Is there more than one "Sierra High Route"?
Subsequent to David and Susan Beck's establishment of the Sierra High Route ski traverse that I'm talking about (which crosses the Sierra range, east-west, partly along the Kings-Kern divide, between the Shepherd Pass trailhead and the Sequoia Wolverton trailhead), Steve Roper devised a mostly off-trail hiking route, also called the Sierra High Route, that runs roughly north-south between Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon and Twin Lakes near Bridgeport. Generally speaking, "Sierra High Route", in a backcountry skiing context, refers to the Beck route, and in a summer backpacking context, refers to the Roper route.
Had this been done before? What was the total time? Is that a record?
I talked to David Beck before my trek, and he told me that Doug Robinson was probably the first to do the High Route in a day; an online comment (pointing to a defunct link supposedly of a trip account) says that his time was 22:05. I started at midnight sharp, and finished at 8:30 PM, so my total time was 20:30. I don't know if that's a record, but FastestKnownTime.com says that it is.
I think it can be done faster; in fact, I could have shaved off well over an hour on the day that I did it, if I had half-decent snow for the second half instead of slushy glop. With good snow and a very strong pace, I could easily imagine someone doing the route in, say, under 18 hours. Or if we want to go bleeding edge... An XC ski racer, with a fast attitude, using very lightweight ski gear (perhaps skate racing boots on a shorter & wider variation of flat-base XC race skis, yes, springtime backcountry skating is a thing), and on firm corn snow all the way, I suppose could go under 12 hours. Note that using ultralight gear and red-lining the pace would add risk; if I was gunning for 12 hours, I'd want some support on-route.
So what was the pace like, anyway?
It was not a particularly faster pace than what lots of people maintain during daytours, except that it was unrelenting. I was skiing (or, east of Shepherd Pass, hiking and ascending) continuously, usually stopping for only a few minutes each hour. Reducing downtime was the trick. If you think about it, people doing the Sierra High Route in the normal fashion probably spend about 6 full days skiing, a "full" day being around 6 hours from campsite to campsite (not including a major break at lunch), so call it 36 hours. Figure you can chop out 1/3 of that by trading a 55 lb backpack for a 20 lb rucksack and using somewhat lighter ski gear, and you're down to 24 hours. Finally, travel forward 55 minutes per hour instead of the usual 40-45, and there you are in the 18 to 20 hour range.
Sounds easy! So why would anyone take a whole week to do it?
Because a week in the High Sierra is wonderful!! And there's something to be said for having a warm bag and shelter and lots of food & fuel with you wherever you go. It's also worth mentioning that I spent a few days on the East Side resting up before the trek, and was pretty worthless physically for several days afterwards, so you could say that the trek consumes about a week of mojo whether you do it in 7 days or 20.5 hours.
What are the big concerns on an endurance trek like this?
There are a bunch. For a lot of people, routefinding is a biggie, as getting lost uses up a lot of time, at best, and there are plenty of scenarios worse than that. I was pretty confident about that, and also about technical aspects of the route's various passes, which I figured would be pretty straightforward. Snow quality was more of a wildcard, and in fact the surprisingly wet rotten snow in the second half made travel considerably more difficult, while also introducing some potential for wet slides (which, being solo, I was obviously not well prepared to deal with). On an effort like this, muscle fatigue (and general aerobic fatigue) can be a big problem; people who haven't done marathons or other endurance events may not be able to comprehend the disturbing experience of having one's leg muscles pretty much stop working, but it can happen. Finally, there's the general category of the unexpected, say an injury or busted ski gear. I dealt with that mostly by keeping my skiing style on the conservative side; given a choice between doing an emergency recovery move that might go wrong, and falling over to the side, I'd try to choose the latter.
How do you train for this kind of trip?
In contemplating this kind of trek, I think it's important to have some experience with endurance activities, i.e. ultrarunning, 100-200 mile bike rides, full-length triathalons, etc. You want to have some personal acquaintance with severe fatigue, partly in order to have respect for it as a potential hazard, and partly so that you can recognize the signs before it hits you hard. In the months before the trek, you want to increase your normal training schedule such that you're doing fairly serious endurance training, which might involve gradually ramping up your jogging into the 3-4 hour length. You should also do several very long ski days, 40K at an XC resort, 10-15 mile backcountry tours, etc. A few weeks before the main event, do a half-length trek (what I did was a 20 mile ski tour, including 6500' of cumulative gain, in Desolation Wilderness near Tahoe, completing it in about 10 hours); at the end, ask yourself how you'd feel about keeping going for another 20 miles (if you're totally spent at 20 miles, that's a bad sign). Is all that training really necessary? Maybe not, but if you're going to be deep into the middle of the snowy wilderness without overnight gear, it's nice to be absolutely sure that you're up to it.
As with a marathon-type race, you want to taper down your activity for the last week or two before the event, resting up well (and consuming lots of carbs and water) on the last few days. Finally, acclimatization is important; the last thing you need on a trek like this is altitude sickness. I spent a whole week in and around the mountains before doing the High Route.
What gear did you carry?
I carried limited bivy gear (an Epic fabric Bibler Winter Bivy, a mylar space blanket, a vapor-barrier shirt, and a few extra clothing layers, specifically thin polypropylene fabric top & bottom, a pile vest, and a pile neckgaiter), just enough to get me through the night very uncomfortably if necessary. Also a thin foam pad. And a pair of extra thin sox. Basic non-emergency clothing included thin Capilene top & bottom, nylon shorts with lots of pockets, lightweight pile jacket (Patagonia R2), very lightweight rain shell top & bottom, gloves, pile cap, cotton bandana, a cool white hat with neck-shade, short stretch-gaiters, etc. Suunto altimeter watch. Maps and compass of course, and the pack is a Golite Team.
