PCT 18 | The Sierra High Route

Day 88: Vogelshriek

Sierra High Route: Camp to Vogelsang Lake, elevation 10,300′, low of 29*F

“Do you know what Vogelsang means in German?” asked Mary Poppins. “Birdsong.”

“That’s lovely,” Six said. She looked reassured. Of course, the birdsongs of the Sierras tended to come in shrill, alarming shrieks, but I didn’t mention that.

The High Route is mostly cross-country rock scrambling, but we followed an easy trail all the way to the lake. We passed through Vogelsang Camp, a 1940s-era backcountry glamping site. We had expected possible trail magic, not a ghost town.

“This would be a good place to film You Can Hike But You Can’t Hide,” said Six, referencing a horror movie concept we had developed back in Washington.

We glimpsed the backside of Yosemite Valley and the iconic Half Dome. It was at least twelve miles away, but it the view from this angle felt intimate.

We made camp at the lake and enjoyed one of life’s better sunsets.

All in all, we agreed, an amazing start.

Vogelsang Lake wasn’t particularly cold in late September. But the wind shrieked across the rocks with a nerve-wracking force that shook the sides of my tent all night, as though the mountains were trying to scrape themselves clean.

Day 89: The Search for Dark Bluff

Sierra High Route: Vogelsang Lake to a very pleasant basin, elevation 10,200′

“We planned for one day to get from Blue Lake to Thousand Island Lake,” one of the bros said. “But it took us three with all the route-finding. There was a lot of, look for this waterfall and go 300 feet to the north kinda stuff.” He shook his head in disgust.

“We’ve studied the route extensively,” I said, shifting impatiently.

He looked at me sternly. “It’s hard. We ran into a British couple and the husband kept apologizing to the wife for bringing her there.”

After they marched off toward the trailhead, I rolled my eyes. “Fucking bromongers. What does he think route-finding IS?”

We beat our way up a tree-covered bluff to the open country, and walked across the soft tundra in the general direction of Blue Lakes Pass.

It seemed that we all had different ideas about how to climb it. Poppins went straight across the sketchy snowfield, Six scrambled over the loose rock above it, and I backtracked to the talus directly below the pass and took my time. That’s the beauty of a high route, but it was also the first sign that our communication as a team was slightly lacking.

At 11,250 ft, the view from the pass was unrivaled. The prominent peaks of the Ritter Range overlapped the spiky Minarets with a sea of Sierra Nevada stretching towards the great beyond. We would cross the Ritter Range first — though from here it looked impenetrable.

The descent to Blue Lake was less technical than the way up, but it took longer. As I picked my way over slabs of rock and tufts of grass, I wobbled nervously under the weight of my backpack. I loved scrambling and was usually quite proficient, but suddenly I felt clumsy and slow.

It was so easy to follow the water from the lake basin to Bench Canyon that it didn’t feel like route-finding at all. We dropped down and hiked along the creek.

Something was wrong. I told Six and Poppins to go on while I dove behind a pile of rocks.

They waited a little ways down. “Everything I ate yesterday and today came out in a form I’ve never seen before,” I moaned. “That probably a one-time thing, right?”

“Probably,” Six said uneasily.

“Well, if it’s not, I can get a t-shirt made that says I hiked the Sierra High Route with giardia.”

We looked at the time, consulted the map, and determined that we would not make it to our intended camp at Twin Island Lakes. Steve Roper, who designed and wrote the book on the route, said that the upcoming section had a lot of tricky navigation and that hikers should prepare to be “temporarily lost”. (Of course this was 1980, before GPS navigation rendered “being lost” obsolete and replaced it with “being in the wrong place without knowing how to get to the right one.”) We decided that we did have time to climb out of the canyon, contour around a “dark bluff,” and descend into “a very pleasant basin” before the light faded.

I wanted to follow Roper’s directions precisely, and exit the canyon in a specific spot. Mary Poppins had only the GPS coordinates of each waypoint — in this case, the “dark bluff” — and was inclined to beeline towards them regardless of terrain. He was a fast and able rock scrambler and took off like a shot. Six followed.

As the person who had the idea and did all the planning for the High Route, I felt responsible for our success and safety. But if the other two wouldn’t stay within earshot and deliberate before making moves, I wasn’t sure what I could do besides adjust my attitude to say everyone for themself. I fumed my way up the steep, rocky slope and tried to steer clear of the cliff bands. We all met at the top.

In the next hour and a half, things only got worse. We got off route, too high on the bluff for easy travel. In the wrong place without being sure how to get to the right one. So we contoured in the right direction, hoping not to hit an impossible cliff.

