Trip report: the Sierra Mountains gave everything and took all I had.

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tl;dr:

Amazing area: many flowers, trees, peaks, rivers, rocks, lakes, bridges, vast vistas, lizards, butterflies, and critters with bonus snake and bear sightings. Trail varied from rocks to forest to lush, humid, mini-jungles. But mostly rocks. Nice, brief conversations with others. (-;

Trail kicked my ass with heat and elevation lost/gain: pondering severe intake issues plus training missteps and shoe comfort and stretching.

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Long version:

I was going to stay the night car camping at Lodgepole, in Sequoia National Park, but told them to give up my site since it was easy to secure a backpacking permit on Thursday – so I just changed, packed, and got to it, happy to get what I thought would be 3 nights, and less mileage, vs originally planned 2 nights. A bit of a late start, maybe by 11:30a I had driven to the trailhead and was ready.

The amazing High Sierra Trail out of Crescent Meadow (near Moro Rock in beautiful Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park) looks far easier on maps that it was in person – it seems most of the trail is 7200′ with major landmarks and campsite at 7600′, unfortunately the overall elevation gain is MUCH more as the path loses anywhere from 50 to 500 feet over and over… and over again – all of which had to be gained back and in VERY warm weather under a clear sky of a brutally hot and demoralizing sun. I didn’t weigh, but let’s assume I was carrying 26 lbs plus small gadgets and varying amounts of minimal water that I mostly filtered as I went.

Day 1: The first six miles of dirt paths that head up and down mostly in pine forests but hugging steep drops and offer EXPANSIVE views of the stretch of peaks making up the southern Great Western Divide across the green valley below where the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River tumbles. Some sections of the trail were blasted out of steep granite cliffs and the mostly one-person-width walks are not for the faint of heart but are very rewarding view-wise on outside turns and with falling water on inside turns. I passed a threesome of peeps in their 60s or 70s that were very slow but smiling! (I saw them again on day 3) The trail continues to meander up and down and in and out – sometimes under a pine canopy, sometimes out to views, sometimes through thick plants, crossing washes frequently but only about once per mile was the water significant enough to filter.

Some of the larger creeks had a few campsites nearby, and one of the washes had very dense brush and a medium-sized black bear in a lovely cinnamon color just a few feet from me – too busy lazily bringing down large branches with ease to eat off berries or whatever (I backed slowly up the trail, warily enjoying the sight – bears are hungry this time of year and encounters are frequent). I gave a heads up to a couple of guys hiking in the opposite direction about the bear. I had short comments with a couple of girls as we routinely saw each other first two days – they stayed near “9 mile creek” and I kept walking…

One of the largest elevation losses early on is into Buck Canyon at about 10 miles in – a long, long run of boulders with cool Buck Creek bouncing down – and then, crossing a foot bridge, the trail is often brutally steep to gain back that 500ft to eventually arrive at Bearpaw Meadow (after many a curse that the trail never seemed to end – this was a SLOG to end the day), which is supposedly 11.4 miles from the trailhead (it felt more, my GPS said more, but my GPS can also bounce while I’m resting in canyons). I had talked for a while with a healthy looking group of four that were staying the night at Buck with plans to do some climbing later in their trip – “See you at Hamilton!”

The buildings of the high Sierra camp have great views – the tent campsites are down a short but steep hill (my thighs were shaking with fatigue at this point) with no view in a dense pine forest by a muddy streak that used to be a creek but mostly filled with the buzz of unwanted-type of insects. It was nearly dark, so I quickly found two suitable trees to hang from for the night, threw my stuff into a bear box (note to self: ask rangers why do I need to carry 2+ lbs of bear canister when there are bear boxes everywhere), forced down some fish/crackers/dried cheese, and went to bed after a solo male admired my stickered bear can. I saw him later the next day – he seemed in no hurry and always arrived in the afternoons.

