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The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby oldranger » Sun Feb 24, 2013 12:23 am

Sometime in the past this topic has come up but I can never find it to post. So this one will do.

Best trip ever

In December 1979, recently divorced, I decided for various reasons that the life of a college professor was not for me. So I turned in my resignation as of the end of my current contract in the summer of 1980. What I really wanted “to be” was an NPS backcountry ranger. In August I returned to California where I grew up and went to college. After returning my daughter to her mother, dumping my stuff off at my parents, spending a week visiting friends I embarked on a solo backpacking trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Hetch Hetchy.

On the first day of the trip, Sept. 10, I believe, (also a day or so after an early season storm dropped several inches of snow on the Sierra) I left my parent’s home in Fresno at 0 dark 30 to get to the permit office in Yosemite Valley as soon as it opened. After getting the permit the young dude in the permit station asked me if I wanted the NPS to search for me if I didn’t show up at the end of the trip. (I had already told my folks no search as I was the one who was irresponsibly going on a solo trip of 3 weeks, much of which was off trail and people should not have to look out for me.) I responded to the query, “If something bad happened to me, given the route I just described, do you think there would be a snowball’s chance in hell of finding me in time to do any good?” He responded, “No, I guess not.”

With permit in hand I hightailed it to Hetch Hetchy and parked and locked my car. Then approached a young woman who just walked off the dam to the parking lot and asked her If by chance she was heading to Tuolumne Meadows. She wasn’t but was willing to give me a ride to Crane Flat. At Crane Flat it took all of 5 minutes to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup. The driver let me off at the west end of the Meadows and I headed out with my 65 lb. pack on the “fishermans” trail to Glen Aulin. It was darn near dark before I trudged in to Virginia Canyon.

Next day I traveled just to Spiller Creek and made camp, did a little fishing in the creek and started reading James Clavell’s Shogun, I think the perfect novel for someone alone going through a major change in one’s life. The following day I hiked up to Spiller Lake to test the fishing. As I started out I was more than a little annoyed when approached by a young man who was apparently an instructor of an “outward bound” type of course and was requested to avoid contact with the individuals stationed upstream doing “solos.” I was apparently not yet irascible as I hid my annoyance and agreed and moved on. Today I’d probably say, “Respectively, sir, f---off. It’s your problem not mine.” The highlight of the day was something totally unexpected—first I was buzzed by a golden eagle as it was using a rising air current to gain altitude. Later passing through a small meadow I surprised what I assume was the same golden eagle as it fed on some sort of prey. The fishing was a bust but the day memorable none the less.

Day 4 was up over the hump to Mattterhorn Canyon. After setting up camp I caught a few small brookies to add to my dinner.

Next day was the trudge up Wilson canyon but rather than going over Benson Pass I headed NW cross country and spent the next 2 nights at Doe lake, catching and eating 10 to 11” rainbows.

Day 7 was a short drop down into slide canyon for more fishing and eating and reading. Day 8 involved a hike up the canyon then up the w. wall and across the head of Crazy Mule Gulch and over Suicide ridge which, as I suspected was not particularly tough. During my college days I discovered a book that had maps of old cavalry routes in Yosemite and this was one but never saw a sign of the old trail. The afternoon at Rock Island Lake with its landscape almost devoid of trees and the wind blowing and alone for the 3rd day was eerie but I was comfortable in my solitude.

Day 9 involved a walk up canyon and over a saddle and a traverse to the Rock Island Pass trail. Walking down the trail and across Kerrick Meadows I picked up a pleasing aroma. Sniffing, sniffing, sniffing the lightbulb finally came on and I realized that I was walking on a carpet of tiny ripe pungent blue berries (or their sierra equivalent). Dropping my pack I rapidly filled my Sierra Cup with the berries then promptly scarfed them down. Completing my day at Ardnt Lake I hoped to dine on trout but either they werent’t biting or the lake had gone barren after the cessation of planting.

