fear and self loathing on the sierra high route
Frozen Lake Pass, day two, mile 25
The boulder shifts and my right foot twists. I hop sideways trying to catch myself but trip and fall into the rocks. The dislodged hunk clatters away downhill and I lie still for a moment. Everything feels ok, thank god. I roll to my back and swing my legs downhill. The flash of fear and anger softens as I sit where I’ve fallen, looking down at bloodied shins and unstable granite boulders fanning away to the valley floor below.
I pull a Clif bar from my bag and unwrap it, making calculations in my mind. I need to cover 20 miles a day to complete the route in the time I have. I’ve gone five miles today and it’s already noon. I’ve never hiked nearly so far before. It seemed plausible poring over maps and reading route descriptions in Portland. I’m a runner. I’ve backpacked a bunch. 20 miles a day didn’t sound so bad. The shifting rocks beneath me make it plain how badly I’ve underestimated those miles.
I’m afraid of hurting myself back here, of what it would mean to crush an ankle in one of these boulderfields. I don’t have a locator beacon or cell service, my family knows only the route’s endpoints and a two-week window. As I’m sitting in the rocks there’s a more powerful fear lurking. Can I go home and look myself in the mirror if I don’t finish this? I’m feel worthy so long as I keep finishing physical challenges. As long as they keep getting bigger. But eventually I’ll fail. What the fuck happens then? As I stash the bar wrapper and rise to continue, I don’t have an answer to the fear that grips my heart.
I was intrigued when my friend Jordon first mentioned the SHR on a climbing trip. He described a mythical tour across the California Sierras, to places written about by Muir and Kerouac. I was looking to try my hand at through-hiking, and started doing some research. The route was pioneered by Yosemite hardman Steve Roper in the late 70s. It starts in King’s Canyon, following the crest of California’s rugged Sierra Nevada Range for 200 miles of rugged wilderness before descending out of the high country at Twin Lakes near Bridgeport, California. Though it parallels the John Muir Trail and uses it often, the SHR is a different beast entirely. Half the route is off trail and unmarked, with miles of boulder hopping and scrambling.
For the last several years I’ve been exploring ultra-running, and as my experience grew my mind roamed to the places my newfound legs could carry me. For me it’s about the places I’m able to go and see, about traveling under my own power deep in the backcountry. About being self sufficient. Until the SHR my backpacking experience was limited to weekend trips done in the style of REI catalogs. I prioritized comfort in camp over comfort in movement. Mountain running offered something different. If I added a enough to my kit to enable a night out, I could keep things light and travel far and fast. I work a corporate job, and going fast offered the chance for experiences my limited vacation time wouldn’t otherwise allow.
Thoughts of the California route swirled through early summer, but I waited until the last minute to commit. Six days before I was to leave, I bought Andrew Skurka’s mapset of the route and committed my mind to the plan. Lists, notes, and gear floated around my apartment. I bought a bear canister. I broke the piles of energy bars and freeze-dried meals into 3,000 calorie/day packs, hoping that would be enough. I packed a box and mailed it to myself C/O Red’s Meadow campground, a depot for PCT hikers near the center of the route.
The day after I slid my resupply box across the counter of the SE Portland post office, I hopped a standby flight bound for Fresno. Judy met me at the airport. A kindly middle aged woman who runs an informal Craigslist shuttle service from the Fresno airport to King’s Canyon. We drive to REI for stove fuel before heading back to her horse ranch, where she treated me to a fine dinner and a flat spot to camp. The next morning we were up before the sun and winding our way deep into King’s Canyon toward Road’s End trailhead.
Preparing for the trip, images of an idyllic alpine vacation filled my mind. I had eleven days off work. eleven days with nothing but a big physical project and long days to work on it. I’d leave the headphones behind and set my phone to airplane mode. The static in my mind would clear, replaced with the serenity of the alpine. Sunny rocks, skinny dipping, afternoon journaling. Relief from the rampant distraction and scatter of life at home, a deep reset.
frozen lake pass
I make my way down the boulderfield and across the valley floor to the smooth singletrack of the John Muir Trail. With quick steps I make up time lost to the slow morning. To my surprise, I’m 40 miles into the route by dusk and back on pace. I pitch my tent beside the trail and flop onto my crappy foam pad exhausted.
