Sierra Backpacking Trip
September, 1969
Bob, Dale, Dave, and George

While preparing for a move, I ran across a folder labeled "Memorobilia", which included documents my parents had saved while they were alive. I was surprised and pleased to find a letter I had written to them in 1969 while I was in college at UC Berkeley.

The letter describes in some detail my very first backpacking trip to the Sierras. Before then I had never been an outdoors type, never done camping. The trip lasted for two weeks and opened me up to the wonders and beauty of the outdoors. I had no idea what I had been missing.

I re-read this letter with pleasure. To this day, backpacking is a favorite pastime of mine. (Here is a 2003 backpacking trip with my wife Shirley, our son David, and one of his friends and here is 2007 backpacking trip I took on my 60th birthday with our son David and a friend).

This old letter from 1969 when I was 22 inspired me to make it to the top of Mt. Whitney in 2010 at the age of 63. As you will read below, I failed in the 1969 attempt, but wrote:

"In sum, I and one guy made it only up to 13,933 ft, while three others pushed on to the summit, much to my chagrin (but someday I'm definitely going back to make it)."

My recent trip up Whitney was another wonderful backpacking trip as described here

In 1969, three of us backpacked the entire trip - Dale Flynn, Dave Stamper, and myself. I recently contacted Dale, for the first time since our Berkeley days. He is a Trustee of The Mountaineers. The Mountaineers web page has a brief bio of Dale. I have not been able to contact Dave Stamper.

Based on the letter, I approximated our route on a topo map. This image shows that route after we had finished the Mt. Whitney portion of the trip. We started outside of Bishop, CA near the end of Route 168 and hiked to Yosemite Valley, probably around 120 miles, over 12 days. Click on the image to see a larger version. I also put together an elevation chart showing the ups and downs of the hike, which you can see at the bottom of this page. Finally, to see a very high resolution image (13 meg) of the trip with approximate daily hikes, click here.

As it turns out, I have kept some of the photos from the trip in an old album I have, so I have included them when I could.

As I was writing the letter, the building I was in (the student co-op Oxford Hall where I lived) got shaken twice by what seemed like small earthquakes. I had been in California for less than a year, so this was pretty exciting for me.

[Update July 4, 2015: Actually, a Wikipedia article states they were centered in Santa Rosa and were the strongest earthquakes to hit the Bay Area since 1906. One person was killed and there was extensive damage to buildings in Santa Rosa. They occured at 21:56 and 23:19 PDT October 1, a pair of earthquakes of magnitude 5.6 and 5.7, respectively, rated "very strong" and "severe".]

So now I know I wrote the letter on October 1, the second quake really was stronger than the first, and I got the times just about right.


"Dear Family,


This ought to be a pretty long letter. I'm not sure which pictures to send you. I took 41 that came out, and Dale took an equal number which I haven't seen yet.

Six of us started the trip. George, Dale, Dave, myself and 2 kids riding back with George to Fla. The first night we spent in Yosemite where we left Dale's car. I saw my first wild bear that night while wandering around. It was sniffing around all the tourist cabins and pretty much ignored us. We kept our distance and it just wandered off in the night.

Next day we drove in George's car to the base of Mt. Whitney. Hey. Just remembered I wrote about the trip once, on the third day. Covers beginning. Next 3 small sheets."

-------- [Next 3 small sheets]

"Tues. - Sept. 9

It's 8:30 at night and the three of us are sitting around a large, roaring campfire way up in the mountains near a crystal lake (Piute Lake). We're in among a small copse of pines, the stars are sparkling brilliantly like they always do in this clear air. Day before we arrived at the base of Mt. Whitney and camped out at another small lake Lone Pine Lake (9500 ft). We climbed the 1500 ft. up to the lake in pitch black since we didn't arrive at the end of the asphalt road until 9:00 PM. At the time there were six of us, three have since continued onto Florida. About the only thing we felt like doing was packing all the food into one pack and suspending it high above the ground with a nylon cord over a branch; all the while telling George (Fla. - bound) about 13 ft. brown bears weighing half a ton. (A day earlier we had stopped to drop off a car at Yosemite; that night, while wandering around, I saw my first wild bear, but he seemed neither very ferocious nor very large and simply walked on into the dark).

Getting back to yesterday, we hiked from the lake up towards the summit of Whitney (14,496 ft). Unfortunately, I made a disastrous error. We had lightened the packs, since we were to be gone only two days, the air was fresh and cool, and I felt simply great. So up I went at a fast clip, very vigorously passing slower climbers (one man had a cane and was slowly making his way up). At about 13,000 ft. my engine had run completely down. I felt absolutely terrible. In sum, I and one guy made it only up to 13,933 ft, while three others pushed on to the summit, much to my chagrin (but someday I'm definitely going back to make it). We then hiked back down to a lake (Mirror Lake) (10,300) and spent the night, again arriving in pitch black, again no nice fire. Total distance hiked for the day was 15 miles for three of us, 11 miles for two of us (one guy, going to florida, stayed down at the parking lot, since he didn't bring a back-pack and sleeping bag).

Today we spent in an easy hike down to the car, a drive of 60 miles to the beginning of Muir trail, and three of us took a relatively easy hike up to our present camp. Three others headed towards Fla. Now it's 10 of 9 and time for bed (down sleeping bag)."

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[Return to main letter]

"The day after I wrote those three sheets we hiked 21 miles, which put us in camp at 9PM at the top of a ridge next to a stream. The hike took us over Piute Pass and down through a forested, sometimes marshy valley for about 13 miles. At the point where we left the valley we watched a team of men and horses and mules set up camp next to a footbridge which they had come to repair. They had one poor horse which was stuck with the duty of leading the mules, one by one, across the roaring stream. The mules just sort of sat passively completely unwilling to be led across the rushing water. Some prodding and cussing by the men, and pulling by the horse eventually got them all across.

By the way, Photo's 1 and 2 show the first lake we camped at on Whitney's base. Photo 3 shows the view from near the Whitney Summit, looking to the east (the other side from where we came).

Wow. Interrupt the narrative for a second. 10PM and we just had a minor quake. Whole building [Oxford Hall next to Berkeley campus, CA] shook back and forth. Radio station in S.F. mentioned in just now. Neat. Groovy. Hope nothing bigger hits.

Next day we hiked down the other side of the ridge past many lakes. At one lake the other two stripped down and jumped in, then jumped back out. Water was freezing. I just washed some clothes, not me. Stayed at a place called Kip Camp that evening. 12 miles.

Edison lake was our next goal. It was basically just on the other side of a very high ridge-line. We split up that day because I wanted to hike at my own and slower speed to let my feet heal. Was wearing a new pair of tennis shoes and had a nice family of blisters. Turned out we camped a half-mile from each other that night, hiked to a store and back the next day on the other side of Edison, but never met until they passed my camp coming back from the store, although I had returned down the same path 1/2 hr. earlier from the store.

Next day we hiked through the most beautiful country of the trip. After a short climb we ate lunch that day at the beginning of a large meadow near a stream (Ph. 4); after crossing the meadow the path wound up through a pine forest with a thick grass carpet. The sun streamed down through the leaves and dappled the lawn. Warm and pleasant. (Ph 5-8).

It was a gradual slope which eventually led to a lake where we camped that night. Looking back from where we came was a magnificent mountain range. The camera simply did not indicate the size and beauty of the peaks. Nevertheless, photos 9-12 can be pieced together in a panoramic view. By the way, the small pond in the front was just a little below Silver Lake, where we stayed. By now, I had decided that I just wanted to be alone in the wilds, so I convinced the other two and we again split up the next day.

Through Silver Pass, then down and down for five miles. Met a group of four heading down the trail in the other direction. They were going to follow the Muir trail all the way to Whitney. Two more miles almost straight up and I camped at Virginia Lake (Ph. 13). I met a ranger the next morning who said we had missed a heavy snowfall the night before. I decided to catch up the other two and hiked 17 1/2 miles to a resort area called Reds Meadow where they have an interesting geological structure called Devil's Postpile. It's about forty feet high and looks just like a giant pile of posts (of course) standing on edge. I managed to lose the trail because there were so many criss-crossing paths and dirt roads in the area. Found an old, old ranger at a tourist camp ground who told me that instead of back tracking, I should just continue along the path, then cut across a stream and pick up the Muir Trail again. What he failed to mention was that the trail I was on was level, while the Muir trail was climbing up a ridge on my left. At 7:00 PM, as it was getting dark, I found myself climbing straight up Minaret Falls (not dangerous or really very hard, there was even a small path which I didn't follow). It was annoying. In the moonlight I found the Muir Trail. Ate cold cereal with sugar, water, and dried milk. Layed down my bag, no campfire, went to sleep. [I have long remembered hearing moans or growls that night and fearing bears or cougars. Really made me want to catch up with the others. Turned out in the morning it was simply jets that were far away].

