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Trip Report: The Sierra High Route (Part 2)

August 25th, 2018: My friends Julie, Fred, and I just finished hiking 140 miles of the Sierra High Route. This is second half of the report. Here’s the first half.

Warning: Very long post with lots of pretty pictures! Recommended viewing on a larger screen.

Quick recap of the first half:

  • The Sierra High Route (SHR) is badass.
  • We hiked a lot, mostly up-and-down, mostly off-trail.

On Day 7 we took a resupply day in Mammoth and our fourth hiker, David, departed. Only three remained—Fred, Julie, and yours truly—for the second half of the trip.

Here’s the report.

Day 8: Duck Pass to Lake Virginia

  • Hours: 5
  • Miles: 9
  • Elevation Gain: 2,802′
  • Elevation Loss: 1,654′
  • Fred’s Strava

Resupply days are wonderful and terrible.

Wonderful, because: New food! Fresh food! So much food!

Terrible, because: SO MUCH FOOD.

What happened to my nice, light backpack? The one with only two Clif bars and a few spoonfuls of peanut butter in nasty-looking plastic jar? What is this Sisyphean burden I now carry over every rock, root, and inch of dirt?

Two Nature Valley bars for breakfast. Cheese, crackers, dried fruit, nuts, sausage, and a Snickers for lunch + snacks. A box of Annie’s plus a packet of tuna for dinner. Another Snickers and various bite-size chocolates for dessert. It did not fit in one bear can.

We soothed ourselves by cheating* a little: Instead of going back to Devil’s Postpile and starting from there, our friend Roy drove us to the Duck Lake trailhead, saving us about 10 miles of hiking through the Mammoth backcountry (where the Sierra High Route just stays on trail).

Is this really “cheating?” Does it really matter if you do every single mile of the designated “trail” (or route) that you’re hiking? Can we really say that we “did” the Sierra High Route if we skipped a few sections? Those are questions for longer post, but you can guess what I think.

At Duck Lake pass we rejoined the Sierra High Route, which followed the Pacific Crest Trail at this point, and hoofed out a bunch of trail miles. We met another SHR hiker, Danny, going the other way. He told us that he’d met James—the guy we ran into on Day 2—and James sent us his greetings!

I love these little hiking microcosms. Everyone becomes fast friends because (1) there’s not many of us and (2) we’ve all chosen to undertake this weird, difficult, niche challenge.

Fellow SHR hiker, Danny, couldn’t resist capturing a selfie of three other people as insane as he is.

Not much else to report today. We spent the afternoon on the Pacific Crest Trail, arrived at lovely Lake Virginia, found all its campsites occupied, and pushed a a little farther to camp at a stagnant pond just beyond Virginia which I affectionally named “Lil’ Shitty.”

We crashed hard. None of us had slept well in our one night in civilization. Get us back to those Thermarests, mummy bags, fresh breezes, quiet nights, and 10-hour slumbers, thank you very much!

Lake Virginia. We would have camped here if everyone else wasn’t doing so already.

Day 9: Lake Virginia to Lower Mills Creek Lake

  • Hours: 11
  • Miles: 13
  • Elevation Gain: 4,685′
  • Elevation Loss: 5,039′
  • Fred’s Strava

What is about “Day 2” that makes us do crazy things? Just like the first half, we put in an epic effort on the second day of this leg of the hike. Maybe it was the glycogen reserves + fact that we did a half-day yesterday + irrational exuberance from being in the wilderness again.

Or perhaps, more simply, as Julie says: “Slayers gonna slay.” 

Julie, slaying a creek crossing.

We spent just a little more time on the PCT before cutting into a lovely side basin where we encountered a small tent city belong to a Sierra Club group.

Fred and Julie passing Izaak Walton Lake.

Approaching our first pass of the day, Shout-of-Relief Pass (rating: 1), we ran into yet another southbound SHR hiker: Hamish, a very buff dude from the British Royal Marines. (Danny, from yesterday, told us to look out for him. It’s like a big game of tag out here!)

On top of the pass we found the Sierra Club group—a bunch of older adults who represented the level fitness I intend to have in my golden years—led by a guy named Bill Flower who had led Sierra Club trips for more than 20 years. Bill asked about our route and then said, “Oooh, you’re going toward Lower Mills Lake. That’s an incredible place to stay.”

