For the last two years I had planned to backpack the complete Sierra High Route. I had read the Roper book, visualized his descriptions along the Skurka maps and day-dreamed quite often at my desk about being out there.
This year I finally managed to take the two weeks off (from my family) that I figured it would take me to complete the Sierra High Route. But first I went with my family on the John Muir Trail so they would still remember the beauty of the High Sierra and in their thoughts be out there with me and be happy for me instead of being upset that I’m gone. During the trip I carried a DeLorme inReach that was sending tracking points every 10 minutes. That allowed my family to follow me “real-time” on topo map and aerial view. They enjoyed that tremendously. At the same time it allowed me to exchange messages with my wife and for example ask for the local weather report for the current and next day at my specific location – for example this one for the area near Izaac Walton Lake and Cotton Lake.
Right before I went with my wife and my daughters on the JMT, I stumbled on BPL across two different posts from Andrew Fahrland in which he made references about going on the SHR at the end of the summer. My wife had met him and his wife during GGG IV at Henry Coe and suggested I contact him when I mentioned his posts to her. She had been all the time a little nervous about me going solo on the SHR and thought it would be a good idea to team up with someone. I contacted him, we emailed and we met for lunch. It turned out his plans were not as firm as mine – I had my permit, my food re-supply was packed – ready to be mailed on my return from the JMT, and my itinerary was all worked out. Andrew and I discussed our individual backpacking styles, our gear choices and base weights, our experience out there in the High Sierra and in the end we decided to go together. It turned out to be one of the best decisions – besides the decision to go on the SHR. Going together provided additional safety, companionship and support that enhanced the trip tremendously.
Here are now several photos from our trip. It took us exactly 12 days (from 4 pm the first day to 4 pm the last day) to complete the Sierra High Route from Roads End to Twin Lakes. The following short day-by-day descriptions with photos will hopefully provide a good insight into the experience we had.
Day 1 – Roads End to Grouse Lake – Distance: 9.5 miles, Ascent: 5,546 ft, Descent: 194 ft
We barely made it to the ranger station before it closed at 3 pm. Right when we arrived we saw a black bear in the parking lot. After dealing with all the paper work we packed our backpacks and I said good-bye to my wife who brought us out there. Before she left we weighed our packs. With all the food and fuel for the next 8 days plus 1 l of water my ZPacks Exo weighed 26.2 lbs. Andrew’s ULA Circuit weighed 28.6 lbs.
We knew we have to climb over 5,000 ft to reach Grouse Lake and that we would have to hike in the night to get up there. The alternative would be to stay at Lower Tent Meadow the first night. We kept our options open and just started hiking. It is almost all on trail and easy going. When we reached Lower Tent Meadow around 6 pm we met two other hikers who already set up tents. We refilled our water bottles and decided to keep going. It was nice and cool in the evening – perfect temperature to climb up all this way. We had full moon that night
and didn’t even need head lamps to keep hiking in the dark. We reached Grouse Lake after 5 hours of hiking and basically went to bed right away. The night was pretty cold – temperatures dropped down to 21 F – and our water bottles were frozen solid the next morning. I’m so glad I brought my WM UltraLite sleeping bag on this trip instead of the WM SummerLite that I used just before on the JMT. Andrew’s Katabatic Alsec quilt also handles those temperatures well.
Day 2 – Grouse Lake to Marion Lake – Distance: 15.6 miles, Ascent: 5,014 ft, Descent: 4,842 ft
Waking up to frozen water bottles was a surprise, but we are still well rested and can finally see Grouse Lake in all its beauty.
This is a great start and we are looking forward to the rest of the Sierra High Route. The second day would be a day of many passes. We cross Grouse Pass, Goat Crest Saddle, Gray Pass, White Pass and Red Pass while passing Glacier Lakes, State Lakes and Horseshoe Lakes before finally reaching Marion Lake. I was still recovering from a stomach flu I got the week before and was still finishing the final doses of medication for several days. I felt pretty weak on this day and I’m extremely glad Andrew was with me. He literally pulled me over the last three passes. Especially going up to White Pass seemed to be endless to me on that day. I was relieved when I finally walked down to Marion Lake and pulled out my Tenkara pole to fish trout for dinner.
Day 3 – Marion Lake to Lake below Potluck Pass – Distance: 13.4 miles, Ascent: 4,891 ft, Descent: 3,612 ft
I feel completely rested the next day. I guess I have to thank my wife that she convinced me to switch out my old ¾ Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest for a full length Therm-a-Rest XLite. I tried it on the JMT and told her I would take it on the SHR if it wouldn’t develop a leak or even pop on the JMT. It didn’t, so I took it along on the SHR – as did Andrew. This air mattress provided both of us with so much better sleep and made it possible that we would start every day well rested.
We had a wonderful morning hiking through Lake Basin.
Going up Frozen Lake Pass was fun – it was our first “serious” pass. Going down to the little lakes below made us test our skills on talus.
Once down there we saw plenty of wildlife - a huge rabbit, two majestic 8-pointer bucks and a peregrine falcon. We could get within arm’s reach of the rabbit
and had the feeling we could have it for dinner if we seriously tried – instead I fished again trout for dinner at the Lower Palisade Lake after we crossed Mather Pass and before we went up over Cirque Pass to our final destination where we enjoyed the magic light around sunset.
Day 4 – Lake below Potluck Pass to Wanda Lake – Distance: 18.9 miles, Ascent: 4,885 ft, Descent: 4,893 ft
This was another beautiful day. We climbed over Potluck Pass into Palisade Basin
and over Knapsack Pass into Dusy Basin.
Both basins are stunningly beautiful. During our lunch break in Dusy Basin I caught again some trout for dinner. We could also have caught Ptarmigans which we encountered almost daily during our trek through the Sierra – and they would always stay perfectly still until you were in arm’s reach.
Seeing my daily trout dinner Andrew slowly started to suspect that carrying a 2.7 oz Tenkara pole might really be worth its weight. Getting the extra fresh protein every night for dinner helps my muscles recover and I need to carry less food that way.
Hiking down the Bishop Pass trail we came by a huge “waterslide” and amazing trees. When we reached the JMT, we had a conversation with ranger George who had positioned himself right before the intersection and checked every backpacker coming down Bishop Pass Trail. Now we followed the JMT over Muir Pass to Wanda Lake where we stayed for the night. On the way we had to pass the hiker-eating rock monster. Andrew got snatched but was strong enough to pry its jaws open and escape. So watch out if you ever intend to go on the Sierra High Route – it is dangerous out there …
Day 5 – Wanda Lake to Mesa Lake – Distance: 15 miles, Ascent: 3,005 ft, Descent: 3,091 ft
After hiking down from Wanda Lake to Evolution Lake
where I took a bath, we left the JMT again and went cross-country with great views of Evolution Valley.
The hike to the lake below Snow-Tongue Pass was very enjoyable. Going down on the other side of Snow-Tongue Pass was a completely different story. First we had to deal with steep loose sandy scree. Then we had to deal with endless talus through the Wahoo Lakes. We went slow and careful and reached soon enough Piute Creek where we met 80 year old Ruben. He was out there for 13 days, hiking with a full backpack. I hope I will be able to that too once I reach that age.
We continued to Mesa Lake where we enjoyed our own little beach and a gorgeous sunset.
Day 6 – Mesa Lake to Tarn below Gabbot Pass – Distance: 15.4 miles, Ascent: 4,520 ft, Descent: 4,123 ft
Going over Puppet Pass was gorgeous
the lakes below like Puppet Lake and Elba Lake are so beautiful. We went down to French Canyon and walked up to Merriam Lake enjoying the scenery. Climbing over Feather Pass provided us with a great view of several Bear Lakes.
White Bear Pass was a little tricky on the way down, but provided us with a view of the other beautiful Bear Lakes. Teddy Bear Lake was wonderful.
We continued around Lake Italy and past Toe Lake up to the little tarn below Gabbot Pass. As it started to rain lightly we decided to set up camp there and actually use our tents - normally we would just cowboy camp and not set up tents.
Day 7 – Tarn below Gabbot Pass to Tully Hole – Distance: 17.3 miles, Ascent: 4,027 ft, Descent: 6,347 ft
The morning provided us with a spectacular sunrise through the clouds that were hanging between the mountains over the pass. It seemed almost like the sky was on fire.
