September 17, 2018.
Kearsarge Lakes, CA
Slow is the new fast. Short is the new long. Last week I completed the Colorado Trail, it took me 21 days to cover the length of trail between Denver and Durango, some 491 miles. I averaged 24 miles a day and I was up before dawn stuffing my sleeping bag away, hitting the trail as day broke, and often hiking well past dusk. It was my own personal challenge and adventure, and I wanted it that way. I wanted to push myself into unknown terrain, and see how quickly I could make the trek.
Fast forward 5 days from my completion of the CT and I am in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Kearsarge Lakes with my companion from Canada, Hurlgoat, and we are about to embark on the Sierra High Route.
I’ve wanted to attempt the SHR for a while now, and last year while on the PCT, Hurlgoat, Bellows and Shameless Southbounded the SHR from Twin Lakes to Bishop Pass. I was a little envious of them, but I’d decided to stick to the PCT with the others in our group, pledging that I would tackle the SHR in 2018. Over the ensuing months, I became so determined to hike the route, that I was planning to do it solo if I needed to. Not only that, I also wanted to tackle the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in the same trip, turning it into a 1.5 month High Sierra Tramp. This tramp was, at least in my head, planned to start in August.
Well, apparently the Universe did not agree to let me have that exact adventure this Summer, and instead, showed me other roads. Other roads that led me to lessons I needed to learn, and am still processing, and have yet to write about and share, but will.
I wound up hiking most of WA on the PCT earlier this Summer, from Harts Pass to the Border and then South to White Pass, plus a couple days in OR too, totaling approximately 430 miles, which made for a good warm up for the Sierras. After that, I decided August 1st was the perfect time to return to CA, go home, and after a visit with family, I would then tackle my High Sierra tramp beginning mid-August. But the fires and resultant smoke prevented me from doing that. It was bad. Everyone knows how devastating the fires were this summer and hence, you can imagine what the air quality might have been like. I was faced with the dilemma of what to do, where to hike?
Since my friend Prince lives in Colorado Springs, my Mom suggested I go visit him, and do some hiking in CO while I was there. Of course, of course, that made perfect sense. I’d thought of hiking the Colorado Trail earlier this year, it’s been on my mind, so Yes! Yes, that is a perfect plan. So I went.
Meanwhile, Hurlgoat was working like a madman to save up for another adventure of his own, and really wanted to join me somewhere. Since my plans kept changing, I suggested he make a plan for himself and I would do my best to join him for part or all of his adventure. He wanted to return to the SHR and hike the entire route, in his own style, which involves lots of fishing, no schedule pressure and thus a more deliberate pace of traversing the massive granite terrain. He bought a plane ticket to arrive in Reno Sept.15th.
I was really happy for him that he was going to have his adventure, yet there was something inside of me that rebelled against the slower pace and seemingly large amounts of intended down time. What will I do with myself if I am not hiking 25-30 miles a day? I just finished reading Jennifer Pharr Davis’ book The Pursuit of Endurance, which was an amazing read, and focuses on hikers and runners who hold FKT (Fastest Know Time) records on America’s famous long trails such as The Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would find inspiration in it’s pages each night on the CT before falling into a deep, exhausted sleep. It gave me a boost of motivatin when I was feeling lazy, tired or sluggish about my own solo endeavor to hike a certain length of trail in a short amount of time. It was like having friends to cheer me on. Her book kept me company and it set my mind on fire about what I might be able to attempt down the line.
In the final month of my Southboud PCT thru-hike in 2017, I would find my mind chewing most of the days on morsels of other hikes, challenges, things that seemed sort-of grandiose or near impossible, and that stirred something in me. I still do this when I hike, I think about what else I can try to do. The CT hike was a mini version of my own FKT, and while I had originally wanted to complete it in 19 days, things like weather and logistics ended up slowing me down by 2 days. It really didn’t matter though, I got exactly what I needed out of that hike, and I am proud of myself. I set a personal best as a solo hiker, and that makes me happy. That gives me hope for my hiking future.
So, now, in the midst of swirling ambition, I am about to be taking it “slow” like a low and slow BBQ smoker. Summer is slipping through my fingers like loose gypsum sand and Fall is rapidly approaching. The nights are already dipping just below freezing leaving frost instead of dew. Aspen leaves are becoming a brilliant glowing yellow or orange here out west and the grasses are crisp and browning. When precip falls, it could turn to snow any day, and while the novelty will at first make me smile, it will soon have me longing for a hot tea and a bath inside four walls and a roof and a bed.
The CT could have very easily been the conclusion of my hiking summer, having amassed over 1,000 miles already since June, without doing a thru-hike this year, I felt satisfied when I made it to Durango. Satisfied, but not exhausted, not worn down, I could have turned around and walked back. That is, if I hadn’t already made these plans to go climb high somewhere else.
