Originally published in the MCSA journal for 2018.
We thought we had it all figured out. Fancy map-apps were downloaded, a step-by-step route description was at the ready, and internet forums had been trawled for the latest information. However, upon arrival in Bishop, California, it very quickly became clear that our intended hike – the Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) – would be totally impossible. A massive late winter snow dump had dealt our mission a crippling blow. But our minds were set – we were itching to get into the mountains! And so we ended up in a McDonald’s drinking $1 coffee (surprisingly good), cobbling together a route with the aid of a National Geographic map which would prove to be indispensable in the days to come. This is the story of two friends on two hikes.
The idea of doing a hike in the United States was born when I decided to go on the American Alpine Club/MCSA trad climbing exchange. If I was flying halfway across the world, I might as well milk it and spend as much time as possible there. So, after three weeks of magnificent trad climbing with an amazing bunch of new friends, I split and met up with my friend Chris Arderne, who was living in Washington D.C. at the time. Together we set off from Las Vegas in a rental car, heading into the West, ready to have ourselves an adventure in the mountains.
We had already heard down the grapevine about the large amounts of snow, but our first sight of the Sierra in eastern California really made it crystal clear. On the plus side, it was spectacular. There is something about snow-capped mountains that is beautiful and powerful – you just have to stop and stare. The snow seemed surreal though, as we had just driven through Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth with a record high temperature of 56.7°C. In the depths of Death Valley, we paid a visit to Badwater Basin, which, at an altitude of -86 m, is the lowest point in the US. Amazingly, only 140 km away is Mt Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 States, at an altitude of 4 421 m. Barren deserts and alpine peaks are friendly neighbours in America – a land of natural extremes.
Upon arrival in Bishop it was time to figure out what to do. The SoSHR, our original goal, involved 160km of off-trail navigating and scrambling and never dropping below 3 000 m. When enquiring at the ranger’s offices we were told of people coming out of the mountains reporting long, hard days ‘post-holing’ through the snow at similar, if not lower, altitudes. Too embarrassed to ask the ranger what post-holing was, I pulled Chris aside afterwards. He explained to me that as you walk through fresh powder, the snow cannot take the point load of your foot, so you are continuously punching through till you hit solid ground, leaving a trail of holes behind you.
So, what now? Firstly, we tried to enlist the help of Stan, a local Inyo National Forest Ranger. Chris was optimistic about the knowledge and expertise of local rangers and confident they would be able to help us. Unfortunately, Stan seemed much more adept at giving us wildly enthusiastic handshakes than supplying any worthwhile information. We realised we were on our own. We bought a map and planned a possible route: we would attempt to enter the mountains via Bishop Pass, and then head south on the well-trodden John Muir Trail (JMT). We would pack enough food for six or seven days in the mountains and adjust our route based on weather and snow conditions. At this point, the trip was fraught with uncertainty. We were not even sure we would be able to get over Bishop Pass. But you never know if you don’t try, right?
With full packs and eager spirits, we set off from the trailhead on Day One. All our food had been packed into bear canisters – another first for me. The Sierra is full of black bears, and whilst they are apparently not very dangerous, they are notorious food bandits, able to smell a tasty Clif Bar (energy bar) from miles away. Every night one must store all food, rubbish and pots in bear canisters (essentially a tough, heavy plastic tube) and stash them a safe distance from camp. It’s all very clunky and inconvenient, especially the freezing early-morning half-naked dash to get the oats and tea. Nonetheless, the novelty made for a great experience and, by keeping the bears wild, adds to the sustainability of hiking in the mountains – something I wholeheartedly support.
On the way to Bishop Pass we very quickly started encountering the snow. The higher we got, the thicker it got. If you’re lucky, the thin re-frozen crust on top of the snow is strong enough to support your weight and you can move quickly. But then, all of sudden – wham – you’re up to your knees or even waist in snow! That’s when I started learning all about post-holing. It is very difficult to know when it’s going to happen so every step is taken in suspense. Every time you fall through it takes considerable energy just trying to get out and keep moving. Progress is slow and extremely tiring. Oh, and you can forget about keeping your pants and shoes dry.
