Although the evening was warm, morning was back to its cold old tricks. We started the 2000’ climb out of Virginia Canyon with fleece and puffy coats on. 500’ up the slope to Soldier Lake the morning sun’s rays caught us. We were soon stripping off layers, back to our daily uniform of shorts and a light shirt.
Soldier Lake is nestled in a glacial cirque. The last 500’ of climbing to its shores is over remarkable, solid slabs of granite. The glacial polish glistened in the low morning sun as we worked our way across this tilted, massive, granite counter top.
We tested the waters of Soldier Lake for fish, but came away skunked. This was our last lake of the route. We packed our telescoping poles away and began the 300’ climb to Stanton Pass.
Stanton Pass is the last pass with a headwall. We found getting up over it a bit troublesome as vertical stretches of granite repelled us, forcing us to negotiate ledges and ramps to reach the pass. At one point, I grabbed a solid looking, ottoman sized boulder for a handhold and pulled it off the mountain and into my lap. Luckily, my feet were well situated and I was able to bear its weight while I considered how to escape its crushing weight. With no one below, I rotated my thighs and hips, dumping the boulder off my lap and over an eight foot precipice.
The descent of the north side traverses to the left, and although imposing looking, we easily descended the headwall to the requisite boulder field below. This field was shorter than most, and soon we were rounding the ridge that defines the cirque of Stanton Pass and dropping into the broad U-shaped glacial valley of Spiller Creek. Two miles and 600 vertical feet up this valley of low ground cover lay our last pass of the route, Horse Creek Pass. From below this pass seems broad and rounded, but upon entering it we found it rocky, deeply V shaped and full of boulders.
The descent from Horse Creek Pass to Twin Lakes took a few hours. There is a severe “use” trail to follow. Staying on it allowed us to descend without contending with the 6 ft high willow snarling the valley. We picked up the forest service trail coming out of Twin Lakes a couple miles up from the lakes and followed it to the Mono Resort located at the end of the trail.
Our plan was to walk through the resort, stopping for a quick snack at the store and then park ourselves outside the resort, extend our thumbs, and hitch a ride to Bridgeport. From there, we assumed we could easily hitch a ride from Bridgeport to Lee Vining along highway 395, and from there catch a ride up to Tuolumne Meadows. What we failed to consider is Mono Resort is at the end of a dead end road. This camping area has a checkout time of 11:00am. We arrived outside the gates at 3:00pm. After an hour, only three cars had left the resort. The possibility of catching a ride was looking slim.
There is no cell service in the area. We decided to abandon our territory on the side of the road and reenter the resort compound to avail ourselves of their pay phones, call Barb in Yosemite Valley, and have her come get us. We wasted $3.00 in quarters attempting to reach Barb. Our pay phone skills were rusty.
We were presented with a problem. Cell service in the Valley is spotty. The chance of Sally or Barb picking up during one of our calls was near zero. If we left a message with the pay phone number to call us back at, we couldn’t leave the phone to try hitching a ride. We decided to call Jeff. We knew he would pick up. We would have him try to get a hold of the ladies every 10 minutes while Craig and I continued to try for a ride.
Our communication plan put into operation, we walked back toward the resort entrance. As we did, I noticed a big yellow school bus dropping a child off at one of the resort residences. As he passed by us, I called up to the driver, asking if he could give us a ride to Bridgeport. Getting to Bridgeport was paramount. Once there, we were on a main road and felt sure to get a ride the rest of the way. He yelled back, “I’m a school bus. I can’t give rides!” and drove away. When he was about 50 feet away, the brake lights came on and I saw his arm extending from his window, waving us forward. He leaned out the window and said, “Come on, get on board. I don’t have any kids and I can drop you at the old hospital site on the outskirts of town.”
We scrambled up the stairs like first graders anxious to get to school to see our friends and we were off. We enjoyed getting to know the driver, a man in his mid to late 30s as we traveled the 15 miles to Bridgeport, feeling fancy in our cool school bus ride.
