Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ride the High Country

                                                by Laura Crum

            And yes, I saw that old movie. But today’s post is about my own vacation last week (with horses) in the high Sierra of California and the nearby Glass Mountains (we were 8000—9000 feet high, to be exact). We had a wonderful time—and a few adventures. But adventures, once they are successfully completed, are part of what make a wonderful time. So here’s my story.
            First off, I was a bit dubious about this trip. My son wanted to ride to a Sierra lake and camp with his horse, Henry (we had done pack trips on rented horses to lovely Sierra lakes, but it just isn’t the same as going with your own horse). The problem is that my son’s horse, Henry, though healthy, sound, and still pretty darn capable, is 24 years old. I am the veteran of many, many mountain pack trips, and I have seen first-hand how stressful they can be on older horses, or for that matter, young horses. It’s a combination of things. We live on the coast, and the horses are not used to altitude, the rides on pack trips tend to be longer than the horses are accustomed to, the horses often have to be tied at night, the hauling to get there can be hard on them…etc. I have seen many horses colic due to stress, and though I have treated this myself—with Banamine—successfully in every case I was involved with, it is very worrying when a vet is simply not available. I have seen other horses get hurt in the rocks—sometimes badly hurt. Never my own horses (thank goodness), but I am careful. I know the dangers. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt, or God forbid kill, my son’s healthy older horse by taking him to the mountains.
            But we had a unique opportunity. Our friend Bill had recently purchased a house on forty acres in the Glass Mountains (a small range on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California) that was twenty miles from any other dwelling. Surrounded by National Forest. Absolutely lovely. And he was willing to put up corrals for our horses and let us camp there. So Henry could have space to move around at night, rather than be tied, and we could do short day rides from a base camp, rather than longer pack trips. I thought it could work.
            I asked knowledgeable friends for advice (thanks, Aarene), I listened to my gut, and eventually I decided it was a go. So last week we hauled my horse, Sunny, my son’s horse, Henry, and our friend/boarder’s horse, Twister, eight hours, through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass, to the Glass Mountains, just east of the Sierra Nevada, and just south of Mono Lake, to ride and camp in the high country. And it was a blast.
            I have to admit, the haul was hard. Tioga is sort of scary coming down. A LOT of exposure. But we made it just fine. And put the horses into their (very nice) corrals around four o’clock. Here they are.

                        The next day I got up and fed at sunrise.

            And then, after breakfast, we rode away from the corrals, on pleasant sandy roads, for a seven mile loop, through lovely, wide open country. There were aspen groves and meadows and stretches of sagebrush and big pine forests. There were dramatic views of the Sierras and Mono Lake. We never saw another human being the whole ride. We did see deer and hawks and jackrabbits. Here we are—tiny horsemen in a big landscape.

            Sunny looks out at the eastern range of the Sierra Nevada.

            The next day we rode into the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a trail that had been recommended to me as “easy” to a lovely lake. Well, it was mostly easy. It ran through chapparel and then climbed a bit to follow a pretty creek through aspen and pines to a gem of a high Sierra lake called Parker Lake. There was just one small problem. The part where it climbed a bit?  That part included a truly severe and very tricky hundred feet of steep trail in loose rock with a lot of exposure. Not good.
            I’ve been on many mountain pack trips and have ridden my horse through some rock slides. But I was younger then, and I was riding an immensely strong, athletic horse named Flanigan. Now I am riding the clunky, if level-headed Sunny, and providing a lead for my young son on 24 year old Henry. I didn’t want to ride down any rock slides.
            I don’t mind steep, if there’s no rock and no exposure, and I don’t mind rock, if it’s not steep and there’s no exposure. I don’t mind exposure if the trail is level and not rocky. But this was a steep bit of trail, with lots of loose rock, and a sheer drop down a couple of hundred feet to a canyon on one side. LOTS of exposure.
            Still, Wally and my kid insisted we could get up it, so I rode on, and up we scrambled. We all made it just fine, though my son admitted it was scary. The trouble was (which I wasn’t forgetting) that we had to come back down.
            The rest of the way in to the lake the trail was just lovely. Level and easy, running through chapparel, aspen and pines, and along the bank of a pretty creek where the horses could drink.
            The trail to the lake.

            Sunny at the creek.

            Finally we reached Parker Lake.

            Parker Lake and the high Sierra.

            And then we had to come back. I will confess that I was thinking about that steep, rocky bit of trail quite a bit of the time as I rode back, and wondering what to do. I know lots of people would have gotten off and led their horse and I did tell my son that we could do this. But my son said firmly that if Henry could walk down it then he could ride him down it. “Believe it and you can achieve it, Mama.” Well, OK then.
            Hoping I was being a responsible adult by letting my kid make his own choice, I put my faith in Henry—and it was not misplaced. My horse, Sunny, balked a bit when faced with the rocky drop off (I could read his mind—“I don’t want to go down here”), and stumbled once, but calm, unflappable critter that he is, we still made it down through the rocks unscathed, though my heart was in my mouth. Henry, on the other hand, never put a foot wrong. He made it look easy. My son rode quietly and competently, and they came down with no trouble. I was so proud. Twister scrambled a little, but did OK.
            Of course, I do not have pictures of this cause I was way too busy/scared to take photos. (I never have photos of any of the slightly exciting moments on our rides--for the above reason.) But after the bad spot, I took a few more.
            Twister and Henry coming out of the high country.

