Last year my friend Elijah and I thru-hiked the Sierra High Route (SHR), which was, as for many others, the trip of a lifetime. Since I’m leaving to NY this year for grad school, I was wanting to get back in the Sierras for one last adventure. After much reading and debate over different routes, Elijah and I couldn’t think of a better follow-up than Dixon/Wilson’s Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR).
I made a video recapping the experience and posted it to youtube:
The concept behind the SoSHR is awesome: finish the highest and finest 100 miles of crest stretching from the northernmost 14ers, in the Palisades, to the southernmost 14er, Mt. Langley, that the SHR neglects, while staying true to the spirit and vision of Roper’s original concept. Plus I’m a huge fan of Alan Dixon. He puts forth incredibly high quality route ideas and info all things backpacking, and he’s super kind as well.
The SoSHR is stunning cross country travel. We found a minimum of the obnoxious elements of off-trail high routes–willow-whacking, difficult navigation and boulder-hopping–making it exceptionally pleasurable. On the other hand, we found the exposure on the Russell-Carillon Col and the “Final 400” on the mountaineer’s route on Whitney much realer than any of the exposure on Roper’s original. While the climbing is not difficult, a fall looked like it would likely be fatal. While it is only half as long as the SHR, thus not giving quite the same scope of grandeur, mile for mile it absolutely is on par. It has only one shortcoming, which is one very long section on the JMT for 36.9 miles. While this section of JMT goes through some truly amazing stuff (Upper Basin, Pinchot Pass, Rae Lakes, Glenn Pass, Vidette Meadows), it includes a lot of low elevation terrain–heavy forest, dusty, hot, mosquitoes, and lots of people. However, there’s an idea, called the “Acrodectes Route,” that would avoid the lowest point of the route (dubbed “Woods Hole”) and neatly break up the and minimize this length of JMT hiking. As of this writing, the Acrodectes connection (to Baxter Lakes via Grasshopper Pass) has not been successfully attempted, however, there is a group that will be making an extremely promising attempt on the Acrodectes connect within the next week or so. If they can successfully complete it, confirming it as the best route option, then the SoSHR will truly be perfect. Sadly with our time constraints (I had to be back on July 3), I didn’t want to risk potentially being turned around by any unexpected or wild card conditions, so we decided to power through the low point. I can’t wait to hear what happens with the current attempt on Acrodectes Route. However, even as it stands, it’s the one blemish connecting what is otherwise some of the best, most elegant and awe-inspiring cross country travel in the Sierras: traversing the Palisades at the north end, then in the southern half, what may be my favorite stretch of backpacking, an exceedingly elegant route line from Center Basin, Shepard Pass, Wright Lakes Basin, Wallace Lake, Lake Tulainyo, and then Whitney via the mountaineer’s route. South of Whitney, the terrain between Upper Crabtree Lake and Sky Blue Lake is also incredible.
Day 1 – 7 miles
We parked at the McDonald’s in Lone Pine. Then we caught the morning Eastern Sierra Transit Authority up to Bishop. Luckily, we had a buddy in Bishop who drove us up to the South Lake TH. We got started late in the morning. Bishop Pass trail was pretty snowy, and we lost the trail a few times. After reaching Bishop Pass at 12k feet, we started our way into Dusy Basin. Unfortunately, on the way down from pass I got smacked by altitude sickness and had to sit down for an hour to keep from fainting. After it subsided we pressed into the gorgeous Dusy Basin.
We were hoping to get all the way to the base of Mt Sill that night. But we decided it was wisest to camp low in Dusy Basin and not over-exert ourselves. I was still feeling like crap and Elijah had started feeling it too. On the plus side, it’s hard to find a more beautiful place than Dusy Basin for a campsite.
Day 2 – 13.2 miles
We were stoked to see this section of the Palisades again. Might be the most amazing, rugged place I’ve seen in the Sierras. Knapsack Pass, Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass all still held lots and lots of snow.
Given our setback from the altitude sickness and the copious snow, and the fact that we had no ice axes, we decided it would be unwise to push for the summit of Mt. Sill. I’ve been wanting to climb it since I was there last year, so I was super disappointed. Can’t wait to come back again.
We savored the Palisades every bit as much as last year. We even came across a dude named Woolrich, soloing the SHR, and he said he really dug our SHR video from last year. Awesome guy.
We had hoped to get over Mather Pass that night and into Upper Basin, however we had another setback–a massive late afternoon thunderstorm rolled when reached Lower Palisade Lake, dumping massive amounts of rain. So we pitched the tarp and called it a night.
Day 3 – 20.7 miles
This marked the beginning of the long 37 mi slog on the JMT for two days–the central section of the SoSHR which does not feel high-routeish but is still beautiful. Mather Pass held late season snow. Upper Basin was beautiful.
Dropping down into the valley before Pinchot Pass was kinda sucky–super dusty, lots of mosquitoes. However we met an awesome ranger who was stoked about the route. The terrain going up to Pinchot Pass was incredible–amazing granite surrounding amazing lakes.
Then perhaps the dullest part of the trip was the approx. 7 mile descent through forest to the low-point of the route, what Alan dubs “Woods Hole”. We slept with about two dozen PCTers that night.
