Six weeks in the Sierra high country
The trail disappeared beneath snow. Shielding my eyes with an arm, I squinted through the whiteout to pick a path toward the invisible pass. The Sierra’s white granite blurred with the sky. I looked down at my feet sunk six inches deep in the previous night’s snow. Somewhere beyond us, Matterhorn Peak’s granite flanks were gathering more snow. We were nearing the first of two 10,000-foot passes we needed to cross to get out.
Behind me, my wife and climbing partner, Becca, cradled her injured hand. The cold had forced us to remove the splint and sling we’d used to protect the healing wound. Five days earlier, while descending from Clyde Minaret, shifting talus had sent Becca somersaulting, and a sharp stone blade had slashed her thumb, severing an artery and chipping the bone. We’d been able to get her out to an emergency room, but neither of us wanted to quit this journey, so we’d come back up to the high country. We’d keep walking even if we couldn’t climb.
Six months earlier, as Becca and I spread out the topo maps covering the High Sierra, we’d imagined this moment very differently. Our seven-week climbing trip would conclude with a victory lap up Positive Vibrations on one of the range’s finest hunks of granite, the Incredible Hulk. We daydreamed of bonfires, friends, and a few bottles of beer. It would be sunny, of course. Instead, we were running for home through a storm. We no longer carried climbing gear. We were emaciated and mentally frayed.
After a two-day downpour turned to snow, we’d decided to make a run for it and immediately walked into a wall of white. We could have retreated back to tree line—that would have been the conservative call—but there didn’t seem to be anything conservative about this storm. Our lightweight gear was meant for summer squalls. In 2004, we’d been 10 miles north of this point in the same week of October when an unforecasted storm rolled through, leaving three feet of snow, stranding dozens of hikers and killing several climbers on El Cap. It closed the high country for the remainder of the winter. This storm had the same feeling. Both had been preceded by a heat wave, then a day or two of unsettled weather. Now, it was 25 degrees and snowing an inch an hour. Becca and I had been walking for 42 days. We knew it was time to bail.
In the flat light, I stabbed with a ski pole to interrupt an otherwise untouched snow slope. I needed depth to see.
Why? That was the question I fielded the most before we left. This was an ambitious, stubborn, inefficient approach to climbing. We’d walk almost the entire length of the High Sierra, from southern Sequoia National Park 300 miles north through Yosemite. We’d begin at Angel Wings on the range’s west side, strike north and east across the crest, and rumble all the way to the Hulk, carrying climbing gear the entire way, ticking as many unclimbed faces and rarely repeated classics as we could. We’d rely on friends to hike in at various points along the way to resupply us with Becca’s individually packaged, home-cooked backpacking meals. For every two days of hiking, we would be lucky to get in a day of climbing. It sounded less like a climbing trip than a never-ending approach. Why?
To the people who asked, I’d given several answers. I’d say I wanted to prove that you didn’t have to travel to Pakistan or Baffin Island to have a truly profound adventure, that it existed in our backyard ranges. That it was possible to take a climbing road trip—without a road. In reflective moments, I’d point out that Becca and I both had profound connections to this range. Our shared path had solidified on skin tracks snaking through Tahoe old growth and in the Eastside’s stark, granite-rimmed canyons. We married here. Now we live in Seattle and own a small but time-intensive media business. Both in our early 30s, we wanted to start a family. While children don’t bring an end to adventures, we were both keenly aware that this kind of trip would be impossible with young children.
Then there was the fact that men I had admired had done this trip in a similar fashion—John Muir, for one, whose mountaineering and research trips led him up and down the Sierra Crest peaks in the early 1870s. Packing little more than a loaf or two of bread and a heavy jacket, Muir would leave his home in Yosemite to explore the glaciers surrounding Mt. Lyell and the Sawtooths. Along the way, he ticked off the first ascent of 13,156-foot Mt. Ritter, where he, strung out and committed on a vertical wall, discovered the “preternatural clearness” that climbers recognize from long runouts. Fifty years later, David Brower, the father of the modern conservation movement and a consummate climber, had followed a course similar to ours. Over 10 weeks in 1934, Brower and cohorts climbed 64 peaks and concluded their trip with a moonlight ascent of Matterhorn Peak.
These men’s careers have served as a road map of sorts for my own. Before they became towering figures in conservation, they were climbers, then writers who used their experiences in these mountains to inspire others to explore. The methods for conveying adventure have changed a bit in modern times, so on this trip our close friend, photographer, and climber Mikey Schaefer would hike in from time to time to film and shoot photos. Our efforts would yield a small film, a climbing movie that was more about the process of why we climb, rather than the act itself. I wanted to give my own vision of the power of landscape, to write a love letter to a mountain range, to climbing, to my wife and partner.
Why? In short, this trip encompassed the whole of what I’d been working toward in the past decade.