Hmm, maybe that’s why we made this such a big day. When a two-decade veteran trip leader of the Sierra Club tells you stay somewhere, you push to make it happen.

Thanks for the pic, Sierra Club peeps! Rosy Finch lake, below.

And push we did: over Bighorn Pass (rating: 1), down to Laurel Lake (lame!), lunching in Laurel Creek (lovely!), down a canyon (where Fred and I lost Julie for a hot second), down down down a crappy unmaintained trail to Mono Creek, up the Second Recess trail (so lame!), up up up the Mills Creek drainage (so steep! so much foliage!), finally arriving at fabled Lower Mills Creek Lake with just thirty minutes of sun remaining.

Cold-water jacuzzi, Laurel Creek.
Julie, ascending the Mills Creek drainage, oh-so happy about it.
Lower Mills Creek Lake: as good as advertised. Thanks, Bill Flower.

We had the entire lake to ourselves that night… except for the FIFTEEN-PERSON STUDENT GROUP from UC Santa Cruz doing a wilderness orientation program for incoming freshmen. But they were super nice, respectfully quiet, and really quite impressive. The three trip leaders (Rossy, Matt, and Tory, each of whom appeared to be college students themselves) were taking novice backpackers—some of whom had never backpacked before—to a very remote and wild location. Well done, UCSC W.O.!

Day 10: Lower Mills Creek Lake to La Salle Lake

  • Hours: 9
  • Miles: 10
  • Elevation Gain: 3,330′
  • Elevation Loss: 2,930′
  • Fred’s Strava

10 miles, ~3000′ elevation change: Just a normal day on the Sierra High Route, right? Not so much.

The day began with a hike-slide-scramble over Gabbot Pass (rating: 2), conveniently (suspiciously?) located between Mount Gabb and Mount Abbot.

Julie and Fred ascending a snowfield toward Gabbot Pass.
Looking from Gabbot Pass toward Mount Julius Caesar and Bear Creek Spire.

On the descent to Lake Italy, misfortune befell us. Julie took a full ass-over-teakettle fall (she was fine), and I slipped while walking across some (embarrassingly flat) boulders, banging my left kneecap in a way that would bother me for the rest of the trip.

Fred’s comment: “We’re tired.”

True. After ten straight days of hiking—and a huge day yesterday with fully loaded packs—we were starting to feel it. But hey, what are we gonna do? Press the SOS button on our InReach and get a free helicopter ride out? Nope. Fundamentally we were fine, so we pressed on to our next little red dot: the Bear Lakes basin.

White Bear Pass: you suck and you know it.

In the Bear Lakes Basin, every lake is somehow bear related. There’s White Bear Lake, Black Bear Lake, Big Bear Lake, Ursa Lake, Bearpaw Lake, Little Bear Lake, Den Lake, Claw Lake, Tooth Lake, and Gruff Lake. No joke. Someone obviously got tired of coming up with novel names for bodies of water.

To access the basin we needed to climb White Bear Pass (pictured above), which hardly received a mention on the Skurka maps but was a REAL SON OF A BITCH (rating: 2-3). On it we found a pair of Yak Traks and a 2-liter Nalgene bottle next to each other. Obviously someone had yard-saled or impulsively decided to shed weight on this tough-ass climb.

But as always, the SHR made it up to us with some great views. The Bear Lakes were beautiful and remote, with essentially zero signs of human activity. Black Bear Lake was my favorite. Julie even spotted a bald eagle soaring above it.

Black Bear Lake, pieced together in old-school panorama style.

We left the basin via Feather Pass (rating: 1) and descended a steep canyon to the outlet of La Salle Lake, where we spent a cool, windy night.

Three passes (all around 12,000′ elevation), two falls (one of which caused a minor injury), and one White Bear (of whom we shall never speak again)—yup, just another day on the Sierra High Route.

Looking south from Feather Pass toward La Salle Lake.

Day 11: La Salle Lake to Wahoo Lakes

  • Hours: 8
  • Miles: 11
  • Elevation Gain: 2,543′
  • Elevation Loss: 3,127′
  • Fred’s Strava

A pleasant stroll down an alpine valley. Searching for a trail that doesn’t really exist. Bushwacking uphill. A serene lake. A Poo With a View. Ahh, the SHR life.

On Puppet Pass, looking toward Puppet Lake.

