Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Top 14 Favorite Hikes Part 2: Himalayas, the North Coast and Lots and Lots of Sierra Granite

Part 1 is here
Part 3 is here

#6 High Sierra Trail: Sequoia NP (4 days, 35 miles)

When most people hear about Sequoia National monument they generally think of trees. HUGE trees. The kind you could drive your car through. While Sequoia does have some extremely impressive trees, they are not, in my opinion, even close to the park highlight[1]. Few people know this, however, because unlike Yosemite or King’s Canyon, Sequoia’s greatest wonders are not visible from the road. I like to call it the shy park, only unveiling its glories to those who put boot to trail and cover some miles into California’s wild, road less spine.

My fond memories of this trip begin with the night before. We drove to a hotel[2] just outside the park with enough time to swim and enjoy above average burritos and Coronas on a patio watched over by a roosting owl who would occasionally vocalize its recognition of our presence. The next morning we were up early and on the trail and could not have asked for a better day.

The best part of the ‘High Sierra Trail’ is that it takes you deep into the remote Sierra wilderness[3] with almost no elevation loss or gain over the first 8 miles. So we packed in to Bear Camp[4] and took day hikes from there, covering most of the dramatic elevation sans pack.

The first outing was the 4,000 foot climb to Elizabeth Pass that peers precariously into Death Canyon. This was a grueling climb on par with any mountain we have ascended. But the views it afforded of Lonely Lake and especially the ‘Angel’s Wings’ formation were worth every step. On the way back to camp we saw a black bear across the canyon which meant that, on the day, we saw more bears than people.[5]

The second outing was more dramatic than the first. I had originally planned to take Kaweah Gap, but had been married long enough to re-think the plan after the epic assent of the previous day. We opted instead for a leisurely 4 mile (one way) climb to Hamilton Lake for a swim a mid-day nap and some Lewis[6]. Hamilton Lake was epic. It is what I imagine the Alps look like.

#7 Gori Panni: Anapurna Range, Nepal (3 days[7], ~20 miles)

I graduated college a semester early in the hopes of going somewhere crazy and doing something outlandish ‘for God.’ Nepal had always intrigued me, so when the opportunity to serve in an orphanage for 3 months came up I raised a little money and got on a plane.[8] My motives of ‘desire to serve’ and ‘desire for adventure’ were clearly mixed[9] and when I got an opportunity to do some trekking, I took it.

The Gori Pani[10] trek is in the Annapurna range. If it had just been me, I would have taken the trail that circumnavigated Annapurna herself. But part of the opportunity involved trekking with others that were not even remotely in shape. It was still a remarkable experience. Unlike every other hike I have been on (before or since) the trail was totally populated. Most of the trek was on a well maintained path through villages that seemed to derive most of their income from trekkers. There wasn’t a tree to be found and we slept and ate in ‘hotels’ every night. But the experience culminated in an early morning hike to see the sun rise on Annapurna. I had made a habit of getting up at 5 in the city to see the sun rise on the mountains (as that was often the only time you could see them through the haze) but this was just so much closer and more dramatic. The qualitative difference between the Himalayas and other mountains simply escapes articulation.

But the coolest thing we encountered on this trip was many not have been the mountains or waterfalls. We had Nepali born westerners[11] with us, so ‘we’ got to have more significant conversations with the locals than we could have in English. And we happened upon a new church. We returned a few months later with Bibles (they were all sharing one) and got invited to a worship service. Essentially one guy had gotten a hold of a Bible and some literature, became a Christian, and lead 30 people in his town to faith. And that was it. 30 people meeting quietly in a barn,[12] singing some songs and hanging on the teaching of their unassuming ‘leader’ who had been a Christian all of 2 weeks longer than them. No western influence (apart form the first contact). No western money. When we visited the second time, they were half way done building a church (that had not existed just weeks earlier). I know that it is easy to romanticize something like this, but it struck me as the purest working of the Holy Spirit I had ever seen.

#8 Lost Coast (3 days, 32 miles)

(photo by my friends Sarah and John)

Highway 1 follows the epic California Coast for hundreds of miles of hairpin turns north and south of San Francisco. The road combines the unfortunate qualities of requiring 100% attention to driving to keep you from careening to your death and epic scenery that you can’t help but stare at. It is definitely worth a day or three if you ever find yourself in NorCal. But about 200 miles north of San Francisco, Route 1 juts temporarily inland, leaving a 32 mile stretch of this epic California coast roadless. This has come to be known as the Lost Coast and is one of the most famous 3 day California shuttle hikes on a list otherwise dominated by Sierra granite (much like this one).

