Flashback Friday: A Moving Marriage with Mother Nature

Written by trail runner Bob Holtel for the 2001 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Photo from Ultraholic.com. From the ATRA Archives is presented by Salomon

Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is most important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.
— Sigurd Olsen, Reflections from the North Country

I was a backcountry Ranger for ten summers in the Ansel Adams Wilderness in the central Sierras of California. My trail maintenance and personally-monitored acreage averaged 10,000 feet in elevation and was just West of Mammoth Lakes Township which is East of the Sierra crest.

A myriad of glacial lakes dot the alpine terrain. Spectacular, craggy peaks – especially 13,157 foot Mt Ritter and 12, 945 foot Banner peak – create a majestic skyline. The jagged profile of the Minarets, needle-like spires in the Ritter range, is recognizable for miles.

Crystal clear streams are everywhere, bisecting verdant green tarns. Living cathedrals resemble fractured molars. I was privileged daily to view the craftsman-like handiwork of God, wind and water.

On most days, I would run into a lake basin, carrying a lopper to cut overgrown, gnarly brush. I would also clean fire pits, assist hikers with directions, pick up trash and rebuild broken water bars. Sometimes I would stay in for five days. Other times, I would run out the same day. I developed a tremendous camaraderie with other runners and hikers. We shared enjoyment of a lifestyle of crisp, difficult foot-strikes over rocks, stumps and pine needles.

I found the awesome beauty and 50-mile panoramas unparalleled. A trail runner here can access some of the greatest spots on earth. Unlike many runners, I timed nothing and made many stops to drink in the ambience or share a few thoughts with a new friend on the trail. Exploratory trail running hones your pioneering instincts. One is not consumed by the self-inflicted pressure of a watch. Frantically chasing a clock is an unnatural act. Doing it frequently can eventually break you. Running then becomes a job. Real wilderness runners find that there is life after racing.

There is a laid-back, aesthetic atmosphere in mountain running that promotes that feeling. Social stops en-route further enhance a great experience. Conversely, total focus and concentration are essential when you are moving. Long descents often include unstable rocks and hidden roots. The latter can be the exact color of the dirt or obscured by your personal shadow. The wrong moment can punctuate your day with an unexpected face-plant. It happens very quickly when your gravity center is thrust beyond the point of no return.

A trail runner must experience temporary defeat in order to experience life. There are two kinds of us on the trail: Those who have been down and those who are going down.

You become a different kind of person – bolder, freer, willing to risk difficult moments. Also, you may be alone out there in precarious situations, totally exposed to the elements. You are one-on-one in your underwear. It is a primitive simplicity and takes spiritual strength to handle the rough patches.

Those who make no effort cannot possibly feel the overall gratification gleaned from mastering nature’s gradient in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. One yearns to return. That is why I always did and still do.
Bob’s Top Five Mammoth Trail Runs

Shadow Lake trail to Ediza Lake and south to Iceberg lakes, over to Minaret Lake and falls, down to the Devil’s Postpile road. This is a 19-mile loop that includes the most spectacular views of the Minarets and Mts. Ritter & Banner. It includes some cross-country in the Iceberg area. During the summer, a shuttle bus is available to take you back to the Agnew Meadows/Shadow lake trailhead. Otherwise, the five-mile walk is scenic but hitchhiking works fairly well.

Deer lakes loop between the Duck Pass trailhead in Coldwater campground and the Crystal Lake trailhead at lake George. This 13-mile (with shuttle, 16 without) loop features open vistas for miles, while running relatively flat, 11,000’+ expanses on the Sierra crest, with unbroken views in both directions. It can be done in either direction but Bob prefers starting at the Duck Pass end. There is only one section of cross-country scrambling for 150 yards over a pass between the Duck Lake plateau and the Deer Lakes basin.

Shadow Lake trail north along the John Muir trail to Garnet, Ruby, Emerald & Thousand Island lakes; returning to Agnew Meadows along the San Joaquin River or by the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This 21-mile loop requires no shuttle or retracing any steps. The altitude gain/loss is moderate and much of that loop is at lower elevations (averaging 6,000’ to 8,000’).

Out & Back to Thousand Island Lake in only 18 miles along the PCT starting at the Agnew Meadows trailhead. Continuing North along the PCT over Donohue Pass brings you into Yosemite’s Tuolomne Meadows with only 33 miles from the Agnew trailhead.

Out & Back on the Mammoth Rock trail from the Sherwin Creek road to Old Mammoth Road in only 7 miles. Alternately, a drop-off at the Old Mammoth trailhead can make this an easy 4 mile downhill including the half mile on a dirt road back into town. This downhill features spectacular views of the Owens Valley and the White Mountain (14,300’ peak), Crowley lake and the whole Long Valley Caldera, which is reported to be the site of the largest volcanic eruption on the face of the earth.

There are many more beautiful trails, too numerous to mention. A visit to the USDA Forest Service Visitor’s Center will supply excellent maps and advice. Some are best for an easy warm-up on the first day at altitude. The notable flora includes Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Monkey Flower, Columbine, Fireweed, Marigolds, White Tiger Lily, Beargrass, and Huckleberry along the streams in the fall. Large Fauna includes a good deer population and some black bears in all colors.

Mammoth Lakes Township is above the Owens River valley, forty miles north of Bishop and just South of Yosemite on the Eastern side of the Sierra’s. It is an easy, scenic, 300-mile drive from Los Angeles. The altitude ranges between 7,600’ and 9,000’ feet with 8,000’ being a good average for most accommodations in town. The athletic benefits of running at this altitude are well known. The top US Olympian distance runners live and train in Mammoth and you are likely to see them whenever the roads or trails are snow-free. The town hosts a major ski area, so accommodations are plentiful and reasonable during the drier seasons. The trails are usually snow-free until late October or November.

Bob’s Recommended Trail Gear

  • Hip-hugger or fanny pack
  • Wind & waterproof jacket & pants
  • Wool gloves and balaclava
  • Capilene or Coolmax shirt
  • Floppy brim or visored hat with neck flaps
  • Small space blanket, matches & fire starter
  • Sunscreen, lip ice, Aleve, moleskin
  • Electrolyte powder (Cytomax works well), iodine tablets
  • 2 or 3 water bottles or Camelbak, LED flashlight
  • Energy bars
  • A good head on your shoulders


Why subject your knees to a beating on relentlessly cruel cement when you can have soft Mother Earth underfoot? Why do battle with motorists and traffic lights in crowded cities that offer vistas like the local strip mall? Experience the incredible magic of the Ansel Adams High Country. You may not want to go home.

Author’s Background

During his mid-50’s, Bob ran the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail in the late 80’s, earning a place in the Guiness book of records. He averaged a marathon a day for 2600 miles and published his account in “Soul, Sweat & Survival on the PCT”. A new edition is now available at $16.95 through Amazon. He lives in Ashland Oregon, in close proximity to the PCT during the summer & fall. He annually maintains that section of the PCT. In the winter and spring, he lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he runs on the beach and leads trail runs in the Santa Monica Mountains most weekends. On September 29, 2001, he celebrated his 70th birthday by joining 19 friends for a Grand Canyon run of approximately 25 miles, down & up in one day. He was a high school teacher and coach for over 30 years in Southern California.

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