USA - Sierra High Traverse

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My suggestion for the ultimate Sierra Range high adventure, a mainly off-track traverse of most of the range which passes close to all of the highest peaks.

Background
In 2015, we enjoyed a great walk along most of Ropers, Sierra High Route, SHR. However, we found some deficiences with the SHR, the 6000 foot climb from Kings Canyon is not an ideal way to start any walk and the route misses the highest part of the range around Mt Whitney. It also starts on the western side of the range while most of the resupply points are on the east making logistics difficult. Because of logistics, many start from the east and do a 2 day walk crossing Kearsarge Pass to get to the start. Roper deliberately avoided making his route go over Mt Whitney as it would have essentially followed a very long section of the John Muir Trail and hence would be mainly a track walk which is not what he was seeking. Also he assumed that many that might attempt the Sierra High Route would have already completed the John Muir Trail hence why, where possible, he kept off that trail. With the knowledge of the 1970s the Sierra High Route was a good choice for a mostly off-track route. However, forty years later, more exploration of the high passes and basins has been done and there are now several other suggested high routes that criss-cross each other. It is now possible to walk the entire range with minimal track walking.

The first is the Southern Sierra High Route (SSHR).This was designed as an extension of Ropers route to include Mt Whitney. It follows Ropers High Route from Bishop Pass to Upper Basin then follows a long section of the John Muir Trail (JMT) to just past Vidette Meadows (following the JMT was the very thing Roper was trying to avoid) then goes mostly off-track and follows a series of high passes and basins past Mt Whitney. The southern half looks like a good off-track route, only problem is that much of the northern half follows the John Muir Trail. Logistics are good as all access points are on one side of the range, the east side. One problem for through hikers on this route is it passes through the restricted Mt Whitney zone for which it is hard to obtain permits. By using a variation and following trails to the west of Mt Whitney for one day, a special permit for the Mt Whitney zone is not needed.

The other new high route is by Andrew Skurka which he has named the Kings Canyon Basin High Route (KCBHR). Essentially it starts from the west side of the range at Lodgepole and follows some high ridges and passes to meet the SSHR and JMT at Vidette Meadows. There is a brief section on the John Muir Trail then it goes off-track over Gardiner, Arrow and Lake Basins then descends and follows a long section of the John Muir Trail through Le Conte Canyon to Muir Pass. It then heads south into Ionian Basin, descends the very rough Enchanted Gorge and finishes with a huge climb over Monarch Divide to join the SHR with a long descent to Roads End in Kings Canyon. The centre section over the basins looks very attractive but the end includes includes some rough walking with long descents and climbs which are really just a way of getting back to the roads to the west (this is admitted in the description). While Skurkas guide states that logistics are good as the start and end are close to each other on the west side, the reality is that logistics are poorly thought out. All the possible resupply points are on the east side of the range requiring a very long drive of 2 days return. Unless you can do all of this walk without resupply by either running or carrying 20 days plus of food or are prepared to pay packers to resupply you by mule (expensive!) this is not an easy route to organise resupply.

Any long distance off-track traverse of the range ideally should include a potential ascent of Mt Whitney and also be easy to organise food drops. It should be completely based on the east or west of the range but not both as it can take 10 hours to drive from one side of the range to the other. Because of the almost level valley on the east side that is the more practical side to organise a trip from. By combining the major parts of all three existing routes, you can create what must be close to being the ultimate high level route in the range, I have termed it the Sierra High Traverse. I am not a Sierra Range expert and I expect someone must have already done a similar trip at some stage so if you have another name for it then let me know.