The following day the idyllic span of 5 days of no human contact was surprisingly brought to an end when I encountered a naked woman getting out of her trailside tent as I walked by. Still a shy guy I averted my eyes and hoofed it on down the trail. Later that day as I approached the junction of the PCT with the Bear Valley Trail the sound of “Gunshots” penetrated the air. Warily I approached the continuing barrage. What I found was two young men throwing canned food into a campfire and as the cans heated up they were exploding. Turns out that a few days earlier they had been on a Yosemite to Tahoe trip and when camping there a friend was throwing a rock with a line attached over a limb to hang their food. Somehow the line caught on the limb and the rock swung back striking the young man in the face and seriously injuring him. They walked him out to Kennedy Meadows (don’t ask why that distant TH) after a mounted group of rangers deigned him not seriously injured enough to warrant aid. These two then returned to pick up the extra gear that they had left and decided that empty cans were lighter than full ones (don’t ask, lighter alternatives were available back then). Anyhow they fed me that night and resupplied me a little (mostly macadamia nuts as I recall).

Day 11 found my pack again up to 65 lbs as I helped them hump some gear as far as Wilma Lake where we caught some nice fish for dinner and they introduced me to Spike as a seasoning for trout.

Day 12 was another layover day. I relaxed, read, washed up, fished , and ate another fish dinner.

Day 13 I hiked up Jack Main Canyon the halfway up to Tilden, made camp then day hiked up to Tilden to fish. I was unsuccessful but saw a huge fish jump completely out of the water and vowed to return some day (21 years later I finally made it but while not shut out did not catch the “big one”).

Day 14 involved a return to Jack Main Canyon, crossing Falls Creek then passing Otter lakes, skirting Schofield Peak, and dropping down Peninsula Lake to Camp. The abundant insect life in the lake suggested that it was barren.

Day 15 was another layover day and it was spent hiking to and fishing Fawn Lake (rainbows to 11”) Found a Sierra Cup at the lake and added it to my collection—despite being heavy they were very convenient back in the days when I would just dip into any stream or lake without thinking about or even having knowledge of giardia.

Day 15 found me wandering past Bear and Big Island lakes and over the saddle between Richardson and Schofield Peaks and then down to Bearup Lake. Someplace up relatively high I used my bear hanging rope doubled and redoubled to assist getting down one extremely short pitch. Heading down the valley to Bearup was a virtual jungle of lowlying vegetation and downed trees. Just before Bearup I spotted the largest quaking aspen I have ever seen. Camping on one of the little peninsulas on the n. shore I caught dinner as the weather began to turn. It got cloudy and blustery but did not significantly rain.

The next day was a planned layover but the rainbows were small (I was hoping for large browns as browns had once been planted. I now suspect that Frog Creek does not have sufficient fall flow to support brown trout reproduction.) and the wind cold and blustery. It was a little difficult negotiating the lower end of the lake and the outlet. Down the creek a ways I noticed a little creek flowing in from the sw. The map indicated a small lake was close. Why not check it out I asked myself (after 5 days alone I was talking to myself regularly!) The lake was totally unremarkable but I set up my rod anyway and promptly caught a 12” brookie (and several more). This became my campsite for the day after a move of slightly over a mile.

Day 17 was another short day simply down canyon to the obvious gap to the nw, up that and down the slabs to Edith Lake. The view down the slabs was obscured somewhat by the smoke from the fire that was burning to the s. In retrospect I should have gone to the upper end of the lake but I ended up camped at an established site along Kendrick Creek just below the outlet.

Day 18 I fished Edith finding access pretty difficult on the s. shore. But I did manage a couple of 12 ½ “ rainbows for dinner.

Day 19 was spent hiking down Kendrick Creek to the point where I planned to hike out of the Canyon to Laurel Lake. It was really hot that day so I planned on an early start so my uphill travel would be as cool as possible hiking at about 5500 feet elevation. It was so hot I opted not to have a campfire because everything around me was tender dry. With no watch sleep came to me in short intervals as I did not want to miss the first glimmer of light in the am.

Day 20 Waking up early the first thing I noticed was a very large, very fresh pile of bear poop about 4 feet from my head! Nothing was disturbed except my mind in that I felt I had been awake virtually all night—obviously not. The climb up to Laurel lake was reasonably easy and I stopped by the large campsite at the n. end of the lake for lunch and completed my book. The fire was burning across the lake and I was soon to travel through it with no difficulty. It got hotter and hotter that day as I dropped down to Hetch Hetchy. The water in my bottle was tepid at best. Working my way down the old construction road I spotted my first people since Wilma Lake—Apparently the dam keeper and his family near the shore on the far side of the lake. Arriving at my car I found that someone had stole my gas cap! It was a mere 104 that day in Fresno. Air Conditioning and a shower sure felt good that night.