We had just learned that Amanda was pregnant so I did this hike with two friends from work. It was a totally unique back country experience. Nearly the entire trip traversed a seemingly endless stretch of secluded beach. The silence of the mountains was replaced by the ubiquitous roar of the ocean waves. And timing became tricky at certain points because there are parts of the ‘trail’ that are impassible at high tides.

#9 Half Dome: Yosemite (1 day, 22 miles)

I am still shocked, to this day, when we meet a native Californian who has never been to Yosemite. Yosemite is worth a vacation to California all by itself. It is our second favorite national park, though we have been over a dozen times. But Yosemite has a seminal hike…the 18 mile[13] trek up half dome. Half Dome is Yosemite’s most distinctive feature. It literally looks like one of the great rounded peaks of the South Sierra was sliced in half like a melon. It was a beautiful Saturday that started early. We were parked and hiking by 5:30…and filed into a steady stream of dozens[14] of hikers who had also heard that 5:30 was the right time to start.[15] It didn’t take us long to get ahead of the crowd, though, and the first 4 miles were pleasantly familiar. The first part of the hike climbs the mist trail to Nevada falls, easily the most surreal, otherworldly 4 miles of trail I have covered (though usually too crowded to really take in). Before second breakfast, we hit the ridge where we could peer all the way up the forbidden Tenya valley.[16]

Despite its substantial mileage and vertical gain, half dome is best known for the last 800 feet, up the actual dome, which are too steep to climb without gear. To make the climb more generally accessible[17] the park service installed cables to aid the ascent. To call these cables treacherous would be a dramatic understatement.[18] But the view from the top was 100% as advertised.

#10 Tuolumne to the Valley Through Hike: Yosemite (3 days, 32 miles)

Two hikes in the top 10 are what I will call, ‘gravity aided,’ including this one. These are hikes that ooze marital harmony as the trail head is several thousand feet higher than the exit point. We took a bus from the Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadow and hiked, mainly downhill, through some of Yosemite’s seldom seen wonders…back to the valley. The highlight was probably camping by a waterfall in the little Yosemite Valley the second night. Little Yosemite Valley is not as dramatic as the main valley, but that is like saying that Kevin Garnett is not quite as impressive as Labron James.

And we got a waterfall entirely to ourselves.

#11 Desolation Wilderness

One of the fantastic things about Sacramento is that there is world class backpacking less than 1.5 hours away. The Desolation Wilderness is a geologic curiosity. It is a large region of glacially exposed granite, west of Lake Tahoe. You can make out the region on Google earth because it looks like a bulldozer removed all of the soil and trees leaving a stark granite wonderland. We backpacked in about 6 miles, stayed at Aloha Lake, did a day hike loop[19] the next day and packed out the third day. We put our tent in a fantastic spot, a wooded peninsula jutting out into the Lake.

The first night, we drank the wine I had packed in and watched the sun set against the stark granite peaks of the Pyramid range. But the most memorable part was yet to come. We stayed up, snacked, talked and enjoyed the wine. At one point an owl buzzed us which was delightful. But about an hour after the sun set, Desolation gave up its most dazzling secret. We had accidentally planned our trip for a full moon. I know hikers that try to avoid a full moon because it obstructs the stars. But as the moon began to pour its light into the stark granite bowl we were in, I realized that from that moment on, I would always try to schedule Sierra trips as close to full moons as possible. The white granite all around us began to glow with an eerie brightness. It was almost as light as daytime, but the light was softer, more mysterious. We stayed up late[20] taking it in and enjoying a rare moment[21] with nothing else to do but be together in a dazzling place.

This post was prepared while listening to Iron and Wine's Pandora Station
[1] They are not even California’s most impressive trees. For those, you have to go to the Avenue of the Giants, in Redwood State Park in Northern CA. There is a race on these trails every year that I hope to run in someday. The picture is Amanda with the biggest tree in the world (by mass).

