The Sierra Nevada mountain range stretches 400 miles north to south along the eastern side of California. They’re tall, jagged, formidable and incredibly picturesque, the result of a whole heap of granite formed underground during the Triassic period and then forced out of the Earth’s mantle by the tectonic process over a few million years. But the granite didn’t go softly, and it takes revenge for its acute ascension into the heavens by slashing the descending sun at the end of each day, spilling bright crimson colors across the evening sky. In spite of the region’s renowned beauty, and the common Californian’s voracious outdoor enthusiasm, much of this range remains relatively untouched and seldom visited. One reason for this unspoiled condition is the notoriously difficult access to the High Sierra. Nearly all the roads that lead in are dead ends. During the winter people aiming to go east of the Sierra must drive around them: south to Mojave or north up and over Lake Tahoe. In the summer, the trip is made only marginally shorter with the ability to go over Sonora Pass, Tioga Pass, Walker Pass or the primitive wheel-eating pavement and dirt of Sherman Pass, all of which remain closed in the winter.
“But once upon a time there was a dream of another route, a path across the mountains that would link Fresno and the coast to Bishop, then on to Nevada, the midwest and beyond. That dream was called the 168.”
Much of the original 168 plan was completed. An eastern section stretches from questionably named Oasis on the border of California and Nevada, over the White Mountains via Westgard Pass, through Bishop and up to North Lake, and a western segment runs between Florence Lake and Fresno. There is, however, a noticeable and formidable gap in 168’s continuity. Never finished, the lost section of Highway 168 was a bridge too far, the terrain and climate too rugged for the original builders who were forced to abandon their project. Since that time much of the High Sierra has been designated as Wilderness, forestalling any further development on the road. What’s left is 27 miles of high mountain terrain separating the east and west sections of road.
This unfinished section through the Sierra is not completely inaccessible, but being designated as a Wilderness means mechanized travel is not allowed. There remain a few scratched out trails tramped down by hiking boots and pack animals that wind up and over hard and craggy granite passes. Lightly used, these trails are primitive and functional, and one could see how it would take only a few years of disuse for them to completely dissolve back into feral wilderness. With mechanized travel ruled out we knew that completing the 168 would require a healthy dose of hiking.
“If there is one thing we have learned from our Yonder Journal experiences it is that hiking is an essential part of Bikepacking. In fact, on an average trip it would be fair to say that our time spent riding versus hiking is probably split 50/50.”
What, then, is the big difference between walking a bike—leading it if you will, like some wheeled donkey—and carrying it? Isn’t this just a matter of degrees, a seamless gradient of effort? The bottom line is that you’re moving the weight. Just because bike-on-back technology has yet to be developed—as in no one has made anything for it, as in it’s in the square wheel/raw meat eating/cave dwelling phase of refinement—doesn’t mean there is any solid reasoning against it being possible. Besides, lash-tech seems to be at the top of its game right now, given the current state of nylon. Consider the modern nylon straps, nylon buckles, and nylon fixtures that populate our world. Couldn’t we simply couple our non-bike-on-back backpacks and cutting edge lash-tech? Spice this bounty of existing technology up with a healthy dose of blind hope and heading into this there was no doubt in any of our minds that the whole thing would work out. Our plan was pretty simple, we would ride where we could, and where we couldn’t, we would pack our bikes on our backs and hike. PMA, Cut & Dry, Blind Faith.
We choose AWOLs for their versatility. Fast on the long road sections and comfortable on the climbs, these bikes shine in dirt and gravel, and our route would be a devilish mix of all the aforementioned. But the riding, though challenging, wasn’t going to be the problem. We can do that. Riding a bike is kinda our thing. It was the taking-it-apart-and-strapping-it-to-our-backs part of the deal that was going to be tough, and we knew it. No matter how advanced our lash-tech, we knew that this would be the crux. How much of a crux though, and how much we actually knew—well, suffice it to say that just like the missing segment of 168 we intended to traverse, there were some gaps in the map. When it came down to it, we all tried. In the end though only one of us would succeed, walking off alone, away from the rest of us, into a flurry of snow over an 11,000-foot pass. Our expedition to complete the 168 is a tale of failure and of triumph, an experiment in what’s possible. In the end we each limped away beaten and bruised, with a new understanding of ourselves and of possibility. A wise man waxing philosophically at the telling of this tale might say something to the effect, “That a better understanding of self is the only success you will ever need,” but sitting here writing this I’m struggling to convince myself that he’s right.