Juan gallops his horse through the Chiapas countryside
Hiking along the Mammoth Crest and descending down into Red’s Meadow in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains, my backpacking partner and I were about to pick up our last resupply on the Sierra High Route. We arrived at Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station in the afternoon, picked up our provisions and secured a cabin for the night. I turned on my phone for the first time in almost two weeks and gave my beautiful fiancée a call.
After catching her up on our trip she informed me that some decisions had been made on my behalf while I was gone. She explained that while I was out hiking I had been awarded the ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association) Visual Storytelling Scholarship. Since I hadn’t “applied” for this scholarship I actually had no idea what she was talking about. She explained to me that the scholarship entailed going to Chiapas, Mexico and photographing an adventure trip (on horseback) for the ATTA and also attending the Adventure Travel World Summit. “Sounds great,” I said, “When is it?” “Well, that’s the kicker,” she said, “you leave next week, the travel arrangements are already made. All you need to do is finish the Sierra High Route quickly and safely and then you depart for Mexico straight away." Needless to say, I was stoked!
Immediately after concluding the most epic backpacking trip of my life (more on that here) I was on a plane headed to the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. Upon arriving at the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport I was met by a very friendly man holding a sign with my name on it. He informed me that he was to drive me out to the hacienda in the countryside where I would meet up with the rest of my group. We loaded the gear and off we went.
The church at the hacienda illuminated in early morning light
After several hours of driving, we pulled onto an unmarked dirt road and in the distance I spotted the hacienda. We drove into the courtyard where we were immediately greeted by Juan and Gloria, our guides for the trip. I then had the pleasure of meeting the rest of the folks in the group that I would be photographing and traveling with. We had a wonderful dinner and turned in for the evening.
Enjoying dinner at the hacienda
The next day I awoke early to begin documenting our adventure. For the next two days we would travel by horseback across the Chiapas countryside. After that, we would drive down to the Pacific coast to explore a mangrove forest and enjoy the comforts of a small beach resort. The mangrove forest and the beach resort sounded great although I was a little unsure about how the horseback section would go.
Photographing a horseback adventure presents several problems. The number one problem for me was that I had virtually no experience riding horses, let alone photographing from the top of a moving one. I knew that things were going to get interesting.
With the horses saddled up and ready to go, we took off riding through the countryside. Since my job was to document this adventure, not just enjoy it, I was already feeling the pressure. Right away I realized the limitations of photographing from a moving horse. You can only bring a limited amount of gear and the constant action of bouncing up and down makes it very difficult to compose shots. Combine all that with learning to ride a horse and you have a recipe for disaster.
Riding my horse on a dirt road through the Chiapas countryside
As we trotted through the stunning scenery I did my best to take what pictures I could. I knew I wasn’t going to get much but I had to get something. About halfway through the day I discovered that I could have, in fact, been in the back of a pickup truck the entire time chasing the group and getting tons of shots. Unfortunately, this wasn’t communicated to me at the beginning of the day so I was stuck on the horse and had to make the best of it.
Riders on a dirt road in the Chiapas countryside
By mid-afternoon we had completed our first day of riding. We sat down to a magnificent lunch with fresh fish and traditional Mexican cuisine. From there we were driven back to the hacienda to relax from the day’s events. As everyone headed into their rooms, Juan and Gloria informed me that they were headed into the nearby town of Cintalapa de Figueroa to pick up some supplies. They also told me it would be a great location for photographs. I jumped at the opportunity.
Two smiling women relax by their snack stand in Cintalapa de Figueroa
Cintalapa de Figueroa was beautiful and quaint. We walked around the square and visited several shops and markets that made for excellent imagery. I started feeling much better knowing I had some shots under my belt.
A traditional hat shop in Cintalapa de Figueroa
After we returned to the hacienda I could tell it was important that I had made the trip with Juan and Gloria to photograph Cintalapa de Figueroa. Juan explained to me that the town was not a tourist destination and he was looking to change all that. It was easy to see why. The friendly people, warm atmosphere and old-world culture created an environment that any traveler would welcome.
