04 January 2017

Sierra High Route/Mt Whitney - Preparation

In July-August 2016, we did a thirty-one day hiking trip through eastern Sierra Nevada (California) more or less along the navigable parts of the highest spine of the Sierras. It was split into two sections:
One travelled north for nine days from Mammoth Lakes (Devil's Postpile) to Mono Village/Twin Lakes (near Bridgeport) on the Sierra High Route.

The second travelled south for 21 days from Mammoth Lakes (George Lake) to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead (south of Mt Whitney and near Lone Pine).

The hike was based on the Sierra High Route as far south as Mather Pass and then a JMT/PCT Mt Whitney finish (plus lots of side trips). We travelled roughly 370km/230miles, crossed 29 passes, climbed (and then descended) 27,800m/91,200ft (that's up and down three Mt Everests from sea-level!). Sticking more to the eastern spine of the Sierras meant that logistics - drop-offs, pick-ups, food drops - were more easily realised.

It was split up into five smaller segments based on where we could restock our food. We used a hiker twice to save us hiking down a long way and back up with full packs, which saved us a stack of time, but was expensive.
  1. Days 1-6 (5 nights). Devil's Postpile Trailhead to Tuolumne Meadows. Picked up a food package that we mailed to the Post Office there.
  2. Days 6-9 (3 nights). Tuolumne Meadows to Mono Village/Twin Lakes. Caught a lift back to Mammoth Lakes and restocked from our stowed stuff. Had an extra night back in Mammoth to shed unnecessary gear (and caught a gig by Michael Franti at Bluespalooza!)
  3. Days 10-16 (6 nights). Lake George Trackhead (Mammoth Lakes) to Piute Pass. Rendezvoused with a hiker at the pass for the food drop.
  4. Days 16-23 (7 nights). Piute Pass to Taboose Pass. Another hiker rendezvous. 
  5. Days 23-31 (8 nights). Taboose Pass to Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. Another organised pick up to take us to Lone Pine.
During summer, Mammoth Mountain Resort has frequent shuttles to Reds Meadow that stop at Devil's Postpile Parking. We organised private lifts to pick up from Mono Village, drop off at Lake George (though there is a free trolley bus from Mammoth that would have got us near there), and pick up from Cottonwood Lakes. The shuttle we used also organised the food hiker and stored/transported our stuff from Mammoth to Lone Pine. There are a couple of shuttle services operating on the eastern Sierras.

Aside from one US Parks-run campsite at Vogelsang, the commercial campground at Tuoloumne Meadows (both on day 6) and one open-air long-drop at Crabtree (day 29), we passed no showers or toilets for the whole 31 days. So be prepared for dunking yourself in cold lakes (without soap!) and burying your toilet-waste. In most areas you also need to carry out your toilet paper (otherwise little critters come and dig it up 'cos they like the paper!). We found this request a little strange at first, but got used to it.

Bear Canisters
It is a requirement in nearly all the areas we were in to either carry a bear canister or store all your food in a bear-box. When doing the Sierra High Route, bear boxes are rare or non-existent, so we used bear canisters. Ours stored about a week's food for one person per canister, so we took one each. Ours weighed 1.2kg/Your mileage may vary. There are other precautions, too, like cooking and cleaning eating utensils some distance from your tent to avoid curious bears trundling through your campsite in the middle of the night. We took all those precautions, and were still keen to see a black bear at a distance, but never saw one at all, even though their numbers are apparently increasing. I guess the strategy is really working!

Well, when wanting to reduce the weight of up to eight days food, we fell to our usual staples of dehydes. Our main policy was energy dense foods that were devoid of water, 'cos we could always add that. Breakfasts were mainly toasted muesli (we made a big mistake in getting some "super-food" ones for days 10-31, which we regretted. Plain and sweet is a good plan). Lunches were (Australian bought) VitaWeats with "relatively long life" cheese and various spreads inc peanut butter, pesto, jam, and choc-macadamia spread. For dinners, we sourced from PackLite Foods for main meals and Harmony House for additives (both US businesses), as well as Back Country Cuisine (NZ) and good old Continental (Unilever) and San Remo (Aus) for more cheesy pasta dishes. Must say that when we trialled the PackLites at home, we didn't think much of several of them, but when we were on the trail, they all tasted delicious! There's a Safeway in Mammoth Lakes, that we made good use of for hot choc sachets, chocolate etc, though Liptons' Chai Latte sachets were sadly missing. 
Water is plentiful in most parts of the Sierra Nevada, though we found that the PCT between Crabtree and Rock Creek was probably our driest time (and perhaps from Tioga Pass Road to Gaylor Lakes) with three hours of no access to water and a "westerly aspect" with little shade. Because we don't trust that everyone buries their toilet waste according to the Park's principles, we ran all our water through a Platypus GravityWorks water filter and then either "pilled" or boiled it. No sense in spoiling your trip with gastroenteritis! We saw a few other people drinking untreated water straight out of streams. 

A must. You'll get bounced out of the park if you're caught without one. We were checked once. The US Parks wilderness/back-country permit system is a little complicated, but in the end we obtained a permit each for northbound and southbound trips. Both were picked up in Mammoth Lakes Welcome Centre the day before each section. You can book six months out, which I'd suggest as the place is popular, esp. around Mt Whitney. So with the two pickups, and the two food rendezvous, and nominated campsites, we had to stick to a bit of a schedule, but still found lots of flexibility in timing within that.

Maps and References
Like most Sierra High Route hikers, we had a copy of Steve Roper's Sierra High Route : Traversing Timberline CountryIt proved a good read on track with the history etc, but was maddeningly light on details like roughly/relatively how long it takes to get somewhere, which made route planning full of guess work. We had a couple of friends whom we could ask, who gave good ideas and encouragement with our preparations.
We also made good use of Andrew Skurka's excellent map resources, as well as Tom Harrison's (esp. for the hike south of Mather Pass).

Military jet fly-overs
Unfortunately, the US Navy at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station like to fly their jets over the wilderness parts of the Sierra Nevada, exactly where we wanted some peace and quiet. This activity was very annoying at the time, and took a bit of getting used to, and seems extraordinarily inconsiderate of the them. The heat we could stand. The talus we could stand. The jets whooshing about...? It wasn't all the time, but occasionally up to ten flights a day, some lasting 5-10 minutes or so. Seemed to be really noticeable around Virginia Peak in the north, and Rae Lakes in the south, but they were noticeable everywhere.

If you're prepared to deal with all of the above, and be fit enough to hike over at times a lot of scree/talus carrying seven days of food, and deal with a lot of sun and possibly black bears, then you're in for a treat!
As seen on Andrew Purdam's Bushwalking Treasure Box blog.
Disclaimer: The information given is of a general nature only and whilst all care has been taken, no responsibility can be assumed by the author.Conditions change, regulations change. Any reader doing these hikes after reading these notes must show due diligence and be experienced enough to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Many people would call this a tough hike. 

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