[2] Here is the strange thing. I don’t enjoy camping. I don’t really like sleeping in a tent for its own sake. Car camping totally befuddles me. But if I am collecting miles and views tent sleeping suddenly makes total sense.
[3] The most famous route is to ‘cross the spine’ taking the High Sierra Trail all the way across from the trailhead in Sequoia (West Sierra), across the Sierra, up Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48) and out in the East Sierra (around Bishop). This is only a 5 to 6 day hike. The problem is that since there are no roads through the mountains here, the shuttle from trail head to trail head is 8 hours one way…blowing another 3 days in transportation. So this epic hike remains ‘life list’ fodder for the post-kid backpacking renaissance.
[4] Which, incidentally, we wouldn’t recommend. Bear camp is not impressive and is in earshot of the wilderness lodge, which was in closing weekend party mode the week we were there. There is a great camp site just before Bear Lodge which I would recommend instead or, if I were to do it again, I would pack all the way to Hamilton lake and make that the base came to explore the Kaweh gap area that, I understand, is particularly amenable to off trail exploration.
[5] It was at this point that I realized that my favorite hobby was heavily subsidized by federal tax payers. What would you pay to rent thousands of acres of our nations most dramatic wilderness for a single day of private use? What kind of monetary value does that have? It must be enormous. We got it for something like $7.50. Somehow, it is hard for me to get worked up about middleclass subsidies for the urban poor.
[6] In our last couple years backpacking we began to bring one of the Narnia books each trip. They are perfect for a backpacking couple because they are light enough (thematically) to read out loud, light enough physically to bring along (LOTR is out on this criterion) and they usually involve a long quest on foot somewhere.
[7] Of course, to reach the trail head you have to take your life into your hands by taking a bus over the single lane mountain roads. 8 hours to cover 200 miles.
[8] To this day, it is part of Gibson lore that the earliest ticket available was for February 14th, and so I left the country for three months on valentines day. But I brought a ring back, so that has to count for something.
[9] One of the guys I met in ministry there called another guy 2/3ds totally sold out for God and 2/3rds wild adventurer. I have always been enamored with that idea.
[10] Literally ‘Donkey-Water’ treck – and there were plenty of both.
[11] Kids who had grown up in the orphanage and had made lives for themselves in the US or Canada.
[12] While we were there someone came by and banged on the door cursing them for abandoning the Hindu gods.
[13] The hike is 18 miles from the trail head, but you can not drive to the trail head and the busses do not run at 5:30, hence the extra miles.
[14] Maybe hundreds?
[15] This was a weird phenomena, to be hiking a wilderness trail in a crowd before sunrise.
[16] The Tenya valley is forbidden for the very reason it is gorgeous…the stark, steep granite regularly collapses.
[17] In an act of relative hubris that would never be repeated today for safety and conservation principles.
[18] There have been 4 deaths since 2006 (mostly during slippery conditions) which Yosemite says is above average but strikes me a shockingly low given how many people who do not hike regularly and were ill equipped (we saw a lot of sandals and even a baby in a backpack) for an ascent of this nature we saw.
[19] It is this loop that actually demotes this trip. I made an error in map reading so what I thought was an 18 mile day hike with the elevation gain of two passes (which would have pushed our limit as is) was actually a 23 mile day, our longest day of all time. To make matters worse, it was Columbus day weekend, so the days were short and it took an hour to find our nicely secluded camp site in the dark when we finally made it back. Not my finest moment.
[20] We rarely stay up after sun down on the trail. Staying up late led to getting up late which exacerbated the problems of the following day.
[21] We were both working full time and going to grad school full time at the time.


Anonymous said...

Great post Stan! When looking at the pic of Half-Dome three questions come to mind.

1. So did half the mountain slide away?

2. When did that happen?

3. Where is all the rubble? Are the trees in the valley floor growing on top of it?

Thanks for sharing your wilderness adventures with us!


stanford said...

I believe the answer to all of your questions is glaciers. There is rubble, but not nearly as much as you would expect. The ice that sheared it off took it down gradient as it lines the Merced river in the form of giant boulders.

Nic Gibson said...

Maybe you could work on writing longer posts and not splitting them up.

stanford said...

Maybe you could work on being more sarcastic. :) Seriously, its mostly pictures, without footnotes it takes like 4 minutes to read.

On an unrelated note, I realized that I do not recomend a drinking game that involves throwing back every time I use the word 'epic' in this post unless one's goal is to get totally sauced.

JMBower said...

yup, still jealous. fantastic hikes.