Clovis News

Hiking with a purpose

Sierra Mapping Project founder Sara Fry, standing on Kaiser Ridge, leads a hike using San Joaquin River Trail guidebooks on April 4.
Sierra Mapping Project founder Sara Fry, standing on Kaiser Ridge, leads a hike using San Joaquin River Trail guidebooks on April 4.

Sara Fry is on a mission to map — accurately, and practically single-handedly — the trails of California’s iconic High Sierra.

And the 25-year-old Clovis High graduate won’t let anything she faces — including a traumatic brain injury, frequent seizures or several bouts of melanoma — hold her back.

“This needs to be done,” Fry said. “This is totally my passion.”

Fry, who has logged over 10,000 miles on trails since 2012, launched the nonprofit Sierra Mapping Project in May after realizing that there is a huge need for accurate trail information.

“There are a lot of these trails that haven’t even been hiked by the Forest Service in 15 or 20 years, so they don’t have any intel on them,” she explained. “And they’re certainly not being kept up and maintained.”

Fry became frustrated after asking the U.S. Forest Service about trail conditions, mileages and water sources and found that the information was incorrect and outdated.

“Nobody has any information, through no fault of the Forest Service; it’s just that they don’t have the funding currently — and they haven’t had it for awhile,” Fry said. “Case in point: they said the San Joaquin River Trail is 70 miles. It’s, like, 120 (miles). That’s a huge discrepancy.”

The inaccurate information is more than an inconvenience, Fry said — it can be downright dangerous.

“If you have a dayhiker who’s going out for a day hike and they keep going because (the current map) says it’s 7 miles, but it’s really 14, they’re going to run into problems because they’re not adequately prepared,” Fry said.

The last time many of the trails in the Sierra Nevada mountain range were mapped through GPS was 20 years ago, when the global position system first became operational, Fry said.

“GPS has grown leaps and bounds since then, so the accuracy since 20 years ago has increased a millionfold,” she said.

Instead of waiting around for someone else to map the trails Fry wants to explore, she decided to do it herself.

“(I) map anyways; (I’m) a nerd about topographical maps,” she said. “I’ve worked trail crews; I’m well versed in the engineering aspect of building and maintaining trails. My dream is to hike every trail in the High Sierra — this is totally my baby!”

Thus, Sierra Mapping Project was born.

The nonprofit strives to improve the accuracy of the trail maps already in place, determine the condition of current trails and classify trails according to distance, difficulty, loops, spurs and thru-hiking alternatives.

Fry estimates it will take her about five years to map every trail in the High Sierra, dependant on the weather.

“If we have a big snow year, I can’t be mapping trails if there’s no trail to follow,” she explained.

All of the maps, guidebooks and GPS tracks that result from the project are available to anyone for free — as it should be — Fry said.

“This if for the public, by the public and it’ll always be free,” she said.

Fry raised more than $3,000 through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in May and June, but she’s already personally invested more than $7,000 on the project.

“All of the GPS data is free because it should be free, but that makes it difficult for me because I’m not getting paid to do this,” she said. “Sierra Mapping Project is very much in need of funding.”

Anyone can donate via her website, Funds raised go toward the nonprofit costs, transportation to and from trailheads, food, gear, batteries, shoes and permits.

Fry is determined to go through with the project even though she currently lacks adequate financial backing.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” she said. “This is totally my passion.”

If anyone epitomizes the phrase “follow your heart,” it’s Sara Fry.

When she was 15, during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at Clovis High, Fry was playing water polo in an out-of-town tournament when her life changed forever.

“I got a deliberate elbow to the temple,” she said. “I lost consciousness; I went under. I was seizing when my coach pulled me out of the water.”

She had suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for nearly three weeks. When she woke up, she went through intensive therapy at the Centre for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield.

Nearly a decade later, Fry still suffers from frequent seizures and memory loss.

“When you go through something like that, your life gets reevaluated of what’s important and what you really want to be doing and where your joy lies,” she said. “You should be following your heart because you never know how long you have.”

After graduating in 2009, Fry pursued degrees in marine biology/oceanography and psychology at community colleges in San Diego, using tape recorders, a note taker, books on tape and copies of her professors’ notes to help with her memory issues.

While in college, Fry was diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 19.

She endured 11 surgeries to remove melanoma within the first 13 months of being diagnosed.

“These were super intense surgeries,” she said. “The recovery time was long … I was so miserable.”

Fry battled cancer at the same time she was fighting with her brain to recall the things she learned in school.

She ended up flunking a class because “I literally could not retrieve information when I had that test,” she said.

“You just never know with a brain injury what you can and can’t recall,” she said. “I was devastated. Here I was a 4.2 GPA student, but now ... I can’t remember anything and then 5 minutes later I can. It was really frustrating.”

Fry decided then that it was time for change.