The next day I awoke, eager to get out and start shooting. I only had one day left to capture the horseback portion of our adventure and I really needed to nail it. Luckily I had access to a pickup truck that I would be riding around in shooting from the tailgate. The day went much better. We traveled through more amazing countryside passing old hacienda ruins, small villages and spectacular vistas. For any avid equestrian it would be the trip of a lifetime.
Horses and their riders approach a herd of cattle
Two horses looking through a fence
Juan and Gloria ride their horses on a trail through the Chiapas countryside
One of our guides, Oliverio, takes a well deserved swim with his horse
We finished the ride and headed back to the hacienda to grab our belongings and drive down to the coast.
After several hours of driving towards the Pacific Ocean, we pulled into a fairly obscure dirt parking lot in the beginnings of a mangrove forest. We were greeted by several nice young men who loaded us and our gear into a small boat. After a quick ride through the mangrove forest and across a fairly large channel we arrived at a small peninsula of land with a dirt path leading to the ocean. I headed down the path following the sound of the surf. It only took me a second to realize that I was in absolute paradise and life was about to be really good.
The endless beach in beautiful afternoon light in Madresal
After being given a key to my own private bungalow steps away from the beach, I dropped my luggage, grabbed my camera and started shooting. The light was already as close to perfect as it gets and the setting was surreal.
As the sun set, we sat down at a table, literally on the beach, and were treated to yet another amazing meal including fresh fish and exquisite local cuisine. Of course, we also had a few cervesas!
Beach, surf and sky
Dinner progressed and a large well-dressed man approached our table to introduce himself. It turned out he was the mayor of Madresal, the small town that was just across the water from the resort. He and his wife had come over to thank all of us for taking the time to visit his beautiful town and country. It was immediately obvious that he wanted to get the word out to people in the rest of the world that they needed to come experience Madresal and all it has to offer. I couldn’t agree with his sentiment more.
Just when I thought the night was winding down, several of the resort’s staff approached our table to let us know that there was a surprise waiting for us down on the beach. I had no idea what that meant but I did know I probably should have my camera.
We walked in the direction of the crashing surf towards a large group of people. As I came upon the group I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked down to see two large buckets filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles that we were about to release into the ocean. It was incredible!
Children use flashlights to examine two containers filled with twelve hundred baby sea turtles
A baby sea turtle sits in the palm of someone's hand before it is released into the ocean
After we released all of the turtles into the ocean, I returned to my bungalow and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves and a calm ocean breeze.
Early the next morning we met at the boat dock for the final portion of our adventure. We were traveling by boat through a magnificent mangrove forest to view thousands of birds and hopefully spot some crocodiles. Again, we were not disappointed.
Traveling by boat through the mangrove forest
A flock of Great Egrets soar through the air
Our guides skillfully navigated our small boats through a virtual maze of channels deep into the heart of the mangrove forest. The cries of thousands of birds served as the backdrop to this amazing experience. While we did spot a few crocodiles, they definitely wanted to keep to themselves and we never got close enough to get any good photos of them.
After touring the mangrove forest, we returned to the resort and got to relax for a few hours. With all my shots in the bag I took the opportunity to take a well-deserved nap in the hammock provided in my bungalow. It was the perfect end to the perfect adventure.
Children play soccer on the beach at sunset
Later that day my companions and I were dropped off in San Cristobal where we spent the next four days attending the ATTA’s Adventure Travel World Summit. Over 50 countries were represented and I had the pleasure of meeting and networking with amazing people from all over the world excited about adventure travel. I also had the opportunity to photograph Felipe Calderon (the president of Mexico), sip tequila with a remarkable group of new friends and explore the fantastic cultural hub of San Cristobal. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Next year the summit is in Switzerland and you can bet that I will be there!
