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High Sierra horsepacking.

High Sierra horsepacking

One of the boldest mountain escarpmentsin the world, the Sierra Nevada slices through California like a serrated granite wall--a 430-mile-long reach of glacier-scoured peaks, secluded meadows, and crystal blue lakes. Stretching half the length of the state, the range is within a few hours' drive of major coastal cities. But save for a handful of passes, these slopes are too rugged for roads. You can penetrate the remote areas on foot, with a backpack--or, to cover more ground in limited time and have more comforts in camp, you can take a pack trip.

Riding experience isn't necessary: outfittersare prepared to advise first-timers. You don't have to be in great shape, and age is hardly a factor (most outfitters accept children from age six or so traveling with their parents).

Although packers have been running excursionsinto the Sierra since 1915, today your options are much greater. Thirty-five outfitters based on the east and west slopes of the range offer a variety of horse and mule pack trips from May through October.

Last season, Sunset editors, photographers,and family members joined nine pack trips in several parts of the Sierra to sample the 1980s experience. Photographs from those trips appear on these pages, along with tips gleaned from their experiences.

To get your first choice of dates and destinationthis coming season, you'll need to make plans as soon as possible. For help in choosing an outfitter and a trip, turn to page 78.

The appeal of traveling on the hoof

In the clean-swept mountain landscape,you quickly forget telephones, newspapers, and deadlines. Because a mule carries your gear and your horse watches the trail, you're free to scan the views and take pictures. There's no noise except the burble of running streams, the hum of the wind, the clop-clop of hooves. And there's nothing like a midnight thunderstorm at 11,000 feet to make you feel you've left your other cares at home.

Bear in mind that horses and mules havelarge presence on the trail and in camp; these trips may not be for you if you don't have warm feelings for these critters.

Four levels of "roughing it'

You can choose from four basic types oftrips. We give an idea of per-day, perperson cost. Many outfitters also schedule special-interest group trips such as horse or cattle drives and natural history tours.

A dunnage trip is least expensive. Youassemble your own group, determine your schedule and destination, and assemble your camping equipment and supplies. Then you hike in (and out) with just a day pack while the packer and mules haul your gear each way.

Your party pays the per-day cost for thepacker and each animal. Mules rent for $35 to $50 per day; for a seven-day trip, it takes one mule per person to haul gear and food. The packer goes along for $50 to $100 a day (usually one packer for every eight animals). If your destination is half a day from the pack station, you pay one full day for the packer's round trip to drop off your gear, another full day for retrieving it. If the ride in takes longer than a half-day, the packer will stay in your camp overnight and return the next morning--charging for four full days total (plan to feed him or her dinner and breakfast, too).

On a spot trip, you ride on horseback,with your gear loaded on mules. The packer leads you into the back country, leaving you there (without stock) and returning for you whenever you've arranged. This service is popular with back-packers who want a head start getting into the high country. Cost is determined in the same way as for a dunnage drop, with an additional charge of $35 to $50 per day for each rider's horse.

A continuous hire of stock and packer letsyou tailor the trip to your own group, as with a spot or dunnage trip, but allows you to move camp and cover as much ground as you like, since the stock and packer stay with you. You provide all gear and food for your party plus meals for the packer, who takes care of the mules and horses. Again, your party pays the per-day cost of stock and packer.

The all-inclusive trip, today's most popularoption, lets you relax while the packer and helpers guide the group, tend the stock, plan and cook the meals, set up and break camp; all you bring is your personal gear and sleeping bag. You can plan your own itinerary and assemble your own party, or join a scheduled group trip. Cost is $75 to $135 per person per day. You may have a choice of a base camp, a prearranged campsite for the duration of your trip (sometimes you are left without stock), or a traveling trip, with your group moving camp frequently.

On the trail and in camp

Ten miles is a good day's ride, but longerrides are sometimes necessary. There will be stops to rest the horses and give you a chance to stretch your legs or take pictures. If you need to stop, say so.

As the stock picks its way through boulder-strewnpasses, you'll look down on deep blue mountain lakes, green snowmelt ponds, and glittering snow patches (at high elevations, some last year-round). On some slopes, purple lupine, round white ranger's buttons, and red Indian paintbrush bloom well into August.

In camp you'll have time for exploring,fishing, reading, or just napping. On all-inclusive trips, dinner usually comes while there's still light to cook by. Expect hearty fare: grilled steaks, Dutch-oven stews, maybe even just-caught trout. On one trip, we had fresh fish for breakfast or dinner nearly every day.

There's always plenty of steaming coffee,tea, or hot chocolate to sip by the campfire. And when your sleeping bag calls to you from the nearby tent, take a few minutes away from the firelight to look for Orion or the Big Dipper--seemingly a mere few hundred feet away in the clear mountain air.

You may lay over in camp for a day. Onmoving days, breakfast is usually early. Eggs and bacon are standard fare, but some packers have specialities such as huevos rancheros or freshly made biscuits with gravy.

Your trail lunch goes in your saddle bagor pack. If the packer supplies your lunch, you can usually expect a sandwich, fruit, and cookies or a candy bar.