Day 2: I woke with the sun and headed out early with only a small snack. I have no appetite when exercising, and my intake issues will manifest terribly on day 3… Climbing out of camp and continuing past the Bearpaw area I could see people eating in the dining area and I enjoyed a quiet moment looking out at the incredible jagged peaks across the valley while a deer walked about munching on choice greenage and keeping one eye on me. There is another decent, but this part is really stunning. There is a lot of moisture still coming down the mountains (this area is kind of shelf, and I have hiked/camped at two places higher up – another shelf around 8-9k feek to Alta Meadow and over the pass at Pear Lake, Alta Peak providing a lot of run off). I thought I was in a jungle – the vegetation was DENSE and smelled green and was humid. Alive with various insects, bees were busy on plenty of flowers (the wide variety surprised me for August!) and butterflies floated about without a care as I pushed my way through the encroached trail, often jumping over mud and enjoying the sounds of falling water (but also catching spider threads in the face frequently) – one of the springs was DELISH!

Another major descent on rocks and down steps to a bridge that crosses Lone Pine Creek when it is crunched into a thin, deep chasm: so the bridge view was of a series of falls and blue-green pools between steep grey granite walls (including the ruins of a failed steel bridge smashed against rocks below). Luckily, I got here in the morning when the steep climb was still shaded because the trail AGAIN climbs, this time up switchbacks and, once you reach a watchful tree on the edge of the cliff before coming round the bend south to head again east, the path frustratingly heads DOWN to cross Hamilton Creek where it falls wide and shallow over rounded granite shelves (MANY lizards were disturbed), then climbing a bit past the nice roar of Hamilton Falls (Google maps shows this named “Valhalla”).

A few more rocky switchbacks, each, again, marked with a twisted tree (which I began to refer to as Sentinals as I enjoyed their varying personalities while resting in their blessed shade) until reaching the lower lake. A rest in a bit of overhang shade to snack and enjoy the tumbling water that feeds the lake which is green, surrounded by green, but below an impossibly steep granite wall to super steep peaks like a white crown 2000′ above. A few more ups and I arrive at Hamilton Creek. This is “ONLY” 4.5 miles from Bearpaw, but felt like 8: the loss and gain of elevation was brutal (more difficult on the way out, I must say).

Hamilton Lake is truly peace on earth. I mucked about for a long while looking for a spot to camp – but many trees were sparsely spaced, in a restoration area, or falling over dead. I settled on an area RIGHT on the trail next to the first bear box to hang my hammock then walked to the lake and spent the rest of the afternoon lazily by the shores in the granite bowl – resting, wading, eating, sitting and enjoying the view. It was impossible to not feel content in this place. I cannot overstate it’s loveliness. The two women from the day before arrived, set up a single tent, and also relaxed by the lake before starting a day hike. Then the foursome I’d talked with the day before arrived staggered. The men had short dips in the cool water, and after they were done planning a climbing route one of the women ditched clothes and backstroked to a spot across the lake to lay naked on a strip of rock. Some others came and went. It was peaceful and quiet. Time stood still.

Day 2.5: Eventually, wanting to be in no hurry to depart such a perfect location, I assembled a day pack and headed up an amazing amount of switchbacks that climb the northern shores through brush. Sure, the lake started to look smaller and farther below, but I seemed to be going nowhere – and it was hot in the sun. “I must have gone a mile” – gps says .6. “I must have gone two miles” – gps says 1.2. Sweet Christmas, I was moving slow.

FINALLY the trail starts to just climb mostly straight east at a less steep incline and the goal starts to look closer… Then the trail hits a granite wall again and a tall, “sheer-walled avalanche chute known as Hamilton Gorge” (from the NPS website). They are not kidding. No one with fear of heights could walk here. The trail is blasted into the walls with bits raised up by rocks held by rebar. There used to be a steel bridge in 1932 – but in 1937 a giant avalanche pulled it down and left it in ruins – the concrete foundations are still on the trail on either side of the gorge, and after a stomach-turning view down you turn and see that the Civilian Conservation Corp blasted a ton of rock and now you walk on a crazy ledge including a small tunnel. Oof! SCARY RIDE!

But it’s over quickly and it’s back to climbing – sometimes still long stretches through cute washes and stairs of trickling cascades until it’s really just rocks and shrubs that can live with less soil. Some marmots scared the crap out of me when I’d turn a sharp corner and they’d streak off the trail. Other backpackers were coming down and a ranger gave me a sideways glance – I acknowledged I was moving slow and fully expected to be coming down in the dark: “At least you expect it.” There is a sweet little lake that was a real dick: here there were a lot of rocky switchbacks and the entire time it shined the falling sun into my face like a spotlight – bright sun from the side and below.

