Sierra High Route Fastest Known Time Trip Report

I first learned about the Sierra High Route (SHR) about 20 years ago, from my good friend and climbing partner, Elizabeth Allison. I imagined it as being a series of scenic ridge traverses through the Sierra. It’s been on my bucket list ever since! I later bought Roper’s guide book and discovered it’s far from a ridge traverse (despite being described as running “along the spine of California’s Sierra Nevada”), and it really would be essentially impossible to do such a thing, but I do think that Roper’s intent was well executed and it’s a beautiful, “rugged alternative to the John Muir Trail” through the Sierra High Country. Everyone I know (myself included) would probably do things a little differently, but that’s the nature of design… At the top of that list for me is the direction of travel. Roper believes the route to be “more practical” when done south to north for two reasons: to take advantage of less snow in the southern portions at the beginning of a trip and to “walk away from the sun instead of into it’s blinding rays.” For me, the first was not applicable and the second was whimsical. I could think of numerous more salient reasons for traveling north to south (the direction I selected for my FKT):

  1. The net elevation gain is more than 2,000 ft less if you travel north to south
  2. The more technical side of passes tends to be on the north. Travelling north to south means that rather than having to deal with blind descents through difficult terrain, you will be able to see the terrain and find a good route on the approach. Not only is this faster, but safer.
  3. The south side of passes tends to offer easier terrain for descending, such as scree and alpine meadows. For this reason, traveling north to south should be faster because such terrain can be descended relatively quickly, usually at running speed. This is definitely not the case for the terrain on the north side of passes (generally talus and large boulder fields).
  4. Starting with a nearly continuous 6,400 ft climb up Copper Creek Trail to Goat Crest Saddle out of Road’s End sounded horrendous. I’d much rather finish with that as a descent.
  5. The climb to Horse Creek Pass out of Twin Lakes is a beautiful introduction to the route, in some spectacular country. I found that to be a perfect start to the route.

Planning:

Choosing the direction of travel was an easy decision. Choosing exactly where to go along the route? Not so much. Roper intentionally keeps this route vague, describing way points rather than a specific route, in order to maintain the wild nature of the terrain. But I found the process of selecting my route to be one of the most fun aspects of the project! Of course, I used my husband’s website Caltopo.com extensively. In particular, I found satellite imagery and slope angle shading layers to be particularly helpful. Route refinements were done in Google Earth using the “KML Network Link” from Caltopo. I also managed to find two gps tracks of the route online, although those were both used merely for verifying my general route direction. Before doing the FKT, I did 4 reconnaissance trips that helped me to further set my course on a significant portion of the route: Twin Lakes to Devil’s Postpile, Piute Creek to the John Muir Trail (JMT), and Mather Pass to Road’s End. I don’t want to share my detailed route in the spirit of keeping this route a “choose your own adventure.” Here’s a very simplified version: https://caltopo.com/m/DM36

Another critical decision was the style: “supported” (people help you), “self-supported” (you help yourself, e.g. by caching supplies in advance), or ‘un-supported (you start with everything you need for the entire trip, except you can refill your water bottles). Although I have been getting really interested in fast-packing and overnight running, when I discovered that the route passed highway 120 in Yosemite, went through Red’s Meadow/Devil’s Postpile, and got reasonably close to a number of trail heads, I got really excited about the idea of doing the entire route with a daypack, rather than carrying multiple days worth of food and overnight gear.

I also love spreadsheets, and created a number of ones to help plan and prepare for this route. My time estimate broke up the entire route into up/down, on/off trail, and expected difficulty. Shockingly, although there was some segments that were over/under my estimate, my total time on feet for the entire FKT matched my estimate to the second.

Day 1: Twin Lakes to Tuolumne – Smoke!

29 miles | 9,678 feet of climbing | 13 hours, 46 minutes

My 3:44am start was a couple hours earlier than planned, but I woke up naturally before my alarm and took advantage. As I climbed up to Horse Creek Pass, the smell of smoke kept getting stronger. “What am I getting myself into?” I sent InReach messages to my stepfather in Mammoth Lakes and my husband at home in Truckee to try to figure out where the fires were and how bad the smoke might be throughout the Sierra. Essentially they told me that massive fires had been sparked throughout California by the recent lightning storms and I wondered if I would have to abandon the FKT for health reasons. But news that the smoke was not bad in Mammoth Lakes kept me going.