I was pissed at Mary Poppins, but recognized that getting to camp in the daylight meant swallowing that and taking advantage of his superior speed. He scrambled ahead of us to scout pathways over the rocks. “Does it go?” I shouted.

“It goes!” he called back.

Six was absolutely radiating stress, and I felt guilty. Poppins and I assured her that we knew where we were and had time to get to camp before dark; I was anxiously and secretly unsure.

I should have stopped and tucked my trekking poles in my pack, but time felt too precious even for that. So when I came to a small cliff and needed both hands, I decided to toss them to the bottom — to commit.

When I scrambled down, I saw that one had almost snapped. These fancy lightweight poles weren’t as hardy as my old heavy ones, apparently. It hung together by a shred of carbon fiber. I swore mightily, threw both of them in my backpack, and moved along.

Of course, we made it to the basin with time to spare. The sharp, rocky cliffs gave way to soft green tundra and a gentle trickle of water that cut a thin line down the mountain.

Mary Poppins was unimpressed. “This is not a pleasant basin,” he said. “So exposed. Let’s keep going to the next lake.”

“No,” I said.

“It’s not an unpleasant basin,” Six offered meekly.

“Fine, I’ll scout the next lake and come back and let you know.”

“NO!” we both cried. Poppins scowled, but went across the trickle to pitch his cuben-fiber tarptent.

“I need a hug,” Six said.

I wrapped my arms around her, backpack and all. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry I brought you here, to this basin that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said. “You were very clear about what to expect. I just didn’t feel safe, and I was sure the sun was going to set while we were still up there, and I started to freak out.”

“That’s valid.”

“You sounded so calm and cheerful, saying things like, let’s keep up the pace!

I didn’t say it, but all that meant was that I was freaking out too.

We debriefed a little over dinner, pointing out the moments that went wrong and agreeing to do better the next day. But it was so cold that we all retreated to our tents before we finished eating.

It took most of the duct and leukotape we had to secure my broken pole, which I needed to pitch my tent.

The wind was even worse than the night before. My tent hit me in the face every other minute, keeping me awake. I crept out around 1:00am to try and improve the pitch; it worked a little but not enough.

Day 90: It Gets Better

Sierra High Route: A very pleasant basin to Mammoth Lakes

I did not feel good in the morning. Lingering nausea and lack of sleep turned me into a grumpy monster, at least until I saw the light hit the peaks across the valley.

Navigation to Twin Island Lakes proved surprisingly simple. The great slabs of metamorphosed Ritter volcano rock were ideal for scrambling: broad and rarely wobbly.

When we arrived, we discovered we didn’t even have to ford the river. In late September, it was a easy rock hop.

We dropped down towards the valley floor only to climb back up again. The next obstacle was an ascent next to a cascading waterfall, which I took to be the section that the bromongers had warned us about. There was a clear social trail all the way to the top, so I wasn’t sure why.

The route to Lake Catherine was complicated, but we surprised ourselves by making it up without any mistakes. Roper’s forewarned Class 3 scramble (“this section could result in anxious moments for the beginning backpacker”) was actually simple, safe, and sturdy.

Roper had promised a “sensuous glacier,” which I was inclined to doubt in the face of climate change.

I checked the map. “Guys,” I laughed, “I don’t think this is actually Lake Catherine.”

We rounded a corner and there it was.

North Glacier Pass was short and sweet, barely even a climb from the lake.

We popped over and there it was, the desert east of the Sierra. Mary Poppins bypassed the snowfield, but Six and I chose to utilize the microspikes we had carried for nearly 200 miles.

Unfortunately, she dropped one into the talus. Even more unfortunately, they were Slippy’s.

“You know,” I said, “the part that took the bromongers three days took us less than twenty-four hours.”

We had options for what to do next. The High Route had taken longer than anticipated, but we could keep going. Or we could get back on the PCT.

It took us far too long to say what we were all thinking: we wanted to go into town, TONIGHT.

It would be tough. Ten miles to the nearest trailhead, and it was already 4:00pm. But where there’s a will, there’s another thru-hiker’s dad waiting by his car at dusk.

Mammoth Lakes was a ski town and we gladly paid $100 for a room at the Motel 6. I didn’t want to leave the shower, ever, but there was a pub across the street with friend ravioli and hot wings.

Our server asked if we did anything exciting today. We all started to laugh — a little too hard.

Up next: It’s all downhill from hereā€¦ or is it? Cloud finds herself struggling unexpectedly, both physically and mentally, in the Sierras.