The Sierra High Route

The Reward of a Tough Hike: Perfect Campsites
  |  Gorp.com
Lake at 10,600 feet in Lake Basin, from camp at 10,800 feet
Another perfect campsite

Our campsites were, even by Sierra standards, spectacular. We tried always to choose a spot well away from water, at least 100 feet, to avoid crushing a moist streamside meadow. The next criterion was the view, and our only arguments of the trip concerned which way the tent door should face, toward the crest peaks, perhaps, or toward an uncommonly fine example of glacial polish. So many inspiring campsites exist on the High Route that I resolved never to mention any specific places, hoping this tactic would encourage people to spread out according to their own inclinations.

One site in Lake Basin proved especially memorable. Our tent barely fit into a niche perched above a big drop-off. Half a dozen lakes glistened below, as befits a place with that name, and after dinner we shivered while watching the orb of fire drop into the western haze. Suddenly, a San Franciscolike fog-bank rounded a ridge several miles away and surged toward us at remarkable speed. Just as we were about to be engulfed, the fog mysteriously pulled back — and was gone. A huge zephyr-creature, escaped from an ancient map, had teased us with its huffing and puffing.

The camps are serene, but the days are usually strenuous. Because of the innumerable sub-ranges, or spurs, radiating from the main crest, the High Route trekker is always climbing toward a pass or descending from one. In fact, three dozen such obstacles are encountered on the whole route.

Such passes are the most taxing and scary part of the typical High Route day. Steep talus can be car-size and loose, and the party should spread out horizontally, thus minimizing rock-fall danger.

Steep snowfields, hard as flint in the mornings, also pose a threat. Often one can detour around them — the prudent choice. Otherwise, it's advisable to wait until midday to ascend or descend them, the first person moving slowly and kicking steps in the softening snow.

Not all the terrain undulates like a roller coaster. Occasionally one will walk for an hour along gentle meadowlands, where streams meander amid acres of wildflowers. Even in this clement environment one must step with care, for the fragile soil can retain signs of a hiker's passage for weeks. The drier margins of the meadows or, better yet, the slabs that so often border them, are preferable places to walk. Two more reasons for this stratagem — superior views and fewer mosquitoes!


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