Some Questions and Answers
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- What is the Sierra High Route and where does it go? The SHR is a most cross country hiking route through the Sierra Nevada of California, stretching between Road's End in Kings Canyon National Park in the south, to Twin Lakes, just outside the northeastern boundary of Yosemite National Park in the north. Roughly speaking the SHR is a higher altitude, wilder, much harder version of the John Muir Trail. The SHR is usually within ten crow miles of the JMT, but passes through even more beautiful terrain and sees very few visitors. The SHR was pieced together by Steve Roper, probably based upon his own travels and linking up with well known cross country routes in the Sierra Nevada.
- How much of it did you hike? We trekked the first section, from Roads End to Dusy Basin, completely. We also competed the fourth section, mostly, from Devil's Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows, though we had to take a very extensive detour due to high water after a heavy storm.
- What guidebooks are there? Basically, you have only one option: The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country by Steve Roper. The book includes a lot of information on the history and exploration of the Sierra Nevada, as well as extensive geological details and natural history. The route finding information in the guidebook is mostly clear, though there are sections that seemed muddled until we actually got through the physical parts of them.
- What maps are there? The guidebook includes topographic maps suitable for navigating the route. However, you would be very foolish to carry only these maps with you. Bring some large scale overview maps as well (I'd recommend the ones by Tom Harrison over the National Geographic ones) so that if you need to escape or change routes, you can do so effectively.
- How long is the SHR? According to Roper, the SHR is about 196 miles long, though I suspect this is more of a guess than anything else as I don't see how he could possibly measure it accurately, especially given the off trail nature of the SHR. I'd estimate that we hiked about 150 miles.
How many people thruhike the SHR each year? It seems that less than 10 people a year complete the route, or hike a substantial portion of it. I know of only two other people who attempted the route in 2006.
- How hard is it to follow the route? Pretty tough, but not outrageous. We had to look at maps and the terrain fairly constantly. This meant that we were traveling at, perhaps, 1 mile per hour. Contrast that with a 3 mph pace on something like the JMT (yes, we're in shape). Combining the guidebook, maps, a compass, and some common sense, the SHR can be followed effectively. Just don't expect to do it quickly. The SHR is harder to follow, for example, than the Great Divide Trail.
- What is the season for hiking? This is really hard to answer, because it depends on the particular snow year and what sort of ground you prefer to travel on. 2006 was a big snow year in the Sierra Nevada, but we found that an extended hot streak melted much snow by the time we got into the mountains on July 12. With exceptions made for aspect and location, snow level was roughly 10,500 ft. The south sides of passes had less snow and the north sides had more snow. The snow, however, was solid and we never really postholed. This made for easy descents off of passes instead of having to deal with steep scree and talus. Later in the season the much of the snow would be gone, making travel more complicated. The temperatures are perfect at this time of year, whereas in September they could be much colder. One downside of travel in July is the presence of huge swarms of mosquitoes. These should be mostly gone by mid August and certainly non-existent in September.
- What kind of permits do I need? This is easy. You need a single permit from whatever land management agency holds the trailhead you'll be starting at. For us, this meant Kings Canyon National Park. For $15, you can reserve a permit, or just show up the day of your trip. Trailheads have quotas for the number of people that can start at them on any given day. Once you are in, you can stay in as long as you want (with a few exceptions for areas not on the SHR). On the permit you are supposed to list campsites, but this section has no meaning: The rangers just want an idea of where you might be camping.
- What about bears? We saw one pile of bearscat and no other bear sign. In fact, we saw more mountain lion sign than we did bear sign. So, don't cook where you sleep and don't worry too much.
- What about bear canisters? We had heard that rangers were going to be out in force to make sure that people had canisters and so we opted to take some along with us. However, we didn't see any rangers except in the front country. The regulations seem to vary within each land management agency depending on where you get your information. For example, on the KCNP website it indicates that hanging food is acceptable under certain circumstances. However, the ranger station where we got our permit said canisters were required. If I were to hike again, I'd probably bring the canister again just to be on the safe side. Not from bears, but from the rangers. What a sad statement.
- What about the fords? In general they are pretty easy and most can be crossed via boulders or down trees. However, be aware that the ford of the outlet of Twin Island Lake can be difficult. Roper describes it as slow and 3 feet deep. However, it was more like 4.5 feet deep and freezing cold. It was not fun and most definitely was difficult. Later in the season it might be a lot easier. If you are at all worried, drop all the way down into the valley below Twin Island Lakes and climb up to the southern most of the two lakes. Coming down from Glacier Pass, you'll eventually hit a climbers trail and if you follow it, this is what you'll end up doing.
- What was dangerous? I thought Frozen Lake Pass was excessively dangerous, but there are not too many other options in the area. I have no intentions of ever going over it again. Based on my experience there and the route description, I would bypass Snow Tongue Pass. Ishmael and Birdie described a very dangerous pass toward the end of the leg between Tuolumne and Twin Lakes. Other than these passes, most of the SHR isn't super dangerous if you are careful and take your time. However, the land is very remote and help is far away. So, minor problems can become major ones very quickly. Rockfall caused by others in your party can be a serious issue, though it can be mitigated by spreading out on descents.
- How do I get to the southern terminus? Good luck. There isn't any public transit that will get you even close to Roads End and a private shuttle will cost a ton. Be creative here. Or, try hiking in from the east side. There are a lot of trails coming in from trailheads accessible from US 395 to get you to Roads End. For example, Kearsarge Pass. This will add a couple of days onto the first leg, however. You can fly into Ridgecrest and catch the CREST bus up to various towns and then hitch to a trailhead. This is how I had originally planned to get to Road's End before Birdie's sister agreed to give us a lift.
