The Sierra High Route
|Be safe on snowpack|
Composite topographical maps are the only way to go and the best are Tom Harrison's excellent mile-to-the-inch sheets (five cover most of the High Sierra). You'll need two for the 50-mile segment described: Mono Divide and Mammoth. Each costs around seven dollars; to order, call (800) 265-9090. You may also purchase these maps at outlets on the east side of the range.
As an alternate, the U.S. Forest Service publishes a decent map, with the same scale, called John Muir Wilderness/National Parks Backcountry North Section; it's based upon U.S.G.S. quadrangles. Though unwieldy because of its kitelike size, you'll need only this one map. East-side ranger stations usually have it available for sale.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight travel, and quotas have been established for each east-side road head. Unhappily, there are no first-come, first-serve permits available nowadays. So, if you plan to visit the range from June through September, you should obtain a permit several months in advance. Contact Inyo National Forest (760-873-2408, www.r5.fs.fed.us/inyo/), and have the following information ready: the name of the chosen entry trail (Pine Creek Pass Trail, in this case), the date of entry, the number of people, and the exit date and place. Have alternate dates and trails at the ready in case the quota has already been reached. To chastise hikers who make multiple reservations in order to cover many possible dates, the service charges three dollars per person. Have a credit card handy; your permit will be mailed quickly. Non-permit information can be obtained from ranger stations in Bishop (760-873-2500) and Mammoth Lakes (760-924-5500).
The High Sierra is a gentle wilderness, but you can get in trouble here almost as easily as in more remote areas. As a general rule, take your time and use your head.
- While the weather is generally excellent in summertime, storms do occur. Pitch camp before afternoon thunderstorms hit, thus avoiding problems such as hypothermia, and stay off ridges during thunderstorms.
- At the higher elevations, be especially careful of steep, loose talus.
- The dangers of climbing steep, hard snow cannot be overemphasized; avoid snowfields whenever possible. If you have to cross one, wait until the snow softens and kick big steps.
- Inexperienced backpackers should have their packs carried by others on hazardous terrain.
- While there are few significant stream crossings on the route, cross with care during times of high water.
- Solo hiking in this rugged area can be rewarding and dangerous. Leave word with someone about your plans.
- Store food carefully at night; bears are seen more often than they used to be, even at timberline.
The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by yours truly (Mountaineers Books, 1997 to order, call 800-553-4453), describes the High Route from start to finish, although it leaves specific route-finding decisions to the reader. Numerous small maps are included, but you should also buy one of the overall ones described above. In addition, a 40-page history of the early exploration of the High Sierra makes for good bedtime reading.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication