Alta Peak is a 11,204 foot mountain in Sequoia National Park which resides in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California.
15 miles/4,250 feet of vertical gain via Wolverton Trailhead + bonus bear
I have been eagerly awaiting writing this tale of solo mountain summiting for quite some time now. Alta Peak was not on my radar, in fact, I believe it was an ultra distance trail running instagram follower who mentioned it in a comment on a photo of mine that put it on my radar. I took advice from my instagram followers during my months on the road. Instagram allowed me to keep an easy and up to date photo story so people suggested places I should see. It worked out well. It was the evening of 6/29/15 I saw the Alta Peak comment, pulled out a map, and confidently stated out loud, “Yes, I can run this peak before heading to Paso Robles tomorrow.” I love running, period, but running to a summit, especially a high alpine summit is my favorite activity, in all the lands, in all the worlds. I had a good enough idea of the route and felt confident that with an early start I could round trip it in a couple of hours.
Once again, I woke up before the sun and made the short drive to the Wolverton trailhead. As I pulled in a couple set off into the forest ahead of me. I got my pack together, some water, a few gels, a bar or two, and off I went. It was around 6:15 a.m. and light was just beginning to poke through the dim sky. I was about three quarters of a mile up the trail when I realized I was still wearing my regular prescription glasses. “Nah-uh,” I thought, I am not running up another high Sierra Peak without sunglasses, so I turned around and charged back down to my car. I quickly switched out my glasses and only then noticed the some odd dozen bear signs littering the parking lot. Simultaneously I noticed the bear bell I had purchased from REI months ago clasped to my front seat organizer. I hesitantly grabbed it not wanting to disturb my peaceful run with the obnoxious noise it makes but leapt to the conclusion that if a bear was mauling me I could shake the quarter sized bell violently in its face and it would probably stop. Great logic! (sarcasm)
Ready to tackle Alta Peak I settled into a respectable trot. Initially the trail climbs steeply up to a ridge before wrapping around the other side and flattening out for a few minutes. Where it flattened out I passed the couple I had seen earlier. They heard me coming, anyone in a ten mile radius heard me coming, except of course the bear I was about to come face to face with. I stopped and said hello as I often do with fellow hikers and runners. We laughed about the bell and the man said, “it’s great, you go ahead and clear all the bears out for us… har har har.”
I continued on another half mile or so until I rounded a sharp blind corner. My head was down, I was grinding, I wasn’t paying any sort of attention to my surroundings until without any warning there was a 800,000 pound creature of the forest standing on the trail directly in front of me. I stopped dead in my tracks. It looked at me, I looked at it, I screamed, it looked at me more, I screamed, it continued to advance towards me, I turned and I RAN as fast as I could. My strava recorded a 3:47 minute mile. I am not sure when I decided to stop running and turn around and look to see if I was about to get pawed to death but I did, and there was nothing behind me.
I had a little chat with myself, “Should I turn around and go back to my car? What is protocol here? That was a VERY LARGE bear and it is not black it is brown. Are there brown bears in Cali, brown bears are grizzlies, no there are no grizzlies in Cali, you CANNOT run, you don’t run from bears, okay…..let’s slowly proceed back to the blind turn and see if the bear is still there and then DON’T run from it, try to scare it away. But what if it’s not there and it’s watching you from the hillside above? You have to go see, you can’t let this bear ruin your good time.”
I slowly crept back towards the area of encounter feverishly shaking my bell and sure enough I came face to face with the massive dude once again, he was also grinding along. I knew how I was supposed to react, I had a plan damn it, but instead I screamed and ran… again. Fight or flight? My flight is on point. This time I ran all the way back to the couple (Eric and Jen). I keeled over, pointed down the trail and said, “bear.” Now there were three of us and they had poles which double as weapons. Slowly the three of us crept back towards the area of encounter, but no bear. “I swear there was a bear,” I said as I scanned the ridge above and the gully below when suddenly I spotted him almost atop the ridge. “Look, there.” “Hollllyyyyyy shittttttt,” Eric dragged on.
The bear looked at us, we looked at the bear, the bear looked at us, we looked at the bear. In reality it was probably 3 seconds before it charged but it felt like an eternity. Have you ever been charged by a large bear pummeling down a mountain side? Probably not, so allow me to paint a picture. Now, bears up close have really big back sides. They got fat asses. When they are full steam ahead down a steep slope their back sides cannot quite keep up with their narrower front sides. So as a human, all you see is this gigantic furry ass moving in circles coming right at you.
I am going to give you one guess as to what I did after I stopped singing “Baby Got Back”. I ran, and so did Jen. We ran all the way to a gigantic rock and didn’t stop there. We both climbed the rock and clung to each other on the small summit. I remember asking each other, “Can bears climb rock?” This debate felt like it went on for 15 minutes, in reality it was probably 3 seconds before Jen realized Eric was not with us. She started screaming for him and said this, and I quote, “Eric, where are you?! What are you doing?! I don’t want you to be on the news!” We looked at each other and started laughing, we got off the rock, and went back to Eric who was standing his ground banging his poles together.
Eric told us the bear ended up charging down, crossing the trail and disappearing into the gully below. I later reported this sighting to the ranger station and found out “Alan” (that is what the rangers call him) is one of the largest male bears in the park and that black bears “fake charge” to ward off other animals from their territory. Cool! As well, black bears can be brown or honey colored. This was key information as we were all convinced this bear was a grizzly.
I remained with Eric and Jen for another mile to the Alta Peak – Pear Lake split where they went left towards a series of lakes and I continued right, alone and onward through bear and lion country. Was I shaken up? Yup, sure was. Was I the hero of this bear encounter? Nope, sure wasn’t. Did I take any photos? Nope. Did I even think to pull out my camera? Sure didn’t.
I bid my new friends goodbye with a hug and a nervous chuckle and continued onward through Panther Meadow to Panther Gap. I did not know this at the time but learned in Big Bend National Park that the mountain lion is also called the panther and Panther Meadow on the way to Alta Peak is a fave spot for them to troll for food. I was too busy being afraid of non existent California grizzlies to concern myself with panthers.
Eventually I began to run again and enjoy my surroundings.
I would say that out of all the places I saw in Sequoia the trip up Alta Peak was the most beautiful. The scenery was ever-changing; meadows, ridges, flowers, forest, soft creeks, perfect lightning, birds chirping, and no people. The elevation gain is 4,200 feet but it rolls up and down until the final climb (which is hellacious). I was very fond of this run and slowly began to accept the bears were out there enjoying the same land I was. We really aren’t all that different. I probably look the same when I charge downhill, all ass.
I ran southeast along Panther Ridge for quite some time as views of the interior Sierras opened up.
Through Mehrten Meadows (which would be an amazing place to back country camp) and onto the Alta Peak – Alta Meadows split I went. Here I exercised mountaineering skills that only come with decades of experience, and followed the arrow on the sign.
I climbed and climbed and climbed until I arrived in the basin below Alta Peak.
I climbed and climbed and climbed until I reached the dirty loose dirt below the final summit block.
The grind is real up this one, I think I cursed a few times. Most of the gains come at the end. The last couple hundred feet to the summit is a scramble on solid rock. The actual summit is knife edge like, there is not a flat spot to stand. It is spectacular, worth the sweat, worth the bears.
I put on my Aerosmith playlist and ran out really really fast.
I knew I had to take a shower before driving the 170 miles (which took 6 hours) to Paso Robles. There are nice quarter showers in the Lodgepole village. And by nice I mean, smell like garbage and eat your quarters but I was able to scrub the encrusted dirt off my body, run a brush through clean hair, and put on a sun dress making me look somewhat human again.
Very rarely do I participate in “touristy” things. I get really bad anxiety when I am around a lot of people, especially in national parks. There is nothing wild or free about full parking lots, screaming children, and hundreds of camera flashes going off but I wanted to see the General Sherman Tree. The General Sherman Tree is the worlds, yes the worlds LARGEST living tree. I did not care if I had to fight my way through busses full of Asian tourists, I had to see it.
I put my head phones in and played The Head and The Heart. It is 1.2 miles RT with 200 feet of vertical gain to the tree. It’s not a free ride but close to it. There were hundreds of people but I kept my eyes pealed towards the sky. The giant Sequoias + The Head and The Heart can silence even the busiest of trails. I tried to imagine what this place was like before a web of paved paths whisked away anyone willing to pay the park entrance fee. By the way, if you ever take a road trip and plan on frequenting National Parks, buy a park pass. It is $80 for the entire year. Sequoia alone cost $30 to get in.
Next up….Paso Robles and Big Sur!
”Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be Notorious.” – Rumi