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TR High Sierra Trail 8/24-9/02/2014

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TR High Sierra Trail 8/24-9/02/2014

Postby Shhsgirl » Thu Sep 04, 2014 8:03 am

A friend and her friend talked me into a trail trip, and I had always wanted to see the historic HST. I hope this TR will help the Topix writer who is doing it on 9/18.

Executive summary: We had nine clear days of perfect weather, and water was not a problem, except scarce on Chagoopa Plateau and Whitney summit hike. Our temps were from 85 at the lower altitudes in the sun to 30 at night. Camping was what one would expect from a heavily-used trail. Bear boxes were clean and plenteous except above Crabtree, where canisters are strongly advised, due to marmots. We found three pit toilets on the trail, where we were able to dump our toilet paper. Don't camp anywhere on the east side of Whitney, except maybe the Portal. Don't put your wag bag in your bear canister. You can now skip the rest of this TR.

We car-camped at Lodgepole, which was crowded, and then my wonderful husband dropped us off at Crescent Meadow. We had to get up early because road to Crescent Meadow closes at about 9:00 a.m., and after then we would have had to take shuttle.

First day we stopped at Buck Creek, which was crowded before Labor Day. We barely squeezed in. Tiny, non-level campsites, much-used, and water not convenient. Wouldn't camp there again, but there aren't a lot of options unless you go to Hamilton. Weather fine on way up, water plentiful, but haze from Valley obscured views.

Second day we headed to Hamilton. A beautiful lake with dramatic mountains all around, but, once again, well-used campsites. We camped near bear box, and a number of other people showed up as well. Warm water, perfect for a refreshing rinse off.

Third day we got up at first light and hiked from Hamilton to Big Arroyo. I started climb to Precipice lake with 2 liters of water, but soon dumped one, because there were plenty of streams. This was our favorite part of entire hike. The climb is spectacular, with giant old cedars standing sentinel at trail turnings, wildflowers abundant, and magnificent views. Hamilton Lake became tinier and tinier, and then, suddenly, there was Precipice Lake.

There weren't good camping spots at Precipice that I could see, but in the little meadow above it on the way to Kaweah Gap, if the weather is as good as we had it, there were some beauties. That is, one would not want to camp up there if there was any threat of T-storms. Later in Sept., might be a bit cold at night.

Kaweah Gap was wonderful, and we fueled up and imagined (but stopped there) bagging Mt. Stewart. Then we headed down into Nine Lake Basin, where a little stream kept us company most of the way to Big Arroyo. There are some nice camp spots along the stream, as well, but once again, only if weather is good. Too exposed, otherwise.

Big Arroyo was different, but lovely. We passed the old cabin, which adds an air of history and mystery,
and then heard...cowbells. One of us thought she was back in Switzerland, but only for a moment, because our visitors turned out to be two very friendly and curious horses and a mule, belonging to the NPS, who promised to eat very politely out of our hands, if only we had something, anything for them. We were equally polite in encouraging them to eat the grass, which is good for them, rather than covet our human food, which is not.

Campsites are plentiful, and we were joined by a lone woman, who had sprained her ankle running (don't ask why) down from Kaweah Gap, and who was afraid she might need to abort the rest of her planned 14-day trip (she was on Day 2 and carrying 65 lbs.). She was able to limp around with the aid of a pole, and after looking at the ankle and speaking to her we were satisfied that she knew what to do, and would be fine in a couple of days if she took it easy. Also, the ranger had seen and talked to her and was aware of her condition. That night cooled off considerably and at first light it was 30 degrees and frosty outside my tarp. I didn't want to get up in the cold, but the real-live deputy sheriff in our group has an internal alarm clock that is very hard to say no to. So up I sprang, and we were on our way down the Chagoopa Plateau to Moraine Lake.

Chagoopa Plateau is just as dry as they say it is, although since we were going mostly downhill, I only carried a liter and a half of water, which was enough. It is a stark and lonely landscape, with lightning-struck trees everywhere one looks.