Looking into Virginia Canyon on day 1

The smoke in Virginia Canyon was undoubtedly within the hazardous range, which made me concerned about my health, but it was also messing with my mental game. I knew from living in the mountains through numerous bad fire seasons what living in smoke could do to you. This FKT was going to be hard enough without adding that to the mix… Luckily, as I climbed out of Virginia Canyon towards Sky Pilot Col, the smell of smoke started diminishing. And over the col, in the Saddlebag Lake area, the skies were blue! My optimism was renewed. The smoke stayed at bay for the rest of the day until I got close to Tuolumne Meadows.

Relatively blue skies over North Peak, after Sky Pilot Col

Dealing with the smoke was the worse part of the day. The best? I’m going to give the men reading this fair warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you are at all queasy about female menstruation. But I need to mention this for the sake of the ladies out there (and the non-squeamish men who are secure enough to share this with their good lady friends!) My period started today! I was expecting it and dreading it until listening to the audiobook “Roar…” by Stacy Sims. Turns out, my timing was perfect. Doing something like this during your period (and the days after) offers increased energy, heightened coordination skills, and a reduction in caloric needs. And I felt it! In the morning before my period started, I was stumbling in the talus and feeling sluggish. After, I felt my energy and stoke increase and I caught every trip before it turned into a fall. It was awesome! Why am I in my early 40’s and only now learning about all of this?

OK guys, you can come back now.

It was a relatively flawless day overall and this leg took an hour less than planned. I found the Sprinter exactly where my stepfather said he had left it for me and celebrated with a quick swim in the Tuolumne River, a yummy dinner in the Sprinter (bone broth, roast chicken and veggies), and a quick myofascial release session before putting on my eye mask for sleeping before the sun went down.

Route Notes:

Stanton Pass is one of those spots that might leave you concerned after reading Roper’s book and online beta. I could see how if you were doing this route from south to north, you could waste a lot of time trying to find an easy route down. This is one of the spots were north to south is very advantageous. Good routes are very obvious on the approach from Spiller Creek. The east side makes an easy blind descent.

In early season, a steep and intimidating snowfield keeps you from being able to travel over the low point on Sky Pilot Col. But no fear – there is a fine (albeit loose and obnoxious) route to a higher point just to the east. If you have to take this route, skirt back over towards the low point on the descent for some fantastic scree, rather than dealing with the tedious, firm slope covered in loose gravel directly below you.

Between Spuller Lake and Mine Shaft Pass (east of False White Mountain) you will find some potentially confusing terrain. This area was a time sink for me during an early-season reconnaissance trip. Snow in the early season makes this all that much more complicated. The trick is to avoid going too high as you contour around to the white slabby section described in Roper’s book. If you go too high, you will find yourself climbing in and out / up and around rocky gullies and outcroppings needlessly.

Day 2: Tuolumne to Devil’s Postpile – Finding Flow in the Talus

49.6 miles | 12,526 feet climbing | 18 hours 26 minutes

My start time of 1:35am left me with a lot of time following a tunnel of light from my headlamp, seeing animal eyes that turned out to be specks of mica. I did come across a deer that had me convinced it was a bear, but that’s it, and dawn broke soon enough. The morning glow on the Clark Range was spectacular. I was also impressed by how bad the smoke was in the Yosemite Valley, not far from me, whereas I had relatively clear skies (thankfully)!

Looking at the smoke in Yosemite Valley (right) and the Clark Range (left) from the Isberg Pass Trail

As with day 1, I had done a recon trip earlier this summer over the entirely of the route I would be covering today. But today’s mileage had been done as a two-day overnight run with my girlfriend Liz Levy, so I found myself having a mental issue with doing the entire leg in one push. This was not helped when I saw a fellow SHR’er going the other way on Blue Lake Pass. We asked the usual questions and it came out that I was heading to Devil’s Postpile that night. “Have you ever done this before?” he asked, obviously questioning my judgement. He didn’t say for sure, but I guessed it had taken him multiple days to cover that distance and I was about to do that in one, on top of the 23 miles I had already covered… I just had to trust my calculations and know that I could pull it off.