We waited a little bit for the clouds to clear before climbing over Gabbot Pass. Lower Mills Creek Lake was a great resting place before climbing down into the Second Recess.
This is a wonderful area which I might revisit with my wife on a future trip.
From the Second Recess we climbed down to Mono Creek and then all the way up to Laurel Lake.
From there we went over Big Horn Pass and had to make a decision how to reach Shout-Of-Relief Pass. Roper says in his book to traverse. Skurka recommends on his map to drop to Rosy Finch Lake and then climb from there to the pass. The talus and cliffs along the traverse didn’t look inviting, so Skurka’s recommendation with an easy ramp down and an easy ramp up was the safe bet. We decided to try both and see what the difference would be. Andrew went down to the lake and I traversed. It turned out that we both reached Shout-Of-Relief Pass around the same time. The traverse was as described in Ropers book and posed no problem as long as one always climbed up to get around cliffs. It saved all the additional climb, but it was slow going – so the resulting time was the same. The views from Shout-Of-Relief Pass in both directions were great.
We passed Cotton Lake and stopped at Izaak Walton Lake for another bath.
On the way down to Tully Hole we caught our trout for dinner in Fish Creek. The creek really deserves its name :)
Day 8 - Tully Hole to Red’s Meadow – Distance: 19.2 miles, Ascent: 3,937 ft, Descent: 5,803 ft
We climbed from Tully Hole to Lake Virginia,
Purple Lake and then Duck Lake.
From there we went over Duck Pass to Deer Lakes for lunch.
Climbing up the Mammoth Crest provided us with great views to both sides.
With the Ritter Range on one side
and the Crystal Crag on the other.
From here on we went over Mammoth Pass all the way down to Red’s Meadow. This part brought us through lava fields
and the burn area of the 1992 Rainbow Fire
to Red’s Meadow where we enjoyed a hot shower and a huge meal before picking up our re-supply.
Day 9 - Red’s Meadow to Waterfall above Ediza Lake – Distance: 13.5 miles, Ascent: 4,786 ft, Descent: 2,914 ft
From Red’s Meadow we visited first Devil’s Postpile
before climbing for over 3 hours to Superior Lake. There we had freshly caught trout for lunch. We also caught our trout for dinner right away. Andrew is now a Tenkara fan – he enjoys the fresh trout for his meals.
Climbing over Nancy Pass to the Minaret Lakes
provided us with many beautiful views. We continued via Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake which didn’t have any icebergs this year.
Our camp at a little waterfall above Lake Ediza provided for great views of Mt Ritter and Banner Peak on one side
and Lake Ediza on the other side.
Day 10 - Waterfall above Ediza Lake to Blue Lakes – Distance: 12.4 miles, Ascent: 5,237 ft, Descent: 3,989 ft
We left the waterfall
and climbed over Whitebark Pass to see Garnet Lake
After climbing over an unnamed pass we reached Thousand Island Lake
from where we started the long talus climb over North Glacier Pass to Lake Catherine.
It was pretty windy up there and we continued quickly along several waterfalls
and between many wildflowers
to Twin Island Lakes,
where the dreaded fording of the lake turned out to be very easy this year.
We followed Roper’s instructions carefully when doing this section. His descriptions proved to be invaluable and spot on. We continued to a little bench with nice trees where we had lunch and ended our day at Blue Lakes.
Day 11 - Blue Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows – Distance: 23.6 miles, Ascent: 4,491 ft, Descent: 6,414 ft
Our goal for this day was to make it to the grill at Tuolumne Meadows before 6 pm – Andrew couldn’t wait to get a double cheeseburger – being out there in the wilderness for an extended time will do that to you. So we got up an hour earlier than usual. Normally we would start to hike around 7:30 am and stop around 6:30 pm. The climb over Blue Lake Pass in the morning was fun and the views of the lake on the other side were fantastic.
Once we joined the Iceberg Pass Trail hiking was easy and fast. From up there above the Merced River we had great views of Half Dome.