The people closest to me knew I was leaving one thing out in these explanations. I was looking for an escape—or at least a giant “reset” button. The quiet specter of depression tapped at my shoulder. I was struggling to sleep. I had tried meditation and exercising to exhaustion. When those failed, I drank beer. Three hours later, I’d be lying awake rehashing all the projects I was falling behind on. I had nothing to be depressed about—and yet I wasn’t healthy. My creative passions had pushed me to my mental limit. My mind was collapsing on me, maybe in part because I was writing about mountaintops, not traversing them. In the meantime, I relied on the theory that an animal in motion is less likely to be caught. Keep moving. Don’t rest. Don’t think. Just get to the trip.
Secretly, I hoped that the Sierra would provide perspective. I’d rediscover the simplicity that colored Becca and my early years in the range. Solutions would flash into my mind from the Sierra sky, complete as a lightning strike, righting my fl oundering course. They would save me. I would return healed.
Valhalla. The alarm went off at five a.m. We ignored it and crawled deeper into the sleeping bags. Three days into our trip, our bodies felt shattered. After an all-night windstorm, our nerves were shattered, too. To a backcountry climber, the Valhalla cirque is one of the most inspiring places in the range. We were so inspired that we slept in. The rolling trail from Crescent Meadows to Hamilton Lakes had left our feet raw and blistered. The packs left deep purple bruises on our hips. Temperatures spiked into the low 100s. The spectacular south faces of Angel Wings and Cherubim Dome shimmered with heat—they were out of the question.
Plan B lay nearby: the north-facing Hamilton Domes, a series of squat, 300- to 1,000-foot molars set on a two-mile ridge. The approach notes I’d found online read like a sadomasochist’s wish list: bushwhacking, exposed slabs, and loose gullies. I proposed Plan C: fishing and swimming in Hamilton Lake.
In the dark and cold of a Seattle winter, Becca and I had warmed our minds around the flickering idea of this climbing trip. We’d promised to carry each other through the imagined highs and lows. Now, three days in, at the first low, I felt foolish. I felt humbled and lazy. We weren’t going to skip across the Sierra. This was going to suck.
From the depths of the sleeping bag, Becca gamely chimed, “If we don’t climb, this is going to turn into a backpacking trip real fast.”
“Okay,” I replied.
By nine a.m. we were wading through the chinquapin and manzanita toward Hamilton Domes. We offered each other chances to bail, and each politely declined. Three hours later, we tied in beneath a 900-foot, north-facing ridge and started climbing. Occasionally, we’d garden out a cam placement, trundle a rock into the empty basin, and wonder aloud whether the route had been climbed. Five nice pitches and a bit of simul-climbing later, we pulled onto the summit, finding no register or fixed rappel stations. We scrambled to find a suitable anchor and tossed ropes into the overpowering afternoon sunlight. No time to linger. We had four hours of hiking to do on one liter of water.
That night, Becca wrote in our shared journal, “Sometimes enough okays make a resounding yes.”
For the first week of the trip, I was haunted by a phantom cell phone ringing in my pocket. I dreamed about work incessantly. I battled thoughts that I was shirking responsibilities to my business, and worried if the employee we’d just hired had things under control. I fished. I even caught fish—beautiful golden trout that trembled in my hand. I imagined my mind like a dry fly, ready to be swallowed whole by the landscape.
We put up new routes and climbed old forgotten ones. We weathered a lightning storm on a 5.10 route up the flanks of Mt. Stewart, and wandered valleys lined with nameless granite spires. Mikey joined us and we hooted and hollered our way up Charlotte Dome’s outrageous 5.8 jug haul. Approaches became something not to be reviled, but part of the continuous process of climbing. There were strings of days when we saw no one else. We lounged naked on granite slabs next to crystal-clear pools. Becca and I began to think as one, completing daily tasks in wordless unison. Small acts of caring grew to fill the great empty spaces of the Sierra. Eventually, the phantom phone stopped ringing.
The issues that had plagued my thoughts back home receded, but after three weeks in the wilderness, there were no neat solutions, no obvious marching orders that I could follow back into the flatlands. The only obvious thing was that I was happy out here. My mind and body loved the rhythm of the rising and falling sun. Sleeping 10 hours didn’t make me a lazy slob. Grueling climbs, chattering teeth, lightning storms—climbers love to call these efforts and discomforts “suffering.” Suffering my ass. This was thriving.
In mid-September, snow clung to the north faces. The aspens’ yellow leaves and the longer nights were reminders that our days in the high country were numbered. Mikey and Kate Rutherford hiked in and met us at the rustic Muir Trail Ranch, 10 miles from the trailhead in the mountains above Fresno, and from there we all humped up to the divide, cresting above 11,000 feet. Here, the heavily traveled John Muir Trail swings west to avoid the granite citadels of the Mono Recess, and we stepped from that trammeled, dusty highway onto the granite slabs, talus slopes, and abandoned footpaths that defi ne the Sierra High Route, a cross-country passage pioneered by legendary Sierra climber Steve Roper; this route parallels the Muir Trail but sees an average of only 10 through-hikes a year.