Descending from our canyon and passing the Pine Creek Trail (where we met another south-bound SHR hiker, Laine) we meandered over Puppet Pass (rating: 1) and dropped into the lunar landscape of the Humphrey’s Basin. I spied a sandy beach at Mesa Lake and hopped in. Fred followed suit. Look for Fred’s dramatic entrance, Baywatch-style, in Julie’s video.

Crossing the Piute Pass trail and spending another hour on big talus, we arrived at our final destination, the Wahoo Lakes.

Fred and Julie, crossing Piute Creek. Fred looks so natural, doesn’t he?

Our campsite quickly fell under the shadow of the Glacier Divide, thrusting us into a chilly, oh-my-god-we-must-put-on-all-our-clothers-and-make-dinner-immediately mode—which now gives us a fine opportunity to explore the food, fashion, and some fun facts about our three intrepid high-routers.

Julie McPherson, age 29, is an experienced mountain guide with a penchant for purple. She eats a bowl of Annie’s Mac’n’Cheese every night, prepared soupy-style, accompanied by deep sighs of gratitude and a dash of merkén, her favorite spice from Chile. She sleeps in not one but two sleeping bags.

Julie McPherson, wearing ALL the layers.

Frederic Sabater Pastor, age 26, loves “moving fast in the mountains”—an expression that he stole from someone, somewhere. Every night he eats a bag of flavored cous-cous, prepared with my leftover pasta water, garnished with tuna and sausage chunks. He wears highly contrasting color for fun and functionality, even if those words aren’t alliterative in his home country of Spain. Whenever Fred says “I hate you, Blake” what he really means is “Thank you for presenting this valuable opportunity to me, Blake.”

Frederic Sabater Pastor, sponsored by cous-cous.

Finally, Blake Boles, age 35, sports a baby blue Patagonia Nanopuff (to attract vicious honeybees who think he’s a flower that needs pollinating) and a beanie knitted by his college roommate Jen. He has only eaten one thing for dinner on backpacking trips on the past 10+ years, and that’s a box of Annie’s Mac’n’Cheese, prepared in a zip-loc bag (no mess, no fuss!), with real butter and non-fat dry milk. Throw some spicy tuna in there and it’s even closer to nirvana. He has never tired of this meal.

Yours truly, blissed out on Annie’s.

This night we got into bed at 6:45, no joke. We stayed up till 8 talking and then all passed out. Early bedtimes are the BEST.

Sun’s still up? No problem. Gooooooodnight!

Day 12: Wahoo Lakes to Wanda Lake

  • Hours: 10
  • Miles: 11
  • Elevation Gain: 2,989′
  • Elevation Loss: 3,114′
  • Fred’s Strava

Three words: Snow. Tongue. Pass.

Our friend Roy has spent a lot of time exploring the Sierras. While he’s never done the SHR, when we showed him our route, he was quite familiar with many of our passes.

“Oooh, Snow Tongue Pass? That’s one I never need to go over again.”

Roy’s kind of a badass, and if he says that, then Snow Tongue Pass means business.

And that’s the very first thing we did today.

Fred and Julie, showing off their snow tongues with Snow Tongue Pass (proper) behind them

Yes, this was a “3” pass. While it wasn’t quite as sketch as Sky Pilot Col, none of us felt the need to ever do it again.

Fred and Julie, making legitimate climbing moves to get up Snow Tongue Pass.

Ultimately, we dominated it. Which is to say, we climbed it very slowly and cautiously.

On top of Snow Tongue.
Looking south from Snow Tongue Pass into Evolution Valley.

The next challenge: a straightforward-looking traverse at 11,000′ along Evolution Valley, perhaps only 2 miles, until we reconnected with the JMT and spent the rest of the day on trail.

Fred, ready to traverse. Little does he know that only one of his poles will survive the day.

I don’t want to mince workds: it sucked. This was our least favorite part of the whole Sierra High Route. It was steep, plagued with bushy riparian zones, and by ascending granite slopes that often left us cliffed-out. It took for-ev-er and offered just one nice viewspot of Evolution Valley below. This was when Fred found his misfortune: he fell down, got a deep splinter in his foot, and broke one of his trekking poles.

In summary, this tree represents how we felt about this traverse:

:(

We finally connected to the John Muir Trail—or so we thought—and had lunch at a nice lake. Then while following the trail up-canyon, it kept disappearing… and the lake didn’t look the one on the map… something was wrong.

