I recently finished my first trip to the Sierra, here is the story.
A video Trip Report can be viewed here: http://youtu.be/MOidp9S9040
Additional pictures are available at the link below:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set ... e26ced549b
In 2011 I saw the movie 127 Hours. Everyone on this forum is probably familiar with the film, but just in case, it is the story of Aaron Ralston who spent 5 days pinned by a boulder in a Moab canyon. Eventually he was forced to cut off his own arm with a dull knife to escape. I (somehow) found the film to be inspirational. Entering into the latter half of my thirties, I was due for a mid-life crisis; apparently I had found my calling. My work involves a reasonable amount of travel and I have become pretty adept at taking advantage to explore the nation’s backcountry. Obviously I was pretty excited when my company decided to host our annual client conference in Lake Tahoe. I had only been on western mountains once before during an Outward Bound course more than 20 years ago. Nonetheless, having honed my system for several years I was ready to go big. After exploring a number of options in the Sierra Nevada I settled on the High Sierra Trail.
The High Sierra Trail is a 72 mile trail which starts in Sequoia National Park on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada which travels across the Great Western Divide and over Mt Whitney (the highest point in the lower 48) to the eastern side of the range. My itinerary would add some additional miles bringing the total to 79. Total elevation gain for the trip would be 16,200 feet (without the additional miles the HST has 15,400 feet of gain).
For anyone considering doing the High Sierra Trail, one of the most difficult issues is the logistics of starting on one side of one of America’s great mountain ranges and finishing on the other. I won’t bore everyone with the details here but feel free to hit me up if you are planning your own HST excursion.
As I was already going to be abandoning my loving wife for three days for a conference, I wanted to minimize the time spent on the trail. Since finding http://www.backpackinglight.com two years ago I have been working to lighten my load. My base weight (total pack weight less food and water) for this trip was under 14 lbs., including a bear canister. Gearheads can find details at http://lighterpack.com/r/6k4zkg. With food and a quart of water I started out with a pack tipping the scales under 24 lbs. With my low pack weight and tendency to get up with the sun and hike until dusk when soloing I set an ambitious target of 5 days.
Day One – Thursday, September 18, 2014
Lodgepole Visitor Center to Bearpaw Meadow – 17.5 Miles, +2,795 Feet
A late night, delays getting out of Visalia and road construction in the park all contributed to a late start. I set out from Lodgepole Visitor Center (where they issue backcountry permits for the High Sierra Trail) after 10:00. Having never been to Sequoia before I decided to take some time and explore the park’s frontcountry. A circuitous route through the Giant Forest would add 6 miles to the trip but was well worth it. The first couple of miles between the Visitor Center and General Sherman were fairly forgettable and could be skipped if the in-park shuttle is running.
General Sherman, the world's largest tree, and many (like the folks who run the park) would argue the largest single organism, is worth seeing. Approaching the General the deserted trails suddenly filled with people. Massive sequoias begin to appear among the already large lodgepole pines which dominate the landscape to that point. Cameras were out left and right pointed not at the trees or the magnificent canopy overhead but rather at the forest floor. It was bears. Lots of bears. Within a half mile radius of General Sherman there were 12, including 5 cubs. They were completely unconcerned about the crowds and flash bulbs. There is some great footage of a mother with her two little cubs included in the video Trip Report above.
As impressive as General Sherman was, I was much happier after wandering away from the crowds to explore the Giant Forest on my own via the Congress Trail. The trail was almost deserted all of the way to Crescent Meadow and the start of the High Sierra Trail. This section was one of the highlights of the trip.
Only a mile beyond the Crescent Meadow trailhead the trail comes to Eagle View. This was what I signed up for. The forest suddenly opens up to the grand vista of the Great Western Divide. It was hard to believe that the next day would see me climbing over that wall of granite.