Becca and I climbed the snaking, 2,000-foot north buttress of the North Peak of Seven Gables (5.9), weaving through some of the best and then worst granite of the trip. Mikey fi lmed from above. He tiptoed across stacked blocks teetering on the knife-edge ridge, while we shivered in every item of clothing we’d brought with us. He asked jokingly if our story had turned into a Hate Letter. Clad in down, we stared at Feather Peak’s brightly lit turrets and imagined climbing in T-shirts. We scrapped plans to climb another north-facing route and instead hiked fi ve miles toward Feather Peak, a dragon’s back of bone-white granite.
In the morning, Becca and I scrambled up talus and soft glacial till to a series of 500- to 800-foot-tall towers that define Feather’s long north ridge. We warmed up on a four-pitch 5.10 that linked golden granite crack systems, but soon spotted the real prize: a perfect finger splitter cleaving an otherwise flawless pillar just to the left of us. Suddenly, the climbing gear we’d dragged over 200-odd miles and 10 major passes became weightless.
Leaving the belay, I needed to save my fi nger pieces for up higher, so I scraped through some 5.11 moves with less-than-ideal protection. Scared and tired, with no knowledge of the climbing above—this was exactly where I wanted to be. I knew I would never be back. I stretched from a rest stance to grab the tips crack with my left hand, pasted my feet, and slapped at a square-edged arête with my right hand, committing myself with a resounding yes!
No guidebook had led us here—we’d followed our shared curiosity up valleys and over passes. This moment, on this crack, was my promise. This was my love letter to the world, to Becca, to the inner wilderness. To the spirit of adventure. We’d worked so hard to get here, and now I would climb until I fell. My lungs begged for oxygen. Blood trickled from knuckles. Forearms surged with blood. I kept climbing, leapfrogging my two pieces up the dead-vertical, 100-foot finger splitter. I’ve climbed harder. I’ve climbed bolder. But that’s the best I’ve ever climbed. It will never get better than that.
There was too much blood for a simple hand wound. Becca sat stunned in the middle of the basalt talus field beneath the east face of Clyde Minaret. We’d just had our best day of climbing yet, simul-climbing to the top in four hours.
We’d been in a comfortable rhythm for the last 10 days. We weathered a deep cold snap and managed a classic 5.10 route on the Third Recess. We pushed through sunlit snow squalls and soaked in the Red’s Meadow mineral baths. The number of hikers moving south on the John Muir Trail dwindled to a few per day. When the full moon appeared, we used it to our advantage to tack on night miles. By the time we arrived at Lake Ediza beneath Mt. Ritter, a lateseason heat wave was washing over the high country. The trip had whittled 15 pounds off my already skinny frame. As we curled in our sleeping bags, I could feel Becca’s ribs through her layers. Still, we were getting stronger. That morning we’d sped up the Clyde Minaret in perfect temps.
Now, I forced Becca to sit still— she’d fallen 15 feet down a steep section of talus. I patted her back and head, expecting to find another wound. The blood dried almost instantly on the warm stone.
“It’s just my hand,” she protested, and blood pulsed through the fingers she wrapped around her injured thumb. I pulled her hand back to see bone and tendon. An hour later, we’d bandaged her as best we could, slung her hand above her heart, and packed her a small bag with two liters of water and a ration of salami. I sent her ahead toward the trailhead, eight miles distant, while I packed up camp.
I shouldered the first load and tried to catch up. Occasionally at a vista, I could see her headlamp bobbing far down-valley. I’d never reel in that distance with my 80-pound pack—no, she was on her own. I knelt next to a stream, drank deeply, then walked down the trail much more casually, aware that, once at the trailhead, I would turn right around to reclaim the remainder of our stuff on the shores of Lake Ediza. Our climbing trip was over, but this walking stuff wasn’t so bad. If the doctors could get the wound closed and protected, maybe we could ditch the climbing gear and keep going north through Yosemite. Miles of trail and darkness separated Becca and me, but I knew at that moment the exact same thought was rolling through her head. We didn’t want to go back. Not yet. We weren’t done with the Sierra. This letter needed a closing, a signature.
The storm intensified, and the temperature continued to drop. A mistake, a twisted ankle, would mean leaving the other behind to fetch help. The steep talus slopes offered no sites for our tent. We were fine, I said. Our bodies would stay warm as long as we kept moving. We just had to pause to eat and drink. We’d navigated in whiteouts before. Orienting with a compass isn’t hard. Just keep heading uphill, hit the ridge, and find the pass.