Comfort and safety in the saddle

In general, the packer will try to matchyou with a horse suited to your skill level. Your muscles may be sore after the first day, but they will soon adjust. You'll be more comfortable if you've recently ridden a few times before the trip.

Mountain trail horses are generally sure-footed,steady, and quite gentle. Speed isn't important--rugged trails keep the stock at a walk most of the time. You'll travel single file, with the guide leading. Most pack horses don't kick, but each has its limit. It's best to stay one horse's length behind the animal in front of you. But don't wander off or lag behind.

Most outfitters will brief you thoroughlybefore you leave the pack station. Following are a few key pointers:

Keep just the front half of your foot in thestirrup (never slide your foot farther through).

Sit up straight in the saddle and try tokeep your weight in the stirrups to help distribute it over the saddle.

Lean forward with your horse when ridinguphill, backward as he goes downhill.

Stay relaxed. You'll be more comfortableon the trail and less stiff at day's end.

Check your cinch (the strap that keeps thesaddle on the horse) periodically. If you can slide three fingers under it, it's too loose: alert your packer right away.

Horses have right-of-way on trails.Politely ask any hikers to step off the trail as you go by.

Stay on the trial. Cutting switchbackscauses erosion and trail damage.

What to bring

On the trail, you'll be most comfortable injeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, with a broad-brimmed hat that shades your face and neck. If you wear long johns under your jeans, they'll help prevent chafing of knees and thighs from riding (powder helps, too). You'll need sturdy hiking shoes or boots with enough heel to prevent your foot from slipping through the stirrup. Make sure they're not a tight fit, since altitude may cause your hands and feet to swell a little.

Leave jewelry at home--rings and watchbandscan get uncomfortable if your hands swell.

Good rain gear is a necessity. Tie it, alongwith a sweater or jacket, to the back of your saddle. That way, you'll be able to get to it quickly--storms can come up suddenly and unexpectedly in the Sierra.

Unless the ground is damp from a recentshower, dust is a real factor on the trail. You'll want sunglasses to shield your eyes from dust as well as glare, and a bandanna to cover your nose and mouth if necessary. If you wear contact lenses, the dust can cause discomfort, so bring along eyeglasses.

Bring a bathing suit for sponge baths orzipping in and out of mountain lakes to wash off the dust. (Try liquid soap; it travels better than bar soap.) Once wet, soap down and rinse off at least 100 feet from the bank to avoid getting soap in the water. We found rinsing off with a bucketful of water completely painless-- we couldn't feel anything by then. A solar shower--a sun-heated bag of water with nozzle--was an appreciated luxury on one trip we took.

Saddlebags come in handy on the trail,but they're not always provided; be sure to find out ahead of time. A fishing vest or fanny pack (wear it turned forward for easy access) is a good alternative. Some things you'll want at hand: sun screen, lip protection, insect repellent, binoculars, aspirin, pocket knife, camera, field guides, toilet paper, canteen or water bottle (the altitude can be dehydrating).

Evenings can get quite cold: a warm jacketwith a hood is essential. Make sure you have a complete change of clothing in case you get soaked, and bring comfortable shoes to wear around camp.

Bring a fishing or hunting license if appropriate.For day trips from a base camp, it's handier to tote a backpacker's fishing rod than a two-piece pole, a fishing vest rather than a tackle box. If you're headed for a wilderness area, the outfitter can arrange for your wilderness and campfire permits.

Photo: At journey's sentimental end, rider expresseshis affection for sure-footed steed who carried him over 12,300-foot Mono Pass

Photo: Saddle-sore dude dismounts afterfirst day's ride, flexing stiff muscles in legs that remember the shape of the saddle

Photo: Below a red slate summit(right), riders and stock cross a meadow dotted with butterweed. They're on east edge of Yosemite, near the middle of the 430-mile-long Sierra Nevada (map). Packers are along east and west sides

Photo: Each mule can carry enough togive you plenty of comforts in camp--folding chairs, coolers, and tents with standing room. Bring a sleeping bag rated for 20| or lower, plus a foam pad or air mattress. Personal belongings (usually limited to 30 pounds per person) travel best if packed in duffel bags, but soft luggage will do; expect either to get dirty. Outfitters will suggest equipment for spot and dunnage trips; on all-inclusive trips, they supply camping equipment (except tents on some trips; ask if you should bring one)

Photo: Spicing the stew, young guest helps the cookprepare dinner on parent-and-child trip

Photo: Dome tent, with rain-fly ready to unfurl,will be his shelter for three-day spot trip

Photo: Mountain meadownear her camp provides solitude for reading or snoozing

Photo: Washing off trail dust is exhilarating--and chilling--experience

Photo: At wilderness lake, Leavitt Meadows packer and guest cast for trout

Photo: Virginia Lakes packers spend some 100 days on the trail each season. Mammoth Lakes wrangler takes on challenge of rounding up stock

Photo: Tightening cinch snugly around horse'sbelly, young rider secures his own saddle

Photo: As twilight deepens over Yosemite's Miller Lake, campers huddle around the fire while they sip hot cocoa and tell tall tales
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sierra Nevada Mountain
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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