This trip was my first solo trip and while the trip itself may not have been life changing it certainly was the signal event that marked a change in the course of my life.

Second best (hate to admit it) was 19 day trip last summer with Markskor hiking around the Upper Merced, visiting new places and old favorites and taking new routes and old routes.

Ultimate future trip? Probablly a trip to a bunch of lakes on the e. side of the Kern and upper Kern.


Who can't do everything he used to and what he can do takes a hell of a lot longer!

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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby ndwoods » Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:21 pm

Great story old ranger.
Interesting you wanted to be a ranger too. Remember those old aptitude tests they used to make us take in school? The ones where you answered a bunch of questions and then they told you what job would be good for you? Mine ALWAYS said ranger. And I thought they were the most idiotic tests in the world cuz of course everybody wanted to be a ranger....duh!:)
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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby Mike M. » Sun Feb 24, 2013 8:52 pm

Old Ranger:

Loved your story! Brings back vivid memories, I read Shogun on a 21 day solo trip in August 1977 in the Whitney/Kaweah areas. Here's my camp down in the Kern; that's Shogun on the rock, keeping me company. ... a86f99.jpg

I raced through the book so fast I had to impose a daily page quota on the next two books in my pack.

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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby mshields » Sun Mar 03, 2013 12:09 am

oldranger wrote:while the trip itself may not have been life changing it certainly was the signal event that marked a change in the course of my life.


Nice writeup! Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on each of those twenty days. That is a very good point you made; not "life changing" but rather "course changing" We all experience those events in our life, that we look back on and realize how influential they were even though we may not have completely recognized it at the time.

BTW - I will be retracing some of your day 4 to day 9 itinerary in early August; perhaps I should add day 10 :D
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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby toejam » Sat Mar 09, 2013 9:19 am

This is a great winter thread. Thanks for sharing the stories.

The only thing I can offer is that I haven't had anything close to the ultimate trip. I've only taken about a half dozen and they've all been frustratingly limited. While I love the Sierra, I haven't gotten my head around dealing with all the rules and I hate carrying a bear canister. It's something I hope to grow into. Conversely, I do a lot of backpacking locally.

My ultimate future trip is one that lasts at least 3 weeks. I don't think the particular destination is important because there is so much great stuff and I've seen so little. Just 3 weeks of predominantly unstructured wandering in the Sierra. Sounds like heaven!
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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby kpeter » Sat Mar 09, 2013 10:14 am

So many folks here are so much more accomplished than I am that I can't offer trips that are all that "ultimate" by their standards.

But from the standpoint of what trip made the greatest impact on me, I would say it was my first backpacking trip into the SIerras. I was an experienced backpacker from outside the state, but had only heard stories about the Sierra, and rather expected it to be similar to what I had previously experienced.

It wasn't. The trip was a simple one--Agnew Meadows to the Ediza area, with plenty of day hikes. In fact, that entire trip, almost on a hour by hour basis, is vividly ingrained in my memory. I especially remember spending hours wandering along Shadow Creek between Shadow and Ediza, exploring the cascades and pools. And the drama of an afternoon thunderstorm as we dayhiked to Garnett and Thousand Island. And peering over the edge from Cecile Lake and seeing Minaret Lake below.

I could say that every other trip I have taken has been an effort to reawaken the magic I felt that first time, in 1991.
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Re: The Ultimate Sierra Backpacking Trip (past and future.....)

Postby hurricaniac » Fri May 17, 2013 10:43 pm

The Sierra High Route (on skis) in April 2008:

Shepherd Pass --> Milestone Pass --> Triple Divide Pass --> Coppermine Pass --> Horn Col --> Tablelands --> Wolverton

Stunning scenery, solitude and skiing. Not for the faint of heart; carrying a 70lb pack, it was like waking up every morning and running a marathon -- for 8 days.

It's the premier backcountry ski route in N. America because of the good weather, terrain and remoteness.
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