Also for emergency: I also had a lightweight stove with a 4 oz fuel cannister and a small titanium pot (without lid). I put together a ski & pole repair kit (including screws, drill bit etc, adhesives/tapes/wires, plastic plate, pole splint & basket, a Troll binding, pozi driver, and other things). A sewing kit including thick pack thread and awl, and assorted other little things like extra flashlight (BD Ion; my main light was a new Princeton EOS headlamp), lighter & windproof matches, whistle, ... I had a signal mirror and a Talkabout radio (a friend would inform any rescuers that I'd be monitoring channel 9), and also a cellphone that probably wouldn't have gotten a signal except maybe at certain highpoints. Not much first aid stuff, aside from bandaids & neosporin, a few perscription drugs like Diamox, and whatever I'd be able to improvise with bandanas, sticks, straps, duct tape, and such; basically most useful first aid stuff was going to be too heavy, so my rule was Don't Get Hurt.
For food, I tried to keep things bland, simple, and six:
Ski gear: Karhu Catamounts (moderately lightweight waxless-patterned metal-edged nordic-cambered backcountry skis; now called Orions) with Chouinard 3-pin bindings, Ascention 60mm nylon skins (tip attachment only), Garmont Excursion boots, and BD adjustable poles. For Shepherd Pass, I used a Grivel lightweight axe, and B&D tele-boot toe-crampons (just got 'em and they work very well; 12 oz including straps), though snow turned out to be soft enough that I could have done fine without them. No, I didn't bring a beacon or shovel.
Could it be done with skating gear? With AT gear?
Sure. Skating gear (or similar) could make the trek significantly faster, assuming ideal firm (but not too icy) snow conditions. The trouble with using narrower and/or less durable ski gear for this is that if the conditions are not ideal (for example if there is deep wet snow like I had, or breakable crust, or any other snow that is either heavy, deep, or otherwise difficult), you risk getting bogged down, or worse yet, dealing with equipment failure.
Heavier gear (i.e. modern high-performance tele gear) is likely to mean slower travel, particularly on everything that isn't significantly downhill (remember that downhills take relatively little time regardless). There are good reasons to bring heavier duty ski gear for a multi-day High Route tour, but I don't think you should go too heavy for a one-day endurance trek.
Most AT gear is significantly heavier than what I used, the exception being gear that uses the Dynafit binding system, which (depending on skis and boots) can be comparable in weight to what I used on this tour. While I have little doubt that a strong skier can do the High Route in one day on Dynafits, I think any kind of rigid-sole package would be at a disadvantage on large portions of the High Route that consist of lower-angle and rolling terrain. Note that some Dynafit-compatible boots (BD's F1) have a flexible forefoot; that feature essentially makes them nordic boots when the heel isn't locked down, and thus not really so different from the nordic gear that I used.
Isn't going solo kind of a bad idea?
Yes, it can be. In Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey discusses solo travel, and observes that "Your chances of dying, in case of sickness or accident, are much improved, simply because there is no one around to go for help" (which does nearly happen in the story that he goes on to tell). But in the same paragraph, he notes that he does it often, does it mostly. For many of us, there is a special pleasure that comes from being alone in the backcountry. Of perhaps more relevance is that, on a trip like this, it can be very hard to find someone similarly qualified and also similarly interested, let alone one whose vacation schedule is compatible with yours. If you do travel solo, be aware of what you are getting into, and be careful, watch yourself while you're out there. You should be aware of when you still have the option to turn back, when you're about to do something that will be hard to undo, and when you really can't afford to blow it. And you should have some fall-back options, limited bivy gear in case you need to spend the night out, reliable friends who know where you are and when to expect you back, and you might consider bringing a radio (to potentially reduce search time) or renting a sat-phone. That said, you should go in the spirit of self-reliance; if you attempt something really outlandish and end up getting rescued, hey, your survival comes first, but it's bad style.
How did you do the shuttle?
I think I agonized about this about as much as any other aspect of the trek. Originally (a year before) I tried to coordinate with friends who were planning to do the tour (in about a week like usual) in the opposite direction, but we never could coordinate our schedules. Later, I considered hanging out at the Shepherd Pass trailhead to see if any west-to-east arrivals wanted to drive my car around to the west side.
But what I ended up doing was just parking my car on the east side and leaving it there. When I got to the west side, I hitched a ride to the Wuksachi (a few miles away) and checked in, and in the morning hitched a ride back home to the Bay Area with some German tourists (when hitchhiking these days, it always helps to have a sign that says where you're going, and which also has a dollar sign followed by some numbers). Though they drove me right up to my home, I was also prepared with a Greyhound schedule, and a list of motels in various Central Valley towns. To get my car back, I hooked up with some friends who were driving to Mammoth the following weekend, and posted on TelemarkTips.com that I needed someone from SoCal to pick up my car on their way to Mammoth.
Was it fun? Would you do it again?
Oh yeah, I had a great time! A little overloaded with aprehension early on, and there was more than a little "let's get this over with" towards the end, but overall it was a joy and a thrill to be out there. Also, I had the rare treat of being able to do those deep-backcountry descents without 40+ lbs of gear on my back (yes, on the forgiving snow that's common in the springtime Sierra, backcountry skis like the Karhu Catamounts that I used do telemark quite nicely).
I probably won't repeat it though. While I was lucky with the shuttle, the logistics are pretty imposing any way you do it. Besides which, there's a whole mountain range of other fine backcountry routes. There will be other ski endurance projects, and there will also be long ski treks at a more leisurely pace. I wish I was up there now!
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