The famous Cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas illuminated at dusk, Chiapas, Mexico
To learn more about Enduro Equestre and the trips they offer visit their website at:
Ascending Cirque Pass looking down towards Lower Palisade Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
Earlier this year, my adventure partner Sean Cronin and I were looking to do an extended trip in the backcountry and any location in the world was fair game. After much deliberation we chose to forego an exotic overseas destination in favor of our backyard, The Sierra Nevada. The obvious choice was to tackle the John Muir Trail, the famous 211 mile path stretching from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Several weeks of planning went by and I walked out to my mailbox on a sunny July afternoon to find the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. In it, I found an article that was about two guys who had just completed the JMT by headlamp in the middle of the night. The premise was that the JMT was so over traveled that the only way to gain a true wilderness experience was to hike it at night. My decision was made right then and there. We were scratching the trip. If I have to hike something in the middle of the night to find solitude in the mountains the rest of the general public can have it.
Immediately my brain started churning on what trip we should undertake instead. Sean and I still really liked the idea of doing something in the Sierras, but what would it be? Several years ago I had heard about an alternative to the JMT called the Sierra High Route. From what I understood, most of the route was completely off-trail, stretched 195 miles from Kings Canyon National Park to Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport, CA, traveled mostly above 10,000 feet crossing 33 mountain passes, had less than 20 people a year thru-hiking it and to sum it up in a word, was “burly.” I ran the idea by Sean over the phone and he said he would start looking into it. Five minutes later my phone rang. “Why didn’t we think of this in the first place!” he said, “I’m in!” And that was that. The second week of September we got dropped off at Road’s End in Kings Canyon National Park to start our journey.
Descending down to Upper Glacier Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
While the beginning of the route started on a trail, it was immediately apparent that it was going to live up to all of the hype. By the end of the first day we had reached Grouse Lake and had already climbed over 5500 feet. As we set up our first camp in a hail storm I started laughing. “This is going to be awesome,” I said to Sean. “Yep!” he replied.
Upon waking up the next day we began our first big day of cross-country travel. After leaving Grouse Lake we wouldn’t see a single soul until three days later when we joined the John Muir Trail for a brief stint to get us up and over Mather Pass. The scenery was spectacular.
Hiking from White Pass to Red Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
Over the course of those three days we traveled through one pristine valley after another in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Many of the lakes we encountered didn’t even have names, even though they were some of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. It became extremely obvious that if there isn’t a trail to a location, people aren’t going there. We were in heaven.
A beautiful unnamed lake near Frozen Lake Pass on the Sierra High Route in Kings Canyon National Park
On the morning of the fourth day we awoke at the base of Frozen Lake Pass (12,400 feet). Considered to be one of the hardest passes on the route we weren’t really sure what we were in for. We stared up at the steep endless field of boulders to a small notch on the horizon. At first glance it looked intimidating but as are with many things in the mountains, whenever you’re looking across at something it always looks worse than it is. Our ascent was tedious but in the end we cruised up and over with little difficulty. The route was steep, mostly Class 2 and 3.
Holding an altimeter on the top of Frozen Lake Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
After descending Frozen Lake Pass we arrived at the John Muir Trail. While the Sierra High Route travels mostly off established trails, it piggybacks on the JMT and several other trails out of necessity for short sections. This is simply because it is the most efficient way to navigate the landscape.
Within a half hour of being on the JMT we began running into things we hadn’t seen in awhile, people. After a short period of time we climbed up Mather Pass. Thanks to the extremely well constructed switchbacks, the pass turned out to be trivial compared to several of the mountain passes that we had already tackled. From the top of Mather Pass we gazed down on Palisade Lakes and in the distance was our next obstacle, Cirque Pass. After a little over an hour on the JMT we were at the outlet of the Lower Palisade Lake and ready to leave the trail once again.
Collecting water from a small tarn
We ascended a few hundred feet in elevation to a small tarn below Cirque Pass and made camp for the evening. Our camp site was magnificent. To the south was Lower Palisade Lake and Mather Pass and to the east was the impressive Palisade Crest (a series of peaks all over 13,000ft). The best part about our view was being able to see the difference between the Sierra High Route and the John Muir Trail. If we had stayed on the JMT we would have been forced down into a valley with less than spectacular views. Instead we were headed up and over 12,000ft Cirque Pass back into the true Sierra high country. Again, we were the only people around.
Our tents are illuminated at dusk near Cirque Pass
The next day we climbed up and over Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass and Knapsack Pass ending up at the top of Bishop Pass amidst a typical fall afternoon thunderstorm. While it was uncomfortable hiking through the hail and rain at the end of a long day, as a photographer I couldn’t have been in a better situation. Upon reaching the top of Bishop Pass and making camp the storm began to break and Sean and I got to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The light hitting the clouds was so intense that it literally illuminated the entire landscape. I always feel so lucky to be in the right place at the right time when Mother Nature decides to put on her show.
A spectacular sunset from a clearing storm lights up the peaks surrounding Bishop Pass
While Bishop Pass isn’t technically on the Sierra High Route it was a necessary stop for us. We had a resupply waiting down at Parcher’s Resort we had to retrieve so we could continue our journey. The next day we descended several thousand feet down to the resort and began sorting through the resupply. After organizing our gear more weather began moving in. We had a decision to make. Pack up everything and head back into the high country in extremely bad weather or get a cabin for the night and have a couple of beers. We chose the cabin and the beers.
The next day, after climbing back up and over Bishop Pass, we began our next section of the High Route. Rejoining the JMT we traveled through Le Conte Canyon, crossed Muir Pass, and descended into Evolution Basin. At the end of Evolution Basin we finally left the trail once again and began climbing towards the next major High Route obstacle, Snow Tongue Pass.
Walking by the famous Muir Hut on the top of Muir Pass on the John Muir Trail
We had heard a rumor over the course of our travels about Snow Tongue Pass. We ran into one guy who claimed that it would be impossible to descend without ice axes and crampons. The guy claimed to be a Mammoth local and gave us advice on Snow Tongue Pass and about every other location in the Sierras, most of which I’m pretty sure he had never actually been to. We quickly realized it wasn’t a wealth of knowledge he possessed but a strong will to impress his buddies that he was guiding aimlessly into the wilderness. Needless to say we took his advice with a grain of salt.
Luckily, and not to my surprise, our Mammoth “local” turned out to be completely wrong. After cresting the top of the pass and looking down, the descent looked discouraging but was far from impossible. After several hours we made our way safely down, completing another one of the formidable barriers of the High Route.
Navigating using a topographic map from the top of Snow Tongue Pass looking east towards Mount Humphreys
The next day of the trip was probably my favorite. We had the extreme pleasure of traveling through Bear Lakes Basin, one of the most remote locales in the Sierra Nevada. After a long and trailless climb over Feather Pass we descended into Bear Lakes Basin. We were immediately greeted with babbling brooks, cascading waterfalls and 360 degree panoramic views of spectacular Sierra Nevada scenery. Mark Twain once wrote that Lake Tahoe was the "fairest picture the whole world affords.” I think if he had the opportunity to travel to Bear Lakes Basin he may have changed his mind.
A spectacular afternoon view overlooking Bear Lakes Basin
As the days went by we crossed pass after pass through one amazing valley after another, finally descending down to Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station where we picked up our final resupply. Again, lured by the comforts of civilization, we grabbed a cabin for the night to recharge our batteries for the final leg of the journey.
Ascending back into the high country we made our way towards the Minarets and camped at one of the most dramatic camp sites of the trip, Iceberg Lake.
A beautiful sunrise over Iceberg Lake and the Minarets
The following day was, by far, the hardest of the trip. Making our way around the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak we hiked towards the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The terrain was so rough that in the afternoon we were only able to move a little more than a mile over the course of four hours. It was frustrating to say the least, but with one foot in front of the other we pushed on.
Navigating through one of many endless fields of boulders
A mandatory stream crossing at Twin Island Lakes
The next day we crested over Blue Lakes Pass and into Yosemite National Park. For both Sean and I it was the first time either of us had entered the park without using a car. It was a pretty cool feeling.
We descended cross-country finally picking up a series of trails that pointed us in the direction of Tuolumne Meadows. Little did we know that Tuolumne Meadows would be the termination of our journey.
Taking a rest in the grass next to Rosy Finch Lake
The night before reaching Tuolumne Meadows the wind really started to pick up. Sean and I are very familiar with high winds in the Sierra and it usually means one thing - a big storm is on the horizon. When we arrived in Tuolumne Meadows the next day, we began asking around about the status of the weather. A ranger informed us that there was in fact a big early winter storm on the horizon that was supposed to hit in the next several days. We got on the phone with some of our friends in Lake Tahoe to verify the information. All of them had the same answer - bail out. So at mile 167 we had to pull the plug.
As it turns out we definitely made the right call. Two days later an unseasonable winter storm hit the Sierra with a vengeance and dropped over a foot and a half of snow in the high country. If we had decided to continue we would have been hosed. That much snow would have made travel pretty much impossible and put us in a very dangerous situation. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can only take what the mountains give you. When Mother Nature decides to put the hammer down it is best not to be in the impact zone.
Getting a much needed drink of water near Feather Pass. We didn't purify or filter our water for the majority of the trip.
Relaxing at camp at White Bear Lake
Even though we were unable to complete the last twenty-eight miles of the route, I don’t really feel cheated. On a previous climbing trip I had traveled on some of the terrain that we would have encountered. The scenery and terrain is impressive but, in my mind, doesn’t compare to some of the earlier sections of the route we had already completed. We definitely experienced the best the Sierra High Route has to offer.
In the end, the Sierra High Route lived up to all the hype. The country is huge, the terrain is rough and the views are spectacular. Almost every day we were tested with our physical ability, route finding skills and mental fortitude. I feel so lucky to have been able to experience such a grand adventure. Now only one question remains, what’s next?!
A silhouette of Sean next to one of the Minarets
Pulling into the Kirkwood Mountain Resort, one of the most prominent features you notice is Red Cliffs. They stand around 300 feet tall at the entrance to the valley and are pretty hard to miss. Last week, my friend Josh Daiek had the idea to set up a SkiBASE off the top. We grabbed a couple friends (Sean Cronin and Craig Garbiel) and headed out to make it happen.
The easiest way to access the top of Red Cliffs is from the resort chairlifts. We packed up our gear and headed up. Personally, I got a kick out of watching Josh get onto the lift with a parachute on his back. There were several people at the resort who noticed and were obviously confused.
We arrived at the top of the lift and hiked out past the resort boundary. About a half hour later we were at the location Josh wanted to jump from. It hadn’t snowed in weeks, so the actual take off point was just bare rock and the run-in was marginal at best. We began farming snow from the adjacent slope to build a jump and fill in the runway. Two hours later Josh was happy with the way everything looked and we were ready to go. Sean and I climbed down to a lower vantage point to set up for photos and video.
As we climbed down I could see why Josh wanted his runway dialed in so much. The cliff was anything but sheer and he would need enough speed to clear about 60 feet of rock. With everyone in position, Josh gave me the go-ahead over the radio. Twenty seconds later he launched off the lip at over 50 miles per hour. I took a sequence of shots and watched his parachute open. As it opened I knew something wasn’t right. The chute opened almost 180 degrees sending Josh back towards the cliffs. He immediately recovered but was headed right into a field of large boulders. He was so close to ground at that point he had nowhere to go. He crashed into the rocks and the sound echoed through the valley.
My heart stopped. Peering over the edge of the cliff, I spotted Josh lying in a boulder field with his parachute wrapped around the rocks. He wasn’t moving. We yelled down and finally after about 10 seconds (which seemed like an hour) he began to move, stood up and waved to let us know he was ok. I could tell he was shaken up; who wouldn’t be.
It took us about ten minutes to get down to him. By the time we got there, he had already packed up his gear and was heading down to the road. There wasn’t a scratch on him; although one of his skis had broken during the crash. Obviously still running through the events in his head, he shook his head at us, took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go get a beer.” So we did.
Posted By: Rachid
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With the winter season coming to a close in Lake Tahoe some friends and I decided it was high time to get the mountain bikes out. With snow still in the forecast in May, the biking in Lake Tahoe wouldn't be ready until sometime in June. That meant only one thing – it was time to load up the cars and head for Utah!