After some closer map reading and GPS location verifying, we realized that, yup, we were not actually on the John Muir Trail. We were in the Darwin Bench, a side canyon, following light use trails which were definitely NOT the most popular trail in the Sierras.

Twelve days of navigating in the High Sierra, and today we couldn’t even find the frickin’ JMT!

Finding our way out of the Darwin Bench.

Quick story + advice for SHR hikers:

When we did find the JMT proper, met yet another northbound SHR hiker—Austin—who told us that he wouldn’t be going over Snow Tongue Pass at all. 

“Wait, how is that possible? Are you diverting on trail?” I thought he might be wimping out and just taking the John Muir Trail and Piute Pass Trail to avoid Snow Tongue.

But no, he wasn’t being wimpy. He was being smart. His plan was to take an alternate route to the Piute Pass area, by going over… wait for it… Darwin Bench! Apparently there’s a mellow pass that completely avoids that hellacious traverse AND takes you through beautiful Darwin Bench

And who told him about this magical alternative? Steve Roper, in the SHR guidebook.

Hmm, maybe we should have read that guidebook after all.

Fellow SHR hikers—whether northbound or southbound—we recommend that you seriously consider this alternative (via Goethe Lake / Alpine Col / upper Darwin Bench). Not because Snow Tongue Pass is so terrible, but rather, because that traverse sucks so much.

Ok, back to the JMT. While all of us were feeling trail-weary, walking on the JMT through Evolution Basin was a true pleasure. It’s a gorgeous canyon, perhaps the highlight of the entire John Muir Trail.

Julie in Evolution Basin.

We spent the night on a granite slab overlooking Wanda Lake, a mile and a half below Muir Pass, 11,426′ above sea level.

Julie at Wanda Lake.

Day 13: Wanda Lake to Dusy Basin

  • Hours: 9
  • Miles: 12
  • Elevation Gain: 3,081′
  • Elevation Loss: 3,527′
  • Fred’s Strava

Let’s talk about shoes.

The Sierra High Route eats shoes for breakfast—with a a touch of talus and a sprinkling of scree.

See that missing lug? It wasn’t missing before the SHR. This may be why I slipped and hurt my knee.

For someone with wide feet, the SHR is especially unforgiving. Both my shoes developed big holes on the side: great for letting in dust, pebbles, curious rodents, and other miscellanea.

Whatever, they still worked.

Fortunately, we spent most of the day on trail. No fancy (or highly functional) shoes required.

Julie, power-hiking up the JMT toward Muir Pass.

We stepped inside the iconic Muir Hut which sported a fancy new plaque.

Oooooh, Italian design.

Proof that magic exists:

As we descended from Muir Pass, a group of people who seemed to be day-hiking (unusual at that elevation) passed us, and the guy in front yelled something about “y’all missing tacos.” He had a shirt  that said “Señor Muir’s Taco Hut” with a picture of John Muir wearing a sombrero. Weird, I thought. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

The logo on the t-shirt. What could it mean??

A little farther down the trail, I saw a guy sporting a Pacific Crest Trail hat. I asked if he was thru-hiking, and he said no, he’s part of the taco crew. Wait, what?!?

Then we learned the Great Truth: THIS IS A GROUP OF PEOPLE GOING TO THE MUIR HUT TO SERVE HOT TACOS AND COLD BEERS TO HIKERS, FOR FREE.

This group of friends has done this at various locations on the JMT, once a year in August, ever year since 2014 (proofFacebook page). 

Ho-ly crap.

It was 10:30am. They were going to start serving at 11:00am. We had already passed the Muir Hut. We’d missed it!

Actually, we hadn’t. Jeff—the guy in the PCT hat—was also carrying a bunch of the beer. He gave one to me and Julie, and he gave Fred (who doesn’t drink) a ripe avocado.

Jeff, with an incredulous Julie.

It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Thank you, Jeff, and the entire crew of Señor Muir’s Taco Hut.

Hiking downhill at 11am and 11,000′ elevation with a buzz (that’s a first!), we met Alana, a JMT hiker and traveling nurse who accompanied us for many miles. She also got a beer. We were all in a great mood.

Rock monsters love beer-filled hiker treats. Photo by Alana.

Down in Le Conte Canyon, we relaxed at the ranger station, where no ranger was present.

Thanks for the furniture, National Park Service!

Thankfully the ranger had left this hilarious (and accurate) description of how to forecast rain in the Sierras.

So true.