Day 4 – 19.1 miles
A few miles of climbing back out of the forest before reaching the glorious Rae Lakes. Then pushed on up to Glenn Pass, which held lots of late season snow, and has some of the best views available from a pass.
Dropped down past some soulful tarns, before another long dusty, hot, oppressive foresty section dropping down a long ways into Lower Vidette Meadows. Some amazing views on the way down though.
Started climbing back out of the forest to Upper Vidette Meadow. At this point we finally left the JMT–yay! Here you have to keep an extremely sharp eye to catch the almost non-existent signs of the decommissioned Old JMT. The route description is on point though. Alan mentions that they missed it on their hike, but we got lucky and Elijah found it. After a finally climb through the forest, you emerge at the base of the magnificent Center Peak.
We slept at “sublime” Golden Bear Lake in the Center Basin. Was definitely sublime. Exceptional level of solitude as well.
Day 5 – 10.7 miles
Following the Old JMT here was a lot of fun. The climb up to Junction Pass was beautiful–still amazing sense of solitude. At the top of Junction Pass we began our descent of what Alan describes as the crappiest, most obnoxious section of scree-sliding, talus-slogging and boulder-hopping. Lucky for us, after only a few hundred feet of scree-sliding we hit solid snowfields which transformed the worst bit of terrain into some of the fun glissading and butt-tobogganing–we had a blast all the way down to the base Shepherd Pass. Shepherd Pass was steep and hot. Also at the very top we had to contour along an incredibly steep and treacherous snow-tongue. It was definitely hair-raising and unenjoyable. The other side of Shepherd Pass, on the other hand, is breathtaking with its easy rolling meadow strolling, granite, burbling creeks and excellent views of western sierra divides.
Then we strolled the short bit up to Wright Lakes Pass and were greeted by yet more breathtaking views and, as Alan describes it, some of the most pleasant high basin meadow strolling imaginable. Heavenly.
We slept in Wright Lakes Basin with an insanely gorgeous sunset, not having seen a single person all day.
Day 6 – 10.3 miles
We had to punch through some forest and bogs for the first couple hours of the day up to Wallace Lake, but it wasn’t bad at all, and didn’t involve any willow-whacking. After Wallace Lake, We began the first bit of climbing to get over the Russell Carillon Col. Getting over this section of headwall was a fun challenge and was very reminiscent of going up the steep boulders to Frozen Lake Pass. After some sublime alpine meadow walking, we arrived at the other-worldly Lake Tulainyo.
The lake was almost completely frozen over and its banks were totally encapsulated by a massive snowfield. However, luckily Russell-Carillon Col itself was totally snow-free. The Russell-Carillon Col was also a fun challenge. The upper half of it is super steep, but super slabby, so you get to do some fun bouldering. I would liken it to the south-facing side of Potluck Pass, but even steeper with even more exposure. At the Col, we had time to kill so we decided to detour up to Mt. Russell. We got up to the easternmost ridge, but decided not push all the way to the the true summit (western ridge) because the exposure was just too much for the type of footwear we had, and there were some hulking cumulus towers surrounding it. We scrambled back down and then began the massive scree slide all the way down to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Here we were dismayed to find a troop of people camped out–people doing the mountaineer’s route with a guide company. So we decided to begin our climb upwards. We got up a few hundred feet and then stopped at some seeps in the rocks below the steep headwalls leading up to Iceberg Lake.
While it wasn’t the most comfortable bivy site, we were treated to one of the coolest things I’ll ever experience–a prime view of Whitney with the sunset, then the starlight and milky way behind it at night, then watching the sun rise on it the next morning–all from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
Day 7 – 24 miles
I can’t say enough about how much fun it is to do the the Mountaineer’s Route. There was a really steep snow-tongue in the main gully of the Mountaineer’s Route, so we opted to scramble over the slabs to the viewer’s left of the main gully. Climbing up these slabs all the way up to the Final 400 was insanely fun, exposure was not bad, and it left us very minimal scree-sliding to do.
When we reached the notch, the Final 400 was snow-free. But unfortunately, worse than snow, the main section of was totally iced over. We had microspikes, however, the ice was so incredibly slick and hard that we decided it would be safer to just avoid it altogether. The only portion that was ice-free, were the steep rocks and slabs on the viewer’s left. This climbing was steeper and more challenging. It was fun, but the combination of the ice and the very serious exposure here kept us feeling pretty sober. We reached the summit at about 10am and greeted the growing throng of day hikers and thru-hikers.
Since I had to get back and Elijah wanted a burger, we decided to charge the remaining 22 miles and hope to hitch a ride back to Lone Pine. After a short jaunt on the Whitney trail, we struck off again and headed back over the crest. After sliding down scree to the breathtaking Upper Crabtree Lake, we pressed up the enjoyable, low-level slabs of Crabtree Pass.
Alan describes the navigation of this section as challenging, however we found the copious, gnarled, easy walking-level slabs between here and Sky Blue Lake to be a lot of fun and dotted with surreal blue lakes. The Rock Creek valley was gorgeous at first, but eventually we hit the trail and it was dusty, forested and hot and by the point we were ready to just plow over New Army Pass and the final 11 miles of trail section between us and trailhead. We finished at 6 pm, and luckily we immediately caught a hitchhike back to our car with a super awesome standup guy.