Beyond Eagle View the trail is carved directly from a steep slope. The amazing view, interspersed with patches of forest, stays on the right side of the trail for the rest of the day. The granite mounds of Moro Rock, Little Blue Dome and Sugarbowl Dome mark one's progress through the day. On this section I crossed paths with a pair of guys just finishing a 7 day, 120 mile out and back from Crescent Meadow to Mt Whitney. I was impressed, these guys knew how to travel light. Their packs made mine look huge.
It was also during this section that I would see my last bear of the trip. Due to the steep slope the trail runs along, there are a number of sharp turns beyond which one cannot see. As I hiked along a bear, also taking advantage of the well maintained trail, came around the corner from the other direction, not more than 25 feet away. It was not a large bear; I suspect it was a yearling. The poor guy must have sh!t himself when he saw me. He bolted in the other direction. Rounding the corner I saw two large black mounds in the trees and something was clearly scampering up the slope above the trail. As it was only another 20 feet or so before the next turn I decided it would be in poor taste (not to mention a bad idea) to make sure that there were in fact three bears (presumably two older cubs and their mother) so I carried on.
When planning my itinerary I sought advice here on High Sierra Topix about the best day one campsite. A number of people recommended Buck Creek. I arrived there around 5:30. It is a beautiful spot, one of your classic Sierra campsites. The campsite sits at the bottom of Buck Canyon under a giant wall of granite that was glowing in the afternoon sun. I selected a campsite and dropped my back. The lack of sleep, long miles and sense of wonder at my surroundings had taken their toll. I was exhausted. Preparing to set up camp I noticed that the sun had disappeared behind the canyon's western slope. Judging from the angle of the sun it appeared that it would be late morning before the sun rose above the gorgeous slab of rock to the east. The deep canyon walls were also likely to trap cold air and any lingering moisture. This might be an ideal campsite in July or early August, but I would not recommend it into September. Ugh. I would need to push on.
The 1.5 miles from Buck Creek to Bearpaw Meadow is the steepest section of the first day and takes nearly an hour. In my case it worked out nicely as it allowed me catch up to the sun and extend the afternoon's direct daylight hours.
For those who don’t know, Bearpaw Meadow has a tent hotel (the High Sierra Camp) for those who want a backcountry light experience and are inclined to shell out $200/night for the privilege. There are also more traditional sites for the rest of us. Unfortunately the hotel occupies the scenic ridge and the backcountry sites are in the forest below. I selected the first of these heading back from the High Sierra Camp. It was isolated and had a bear locker and a faucet for water. It was certainly more developed than I am used to back east, but it was nice enough. The faucet allowed me to wash my feet (a nightly ritual for the length of my journey) and some clothes before setting up my tarp and chowing down on a dehydrated dinner. I slept like a baby that night.
Day Two – Friday, September 19, 2014
Bearpaw Meadow to Big Arroyo Junction – 11.5 Miles, + 3,775 Feet
I got a slow start on my second day. I was up with the sun at 6:30 (a theme throughout the trip) but did not get underway for 2 hours. Before setting out I walked down the hill towards the other backcountry sites to use the pit toilet. I was surprised by how many people were camped in the lower sites (if you take an earlier turn-off from the main trail you come to the lower sites first). There is a sign in the lower section noting that the water coming from the faucets needs to be filtered before drinking. Whoops. I wasn't that worried and never ended up feeling any ill effects.
From the High Sierra Camp you can see back into the valley, it was filled with mist. It would have been a cold damp morning at Buck Creek.
The mist would persevere all the way to Hamilton Lakes. It was unfortunate that I was not able to fully appreciate some of the incredible views on this section of the trail. Valhalla was mostly socked in and I was not able to get any good shots from the its best angle (between Lower and Upper Hamilton Lakes).
The upper lake is amazing. Unfortunately the lighting was poor as the sun was pouring over the Great Western Divide immediately beyond the lake washing out all of my photos. I strongly recommend anyone starting from the traditional trailhead push on to Hamilton Lakes on the first night. Perhaps my biggest regret of the trip is that I did not get to enjoy this Eden in the amazing light that the afternoon and evening were sure to afford. I took an extended break (just over an hour) waiting for the light to improve and the mist to clear. As the mist burned off I was able to get some good shots of Valhalla.
