Featured Ritt Kellogg Expedition – Trompin’ Thru Talus: Thru-Hiking the Sierra High Route

As a tribute to Colorado College alumnus Ritt Kellogg ’90, a skilled outdoorsman who tragically died in an avalanche, the Kellogg family established the Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund in 1993. Each year, this fund provides students with the means to carry out incredible backcountry trips in the U.S. and Canada for 12 days or more. Through a rigorous application process, students may propose virtually any trip they can dream up — from rock climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in northeastern Canada, to sea kayaking off the coast of Alaska. This semester, the Active Life section will feature a group of fund recipients and their journey every week.

Toward the end of July, Michael Hasson ’19 and Gen Buzan-Dansereau ’18 began their planned 23-day, 195-mile expedition of the Sierra High Route, also known as the Roper Route, from Kings Canyon to Twin Lakes. Unfortunately, the two had to evacuate five days in after about 80 miles of hiking due to intense wildfires further along the trail. While the decision to evacuate was a challenging one, the two made the right call and got the most out of their abbreviated adventure. They intend to return early next summer. 

The Catalyst: What inspired the trip?

Michael Hasson: Gen and I both thru-hiked the PCT — me in 2015, Gen in 2017 — which parallels the Sierra High Route that we attempted. On long trails like that where you’re trying to go fast to finish during hiking season, there are tons of canyons that you wish you could explore, but you just don’t have the time. So, we figured we would go back to the High Sierra, one of the most incredible sections of trail that we each went through, and explore some of the more remote locations with a lot fewer people.

Gen Buzan-Dansereau: I was inspired to hike the Sierra High Route during my 2017 PCT thru-hike. I loved the High Sierra and wanted to explore it off-trail. I had some friends I’d met hiking who really spoke highly of the SHR, and on the train home after finishing, all I could think about was, “Man, I already miss hiking, I need to hike the SHR on a Ritt!”

TC:  What was the most challenging aspect? Most rewarding? 

MH: The most challenging and most rewarding aspects were pretty much the same for me. Due to wildfires in California, we were only able to complete about 80 miles of hiking, of which 55 or so were off trail. In those 80 miles, we dropped below 10,000 feet twice and only for about eight to 10 miles total, once on the John Muir Trail for a short stretch and once when we had to bail. Combine that elevation with miles and miles of talus fields, and endless up and down scree fields and, mile for mile, it was the most brutal hiking I have ever done. That also meant that we saw very few people while we were off trail and got to access areas that neither of us had any idea were there. 

GBD: The most challenging aspect was having to bail after our fifth day because I really enjoyed my time out there. We made the decision to bail because at the top of a pass, we saw an incredible amount of smoke north of us. Smoke is a safety hazard on the SHR not only because of air quality and protecting my lungs, but also because most of the SHR requires off-trail navigation and good visibility. There was a bailout at the bottom of the pass, and the next bailout was 40 miles north, and 30 of those miles were off-trail. A 13,000-foot peak four miles away looked hazy, and we knew that if we kept going, we’d get into the thick of the smoke coming from Yosemite, so we decided that 40 miles was too far, and we bailed. I felt a little bit like I was weak for leaving, that I should be able to do better. It ate at me for a while after, and I wondered whether we made the right decision. Ultimately, I know that we did make the right decision, and I’m proud of my risk management decisions, but it was still hard to go straight from something I love the most in life to a car show in Reno, waiting to catch the train to Denver.

The most rewarding part was the strenuous nature of the hike combined with the views, and also getting to know Michael. I loved everything about what we did. Long-distance hiking makes me feel the most like myself, makes me feel the most comfortable in my own skin, and the most optimistic. I love going to bed, feeling like my body hurts everywhere because I worked hard. I love that hiking, especially off-trail hiking, forces me to stay present. My days feel longer and richer, and my decisions seem more important. When you’re long-distance hiking, even deciding to take a snack break is an important decision, whereas at home I could sit on the couch for three hours and it would mean nothing. It felt amazing to reconnect with that part of myself, and it reaffirmed that I’m in love with hiking and have aspirations to keep doing this.

TC: Do you have any personal highlights?

MH: My personal highlight was coming over Frozen Lake Pass and camping at a tiny lake around 11,000 feet. Getting to sleep in a place like that, having essentially just crossed the Sierra, made me feel pretty lucky.

GBD: Personal highlight for me was making my way up Snow Tongue Pass, our first big off-trail pass. It took us the better part of an hour to scramble up the Class III boulders to the top. It was easily the most strenuous hiking I’ve ever done, but I was so engaged with every move, and it felt like a puzzle.

TC: Any funny stories or camping mishaps?

MH: Not many super funny stories or mishaps. Our route notes were pretty funny at a few points. For Frozen Lake Pass as well as Knapsack Pass, the notes just said, “Obvious route, easy pass,” while indicating a 45 plus degree talus slope. For Frozen Lake Pass, we climbed about 700 vertical feet in about a third of a mile, so the notes were funny in the way that things are when you just have to laugh at what you’re doing. 

GBD: This was my first hike ever wearing a fanny pack. It’s like an accessible pouch for my map, compass, sunscreen, and fruit snacks. You can have Gushers at your fingertips. I got a lot of sass from Michael about it, but I’m never going back, never.

TC: Do you have any advice for those applying for a Ritt Kellogg Expedition Grant?

MH: Advice: focus on your escape routes. This was my third Ritt Kellogg Expedition and the first time that I had to bail. Thanks to Gen’s especially exceptional planning, we had an out for every day of the trip, which was very comforting with how smoky the air was while we were out. Having escape routes so meticulously planned out helped us maintain margin for error and account for things potentially going wrong. 

GBD: Plan out your evacuation routes, and take it seriously. If you’re the type of person who likes to go outside — and obviously if you’re applying for a Ritt, you are — at some point, some of your attempts will fail. This is the third time that I’ve had to make the decision to bail from something in the backcountry, my first failed Ritt attempt, and without a solid understanding of how to get out, it could have been a much bigger deal than it was. Nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan. Especially if you’re deep in the backcountry, you really need to know how to get out because there are actual risks associated with backcountry travel, and it’s not something to be taken lightly.

TC: If you could do it again, would you do anything differently?

MH: Gen and I are planning to finish next summer and will likely go a little earlier in the season. This would hopefully reduce the risk of us getting smoked out as well as cover up scree/talus on the north sides of passes. Assuming we continue north from where we had to bail, that would make getting down them easier on the knees and a bit more fun. 

GBD: I would pack less food, because now I know what mileage I’m capable of off-trail in that terrain. I’m planning on returning next summer with Michael to finish out the route, so that advice might actually come in handy to me.

Be sure to catch Hasson and Buzan-Dansereau’s trip presentation — along with other Ritt grant recipients — on Oct. 9, 7 p.m. in the Cornerstone Screening Room. 

 

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