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The High Sierra Trail (8/1/1998-8/15/1998)


The High Sierra Trail runs 71 miles from Crescent Meadow on the West side of the Sierra to Mount Whitney on the East side. From Mount Whitney to the road is an 11mile trail called the Mt. Whitney trail. The trek is 82 miles if you bag the peak, 78 miles if you do not. The High Sierra is considered THE east-west trail much as the JMT is considered THE north-south route.

The winter of 1998 was unlike any I had experienced. Snow was 200-300% of normal and was melting late. Streams were torrents and rivers impassible. I already had two hikes scrubbed because of the weather.

For three months I had checked everything available on the conditions. I prepared for ice, snow and raging river crossings. I read the reports of the few PCT thru hikers who had braved the sierra. Most did not and simply skipped this section. It was clear that winter conditions existed in the sierra as of late July. We needed to prepare for that


Start-Crescent Meadow to Hamilton Lake


.The first 14 or so miles of the High Sierra trail is along the Middle Fork Kaweah River. The Kaweah is the major drainage South of the Kings and West of the Kern. Its headwaters are along a ridge of mountains called the Great Western Divide that run from Triple Divide Peak where the drainage of the Kings, Kern and Kaweah meet all the way South through Mineral King. It is rugged beautiful country. The trail is essentially level as it crosses the Kaweah Tributaries of Panther, Mehrton, Nine Mile and Buck Creeks.

In slightly less than a mile we reach Eagles View, a point where we can see all the way up the valley to the Great Western divide. Of course there is a better view from Moro Rock, just behind us. This section is open because of the Buckeyee Flat fire several years ago. Only once in the many times I have hiked this trail had the air been clear. That was 12 years ago before the fire. Now the smog from Fresno has ruined the view of the Valley.

Panther Creek crosses the trail in five (5) places. They are all simple walk acrosses.  After 5 miles we meet Mehrton Creek, the first difficult water crossing. It is noon and the water is low. A simple step across. However, if you blow it, it is several hundred feet down the cliff. I climb next to the creek and find the campsites empty. These are the first campsites with a bearbox. They are small, slanted and usually filled with campers.  The snow covered Great Western Divide is to the east and the ridge that separates the valley from Mineral King is to the South. Cathedral Peak stands imposingly across the valley. It is still smoggy but I say nothing.


 We are on the trail early and across Mehrton Creek. The flat trail continues up the valley and the Great Western Divide gets closer. Soon Nine-Mile Creek has come and gone-a walk across! At Buck Creek is a brand new bridge. The last 1/2 mile to Bearpaw is a 600' uphill.  For those who don't know, Bearpaw High Sierra Camp provides food, tent cabins, showers and flush toilets 11 1/2 miles down the High Sierra Trail. Reservations are hard to get and very expensive.


After breakfast we leave for Hamilton Lake. Wildflowers are 3 feet high as we traverse the river canyon beyond BearPaw. We drop to Lone Pine Creek to find another new bridge, then climb to Hamilton Falls. The trail crosses the creek BETWEEN the falls. You must ford the stream and the rushing water from the upper falls. If you screw up you slide down the lower falls hundreds of feet.

Middle Hamilton Lake is a classic glacially formed lake. To the North is Angel Wings. To the South is the massive ridge called Valhalla. East is the top of the glaciers travel, the flanks of Eagle Scout Peak. It is 3000' up in three directions. On the west is a long trickling waterfall from the uppermost Hamilton Lake. Try to imagine the alpine glow on three sides. Got It? OK, now multiple this by two! It was a full moon and the moonlight illuminated Angel Wings. Moon glow is even more spectacular than sun glow

By dinner empty Hamilton Lake is full of campers. Every possible site is taken. 


Middle-Hamilton Lake to Kern Hot Springs


We have crossed Hamilton Creek and are drying our feet preparing for the climb to Kaweah Gap.

The switchbacks go SFU. After two hours we aren't any closer to Kaweah Gap than we started but we gained lots of altitude. We take a break and level off to a gentle ascent to Hamilton Gorge. At one time, in the 30's, there was a bridge across the gorge. It was wiped out be an avalanche so the Park Service built a tunnel across the gorge. As we climb towards the tunnel a lone hiker approaches us. His backpack is huge. He isn't using the hip belt and is only using one shoulder strap yet he is walking at triple our speed. He is from Nepal and arranges tours for a living. Mountains? What mountains?? He shoots past us. I am reminded that, no matter how far, how fast or how long you walk, someone is always stronger, faster and more dedicated.