I passed a decent number of hikers on the way to Bearpaw Meadow. Once past the tent hotel, however, I would only see a handful of groups until I reached the John Muir Trail late on day four. I saw one of those groups, a really nice couple, at Hamilton Lake.
My long break had me beginning the steepest climb of the entire trip (2,600 feet in 3 ½ miles) at 11:45. Past the lake there would be no break from the beating sun until I reached the top. I suddenly found myself missing the mist I had cursed all morning. It was a brutal, albeit beautiful, climb. The trail is carved directly from the steep slope the entire way. At one point the trail builders even dug (or more likely blew) a tunnel directly through the rock. As I neared the top of my long slog the wind picked up. Clouds rolled in. I began to worry that a storm would hit as I was well above tree line.
I finally reached Precipice Lake at what seemed like the roof of the world. Unfortunately the largest group I would pass on the entire trip (a group of teenagers up from Five Lakes Basin) was milling around. The (not particularly friendly) crowd and the souring weather persuaded me to move on quickly. I did manage to get one great shot before scurrying off towards Kaweah Gap.
The gap was further than anticipated, perhaps due to my anxiety that the weather would turn. The terrain was interesting (at least for someone with little big western mountain experience) even if the gap itself was somewhat anti-climatic. As I cleared the gap at 3:00 and entered into Big Arroyo valley the weather began to clear.
Despite some negative comments online, Big Arroyo is breathtaking, particularly the upper valley with pines spread out over white rock, dramatic mountains on either side and a beautiful creek running down the center. Exhausted from the climb I realized that my original goal of making Moraine Lake was not going to happen. Having read plenty of trip reports I knew that Big Arroyo Junction was the best alternative campsite.
I reached camp at 5:15. I was the only one there and found a nice spot close to the river which caught the afternoon sun in a slot between the peaks above. I had only covered 11.5 miles, 8 miles short of my original goal for the day. The days climb was brutal and, despite having spent 3 days at Lake Tahoe, I was still adjusting to the altitude.
Day Three – Saturday, September 20, 2014
Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Valley – 18.0 Miles, + 1,563 Feet
I again awoke at 6:30 but did a much better job of getting underway. The first night on the trail had been warm, the second night was cold. On the bright side the cold morning urged me out of camp much faster (aided by better preparation the night before). I was back on the trail by 7:45. Good thing too, since I had some miles to make up.
Today would be the first secton of the trail with a net loss of elevation, although there is some climbing early to move from Big Arroyo to the Chagoopa Plateau.
Shortly after reaching the Plateau there is a side trail off the High Sierra Trail which heads to Moraine Lake. The side trip skips about 7 miles of the trail but only adds about ½ mile to the trip. Apparently this side trail doesn't miss any ‘must see’ portions of the main trail and Moraine Lake is worth checking out. At one point on the side trail I did have some trouble following the route. The trail goes through a sandy area and I wandered off in a drainage channel. It took me about 10 minutes to find my way back onto the path.
There is a nice lookout above Moraine Lake looking into the now much deeper Big Arroyo valley and across towards the Five Lakes Basin. I rolled into Moraine Lake around noon and took a time out for some much needed foot repair. I did need to pick some leeches off my feet after soaking them in the lake.
It is only a short jaunt from Moraine back to the High Sierra Trail and the long, at times steep, descent into Kern Canyon.
I was surprised by the thickness of the forest on the canyon floor. The character of the valley is interesting, changing from dense hardwood forest to an open sandy plain interspersed with pines and back again. I was discouraged when the trail turned to a talus slope along the valley’s western side. Fortunately it did not last long and soon the trail moves into an open plain. It is an easy walk from there to the Hot Springs.