I was particularly worried about whether my energy would plummet after I passed our campsite at Twin Lakes. Luckily, I had an idea that brightened my mood… Crossing the outlet of Twin Lakes required a thigh-deep wade. I was planning on taking off my shoes, socks, and pants, for the sake of preserving my feet on such a long day. I decided it was worth the extra time to take off my shirt and do a full head-to-toe swim. It was so worth it! How is it that water can be so amazing?

Prepped for a swim in the outlet of Twin Lakes

The swim and some flawless cross-country travel managed to keep my spirits high until about 3pm, which has always been the bewitching hour for me. The sun starts feeling low in the sky and my brain begins to think “If you aren’t heading home yet, you should be.” I was getting tired. I had already done almost 9,000 ft of climbing that day and the smoke was starting to get really, really bad again. I had been experiencing intermittent nose bleeds (I think it was from the smoke…) and now even my eyes were burning. This was definitely the lowest point of the day. I was plodding.

The smoke is really bad again, near the Minarets

I sat down to give myself a break at the Shadow Creek crossing, which meant spending about 10-15 minutes to dip my body bottles into the creek (I did not use my filter in most cases), pee, deal with a tampon, and stuff my face with food from inside my pack while I restocked all the quick-access pockets at the front of my pack. And something about that break was magical… Maybe it was the food I ate (jerky?) or the amino acids+carbs+electrolytes drink I put in my body bottle, but somehow I suddenly had energy to tackle the next climb up to Cecile Lake with gusto. And there, in the talus field surrounding Cecile Lake, I found myself in an intense flow state. I was bounding from boulder to boulder with ease and without calculation. It was amazing, even mind-blowing. After finishing this section, I shared this moment in an InReach message to my crew member Sean O’Rourke, “Feeling sky high wahoo!” I also found myself to be mesmerized by the patterns of sunlight on the lapping waves on Cecile Lake and the sunlight beams streaming through the smoke on the Minarets. Seriously good stuff.

Sunlight on Cecile Lake and the Minarets during a flow state

The rest of the day went relatively smoothly, other than my being unpleasantly surprised when I remembered that the Beck Lakes Trail was not entirely all downhill, so I would not be running all of it, which meant I would not be finishing as soon as I predicted… There were two long sections of trail today that I had estimated to be “Trail, downhill” and planned to complete at an average speed of 4 miles per hour. I discovered that they were not fully run-able for a variety of reasons during the recon and apparently neglected to fix his in my estimate after the fact. This bit me a handful of times during the FKT effort with my time estimates. On this day, it meant being out 1.5 hours longer than planned, making this leg a 20-hour push. But I finished feeling good, mentally and physically. Two crew members (Sean O’Rourke and Carol Patterson) met me at the Sprinter van this time. They helped me with a quick shower behind the van, a lovely dinner, a foot soak (1/2 cup Epsom salt, 1/4 cup baking soda, 1/4 cup listerine), and a welcome break from isolation.

Carol captures my bliss during dinner and a foot soak

Route Notes

The Isberg Pass Trail is more developed than I expected from Roper’s book. I see no reason to fear finding it, whether you travel north to south or vice versa. However if you are using gps, note that the location is not accurate in many places.

The descent off Blue Lake Pass surprised me a little. I can’t say my route was entirely “amazingly easy… grassy slopes, low-angled slabs, and short stretches of stable talus.” There are steep cliff sections that you might encounter. My route involved one steep slab section that might intimidate most backpackers.

Travelling north to south is very advantageous for the terrain between Twin Lakes and Lake Catherine. This section offers challenging (But fun! And gorgeous!) cross country terain, but the route is pretty obvious from a good vantage point near Twin Lakes.

When coming from the north, the “gap” that leads to the use trail above Shadow Creek is not obvious at all. It is at the head of a short talus slope around 9,639 feet, right where there is a level spot in the shoulder coming off the Minarets.

The “short class 3 slot” between Cecile and Minaret Lakes is very easy. I would argue it is class 2. Do not be too concerned.

