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The truth about Switchbacks
By rob horne

We had planned on doing the Sequoia, Paradise Valley Trail during the last week of May. It sounded like a pleasant hike that would provide beautiful views without too much strain on our mid-fifty bodies.  Memorial Day weekend could be a problem but what the heck; we were arriving at the trailhead on Friday.  (Yes, we are naïve).  Of course, that trail had already met its quota so we were encouraged to try the Copper Creek trail, which is “just as good if you don’t mind the 4.2 miles of switchbacks at the beginning”.  It was 4:00 PM and the ranger suggested that we could easily make it to Upper Tent Meadow before dark came at 8:00 PM. He pointed out that we would be the only ones on the trail and we would have our choice of any campsite we found.

I know about switchbacks. They’re inevitable and they are everywhere. They are the unavoidable necessity that gets you up a mountain at a maddening slow pace.  Your adventure becomes tedious and you feel like you’re doing everything twice. You see the view from one direction and again when approaching from the opposite direction. You notice the damage caused by other hikers who have grown weary of the walk and have cut switchbacks to shorten their journey.  Looking up, you can follow their path of destruction to the trail above that seems so close yet so far. Even though you gain elevation with every turn, the hike becomes repetitive and your efforts feel redundant.  The trip becomes drudgery and you wonder why you’re putting yourself through this torture.

My introduction to switch backs began in 1972 when I first hiked Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal.  I was 22 and in reasonable health though I struggled the entire trip.  Mid way I was passed up by Hulda Crooks, a woman who had received a great deal of acclaim for her yearly trek up the Whitney trail.  The cliché about being passed “like you’re standing still”, applied well in this situation. I was doing the “survivor shuffle” when Hulda, without noticeable effort, breezed on by.

It’s been 30 years and I still struggle on switchbacks though, I have improved my survival shuffle immensely.  You walk embarrassingly slow, take a step, pause, breathe, take another step then repeat the process. I feel foolish and wimpy doing it though; it has always gotten me through the rough spots.

We made it up Copper Creek Trail all the way to the Granite Basin Overlook where we were halted by snow. By Sierra standards it’s a modest trip and many people do the whole thing as a day hike. We spent 6 days on the trail, lingering for photos, observing bear, nearly sitting on a rattlesnake, watching deer and sleeping late.  We’re not fast though, thanks to the switchbacks, we savor our hikes a little more than the average backpacker. At least that’s how I like to phrase it.