On our very first Alpine of the Americas trip, we tested our methods of finding useful observations, determining their locations, and repeating photographs. Photographs proved central to this trip, as they proved to be the most simple, repeatable, and useful observations available to the alpine adventurer.
The Project Begins
The High Route
Mineral King to Road’s End
On 14 July 2011, the mountains called. It was then time to heed the last words of advice we received, “hike your hike.” We were off for the next 23 days. Our first big highlight was Sawtooth Pass, but I will never forget the spring we found bubbling between two bedrock rock types below Monarch Lakes. On the other side of the pass, I had many of my suspicions about Sequoia National Park confirmed. It is a bewildering concentration of majestic peaks and small treasures. This National Park deserves more of our time. Eleven miles later, we found ourselves a nice camp above the mosquitoes, overlooking our path ahead and the Kaweahs beyond.
Taking photos proved to be time consuming, yet exhilarating. It was a puzzle to line up near and distant objects. This required a detailed perspective to ensure that photo locations was not miles off. Jon was a pro and taught Lyn and I the basics. Once we were able to get into the heads of early photographers, we were making steady forward progress. We were able to confine photo locations within the foot.
No other photo quite caught our imagination quite like the repeat of the Big Arroyo View. We had scrutinized photos for months, debating on their potential locations. It turns out this photo was taken from a magnificent precipice. To stand there, over 100 years after the photographer, and be looking at the present through the lens of the past, is revealing. Over and over this process continued, and each time we learned a little bit more about the pace of nature.
Four days into the trip and we had covered a mere 50 miles and only 2 major passes. We were tired, our bodies groaned, but day-by-day we got a little more resilient. The Kaweahs were disappearing behind new horizons and even more fantastic granite spires and deep Sierra gorges illuminated our sense of these mountains. We were about to leave behind Sequoia National Park and had enter Kings National Park.
At the head of the Kern River drainage, before dropping over Harrison’s Pass and into the King River we had already accomplished a lot. We had taken several photo repeats from the USGS Historical Archives. It was clear that the most apparent morphological changes involved forest structure, particularly in meadows. Conifers were becoming denser and in places Junipers were becoming more dominant where fires had cleared away competition. We had also taken a few other photos for our own future reference. We had our systems dialed, our pace was steady and we had thrown out the schedule and began listening to our bodies altogether.
Kings Canyon to Evolution Basin
The 7,000 foot climb out of Roads End, up Copper Creek, was the absolute testament to the Kings River. The relentless climb to Grouse Lake was an introduction to Steve Roper’s opinion of the lowlands. He wished to quickly ascend to the alpine, see the world from above, without the distraction of the pollution, trails, and people. This is where we also found a welcome home. With endless sun cups and no trails, it is too hard of a climb for the through hiker and is also too cold for the mosquito.
The alpine is where clarity of light and mind seem to overlap best. Our visions became clearer. Leaving our first steps on the High Route. The high passes proved to be passages between unimaginable basins. There were few signs of others, except for a random footprint, left days prior.
The character of the High Route is predictably steady and high. It undulates between 9,000 feet and 12,000. Once at elevation and acclimatized, the route is steadily traveled. There are a few passes that take some attentive choosing, but overall the route makes for reliable safe passage for the prepared. There is no precise way to move from North to South and remain at elevation through the Sierra Nevada, so the route meanders around some of the deepest chasms (most notably the Middle Fork of the Kings) and drops between major watersheds at their highest; in the headwaters. In this way the route remains high and brings the traveler to the view the most remarkable areas in the Sierra.
There were some rare occasions where we overlapped with the John Muir Trail. It was a practice we quickly learned to dispense with through fast hiking. I wonder what John would have thought of the modern day “rucksacker.” Our idea of the essential and necessary has thoroughly changed. For the sections that we traveled, the JMT/PCT seemed more like a social event rather than wilderness experience. Needless to say we were excited to leave behind endless comments about the “treacherous ice” as if the DMV had forgotten to plow this portion of the road. We were off to South Fork Pass and the Palisades.
Leaving behind Matther Pass and the High Route, we ascended over South Fork pass into the Palisades. Here we spotted our first Sky Pilot (Polemonium eximium), a high alpine flower that epitomizes beauty at risk in the face of climate change. This is an iconic location as it is one of the access points to the legendary Palisades traverse. The Palisades ridgeline is one of the more imposing barriers between the rugged East Side of the Sierras and the rolling western side. Historic travelers going between these portions of the Sierra were certainly sturdy people. South Fork Pass is the only reasonable way to cross the Palisades until Jigsaw Pass miles to the north. In between those two passes is the incredible and sustained Palisades Traverse. Like the Sky Pilot, climbers on this traverse teeter on the edge between practicing functional precision and demise.