To my amazement, and though every day is a bareknuckle fight for it, I continue to hit my mileage targets. Like a fascinated observer I marvel at a body that doesn’t quit despite perpetual exhaustion. Each morning I wake unrefreshed. Pull breakfast from my bear can, eat, pack up. Hoist my pack and start walking on tight, tired legs. The days are framed in walls of granite as I work my way along chains of alpine lakes and the creeks that drain from them, climbing and descending one watercourse after another. Miles blend together as I climb one long drainage to a pass only to descend into another and repeat. Day after day I start walking at first light only to stagger into camp after dark with barely enough energy to erect my tent and boil water for dinner before collapsing.
The first storms come at night. High mountain storms with wind that rips the tent from its moorings and driving rain on the heels of the crack that woke me. I pile rocks at the tents corners, crawl back inside and shove my legs inside my zipped jacket to escape rain coming in under the tent’s flapping edges. For several nights thunderstorms batter my shelter but mornings dawn clear and bright.
As I begin to find my legs and confidence, the storms become bolder, moving into the daylight. Soaking me with sheets of rain I can’t slow my pace to avoid. For the most part I’m able to dry out when blue sky returns, but my feet are soaked. White and pruny when I take off my shoes. The rain keeps coming and there’s no chance to dry them. A shiver of trepidation runs through me. What will happen covering this kind of mileage with soaking feet? The skin will shed off, awful blisters, and what is trenchfoot, anyway?
day 3, mile 60
I take a deep breath, sigh. Look once more at the stick blocking the faded trail leaving the switchback’s corner, turn away, and descend down the JMT. I’ve decided to skip a section of the SHR in favor of the smooth trail of the JMT, hoping to build a buffer and save some energy. Late in the day, after dropping thousands of feet to the San Joaquin river I realize my error. For this section the circuitous trail miles are likely harder than the direct line of the high route. Frustrated with my poor navigation, and with a long evening of hiking before me, I resign myself to the long climb back to the high country.
day 6, mile 120
Six days and 120 miles after leaving the trailhead in King’s Canyon I stumble into Red’s Meadow at midday and spend all afternoon luxuriating in hot food, swimming, the warm company of fellow hikers.
The next morning I have a big cafe breakfast and coffee, and head back to the route. As I work my way back into the alpine the light of companionship and the warmth of the lowlands fades, replaced with a cold wind and the darkness of building storms. I scramble along a chain of lakes in the minarets, hands gripping ragged granite as I skirt the shore, the dark uncaring sky reflected in the blue black depths.
Dusk finds me high in the mountains, in a dark canyon filled with the roar of waterfalls. The warmth and light of Red’s Meadow feels far off as I resign myself to the gloom and make camp.
From the crest of the Sierras I look down on uncertainty stretching away in all directions. Paper maps and a cursory databook illuminate the route, but outside that window a dark blankness lurks. I don’t know how I’ll escape if I hurt myself, or am too exhausted to continue. If I do finish the route, there’s no one waiting for me. I’ll have to hitchhike from trailhead to airport, then hope for a standby flight. Without much of a time buffer, uncertainty and exposure loom large. The doubt is never far from my mind. I’m managing to stay on pace, but only just. What might the next miles hold? Will I be able to meet the challenges of the coming days?
With the roar of water in my ears I fall asleep, telling myself that the morning will surely dawn bright, and hey, it’s not raining. I wake to patter on the tent and start the day by getting lost. Wandering aimlessly, wet, off trail and alone. I eventually find the route but the steady, soaking rain continues.
