Crossing the Sierra in the Summer of 1944

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Gossamer Gear | Aug 27, 2020

***Editor’s Note: Deep Springs College offers a unique liberal arts education located on a cattle ranch in an isolated desert-mountain valley. Students take year-round responsibility for a largely self-sustaining community, ranch, and farm while pursuing their degrees. The program aims to prepare young people for a life of service to humanity. Gossamer Gear’s president, Grant Sible, is a member of the Deep Springs Class of 1979. When news of his work with Gossamer Gear spread through the college’s alumni network, he started receiving some fun stories from past classes about what backpacking was like decades before his own time at the college. We’ll be sharing some of those stories here on the Light Feet blog, as we think the Gossamer Gear community will enjoy their adventurous spirit and enduring trail wisdom.***

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Written By: Lindsey Grant

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Belatedly, let me describe a hike that Jerry Pook and I took across California’s Sierras from Mammoth Lakes to Bass Lake in June 1944. I am doing so because my old hiking companion Jerry Stryker said he’d like to read about it. But another reason to resurrect these memories is to paint a picture for my descendants and the current generation of what hiking in the mountains was like toward the close of World War II, before the revolutions in equipment and communications – and the numbers of people – that have fundamentally changed the experience of hiking. 

I had been at Deep Springs College for 17 months, and Jerry for 12. Deep Springs sits in a desert valley between the White Mountains and the Inyos, and we had both done considerable hiking in the area, including climbing Mount Whitney and White Mountain Peak. I had already signed up with the Navy for officer training. Jerry expected to be drafted before long, and another hike through the Sierras seemed like an appropriate parting shot. We were both 17. 

Our plan was to hitchhike up to Mammoth Lakes, on the east face of the Sierras south of Mono Lake and the June Lake loop. From there, we planned to hike over the shoulder of Mammoth Mountain, stop by the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, cross the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River on a suspension footbridge, and climb out of the gorge on the west side of the river. Beyond that, we had a choice: climb across the high ridge south of Yosemite canyon and drop into the park, or if that was too forbidding, walk down the gentle west slope of the Sierras to Bass Lake and, eventually, Fresno. 

We had USGS topo maps for the area, and were familiar with using them, so we had a good guide to the trails in the high Sierra. 

In late June, the high Sierra had been melting and freezing for a couple of months. Below that, the spring runoff was in full progress. We figured that the snow on the passes was hard enough to support us, without using skis or snowshoes. If we were wrong, we could turn around and abort the trip. In fact, the snow was firm, and the make-or-break part of the trip was getting across the San Joaquin. More on that later. 

It is about 40 miles in a straight line from Mammoth to Bass Lake. On the ground, perhaps 70 miles. 

Day One

Getting to Mammoth Lakes was uneventful. In that innocent era, hitchhiking was an accepted way for young men to get around, and people would often pick us up for the company. We got to Mammoth Lakes by mid-afternoon. There were some summer cottages up there, but nothing even faintly resembling the complex of ski lifts and resorts that now characterize the place. We stopped by the Forest Service ranger station to check in, tell them of our planned trip, and find out what they could tell us about conditions in the backcountry. They didn’t have much to offer, since they had not yet gotten into that country that year. They wished us well, and we hiked in and camped for the night near the highest of the Mammoth lakes. 

Day Two

Day two took us down good trails toward the river. We did a little side trip to see the Devil’s Postpile. It is a mighty pile of vertical, octagonal pillars of basalt, looking much like an enormous woodpile set on end. It is said to be one of the largest of such formations; I have since seen smaller ones elsewhere. 

Then we headed for the river – and a nasty surprise. The winter’s ice jams had taken out one of the two suspension cables, and the walkway was dangling on edge from the other one. The river was an icy tumult below it. No other way of crossing the river was even thinkable. 

We had a council of war. Singly, we tested the near end of the damaged walkway. The now vertical planks seemed to be firmly attached to the remaining web of cables, and the horizontal cable that had served as guard rail was intact. 

We decided to chance it. We checked our provisions to be sure the essentials were divided between the two packs, so that the survivor could hike out if we got separated or one of us didn’t make it. Then we crossed, again singly, stepping on the ends of the planks and holding onto the cable. 

A memorable crossing. 

There remained a stiff switchback hike out of the gorge. When we topped the gorge, the Cathedral Range stretched above the timberline in a vast, shimmering white bulge of snow between us and Yosemite. We had no trouble deciding to select the more modest route via Bass Lake. That involved a three-hour traverse on a snowy ridge through an open spruce-fir forest.

As evening approached, we were in clouds. We found an area of bare rock that, faut de mieux, seemed like a passable campsite. It sloped slightly westward, so we braced our sleeping bags against a shallow ledge that ran across the rock, and tucked a little campfire against the ledge. 