Full of energy we put our heads down and pushed on. Soon we were close to the top of Bishop Pass (3 649 m). Here the snow got very deep on the steep slopes. We were lucky though; people who had been exiting the mountains via the Pass had cut a path through the snow. This made our lives a lot easier and we were able to re-use a trail of post-holes without punching them ourselves. Suddenly we were on top! The view was spectacular. The post-holing was worth it, we were surrounded by snow and it was beautiful. A short while later we established camp and revelled in the pure mountain glory.
We awoke to the crisp sound of footsteps crunching frozen snow. Two hikers passed us, moving quickly over the snow. We sheepishly realised that we had overslept and should already have been hiking – the top crust of snow is much colder and thus stronger in the mornings, reducing the chances of post-holing. We hurriedly packed up and got going. On Day Two we dropped into the main valley and linked up with the JMT. We started encountering increasing numbers of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hikers on their 4 270 km odyssey across the US from Mexico to Canada. We were able to get valuable information as we were heading the other way. It didn’t sound good. The upper valleys ahead were heavily blanketed in snow and some of the passes were apparently steep and treacherous. Almost all the PCT’ers were equipped with an ice axe and micro-spikes (mini-crampons for grip on snow and ice). We only had our shoes and trekking poles. Nonetheless, we would keep going and try our best.
On Day Three our objective was Mather Pass (3 688 m) which, by some accounts, was one of the toughest passes on the JMT. After a few hours of soul-crushing post-holing we were actually quite close to the top of the Pass. And then it got steep. Chris was able to ascend without too much fuss with the tread of his new shoes, but my worn hiking shoes were completely flat underneath and could not be relied on. The only way I could ascend was by hacking out steps in the snow like the mountaineers of old and slowly, very carefully, moving up. It was nerve-wracking – a slip could have sent me sliding a long way down. Ultimately, I had to make the hard decision that I was not comfortable continuing, especially considering that we didn’t know what lay ahead on the other side of the Pass. It really sucks making decisions like that, but hey, at least we gave it our best shot.
And so, after Chris ran up the Pass to see what we were missing on the other side (more post-holes), we turned back. In a way it was a great relief. Every day had been so uncertain till now with objectives, routes and intended mileages constantly changing. Now we knew what we were in for and, whilst we would be re-tracing our steps, it was so beautiful that we didn’t really care. The two days we spent getting back to Bishop were fantastic – cold swims in the river, observing the fearless marmots, and just being at peace in the mountains.
Back in Bishop, after a shower and a humungous milkshake, it was time to strategise again. Our early exit meant we had time on our hands, and so we decided to head back in to the mountains. Originally, we had wanted to summit Mt Whitney, but snow conditions meant this was still unrealistic. As we were still adamant about climbing an actual peak, we designed a four-day trail that would allow us to Climb Mt Langley (4 275 m). First, we made a quick trip to the nearby Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the oldest non-clonal organisms in world. One of the pines has been measured as 5 065 years old! I’ll be honest, beforehand I wasn’t really expecting much, but visiting the pines, and following the interesting and informative forest walk was a captivating and humbling experience. If you’re in the area, go there and be amazed by these humble-looking, yet deeply beautiful, old souls.
With re-filled bear canisters and fresh socks, we tackled the second hike. The mountains now looked very different: the late-April high temperatures meant that the snow was melting fast. Our post-holing days were over! We flew up the passes and easily covered our planned distances. However, the lack of snow was a little bittersweet. Snowy peaks had turned into big piles of scree. The sublime beauty of the snow was gone and replaced with harsh rocky landscapes. On the other hand, it was great moving fast, and the lack of snow meant we would be able to get much higher into the mountains.
Summiting Mt Langley (4 275 m) turned out to be quite a breeze. The route was easy to follow with massive cairns, and we were well acclimatised to the altitude. From our research we were expecting some steep-ish, exposed scrambling, but it never materialised. Following the line of least resistance, we sauntered to the summit and were rewarded with an awesome panorama with the Sierra stretching far into the north and south. It felt good to have achieved our goal, even if it was not the most daring or ambitious objective. All the while, the serenity of the mountains was juxtaposed with air force jets roaring across the sky – a stark reminder of America’s military might.
After our return to Bishop and another celebratory milkshake, our time together in the mountains was over. We learnt that even if you plan an adventure to the tee, the situation inevitably changes, and you need to be able to roll with the punches. What we had originally planned, and what eventually transpired, were entirely different, but we made the most of what we had and gave it our all. Ultimately, any time spent exploring in the mountains with a good friend is well-spent, and so I walked away from the Sierra a happy man.