We very soon reached Moraine Lake, which is beautiful, but sadly low this year. The wide, white beaches were great to relax on, and the water was warm enough to swim, but it was only so because of the severe drought that has particularly affected this section of the Sierra.

We passed a warmer (and the dirtiest) night (yet) in the dirt camp spots at Moraine. As we were saddling up in the morning, some visitors who more appropriately and comfortably wear saddles trailed by our campsite. The deputy had been up much earlier, of course, and had seen a train of others go by, as well, while we two other slobs slept. I rushed to my camera and barely caught the parade for my little granddaughter, who is wild about horses and mules. [Footnote: Unlike some hikers, I do not resent pack animals. They play an important role in many rescues and they stay on the trail where they belong. Their poop is not nasty (like ours and dogs') and is good for most soil. They are courteous and friendly and helpful, if you are. If I don't like the dust they kick up on the trail, there are millions of acres of off-trail I can traverse that they can't, and I may just need one of them one day if I am hurt or too old to carry a pack. If that is not enough, they are charming, besides. And yes, I have seen horses (not mules) fall off passes, but the two I've seen have belonged to private owners--I've never seen a commercial outfit be so careless as to lose an animal that way.]

We continued down the hot(ter) Chagoopa Plateau to Kern Canyon. We met a few suffering souls going up as the heat of the day started, and vowed never to do so ourselves. When we hit bottom in Kern Canyon we were hot, and the much moister climate and vegetation made it muggy and a bit buggy--flies and gnats. I got one mosquito bite, but never felt the need to apply DEET. We wandered through ferns and stagnant-looking marshes until hitting a sunny, rocky trail that led us to Kern Hot Springs. It was so warm that we skipped the hot part, and cooled off in the beautiful river. Once again we camped in the dirt, and all our rinsing off didn't do much good. The pit toilet is old and disgusting, but we were good campers and used it. I wouldn't camp there again. There are much better places, mostly above creeks on the trail up to Junction Meadow.

We camped the next night in the dirt (where else?) at Junction Meadow, where we were entertained by the cracking and groaning, in the wind, of a tall, leaning tree not far from our tarps. We again fought the losing (and soapless-we do have our principles) battle against total dirt domination. A warm breeze blew through the afternoon, and about dinnertime a brazen little mouse caroused through our campsite. We tried to chase him out, but he seemed to delight in hiding and then popping out somewhere else close to our food or packs. We finally gave up and tried to ignore him.

The next morning we started the climb up to the intersection with JMT at our usual time--unreasonably early. This day, alone among them all, was cloudy and cool, and it looked almost like rain toward Whitney, but none fell. As we got higher and higher we got gladder and gladder to be out of Kern Canyon and up on the beautiful, if heavily-used, JMT. Water was not a problem going up from Junction Meadow, although I again carried a liter and a half at the start and ended up dumping the half. We strolled along and eventually found ourselves at the palatial new cabin of the Crabtree ranger. He was up above Guitar Lake in preparation for the Labor Day onslaught at Whitney, so we sat in his comfy chairs on his porch and built our fantasy cabins, modeled on his. Last time I was here, the poor ranger was living in a clapboard shanty, so this improvement is overdue and much deserved.

A strong, cool wind blew that evening and covered our bags with fine dirt, since we had been good and not camped on the grass.

The next morning we got up early and headed for the tarn just above Guitar Lake. It was a beautiful hike and went too fast, but we knew we needed to stage for the climb the next day. I had stayed at this same tarn ten years ago when my husband and I completed the JMT. It had snowed that night ten years ago, heavily, and the next morning the first switchbacks were covered with clear ice from the creek that normally runs down the trail in that spot. But this day it was sunny and perfect! Many people came by the tarn looking to camp. Some camped across from us in the meadow, but the smartest ones took an easy XC jaunt up to Hitchcock Lakes and found paradise that afternoon. I know because I hitched my water bottle to my belt and followed them up and had a great time exploring all around the lakes. .

Still, I had a primo sleeping spot that night, on a little ledge overlooking Guitar (Cello, John says) Lake.

The problem with cowboy camping there, I found out, was that, although I was very comfortable and the weather was perfect, I was so distracted by the light shows--stars and lights going up Whitney all night--that I got little sleep. There was just so much to watch, and I didn't want to miss any of it.

