11 Unexpected Lessons from the Sierra High Route
When I set out this July to link the Sierra High Route (SHR) and the Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) with my partner, SpiceRack, I was cautiously optimistic that I knew what to expect. Among other things, it would be hard, our daily mileage would be low, the views would be outrageous, and we’d probably break our faces on piles of jagged rock, maybe more than once.
For the most part, these all turned out to be true (minus the face-breaking). However, that doesn’t mean that I completely avoided all lessons and revelatory rewiring. It seemed like at the end of everyday, there was a new epiphany, not always earth shattering, but some new perspective gained. Many of these snuck up on me over days and weeks, while others were so blatant that they stopped me in my tracks. Having already hiked the PCT and CDT, with many miles before, between, and after, it was humbling and exciting to tap this well of hidden wisdom.
What is a High Route?
A high route is not your typical trail. In fact, they try to avoid trails as much as possible. Instead, high routes probe and connect little visited pockets of wilderness via the most direct path between, which usually includes miles of talus, scree, and boulders. The objective, as the name suggests, is to stay as high as possible without getting into technical terrain (i.e. anything that requires more than class 3 scrambling). The payoffs for the significant increase in effort versus on-trail travel include better and more consistent scenery, solitude, greater engagement with the land, and increased satisfaction if one manages to pull it off.
While the popularity of high routes is growing, they are still rare relative to on-trail routes and exist almost exclusively west of the Mississippi. In addition to the SHR and SoSHR, popular high routes include the Wind River High Route, Yosemite High Route, and Weminuche High Route.
The SHR and SoSHR
The SHR was created by Steve Roper in the 1980’s as an alternative to the John Muir Trail, which often deviates from the Sierra Crest in favor of easier terrain (no judgment, building trail is hard). It runs 195 miles from Twin Lakes near Bridgeport, CA to Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park, of which 28 miles overlap with the JMT, and roughly 65 miles follow “more obscure paths.”
The SoSHR, created by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson, shares some miles with the SHR between Bishop Pass and Mather Pass, then stays true to the Sierra Crest all the way to Horseshoe Meadow, including the summit of Mount Whitney along the way. The total length is 104 miles, with 20-30 miles on the JMT.
Combining the two routes over 23 days, we totaled 260 miles with just over 60,000ft of ascent. This included 30+ passes, 26 of them off-trail. They kicked my butt, and here is what I learned…
11 Unexpected Lessons from the SHR
1. Legs need sunscreen too
This harsh lesson came swiftly. My legs went from Portland pasty to glowing pink to roasted crispy within a day and a half of starting the SHR. Historically, I hike in shorts and rarely use sunscreen on my legs. I am a veteran of gnarly sock and mid-thigh tan lines. No matter the trip, even my British heritage skin had survived my criminal neglect with minimal blushing (not counting long-term damage that has yet to appear).
By the time I realized that something was different about this trip, the damage was done. And the sunburn went well beyond the classic behind-the-knee pinkness. A few patches on my shins suffered from legitimate and blistering 2nd degree burns that are still healing one month later. About a week in, my lower legs started shedding skin like a snake, and peeling my legs became a cherished task any time I wasn’t hiking.
With the benefit of hindsight, this makes total sense. Not only is the majority of the SHR above treeline, but the high altitude sun is also amplified by the Sierra granite, which reflects UV rays like snow. I was essentially hiking in a tanning bed for 12 hours a day. Next time I will budget more sunscreen and use it on my legs from the start.
2. High routes destroy shoes
My shoes experienced premature aging to an extreme degree on the SHR. I started with a pair of almost brand new Altra Timp 3’s. They made it to the end, but at 260 miles they are in worse shape than even the cruddiest hiker box discards. The rough Sierra granite sanded down the lugs with startling ferocity. The mesh uppers were subjected constant abrasion from talus and scree. SpiceRack needed to pick up a new pair after 160 miles when her pinky toes started hanging loose.
It’s fair to say that trail runners are not the best choice for off-trail hiking. A more durable choice would be an approach shoe (ex. La Sportiva Boulder X) or a pair of boots. That said, if I were to do it again, I would stick with my favorite trail runners for the comfort. I would just expect less than 50% of the typical mileage from them.
3. Easier physical recovery
Despite the physically demanding days with buckets of elevation change, I felt fully recovered each morning. While my dietary choices may have been a contributing factor, I believe that the constant adjustments and inconsistent gait resulting from hiking on uneven terrain distributed the daily rigors more evenly across my muscles and joints. Compared to the repetitive motions of hiking on smooth trail, the body movements during off-trail travel are much more varied. Each foot strike is different. Lateral direction changes are common.
Unexpectedly, it was the few days with significant trail miles that left me most fatigued and achy. The SHR was a full body effort, whereas my trail hikes are over reliant on a specific few lower body muscles.
4. Paper maps are essential
When I hike on a trail, I often don’t know exactly where I am. I’m on the trail, and that’s usually good enough until I reach a junction. Off-trail, it’s a different matter. On the SHR we were constantly checking our maps in order to ‘stay found’ rather than pulling them out only when we were unsure of our location. Smartphones and GPS devices are awesome tools that I love and use, but I found that the greater context provided by the printed maps to be invaluable for both big-picture and complex route finding.