“I’m going to go out and do what I want to be doing,” she told herself in 2012. “And that was go out and hike the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Fry had never been on a backpacking trip in her entire life, but decided she would thru-hike the 2,650-mile PCT from Mexico to Canada for her first excursion.

She had heard of the PCT about a decade before while in Yosemite; a group of women told her about some hikers who had arrived in Yosemite National Park after walking 900 miles from Mexico.

“My mind was blown that people could do this,” Fry said. “It never occurred to me that you could walk such long distances. (The idea) was instilled in me from that point.”

Her PCT hike was everything she imagined it would be, and more.

“I hiked from Mexico to Canada and had the time of my life,” she said. “I’ve never met a more gracious, loving and accepting community anywhere that I’ve ever been, and that’s the long-distance hiking community.”

She earned her trail name — BloodBank — early on in the trip.

“I am constantly donating blood to the trail,” she said with a laugh. “Because of the brain injury, my balance isn’t necessarily the best.”

Hikers are constantly passing by Fry and asking about blood dripping from wounds — many of which she has no idea even exist until someone points them out.

“So this guy said ‘every day you’ve donated blood to the trail’ You’re BloodBank,’” Fry said. “It rings true. I love the name, it’s very fitting.”

Although Fry loves to meet hikers and enjoys being with other people, she prefers to thru-hike alone.

“Everyone is out there for their own reasons; everybody has their own speed and pace and what you can and can’t do. Some days I can do 50 miles and other days I can only do 2,” she said.

When she does hike with a partner, it has to be a very close friends who knows — and isn’t afraid of — her health issues.

“I don’t want to start having a seizure and freak somebody out,” she said. “My hiking partners will sit there and ... wait with me until it’s over.”

An aura will alert Fry that a seizure is imminent — usually 45 minutes to an hour away — which gives her time to get to a safe spot on the trail. She uses ammonia inhalants, or sniffer salts, to buy more time in case she’s on a cliff and needs to descend to a safer section.

“That has worked flawlessly,” she said. “(The seizures) are really abnormal, but it’s not out of the norm for me. This is my normal.”

After hiking the PCT, Fry applied for a volunteer trail crew job in Alaska and was instantly chosen.

She worked with a chainsaw crew on 86 miles of trail for Alaska State Parks for four months.

“It was all volunteer, I wasn’t paid — that’s like the theme of my life,” Fry said with a laugh. “But these are things that need to be done, regardless if money is involved. If you’re passionate about something, money shouldn’t be an issue.”

Back in California, Fry has done plenty of trail crew work on the PCT and is a crew leader for the High Sierra volunteer trail crew, which builds and maintains trails.

The nearby San Joaquin River Trail, which she thru-hiked with a friend and discovered that it’s nearly twice as long as current maps indicated, has become another one of her “babies.” She runs the social media accounts for the trail and attends San Joaquin River Trail Council board meetings.

Fry underwent another surgery to remove melanoma last month, but she continues to press on with Sierra Mapping Project.

The need for accurate trail information is pertinent because interest in backpacking and thru-hiking has spiked in recent years, thanks to the 2012 publication of author Cheryl Strayed’s memoir,“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book, which quickly became a bestseller, chronicles Strayed’s solo backpacking journey on the PCT. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon played Strayed in “Wild,” a film adaptation of the book.

Nearly 2,000 people attempted to thru-hike the PCT in 2014, double the previous year, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which works to protect the trail and provide information about its conditions.

The 211-mile John Muir Trail, which runs mostly in conjunction with the PCT from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, has also been inundated with hikers so much that nearly 95 percent of people who apply for a permit to hike it are denied, Fry said.

“That means almost everyone who applies to hike the JMT is denied,” she said, noting it’s a shame that people who want to be out on the trails, can’t.

That’s where the Sierra Mapping Project comes in.

“They don’t know that there are all these other trails out there that they can hike,” she said. “So the Sierra Mapping Project is about shining light on the High Sierra trails.”

Fry keeps track of elevation profiles along with the current conditions of water sources and shares her data with rangers at the Forest Service, because “a lot of times, I’m the only one out there on these trails,” she said.

Although the bulk of the trail mapping from Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows north, near Sonora Pass, should be done within five years, the nonprofit will exist indefinitely. Fry will continue to update trail information so that all hikers have accurate intel.

“It’s so people know what they are getting themselves into,” she said.

Fry’s heart lies in cross country hiking, which includes off-trail bushwhacking that requires survival skills and common sense, she said. She wants to find new routes while upholding the integrity of the wilderness adventure experience.

“Those routes will not have GPS track, but just a waypoint that says ‘go from here to here, but find your own way through that section,’” she explained.

Fry is encouraged by the dozens of emails she’s received from people who are excited about what she’s doing.

“It’s so gratifying having other people recognize that there a need for this, and they want it to,” she said.