We turned left at the Bishop Pass Trail, ascended 2000′ of hot, late afternoon elevation, and poked around the Dusy Basin till we found a nice lake. Fred and I jumped in, and we called it home for the evening.

Day 14: Dusy Basin to Mt. Agassiz to Bishop

  • Hours: 7
  • Miles: 8
  • Elevation Gain: 2,769′
  • Elevation Loss: 4,547′
  • Fred’s Strava

“Why didn’t you do the entire Sierra High Route?”

The SHR doesn’t stop here, at Bishop Pass—it keeps going another 40 miles to Road’s End in King’s Canyon National Park, on the west side of the Sierras. So why didn’t we do the whole thing? Here’s why:

  1. We didn’t have enough time. We had enough food for two additional days, but that wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere. Bishop was the logical place to exit. Julie’s car was stashed there, after all.
  2. My knee was hurting. After that accident at Lake Italy, my knee was bothering me when I went downhill, off-trail. (Trail walking was fine.) I didn’t feel like pushing over a few more big off-trail passes in our final days.
  3. The last 30 miles of the SHR look kinda lame. Yes yes, we shouldn’t knock it till we try it. But looking at the overview maps, it seemed like we’d done the most interesting parts of the SHR. The final 30 miles appeared to have a lot of trail and not much high-elevation granitic goodness.
  4. The Southern Sierra High Route exists. As described by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson, the Southern Sierra High Route addresses the above problem (#3) by extending the off-trail, high-elevation ethos of the SHR from Bishop Pass down to Mount Whitney and Cottonwood Pass. It feels like a more fitting way to end the SHR, and while we didn’t have time to do it this trip, we’ve set ourselves up perfectly to “resume” our hike with the SoSHR here at Bishop Pass in the future.
  5. Whatever whatever, we do what we want. We’re not doing this hike to impress anyone. Who cares if we don’t do everything as some dude laid it out? No one cares.
  6. Julie mentioned burgers and hot springs. “If we hike out today, we can eat burgers in Mammoth tonight and camp by a hot spring.” If we’re being honest, this is what motivated the final decision.

So instead, we climbed a mountain.

Mount Agassiz is a 13,893′ peak adjacent to Bishop Pass—almost a fourteener—with a simple class 2/3 approach. We thought it would make a great final challenge on our last day, and we were right.

On top of Mount Agassiz.

W summited that bad boy in record time.

It’s granite all the way down.

It was essentially boulder-hopping and mini-rock-climbing moves the whole way up and down. Fun! My ankle didn’t mind.

“We just did that!”

We descended Bishop Pass—passing a grisly scene with 20+ decomposing deer (write me if you know what happened)—and soon found ourselves in the South Lake Trailhead parking lot, 5 minutes after the last public bus departed, looking for rides into town.

Julie got a ride. Fred got a ride. And I… didn’t. (Apparently I’m the stinky one.) This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

While waiting around the parking lot and asking every person for a ride, I met a late-twenties couple who had also climbed Mount Agassiz today. One was from southern California, the other from northern California. I asked them if they met here in the “middle” to hike every year. They said, well, sort of: We just finished a 10-day thing.

Intrigued, I asked, “What kind of 10-day thing?”

The woman threw me a t-shirt from her car. On the top it said “2018 Sierra Challenge.” It listed 10 peaks, a date range of 10 days, and a total mileage of ~150 miles and vertical change of ~55,000′. WTF if this?!?

Apparently these two badasses—and about 40 other people—had climbed 10 high, remote High Sierra peaks in 10 consecutive days this August (non-technical climbing / no gear required.) And this happens every summer. It’s called the Sierra Challenge, organized by this guy Bob Burd. It’s free, mostly noncompetitive, and essentially just a bunch of a burly lunatics who meet up to slay peaks every summer. SO COOL.

Even if I never do this, I’m so glad that it exists. What a world we live in.

I finally got a ride with Shin, a friend of the young couple, and met Fred and Julie in Bishop. We drove to Mammoth, feasted on salad and burgers at Mammoth Brewing Company, retrieved my car at Twin Lakes, stealth camped near a river (no hot springs, alas—it was already 10:00pm, way past our bedtime!). The next morning I bathed naked in the river at 6am, we grabbed breakfast in Bridgeport, and we went our separate ways: Julie to the Northwest, Fred and myself to Tahoe.

Thus ended our Sierra High Route. What an adventure.

Goodbye, shoes!