Yet the other side of reality gnawed. It was October. It was snowing so hard it was difficult to open our eyes. Our gear was ridiculously lightweight for these conditions. We were 17 miles from the nearest road, wet from head to foot. I wasn’t sure we were making the right decision.
Then the lightning started. The storm swallowed us. Our footprints led back into swirling white. I reminded myself to appreciate the rawness of the moment—this was a day we would never forget.
I winced as lightning struck the ridge just above us, and took another tentative step upward. Then another. I’d lost the trail completely. At this rate, we’d be spending another night out. The blanket of snow hid the jagged talus, and I slipped again. A few minutes later, Becca ripped the stitches in her hand. Our progress slowed.
I waited for the smallest gap in the clouds, hoping to orient off the Matterhorn, the same mountain that Jack Kerouac had summitted with poet Gary Snyder on a cold October day and made famous in The Dharma Bums. This is where David Brower had concluded his epic climbing trip 80 years earlier. On the other side of the ridge, Muir collected some of the data that would bolster the scientific argument that ice had once covered these mountains. No break came. I stabbed with my ski pole.
And then, like a gift, tracks appeared. Right in front of me, the unmistakable hoof prints of a deer. Four feet later they ended, like the animal had been plucked from the storm. I stopped. Muttered to myself. Follow the tracks—they will lead you. I took another step forward, looked right, then left, for the shadowy form of a buck. I think I even looked straight up. Nothing. I motioned Becca forward. I stepped to the left to make room for her—and onto the uniform path of the hiking trail we’d lost long ago.
Each time the trail became obscured, or switchbacked, the buck’s tracks appeared. Our steps became more decisive. Forty-five minutes later, we paused briefly atop the pass to appreciate the force of the wind. The clouds lifted to offer a momentary view of the path into and out of the next valley. We were leaving Yosemite. We had walked 300 miles for this moment, and had just a few more to go. Suddenly we were speeding back to our lives in the flatlands. We were cold, wet, and exhausted, but we paused to laugh at the tiny wisps of rime forming on our eyebrows and notice the snowflakes’ patterns before they melted on jackets. Only when the shivering started did we start walking.
I will never forget the booming of lightning strikes as we crossed the second pass, or watching Becca, covered in rime and snow, laughing as she clung to tree branches in the third-class cliff system we’d accidentally wandered into. Every time it started to really get bad, when we’d begin to doubt our path and pull out the map and compass, the buck’s tracks would appear, and we would follow.
It is tempting to imbue this moment with deep meaning, but as I replay that day, I realize that to interpret these details as anything other than facts is to deny the moment’s beauty. There was a blizzard. We were dangerously exposed to lightning and cold. We lost the trail when we desperately needed to move quickly. Deer tracks appeared. We followed them.
Eventually, through the gloom, the granite turret of the Incredible Hulk emerged. Beyond that, Little Slide Canyon, snowline, and the fl at valley below. We lurched downward through 3,000 feet of talus. Knees wobbled with exhaustion. Blood trickled from numerous scrapes. We fell repeatedly. In the gathering dusk, we waded thigh-deep through stinking beaver ponds, collapsed onto a rain-soaked trail lined with sage, and hugged each other. Three miles of flat trail remained. Becca coaxed me to my feet and took the lead. I followed, pulled by her slipstream. An hour later, we staggered into a massive campground full of the darkened forms of hundreds of slumbering RVs.
Postscript. I haven’t climbed since. Becca, just a few days. It’s the longest break I’ve taken since I started 14 years ago, and yet I’m more than ever in love with the sport of climbing. The mountains around Seattle are draped in snow, but I’m content to ski up them in storms, rather than wish I were somewhere else. No fruitless praying for a bit of sunshine at one of Washington’s dank sport crags. The Sierra, with its unclimbed walls and unnamed domes, still holds sway on my thoughts. We’ve traced out new cross-country loops that touch on the valleys and cliffs we didn’t have time for. There’s a lifetime of undiscovered ascents out there. We’ve begun emailing friends. I will never need a plane ticket to Pakistan. The Sierra is a place to return to again and again, to grow old with.
Life in the flatlands isn’t any easier to navigate, but I’m not waiting for a buck to show me the way. I’m sleeping through the nights and working less. Occasionally, I’m overcome by the soft sadness I was working so hard to escape. But my creative drive is strong as ever.
Our hearts are a wilderness. They contain all the intricacies of a mountain range. Windswept passes. Quiet, sun-warmed meadows. Deep recesses choked with thickets. Talus covered in a foot of snow. To love a place, to love a person, is to accept these attributes and to appreciate those times you stumble onto undiscovered ground.
Fitz Cahall is the creator of The Dirtbag Diaries and The Season. Watch The Love Letter, a 10-minute film based on this adventure, here.