Palisade Crest

High Sierra Route Highlights

I would like to share some of my experiences on the trip, but in order to avoid boring everyone I'm not going to write an exhaustive chronological account or diary of events.  Instead I'm going to write down just the most memorable highlights or the events that were most representative of the journey.

I've chosen to encapsulate each stage in a single word that captures the overall feel of the stage for me.  The five words, corresponding to each stage, are Challenge, Adventure, Beauty, Wilderness, and Companionship

Stage 1 - "Challenge"

The first stage of the trip was definitely the most challenging.  We had weather challenges, nearly being struck by lightning in a thunderstorm.  We had the challenge of gaining the most altitude, starting at 5000 feet and attaining a height of 14,000 feet.  We had health challenges when Steve felt ill from the altitude and we decided to hike with him back down to the trail. That presented Clark and I with the challenge of hiking the steepest 2 mile stretch of the trip not just once, but twice. We had the challenge of mosquito stress.  We suffered pretty severe and unrelenting mosquito attacks for several days in a row.  We achieved the most challenging peak climb of the entire trip during this stage with an ascent of  the class 4 LeConte route on North Palisade.  Clark and I had the challenge of learning how to cooperate as teammates on a backcountry trip and to learn each other's style of coping with adversity and risk.

One of the worst moments of the entire trip happened hiking across Dusy Basin surrounded by clouds of mosquitos.  Wearing a head net to keep from being eaten interfered with my vision. I was trying to cross some tricky talus and I couldn't see well, and I was slapping at mosquitos and the slapping threw me off balance so I almost fell.  I was sweating from the heat and exertion and the nylon net over my head and the sweat was running in my eyes.  It seemed like there was no escape, that I was in some Sysiphian nightmare.  I felt so frustrated and desperate I began screaming like a caged animal.  If there was a cliff I would have thrown myself off just to end the misery.

One of the best moments of the entire trip happened on this stage when we reached the top of Cirque Pass and a stunning view of Palisade Crest unveiled before us.  Turning around and looking south, as far as you can see was just mountains, and looking west, mountains all the way to the horizon.  I had a sense of being deeper in the Sierra than I'd been before and it was surprisingly comforting.  I felt I had reached the "heart" of the Sierra as though I had reached the source of some elemental, sustaining force. I felt protected having so many rugged miles between me and the "dangers" of civilization.  It was very satisfying and I felt very happy and content.

Highlights:   Watching a mama bear and her cub.  Dramatic thunderstormSwimming in a warm lake. Great dinners. The beautiful fantasy landscape of cliffs, cascades, and wildflowers above Palisade Lakes. Cross country travel to Cirque Pass.  Climbing North Palisade.  Meeting nice folks on the John Muir Trail.  A relaxing layover day in Palisade Basin

Stage 2 - "Adventure"

The second stage seemed like the most adventurous because we chose to deviate significantly from Roper's suggested route.  Instead of taking a long, leisurely trail hike through LeConte Canyon and over tame Muir Pass, we chose to attempt a cross-country mountaineer's route directly over the crest of the Sierra.  My guidebook said that it was possible to find a shortcut across the crest just north of Mt. Haeckel that was class 3 in difficulty.  We succeeded in crossing but it was a long and difficult day.  Carrying packs across steep talus and snow and some third class scrambling was no picnic. But we reached Evolution Basin an entire day sooner than if we had taken the John Muir Trail. Then the very next day we had another long challenging cross country hike that included a scary snowfield and an epic talus field crossing.

Highlights:  Getting drenched in a thunderstorm with Bob and Jaime.  Crossing the Sierra Crest at Haeckel ColSunrise in Evolution Basin. Darwin Bench is fantastic.  A steep snowfield crossing. Mt. Humphrey's reflected in Goethe Lake after a bivouac in talus.  Hiking across Humphrey's Basin with Kevin and Owhyee.  Watching an incredible cascade flowing down into French Canyon.  Stunning campsite in Bear Lakes Basin.  Great dinners. Rendezvous with Lew and Dan for lunch at Lake Italy.  Sunset after a thunderstorm at Lower McGee Lake.

