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Special Travel Issue | California

The Friendship Trail

How Two Men Hiked 3,000 Miles During a 30-Year Love Affair With the Sierra Nevada

March 30, 2003|Diane Wedner | Diane Wedner is a Times staff writer.

To veteran backpackers Ken Hively and Jeff Winter, wilderness trekking means shedding the clutter of urban living--deadlines, traffic and noise--in favor of granite peaks, sparkling glaciers and silence. So if you ask the lifelong friends what bare essentials are necessary for their biannual Sierra Nevada trips, they don't mince words: fishing rod, camera, cigars.

Over a span of 30 years, Winter, a 49-year-old musician, and Hively, a 49-year-old Los Angeles Times photographer, have put 3,000 miles on a combined 22 pairs of hiking boots in pursuit of trout and photographs among the abundant lakes and rugged peaks of California's storied 400-mile-long Sierra Nevada mountain range. They've driven up there in everything from a two-door Ford Cortina to a four-door Oldsmobile Cutlass, which are just two of the 20 cars their friendship has outlasted.

Trim and soft-spoken with a gray-specked beard and glasses, Hively looks more like an academic than a conqueror of the West's highest peaks. Winter, a lively raconteur, favors well-worn cargo shorts, T-shirts and plaid flannels, even during the 50 weeks a year he's L.A.-bound. He's researched and selected all of the 60 or so trips they've taken during the last three decades.

Their friendship began 40 years ago, when Winter's family moved next door to Hively's in Granada Hills. The boys built forts and "museums" together on weekends, and they discovered a shared love of the Sierra on a Boy Scouts trip at age 11.

During their 20th summer, the friends made their first solo back-country trek to Dinkey Lakes Wilderness in the Sierra National Forest, an area of numerous lakes surrounded by granite outcrops. By the following February, Winter had already picked out locations for trips the following June and September. They've headed for the hills twice every summer since.

"I go for the peaks and solitude and to capture photographically the beauty the ordinary person won't see," says Hively, who lives in the Malibu hills with Cindy, his wife of 23 years. "The Sierra puts my life in perspective, reminds me of where I fit on this Earth."

Sometimes that involves negotiating loose boulders on a steep, unmarked trail, or finding refuge inside a tent as hail pelts the nylon and thunder bounces off the nearby peaks. Waiting out a particularly fierce storm in Humphreys Basin near Piute Canyon one summer, the pair resorted to cooking the catch of the day--trout--over an open flame in a tiny tent.

Winter, a bachelor who lives in Van Nuys, is happiest conquering ever-higher peaks in the Sierra, but says "I'm in it for the fishing, period." He claims he once caught and threw back 50 trout in an afternoon at Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest. "We seek lakes and remoteness. That's all we need."

That and a compass. Winter's fondness for off-trail excursions has led to some close calls, such as the time the hikers found themselves clinging to the edge of a mountain about 200 feet above Chocolate Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness. But it also led Hively to what he calls the most exquisite scene he's ever photographed, Wit-so-nah-pah Lake, near the Convict Creek headwaters, also in the John Muir Wilderness.

"We had packed up our gear at a campsite nearby, started walking, and just hit upon that lake," Hively says. "It was my last photo of the trip and I knew it was perfect."

Others have tagged along with Hively and Winter, attempting to capture a piece of their backpacking magic, but only one--Winter's brother, E.J.--has ever signed on for a return trip. Sore backs and blisters, thin air and hailstorms have limited appeal to the uninitiated, Winter says. But experienced hikers know the good times usually outweigh the bad. After every storm, they can look forward to walking among shoulder-high ferns in glistening meadows.

Traveling as a duo is just fine with the backpacking buddies, who long ago established the division of labor. Winter sets up the tent while Hively gathers the wood. Hively cleans the fish and Winter cooks them. Cross words never pass between them; often, no words pass at all.

This summer the pair will mark their 50th birthdays just as they've celebrated the last 30, dining at 12,000 feet on onion-smothered trout, then smoking good cigars.

"I suppose we'll keep doing this as long as our legs hold out," Winter says.

To which Hively adds: "And then we'll take horses."

More information about back-country equipment and trips can be found in two books: "Sierra North" and "Sierra South," both by Thomas Winnett, Jason Winnett, Lyn Haber and Kathy Morey. The guides offer a combined 200 back-country trips in the mountain range, with detailed descriptions of the trails and their level of difficulty.

Wilderness permits usually are required in the High Sierra back country, and backpackers can reserve them in advance. The seven national forests in California's Sierra Nevada--Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado, Stanislaus, Inyo, Sierra and Sequoia--each have their own procedures for issuing those permits, so it's wise to call the individual Forest Service offices months ahead. For permit information, visit www.R5.fs.fed.us and click on the national forest you're visiting.

The three national parks in the Sierra--Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia--also have varying procedures for obtaining wilderness permits. For the national parks, visit www.nps.gov, or call the specific park's headquarters.

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