CEDAR GROVE, Calif. — As Dottie reached the top of the pass, her red hair was damp with perspiration and her expression was one of fatigue, fear and determination. Carrying a 35-pound backpack and a pair of cross-country skis, she had just climbed 800 vertical feet of snow tucked steeply between two granite walls.
Not bad for a 51-year-old real estate broker from Los Angeles.
This was our third day on a trans-Sierra tour, an adventure that would take us from Big Pines on the eastern side of the range to Cedar Grove in Sequoia National Park on the western side.
The route is known as the Monarch Divide after the ridge of granite that separates the south and middle forks of the Kings River system.
What made this trip special is that it had only been done once before by professional mountain guides, Tom Carter, Chris Cox and Allan Bard.
First Guided Tour
Dottie and I were part of the first guided tour on this route.
The party was led by Tom and Chris from Alpine Expeditions, assisted by three of their friends. All were young, strong and experienced mountaineers. The paying guests consisted of a ski instructor and a bar manager from Snow Bird, Utah; a French pastry chef from Newport Beach; Dottie, and me.
The average age of the party was about 35. As a 56-year-old physician, I was the party's eldest.
As veterans of one winter tour and a few summer mountaineering trips, Dottie and I felt well qualified to undertake the trip. After all, the Alpine Expeditions brochure made it sound like a spring tour in the Sierra.
The only requirements were to be able to travel on cross-country skis with a 30- to 45-pound backpack and "not fall down too much." That and "a little winter camping experience" was all that was required.
No mention was made of other skills that we would need. The mountains were to dictate them.
The afternoon before we started, Tom and Chris checked all of our personal gear down to the last sock.
We were not required to carry any community equipment or food. The guides and their friends carried all of that--food for seven days, fuel, stove, pots, pans and other essential items.
Their packs weighed 50 to 60 pounds and were half as high as the men carrying them. With my guest lunch sack, which contained food for six lunches, and without skis, my pack weighed about 40 pounds. (I carried both our lunch sacks.) We both had carried packs that heavy before, but not across the Sierra.
The first day was spent climbing 2,500 vertical feet in four miles. Chris reminded us unnecessarily that "it's all up on the eastern side." Up it was.
First we walked up a summer trail, the skis tied to our packs adding about five pounds to our burden. Soon it was off the trail, over the talus (fields of boulders) to view the first of a succession of passes to climb. As the trees thinned and became stunted, the snow patches joined each other, and we were at timberline.
Sinking in Snow
The sun had warmed the snow, and soon we were sinking to our knees. It was time to skin up and start climbing on skis. "Skinning up" means to take off your pack and skis and attach a long narrow strip of nylon carpet to their undersides, then put the skis back on, and finally the pack. Not a bad aerobic exercise when performed at 12,000 feet by a flatlander. Panting for breath, our unacclimatized bodies finally reached the summit at about 4 p.m.
Before us was a 100-mile-wide view. To the north and south, rising 2,000 feet above us was the Sierra crest. To the west were bowls of snow big enough to put in 50 chairlifts. Below we saw frozen Alpine lakes and heard the streams of the middle fork of the Kings drainage.
Dottie and I dropped our packs at the campsite and climbed up a little mound to take a look and to "put in a few turns" in the excellent corn snow. One of the young stalwarts pointed out our route for the next day. We decided not to climb up again, knowing that we would need all the energy we had.
The evening routine repeated itself each night: The guides would find a dry campsite in the rocks, get water from a partially frozen stream or from a hole that they chopped in a frozen lake. Soon we had hot soup. While waiting for the water to boil, they would set up our tent. The guides felt that Dottie, being the only woman on the trip, should have a little privacy. The others slept under the stars.
As soon as the sun went down, the temperature would fall with the speed of a brick dropped from one of the Palisades Peaks.
So just before the sun set we would add layers of clothing, topped off with a mountaineering parka filled with down. A wool cap and gloves finished the costume. Each person's dinner was served in a single container, a plastic cup, and eaten with a plastic spoon.
The fare was tasty, varied, imaginative and loaded with calories. Hot drinks finished the meal.