Saturday, August 29, 2015

Backpacking the High Sierra Trail

Day 2 1
Breakfast

"In every walk in nature, one receives far more than he seeks" - John Muir

For most people who have spent any time in the Sierra, you get it.

Back in the January time frame, I started getting an itch to do a through hike. Partly reminiscing about my week in Utah with a splash of inspiration from Toby, Dax and Paul's JMT through hike, some ideas started-a-brewin' in my noggin. Through some odd circumstances, Toby and I ended up doing a run on Mission Trails one day (which, actually, isn't that odd), and I casually mentioned I was thinking of doing the High Sierra Trail this summer. Within about 15 seconds, Toby went from "Dude, I've always wanted to do that" to planning out at least 50% of the logistics right there on the spot (while dodging other people on the trail of course).

Fast forward about 6 months, and the High Sierra Trail delivered everything we expected it to (actually, the week before we did our little trip, mother nature delivered plenty of snow, wind and rain, but fortunately, we didn't get to experience that early Christmas gift). Granite walls and spires, waterfalls, meadows, few people, lots of elevation, bouts of low oxygen, a sense of peace and feeling small in the vastness of mother nature is always good for the mind, body and soul.

Day 2 3a
Vastness

The High Sierra Trail cuts longitudinal across the Sierra Nevada, with start/finish points of Sequoia National Park and Whitney Portal - or vice versa. As there are no roads that span this area, you are left to your devices and appendages to traverse across this beautiful expanse, and quite frankly, there really is no better way to do so. For our logistics, we opted for the eastbound direction, as the gradual acclimatization would set us up (no pun) for ascending Mt. Whitney on our last day, rather than grinding up that beast right out of the gate.

Day 5 All
Strava!

Full Link Here

We were reminded very quickly why we must seek out adventure and time in nature immediately upon entering the park. Not even going into the headaches of traffic entering the park on a single lane, windy road, we were quickly reminded of national park summer status when we checked in to get our permit. Noting the crowds and getting that uneasy feeling one would get at the end of a trip when dealing with assimilating into the masses, we actually opted to start our trip about 16 hours early, opting for a 6 mile trek into the first campsite. The mental crisis swiftly mitigated by Toby and a park ranger making this happen, we happily traded hairy plumbers cracks surrounding us and "guacamole" paste that better resembled something we'd see as leftovers on the trail, for the actual not-so-well-traveled (thankfully) trail.

Honestly, our trail logistics were executed near perfectly, so in the interest of letting others know what our plan was so that they may enjoy it as much as we did, here was the breakdown.

Saturday - 6 miles
Crescent Meadow to Mehrten Creek camp

Sunday - 9 miles
Mehrten Creek Camp to Hamilton Lake (these 2 days were our original first day)

Monday - 20 miles
Hamilton Lake, up over Kaweah Gap, down to Big Arroyo, quick offshoot to Moraine Lake, and ending at Kern Hot Springs

Tuesday - 16 miles
Kern Hot Sprints to Crabtree Meadow

Wednesday - 16 miles
Crabtree Meadow to Whitney Portal via Whitney Summit

Note that all camp sites had bear bins!

While below I describe the things that stuck out the most to me the trip, there was ample filler based on what you'd find on such a trip with 3 other dudes: useless and endless banter, extended bouts of quietness, sounds of cameras snapping, birds chirping, philosophical conversations, dare I say a political conversation, the ability to complete a thought, not once wishing I had cell service, struggle, elation, the sound of mountain streams, the small rustling of leaves in the subtle mountain winds, the sound of wind in the pines above you that I can only hear about 5,000ft it seems - and any other fond memory you have of being in the mountains.

Great Western Divide - Part 1 - First Viewing
Upon arriving into Bear paw high sierra camp, you start getting a hint as to what you are about to go over the next day. Spend another 5-10 minutes hiking towards it, and you are greeted with this view, and it just never gets old! Hamilton Lake is situated beneath the farthest peak (Mt. Stewart) in the center.

DSC06204 edit - Edited

Hamilton Lake
Getting to Hamilton Lake a bit on the early side of the day was nice. It is an incredibly peaceful lake, and the clouds overhead constantly went in and out of threatening to dump buckets of rain on us, to retreating to showing the craggy peaks up above. Entertainment provided by mother nature in the form of seeing bears scale rocks and an 8 point buck running through camp with a fresh claw scratch on it's side (presumably from a bear). It's one of those alpine lakes that 2/3's surrounded by mountain peaks at least 3,000 ft higher than it, forming a bowl that makes you crane your neck near constantly to the point where you realize that just laying down and taking it all in is really the best way.