After hearing a lot of great things about the mountain biking on Gooseberry Mesa, we decided that would be our destination. With the car already packed, my friend Sean got off work at 11pm and we started the overnight drive through the Nevada desert. After multiple cups of coffee, several delirious 4am conversations and 11 hours later we pulled into camp. Sean and I set up camp and slept for the better part of the day – not too late though, since we had to fit in an afternoon ride.
"Wesley King takes a break at sunset on Gooseberry Mesa"
"Dan Keenan rides on Gooseberry Mesa with Zion National Park in the background"
Once we awoke we got the bikes unloaded and headed out to see what all the hype was about. Within 10 minutes I could see exactly why we had heard so many good things about the biking on the mesa – IT WAS EPIC! Extremely technical slickrock combined with a mix of singletrack provided some of the most fun I've had on a bike in awhile. The unobstructed view of Zion National Park in the background wasn't too shabby either. Over the next couple days we really gave the place a going over. It took a little bit to settle into the kind of technical riding style that Gooseberry demands. It is completely different from any type of riding that I have ever done. In Lake Tahoe you become accustomed to long climbs with fast moderately technical descents. Because of it's extreme technical nature, Gooseberry riding is much slower and precise. Fast short sprints up very steep sections of slick rock, mixed with tight corners and sharp turns keep you on your game 100% of the time.
"Sean Cronin mountain bikes on the very skinny terminus of the North Rim Trail. There is a 300ft drop on either side of him"
One of my favorite parts about riding on Gooseberry Mesa has to be the camping. Because the mesa is on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land the camping restrictions are very loose. You can pretty much camp wherever you want and it is all free of charge. It is important though that you bring enough supplies with you. There is no running water or much else in the way of home comforts on the mesa. The only facility in the immediate area is a lone toilet that is, sometimes, stocked with toilet paper. The biggest benefit to camping on the mesa is that all of the rides are accessible from camp. You can simply crawl out of your tent, make breakfast and get on your bike and ride. There is no need to drive anywhere. Within minutes of riding on one of the several double track roads you can be at the entrance to all of the trails.
"The view of Zion National Park from camp"
"Corey and Sean relax by the fire"
"The night sky from camp, note the shooting star"
After about four days we had ridden every trail on the mesa, in both directions. We decided to go check out some of the other trails in the area. We did a 15 mile loop on Little Creek Mesa (about a 20 minute drive from Gooseberry), and car shuttled the Jem trail (also about a 20 minute drive).
"Dan gets some air on the downhill section of the Jem trail"
"Heading back after the ride on Little Creek Mesa"
Even though there was a lot of good riding off the mesa, the accessibility of the trails from camp won us over for the rest of the trip. We continued to link up different sections of trails and come up with creative and cool lines all over the mesa. Trails like God's Skateboard Park provided entire afternoons of entertainment. The possibilities on the mesa are endless and the trails are still definitely in the baby stages of development. The appeal for a strong intermediate rider will be the ability to ride a lot of the terrain and simply have to walk sections one is not comfortable with. On the other end of the spectrum Gooseberry has terrain for the most advanced rider with stunt possibilities that range all the way up to the extreme. It all depends on how creative you want to get. Our favorite trails included: God's Skateboard Park, South Rim Trail and Hidden Canyon.
"Corey finishing a climb on the South Rim Trail"
"Corey sprinting up one of the many short technical climbs on the South Rim Trail"
"Dan riding on a small ledge in God's Skateboard Park"
"Corey on the South Rim Trail"
"The merry-go-round section of the Hidden Canyon Trail"
"Sean climbing some slick rock in God's Skateboard Park"
The likely choice for many people heading to Utah for a mountain bike trip would be Moab. Even though the riding at Gooseberry isn't as extensive as Moab, the mesa offers up some of the best slickrock and singletrack riding in the lower 48, with virtually no crowds. So my advice to you would be to load up the bikes and get out there before everyone else figures out what they've been missing.
"Sunset on Gooseberry Mesa"