Hurrying to catch up, passed lake after lake, got off the trail again and had to backtrack 2 1/2 miles to find the turn-off I should have taken. Met two guys from Oxford hall going the other way. Another ranger told me snow could be expected any time after Sept. 15 and not to get caught in the mountains. Found Dale and Dave lounging around their campsite that night. Had hiked another 17 1/2 miles.

We all decided to leave the trail and go across country for a couple of days since we were pretty near Yosemite anyway. We started up and found a lake surrounded by peaks. Only looked like we could get over at one point. Dale, with hiking boots, chose a slightly different route from Dave and I to get up the first part of the climb. Dave got ahead of me, I met Dale, then we couldn't find Dave. Wind howling, yelling getting no response. Pretty worried. Found Dave, Dale and he argued around & around about whose fault, then we started up the hard part. Dale could walk up snow packs, but Dave and I in tennis shoes went around them. This was not really hard mountain climbing, but strenuous rock climbing. The mountains were just incredible jumbles of jagged rocks which provided easy foot holds. No situations where there were cliffs. Of course, slipping and hitting your head on a rock would have fixed us good.

Finally got to the top, lookd over and saw a steep, gravel incline that extended down for hundreds of feet, ending in a snow pack and frozen pond. Down we went, sliding and slipping. Too bad if we wanted to get back up again. The wind up at the top had been blowing good and hard and we were glad to get below that. Tramped across the snow to the pond and rested. Then went around the pond and found another steep incline, this time we had to climb down though. Another snow pack and down again.

11 20 PM and we just got hit by another quake. Lasted about 10-15 seconds. Stronger than last. Hope this doesn't mean anything, like a preliminary to worse.

All day long we climbed down into a larger canyon. Past small lakes, snow peaks, and along a stream which grew larger. The sky was getting pretty cloudy and the canyon walls were hemming us in more and more. A comply [sp] of times we had to look around to find a way down the rocks, but eventually met a trail which started at the bottom of the canyon. Camped there for the night.

Going down the canyon we had been moving South and it was necessary to go east. So we left our new trail, which went south, and head up a canyon which was supposed to lead to another pass. It was a pleasant hike, though we climbed 3000 ft., and occasionally we saw a little pile of rocks, which indicates a trail. In this case, it just indicated someone had been there before.

We saw many trout caught in small pools formed by the creek running down from two lakes just below the pass. Fishing must be fantastic in all those out of the way lakes and streams we passed. At the pass, I took the next 5 photos: 4 give a panaramic view, one shows me in pack and beard.

There's a steep climb beginning just in front of the pictures which leads down to the lake. Then just past the lake is a shorter climb, still steep, to another lake, then out onto the meadow and around to a brownish pond which you can barely see near the base of the nearest ridge or mountain at the end of the meadow. This leads into the steep canyon we had just climbed up and ends at the camp and path we had left that morning.

On the other side of the pass we initially had trouble getting down, but afterwards we had an easy walk. The next day we walked 20 miles to the car, which wouldn't start and required two or three jumps from a truck battery sent by a service station ($7.50!).

Pictures of Yosemite are hopeless with an instamatic. One large rock, called half-dome, rises 4,000 ft. straight off the valley floor and has sheer, smooth walls. I took one picture, but the distances are so distorted none of the true sensation of the domes comes through.

Some general stuff. For breakfasts we had oatmeal and raisins, cream of wheat, and mixed in some special oat and grain cereal in small quantities. Lunch, about the best meal, was various types of Melba toast and crackers, dried salami, and cheese (mild cheddar, Monterey Jack, and stronger cheddar). Dinner was soup or a Lipton dinner (ham cheddarton, etc). All food was dried and was prepared with boiling water and dried milk. Had various flavors of instant tea and Tang for cold drink. No need to purify the fresh, cold mountain stream water, of course.

Dave, for some reason, liked to get up earlier and start the fire. His was the only sleeping bag which wasn't filled with down. I got a sleeping bag for $22 which is down filled, a good deal. Surplus store was source. Back pack and frame cost $35. Dave got same thing for $42 since the co-op store was sold out after I bought mine.

I'll tell about the trip to Canada another time. Operation Intercept is in effect up there, too. Search us closely. No dope, big laugh.

Love,
Bob

I'm also sending along a map with the trail from just west of where the hike began to about 50 miles south of Yosemite inked in. Please send this back or save it. Numbers represent our camps."

Elevation Profile of backpacking from Piute Lake to Yosemite Valley:


Contact/Website Author: Bob Phillips, phillipsbob27@yahoo.com

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