The location of Nancy Pass is a little ambiguous. There are two saddles on the ridge north of lake Superior that could be it. During my recon trip with Liz, we opted for the west option. From our vantage point on the “inconspicuous saddle” to the north, this saddle looked easier and more direct. This also seemed to be where Secor located the pass (in his book The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, Trails). The approach and north side of this saddle offered obvious and relatively easy cross-country terrain, but the descent on the south offered offensive and extensive bushwhacking and dangerously steep, slippery grassy slopes, which took a long time to get through. I decided I would opt for the east option during the FKT, which seemed to be the pass described by Roper. I found it to offer some tricky route-finding and/or slow terrain on the approach and the descent. To get from the “inconspicuous saddle” to the inlet of Lake Superior, it took me 1:20:30 during the FKT and 1:27:44 in my recon trip with Liz – basically the same.

Day 3: Devil’s Postpile to Toe Lake – My Private Dance Party

39.9 miles| 12,297 feet climbing | 19 hours 54 minutes

Twitch. Twitch. It was almost midnight and I couldn’t sleep because my leg muscles were twitching. I finally gave up, got out of bed, and rolled everything from my waist down. Relief! When I got back into bed, it was a little after 12am…

When my alarm woke me up, I didn’t look at the time, I simply started getting ready as quickly as I could. After some time, I was a little surprised that both Sean and Carol did not seem to be stirring yet, because we had all decided to set our alarms for 5:30am. When was almost ready to go I checked the time and… It was only 2:30! Apparently I had forgotten to turn off last nights alarm. I had gotten at most about 1.5 hours of sleep… Oh well, here we go!

I left the van feeling strong but my spirits were quickly squashed when I couldn’t find the Mammoth Pass Trail leaving Reds Meadow Campground. I spent at least 20 minutes going up and down every trail and use trail I could find and nothing seemed to be going in the right direction. There was definitely no trail where it was indicated on my gps watch. I eventually gave up and just started climbing straight up the slope, in the approximate location of the supposed trail, which was not fun. Years ago, a crazy wind event blew over a significant portion of the trees in this area. So there was a lot of climbing over trees. And the slope was loose talus. And there were a lot of sticker bushes… Eventually, I found the trail.

This is the longest dry section on the SHR and the seasonal creeks were definitely not running. (In fact, it was kind of shocking how many lakes and streams marked as year-round features were dry during my FKT! It certainly made stream crossings easier though…) So I had to detour to McCloud Lake for water. On the Mammoth Crest, the sky began to lighten. I was disappointed to see so much smoke in the Owen’s Valley, but the views and the mild slope angle helped my mood immensely. Sunlight can be so amazing!

Smoky sunrise over the Owen’s Valley

The cross country terrain between the McGee Pass Trail and the Laurel Creek use trail went flawlessly and I found the approach to Bighorn Pass to be a fun puzzle, rather than being “a bit tricky” (once again, it probably helped to be travelling north to south here). I even had some entertainment from a helicopter that kept visiting me throughout this section.

Looking at Bighorn Pass from above Rosy Finch Lake (mislabeled on some maps)
A little bit of helicopter entertainment

I was in good spirits during the 2,500ft descent to the Mono Pass Trail, but as I descended, it started getting really warm. I started feeling tired and decided to take a real break at Mono Creek – perhaps I could recreate the magic that happened at Shadow Creek the day before? But not so… When I got up to start moving again, I felt even more tired than I did when I sat down. In fact, I felt delirious. My vision started getting distorted. My eyes felt like they were rolling in their sockets. I was about to start my last massive climb (almost 4,000 ft over 6 miles) before camp and it was daunting. Last night’s sleep, the heat, whatever, was starting to get to me. Thankfully, it occurred to me to put in my headphones. My 14ers FKT Playlist (with some new additions since last year) did it’s job again. I was still moving relatively slow and my brain wasn’t functioning as well as I would like (I made multiple small route-finding mistakes), but I was in much better spirits. I found myself enjoying the scenery and even joking around a bit…

SNAP! As the terrain switched from forest to talus en route to Gabbott Pass, it was time to put on the scree gloves again, which lived in my pockets, available at a moment’s notice. The sound of putting them on reminded me of a doctor putting on latex gloves, getting ready for surgery. “It’s time to get serious” and I smiled, thinking of myself in an overly dramatized TV show. This became my inside joke for the rest of the SHR, every time I heard that sound… I was definitely in better spirits.

I made it to Gabbot Pass right as the day’s light began to wane and I was delighted to find the terrain on the south side to be very pleasant, with a lot of run-able scree and grassy slopes. Another boost.