- How do I get to the northern terminus? This is a lot easier: Fly into Reno and catch a CREST bus heading south to Bridgeport. Then, hitch from Bridgeport up to Twin Lakes. However, most people will be wanting to get out of Twin Lakes instead of to it.
- What are the resupply options? From Roads End it is about 5 days to Dusy Basin, where you can take a trail over Bishop Pass and down to a trailhead, from which you can hitch down to the inferno of Bishop, which is a full service town. However, getting back up can be a challenge. If I were to do it again, I would skip Bishop and hike the SHR (with some modifications) down through Second Recess to Mono Creek, and take a trail down to Lake Edison. From Lake Edison, catch a boat (twice a day) or hike to Vermillion Valley Resort. Sure, you'll spend a lot of money there, but I think it is worth it. You can either mail yourself a resupply box or buy food there (which is what I'd do). After VVR, you'll soon hit Devil's Postpile. You can try to resupply out of the store at Reds Meadow (which the SHR passes), or catch a shuttle bus ($7 each way) down into the city of Mammoth Lakes. I'd take this second option. Although there is loads of housing in Mammoth, expect it to be expensive. But, there is a National Forest campground right in town, plenty of supermarkets, and a ton of good places to eat. From Devils Postpile, it is another 5 days or so to Tuolumne Meadows, where you can resupply out of the campstore for the remaining 3 days to Twin Lakes.
- What is CREST? Carson Ridgecrest Eastern Sierra Transit.
- Why didn't you hike all of the SHR? Basically, time and desire. We realized soon on that we couldn't really complete the entire SHR with the time that we had available. After we failed to get a ride up from Bishop back to the route, we took the easy way out and took buses to Devil's Postpile, where we could easily get back on.
- What is class 1/2/3/4/5 terrain? Class 1 terrain is basically a trail, or cross country hiking where you can mostly keep your hands in your pockets. You can daydream all you like on class 1 terrain. Class 2 means you'll need to watch where you put your feet and occasionally use your hands for balance. You'll need to think about what your body is doing, but most people can do class 2 stuff without too much issue, at least if the area isn't too exposed. Class 3 is hard scrambling, where you'll be using your hands and feet a lot and having to think about where to go. Class 4 scrambling is just like class 3, except that if you make a mistake, you'll either die or wish you had. Class 5 terrain is pure rock climbing. You won't do much of this on the SHR unless you get way off route. However, we had, perhaps, two class 5 sections, both of which were less than 8 feet high.
- What kind of gear did you use? Standard ultralight stuff with some provisions for the remoteness of the route. So, basically check out my gear list from the Great Divide Trail. Some of the gear I used is different, but the spirit is the same. Remember that gear does not get you over a pass. Instead, you have to haul it over. However, here are a few more details.
- Boots, not shoes. I wore light hiking boots and would do so again. Ishmael used hiking shoes (not trailrunners) and did just fine, however. Basically, you are not going to be putting up high mileage days and won't be on much trail, so the advantages of runners are far outweighed by their disadvantages.
- Bring an ice axe. I used my axe almost daily and could not have done the trip without it. Know how to use your axe before you set out. You don't need a standard mountaineering axe, though. I used the same ultralight CAMP XLA210 axe that I used on the PCT. It weighs about 10 oz.
- Consider crampons. Though none of us had them, they would have been useful in several settings and would have kept us from putting in long days to get around snow that would be frozen hard in the morning. In general, the sun needs about 30 minutes to turn concrete snow into something traversable. However, in some places this might not happen until the afternoon. I wouldn't bother with something like Yak Trax, but something like instep crampons might work well and do not weigh too much.
- Don't bother with a GPS. The route isn't marked on the maps supplied by Roper, and there are no GPS waypoints to use. Ishmael would have liked to have a GPS and waypoints, but I don't think they would have made life that much easier. It might speed things up a bit, but mostly navigating was done quite effectively just using the map, a compass, our eyes, and taking plenty of time.
- What kind of camera did you use? I used a Nikon D70 with a 2 GB compact flash card and a Nikon 28-105 lens. I took about 400 pictures and didn't fill the card or even come close to running out of battery power.
- What are the three rules of thruhiking that you keep mentioning? If you're not having a good time, you're doing something wrong. Never leave good trail for bad. Only a fool leaves a dry place. After the trip I'd add a special one for the SHR: Things always look worse from far away. These are my own rules and others have their own. However, I especially like mine as they apply equally to life in civil society if you expand the meanings of some of the words.
- Where are some good places to eat? Amigos in Bishop offers some of the best Mexican food that I've ever had. I used to think Mexican food rated just above McDonalds in quality, but this place completely changed my mind on the matter Earl's, also in Bishop, is a good spot to gorge for breakfast. A woman at a table next to ours ordered a cinnamon roll that turned out to be approximately 1 foot square. This is not an exaggeration. In Mammoth, try The Breakfast Place, right across from the campground. Very, very good omelets. If you are in Lee Vining, you absolutely have to stop in at the Mobil Station, which houses an excellent restaurant. Skeptical? The fish tacos, complete with mango salsa, were out of this world. Try the mango margarita as well. I'd have also tried the lobster taquitos and the seared ahi, but didn't have room after the tacos. That should tell you something about their size and quality.
- Who is this La Flaca character? I'm not saying anything else about her, but La Flaca can be interpreted as meaning, "The Skinny One", a nickname she picked up in Arizona because her south-of-the-border co-workers had difficulty pronouncing her real name.