We go on to Upper Hamilton Lake. It is right on the edge of the precipice and ought to be named Precipice Lake. There is a little snowfield just before the lake Soon the snow is solid. . At Precipice Lake, almost 500' higher we are exhausted but make good time across snowfields and snowbridges across water. The snow lessens and we reach a bowl where the trail is invisible.  Working forward in the direction we must  we find and climb a little ridge --Kaweah Gap, 10,700. We have crossed the Great Western Divide

The guy from Nepal, is planning to cross the Kaweah range [13000 foot peaks] via a cross country col called Pants Pass [it is called Pants Pass because it its pure loose scree and one slides down on his pants]. We take the High Sierra that goes south, around this mountain range.

Big Arroyo is a side valley of the Kern. It runs between the 13000' Kaweah Range to the east and the Great Western Divide on the West. At 10,500' the 13,000' peaks look small. Down valley is easy walking. Late in the day we  ford Big Arroyo Creek. Finally we arrive at our destination, the junction of several trails where an old cabin

The Big Arroyo trail junction is where the High Sierra Trail junctions with the trail down the Big Arroyo and with the trail to Little Five Lakes and Black Rock Pass. Several years ago I hiked over Franklin Pass from Mineral King, then over a plateau down to the Big Arroyo Trail


The trail climbs the northeast wall of Big Arroyo. Looking over and down I can see Rattlesnake Creek, Lost Canyon and the Big and Little Five Lakes basins. It sure looks steep. I musta been in good shape back then when I hike the area. The trail crests at 10,700' at a little pond. Kaweah Peak looks small even though it is a 13000+ peak. In fact the entire Kaweah range is less than impressive. Sorta little hills. Course I have been viewing them from above 10,000'.

The Chagoopa Plateau is a disappointment. I have checked the snow pillow regularly to find about snow melt and I expected a lush plateau with magnificent vistas. Instead I have scattered trees, bare dirt with a few ground plants and a red hill in the background {the red hill is Kaweah Peak}.

At the trail junction we take the spur loop to Moraine Lake. More dirt and scattered tree cover but the lake appears soon. No one is at the camp. The wind off the lake blows the bugs away. No mosquitoes!! Checking the lake, I find the water quite warm. Everyone takes a welcome swim. The view of Mineral King across the lake is lovely. It is a relaxing camp. By nightfall no one has shown up. We have this huge camping area and the entire lake to ourselves.


I considered a layover day at Moraine Lake because it  was so wonderful. Our next stop, Kern Hot Springs, is sure to be crowded. We rejoin the High Sierra trail making good time on the flat plateau and reach the lip of the Kern trench. The direction is SFD. Fortunately, the switchbacks are very good. At the bottom the going gets tougher. Working up the Kern is real work. We are following an overgrown trail. The trail gets boggier and boggier. We work over logs and fight for solid ground. The trail is now a tributary of the Kern. This is taking forever. Finally we cross Chaoogopa Creek and spy dry trail . The scenery is beautiful; lovely ferns and Chagoopa Falls in the background

We reach the bridge across the Kern. It is intact. Looking at the Kern there is no way we could have crossed it. Another dry manzanita section awaits us followed by an unwanted stream crossing.  We reach the hot springs and look around for campsites. The first we find are less than stellar but we soon fine a fine spot. We also find a pit toilet! It is 1 PM. There is no one but us here.

 Kern Hot Springs is an improved version of nature. Someone has constructed a concrete bathtub. Water from the hot spring enters through a small pipe. It is too hot for me. I use the wooden stopper to stem the flow. My son empties buckets of cold river water into the tub until it is just right. It takes time to figure out how the Hot Springs exactly works. You need to picture this. The Hot Springs is set in a small meadow next to the rushing Kern River. I am sitting next to the Kern River taking a hot bath. No mosquitoes, the wind is too high


End-Kern Hot Springs to Whitney Portal


Today is anticlimactic. The ford of Whitney Creek is exciting but not difficult. It is fast running water thigh deep but our dual hiking poles work very well. Everyone crosses easily. . Later, another hiker crosses Whitney Creek without poles. He goes in up to his neck and needs to be fished out. He has a nasty gash from his fall. You get my point?