The climb to Gabbot Pass was absolutely the low point of my day (although there was certainly some competition for that on this leg). The high point? As I was descending the pass by headlamp, I saw Sean’s headlamp in the distance. I was still listening to music, and feeling spunky. As I got closer, Sean’s headlamp began blinking in strobe mode, almost exactly in-time with the song Aerodynamic by Daft Punk streaming through my headphones. It was a magical moment that had me dancing inside. And all the pain from earlier in the day was erased.

Route Notes

As I mentioned above, the start of the Mammoth Pass Trail in Red’s Meadow seems to have been re-routed and maps have not been updated yet. My best guess is that it starts around the store now, rather than the campground. Try to figure this out in advance if you are traveling north to south.

Day 4: Toe Lake to Bishop Pass Trail – Bounding Like a Deer on the JMT

41.1 miles | 8,839 feet of climbing | 18 hours 18 minutes

The scenery from Lake Italy through the Bear Lakes Basin is absolutely spectacular. And the terrain offers fun cross-country travel. It made for a great start to the day. And the sandy shores of Lake Merriam were so tempting, but I opted not to partake…

Lake Italy outlet
I think this was White Bear Lake…
The sandy shores of Merriam Lake were oh so tempting…

The entire day was going smoothly and seemed to be flying by. Soon I was at Piute Pass Trail, the start of another section that I had done reconnaissance on earlier this summer, which included Snow Tongue Pass. Snow Tongue Pass is one of the more notorious passes on the route. It ended up being my least favorite section of the entire route. Below the steepest part of the pass (the head wall) on the north side is a massive boulder field. I took the most direct line and was rewarded with a full body experience climbing around boulders that were sometimes larger than vehicles. It is slow and tedious. Roper talks about permanent snowfields in this area, but I think that is simply a thing of the past – permanent snowfields are disappearing and the few remaining glaciers are receding throughout the Sierra, exposing some pretty obnoxious terrain that you have to deal with instead. At the head wall, you have to deal with a very steep slope covered with incredibly loose sand, scree, and boulders. Roper advises going one at a time here. I would advise the same. It’s pretty obnoxious. When I got to the top of the pass, I was a bit behind schedule. And I had a small blister that needed to be dealt with before it became a real issue (my first in a long time). And there were entirely too many storm clouds in the sky…

Storm above The Hermit

Luckily, I was not doing this a week or two earlier, when lighting seemed to be pummeling the entire state of California. But I knew that I was not entirely in the clear – there was still a 30-40% chance of T-storms in the forecast. Luckily, I narrowly missed all the excitement that afternoon. I watched a storm near The Hermit to the southwest as I contoured around to the John Muir Trail (JMT). And later, I did get a little rain while I was on the JMT, but the ground was drenched – it could have been a lot worse if I was there earlier in the day.

When I hit the JMT that day, I was quite ecstatic. Cross-country travel can be exhausting. I hadn’t been on a trail more than maybe a mile or so all day and I was looking forward to opening things up a bit and doing some running! And that’s exactly what I did. It was raining, but I didn’t care. I had a smile on my face and I was bounding past all the JMTers like a deer. I shared my stoke in a InReach message to family and friends “Running in the rain! It’s gorgeous thinking of us hiking jmt together Matt for our honeymoon happy anniversary!!” Oh yeah, did I mention it was my wedding anniversary? Originally the plan was for my husband to be hiking in to meet me that night in Dusy Basin while one of our parents were taking care of our 3 year old son, but the coronavirus pandemic changed that, and now he was at home single-parenting.

Do I look happy? I was a little wet, but very happy. On the JMT near Evolution Lake.

That was definitely the high point of the day. The low point? Well I might have said Snow Tongue Pass if it weren’t for what would happen later that day… The whole day, I was moving pretty fast and thought I would be at camp around 9:30 or 10pm. I made it to Muir Pass around sunset, and was dismayed by how technical and difficult the trail was. I was definitely not able to run. Even hiking quickly was challenging at times. I lost the trail multiple times for short periods in the numerous creek crossings, confused by use trails going in the wrong direction and night travel. Apparently it had been too long since the last time I had been on this trail…

About 4.5 miles later, I was finally getting to some run-able trail, but it was too late. It was nearing the time I expected to be done for the day and I expected I had a couple of hours remaining to go, if not more. I was tired. It was dark. I wanted to be done. I was too far gone to even think about the tricks in my toolkit for making that moment better, let alone use them. And then, magic happened. I decided to look at my InReach messages and I discovered some messages of support from friends:

