In the Sierra Nevada with Will Jones
If there is music at the highest elevations of the Sierra Nevada it is the music of near silence. A recent three day hike in the Eastern Sierras starting at the Pine Creek trailhead, a few miles north of Bishop, reinforced that reality for me once again.
Each summer since 2004, except 2010 when I was recovering from an unexpected “cardiac event,” my friend Frank and I have spent a few days backpacking in the Sierras. We hike in anywhere from six to fifteen miles, establish a base camp near a peak we hope to climb, attempt to summit the next day, spend another night and then hike out. The peaks are usually in the 13000’+ range, with suggested routes to the top rather than obvious trails. Our highest summit was Mt. Agassiz at 13891’ in 2006.
This summer we chose Royce Peak, 13200’, as our goal. On the first day we hiked about nine miles with an elevation gain of over 4000’. When we reached Pine Creek Pass at 11100’, we left the trail and hiked overland to Royce Lakes at 11560’. The hike was demanding, like being on a stair master for seven hours, the difference being the magnificent Sierra vistas that accompanied us: clear flowing water, waterfalls, aromatic pines, serene lakes, majestic granite peaks, the stark almost lunar beauty of the landscape above the tree line.
It is above tree line that the Sierras sing their sweetest silent song. Camped on a patch of sandy ground next to the lake, only a few intermittent notes call out once we quiet our human activity: murmur of the lake against the shore; a tailless pika’s excited squeak; the wind rustling the sides of our tents. As night approaches and stars and constellations appear seemingly just above our heads, it is so quiet I can hear the blood surge through my body with each serene heartbeat.
We had company on this trip. Throughout our two days by the lake, a lone seagull drifted on the water, preened on a nearby rock, soared above the rippled surface with Merriam and Royce Peaks as a backdrop. It was like a theme in the music of this journey, one better felt than explained.
And although it was satisfying to reach the summit of Royce Peak, and glorious to return to the trailhead the next day, it is the music of the Sierras that remains with me when I return to civilization, the ancient silence that yields a quiet heart and a peaceful mind, that keeps me right-sized as I walk through an otherwise noisy life.
photo by will jones
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