Finally, I got over the next lip and beheld the unique majesty of Precipice Lake. Whoa, dude. It’s a mirror for me with the lowering sun (I have seen pix where it’s blue). It rests at 10300′ and it’s north wall is a SHEER slice of granite streaked with melt from the impossibly steep Eagle Scout Peak and surrounding cliffs of balanced stacks of rocks where there is still a pile of snow. Amazing. I have to tell you that I was struck that I’d “been” here before, if only in words: this surely used to be the location of West-gate of Moria. Somewhere, now lost, must lay the ruins of the Elven Door…

Anyhow, though I was clearly doing to lose the sun, it was clear Kaweah Gap (10700′) wasn’t far so I pushed through a few more rocky switchbacks and then it was a surprisingly easy, straight trail through low grasses in a series of small lakes – a quiet meadow at 10500′! After a tiny final ascent, I enjoyed being well inside the Great Western Divide and thought this a weird place: this pass was not steep, but it was a gentle slope to the wide, open valley of Big Arroyo below with a lake on the left (north) and the Big Arroyo waters shining it’s winding way south – and on the other side some more steep peaks with water falling from lakes somewhere out of my view above.

I turn around. The sun is setting and the shadows are reaching toward me. There is a chill wind now, but it’s welcome after a hot day. The wildlife changed and pikas were everywhere – their cute round bodies squeaking an alarm after their wee round ears judged me too noisy. I kinda of consider them the kodama of the granite mountains – little hamster-ish rock spirits. Do a Google search for ‘pika’ – you’ll like it.

In theory, this was only 8+ miles r/t – I was too slow, IMO, and the first 2 miles felt much longer both up and down. As I headed back to camp, I was quickly tired of walking on rocks on the switches past the lakes. The sunset was lovely – the afternoon brought some old fire smoke haze in so the rays broke around jagged peaks dramatically. Then all the granite walls on my right turned pink. Then the sun was gone. I made it down the switches and across the alpine stretch again but eventually stopped for a snack and to put on my headlamp. By the time I got to the scary cliffside trail and tunnel I was in the dark. I am unsure if that made it better (to not see the fall) or not…

The endless switchbacks back to the lake were no less enjoyable down: still the overwhelming feeling of not getting anywhere and that it must be longer than 2 miles, but now the bright full moon was casting shadows in front of me, often freaking me out, and my headlamp would catch eyes from time to time (mostly deer, I think). I could not make out the various sentinel trees at switchback corners, but I was pretty head down to watch my steps, cursing when rocks slid out beneath me and relenting a laugh when I misjudged a water crossing and filled my right toes with mud. FINALLY back to the creek where Hamilton Lake drains, jumped across some rocks, stowed my gear, and climbed into my hammock without dinner about 10pm. Whew.

Day 3: Have I mentioned it was hot? I’m sure, but it was also warm every night. This is totally weird to me and not the norm for backpacking in elevation, even in the summer and even a lower than 10k. Actually, last August I did a single night to Chicken Spring Lake (lovely) out of the Horseshoe Meadow area, and it was for real 80F at that lake at 10k. So… if you can find a non-monsoon time in August, you can expect summer weather in the southern High Sierras.

I didn’t bring a lightweight, long sleeve shirt. Mistake. I didn’t need to bring my rainfly and never hung it. I was toasty in my 0 degree bag. I was comfy and hung out for a bit – climbing back into bed after a pee. (-: I could hear others mucking about and bear boxes opening and closing. Eventually, I got up and ate a solid breakfast. I walked about a bit and an antlered deer wandered by camps while a few of us watched in silence, nodding a good morning to each other. Then I went back to bed to recoop. I hadn’t really slept well – my feet in a solid ache. Without dinner or many snacks, my body needed to recover and had not been able to overnight. After a couple more hours rest I felt a better, packed up, and headed out.

You know, this is supposed to be down but I swear I went up more often than not on the return trip. Only 2 miles in I was near tears in the heat as exhaustion set in early. The climb back up to Bearpaw was even less amusing than the way in, though I did enjoy the bits of shade and tasty spring water and a snake sighting (research says a Striped Racer, kinda like a whip snake: dark body with bright yellow stipes down its length) – plus some views were clearer as the smoke seemed to leave every night, but return in the afternoon (which it did later).