Stage 3 - "Beauty"

By the time I got to the third stage I had settled into a rhythm of hiking and living in the backcountry.  There were fewer physical challenges on this stage so I felt I had more time to appreciate the beauty of the alpine terrain.  The hike up the trail from Lake Edison to Mott Lake was surprisingly scenic.  There were lots of cascades and waterfalls, steep canyon walls, and wildflowers.  We climbed a very fun peak up a third class ridge that was stimulating and enjoyable.  If I had to pick one campsite as the "most beautiful" spot on the entire trip, it would be Izaac Walton lake.  The way the granite cliffs drop right into the water was really spectacular.

Highlights:  Enjoying the absence of mosquitos.  The view from the summit of Izaac Walton peak.  Great dinners. Paradise found at Izaac Walton Lake. Solo hiking for two days across the Mammoth Plateau. Night visit by a bear at 11,000'.  A real shower with hot running water (my only one of the trip) at Mammoth Lakes.

Stage 4 - "Wilderness"

The fourth stage took us through some of the "wildest" terrain of the whole trip;  remote, steep, rugged, pristine, untravelled, and dramatic.  I was really looking forward to the section that would pass under the east faces of the Minarets and I was not disappointed.  It's really stunning alpine territory of dark metamorphic rock that has a very different character than the white granite that we had traversed for most of the trip.  We climbed Foerster Peak on the Yosemite Park eastern boundary and from the summit we could see southeast across the Ritter Range, Mammoth Crest, Silver Divide, Mono Divide, Glacier Divide, ... and on and on across miles and miles of ridge and valley and crest and canyon and mountain, almost as far as the Palisades we had crossed during Stage 1, and then it hit me how far we had travelled.  "Man," I said to myself, "we have walked a really long way across some unbelievable territory."

Highlights:  Spending a lazy afternoon just soaking in a fabulous view of the Minarets and Minaret Lake.  Being kept awake much of the night by the noisy flapping of the tent in a windstorm beneath Banner Peak. Watching the sunset on the many tiny islands dotting Garnet Lake.  A family of grouse. Great dinners.  The intense blue waters of Lake Catherine snuggled up beneath Mt. Ritter.  The incredible 2000' cascade of water that falls into the San Joaquin watershed.  "Rescuing" a golden trout.  Dipping in lovely Bench Creek. Camping on polished smooth, utterly flat and clean granite slabs in Bench Canyon. Climbing a giant boulder. A solo bivy near Vogelsang Lake.

Stage 5 - "Companionship"

The last stage was pretty easy and for a number of reasons the emphasis shifted for me from the hiking and the environment to the people participating with me.  My wonderful partner Diana met us in Tuolumne and along with another friend Roslyn fed us terrific meals.  My long time climbing partner Paul arrived with his wife Joni.  I hiked the last stage with Paul who I've known for many years and is a wonderful campanion who shares my love of the outdoors.  We share a thirst for adventure that not many other people can appreciate.  It was really special to me to finish the last days of the journey with him.  One last "adventure" that turned out very fun was taking public transportation all the way from Tuolumne to my hometown of San Luis Obispo.

Highlights:  The scenery in the Twenty Lakes Basin beneath North Peak is fantastic.  Hiking cross country over McCabe Pass was very scenic and super fun.  Discovering an alternative to Roper's directions that avoided a gnarly bushwhack and was more scenic. Waking up to ice frozen in the cook pot. Camping on cliffs above Glen Aulin with an awesome sunset view of Mt. Conness.  Finishing the last stretch of the hike by cross country route over Polly Dome with an unmatched panorama of magnificent Tuolumne domes, all the way from Tenaya Peak to Mt. Conness.  I've spent so much time in Tuolumne it is my favorite "front country" area of the Sierra. I know the geography extremely well and I've climbed every significant dome.  It is so familiar to me that finishing the High Route there seemed really natural, like a homecoming.