Brewer Basin, I had a bout of uncontrollable laughter that I will never forget.
|Mt Brewer rises above Brewer Basin|
After coming up on Scylla Lake from the north, getting the view from the saddle, I was waiting for dragons to come flying between the spires of the Sirens.
|The Sirens and Scylla above Scylla Lake|
After crossing the divide from Martha to Davis Lake, we dropped down to the southeast shore of the western lake and very possibly, my favorite campsite of the trip.
|Mt Mcgee from Davis Lake camp|
Standing atop Seven Gables at 3:00 pm with thunder rolling everywhere except directly above, I knew full well that we had no business being up there, but for some reason, the mountain decided to allow it.
|Stormy weather and the look back at Vee Lake and Bear Lakes Basin from the top of the ascent chute on Seven Gables|
On a day hike, upon gaining entry to the Upper Twin Island Basin, I remember looking around and realizing that I was at the bottom of a giant playground and I could go anywhere I wanted, see whatever I wanted to see that day; absolute freedom.
|Upper Twin Island Basin|
Granted, these were just a few highlights of a non-stop spectacular journey, but it goes to show that this route isn't about blindly following instructions in a book. That will certainly lead to some wonderful country, but if one pays attention and makes just a little bit of an added effort, the exploration possibilities are endless. Again, one of the best parts about leaving the trail behind is that instant feeling of freedom that comes with it. To do so, only to slavishly follow some route description seems to defeat that purpose.
In the end, even 36 days of hiking didn't seem like enough to experience a lot of these areas the way I'd like to. I've got a list of places I need to revisit (really need to see the Mammoth to Tuolumne section during peak wildflower season, the way it's meant to be seen) as well as some new areas I want to check out. Of course, the master list is quite long, and I love playing in Montana, but I'm enamoured enough with the Sierras that I'm sure I'll be back over there again within the next few years.