  • “Thankful to have this inspiring mama in my life! Keep going Renee!”
  • “As a brand new Mama, Renee’s feats give me hope that I will be in the mountains once more.”
  • “Wishing you luck on the finish-What you are doing is amazing & something that lots of moms dream of-you are one of the strongest & smartest woman I know”

A smile spread across my face and a thought, “This is what I am out here for!” And of course, then I think about my toolkit:

  • Breath in for three steps, breath out for two, repeat to infinity
  • Forget about what happened an hour ago, “do now right”
  • Body scan – check posture
  • Body scan – check intake/output needs
  • Speed check – can I go just a little bit faster?

These were my tools to get through the miles. I was back in the right headspace to use them again. And before I knew it, I can see Sean’s headlamp in our camp. It’s almost 12am, a little over 18 hours since I started that morning.

Route Notes

There are a couple of steep areas between Feather Pass and Merriam Lake where I did some 3rd and 4th class moves for the sake of speed and maintaining a more direct line – the “headwall” with the “obvious cleft” above La Salle Lake and the “steep slope next to cascade” above Merriam Lake. These are two areas where traveling north to south is not advantageous and you might have to do a little bit of poking around to find terrain you are comfortable descending.

Expect Snow Tongue Pass to take longer than planned, at least on the north side. But traveling south to north would not make things better. If anything, I’d rather be ascending the slippery slope rather than having gravity threatening to pull me down it uncontrollably.

Day 5: Bishop Pass Trail to Road’s End – Hours of Ecstasy

45.7 miles | 11,207 feet climbing | 19 hours 9 minutes

Dusy Basin in the morning is so very special. On that morning, I was even gifted with a live singing performance. Somewhere in the basin, a very talented singer was expressing what I was feeling in song. And I was not the only member of the audience. When he stopped, there was a hearty round of applause from at least a handful of people. It was quite a surreal experience.

Black Divide in the morning from the Bishop Pass Trail
Dusy Basin in the morning

The stunning beauty and joyous terrain (challenging at times, but really fun) continued all morning, past Barrett Lakes and the descent off Cirque Pass, then things started getting a little obnoxious…

Fall color near Barrett Lakes
Fun terrain and great scenery, Potluck Pass

There is a cliff section that you have to deal with shortly before you join the JMT. I found it to be particularly challenging to make sense of this section from home using Roper’s book, satellite imagery on Caltopo, and google earth. Since it wasn’t part of any of my recon trips, I wasn’t sure how it would go… I ended up right in the middle if a disconnected ledge system on a very sheer face. Thankfully, I wasn’t wearing a big pack and I was comfortable soloing 4th and low 5th class terrain, so I managed to get through it without wasting much time. This is one of the few short sections of the route where travelling south to north could help a lot!

Looking back at a challenging section. If I had managed to find a way to get to the low-angle terrain on the lower right I would have been golden. Instead, I ended up in the cliffs in the middle and left side of the photo.

But soon thereafter I hit the JMT and was able to enjoy some trail running, which was just what I needed at the time. It wasn’t quite as blissful as my time on the JMT the evening before, but it was still good…

From the top of Mather Pass, storms brewed. I started hearing thunder and saw the most ominous of clouds directly over the Frozen Lake Pass area, my next destination. Once again, I lucked out… While I was heading up to Frozen Lake Pass, the thunder lessened, eventually stopped, and did not start again. But for miles thereafter, the ground was soaked, making me glad I was not there earlier in the day.