The Sierra High Traverse route

From south to north, my suggested route follows much of the the Southern Sierra High Route from Cottonwood Creek past Mt Whitney to Vidette Meadows (in detail, Cottonwood Lakes to Soldier Lake, off-trail north over Crabtree Pass then Discovery Pass to the south side of Mt Whitney, sidetrip to summit then west to Guitar Lake, west to Sandy Hollow then north up trail to Bighorn Plateau, off-trail to Wright Lakes, over Rockwell Pass then Shepherd Pass, down to The Pothole (possible supply point on Shepherd Pass Trail) over Shpeherd Pass to Golden Bear Lake then join the JMT near Vidette Meadows), briefly follow the John Muir Trail over Glen Pass, then cross over Rae Col or follow the marked track into Sixty Lake Basin. Go over Sixty Lake Pass into Gardiner Basin to join the KCBHR. An alternative is to follow the KCBHR over Gardiner Pass but this approach skips the lovely Sixty Lakes Basin. Continue north over King Col and descend to Woods Creek. A couple of hours east on trails then off-track again and up the first creek then over White Fork Saddle to White Fork Creek or up the second creek (White Fork Creek) then  climb over White Fork Pass to Bench Lake (for its classic view) then down to the base of Cartridge Pass. Alternative is to follow the KCBHR over Arrow Col then down to the river below Cartridge Pass. Climb Cartridge Pass to Lake Basin and include a short sidetrip to Marion Lake 9this visits the main feature of the first basin on the SHR without the 600 feet climb!). Then head over Dumbbell Lakes Pass then leave the KCBHR and go north over Amphitheatre Pass to Palisade Creek (Skurka has updated his KCBHR to now take this route) then descend to the JMT. Turn east and follow the John Muir Trail for a few hours climbing the Golden Stairs to Palisade Lake. (An alternative from Lake Basin is to follow the Sierra High Route over Frozen Lake Pass then along the John Muir Trail to Palisade Lakes but that involves more track walking) From Palisade Lakes follow the Sierra High Route all the way to its end at Twin Lakes.

From north to south, follow the Sierra High Route from Twin Lakes through to Palisade Lakes, Leave the SHR by turning right and descend the Golden Stairs following the John Muir Trail for a few hours then leave the JMT to follow Palisade Creek over Amphitheatre Pass to join the KCBHR. Over Dumbell Pass, a sidetrip to Marion Lake then over Cartridge Pass and up to Bench Lake. Continue over White Fork Pass then down to join the John Muir Trail. Walk west a few hours then head south off-track over King Col into Gardiner Basin then head east into Sixty Lakes Basin to join the track system. Follow the John Muir Trail over Glen Pass to Vidette Meadows, soon after leave the JMT for Golden Bear Lake and follow the SSHR over Mt Whitney to its end.

The suggested route picks up many of the main features of all three routes. Essentially most of the Sierra High Route is followed including the Marion Lake basin, most of the off-track sections of the Southern Sierra High Route are followed and it includes the three major basins which form the centre of the Kings Canyon Basin High Ruote. One major high basin on the KCBHR that is bypassed is Ionian Basin but you if you have time (and sufficient food) it can be included as a sidetrip from Muir Pass.

To be practical, resupply points should be within 1/2 tro 1 days walk each way from the main route. Drops could be delivered by mules to the route or left in the bear proof boxes at the road ends (much cheaper). Which sites you use would depend on how fast you walk and how many days food you want to carry. They are all on the east side of the range, Whitney Portal (special permit needed to use this as a resupply), Shepherd Pass Trail (preferable to Mt Whitney Portal as no special permit needed), Kearsarge Pass, Taboose Pass, Bishop South Lake (Bishop Pass), Bishop North Lake (Piute Pass), Pine Creek, Mammoth Lakes and Toulumne Meadows are all suitable. The start/end and all resupply points are readily accessed from the east making stocking reupply points and transport to and from the trail ends fairly easy to organise. Overall, for normal backpackers walking for 5 to 7 hours a day, I would expect this to be a 50 to 55 day walk and would suggest starting in mid-July and finish around mid-September. For runners, judging from the 2015 record run, 12 to 14 days might be possible. Some friends of ours used our base plan above and walked about 2/3rds of this route over 35 days with some 10 to 12 hour days, it all depends on what sort of trip you desire.

Which way to walk

There are pluses and minuses for each direction
North to south
Pluses are the range is not quite as high in the north so acclimitization is slightly easier. Also the northern side of the passes tend to have more scree and be steeper so it is easier from this direction to plot the safest route up the passes.
Minuses are that you would need to start the traverse in early to mid-summer and snow can be expected on some of the more northern passes making them more difficult. Also while the southern slopes of the passes are generally easier, it can be harder to pick out the easiest route when descending.
South to North
Pluses are that you are less likely to encounter snow in the passes and the sun is mainly on your back.
A minus is that after climbing Mt Whitney, the rest of the walk could become an anti-climax.

I would walk north to south and thus make the ascent of Mt Whitney a highlight near the end of the trip. As we have completed most of Ropers Route, on our next visit to the Sierras we plan to repeat some section salready walked to check some variations plus do all of the southern half of this traverse starting at Bishop Pass.

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Last updated : November 11th 2017