By Michael Lanza
I’m slogging up a long ramp of beach-like sand toward Cox Col, an off-trail pass sitting a few ticks over 13,000 feet in California’s John Muir Wilderness. The high-altitude sun feels like a blacksmith’s forge hovering right above my head. My breaths come faster than my steps, and I feel lightheaded. But I’m thinking mostly about the pass ahead of us—and whether there’s a safe route over it.
My friend Jason Kauffman and I are on a 32.2-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, harshest, and most achingly gorgeous strips of the High Sierra, from North Lake, outside Bishop, to Mosquito Flat, between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. I’ve devised a route linking up trails with long stretches of cross-country hiking over lake-studded alpine basins and six passes between 11,150 and 13,040 feet. We are exploring corners of the Sierra rarely seen by people. John Muir himself would have been pleased with our itinerary.
Our route’s not in any guidebook—not entirely, anyway. Like assembling a puzzle with some missing pieces, I cobbled the traverse together from thin descriptions of fragments of it. I like that element of uncertainty, of the path ahead being something of a mystery. It’ll be an adventure, I told Jason, who’s laboring up this slope behind me. I got that much right. We’ve logged 10- to 12-hour days, at times weaving through cliff bands, descending steep, loose scree, and scrambling over big talus blocks that could crush a Land Rover.
Starting out early on our first morning from North Lake Trailhead, we shiver in shorts in the 30° F air. But before long, the sun, intense at these elevations, moves in like a bad roommate. We climb steadily to Upper Lamarck Lake, whose clear, glassy waters act like a crystal ball, reflecting the cliffs and sea of talus awaiting us. From there, although the map shows no trail, we follow a path beaten by previous backpackers to 12,960-foot Lamarck Col.
Not yet acclimated, sucking the thin air in big gulps, I feel the familiar brain-core throbbing of a mild altitude headache—that feeling like someone has surreptitiously hammered a walnut up into the base of my skull. We cross a vast rock garden on a high plateau—thousands of rocks sprayed over the ground, from pebbles to boulders the size of orcas. Around us, pinnacled ridges rise to sharp peaks. Every time I lift my gaze from the path, the scene has changed—the light on the clean, gray-white granitescape having perceptibly shifted, one picture fading out as another fades in. John Muir and Ansel Adams were right: The light does fall differently here.
It’s good to be back in the Sierra.
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This story actually begins almost 20 years ago, during my first visit to these mountains, backpacking in Yosemite. One trip to the Sierra is like one M&M: you can’t really stop there. This range has pulled me back repeatedly in the years since, including for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT) a few summers ago, when I both marveled at the beauty of that classic hike, and kept looking beyond the trail, at amazing peaks and passes and hanging valleys, and wondering, “What’s up there?”
In many U.S. mountain ranges, unless you’re a climber or have an untreatable attraction to thick bushwhacking, you’re left to continue wondering what lies beyond the trail’s edges. But the Sierra, with its open terrain, numerous walkable passes—and, of course, scenery that pulls in adventurers from all over the world—harbors the best cross-country hiking in America. There are scores of possibilities beyond the well-known Sierra High Route (SHR) that are more consistently scenic even than the JMT.
For this trip, I scoured maps and R.J. Secor’s indispensable guidebook The High Sierra—Peaks, Passes, and Trails. Our traverse, partly overlapping the SHR, demands expert skills and mental comfort with difficult scrambling. Thirty-two miles was also quite ambitious for three days out here. But Jason and I resolved to travel light and remind ourselves that all suffering in this world is temporary.
We kick steps across snow-covered talus to Lamarck Col, a break in a blocky ridge, described by Secor as “probably the most popular cross-country route across the Sierra crest between Bishop Pass and Piute Pass.” A sign greets us: “Entering Kings Canyon National Park.” We’ll walk through a northern corner of the national park only for the next several miles, until crossing Alpine Col later today.
This sign might also read, “Welcome to a skyscraping land of rock and water and virtually no vegetation,” because we will walk through that kind of starkly beautiful environment for most of the miles that lay ahead.
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The plunge into icy water steals away my breath as effectively as the elevation. We stop on our first afternoon for a quick dip and lunch beside the fourth (or second-highest) of five lakes arrayed like a string of pearls in Darwin Canyon. Sunshine glints off the water, which ripples from a slight breath of wind. We lounge in T-shirts on flat slabs. Across the lake, a snowmelt cascade jostles loudly down a talus slope below a small glacier on 13,710-foot Mt. Meridel. I turn to say something to Jason, and see him napping.
It soon becomes clear we have this entire hanging valley to ourselves. That’s not an observation made often in the Sierra. When one of the world’s great mountain ranges shares a state with 36 million people, solitude becomes an elusive quarry. On this trip, though, encountering other hikers will be the anomalous experience, so unusual it’s a pleasant surprise. While we will see a few groups of backpackers along trails on our route, though, we will see no one on the off-trail sections.
And that may be the best reason to get off-trail here—to see, in a sense, the “lost Sierra,” the wilder, lonelier, harder, and vaster spaces beyond the Mt. Whitneys and Yosemites. For reasons difficult to enunciate, an alpine lake feels colder, a campsite below a jagged skyline more remote and tranquil, and a 12,000-foot pass like a prouder accomplishment when you’re not just another hiker in the queue.
By early evening that first day, we stand in a more earnest breeze at 12,320-foot Alpine Col. Behind us, a heavy mountain shadow falls like a comforter over Lake 11910—one of three nameless lakes in the trailless, nameless valley we have just hiked up. The lake’s talus-choked shores rises to cliffs and angular, razor peaks washed in a rosy light. It is a snapshot you could take in a thousand spots in the Sierra. But after hauling ourselves up over all that talus and not running into another person along the way, we are the only people getting that shot.
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It looks as if someone laid the rocks in place.
Big, closely spaced, and flat-topped, they form a neat, meandering line bridging 25-foot-wide, calf-deep Piute Creek. They remind me of similar easy rock-hops that I’ve seen spanning broad creeks elsewhere in the Sierra. I suppose it’s just statistical inevitability: In a land so littered with rocks, the odds are that some would form lines of stepping stones across creeks. But it does encourage the impression that this place is perfect.
Jason and I cross the creek. It’s our second morning, and we’re en route to sprawling Humphreys Basin, below Mt. Humphreys, which rises to nearly 14,000 feet. With scores of lakes, tarns, and perennial puddles, the map of this plateau above 11,000 feet looks like someone waved a dripping paintbrush over it.