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Mary Breckenridge guides her horse, Surprise, and mules Dixie and Woody across Mono Pass on the second day of her trans-Sierra trip.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge takes in the view as she crosses over Mono Pass from the west side to the east side of the Sierra.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge pulls on her fleece after waking up for the second day of her adventure.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge lifts a bear box onto one of her mules, as she readies for the third and final day of her trans-Sierra trip.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

A horse from a pack station's base camp crosses a creek early in the morning near where Mary Breckenridge set up camp.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge cooks a pot of her daughter's split-pea soup.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times

Mary Breckenridge comforts her mule, Woody, after he was spooked.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge pauses in a creek so her horse, Surprise, and her two mules, Dixie and Woody, can drink.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Mary Breckenridge, Surprise, Dixie and Woody traverse rugged terrain.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

"Do you see why I don't go to church? This is my church!" says Breckenridge.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

Sun breaks through the clouds onto the mountains near Mono Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

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High Sierra challenge

By Diana Marcum

MONO PASS TRAIL — Mary Breckenridge crosses the High Sierra every year with only her horse and two mules for company.

She always leaves in September, when heat still tents the Central Valley but cool mountain breezes stir silvery-green aspen leaves.

Higher up, the nights can be so cold that the water in her coffeepot turns rock-hard. It’s happened. She kept going. Packing and unpacking 300 pounds of gear daily, making and breaking camp, starting her fire from twigs.

It makes her feel thrillingly self-reliant. A true Western woman.

Except, now she’s 64, and she’s not sure she can do it anymore. Not alone.

Bucko Davis had sworn he was done with packing. He’d had enough of being so tired that he would unload a pile of gear from a mule, plop down on top of it and have people walk by without realizing there was a limp body beneath the cowboy hat pulled over his face.

Then Mary tracked him down. They’ve been friends for 30 years, since he was a packer and she was a cook on commercial High Sierra trips. She needed him as backup.

Once long ago, Bucko said he would never tell her no. He agreed to the trip.

He’s spent his whole life in these mountains. He loves how the junipers line up for sentry duty along the ridges, the way edible mushrooms pop out amid the damp undergrowth.

Maybe now he can know if they will ever let him leave in peace.

Read more: A High Sierra state of mind


  1. October 26, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Good story. Great pics. Now let's get the livestock out of the High Sierras. Poor old lady. Can't pussy-foot her way across Mono Pass anymore? Too bad. I've done that pass in March with nothing but BOOTS. Stock has been tearing up that area for too long. restore the Sierras and get rid of the arrogant, wimpy and whiny little cowboys

    By: summitman
  2. October 26, 2012, 1:21 pm

    "Summitman," why is she wimpy for crossing the Sierras in her 60s using pack animals? Are the mountains only for the enjoyment of Patagonia and North Face wearing outdoor hipsters in their 20s and 30s? Glad you have done that pass in March with nothing but boots, I guess you were naked otherwise and didn't need the benefit of a tent, sleeping bag, a stove, Gore-Tex raingear or fleece. Like or not, the wilderness must be shared with those who have replaced knees or other infirmities of age and can't enjoy the experience without the aid of a horse. As long as those who use pack animals are responsible in sharing the wildnerness, they have every right to enjoy it as well. The Sierras are not your private playground. Take your arrogance to the nearest REI and check it at the counter, please.

    By: Greg
  3. October 26, 2012, 2:32 pm

    Oh, come ON! How much damage can a horse and two mules do to the Sierras – certainly far less than the 'free grazing' cattle that ranchers put out on 'our' land!

    Good for Mary Breckenridge; it takes strength and a great deal of courage to do what she has done, and she deserves even more accolades for continuing to do this in spite of her declining physical abilities. Just wait until you get there, then let's talk about "wimpy and whiny little cowboys""

    By: sundownlf
  4. October 27, 2012, 1:41 am

    agreed…nicely stated summitman…nice story and vid…but enough of the horses……

    By: gree
  5. October 27, 2012, 10:45 am

    if you drove your car to get to the trail head, you could have walked instead. You sound a bit self- righteous. The next time you lose your boots, you may be asking the packer for a ride. Stock trips are highly regulated, and there's room for more than one point of view.

    By: walkingcowboy
  6. October 27, 2012, 10:42 pm

    What a fabulous story, and what an amazing and beautiful woman! Beauty really does come from within and our spirits make us so attractive. What she has money cannot buy – her inner thoughts make her much more beautiful at 64 than any 24 year old with a flawless face.

    By: Limoncella
  7. October 28, 2012, 2:58 pm

    Good for you, Mary Breckenridge! I applaud your grit, and would point out to Times readers that there are some aspects of packing, riding and caring for a horse and two mules that are MORE difficult than simply hiking on foot, not less. And self-righteous "Summitman" thinks he's superior because he's done it in March on only boots? And is so insecure that he must adopt the name Summitman so that we know he's not a mere hiker, he's a winner who reaches the summits — maybe every time! Wow, Summitman, I'm impressed.
    So not only should Los Angeles get most of the Eastern Sierra's water to flush its toilets, now the entire Sierra should be maintained as a walking preserve for LA dweebs who want to get out of the city occasionally and then blog about their accomplishments when they get back to the office?
    There is room for a variety of recreational activities in the Sierra, not just those endorsed by self-satisfied and insulting Summitman. As far as his comment about "arrogant, wimpy and whiny cowboys," that hardly merits a response. I've had both friends and adversaries who were cowboys, and while "stubborn and close-minded" might often apply, "wimpy and whiny"? Never.
    By the way, I'm part Paiute Indian and my ancestors were in the Sierra for thousands of years, and I don't begrudge Summitman or anyone else the chance to enjoy these timeless mountains. Peace, Love, Rise Above.

    By: Tehachapi Mountains
  8. November 13, 2012, 8:12 pm

    I know Mary Breckenridge personally. She is young at heart, beautiful, socially aware , well traveled, well read and well educated . She is a lover of animals, of our earth and of all things made at the hands of our God. She has an incredible heart and a warm calmness about her, as shown in the photo of her comforting her mule Woody. She is strong and she is independent. I love nothing more than having a conversation with Mary and always wish it would last longer. She does not judge … her philosophy is very much "live and let live" … so why on earth would ANYONE think anything but "Good for you Mary!" celebrating the life and the land that she grew up on, inherited and is caring for … even as she treks across it. Mary you're my hero … I'm so proud to call you my friend and I only wish I could ride a horse and see our earth through your eyes. Good for you!!
    Ellen Jannino, Bakersfield, California


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