High Sierra mountains.
Part 2 of what i’m thinking of as the mountains and canyons plan.
In the first post of this series i set out my idea of a life plan for the next few years, the drivers for that being my new found fitness and as a response to the down time experience of the pandemic : also that i was at one time a capable long distance hiker but i never did get to hike some of the routes that i really wanted to.
For a little bit of history here i’m referring back to 3 trips we made to the High Sierra mountains of California, the one road trip we did in the same area and the region i always wanted to go to but never did : the canyonlands of southern Utah. Some 20 years ago now i had to go out to San Diego in California and see a cardiac surgical procedure that our hospital was thinking about doing : partially as a result of my visit and report and partially as a result of trying one, and failing badly, we never went down that route.
However, i got a trip to California out of it and after a few days at the hospital we hired a car and went off on a road trip ; i’d always wanted to visit Yosemite in my climbing days, realised that i was probably never going to climb at the standard needed but what i hadn’t realised is that the hiking, in what John Muir called the ‘range of light’ is truly awesome….an over-used expression i know but it’s the mot-juste on this occasion. During that first trip we only had time for a quick look around the valley and take a couple of day hikes before we had to leave, drive up to Tuolomne Meadows and take the Mono pass over the Sierra crest, down to the bizarre Mono lake….wish you were here…and then drive down highway 395 towards Lone Pine and the eastern Sierra.
Mono lake (not my photograph)
Now, here’s a question for you : where are the Alabama hills and why are they famous ?.
If you’re a bit confused as in “what’s swampy Alabama got to do with the high mountains and desert of California” then it’s that the Alabama hills are a feature in the landscape just outside Lone Pine on highway 395 in California and is where John Ford filmed many sections of his early western movies. When we went there we actually stayed at the Lone Pine motel which Ford and crew, including one Marion Robert Morrison….who ?, ok i’ll make it easy….AKA John Wayne or just ‘The Duke’. Well, when we stayed there they still had original black and white photographs and movie posters of many of the great western films actors , and while we were there we drove carefully down the dusty track out to the Alabama hills one evening and had a walk around.
The Alabama hills.…and once again not my photograph.
One of the strange features of the whole Sierra Nevada range is that if you make your approach from the west, essentially up the western slope from the coast, that you don’t really see the High Sierra mountains. Then, when you get to Yosemite itself you’re still not seeing the High Sierra mountains because you’re driving into a long and narrow, but deep, glacial valley that has steep-to-vertical walls. The place to really see and appreciate what the High Sierra mountains (officially the Sierra Nevada ) is highway 395 which runs north-south along the eastern or inland side : that route also leads towards Death valley which is weirdly below sea level and one of the strangest, most austere places that i have ever visited.
From highway 395, or better , from the small town of Lone Pine the Sierra Nevada presents as a wall of jagged peaks, ridges and spires ; at that southern end of the Sierra is the highest point in the contiguous states ; mount Whitney at 14, 505 feet. During our trip there we drove up to the Whitney trail head and did a short day hike for a look around but this is very big country indeed and we didn’t get very far, nor were we really equipped for a high mountain route. Today, i find it hard to put across a sense of scale and what that high desert-mountain ‘is like’ as it isn’t anything like what we have in the UK and maybe not even Europe except for some parts of the Spanish Pyrenees. An example is the trail that we were trying to walk ; the John Muir trail, now, while that starts in Yosemite valley and wiggles around a bit it’s still 200 miles plus and pops out just below Mt Whitney.
During our 3rd trip out there, the one in which we tried to walk the JMT we ended up having to drop off the trail further to the north on highway 395, to an area called Mammoth lakes : we’d made it out of Yosemite and via Toulomne meadows and then over the first real high point , the Donahue pass and into the eastern Sierra . From that point to the southern end of the trail would still be some 10 days of solid hiking with long ascents and descents…..distance under load, a high mountain environment although ‘easy’ trails and no navigation.
If you can’t tell by now i fell in love with the high mountains of the John Muir wilderness , what he himself called The range of light. I always wanted to go back there with all the lessons we had learned from our hikes, maybe not to attempt the JMT but to do what we did later in that trip and that was to take on shorter, loop hikes of 5 days or so : carrying all the kit , food and fuel for 10 days out there is hardcore work whereas 5 days might just be a go.
Part 2 and what about the canyonlands ?….coming up next.
The Maze, Utah.
My new multi-adventure group page here : https://www.facebook.com/groups/1257497434599364