I reached the Hot Springs at 3:30. There were a couple of guys there also doing the High Sierra Trail, but over 10 days. One of them had just gotten out of the ‘tub’ and it was still full of hot water. I really wanted to take a soak, but the day was getting late and I had only managed 14.5 miles thus far. I knew that if I climbed in I would not make it any further that evening. As a consolation prize I soaked my aching feet for 10 minutes before throwing my trail runners back on and heading up the trail.
By the time I pushed on it was nearly 4:00. Junction Meadow, the next established site, was 8 miles up the valley. I knew that I was not going to make it so I resolved to find a nice spot along the trail. At 5:45 I found the perfect spot in a sandy depression between the trail and the river. It would be my first scenic campsite. It was also the first time I would actually need the very heavy (2 ½ lb.) bear can I had been carrying for the last 47 miles.
As I was finishing up my nightly call to my wife (I rented a satellite phone for the trip) I saw flashes in the sky to the northeast. I quickly finished up my remaining tasks and climbed under my tarp. The wind began to pick up. Of course I would encounter the first real weather of the trip in the most open site I had camped in. Apparently the seamsmanship on my homemade tarp was due for a test. Soon the sky was lighting up like Fourth of July. I counted off the seconds between the flash and subsequent boom as the rain began to fall. Luckily I never got below 20 seconds before I nodded off to the sound of the rain beating on the silnylon over my head.
Day Four – Sunday, September 21, 2014
Kern Canyon to Guitar Lake – 16.0 Miles, + 4,832 Feet
I awoke several times during the night to the increasingly gentle patter of rain. When the new day dawned I was cold and ready to get underway as quickly as possible. The steep valley walls held back the sun, so moving was the only way to get warm. I reached Junction Meadow just after 9:00 where I met a pair of young guys doing the High Sierra Trail over 12 days. Looking at their packs and equipment (one of them even brought one-piece pajamas) I could see how it was taking them so long despite their being much younger and in much better shape than me.
Day four was all about climbing. It was not as steep as going over the Great Western Divide or as dramatic as summiting Whitney would be, but the climb from Kern Canyon to Guitar Lake is relentless. Every foot placed over the course of the day was higher than the foot before. By day’s end the trail climbed nearly 5,000 feet.
After Junction Meadow the trail veers to the east and the climb becomes more apparent. The sun had yet to clear the valley wall so the first portion was not that bad. Around 10:00 I finally felt the suns warming rays on my face. I started looking for a spot to break, dry my tarp and quilt and eat a hot meal. The intersection where a side trail split off to find the headwaters of the Kern proved to be the perfect spot. I took an extended break and did not get underway again until nearly 11:00.
My meal plan included at least one Mountain House freeze dried meal per day. In order to save weight, space in my bear can and to reduce the amount of garbage I had to lug around I repackaged all but two of my meals into grocery store produce bags and simply re-used the same Mountain House bag. It was at my mid-morning meal (the 5th use) that my first bag failed. It was the ‘zip lock’ seal on the inside that started to come loose. I could have continued to use it if need be but I only had one more freeze dried dinner which had not yet been repackaged.
In a dramatic shift from the cool of the morning the next section was hot. Few trees grow on the Kern Valley’s steep slopes and there is little respite from the sun’s burning rays. Every time I did find a tiny patch of shade I would stop, sip from my Camelback and catch my breath before plunging into the heat once more. As the trail climbs the Great Western Divide appears above the Chagoopa Plateau. It once again seemed so far away, except that this time it was to the west.
A waterfall near the end of the steep ascent provides a great opportunity to cool off. It would be the closest I got to a shower during the entire trip. I rinsed out and soaked my wool T-shirt to keep the heat at bay for the remainder of the day.
Around 1:00 I reached the junction of the High Sierra Trail with the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. The grade drops off considerably. As I neared Crabtree Meadow and the start of the Wag Bag zone I popped an Imodium. I had little desire to poop in a bag and carry it with me. If the need should arise I wanted it to be as solid as possible.