Storms in view from Mather Pass

I had been on this segment of the SHR (Frozen Lake Pass to Road’s End) before, during one of my reconnaissance trips with Liz earlier in the summer. So I didn’t have to worry about route-finding or cliff surprises (except later, at night, when I didn’t follow my route line closely enough, ahem…) but knowing that I would need to be travelling off-trail after sunset and into the early morning always adds a bit of intimidation. But I was prepared with a plan. I had a packet of instant espresso that I would add to my bottle of liquid calories around 9pm (I usually don’t use caffeine). And I’d put on my headphones at the same time. Both of these tactics managed to stave off fatigue. Quite the opposite in fact – I was absolutely ecstatic during the last climb up to Goat Crest Saddle (3 miles and 1,600 feet). A message to Sean at 11:16: “Rammstein.. And. coffee weee!” I breezed through the final bit of “steep and rough terrain… class 2-3 slabs” and finished the climb around 12am, accompanied by Light Powered by Deastro (in fact, it was so good I had to listen to it twice). Another message: “Rad man I’m at goat crest saddle and I feel great!” Usually I have a hard crash around 11pm (an hour after my usual bedtime) but not this time, and it didn’t stop there… On the other side of the saddle, there is fantastic cross-country running terrain for miles and miles that kept me in the zone, on cloud 9 from that special mix of chemicals flowing through my body.

There was a bit of an interruption in the flow around Grouse Lake Pass (I went too high), the cliffs around Grouse Lake, and the Manzanita bushwhacking just before the Copper Creek Trail. But as soon as I hit the trail, the ecstasy returned. It was only a little over 7 miles of fantastic run-able trail and there was a good chance I would hit the trail head before my 5-day goal. I did the calculations in my head as I was running and kept looking at my pace on my watch. I couldn’t cut it too close because I couldn’t remember exactly what time I started at Twin Lakes. All of this triggered another intense flow state. I didn’t have to register and calculate my steps around rocks in the trail – my legs did it for me. And it felt like they were turning over faster than they ever had before, to the tempo of “All Eyes On Me” by Girl Talk. My legs held strong through all that continuous downhill running and about 5,200 feet of descent later, 7 minutes shy of 5 days, I saw the cars in the parking lot…

Route Notes

Roper’s description for the north side of Frozen Lake Pass includes “rugged… class 2-3 slope, quite steep… extremely unstable rock… traumatic,” which is why I wanted to visit this pass before doing the FKT. But I found none of this. It might have helped that I was ascending rather than descending, but I don’t think that explains all of the discrepancy. One thing worth noting is that my first trip was still relatively early season and we could traverse snow fields near the frozen lake. During the FKT, the snow was gone and I discovered that steep slabs covered in loose sand and rock were lurking beneath. The snow was more pleasant. Note, we couldn’t find the register on the pass and there aren’t many places for a register to hide up there.

A cold evening at Frozen Lake Pass during an overnight recon trip. The pass is the low point in the upper right (photo credit, Liz Levy)

The Helen Memorial Plaque is just west of a use trail on the west shore of Marion Lake, on the side of a large triangular rock facing the lake. It’s easy to find.

Any of the gullies south of Marion Lake looked like they would go. I’ve been in two of the three obvious ones. Don’t worry too much about finding the right one.

I found trying to find the “easy wooded ramps” below Glacier Lakes at home using the tools on Caltopo.com to be quite fun. And when I got there, my route line turned out to be located perfectly. If you use satellite imagery, the wooded ramps are quite apparent, separated by white slabs. Keep off the steep slabs. Look at slope angle shading too.

A good, easy route up Goat Crest Saddle was very obvious to me from the north. I can see how you could get screwed and waste a lot of time if you were descending blind.

Note that the “XC Route” between Grouse lake and the Copper Creek Trail from Open Street Maps data (on Caltopo.com layer “MapBuilder Topo”) is very approximate and this is not a trail. But it is advisable to stay true to the line in two spots: on the west shore of Grouse lake, where there are some cliffs at the lake’s edge that require you to climb up and around; and on the traverse between Copper Creek and the Copper Creek Trail where it will help you avoid some really bad bushwhacking.

A final note regarding the route. I get the impression that a lot of backpackers get in over their heads and bail / DNF. I think this might be due to the route-finding challenges, but I would guess it is usually from being uncomfortable with class 3 climbing while wearing a pack. For anyone considering this route, I would highly recommend you train on such terrain, wearing the pack you plan on using while on the SHR. Trimming down your pack weight as much as possible will really help! I swear a heavy pack effectively increases the grade a notch.

Final Stats:

DayMilesElevationActual timeEstimated time
1Twin Lakes to Tuolumne29.39,67812:46:0513:46:37
2Tuolumne to Devils Postpile49.612,52620:00:0618:26:26
3Devils Postpile to Lake Italy39.912,29717:38:2219:53:48
4Lake Italy to Le Conte+41.18,83918:16:0018:18:07
5Dusy to Road’s End45.711,20720:53:1319:08:48
Totals:205.654,54789:33:4689:33:46
Note: about 1/2 of mileage was on-trail, but most of those trails were minor use trails that were difficult to find/follow at times.

