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The Altra Trail

By Dave Irwin

The Sequoia National Park in California is situated some two hundred miles north of Los Angeles. The Sequoia lies just south of the magnificent King’s Canyon that forms a large part of the Sierra Nevada, which ranges from the famous Yosemite (pronounced Yo-sem-it-e) National Park on the north and the Tehachapi Mountains on the south.  The Sequoia National Park is the home of the famous Californian Redwood or big tree (Sequoia Gigantica).

Having visited the parks during July and wondered at the enormous size of the redwoods – the largest, the ‘General Sherman’ has a base diameter of 36 feet and the tapering trunk rises to a height of over two hundred and thirty feet with the foliage mainly in its upper reaches.  At a height of one hundred and forty feet, the trunk of the tree is still over fourteen feet in diameter!    Being the true Weegee, yours truly bought a small handbook of the area and found that only a very small portion of this national park was accessible by car and that ‘trails’ could be followed to the inner regions.  The longest is the High Sierra combined with the John Muir trails which have a total length of a hundred and sixty miles and include the summit of Mount Witney the highest peak in the U.S.A.  (How about the one in Alaska? – Ed.)  For a one day excursion, this was obviously out, but the Alta Trail looked interesting.  Now to find somebody to accompany me.  As it happened, a Frenchman working in the Anglo-French Concorde team in California was a keen walker and so he agreed to join in.

Thus, on Saturday the twenty second of August, we arrived late in the evening and bedded down in a small log cabin in the heart of the Sequoia forest.  Awake at 6am and having breakfasted by 7.30am we set off for the Sherman Tree two miles down the road and on to the start of the trail.  At 8.30, we reached the Alta Trail starting point.  The path ran steeply uphill for the first three miles through the forest. Here and there were the massive sequoia trees, some singly and some in groups of six or more, their orange trunks contrasting with the general background greenery.  As we climbed higher, the character of the forest changed. Fewer redwoods were to be seen and the Sugar Pine and Lodgepole Pine abounded.  Clearings were passed with the brilliant greens dotted with yellow alpine flowers.  Nearly at the top of the first ridge we were able to view the westerly range of the sierra and able also to look down on the giant forest some two thousand feet below us. The next mile of so was fairly easy going except that the dust trail never altered its character, causing a dust cloud behind each of us.  After two hours and four miles from the forest, we reached Panther Gap and an impressive view of the Great Western Divide lay before us.  Some five thousand feet below lay the Keaweah Valley winding its way westward into the plains of California.

Having taken our fill of the view, we pressed on upwards and, leaving the forest, the trail winds up above Panther Creek basin for the next two or three miles until it plunges down into a red fir forest near Mehrten Meadow.  Shortly after, that alpine meadow was reached at a height of ten thousand five hundred feet.  The meadow – a sloping spread of grass and lupine (a purple flower of the lupin family) lay near the parting of the ways.  The Alta Peak (eleven thousand, two hundred feet) was our goal – but could we find the junction?  Could we h---!  Distances being what they are, we had travelled another four miles and ended up in a very large meadow – the Altar Meadow, but it was worth it.  Here, less than three miles from the Great Western Divide, a high granite massif rose up from the valley in a series of high glacier basins – the whole producing a ripple effect along the western face. Just above the near peaks could be seen the scraggy Mount Witney (fourteen thousand, four hundred and ninety five feet) bare of snow except for a few small ice fields.

Having missed the trail to the Alta Peak only seven hundred feet above the meadow, we began the long slog back to the forest.  However, we were rewarded with a sight of five deer – two stage, two hinds and a spotty fawn.  The antics of the little ground squirrels kept our humour up and the magnificent views were reward enough for our efforts.  The only thing wrong with the day was the temperature – about ninety Fahrenheit in the shade! And no Hunters to take care of our thirst.  However, seeing nobody during the twenty odd miles walk gave us heart that there were still un-commercialised places in the States and at 4.30pm we were back in the restaurant sinking numerous milk shakes.


FOR SALE:  Climbing boots and crampons – virtually new and unused – size 9.  Offers to Graham Watts, 100 Chesterfield Road, St. Andrews, Bristol 6.