From the comfort of my couch in Boston I had considered a 6 to 12 mile side trip to Crabtree Lakes. On the trail I discounted even the thought of 0.4 mile out and back to the Crabtree Ranger Station.
Timberline Lake is beautiful. I wished there was camping there, of course its beauty was probably in part due to the lack of camping. The trail continued upward towards Guitar Lake.
For a large part of the afternoon I mistook another peak for Mount Whitney. It is one of those mountains that has a very different look based on the direction from which it is viewed so I had trouble figuring it out despite all of the trip reports and pictures I had viewed. Coming up her backside you get quite close before getting a clear view of the peak. As I closed in on Guitar Lake the correct peak was looming large before me.
As soon as I merged onto the John Muir Trail I noticed that there were a lot more people. I met a nice older gentleman with a 50 lb. pack at the stream right at the junction. I passed a pair of guys in from Los Angeles and a British fellow finishing a JMT thru-hike just below Timberline Lake. Even with all of these encounters in a short span of time, I was not prepared for what I saw at Guitar Lake. There were tents everywhere. By the end of the night there would be 15 tents around the lake. I hadn’t shared a campsite since Bearpaw Meadow, and even then I couldn’t actually see or hear anyone from my plot.
My original plan was to continue to the Tarn above Guitar Lake. I was tired but at 4:00 it was really early and I had another ½ mile in me easy. As I came down the rise before the lake, however, I ran into the perfect site. Right next to the trail there is a large flat boulder with a nice sheltered sandy spot behind it. I had been a bit worried about my tarp (I did not see a single other tarp camper on my entire trip) on the semi-sheltered banks of the Kern. I was more worried about how it would fare at almost 12,000 feet with no trees in sight should any weather roll in. I couldn’t pass up this site.
It was early enough that I was able to spend a leisurely afternoon getting to know some of the other people around the lake, including all of the gentlemen I had passed on my way in. I also met a fascinating character who had just completed the PCT. He was (probably) the first thru-hiker over Whitney this year, having passed through with crampons and ice axe in early May. Upon finishing his 7 months on the trail he headed back to do some of his favorite spots again rather than heading home.
You can catch a great sunset from the lower end of the Lake. I took my freeze dried lasagna to go and enjoyed it while watching the day disappear over the Great Western Divide. By the time I finished my dinner nearly the entire tent village had gone to bed. Good thing I had taken care of my chores earlier.
Day Five – Monday, September 22, 2014
Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal – 16 Miles, +3177 Feet
The last night on the trail was a cold one. I woke repeatedly through the night to adjust my quilt. I had set my alarm for 5:30 to get an early start on the summit. I promptly ignored it when the time came, getting up instead a 6:30 like every other day. I did, however, catch headlamps making their way towards the roof of the lower 48 in the pre-dawn hour.
There was a heavy frost that night. I prepared well the night before so I was underway by 7:00. Nothing motivates one to get moving like a brisk morning. Breakfast would wait until I had warmed up a bit. I found a headlamp on the side of the trail about a mile above Guitar Lake. I threw it in my pack hoping to find the owner later.
The first mile or so above Guitar Lake is fairly easy, but the grade increases soon enough. The trail gains over 2,000 feet in the three miles to the junction with the Mt Whitney Trail. It is almost as steep as the climb to Kaweah Gap, albeit much cooler in the early morning. The junction was a welcome sight. There were a lot of packs sitting there at 9:00 in the morning. Still, it felt good to add my pack to the pile for the 4 mile out and back to the summit.
For most of the trip I would only carry 16 ounces of water in my pack at a time. To make this possible I would drink my fill directly from the filter each time I stopped to refill the reservoir. Even in this dry year there was plenty of water flowing to make this system work. Whitney, however, was going to be different. There would not be a water source between Guitar Lake and Trail Camp nearly 10 miles away. I filled up with 68 ounces for the climb and took 20 ounces in my camp cup (AKA Gatorade bottle) with me from the Whitney Trail junction.
