By JOHN PAIN
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — A few loose, fist-sized rocks tumbled by as we hiked down a steep mountain pass over unstable terrain, off trail deep in Yosemite’s wilderness. We tightly gripped the solid rock holds on the side of Stanton Pass to steady ourselves when our feet slipped out from under us.
Our guides were two of the world’s most accomplished hikers, Andrew Skurka and Brian Robinson. We were far enough from help that Skurka had reminded everyone that a serious injury here would probably mean the most expensive helicopter ride we would ever have.
This was fun.
Our group of six hikers had several goals for the weeklong trip. One was to get into the backcountry to be in pristine landscapes, far from the traffic and crowds of Yosemite National Park’s developed areas. But more importantly, we wanted to learn skills from our guides to safely traverse wild areas where there are no trails to follow and conditions are rough.
Skurka was recognized as adventurer of the year by both National Geographic and Outside magazine and is known for his solo adventures, such as a six-month, 4,700-mile (7,565-kilometer) journey by foot, skis and pack raft in Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, and the 7,775-mile (12,500-kilometer) Sea-to-Sea Route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Robinson was the first person to hike the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails all in one calendar year: 7,400 miles (11,910 kilometers) in 11 months.
Skurka, 32, decided that he wants to share the lessons he learned on those trips, so he started a guiding business. With the help of assistant guides such as Robinson, he teaches everything from what to do when a grizzly bear is charging you at close range to how to keep your feet healthy after punishing them with long distances on rocky, uneven terrain.
He also espouses the philosophy of only taking what you need on hiking trips. Because he likes to hike 30-plus miles (more than 48 kilometers) during 12 to 16 hours of travel a day, that usually means carrying much less than the average backpacker. He also wants hikers to depend less on gear and more on their brains to make sure they have safe fun when venturing off trail.
A few months before the trip last September, the planning began via a Google group. Skurka gave us spreadsheets to list everything we would take with us and how much it weighed, down to how many ounces a few sheets of toilet paper would add to our packs. We estimated how many calories we would realistically need to eat and took dense foods, such as protein bars, trail mix with nuts and even olive oil, which let us feel full without having too much to carry.
With Skurka’s help, we also researched the climate, terrain, route hazards and more, so that we would know exactly what to bring. By doing so, we knew what we needed to be prepared for and were able to stay comfortable without relying on extra gear that we’d packed “just in case.” For example, by selecting campsites on soft dirt (rather than hard-packed ground that others had already used), that were relatively protected from the elements by trees or boulders, we avoided having to carry heavier sleeping bags.
Skurka is a meticulous planner, so even though we had “homework” before the trip, he took care of all the complicated details such as printing maps, getting permits and buying and packing meals.
The group going on the trip was intimidating to me for their fitness: an ultra-runner in his 30s who competes in 50- and 100-mile (80- and 161-kilometer races, another ultra-runner in his 50s who barely had any had body fat, a mountain climber, a man in his 50s who runs marathons in well below three hours. I’ve done a lot of hiking and exercise regularly and intensely, but I spend most of my days sitting at a desk.
But it wasn’t long after we met in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra mountains that we were joking with one another and realizing there were no overzealous egos in the group. And despite their status in the hiking community, Skurka and Robinson were laid back and fun to hike with.
Because we were confident that we could avoid getting lost by “staying found” through expert navigation, we left the trail system and explored seldom visited parts of Yosemite. We got to see places as awe-inspiring as the more famous sights in Yosemite, but there were few signs of civilization around.
After about six full days’ hiking, we covered more than 80 miles (129 kilometers), much of it off trail, with about 21,000 feet (6,400 meters) of elevation gain. Fortunately, we all walked out on our own, with Skurka giving some wilderness medical treatment of cuts. I ate the biggest double burger I’d ever had when we got back to Tuolumne Meadows.
After the group trip, I had another week to explore the Sierras by myself. The skills I had learned made me confident in venturing off-trail into the wilderness on my own.