            Lovely view of Mono Lake on the ride out.

            Here we are back at our camp in Sagehen Meadow. Wally and Twister, me and Sunny, my kid and Henry.

            We had a wonderful trip. Rode every day, not long rides, about a couple of hours. Just right for us. The weather was lovely, the country spectacular. The horses, Henry included, did great, and really seemed to enjoy being there. They walked with their ears up the whole way and about one mile an hour faster than their usual gait. It was fun. I’m so grateful, and so glad we did it. I did have one negative experience, but I’ll save that for another post.
            So, sorry for the perhaps boring travelogue, but I did enjoy our trip to the mountains very much and wanted to share it. I hope you all are having a lovely summer as well. Cheers—Laura


Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, that wasn't boring at all! I love hearing about you adventures on horseback, it sounds so...wild wild west and exciting compared to my Swiss terrain! I also always enjoy seeing your photos.

That ride back down the mountain must have been scary; I can only imagine how your heart must have been racing. Your horses did so well. And how brave is your son?!

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--My son was much braver than I was. I was lobbying for getting off and leading (!) But he convinced me to cowboy up. I'm grateful the horses did so well. They are really solid horses and I was right (thank goodness) to have confidence in them.

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--I just have to add that your photos of riding in Switzerland and France look just as exotic/romantic and fascinating to me as my "wild west" photos must look to you. I guess the grass is always greener...

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful trip, and what great memories for your son! (I don't think I could have handled the rocks, and I'm scared of heights . . .)

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Well, I have had a LOT of experience riding in the rocks in my past, so I know that a calm, confident horse can handle rocky bits that look pretty tricky. I bet Pie would do fine. But I REALLY don't like exposure. It makes the downside of a mistake too scary. And I'm prone to vertigo. But in this case (and all other similar places) I just kept my eyes on the trail and concentrated on helping my horse as much as I could.

horsegenes said...

Wonderful pictures... I am going to have to add to my list of "wanna do's".

Sounds to me like you are raising quite the man - he is going to be a catch for a young lady someday! Way to go.

Laura Crum said...

kel--It looks like we both took riding vacations in the mountains at the same time (!) Great minds think alike, yes?

horsegenes said...

Laura - they definitely do!

AareneX said...

Hooray, hooray, hooray! What a wonderful trip, I'm so glad that everything went well.

And a sensible horse (even a clunky one) is worth gold. You know it and I know it. Sunny and Henry and your kid, they all know it too.

Liann said...

Nice story about a nice trip! Ahhh, the brave invincibility of youth... Looks like Bill's got quite a spread there. But no horses?

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--so true! I value Sunny highly for his sensible nature, and am willing to put up with clunky and rough-gaited. Henry, on the other hand, is both sensible, smooth-gaited and athletic. If only he were twelve...

Liann--No, Bill has no horses. But he doesn't mind having them around from time to time.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

That sounds like a great trip. Lovely photos too. There are places where it's better to get off - easier for person and horse. But then one has to get a move on to keep out of the way of a horse that wants to get down.

Out of interest do you use breastcollars and cruppers, and do they get tight on that rough terrain?

Laura Crum said...

WHP--Overall I have found it better to stay on--though if it goes wrong one puts oneself at more risk. But I have actually seen more accidents when riders got off to lead, due to the person having less control of the horse when leading rather than riding. This, however, does not take into account the "scared" factor(!)

To answer your question, we always use breast collars on the trail--we never use cruppers. I have not had much trouble with the breast collars getting tight, though once in awhile, at a rest stop, I will readjust the saddle if it appears this might be happening. But all of our horses have good backs with decent withers. I ride with a not too tight cinch and the saddle stays in the middle of the horse--no problem. However, if I don't use a breast collar-- on any of our horses-- the saddle will tend to slip back when riding in the hills.

Martine said...

That definitely was not boring at all, it made a great read. I absolutely love the photo of Wally at the lake, it's so beautiful.
Riding in the Sierras has been on my wish list for years, maybe some day I will do it.

Laura Crum said...

Martine--And I would love to ride through the south of France, as you have done!

Alison said...

Gorgeous photos and a wonderful travelogue! I wish I could have been there with you on my fat, out-of-shape Relish.

I am so glad everyone--horse and human--made the trip safely and had an experience no one will forget.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Alison. It was a great trip--I feel fortunate that our luck held.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I've found myself springing downhill like a goat with a horse behind me. Long split reins just gave me a bit of space. My rationale was just that the ground was muddy and rutted, so I'd rather look after me and let my horse look after himself. I used to lead with one hand (the one holding the reins usually) held up in order to provide my horse with a visual cue not to run over me. It was an advantage using a retrained draught horse that was used to handling vehicles and logs downhill. He could be pushy but knew how to handle himself.

My big rotund draught-cross would go uphill with breastplate tight and downhill with crupper tight. I did think it so strange that a horse wouldn't mind a taut crupper. But they were cool with it.

Laura Crum said...

whp--Its funny--in all my riding in the mountains, we never used cruppers on our saddle horses. But we always used them on the pack animals. Go figure. I'm not sure what our rationale was--or if we even had one. Just the way we were used to doing it and the way we'd seen it done by the packers that we knew.