From junction with the Mt Whitney Trail to the Summit is more of a traverse than a climb. Despite not carrying a pack, I found myself really feeling the 14,000 feet as I made my way below Mt Muir and The Needles. There are some great rock formations along this section of the trail. The roof of the Summit House was a welcome site as I made my up the hump that forms the western side of Whitney’s peak. I stopped everyone I passed heading back from the Summit to see if they had lost a headlamp. I had tied it to the top of my pack back at the Mt Whitney Trail Junction. I eventually found the owner to be one of the guys from L.A. I had met around Timberline Lake.
I reached the highest point in the continental US at 10:30. There were a lot of people at the summit, primarily having come the short (but steep) way from Whitney Portal. It felt good to have made it. My victory lap and obligatory photos took about ½ hour. I met a girl from South Burlington VT where I lived for many years and where my wife grew up, small world.
The trip back to the Mt Whitney Trail Junction is a breeze. I passed a couple of girls who made the climb in giant feather boas to celebrate one of their birthdays. I would meet their friend (also boa’ed) and one of their mothers before the day came to a close. I did also pass a number of individuals who did not look like they should be on that mountain and about whom I was a bit worried.
There is a short climb from the junction of the Mt Whitney Trail to Trail Crest and the eastern side where the real descent begins. In the 12 miles from the Summit to Whitney Portal the Trail descends a whopping 6,000 feet. Most of the descent happens in the 97 switchbacks carved out of the 2.5 miles between Trail Crest and Trail Camp. The switchbacks are amazing. At times it feels like you are in an MC Escher drawing as it is tough to tell if hikers in the maze of switchbacks below are coming or going.
It felt good to clear the last switchback and head into Trail Camp. Speaking of Trail Camp, damn was that place crowded, even late in the season. I would not recommend staying here unless you were heading up from the east. I had a bit of water left so I did not even stop. My bowels were starting to loosen and I was eager to find a toilet I did not have to carry with me.
Just as a cleared the camp I saw a young guy sitting atop a rock on the right side of the trail. He did not look good. “Do you have any water?” he called out. Apparently he was really feeling the altitude on his way up with some friends and decided to stay behind at Trail Camp while they made for the summit. He did not have enough water on him and his buddies took the filter with him. Of course, Trail Camp was probably the only place I passed that I would absolutely not trust the water without treatment. I let him know that I only had a little but that I would be happy to filter some for him. There was a lake only 100 yards away. I was going to head for it but he said there was more water down the trail. Turns out it was nearly a mile before the trail crossed a stream. The walk did give me a chance to get to know the guy, a pre-school teacher from Orange County, a little better before we reached the stream. He looked a lot better after he got some water in him and we parted ways.
Having been in the direct sun since reaching the Summit and having not taken a break since the top I was anxious for some shade. I was glad to finally see some pines after being above tree line for 24 hours. I took a break at the first shady copse I passed, just above Mirror Lake.
The 3.8 miles from Outpost Camp to the Whitney Portal seemed like they would never end. I had barely eaten all day. In fact I did not eat much during the entire trip. I brought 3,300 calories per day with me. I barely ate half. After all of my efforts to lighten my load, carrying 4 lbs. of excess food off of the trail with me stung. Now the lure of a burger and beer at the Portal Store were driving me on. I also wanted a toilet more and more with each step. Coming down it is difficult to actually see the Portal until you are nearly on top of it. On the final miles all of the soreness from the last 5 days bubbled up to the surface. I was ready to see the trail end when I finally rolled into the Portal at 5:00.
79 miles and 16,000 feet in 5 days; I had come a long way since my first 6-day solo trip 4 years prior where I barely made 30 miles with my 53 lb. load. I felt like I had graduated from an amateur to a real backpacker. It was an amazing trip. I highly recommend the High Sierra Trail.
10/12 - Edited to correct the misidentification of the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the Mt Whitney Trail as "Trail Crest".
10/15 - Edited for style based on feedback.