I stopped at Buck Canyon and put my now severely aching feet in the cool water, sitting under the bridge (in the shade) like a sad, skinny, dirty troll. I filtered water and chilled for a bit while another solo hiker finished filling and continued onward. It wasn’t to last – I had places to be and I was only about 6 miles into the day. I reluctantly put on my shoes and pack and braced myself to make the climb. A few ‘hellos’ and ‘hi, how are you’s and my reply was often ‘hot, but it’s stunning’ – ‘yes and yes’ was the frequent agreement. I started passing the same creeks and camps and washes from two days before and had to take breaks at each one to rest my feet. I do not think there were many through hikers (50 miles to Whitney). Most were out for 2 to 5 nights, or day hiking from Bearpaw (if you pay $300 for a 3-room tent/cabin you don’t have to carry shelter or food, so they got well into the wilderness without backpacking), and everyone seemed pleased as punch to be there.

When would I get to my goal, Mehrten, which is something like 10.5 miles from Hamilton Lake? Only one jerk didn’t move for me (uphill, and packs, have right of way) but everyone else was pleasant. I was really wearing down. Finally I arrived at Mehrten Creek and tried to understand the sign about where campsites were in my tired state. After mucking about along the creek on a short use trail, I couldn’t figure where the camp was – then I lost my footing on slick granite. I didn’t fall, but I did sit down and cry. I was completely worn out. I came back out a few feet, and there was what looked like another use trail going straight up the slope: I don’t mean it was an incline, I mean it was really steep. Actually, there were two spots like this. This can’t be right – what kind of camp would make me climb up slippery rock and loose scree? I went about half up one, I saw a tent. Wow, I thought, really? I could barely get down: my tired legs were in no condition for balancing acts. I tried the lower bit, which did appear to be correct, though totally unmarked and clearly not maintained. I have to tell you: these were VERY short but for my condition way, way too steep. I started to head up, and after 10 climbing steps I lost my footing on scree. I sat and cried – what maniac would put a campsite up here? How was I supposed to get up and down it carrying weight? And to get to water to filter? I came down crouching nearly on my butt – and my foot slid out again. FUCK THIS PLACE. I was very pissed off and for real too tired to deal. I said it aloud “I have nothing else to give, I need to stop and rest, why can’t I?”

Supposedly, the sign said, there was a bear box and ~5 camp spots up there, at least one occupied that I had spied, but I couldn’t understand the whole situation (I found these notes online after: “80′ elevation above the trail and 40 yards west of the creek.” / “the box is entirely invisible from the trail” / “a 15′ face above the trail” / “One box 40 feet above” http://www.climber.org/data/BearBoxes/HS02.html). I have no idea what mean person decided this was reasonable campsite to get to or why rangers didn’t think it was difficult in any way / not worth mentioning to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d find a suitable place for a hammock even if I solved this puzzle. I must again say that it doesn’t seem other people hate it as much as me, though they do find it confusing and weird or never found the bear box. I resolved to grumpily ask rangers about it next I saw them (I haven’t yet). I was not in any condition to do a scramble – I do NOT do scrambles when I am fresh or carrying weight because I HATE scrambles and loose footing, I was not able to at all now.

I sat and cried for a while then repacked: charged my GPS, made my headlamp accessible, pulled some more snacks, filtered some water, and set off with tears in my eyes: somehow, I was going to have to hike an additional 6 miles back to the trailhead with painful feet, weak leg muscles, and failing sunlight. Luckily, the next three miles were mostly dirt and slowly downhill. I stopped every 3/4 mile or so for a foot break when I reached a wash. Then the trail climbs again about 400′ in a mile. I had a full mini breakdown. I really had nothing to give and didn’t know what I needed to do to end this madness.

I was aware that my surroundings were still pretty, and it was nicely quiet as all other people and birds were settling in for the evening, but I was head-down and pushing with everything I had. The sides of the mountains were steep so there was really no safe place to hammock along the way, I thought. Plus, I was ‘over’ it. I steeled my will and pushed through the next mile. I saw a raven and said “good evening” – some other small birds were rather dismayed I was near their evening hideouts. Then for a half mile I descend, but it’s not much relief because my feet are in so much pain that my hands are fists and I am sometimes gasping. The next 3/4 mile is up. There’s a spot where I am on crooked rocks on a cliff and honestly didn’t know how I’d make over those 5 steps because I wasn’t sure I had enough muscle strength to balance well. I begged the trail to stop the torture and it replied with peaceful silence… So I rested shortly after with a planned snack, but mosquitoes found me and I swear bit my butt while I took a leak. Fuckers. I ate as I walked and reminded myself there was just over a mile left.