The hiking went through pleasant areas along the Lewis Creek Trail
up over Vogelsang Pass to Vogelsang Lake
At Tuolumne Pass we met a ranger who checked our permits. We asked him for the opening times for store and grill. He told us that the store is still open until 6 pm, but the grill closes at this time of year at 5 pm. It was already 3 pm and we had 8 miles to get to the store – so the ranger told us that we had a fair chance to reach the store in time, but no chance to make it to the grill for cheeseburgers. We set out to prove him otherwise and managed to reach the grill at 4:55 pm. That way I learned that Andrew knows three hiking speeds – normal, power walking and I-need-my-double-cheeseburger. When he ordered the double cheeseburger the person at the cash register informed him that they only accept orders for double burgers until 4:45 pm. You should have seen Andrew’s face … The interesting thing was that they would accept an order for two cheeseburgers, but not for one double cheeseburger – go figure.
Day 12 - Tuolumne Meadows to Shepherd Lake – Distance: 17.5 miles, Ascent: 5,592 ft, Descent: 3,830 ft
After our power hike the day before, we took it easy the next day. Going through Tuolumne Meadows up to Gaylor Lakes
by the Great Sierra Mine
over Mine Shaft Pass by Spuller Lake and Maul Lake to Green Treble Lake.
Approaching Cascade Lake with Steelhead Lake below it, we could see Sky Pilot Col to the right of Shepherd Range and Secret Lake Pass to the left.
We both had read trip reports that described Sky Pilot Col as the most dangerous pass of the whole Sierra High Route. Someone went as far as calling Roper’s description irresponsible. The pass had loose scree on the visible side that Roper described as “offensive” and lots of unstable talus on the other side that Roper said would require “constant attention” at every step. We had discussed our preferences for the last two days and our decision was to travel for half a day separate. Andrew would go over Secret Lake Pass to Upper McCabe Lake.
I would go over Sky Pilot Col to Shepherd Lake. The next day we would meet between 9 and 10 am at Soldier Lake. The climb over Sky Pilot Col was exactly as Roper described it. Nothing was technically difficult, but constant attention was required during the whole segment. Spending the night alone at Shepherd Lake I had time to reflect on how going with Andrew changed the whole trip. I planned it originally as a solo trip and would have gone alone. Sure, I would have managed just fine, but going with him made it so much more enjoyable.
Day 13 - Shepherd Lake to Twin Lakes – Distance: 13.2 miles, Ascent: 3,199 ft, Descent: 6,258 ft
The next morning we both went across beautiful Virginia Canyon
to meet at Soldier Lake at the agreed upon time. Both of us had similar thoughts at night and during the morning. When Andrew arrived 15 minutes after me at Soldier Lake I told him how much I missed his re-assuring snoring during the night. We both laughed and were happy to see each other.
We now climbed over Stanton Pass down to Spiller Creek
from where we climbed over our final pass, Horse Creek Pass.
From there on it was all downhill to the trailhead where a friendly hiker took a photo of both of us together.
He even gave us a ride to Bridgeport, where we took a motel room to take showers have a big dinner and sleep before my wife picked us up in the middle of night to bring us home to the Bay Area.
Summary - Sierra High Route – Distance: 204.5 miles, Ascent: 58,976 ft, Descent: 56,948 ft
How do you summarize such a trip? It was a wonderful experience. The High Sierra is so incredibly beautiful and going across it for over 200 miles from Kings Canyon all the way to Twin Lakes showed us so many great areas that we now have many, many places we would like to revisit with our wives on future trips when we have only a couple of days to spend in the Sierra. I’m extremely glad that I reached out to Andrew shortly before the trip and I’m thankful that he took the risk of going with someone who is 20 years older than him and doesn’t work out at all. It turned out that we complemented each other quite nicely in our skills. Going together was definitely more fun, although I’m sure the Sierra High Route would have been a great experience on a solo trip as well. We backpacked the complete Sierra High Route in exactly 12 days while climbing the equivalent of two Mt. Everest – from sea level to the top – often over talus and scree. I’m sure I will tell my grand children about it more than once when I’m older. Hopefully I will not just talk about it, but be out there with them – like the 80 year old man we met at Piute Creek.