Day 2 5
Hamilton Lake


Day 2 6
Mt Stewart

Day 3 1
530am wake up call


After leaving Hamilton Lake, you have a 2,000 ft climb to put you at the infamous Precipice lake

Day 3 2
Ansel Adams was here

Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap

Shortly following that is a rather peaceful alpine meadow at 10,000ft culminating at Kaweah gap, the top of the Great Western Divide on the HST. From here, it's obvious that there had been some glacial activity prior to our arrival to carve such a large canyon for us to barrel down.

Day 3 9
Glacial effects
Day 3 8
From the other side

Mt. Whitney

This was actually my first time up at Mt. Whitney and a memorable one at that. We left the meadow around 5am, and I felt great out of the gate. With a lighter pack and fully acclimatized to the elevation, I stormed up the mountain to it's peak around 14,500ft, never really feeling the effects of having 40% less O2 than I'm used. While the summit was crowded, it wasn't as bad as the tales I had heard about in the past.

Day 5 1
Morning Stillness
Day 5 2
Alpine Glow from afar
Day 5 3
Fax and Josh powering up from Guitar Lake
Day 5 5
Reflections
Day 5 12
Sunglasses and suncreen
Day 5 13
Mt Whitney's needles
Day 5 14
Reflecting on the 99 switchbacks

Couple random thoughts and nuggets to pass along 
  1. My training preparation for the trip involved consistent 20-35 mile run weeks with some hiking for about 3 months and I felt like that was sufficient. In hindsight, I definitely wished I spent more time hiking with a weighted pack with the shoes I wore during the trip, especially with the superfeet insoles. One thing I would have worked on would be leaning over less while climbing up hills. My ankles were pretty achy most mornings around 3am from dealing with the extra stress of 25+ lbs in a somewhat hunched position I wasn't used to.
  2. I was the biggest hater of trekking poles for about 4 years before this hike. It took until about day 2 before I realized how AMAZING it is to use poles, especially with a weighted pack, huffing up a 10,000 ft pass. After borrowing Paul's, I bought a pair of Black Diamond Carbon Z poles that day after I got back home!
  3. I used a 40L pack that I ordered at the last minute because I felt like my 30L pack was too small. Next thing I know, Dax, who is taller than I, was using a 32L pack and had 10 less pounds in it. 10! I didn't think I was bringing the kitchen sink, and while there were some nice to haves in there, I could definitely cut out some more things to make the weight better and also go with a smaller pack. I actually look forward to that fun little project to minimize to the essentials. Couple things worth mentioning:
    • I'd probably go with a down quilt for my next trip. Even though I'm happy with my REI Flash sleeping bag, this could cut almost a full pound out of weight not to mention less volume
    • Having a second set of clothes was a nice to have, but not necessary 
    • Bring a lightweight flask with less bourbon next time
    • "The sleeping setup". Josh and I went back and forth about how to make more apples to apples weight comparisons. For example, even though one has a really light weight sleeping bag or quilt, recognize that bivy sacks, down jackets and even pants are part of the "sleep setup" weight. Not once on this trip in mid-july did I feel like a down jacket, down sleeping bag, gore-tex pants and a bivy were all needed. But 2 out of 4, and maybe once 3 out of 4 were nice sometimes, just not all the time. It sounds obvious, but look for functional overlap to save weight (ps: this includes the dude who had a 60 lb pound, radio, camp chair and probably some of the longest days of life out there)
  4. I took a shit at the highest point in the contiguous United States
  5. We lucked out by one of Toby's friends doing the HST in the opposite direction as us at the same time, so a car swap made logistics incredibly easy.
  6. Camp Sandals are a pretty cool idea
  7. We had bear bins at every campsite on our trail. This was HUGE as we did NOT need to bring bear canister (and have to deal with the weight and bulk of them). We also did not see any bears
  8. Altra Lone Peak's - there is no question that this was the right call for my feet
  9. I only drank coffee once. Seriously. Waking up in nature on a backpacking trip is more energizing than the espresso I have at home.
  10. I wish I had written in my journal more on the trail so I could better remember and come back to laugh at the true memories of trail butter, bearritory (pretty intuitive actually), what abc I wouldn't xyz (question from Dax not fit for print), atrocious songs we had stuck in our heads for DAYS on end, and lest we forget, a quarter inch bolt stuck in our tire on the way up to start our trip

In closing, I leave one last quote from Edward Abbey:

"One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards."