This trip report will be a little unusual since it sort of reflects a failed attempt at the Southern Sierra High Route, which consequently turned into a nice section hike of the JMT with a couple days of cross country thrown in. Although it wasn’t what we set out to do, it was still a great trip and definitely one that I’m excited to write about. So if you’ve been considering the SoSHR or a JMT hike you might find this to be of interest – and if you get a kick out of reading how a few guys can bungle up a route plan really badly then you’ll definitely enjoy! If that doesn’t pique your interest enough, does bumping into a celebrity in the backcountry and having a run in with a UFO add enough intrigue?!?
*Quick Note: I would have loved to have detailed the SoSHR but we didn’t get to do more than 2-3 days of that route. I did include some notes regarding it, just to contribute to the beta that’s out there. The next heading section contains that info; anyone contemplating a SoSHR hike might want to quickly check it out.
Destination: Horseshoe Meadows
Trail Head: Treasure Lakes via South Lake TH
Distance: ~95 mile point to point, ~28,000 cumulative elev gain
Remoteness: Very few hikers off-trail, usual crowd on JMT/PCT
Motivation: Incredible views of high alpine country, desolate landscapes, and big country
Notes: Permits can be obtained in advance online. Bear Canisters are required. See this info contributed by Brian S. Bear lockers in the backcountry are reserved for PCT & JMT thru hikers. This is a strenuous route with quite a bit of time spent above 10,000 feet elevation. The off-trail sections are extremely strenuous and require navigating loose scree, talus, and snow fields.
Notes on the Southern Sierra High Route
This report wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging a few people. Alan Dixon and Don Wilson were the first to fully detail the Southern extension of Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route. This extension has been dubbed the Southern Sierra High Route, a.k.a “SoSHR”. The route is something like 100 miles and approx 60% off-trail travel, with 90% or more of it above 10,000 feet. Generally this route starts at the Bishop Pass trail and ends at Horseshoe Meadows with the Mountaineers Route of Mt. Whitney included.
Our plan included a couple of variations to Dixon’s SoSHR route. We would enter from the South Lake TH and spend one night at Treasure Lakes. This is a convenient way to avoid permit issues with the more popular Bishop Pass trail. It would also provide some additional time spent off-trail as the plan heads cross country from there to just below Bishop Pass. The second variation which we hoped to complete was up Sawmill Pass to Mt. Baxter, then down the far ridge, dropping into the Baxter Lakes Basin. This would again add more time spent travelling off-trail, and would also keep the route 100% above 10,000 feet elevation. The main question here is, how feasible is traversing around the top of Baxter to get to the other ridge. If it goes thru as class 2/3 it will make a great addition to the SoSHR. We really wanted to do this as Acrodectes Peak seems like the only other possibility here, and after taking a look at it, it’s not hard to see why it’s often described as “sketchy” by those who have given it a pass.
In the process of getting ready for our trip we were able to get some good beta from Austin who had recently completed the route, and interestingly on day zero we bumped into a couple of guys at Horseshoe Meadows, Andrew and Johan, who were just finishing their SoSHR. It seemed as if everything had fallen into place to set the stage for some epic fun on the talus…
The Report From our Trip :: July 23 thru Aug 1, 2016
Day minus-1 – Travel Day
I headed out early to meet up with Art and Joe at Whitney Portal where we would spend the night at 8.000 ft for a little acclimation time. A 6 hour drive for them, and it took me 9 hours with traffic, road work, and an accident on Tioga Road. Long day… but nice evening at the Portal with one of those big burgers to make things alright.
Day 0 – Shuttling Around (~2.5 miles)
We dropped a car off at Horseshoe Meadows (Cottonwood Lakes Campground) and hiked out on the trail a bit just to check it out and loiter around above 10,000 ft for a little more acclimatization. This is when we accidentally met Andrew and Johan. They told us about their hike of the SoSHR and gave us current info. It took them something like 10 days, and one of them had already been out for 2 weeks prior to that. We were set to do it in 7.5 days; I wondered if this wasn’t going to be a bit aggressive for guys who basically came off the couch at sea level, (despite us generally being in shape). As it turned out, that may have been a valid concern. Late that afternoon we drove the other car out to South Lake and began our short hike out to lower Treasure Lake. Let the fun begin…
Day 1 – Treasure Lakes to Dusy Basin (~8.0 miles)
Our plan was to get to the basin below Mt. Sill to set up for a summit the next morning. That didn’t pan out. A simple but costly mistake right off the bat cast a bad shadow on the trip. The drainage leading up to the upper Treasure Lakes has a subtle spot where the drainage splits into two drainages. While bushwhacking, we unintentionally went right when we should have stayed left. It was probably the excitement of getting underway, but we didn’t stop to think that the terrain was a little off from what we should have found. We did get a couple of lakes, and a LOT of big talus. When we realized what we had done (an hour later), it took a scramble up a steep scree slope, then a traverse across the correct basin over to the saddle which would take us toward Bishop Pass. Not only was this a very tiring ordeal but Art and I both slipped while traversing that f#$*%g scree slope and each broke a trekking pole. By the time we got over Bishop Pass we were already fairly worked and half a day was lost. Getting set up for Mt. Sill the next day would require crossing Dusy Basin and 3 more passes all off trail. Nope. We ended up camping somewhere in Dusy Basin that evening. Aspirations of summiting Sill quickly faded.