Day Three

I will never forget waking up. The sun had not yet surmounted the ridge behind us, but there was a spectacular dawn breaking to the west. The rock terrace ended just beyond us, in a vertical cliff looking out on a vast prospect of treetops that stretched away in a magnificent panorama of mountains and foothills, with the San Joaquin Valley in the far distance. 

I was glad that we were quiet sleepers.

Once we had gone down the cliff, we spent most of that day gradually descending out of the spruce-fir into an open ponderosa woodland with occasional meadows on a good trail. It was, however, the height of the mosquito season. We needed to camp somewhere away from them. I had learned that a cigar is a good mosquito repellent and had bought several of them in Bishop on the way in. I lost most of them, however, in a little tumble on the snow traverse the day before. 

The topo map showed an emergency Forest Service cabin in the woods just off the trail. We arrived there, to find that it had been locked up for the winter. There was, however, a snow chimney with wooden ladders to let in the accidental hiker who needed winter shelter. The chimney was higher than the cabin roof, which gave graphic proof of how deep the snow could get in that area. 

We checked out the arrangement, climbed up, into and down the chimney, opened a couple of shutters to let in the light, and spent the night very comfortably, with no mosquitoes. 

Day Four

Civilization began to encroach a few miles beyond that cabin. First, little dirt forest roads. Then a cabin or two as we approached Bass Lake. We met a couple who had come up to open their summer cabin – the first humans we had seen since the forest rangers in Mammoth Lake. They were about ready to head back home and offered us a ride to Fresno in the back of the pickup with two affable dogs. 

The adventure really ends with our arrival in Fresno, but not the reminiscence. They dropped us not far from the main street, by a back alley behind Quality Row – bankers, merchants, lawyers, I assume. There were big backyards with garages at the end of them. We found an open, empty garage that did not seem to have been used lately. We dropped our packs and went into town for a meal and a movie. 

We were waked up in the morning by a lovely dowager of a lady, who prodded me with her toe and said, “It’s time to move on, boys.” And so we did. 

Heading Home

Let me briefly complete the trip. 

That morning, we sent our packs back to Deep Springs by Railway Express and then hitched our way across the San Joaquin Valley, the coast ranges, and the rolling fields of wine country. We were mostly on two-lane blacktops. The interstate system was yet to be built. We reached Palo Alto in the late afternoon. We had sent suitcases to Bill Allen’s parents’ house. They took us in for several days while we discovered San Francisco. 

I honestly cannot remember the trip back. After that expedition, it was anticlimactic. I assume we took the Union Pacific from Oakland to Reno, and the Inland Stages bus back to Big Pine. When we got to Deep Springs, I had Navy orders waiting, sending me to New York State and officer training. That was quite a trip in itself, but I have described it elsewhere. 

Comparing to a Journey Today

Finally, let me underline some of the ways that hike differed from what one would do now.

1. Isolation 

Once we left Mammoth Springs, we were completely out of touch with everybody. Two-way radios had been invented, but they were bulky, unreliable, and short-range, and in 1944 they all went to the military. 

Even the Forest Service rangers had only their pickup and their horses. Forget all-terrain vehicles, sno-cats, helicopters, drones, GPS, and cell phones. In the backcountry, we were on our own, and knew it. So did the forest rangers. Their job description did not include rescuing fool-hardy kids. That came much later. I had encountered them in the mountains from time to time, and we exchanged greetings and news, but on both sides it was understood that we were responsible for taking care of ourselves. 

The isolation was intensified by demographics. There were about 8 million people in California in 1944, and most of the young men were in service, or working at wartime jobs, rather than hiking around the mountains. Now there are 40 million, camping is a major national sport, and the Sierras are a favorite target. 

2. Equipment 

We had homemade wooden pack frames, ponchos, improvised staffs when we needed them, and sleeping bags and work clothes from Sears Roebuck. No jazzy hiking boots. When we had to cross streams, we hiked through, and then let the shoes slowly dry out later. We had hatchets, small hand compasses, Scout knives, and tight cans with kitchen matches. 

3. Food

It was wartime with rationing. Our food was the simplest: pancake flour, syrup, a side of ham, cheese, bags of raisins, beans, salt, and coffee. We carried more than twice what we expected to eat, in case we were delayed somewhere. 

This was the most basic variant. For pack trips or student body outings, or less rigorous trips, we would have a more varied diet. Within limits. There was very little canned food. Things like Spam, K rations, and powdered eggs and milk had gone to war. Frozen food and packaged camping meals didn’t yet exist. 

Yet, somehow, it sufficed. 

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Lindsey Grant is a 1943 graduate of Deep Springs College and current resident of Asheville, North Carolina.

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Header Image Credit: Brocken Inaglory // Creative Commons