California Hiking in the High Sierras
By Steve Gillman
My backpacking trip in the Mount Whitney area reminded me
of the song "It Never Rains in California." I was hiking
in the southern Sierras, and I didn't see one cloud in five days.
This is common in September, they tell me.
I went to California on a Greyhound bus, which can be an adventure
itself. (This was back when Greyhound still went down highway
395, on the eastern side of the Sierras.) Arriving in the town
of Independence later than I wanted, I put out my thumb and caught
a ride to the trail head by early evening. Sometime after dark
I laid out my bag, laid down, and then changed my mind. It was
too beautiful to quit for the night.
Desert had become pine forest, and then higher up, the forest
gave way to bushes. At some point there was a bear moving in
those bushes, or at least something large. I never did figure
out what it was, and I just kept moving.
Tundra Hiking in California
Then there was only tundra. I arrived at 12,000-foot Shepherd
Pass by moonlight, which may have been the most beautiful way
to arrive in any case. Gray peaks rose up around me, and I had
a little lake all to myself. That's classic California hiking
in the high Sierras.
Actually, I had a lake to myself every night, and the trails
to myself almost the entire time. I explored isolated hanging
valleys, with lakes all over at different levels. I swam in ice
water and laid in the sun. I slept early and got up every night
or early morning to hike by moonlight. I ate wild currants and
watched the trout scatter as I walked alongside small lakes.
And I never saw a cloud.
The fourth morning I woke up at four to a beautiful California
moon, and I began hiking by it's light. I summited Mount Whitney,
the highest point in the continental U.S. just before dawn. Sitting
and watching the sunrise, my feet dangled over a thousand-foot
precipice. From the top I could look fifty miles in any direction,
and see nothing but mountains. Then the crowds came, but despite
the traffic on the Whitney Portal Trail, there was still a lake
of my own to camp at that night.
Keeping It Light
On my last day I met a man limping along in great pain. He
had been left behind by his friends after blowing out his knee(some
friends). I made a walking stick for him. Later I realized how
much weight many of these backpackers were carrying. Enough to
cause a knee to go out on that steep trail.
I had been thinking about reducing my own pack weight at the
time, and thought the 33 pounds on my back was light. I feel
silly looking back on it now. I even had a separate day pack
that weighed a pound, just for going to the summit. I had hiking
boots on too, and of course, had a few blisters to show for them.
If I am in California hiking again, it will be with half the
Shortly after the trip I bought a GoLite Breeze
backpack (13 ounces compared to my 5-pound, 10-ounce pack). It's
lighter than the day pack I had brought to take to the summit
of Mount Whitney. I bought a Western Mountaineering HiLite
sleeping bag that only weighs 17 ounces, and despite my worries,
I've never been cold in it. A 9-ounce Black Diamond Winter
Bivy Sack could have been nice as a back-up. As it was,
I just slept under the stars every night on a two-ounce piece
I'll be in California hiking in lightweight running shoes
next time, instead of clunky hiking boots. That was my last backpacking
trip with hiking boots and with more than 20 pounds on my back.
It was also the last time I had a blister on my feet (no coincidence).
The Sierras Nevada Mountains (in September, in south-central
California), by the way, is the most perfect place I have been
for hiking and ultralight backpacking.