SHR Day 1

SHR Day 1 — July 3
Twin Lakes to tarn below Stanton Pass
Car to Creaky Knee Camp

Mile hiked: 8.77
Gain: 4964ft
Loss: 1460ft
Passes: Horse Creek Pass, Stanton Pass

The build up to a big hike can be consuming and stressful. Although the Sierra High Route is relatively short when compared to the PCT or CDT, I was not spared the agonizing anticipation or doubts. In fact, the nature of the SHR, being mostly off trail and reportedly really freaking hard, had me more nervous than I’ve been before almost any trip I’ve taken so far. So at the end of the day, it is just a really good feeling to be lying under my quilt next to SpiceRack, listening to rain turn our tent into a thundering drum. The hard work is done, the waiting is over. Now all we need to do is hike. Easy right?

The previous day was spent behind the wheel of a car, speeding up and down the eastern slope of the Sierra. SpiceRack and I dropped off our resupply boxes, meticulously prepared a week before, in Tuolumne Meadows, Red’s Meadow, and Bishop. Driving through the heat was arduous, but It was a wonderful feeling to return to the Owens Valley. Hwy 395 has been my happy place for large chunks of my life, and returning to those swooping vistas of familiar peaks felt normal, yet made me immeasurably happy. Like coming home.

In the morning, we packed up our luxurious car camping spot under the bright Sierra sun, and buzzed across washboard road to pavement, then to our starting point at Twin Lakes. We bought some more hair ties and paid $60 to cover parking for one month. I still haven’t cut my hair since before the CDT in 2019 and so must hike with braids to prevent dreading, hence the hair ties. We pounded the rest of our hemp milk, then shouldered our packs to go see what this high route is all about.

Once we made it out of the packed campground, full of RVs for the holiday weekend, we only go a little lost finding the trail. Across a creek, then up to some switchbacks, swatting mosquitos from our ears. The trail smelled like home — warm sagebrush, dirt. The plants were the same, the trail tread looked the same, everything felt the same. The only thing that had changed since my last Sierra trip in 2017 was me. I’d been many places since then and hiked many miles. My life has taken turns that I could never have anticipated during the intervening years, a wild ride that I have loved. But I missed these moutains. This was the year I needed to come back. It felt the same, and that was all I wanted.

A half mile and a few switchbacks into the day, I realized I forgot something in the car. Ten minutes later, panting, I crunched back to where Spice waited in the shade. With the only mishap of he ENTIRE trail out of the way, we got back to where we left off.

Smelling the sage and following the Spice up Horse Creek.

Spice led up the trail as we followed the cascading Horse Creek up the canyon. She looked strong and confident ahead of me, and it felt good riding in her wake. Granite spires unfurled above as we moved out of the pine forest into an alpine meadowland replete with wildflowers and aspen. The creek meandered across the relative flat next to us. The trail eventually sputtered, then ran out altogether in a steepening pile of red talus. We scrambled up, then caught our breath under a tree at the top.

Clouds built overhead as we continued up. We stayed high and to the right when we should have stayed low and up the middle. This small error was easily corrected, and it was probably only the first of many headed our way. At the base of a vertical point of a mountain, we took a right to follow the source of Horse Creek where it rushed invisible beneath a porous pavement of speckled talus. Leapfrogging another pair of hikers, we climbed over endless benches and false summits. I took it slow in the thin air, keeping my lungs in a sustainable zone.

No more trail near the top of Horse Creek Pass. Our first shot at route finding.

A strange gully filled with snow greeted us at the true pass. Stepping through a hallway of granite was like walking through a portal into a new world. We left behind jumbled piles of broken granite and entered a lush valley of velvety green. Spiller Canyon was as beautiful as advertised and extremely mellow. Spice and I perched next to a tarn of snow melt for a deserved lunch as the dark clouds above first spit then faded to patchy blue. Granite ridges rimmed an immense amphitheater that drained west into the heart of Yosemite.

Looking back at Spiller Canyon during the downandup to Stanton Pass. Horse Creek Pass is the obvious saddle near the middle.

After a bite of many delicacies, we shouldered packs for a pleasant downandup across the valley to the next obstacle of the day. Stanton Pass looked like a wide wall of granite cliffs. The guidebook advised us to stay right, which looked barely passable. After an approach of boulder hopping it became clear that this was not as steep as it looked. A series of ramps and benches squiggled us to the top, mostly safe and mostly secure. Solid rock with good handholds made it a solid class three scramble with a few steps of spice. Feeling accomplished, I reveled in the new vista revealed below, complete with a rainbow. The high crags of the Mount Conness group scratched the horizon. The next days of our route ahead were easy to pick out, but hard to believe. (see featured image at top)

Spice and I sat in satisfaction until raindrops began spitting and thunder started to rumble. Picking our way down granite slabs, slick with warm rain, wiped the smile off my face until we reached solid ground stable enough for grass to grow. My left knee had started to grumble with each deep bend on the ascent, and now protested the strain while going down. For this reason and a few others I called a halt to camp near a large puddle.

SpiceRack snips wild onions harvested from Spiller Canyon for bonus dinner spice.

Spice set up camp while coaching me through self stretching routines for my abused quad muscles. Putting her new massage therapist degree to use, she worked on my legs as the rain pounded with renewed fury on the roof of our tent. Next was candy, then dinner. Beans and Oreos to finish a challenging first day. Besides a cranky knee, the both of us survived our first day in good shape. 

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