Gear

Some critical / favorite pieces of gear:

  • Navigation: I use a Garmin Fenix 5S plus, which has mapping capabilities. This allows me to create my route at home (using Caltopo.com) and load it into my watch. In the field, I can almost simply follow the line without spending much time on route finding, even off-trail. I also carried a tiny Palm phone, loaded with the Caltopo app (map tiles downloaded in advance) and geospatial pdfs read by the Avenza app (the Palm also took pictures).
  • Hydration: I never needed more than my two 17oz soft flasks except in the long dry stretch between Red’s Meadow and Deer Lakes. Here, I simply carried an additional 32oz of water inside the bag for my my Sawyer filter. Speaking of my filter, I think McCloud Lake (near Mammoth Pass) was the only time I used it. Most of the water sources along the SHR are isolated and essentially fresh from the ground/snowfield.
  • Nutrition: One of my body bottles almost always had liquid calories in it (Maurten 320 being my favorite at the moment – I started hoarding it and wishing I had more…), but I also use EFS and coconut water , sometimes with additional Base electrolytes and/or Keon amino acids). I brought a wide variety of foods (I find that works best for me, especially for long days or multi-day efforts) and brought at least 270 calories/hour for the first two days (to account for an increase in caloric needs during my luteal phase) and 250 calories/hour the last 3 days (during menstruation). I actually consumed significantly less – around 250 and under 200 calories/hour during my luteal phase and after my period started, respectively.

Training

I think this is the most daunting part to other mom’s so I want to make sure to mention it, but I wrote about this pretty extensively in my CA 14ers FKT Trip Report and I don’t want to go into that much depth again. Maybe someday I will write a blog or two just about being a stay-at-home mom and training with an infant, a toddler, a kid… The basic gist of it is that I had to do as much as I could with him. That meant a lot of stroller runs, primarily. I would start at snack time so he would be content in the stroller while eating. I would carry his bike and/or sand toys (for beach destinations) and give him a break when he got tired of being trapped in the chariot. Then I’d get a second chance to run back to the car when he got hungry for lunchtime. In this way, I could get 6-8 miles (or more) with him. I’d also sneak in some yoga while playing with him (it’s amazing how many random stretches you can do while sitting!) that would sometimes lead to mommy and me yoga sessions. I would get my long runs in on daycare days (minimum of two per week keeps me sane and my household happy), but during the coronavirus shut-down, my husband gave me one morning each weekend for a long run. I also did a lot during nap time (at-home strength training and runs in the neighborhood), since my husband works from home. Other random tricks include wearing a weighted pack when on walks with him (and/or carrying him in the backpack when he got tired of walking). All time on feet counts!!

Thanks!

This absolutely could not have been done without my wonderful husband’s support. Not only did he (Matt Jacobs) help me make the training happen, but he solo-parented for me while I was away for over a week. And to his parents, that helped with childcare when daycare was not an option.

My stepfather Christopher Meyers and mother Donna Meyers shuttled my Sprinter van from Twin Lakes into Tuolumne and then again from Tuolumne into Devil’s Postpile, giving me the opportunity to have some sleep on a mattress and some truly yummy food from the Sprinter fridge in the midst of the FKT. They also stayed up until I made it to camp/my car every night, sending messages of encouragement all the while.

Carol Patterson, my fellow Donner Party Mountain Runners board member, met me in Devil’s Postpile to help with the long list of evening tasks.

Helen Pelster, a good friend and mentor, handled “Communications & Media” from home, keeping track of how I was doing and sharing updates with friends, family, and social media.

Sean O’Rourke went above and beyond anything I could have asked for. He met me in Devil’s Postpile at night 2, hiked in our overnight gear and my food resupply at both Toe lake and the Bishop Pass Trail for night 3 and 4, stayed up until I got there, cooked dinner for me every night, woke up with me to make my hot water and get me on my feet in the morning, and drove my Sprinter van to Road’s End to meet me when I finished. He got sleep deprived and exhausted right along with me and I cannot thank him enough!

One thought on “Sierra High Route Fastest Known Time Trip Report

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