Day 2 – Dusy Basin to Palisade Lakes (~8.0 miles)
We made our way through Dusy Basin early and over 4 passes: Knapsack Pass, Un-named Pass (I have named it “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up Pass”), Potluck Pass, and Cirque Pass. The views out there are awesome and the Barrett Lakes were especially beautiful gems. But let me back up for a second… As we were taking in the view from Knapsack Pass we noticed a group of four hikers making their way up from the South, so we decided to wait for them and check out their approach route. When they arrived they recognized Art’s San Diego 100 mile (trail race) shirt and commented on it. Hey are you guys runners too? we asked. “Yeah, my son just ran Western States.” one replied. Cool… then this young guys says “Yeah, I just won it”. We did a double take, you what? You won Western States?? “Yeah…” he says very casually. Holy hell! This was Andrew Miller, the winner of the 2016 WSER and the youngest ever to win at 20 years old! So here we all are on Knapsack Pass. We talked for a short bit, he was very humble about it all. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree apparently; we all thought it was super cool that his parents were out doing a family hike on some pretty gnarly cross country. It’s a bit weird to ask a guy half my age for a photo with him, but yeah I did anyway 🙂
Ok back to the hiking… lots of talus out there and slow going. Getting down Knapsack Pass was pretty straightforward. There is a use trail up high to the left, but eventually it leads into some talus; instead we worked down a series of benches and made our way towards the first lake. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up pass is a smaller pass between Knapsack and Potluck that doesn’t present much challenge. Coming down Potluck Pass we followed Dixon’s instructions to look for some shelves leading right to a steep scree slope. There is actually a very lightly traveled use-trail down the scree which made it half decent to scramble down, but trekking poles highly recommended here as the angle is steep!
Working up the ramps to the notch at Cirque Pass was fun. Getting down Cirque Pass was a bit daunting. Dixon’s instructions describe a complex series of ledges and shelves after a few hundred feet of talus. This is spot on. The first few hundred feet is high angle talus – some of it loose (spooky) which leads into the shelves below. Many of them cliff out and it takes some looking around to figure out the way down this initial part. For the second part of the descent to the Palisade Lakes, the beta indicates to stay right, else prepare for steep terrain. I can’t emphasize enough “stay right” enough. Apparently we could have gone further right because we got into the “steep terrain” Dixon mentions. We ended up working our way down what I can only describe as a series of impossibly steep ledges that somehow go through. Some sections were wet with moss/algae on the rock making for a very slippery proposition… and we had to downclimb using hand and toe holds. Some of the moves had exposure that might make them closer to class 4. The camera really betrays the size and steepness of this terrain. We finally did get down, sort of amazed that it went through. and crashed near Upper Palisade Lake. That last bit of climbing left me with a little adrenaline high that made getting to sleep a frustrating affair.
Day 3 – Palisade Lakes to Woods Creek (~16.0 miles)
We awoke to clouds in the sky. Today was going to be the day that would set us up to get to the Woods Lake Basin for our attempt at connecting Sawmill Pass and Mt. Baxter. As we made our way up Pinchot Pass the the thunder started to rumble and the hail started in. Up and over with no stop to take in the view. Mt. Baxter finally came into sight as thunder lashed out above us. Then we saw lightning strike the top of Baxter. By the time we reached the junction to Sawmill Pass we had to decide whether to attempt Baxter the next day, or to skip it. Due to energy level and the possibility of getting turned around up there with the bad weather returning, we decided it would have to wait for another time. We camped near Woods Creek that evening, this put us behind schedule and decided the fate for the rest of the trip. Oddly that night there was a large “boom!” around 9:30 PM, but it wasn’t thunder. I wondered what the hell it was… the next day everyone on the trail was talking about seeing a meteor/satellite/aliens/fireball fly across the sky and explode over the mountains. Later in our trip one hiker showed me a picture he captured on his iPhone. They weren’t kidding, one hell of a fireball for those who saw it! (official news said it was “space junk” and/or part of a Chinese rocket engine)… so, aliens confirmed.
Day 4 – Woods Creek to Bullfrog Lake (~15.0 miles)
Along the way we had a talk about how the trip was going to pan out. It was pretty clear we were slowing down and we would have to beat the weather every day. It became of question of whether to make it a death march or mellow things out. The consensus was to mellow it out. It didn’t make sense at this point to try and reach Center Basin and keep pushing the following day to get over Junction Pass. We decided to make a point of getting over Glen Pass, then as far along as we felt like moving. Near the Rae Lakes the thunder started up. We decided to wait it out before heading over. I pitched my tarp and the rain started up. We hung out for a couple hours and had an early dinner under the tarp. When the thunder passed we headed up. It was still raining but the sun started to peak thru; the light was amazing and a little rainbow appeared over the dark rocks, like a ray of hope over Mordor. Onward, Frodo, onward! We joined a bunch of JMT’ers near the junction to Bullfrog lake that evening.
