Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rock Creek Pack Station in the WSJ...

Into the Wild West 

A suburban family's thrilling, chilling, life-changing trip through the beyonds of the Sierra Nevada 


MOUNTAIN CLAN | Crossing a stream on horseback, in the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. George Steinmetz
It wasn't until we reached the summit of Mono Pass, a spectacular trail carved 12,150 feet up in California's Sierra Nevada, that my maternal alarm bells went off.

Ahead of me, my husband and three children were about to descend a series of steep, narrow switchback trails littered with loose granite rocks—on horseback.

Suddenly, hazards seemed to be everywhere. The altitude was winding the horses. Bears lurked in the vast forest below. Mountain lions obviously lay in wait. The words of Craig London, the owner of Rock Creek Pack Station who'd sent us on our six-day trip that morning, echoed in my head. "You're completely dependent on your stock," he said, looking us in the eye. "If a horse trips and falls, you die."

Terror was not what I had envisioned when my husband, an intrepid traveler, proposed taking our suburban New Jersey children on an outdoor adventure. Ages 12, 9 and 9, the kids were growing up much more "indoors-y" than out—to them, "the wilderness" might as well have been a sequel to "Angry Birds." George wanted to give them a memorable experience and teach them some basic survival skills before they became completely alienated from the natural world. He assured me that they would be more than fine without the antibacterial wipes, helmets and location-tracking iPhone apps that we had come to rely on at home. The physical discomforts, he argued, would be worth it.

I agreed in principle. But in reality, I had no idea how painful it would be for a self-confessed helicopter mom to relinquish control in the woods. 

For an authentic experience—far from hotels or Internet access—George chose a remote section of California's Sierra Nevada, a snow-capped range that includes Mount Whitney, Yosemite National Park and some of the last uninhabited wilderness areas in the contiguous U.S. Its backcountry trails are accessible only on foot, no motors allowed.

Mr. London recommended we explore the John Muir Wilderness, 589 miles of trails through sapphire lakes, granite peaks and pine forests, named after the Western naturalist and set aside as part of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Mr. London furnished us with horses, a guide, a cook, camping equipment and food. Five mules hauled our gear and six bottles of good California wine (my secret to survival), over the pass to set up our camp—14 miles from the nearest road—in advance.

I asked what would happen in an emergency. Mr. London, who trains special forces in backcountry navigation, shrugged: "Oh, you'll suffer for a day while they ride out for help. It's the wilderness—there are risks!"

But even he wasn't totally cavalier. Unless our kids wore "protective head gear" on the horses, we'd have to sign a release, he said. This was a no-brainer for me, but George strongly disagreed. "Cowboys don't wear 'protective head gear,'" he said.

I reluctantly stood down, mindful of my promise not to hover. The horses never faltered. And after seven hours, our helmetless children emerged unscathed from their descent over the pass, giddy with the adventure of it all. I recovered from my heart palpitations as we arrived at camp.

Catch trout and have a picnic.  George Steinmetz
Tucked beneath the imposing 12,000-foot Mono Rock, the campsite looked out on the kind of landscape our family had only experienced while watching "The Sound of Music"—a lush valley with a babbling brook flowing through it. Nick and John were amazed that they would be brushing their teeth in a creek. I, meanwhile, was fixating on Giardia lamblia. My guidebook warned that the parasite could be found in some Sierra lakes and streams, and should be avoided by boiling and filtering all drinking water.

This (I thought) helpful advice was dismissed by Ed, the cook; Paul, the guide; and my husband. "Been coming here for years. Never got that," said Paul, a plain-spoken Texan who'd worked the rodeo circuit. 

Besides, he said, there were other concerns. Ed had spotted bear scat around the campsite, meaning a visit was possible. While this thrilled 9-year-old Nick, I could only recall the group of teens who'd recently been mauled by a grizzly in Alaska.

Paul explained that although they adorn California's flag, grizzlies are extinct in the state. Local black bears generally don't attack humans unless you get between a mother and cub or food is involved. Our food, he pointed out, would be sealed in metal canisters and kept away from our tents.

By day three, it was very clear that the instincts that granted me undisputed authority in suburbia were useless in the mountains. My husband's skill set was now ascendant: He could read a topographic map, gut a fish and follow tracks to find his way back to camp. He took us on trips to sparkling high-altitude lakes and meadows bursting with wildflowers where we would hike, catch trout and picnic.

One afternoon, while George and the boys were out hiking, Ed and Paul needed to go wrangle the horses. The sun was setting and I couldn't stop thinking about the bear.

"Do you want my gun?" Paul asked. Nell, age 12, whose entire experience with firearms involved a squirt gun in our backyard pool, asked meekly, "What's it for?"

"Horse shootin'. Bear shootin'. People shootin', if necessary," said Paul, spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco.

By day five, I could see how self-reliant our kids had become. Nick and John could catch and clean a trout, feed a horse and read a topo map. Nell could identify 24 different wildflowers and tell stories around the campfire.

Yet I was the most unexpected beneficiary of the trip. I didn't learn how to shoot a gun. But I could now tend a fire, identify wild chives and enjoy total silence. As we made our way back up to Mono Pass, we met another group heading down, forcing us to turn around. I maneuvered my horse into a 180-degree turn on one of the steepest sections of the trail. I felt no fear; I'd finally learned to let go.

The Lowdown: Sierra Nevada 

Planning It: Rock Creek Pack Station plans horse and mule trips throughout the eastern Sierra Nevada. Our six-day trip for five cost $6,235.

Getting There: Mammoth Yosemite Airport is a 20-minute taxi ride from Tom's Place, the closest town to Rock Creek Pack Station. You can also fly to Reno and drive about four hours to Tom's Place.

What to Pack: Rock Creek has a 30-pound-per-person limit. But bring: air mattress, sleeping bags, rain gear, head lamps, sun and winter hats, bug repellent, sunscreen and cash for tips.

Write to Lisa Bannon at

 A version of this article appeared April 7, 2012, on page D11 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Into the Wild West. 

The online version:

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