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In the Sierras, a trail-less treat for hikers

Hiking through a trail-less wilderness where cell phones don't work and help is days away may not be everyone's idea of a great vacation.
/ Source: Reuters

Hiking through a trail-less wilderness where cell phones don't work and help is days away may not be everyone's idea of a great vacation.

But for those willing to find their own way and do the hard work of climbing into the high country, the Range of Light offers the rich reward of a constant succession of jaw-dropping landscapes.

The eastern California mountain chain, made famous by the 19th century naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams, is seen at its best from the Sierra High Route, a 195-mile (314-km) south-to-north journey that visits the range's peaks, valleys, lakes and gorges while avoiding popular tourist areas.

Steve Roper, author of the only guidebook on the route, was so concerned to preserve the wilderness experience that he devised an itinerary that avoids trails for about half of its length.

In trail-less sections, hikers must use map and a compass (or GPS if they insist) to navigate rocky passes, cross the snow fields that linger long into summer, wade through rivers and creeks, and pick their way through fields of boulders known as talus.

And they won't get a whole lot of help from Roper since he deliberately avoids detailed route descriptions so that hikers get the maximum reward from their wilderness experience by blazing their own trail.

"We are not sheep," Roper said. "We want to have some pride in finding our own way. Route-finding is one of the great pleasures."

He conceded that he has had some complaints from readers that his route descriptions are not clear enough since the book, published by The Mountaineers Books, first appeared in 1982, but he makes no apology for making his readers take responsibility for their own navigation.

"It makes you think," said Roper, 68, who has been wandering the Sierras since 1954. "It's good for humans to think."

Far from the madding crowd
One such complaint came from this reporter when trying to find his way up a steep talus slope and over a pass during a hailstorm in late July.

A difficult section of about a mile was rendered by just one three-line sentence in the guidebook, forcing a party of four to simply figure it out.

We finally crested the pass to find the view we wanted to see — a magnificent panorama over the nearby Bench Canyon.

Our destination was also confirmed by a small stone cairn left by previous hikers although such landmarks offend Roper as a violation of the wilderness so he encourages readers to destroy them.

Our initial frustration at the lack of guidance was replaced by a sense of satisfaction — coupled with no small measure of relief — that we had found our own way.

The experience was repeated numerous times during our seven-day northbound trek along a 48-mile (77-km) section of the route from Devil's Postpile near the ski resort of Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows inside Yosemite National Park.

We carried 40 pound (18 kg) backpacks as high as 11,200 feet, endured lung-busting climbs across acres of shattered rock, camped by pristine mountain lakes — which we always had to ourselves — and were always accompanied by views of deep gorges, thundering waterfalls, and mountain peaks.

As an exercise in back-country asceticism, the Sierra High Route — renowned as one of America's toughest hikes — can have few equals.

It requires hikers to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, cooking equipment and camping gear. Water is drawn from lakes and creeks. There are no roads or houses, no opportunity to spend money, little or no cell phone coverage, and very few people.

For the first six days, until we hit a major Yosemite trail, we saw fewer than 20 people, all of whom were finding their own way, as Roper would have it.

"You don't want somebody to be holding you by the hand," he said.