Another forgotten legacy found in these incredible basins are the many glaciers. While hiding in the shadows of their former glory, the largest glaciers in California, give these mountains grandeur not found anywhere else in the Sierras. Their burgshrunds are large enough to swallow whole traffic jams. You can hear them, tweaking and cracking, grumbling downhill and melting into frigid blue waters.
If you have never been there, if you didn’t know they existed. Go now, before they’re gone. These mountains will inspire the everyday knapsacker to saunter high into the mountains, but beware treacherous ground even for the climber. You’ll have to contend with the mosquitoes, but when you’re done, visit Glacier Lodge for a beer. Say hi to Cathy for us, she was the closest thing to a mother we had for 23 days. There’s nothing like hot chocolate and tri-tip sandwiches and good humor on the porch when it rains. Especially if it its midway between weather chasing you off the summit of a14er, picking up a weeks worth of re-supplies, and hiking 15 miles and 6000 feet up and down so you can do it again. Thank you Cathy.
Jigsaw Pass took us over the Palisades ridge and into the rolling Dusy Basin. We were blazed the JMT toward Muir Pass with one very poignant highlight, Rana mucosa. The mountain yellow-legged frog is an endangered species that we found in abundance in one location. The piled up on each other and were much bigger than I thought. This was the first time we had ever seen these species and I hope it will not be the last.
Goddard and Evolution Valley
Mt. Goddard is a legendary peak deep in the Sierras. From our travels leading Outward Bound students in the wilderness, we had always dreamed of making it out to this dominating black summit. And now mountain was right here and we had to walk past it to find camp amongst the dozens of photos we were obligated to take in the next three days. Seeking rest and quiet we waded the creek to find an isolated base camp. Camp 11,111’ at Sapphire Lake was a great place to settle for the next portion of the trip.
After making way into the legendary Evolution Basin, Goddard never left the horizon and it beckoned. The following morning, before daybreak, we left camp with our essentials and bounded back to the base of the mountain and laid hands on another dream. We allowed ourselves to climb the line that naturally led to the ridge and then labored to the summit. On this day, we actualized our dreams and left the science behind. In the register, we found one scientist who comically agreed, “Nope, no frogs here.” There was something up there; perhaps it was the simplicity of it. Norman Clyde said it best, “A beautiful day and a dandy climb.”
Humphrey’s Basin and High Route Part 2
Leaving Evolution valley was like leaving home. It has to happen, but your always planning on coming back. We followed coyote tracks over 10,000 ft passes and into new basins below. On the other side, we found Mt Humphrey’s a huge dominating mountain descending into a wide basin.
After our second to last resupply it was hard to believe we were half done. One of our rides back to the mountains, was a school teacher who helped Roper establish this route. He called our next few sections, “Hands in the pockets.” He was right. We found a new rhythm crossing alpine meadows and open forests and without any pictures to find on this section, we were finally unbound to go at our own pace. By the end of this day we had walked our way from Sequoia Kings to just west of Bear Creek Spire.
Our next day was going to be the largest of the trip. We were ahead of schedule and planned to finish early. We divided up and “hiked our own hike” each covering nearly thirty miles. On the Mammoth Crest, we found ourselves looking back to the Bear Creek, Humphreys, and Evolution beyond. Looking forward we saw the Minarets, Ritter and Banner were only a day away, a land we knew was close to home.
Below the Clyde Spire, we found ourselves slowing down and scanning the possible routes. Somewhere on this impressive pinnacle, Norman Clyde set a new standard for climbing in the Sierra, a man like John Muir, who was way ahead of his time.
Below Ritter and Banner, we saw the potential for many photo points. This is certainly an area where we will be taking more photos in the future. There are plenty of adventures to be had in the Minarets and their glaciers are as accessible any.
This would be our last night in the wilderness. We reminisced priceless days we had created for ourselves. Thanks to the Matt Baxter family this adventure, turned our dreams into reality. We wrote down our vision for moving ahead and dreamed of the next adventure, both for ourselves and others to join us.
From Vision to Reality
From the flanks of Banner to cresting Donahue Pass into Yosemite was coming home. We knew Yosemite from within, yet there was no doubt we knew it better now arriving from the outside. We have been to the source and connected fragments of California’s waterways. From the mountain tops of the Sierra to the thirsty mouths of the lowlands, we had captured pieces of the California in a moment. Yet this was only the beginning.
Alpine of the Americas Project has observed the High Sierra’s breadth, it is now time to articulate its depth. Future excursions into the Sierra will add clarity, as our photos provide insight. We must keep going back to participate, interact, and observe our mountains. Ultimately, we will communicate how this land changes and inspire educated action so individuals can appreciate how they must adapt.