TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

In the Footsteps of John Muir

I’m slogging up a long ramp of beach-like sand toward Cox Col, an off-trail pass sitting a few ticks over 13,000 feet in California’s John Muir Wilderness. The high-altitude sun feels like a blacksmith’s forge hovering right above my head. My breaths come faster than my steps, and I feel lightheaded. But I’m thinking mostly about the pass ahead of us—and whether there’s a safe route over it.

My friend Jason Kauffman and I are on a 32.2-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, harshest, and most achingly gorgeous strips of the High Sierra, from North Lake, outside Bishop, to Mosquito Flat, between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. I’ve devised a route linking up trails with long stretches of cross-country hiking over lake-studded alpine basins and six passes between 11,150 and 13,040 feet. We are exploring corners of the Sierra rarely seen by people. John Muir himself would have been pleased with our itinerary.

Granite Park, John Muir Wilderness

Our route’s not in any guidebook—not entirely, anyway. Like assembling a puzzle with some missing pieces, I cobbled the traverse together from thin descriptions of fragments of it. I like that element of uncertainty, of the path ahead being something of a mystery. It’ll be an adventure, I told Jason, who’s laboring up this slope behind me. I got that much right. We’ve logged 10- to 12-hour days, at times weaving through cliff bands, descending steep, loose scree, and scrambling over big talus blocks that could crush a Land Rover.

Cox is our highest and final pass before a long descent to the road. I can already taste the pizza and beer.

I reach the col, a corridor-width notch in a jagged ridge projecting from 13,720-foot Bear Creek Spire, and peer over the other side. My throat constricts at the view: a nearly vertical drop of 300 feet, maybe more, over a series of down-sloping, sandy, narrow ledges. If I lobbed a stone out, it would freefall for several seconds. Descending that way would be a death wish. I back away carefully, painfully aware that if we cannot find a safe route over this pass, we’re looking at a detour of more than 15 miles, partly off-trail. We’re down to our last few energy bars and handfuls of GORP.

I love a good mystery. But starring in one is not always convenient.

Read the entire story and see photos at See other stories about outdoor adventures at


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