As a professional backpacker, more or less, Andrew Skurka has all of our dream jobs. He scouts, he guides, he treks, he writes. Skurka is a veteran of just about every serious long-distance hike you could do, and favors off-trail excursions into the really deep wilderness. He likes to chart his own path.
Recently, Skurka has been scouting out a new high elevation trek through the heart of uncrowded Yosemite high country called, simply, the Yosemite High Route.
As Skurka has envisioned it, the YHR forms a figure-eight from Dorothy Lake Pass in the north, pinching in the middle at Tuolomne Meadows, and extending as far south as the area surrounding Rodgers Peak, not far from Mt. Lyell. More or less, that is. Skurka is still finalizing the route.
He spent nine days backpacking the area last summer and we spoke with him about how one goes about sketching out a high elevation backpacking route, and what prospective hikers can expect from the experience.
AJ: What factors do you consider when trying to establish a route like this?
Skurka: The key consideration might be, “Would I want to hike this route?” I’m most drawn to outstandingly beautiful areas in the Mountain West that feel wild, have huge vertical relief, and are conducive to off-trail backpacking routes. So far, I have yet to exhaust the possibilities with these tight parameters.
How does this section of the Sierra differ from the rest? Why this part of Yosemite?
Yosemite National Park lies within the broader High Sierra, and many of its features will be familiar to those who have visited, say, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, or who have hiked more southerly sections of the John Muir Trail. Expect generally perfect summer weather (dry and sunny), pristine blue lakes, textbook U-shaped glacier-carved valleys, and lots of granite slabs, talus, and moraine. Versus other areas of the High Sierra, Yosemite feels slightly more lush and less austere.
So what technically qualifies as a “high route,” anyway?
There is no formal definition of a high route. But the general idea is to climb high and to stay high, usually parallel to or atop a watershed divide (e.g. Continental Divide, Sierra crest), while following natural lines of travel and remaining practical as a backpacking route—no “stupid hard” lines just because they’re there, and no technical travel. Starting and ending points are best dictated by geography, not political boundaries, vacation time availability, or logistical convenience (although if these factors can be accommodated without compromising the route, it’s a plus). High routes are unofficial, and should not be thought of as something that must be completed exactly. Utilize them to fit your situation—your free time, skill set, and fitness.
High routes differ from normal backpacking itineraries in two important respects. First, they don’t hesitate in heading off-trail when man-made trails don’t follow the most natural line. To undertake them safely, backpackers must be very competent navigators: know how to read a map, use a compass, operate a GPS, utilize an altimeter watch, and most of all, find the path of least resistance between two points. Second, high routes are much more physically challenging, because of the off-trail travel and ridiculous vertical change per mile. Aerobic fitness, muscular strength, lightweight packs, and lean body types are must-haves.
How long have you been eyeballing this route, and what are the steps involved in trying to chart the thing?
I’ve been eyeing a high route in Yosemite since 2012, but until this summer I was sidetracked by similar projects in Sequoia-Kings Canyon, the Wind River Range, and Colorado Rockies. The first step in developing a high route involves studying, mostly by looking at topo maps and reading existing route information (in this case, RJ Secor’s “The High Sierra” and the High Sierra Topix forums). The second step is field research: hiking a primary route and multiple alternates forward and backward, in different seasons and years, and with people of different abilities. The last step is developing a guide.
Did you encounter surprises during your scouting trips of the route?
I always encounter surprises when scouting. Lines that look good on the maps end up being terrible, and route information found online ends up being partially or entirely wrong. The best example from my August trip was the ridgewalk of the Clark Range between Red Peak Pass and Mt. Clark, which is described as “easy” by Secor. Ha! Needless to say, it won’t be part of the final route, and probably not even a suggested extra credit option. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: Areas that look unremarkable on the maps end up being spectacular.
What are your favorite sections?
The “good stuff” on the Yosemite High Route runs south from Grace Meadow in upper Falls Creek and ends at Quartzite Peak at the northern end of the Clark Range. All the miles between these two points are world-class. You can’t go wrong.
Can you provide a comparable difficulty level of this route to other, known routes? Would prospective hikers need skills other than route-finding?
If someone has done another high route, the Yosemite High Route will feel similar. If you’re “graduating” from on-trail routes, the Yosemite High Route will be much more difficult (because of the off-trail travel and increase in vertical change per distance). I recommend first undertaking a shorter section-hike to learn the rules of the game.
I’ve read you are preparing a guidebook for the YHR—when do you expect it to be available?
I’d like to release the first edition in February 2019. It’s a good winter project, and I’m expecting it to require about 150 hours of work.