Kearsarge Pass (1972)

We all have to start somewhere. 

I started as a nerdy city kid on the East Coast, far from any mountains or wilderness. I was terrible at anything athletic, so I never exercised much. In 1972, I was living in Los Angeles, doing mostly desk work and eating nothing healthy. Backpacking and wilderness were distant, abstract concepts—as they were, in those days, for most Americans. 

Somehow, I took an interest in something new. I read John Muir’s book, The Mountains of California, and was completely entranced. His description of the dramatic landscapes, the richness of nature, made me want to go experience the high Sierras. I had a week of vacation time coming up, and it was high summer.

With no experience of camping out, much less backpacking or mountain trails, it would obviously make no sense to go alone. 

I had no sense. 

I found a sleeping bag and backpack to borrow, and set off to follow John Muir.

Muir said, one day I decided to climb Mt. Whitney, so I took a bus to Independence, put a loaf of bread in my pocket, and set off. (paraphrased from memory). He proceeds to describe the wonders of his mountain experience. I knew I couldn’t hope to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak between Alaska and Chile, certainly not in a day; but I followed Muir’s model of traveling light. It was summer; I wouldn’t need a tent. I could eat raw food, bread and soy nuts, so I didn’t need anything for making a fire. Simple.

I took the bus to Independence, like Muir. That’s in one the driest places in North America, in the rain shadow  of the highest part of the Sierras. But it’s a dozen miles or so across the desert to the foot of the mountains. I suppose Muir trotted across that expanse in a couple of hours. With the benefit of a modern road, I was able to hitchhike to the mountain’s base, and even up a bit,  arriving in the late afternoon. From there, a dirt road maintained by the Forest Service continues up the mountain. I started uphill.

The Mountain of Purgatory

Did I mention that this is on the East Slope of the High Sierra? One of the driest places on the continent, where an elevation change of some 8000 feet (2400 meters) is compressed into a near-vertical drop?  (of course the road is not that steep, carved with switchbacks into the mountainside). For hours, I trudged uphill through featureless gray, dusty gravel. I felt like I was in Dante’s Purgatory, where the souls must climb an endless mountain in the hope of reaching Paradise. 

When it got dark, I just unrolled my sleeping bag by the side of the road to sleep.

Did I mention that I had done almost no physical activity most of my life, and knew nothing about mountains? Yeah, looking back, I wonder why I had no encounters with mountain lions or coyotes. Maybe that area was so little visited then that the presence of a human was too alien a concept for the local fauna to deal with. And it’s likewise a wonder that the next day, I had no problem picking up my gear and continuing my uphill trudge, up more miles of featureless gravel.

Early the next afternoon I reached the high country, where some trees grew. I had been climbing up a steep grade for maybe 10 or 12 hours. (This part of the trip was so trivial to John Muir that he didn’t even mention it). I should have been exhausted, but actually, I was exhilarated. Since I had no experience of my own to compare it to, but only Muir’s writing, this did not surprise me, at the time. In retrospect, it seems miraculous—as was everything that followed.

East side trail to Kearsarge Pass

Near the top, the view to the east looked much the same as it does today.

Finally, Kearsarge Pass, over 11,000 feet—the highest elevation I would ever reach in North America. The view to the west took my breath away. After days of seeing nothing but desiccated rock, I’m suddenly in a sea of green. And the panorama of mountain ridges, valleys and lakes! I swear, I could hear heavenly music in that sweet, rarefied, air. Mount Whitney, was in sight, but not tempting.

I sat by the trail overlooking the green basin, admiring the view. 

I spent quite some time trying to find a stock photo of that view. This is pretty close as to position, but the ground was much greener then. 

After finding my breath again, I took out my flute, and started to play a bit. A head popped up from the ground about 15 yards away, and looked at me, listening. Too big for a squirrel or groundhog: it might as well have been a Hobbit, so unexpected it was. A bit later a park ranger came by, and explained that it was a marmot, an animal I had never heard of before. Hello, music-loving marmot!

Marmot

For the next two days, I walked down gentle trails, past lakes and streams, through forests and canyons: paradise upon paradise. For the first day, I was alone; after that, foot traffic kept increasing. I was the only human crazy enough to hike up the east side, but the west side, Sequoia/Kings Canyon Nation Park, was very popular (and in later years, probably mobbed beyond recognition). Then, from the crowded trailhead, hitchhiking back to LA.

Bullfrog lake, in the basin below the pass, still looks much like it did 50 years ago

This was the first, and boldest, of many wilderness hiking adventures. I won’t write about any of the others; you had to be there.  

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