In the afternoon I’m scrambling over a boulder choked pass at Yosemite’s Southern border when the rain turns to hail. I quicken my pace, scrambling with stiff hands over rimed granite, worried about being trapped before the pass as the worst of the storm rolls in.
I manage to make it up over the pass, and in my retreat from it come upon xx and xx, huddled under a tarp, smoking a pipe. They offer the edge of their shelter and a smoke. I decline, fearing I’ll never restart this miserable walk, but stand in the drizzle to chat a bit. They’ve hiked sections of the high route before and are looking to complete another section this year. They’re surprised I’m on the route alone and I admit I didn’t realize what I was biting off. I leave them to their shelter, resign myself to the cold damp gray of the day, and continue on. That evening I make camp under the misty trees of a lakeshore, everything I’m wearing soaked and cold.
day 10, mile 160
I wake to dim light in the tent and pull back the fly to curse the gray sky and cold. I’m now only a few short miles from the national park snack shack at Toulomne Meadows, so I pull on my soaking pants and charge down the trail. A break and a burger, some coffee, lightens the day.
Climbing out of Toulomne Meadows the sky begins to clear and my spirits lift. Perhaps we’re through the worst of it! The finish is in sight now, with clear skies and sun to dry the route this could be fun. Then I hit snowline. I walk for hours in ankle deep slush. Demoralized, I arrive at another lake and flop down on its shore. I’m so tired, and the last couple days so rough, I don’t think I can keep the pace in these conditions for another day. From my camp I can see cars on the highway below. Where I’m going I don’t know how I’ll escape if I encounter scrambling I can’t navigate. I decide to bail from the route if I wake to bad weather tomorrow, and go to bed uncertain and deflated.
day 11, mile 180
Bright light fills the tent as the day dawns clear.
I pack quickly and start moving. The final day in the Sierra’s feels like something of a victory lap. Sun shines upon me, I encounter slow boulderfields but know they’ll end. I get lost but have time to reorient myself. I enjoy the short scramble that marks the technical crux of the route in the shadow of Matterhorn Peak, and drop into the drainage that will lead me to the route’s end.
I’m hiking down along the creek that drains to twin lakes, nearly there now. My clothes have finally dried after days in the snow and rain. Even my shoes, wet for the last week, are finally dry. I’m feeling optimistic and full as the first crack of thunder cuts the air. I look at the map. Three miles to go. Shit. I start walking in double time, but the first fat drops follow on the heels of the clap, the full squall close behind. I shelter under a tree as the deluge descends, shaking my head. This bastard is going to make me fight for every inch. “Alright you fucker” I laugh, and start walking.
Mono Village, day 11, mile 200
I sit in the booth looking down at a burger. At a second beer in a frosted glass. My pants are soaked, pressed between my thighs and the vinyl of the booth. Water oozes from shoes into the diner’s carpet. I’m happy and proud to think of how far I’ve come, and how hard I’ve worked. Since leaving King’s Canyon 11 days ago I’ve hiked 200 miles and climbed nearly 50,000 vertical feet. I’ve never through-hiked anything before. Never backpacked a single day as long as each of those I’ve just finished. I’m proud of my accomplishment, but it feels incomplete to breathe a sigh of relief - thank god I didn’t fail - and enjoy the brief window of contentment before I look for the next challenge
Since that second day in the boulderfield, over all the wet days working my way north and all the near failures of the route, a slow realization’s been building. It took a lot of luck to complete this. To not twist an ankle, that the weather held when I needed it to. It doesn’t feel right to exalt in accomplishment alone when it’s so vulnerable to chance.
What I got a sense of on the SHR has taken years to clarify. An identity built around completing challenges is empty and bound for collapse. What matters is living your values. For me it means not quitting when the going gets hard. It means not letting yourself off the hook when it’s tough, when you’re tired, cold, and afraid. It means throwing everything you have at it and seeing what you’re capable of. If you do that and fail, you’re better off for it. If you do it and succeed you can be proud of approach as well as accomplishment.