Finally, Eagle’s View was there – it’s the one mile marker. There a smidge more up, but then it’s wider, packed dirt down into Crescent Meadow to the parking lot. The sun is nearly gone, the sky is a bit orange, it is so damned quiet. I am leaned over – my 6’1″ frame probably only 5′ as I am just trying to fall forward at this point. Fuck. I have never been this exhausted… well, my feet were KILLING me and I did cry coming down Whitney – but that was 22 miles and the last time I wore boots (trail runners FTW). I remind myself that I am finishing something like 16.5 miles on the day AND carrying weight.

My right hip has decided to get in on the action and now I am limping. The trail turns and there is asphalt – only hundred or two feet to the car. There it is – yet no relief. I am still walking, barely, to a bear box to get some smelly stuff I had stashed (keep those things out of your car!) then to the my vehicle where, finally, I can drop pack. I am not really happy or feeling better – I am in a fair amount of pain. I change right there, I really can’t care about anything. What do I care if someone else see me in my underwear? What care I for the bear ~20 feet away sniffing around cars?

A few day hikers are coming back late as well and a couple without a car missed the bus. I’m an asshole and say I don’t have room – I mean, I mostly don’t: PuttPutt is small and I also had car camping stuff, but I could have smushed them in with effort. I felt bad about it quickly – I mean, she was like “it’s dark and we missed the bus and there’s a bear” so it was mean to be all ‘I don’t have room and I just wanna leave the park not drive people around’. I would have taken them once I gathered myself – luckily, some additional late hikers did take them (larger car). Hopefully karma doesn’t get too mad at me. I was pretty grumpy but they didn’t deserve that, they were kinda scared.

I do manage a smile that one group of young women have all their phones out to tape the bear – who is pretending that it’s not interesting the cars (“Oh, me? Nothing, just hanging out in the brush…”). The bear walks off slowly, everyone gets into their cars, we all leave. I am still near tears – that was too little food and too many miles with too little stretching and maybe a poor decision at the end to keep walking instead of finding a different camping spot.

Why is this dickhead tailgating me? We all have to wait for a construction light in a couple miles anyhow. Fucker. I decided fast food was the best bet, then no one would have to smell me – I was FILTHY from sweating uphill and dirt trails during the last 9.5 hours. I drove past my usual Three Rivers Comfort Inn and hoped I could remember where hotels were in Visalia (I don’t have a data plan). I call my man, he tries to calm me down and make sense of where I pulled over and gave me directions. I love this guy. <3 Unfortunately, no vacancies at Hampton Inn. They nicely give me a list of hotels with street addresses - and apparently Google Maps app will work w/o data and GPS only. I try Comfort Inn - one room and they wanna charge me $180 or something crazy. I drive back and try La Quinta Inn - $119 and sold - very nice staff letting in a crying, filthy person at 10pm. I buy some food from Del Taco, though I am not hungry still and don't finish. I shower. I lay in bed. How can I not sleep after such a day? Eventually, I guess I do - but my feet and hip ache all night.

Day 4: I am up, but with a bit of a limp due to my hip, and eating breakfast. I am looking forward to getting home and spending time with my man – this all works out, traffic isn’t too bad. I am really emotional still, but a bit more food and some hugs help.

Wow, I should not have been that worn out – what happened? A moment later: When is the next trip?

Peace in exhaustion. Freedom found when the only thing in my mind is how to take the next step. Trail dirt and tears break me down and I am built up again by Nature’s works. Not everyone is like this, but I need to push to failure because that is where I find myself.

A week later: my right hip and food are a-okay, my left heel not so much. I have to halt walking/running for some healing time and I continue to ponder intake/food problems on the trail and have purchased from shoes with more ‘stability’ and partial shanks which should assist with repetition damage walking atop rocks (I was stupidly wearing basic trail runners, too light flexible for weight-bearing multi-day backpacking).

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