Once we were dropped off, we walked the two blocks to 395 and decided to walk to the far end of town to catch a ride as people left the town. Along the way, we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. This necessitated us buying a few items, as the restroom was for customers only and guarded by a stern looking 60’s something woman. I chatted her up while Craig was in the bathroom and she softened her demeanor when she discovered that although we were filthy and stinky from 25 days on the trail, we were okay company.
Twenty minutes later, as we were walking in front of the pumps on our way back to the edge of town. A man in his mid-thirties was just finishing his fill-up. We got to talking and soon discovered he was a climbing guide driving to Mt. Whitney to lead a climb. He said his van was too stuffed with gear to afford us room for a ride, wished us well and went in to settle with the attendant we had just left.
We were just reaching the outskirts of town, getting mentally prepared for the hundreds of rejections we were expecting to encounter before someone stopped to give us a ride, when he passed us and pulled to the shoulder a 100’ ahead.
We jogged up to his van. He said he rearranged his gear and now had room. We thanked him and loaded in, Craig and the packs in the back seat, me in the front.
We had a delightful drive to Lee Vining, discussing climbing, guiding and other topics. He dropped us at the intersection of 395 and 120. We walked up the hill past the Mobil and set up hitch hiking shop, camp three. As we walked up the hill we noticed a dirty, red, Dodge van on the shoulder about 100 yards away. It looked abandoned, so we ignored it and began our thumb exercises.
Craig had grabbed a couple of pieces of charcoal from the fire pit last night to use as Magic Markers to make a sign on his Tyvek. We carefully, and neatly, scribed “Yosemite”, then draped the sign over a trekking pole to hold it rigid and settled into a litany of rejections as the cars sped past. After about 45 minutes, we heard a voice behind us. A young man, mid 20’s in age, had run down from the derelict van and was offering us a ride. We walked back to his van. It turned out to be surprisingly nice under the layers of dust and dirt, although upon entering it we were assaulted with the smell of marijuana. I introduced us, and he said his name was Chris.
As we pulled away, he told us he was sitting on the shoulder checking emails and texting before going into the park, the land of sketchy cell service, at best. We told Chris we needed to get to Tuolumne. From there Barb would pick us up, or we could ride the shuttle to Olmsted Point and hike the 10 miles to the Valley. Chris was headed to the Valley. We gleefully agreed to accompany him the whole way.
Chris is a dirtbag rock climber. The van we were riding in is his home. He was returning to the Valley to join some friends in a climb on the west side of El Cap. He was hoping to catchup with them at the base of the wall after dark tonight, or jug up a couple of fixed lines to their camp somewhere on the wall. He helps run a marijuana farm west of Tahoe, accounting for his income. We found his driving was fast! Of all the passes, boulder fields, stream crossings, etc of the SHR, this was our most dangerous 2 hours. But, we survived, and made a new friend as we discussed climbing and weed.
We arrived in the Valley a little after dark. Chris was headed for El Cap bridge. Craig had texted Barb to meet us at the bridge, but neglected to say which bridge in his first text. Luckily, the second one specifying El Cap Bridge got through. Chris’ climbing buddies were sorting gear at the bridge when we arrived. We chatted a few minutes, met a man our age preparing for a wall climb, describing to us how his truck and camper caught on fire three times getting to the Valley. Providence was smiling on us. Sally and Barb arrived just as we were getting uncomfortable with the verbal assault we were receiving. Their arrival was our deliverance and we scooted away to the van parked 100 yards down the road on the shoulder.
And so, the high route adventure came to an end in a most glorious way. I thoroughly enjoy hitch hiking. I have met very kind, quirky, and interesting people with every ride I have received. Nearly every ride is from a member of the hiking/climbing community. They know best the need of a ride back to a car or to a trailhead as they have been in the situation before. They can see through the filth of multiple days of trail dirt to the energized soul hiding within.
This is my third summer in retirement. The first saw us doing the national parks of the desert southwest (2013). The second, the PCT (2014). 2015 was riding the length of the Rhine River, Switzerland to the Netherlands. This year, the Sierra High Route and a couple weeks in Yosemite Valley. Now, I cannot imagine a summer slipping by without an out-of-the-car-on-our-feet-or-bike-adventure. We are talking about a complete PCT or CDT next year, or Italy and a ride down the Elbe or Danube river. We have a winter to plan and dream.