Now, the icing on the cake, the Sierra High Route. Not only that, but the SHR, with someone very special to me. This place is very special to us both, and we share a special bond together. It’s as if the Universe is handing me a gift, here you go, one more adventure before the Winter comes. Go, enjoy, learn, love.
The funny thing is, the SHR is no joke. It is a seriously challenging hike. I recently found an article online dubbing it “America’s hardest hike”. Very few people attempt it each year, and it is definitely something that I do not feel comfortable attempting solo in the aftermath of an incident that occurred earlier this summer. To put it simply, it simply does not feel safe to me, to hike it all alone, at least not now. To do that after the incident Prince and I survived would be like saying to the Universe “screw you, Im not listening to you”, like a mouthy, rebellious teenager. The Universe sent us a very powerful message, and it we would not be like me to ignore it. You must respect.
I had resigned myself to accepting that 2018 was not “my year” to attempt the SHR, nor the KCHBR, I was not going on my tramp above timberline as I’d dreamed about. That is, until Hurlgoat told me he was planning to do it in September, and he wanted to spend an entire month out there. He asked if I would be able to join him. Well, yes, yes I will. Not knowing at the time, what my schedule and existing plans would allow, I said yes to as much as I could make work. So, in short, I will be joining him for about 17 days of the journey, with a week off in the middle. During the time I’m off trail, he will continue solo and I will rejoin him to the finish.
The Sierra High Route defined: is a 195 mile cross country route through some of the Sierra Nevada’s most stunning, remote and high elevation country. The average elevation is above 10,000 ft, with several of the passes above 12,000 ft. The total elevation gain is over 55,000 ft of climbing. The route consists of over 60% cross country route finding and uses some miles of existing trail to connect the rest. The route parallels the world famous John Muir Trail, and has been called the high elevation sister to the JMT.
To give you another perspective, while the JMT crosses 8 major passes in it’s 211 miles, the SHR crosses 33 passes in 195 miles, so you are nearly always climbing or descending a pass. So, when I say we are “taking it easy” on this hike, it is simply to illustrate the difference between hiking style as dictated by terrain and our own itinerary. You cannot cover 25 miles in a day on the SHR unless you really want a sufferfest and no sleep whatsoever. We plan to cover about 10+ miles each day, and that will be enough so that we get a good challenge, but take breaks and take it all in. Afterall, we are there to “be there” not to hurry up and finish.
Another big difference with this hike compared to most of the hiking I do is my gear and food. My pack weighed in at 41.3 pounds yesterday when we set off from Bishop. That’s at least 13 pounds heavier than my heaviest pack on the CT or PCT in WA earlier this summer. I have grown accustomed to light and fast. This hike is going to be heavy and slow. Part of me thinks it may be some sick form of torture, but with the greatest of rewards. To illustrate why my pack weighs so much more, the following is what I changed and why.
Sleeping bag: switched from Zpacks 20F short length, down, 1 lb to Western Mountaineering 10F mummy regular length, 2 lb (most bomb ass bag on the planet, IMO).
Tent: switched from Zpacks Hexamid Solo, 1 lb to Marmot EOS1P three season, 3 lbs. Although we mostly share a tent, or cowboy camp, I like to carry my own in case we get separated (or get in a fight, lol. :))
Clothing: added down puffy pants, mid-weight merino wool sleep shirt, and a pair of hiking tights, warmer beanie and warmer buff
Technical gear: added microspikes
Maps: added 11×17 printed maps of the SHR in 1:24,000 courtesy of Skurka. Hurlgoat is carrying Roper’s book.
Electronics: added my mini foldable keyboard for writing blogs while on-trail, mini gorilla grip tripod and Lumix Panasonic digital mirrorless camera with 3 batteries and charger.
Food: left the TH with 8 days of food
The gear matches the route, terrain and hence the style of hike you’re attempting. This brings me to the cross country/route finding aspect of the SHR. Hurlgoat and I hiked the L2H earlier this year, but other than that I really have always stuck to trails that are fairly well maintained and fairly easy to navigate. Hiking cross country is a whole other animal. We are going to be constantly checking our maps, compasses, consulting Roper and peeking at our GPS’s throughout the day.
This is another reason, in addition to the rough terrain, why it’s slow going. The terrain will sometimes be big granite slabs, lots of class 2 & 3 scrambling with your hands, rocky and grassy slopes and loose scree with talus anywhere from the size of your fist to boulder fields the size of a VW bus. The terrain will simply not allow you to just walk, you must use your hands, arms, poles, your mind must be sharp and your ankles better be strong! These are all things that I am looking forward to honing and learning from. I will admit, I am intimidated by all this, I know it is going to be extremely challenging, yet like I mentioned earlier, extremely rewarding too.
I am thankful to have a such a fearless, fun (and incredibly strong) companion such as Hurlgoat with me on this adventure. I’m thankful it all worked out for us to do this together, that we will share in the learning experience, share the struggle and triumph, share the beauty and awe and the prescious moments and places that take your breath away.
It’s like the saying goes “life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away”.