Day 5 – Bullfrog Lake to Tyndall Creek (~13.5 miles)
A pretty uneventful trail day. We made our way up Forester Pass and again the thunder and rain started in as we approached the top. We scrambled down the other side promptly. Tyndall Creek ended up being our camp that evening. The discussion turned to whether or not we would return to the off-trail stuff the next day and complete the SoSHR sections through the Wright Lakes area, Russell Col, Mountaineer’s Route, and Miter Basin. After looking at the mileage and how much time we had left there was just no way to do it at our slow pace without adding a day. We resigned to finishing the trip on trail, and as anti-climatic as it was, we agreed to skip Whitney since all of us had been up there and it would simply be an on-trail detour.
Day 6 – Tyndall Creek to Rock Creek (~14.0 miles)
Another uneventful trail day, but nice scenery abound. None of us had been in this area before. Guyot pass was sort of a stroll in the park after the others we had been over on this trip. Afternoon rain and thunder came and went. The Rock Creek area has some nice campsites so we decided to put up there for the night.
Day 7 – Rock Creek to Horseshoe Meadows (~15.5 miles)
Crabtree Meadows was a pretty sweet little spot and about as close as we would get to Whitney on this trip. We could have stayed out one more night, but the temptation of real food for dinner was hard to ignore. We decided to hoof it all the way out. More and more people appeared as we got closer to the trail head. New Army Pass was interesting and peak bagging Mt. Langley from there looks like a worthwhile side trip. By that point we were making a b-line toward the TH though. It seemed fitting that the thunder boomed at our backs as we walked the final few steps out. We left unfinished business behind, at the same time we cheated the weather the chance to really get after us out there, maybe for the best.
What Worked and What Didn’t
Gear-wise I made one bad choice and several choices that I was really happy with. The bad choice was to bring carbon fiber poles on this trip. Two of us broke poles on this trip while off-trail. Not that aluminum poles are indestructible, but less chance of snapping. I was able to field repair my pole with duct-tape however.
As for good choices, aside from the duct tape, I carried a Delorme InReach SE which worked great for tracking, and the occasional message home. I also carried and Anker Powercore 10,000 which recharged the Delorme from 50% to 100% twice, and my camera from 0 to 100% once, and still had ~75% charge. I was also happy that I brought an extra pair of Smartwool boxer-briefs and undershirt as I was able to wash and wear and I smelled pretty fresh with minimal upkeep!
Lastly, I left my phone in the car. I did bring a Brunton 15-TDCL sighting compass, which I used regularly on the little bit of cross country that we did. However, having a GPS (Phone/GPS) would have sped up the deliberation process of “where are we?” greatly.
My Gear and Clothing Used
Backpack: HMG Southwest 70L (oversized, but carried great)
Shelter: MLD Grace Duo Tarp in Cuben, Borah Gear Cuben/M90 Bivy
Sleeping Bag: Enlightened Equipment Revelation 30º Quilt
Sleeping Pad: POE AC-Elite
Ground Pad: Evazote foam pad from eBay
Pillow: Sea to Summit Aeros
Stove: MSR Windburner
Pot: See above
Water Filtration: Sawyer Mini Filter with squeeze bag
Hydration: 2x 1 Liter bottles
Trekking Poles: Cascade Mountain Tech Flick Locks (broke one)
Bear Canister: BV 500
Pants: Craghopper Nosilife Lite Trousers
Shirt: Synthetic Northface button up
Undershirt: Smartwool tee x2
Underwear: 1 pair ExOfficio boxer briefs, 1 pair SmartWool boxer briefs
Socks: 1 pair SmartWool PHD, 1 pair Darn Tough
Baselayer Bottoms: Icebreaker 200 weight (for sleeping only)
Baselayer Top: Smartwool 150 long sleeve shirt
Insulation: EB First Ascent Downlight jacket
Rain Shell: OR Helium II jacket / REI Ultralight rain pants
Shoes: Saucony Peregrine 6
Gaiters: Dirty Girls
Hat: Columbia sun hat, fleece beanie
Camera: Sony RX100 (wish I could have brought a better camera system)
PLB: DeLorme InReach SE
Recharging: Anker Powercore 10,000
Food: ~2800 calories/day (a little low)
For a “busted” trip, this was a pretty good one. If you came across this while searching for beta on the SoSHR, good for you – definitely get out there and give it a go. I’m pretty fit and I think 7.5-8 days would be the minimum amount of time I’d want (including side trip up Mt. Sill). Sometimes things just don’t work out, what’s the worst I can say though? I got to see a beautiful section of the JMT. I met a running superstar and a lot of other cool trail friends (quick shout out to Alicia from SF, Liz and Roger from Sausalito, Dana and Maurice from San Rafael, Mike from Temecula, “Blessed” from… the trail, and the Miller Family from Oregon!). I heard a meteor/rocket/whatever explode! I spent some quality time outside with friends in the mountains, and that’s what’s important at the end of the day. Right now I’m left salivating over several mini-adventures into the areas we had to bypass, those will hold me over until I have the opportunity to get out there again and tie a bow around this one. -JD