Wallace Creek is even more exciting than Whitney Creek. The water is so strong that we have a bow wave from our knees to our belt. This gets our shorts wet but little more. Again four feet make all the difference. Most people, and some of our party, cross on a log.

We are at Junction Meadow. There is a lone lady here. She came over Pants Pass. She talked about the loose scree. One time TV sized boulders gave way underneath her Very dangerous she said. Every step she took caused a landslide..


We rise early to climb out of the Kern. Past Junction Meadow the trail claims about 900'. The Kern is one massive rapids here. Originally we were scheduled to continue up the Kern Headwaters and out over Forrester or Shephard Pass but snow considerations nixed this idea. As we climb the Colby Pass area comes into view. Fantastic. Another year. We turn away from the Kern and continue climbing up Wallace Creek. The views get better. The once dinky Kaweah Range now rises 5000' from the Kern and is very impressive. Behind it Mineral King and the Great Western Divide form a backdrop.  We ford Wright Creek, the last difficult crossing. No Problem. By 10AM we have reached the John Muir Trail. We rock-hop Wallace Creek and climb some more.

The Whitney area is very high. From Wallace Creek we climb and traverse some ridges that can only be glacial moraine -- as unbelievable as that is at 11,000'. The entire Bighorn Plateau --the area between Wallace Creek and Forrester Pass comes into view. It looks lots like Chagoopa Plateau and I am not so sorry I am heading for Whitney. Traversing these moraine ridges, however is not fun. We camp just north of Crabtree Meadow at the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the trail from Cottonwood Pass. Guitar Lake is less than 3 miles away


We are on the trail to Guitar Lake. It is a 900' climb. Timberline Lake is wonderful. There are awesome views in all directions. Guitar Lake is not as ugly as we'd heard but we head for a meadow above it. We set up camp next to a flowing stream on the flank of Mt Whitney. Looking up one sees precariously balanced rocks that would devastate our campsite if they ever tried to fall. Down the cliff is Guitar Lake and beyond is the Kaweah range and beyond that Mineral King and the Western Divide.


We are ready to go well before it is light enough. As expected, at 5:40 we start up the trail. We climb to the upper plateau and are soon on long, well graded switchbacks. Most Sierra Passes have rocky switchbacks with 1-2' steps. Not these. It is easy walking. At 13,100 my altimeter poops out. I continue, not knowing how far I need to go. Dawn brings a magnificent view back across the 70 miles we have hiked.

The switchbacks are anticlimactic. By 7:30 we are at the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the Mt. Whitney Trail. We say goodbye to those wanting to climb the peak  and head to trail crest. After a short scramble over a rock slide we arrive at the Crest 13,700'. The views either west or east are unbelievable. It is clear and sunny.

From Trail Crest 13,700 to Trail Camp are 96 or so unbelievably well graded switchbacks. Until last week they were covered with snow and people climbing the peak took the snow field.  There is still lots of snow on the switchbacks requiring many detours. Our poles are a godsend. About halfway down we start meeting dayhikers. They are a different bunch seeking to pit their strength against the mountain. After two weeks we are more or less in harmony with the mountain. We say hi and pass quickly.

Conventional wisdom says you must be off the summit by 2PM to make it back to your car. It is 10AM and we are most of the way down the switchbacks. It is at least a four climb to the summit yet the dayhikers still come. At Trail Camp we take a break and try out the solar toilet. Nice.

The weather is turning. I don't want to be at 12,000' in a lightning storm. We start down to Outpost Camp. The well groomed trail has been replaced by the usual rocky staircase. It is beginning to rain. We meet the Ranger coming up the trail. He is telling everyone to "Get the hell off the mountain".

It is raining hard and I am wet. The trail is hard. I am slipping on the wet stone. Finally we reach Outpost Camp. We pick one campsite then change our mind and take another. Mistake! Before we can get our tent up the hail storm starts. Two inches of hail falls in 1 minute. We struggle into our tent while high winds threaten to blow the tent down the mountain. I am cold, wet and have a headache from the altitude. I change clothes and wait out the storm, huddled with my family. For three hours the storm doesn't let up! Lat that afternoon we break camp and head down to Whitney Portal. The end.

We have crossed the Sierra 80 miles. For Jonathan Breen, the PCT thruhiker who traversed the Sierra this year, the distance was a pittance. Still, I am reminded of the guy from Nepal. We didn't go far. We didn't go long but we went.

-- Tom Reynolds

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