Deputy announced that she would leave the next morning at 6:00 a.m., and I, passive-aggressively, didn't say yea or nay. Well, she and John left at 5:00 and 38 degrees in the dark while I skulked in my quilt and pretended to be asleep. I got up as soon as I could see without a headlight, about 6:15, and left at 7:29 a.m. and 38 degrees exactly.

The creek/trail wasn't frozen this time and the going was easy up to the junction. There was reportedly no water, however, until Trail Camp on the other side. I carried two liters, my max. The weather was perfect, and I carried only my rain jacket/windshell and water bottle to the summit. (Last time I wore my down jacket all the way to the trail junction and when I got there my hands were too frozen to unbuckle my pack). I arrived at the summit at 10:00, and found my friends. We spent an hour relaxing there and peering over the edge at, among other things, Pinnacle Ridge, which, unbeknownst to me, my husband had fallen off of four days prior, slightly injuring himself, losing his remaining pole (see prior Italy Pass incident), and pretty much trashing his pack.
When we got back to the junction, a friendly marmot had surgically removed a couple of energy bars from friend's pack pocket and nibbled them, and then had the gall to hang around and make it obvious who was to blame (my friend, for not keeping all food in his canister). A couple of crows also hung out at the junction and argued loudly with the marmots about who got what. A young man arrived at the junction from Guitar Lake just as I was leaving, asking for water, but I only had half a liter left, and thought I had to get down to Trail Camp with that. It turned out that I didn't have to wait that long, because just below Trail Crest there was a very small patch of snow that was melting across the trail. I managed to collect a bottle there and didn't have to filter the water at Trail Crest, which ranger said was unsafe to drink (I'm not surprised--the place is filthy).

Because my husband was due to meet us on Tues. morning, we camped at Lone Pine Lake, which was also overused, with dirty water. Had we known it existed, we would have simply continued to the walk-in camp at the Portal. A couple of nice guys we had met at the tarn above Guitar Lake also stayed there, and we all squeezed in to a small camp area on the north side of the lake. We got up early, thanks to Dep, and skipped breakfast to get to the Portal to meet my husband and the two guys for breakfast at the Alabama Cafe.

At the portal we weighed our packs. Mine won, weighing 20 lbs, including Expedition-sized Bearicade, trash, wag bag, leftover food and alcohol for stove, and water. Husband was there, in reasonably good shape after four days of rest at Portal, and entertained me vastly with the story of his adventure climbing Pinnacle Ridge.

One of God's mercies is that we usually don't know when the last time we do something is (e.g. the last time you held your child on your lap, the last time you looked into a parent's eyes and told him you loved him before you left to go home). I think I know, though, that this was the last time I will do Whitney. There are too many other places I want to go, and I'm running out of time.
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Re: TR High Sierra Trail 8/24-9/02/2014

Postby giantbrookie » Thu Sep 04, 2014 10:05 am

Nice report and such a great read. This is the perfect thing for me, currently sitting in my office at elev ~500' in smoggy air, and trying to get past one of those writer's block moments writing yet another scientific manuscript; better than a mid-morning coffee break.

"Running out of time" (your last statement)? Well, everyone is, but it seems to me that you have a lot of High Sierra miles left.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: ... ayshi.html
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Re: TR High Sierra Trail 8/24-9/02/2014

Postby byeager » Tue Sep 09, 2014 10:44 am

Great report! With my own High Sierra Trail adventure only 9 days away I have been voraciously reading all the trip reports I can find. It was great to see something so recent which will give me a better idea of what to expect. Your prose was great throughout by the practical side of my brain particularly appreciated the details on water availability. Considering the extraordinary water circumstances this year I felt like reports from previous years weren't nearly as relevant.
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Re: TR High Sierra Trail 8/24-9/02/2014

Postby sekihiker » Tue Sep 16, 2014 7:55 pm

I like that many of the photos in your report aren't just the same old stuff. Thanks for sharing your feelings about one of the classic hikes in the Sierra.
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