Overall, by tracking our location on paper, I was more aware of the terrain and thus in a better position to make routing decisions. It was also easier and less risky for my expensive equipment to grab the paper maps on sketchy terrain. On-trail without paper maps and a broken GPS, one can follow the trail or wait for someone else to come along. Off-trail, neither of those options is available.
5. Weather matters more
It rained on us more than once during the SHR. While hiking on a trail, we simply put on our rain jackets and kept hiking. When it rained while we were off-trail, scrambling down a pass on refrigerator-sized boulders, we feared for our safety. The rocks became slick, our shoes’ traction unreliable. The hands we needed for lowering and balancing grew weak with cold. We were lucky to be carrying a free-standing tent with us that we pitched in a pitifully small patch of gravel to wait for the shower to pass. Otherwise we would have risked injury by slipping or hypothermia. If the rain had kept us pinned down all day, would we have had enough food to keep going?
My point is that a seemingly benign weather event can become dangerous if one is caught off guard on consequential terrain. Much of high routes pass over such terrain and awareness of the elements is even more important than it is on trails. I didn’t like the rain before, but I have much more respect for it now.
Also, lightning. High routes spend a lot of time above treeline, precisely where you don’t want to be in a lightning storm.
6. Abundant campsites
Envisioning endless slopes of boulders and talus, I expected a daily struggle to find suitable camping. I was way off. Five-star camping is abundant on the SHR. Yes, there were many (so many ) miles of rocky garbage, but they were mostly concentrated near the passes. In between was world-class camping. Lakes, meadows, benches — ridiculous. I need not have worried.
7. Trail is hard too
There were some portions of the JMT that had me wishing I was rock hopping in a boulder-filled gully. These rocky stretches of trail are darn near miracles, considering the effort required to build them. However, hiking on softball-sized lumps of granite is uncomfortable and unsettling.
Off-trail, I grew used to stepping with intention and anticipating the feel of the ground, or which rock would roll. That connection with each of my steps did not translate to on-trail walking. Instead, I plowed forward as I have during thousands of miles, expecting my feet and ankles to pick up the slack left by my absent brain. This meant bangs and bruises for my abused soles. And the only time either of us fell flat, we were hiking on smooth trail.
8. Mental fatigue is real
Off-trail navigation takes a lot of brain power. Macro-navigation, making sure that you’re going to the right spot on the map, is an essential focus. However, micro-navigation, choosing each individual step required to get from here to there (foot there, hand here, over that boulder…), occupied my mind for the bulk of each day. There were miles where total concentration on the ground directly in front of me left little room for conscious thought or the riddles that SpiceRack lobbed at me. At the end of the day, sometimes it was my brain, not my legs, that called it quits.
9. Trails are limiting
Nearing the middle of the SoSHR I realized that I preferred hiking off-trail. The revelation came after a day and a half of hiking exclusively on the JMT. Some part of me, like an adolescent tired of their parents’ control, wanted to break free from the predetermined path. I wanted to wander that way, or see what was over there. When I was hiking on the trail, it almost felt like I was restricted to viewing and interacting with the landscape from that narrow corridor only, like going off trail was akin to entering the panda enclosure at the zoo. And that makes sense. I rarely leave the trail when I am hiking on it except to camp, gather water, or poop. There is little choice in where I go or what I see, which can be a comfort. Increasingly during the SHR, I wanted to pet the panda.
10. Trails are awesome
We need trails. They increase access to the outdoors, keep people from getting lost, and limit concentrated human impacts to specific locations. They also make covering long distances by foot way easier. With so much of the SHR spent moving less than one mile per hour, I was grateful and amazed each time I stepped on a trail. Hiking 2-3mph, no matter the terrain, felt like light speed, and having access to a vast network of scenic trails is a privilege that I appreciate even more after hiking the SHR.
11. Humans are everywhere
Most days on the SHR, SpiceRack and I saw other people. Sometimes it was just for a moment, and only at a distance. Sometimes we said hello to 20 hikers an hour. In 23 days we only had one where we saw zero other people. And even on the solitary days, evidence of human visitation was everywhere. Use trails and cairns dotted the most remote corners of the Sierra, perhaps some of them ancient.
Surprisingly, I found comfort in each faded footprint or trekking pole hole. My ego likes the idea of becoming the first human to visit somewhere, but learning to be at peace with a long history of human visitation and use helped me connect to the land, through the past.
New Lessons, Mixed Feelings
Hiking the SHR and SoSHR was a dream come true. I was drawn by the adventure, the scenery, and to answer the question of whether or not I could hack it without a trail. The adventure was great, the scenery greater, and it turns out that I can hack it, no trail needed. What I didn’t expect was to leave the mountains with such mixed feelings about trails. I love and hate them. On-trail or off-trail, they ask different things of a hiker, and offer different rewards. I like having both options. One thing I know for sure, trail or no trail, I’m going to start putting more sunscreen on my legs.
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