When I tell people I spent last summer hiking something called the Sierra High Route that took me almost 200 miles through the Sierra Nevada without a trail, their first question is almost always: What do you mean without a trail?
It means that in the 70’s a guy named Steve Roper wanted to find a way to travel through the same superb country that the John Muir Trail does without having to share it with (as he calls them) the “multitude of backpackers who prefer well-marked trails.” So he did the scouting and figured out a way to do it. Luckily he decided to share it with the world via his book called Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country. He describes the route in his book in general terms, not extreme detail, hoping to preserve the sense of adventure of cross-country backpacking in letting each hiker take their own variation on the route. This would only get us in trouble once – but that’s a whole other blog post.
And so, on this trip an item that was as essential as our maps, compasses and GPS units were notes from Roper’s book. Rich had a PDF version on his phone, but Karen’s shrunken down version of only the essential pages became our bible. Multiple times a day I would call out in a tone of royal proclamation, “And now for the reading of the Roper.” Silence would fall and we would all gather around.
So how does this work? Simple. You wake up in the morning. Roper tells you to leave Grouse Lake (where you left me in the last blog at our first night’s camp) and hike to Grouse Pass. It is the obvious low point beneath the cotton ball clouds. Then you walk there, without a trail.
Once at the top of the pass we encountered a classic High Route moment. We could now see our next objective, Goat Crest Saddle. With map and compass we all made sure we agreed on which saddle was the one we were headed for and then took advantage of the perspective to consider how we would ascend it. “If we stay low and left following those trees we can then pick up the grassy bench to the top.” “Do you think we could cut across the granite slabs and go more directly?” “Towards the top it looks like we need to stay right or we’ll get pushed into that rock outcropping.” I can not tell you how much I miss these conversations.
Sometimes the directions and the terrain were pretty straight forward. “Continue ascending in a northerly direction over easy terrain to a level section of tundra that leads northwest across to Puppet Pass.”
Other times the route was less simple. See if you can follow along with the picture below which is taken on top of Nancy Pass. “Descend unstable talus below Nancy Pass, then wander left toward the uppermost visible trees. From here drop down a precipitous slope to easier ground, then contour to the north. Pass over the inconspicuous saddle west of Peak 9.833 and descend into the lush meadowlands below Deadhorse Lake. An imposing, dark horn of rock interrupts the skyline to the north; this is the first of the Minarets, Riegelhuth Minaret. Contour north under this striking formation to the southeast shore of Minaret Lake.” Bonus points if you can spot Minaret Lake in the distance, our campsite that night. Go ahead click on the picture to enlarge it – there is a lake out there.
Occasionally Roper seems to almost mock you. “a short steep cliff drops precipitously into Marion Lake. Here the hiker is confronted with a choice of several gullies. Although any one of the chutes may be followed, the easiest is the one on the left . . . One [1935 Sierra Club] trip participant later recalled this odious gash as a ‘steep chimney that, at first sight, looked impassable.’” Personally when I got to the top of this gully I stopped and waited for Rich to catch up with me, because I was pretty sure he wasn’t far behind me, and I much preferred not to die alone.
There were also a few moments of truly advanced navigation. When Roper says, “the traveler should study the next section of the High Route, for the route finding is a bit tricky,” take heed. Shout of Relief Pass was tricky to pick out, but standing in the middle of the wilderness, map and compass in hand, listening to my hiking buddy give his rationale for identifying a pass and verifying it for myself was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
Thanks to a family that got me outside a lot I have many memories of hanging out in campgrounds and hiking through the mountains. I remember multiple times when I would look off across a lake or down a valley and not just want, but ache to go check it out even though there was no trail there. Especially because there was no trail there. The Sierra High Route was my little kid dream come true.