The High Sierra Trail_a photographic journal
documenting the amazing nature experience shared by three friends during the summer prior to their last year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
We would again like to thank everyone who was involved in making this trip a reality (you know who you are). As we grow older and move onward in our careers and respective lives, we must always remember the simple joy that nature provides for us, virtually free of charge. Though we might become caught up in success and material consumption, let us always remember that a little time away from human comfort does a lot in terms of appreciation and perspective.
hiking trip: September 2009 / book published: December 2009
day1 Hamilton Lake
Sequoia Natâ€™l Park 9 9 hours
Mount Whitney day3 Junction Mead o w
day4 Guitar Lake
Whitney Por tal
La k e
The Road to Sequoia National Park_the journey begins with an hour
long drive through the park to reach our starting trail head at Crescent Meadows. The road is windy and treacherous in several spots, heightening the building excitement for the trip. As we speed along beneath the ancient giants, rare and magnificent tree specimens that defy imagination, we canâ€™t help but smile at the prospect of spending almost a week isolated from the rest of civilization. The view back down the valley is unbelievable, though just the first of many stunning vistas certain to follow. Our simple minds just can not comprehend the magnitude of what we see before us...
A Delicate Balance_this surprising balancing
act refuses to reveal its secret to us. Itâ€™s rather difficult to even speculate how this situation came to be. What we do know is that the rock came to rest here long before we took our first breaths on this planet and that it will also remain long after we are gone. Nature has a simple way of humbling mankind conditioned by his perpetually mortal state.
The Dream Begins Sequoia National Park
_from the Crescent Meadows trail _waiting head wefordevelop a ride a feverish pace, stoppingdown only to thetake mountain. a coupleMesmerized panoramas and by the get distance a quick drink. we travWe have a lot of trail to coverelled if weand wantthetolooming start off presence the first day of the on amountain strong note, behind but us. we are also eager to test out our fitness and ability to deal with our rather cumbersome backpacks. Giant pinecones litter the path, paying homage to the prehistoric forest canopy above. The weather for now is expectably warm and very pleasant, and we are all happy to be hiking in September.
Bearpaw Meadow Camp_we quickly
arrive at the initial campground where we thought we would stay for the first night, but upon seeing it in person, we decide that it won’t suffice and instead we push on for Hamilton Lake. In the meantime, we take a quick break at Bearpaw Meadow Camp, filling up on water while marvelling at this quaint settlement that is surprisingly “comfortable” for being so far from a road. This is still a little too civilized for our liking. Maybe it would be better saved for a honeymoon?...
Lake Hamilton_after a grueling first day, we literally stumble into this wonderful
campground up against the shore of a frigid granite bottom lake. All the spots seem to be gone at first impression, but soon we’ve come across a perfect sandy plot with a sheer granite privacy wall. No one else seems to be swimming in the peaceful, inviting water. We are so filthy and exhausted that we could care less. The water is surprisingly tepid and amazingly transparent, with a slippery bottom. It appears that one could easily swim or walk across! There is barely enough time to get out of the water and lie out on the solid rock to enjoy the last rays of precious sunlight (and warm back up). After our first meal on the trail, the infamous “cous cous” incident, we stare up awestruck at the starry sky and admire the even more impressive full moon.
Always Up_although our bodies are now aching from the first day
push, we get up in the dark and climb several thousand feet of elevation up and around the lake beneath us. The scenery is stunning, and even the path has its fair share of unusual excitement, including a huge tunnel blasted into sheer granite, the foundations and steel from a destroyed cable bridge, and some unnerving overhanging cliffs...
The Great Western Divide_this is without a doubt the first
significant checkpoint in our long journey ahead. By now we have gone more than a quarter of the way, dealt with the initial adjustments in weight, diet, and altitude, and experienced several thousand feet of climbing per day-all this in preparation for the ultimate goal of successfully reaching the summit of Mount Whitney. This will be the last true view westward until the summit. While resting near the top, we come across some trail workers with found memories of their time spent in San Luis Obispo. They give us some interesting advice for the trail ahead, both helpful and irrelevant...
trail continues onward reaching the first high elevation benchmark at its climax. It seems like we pass through a new, unique geographic zone every hour, and this one is not an exception-it is a desolate granite playground, with countless tiny alpine lakes, minimal vegetation, and inquisitive marmots. Strikingly beautiful to pass through, perhaps even more haunting for those who are forced to stay...
Precipice Lake_there really isn’t much too discuss; this is the most stunning alpine lake
any of us has ever seen! The color and transparency of the water, the sheer cliff faces, the patches of glaciers unmelted still deep into late summer-all of it is as unreal as a scene out of the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy”... We stop as long as we can, yet still can’t really appreciate what we’ve seen.
Big Arroyo Valley_waiting for a ride down the
mountain. Mesmerized by the distance we travelled and the looming presence of the mountain behind us.
Big Arroyo Junction_now that weâ€™ve passed through the â€œGreat Western Divideâ€? we have
many new challenges ahead, but more importantly, we are officially isolated from humanity! We hardly pass a single person for the rest of the day until we arrive at our final destination, Moraine Lake. By this point, some of us are hurting and rather sore, but we are also getting pretty good at making incredible time. We are forced to make the decision to compress our original five night / six day trip into an four night / five day itinerary to avoid stagnation and having to stay at a mediocre campground in the middle of nowhere. As always, this new terrain is diverse from those that came before, appearing as a tranquil series of meadows and streams amongst scattered pines, all the while in a canyon surrounded by friendly granite peaks. It seems like an alien planet waiting to be inhabited. Later in the day we will discover the joys of tuna fillets in lemon-infused olive oil, but that is neither here nor there...
Moraine Lake_when we said that Precipice Lake was the most beautiful “alpine” lake we’ve ever
seen, we meant it. However, Moraine Lake wins the vote for the most stunningly beautiful lake and surrounding area at sunset! Although our arrival into the wooded campground wrapping around the shore of this much larger lake was marred by a group of unsavory psuedo-criminals-on-parole, we recovered from the rain and lack of humanity and enjoyed our first raging campfire in the woods! This was definitely the hardest part of the trip as by now we were all suffering from various ailments, injuries, and other discomforts, and stuck almost in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas. However, it would also have to be one of the most interesting moments during the trip-for the first time that strange sensation that we were in pure, unspoiled nature as far from our comforts as possible. The lake wasn’t as nice a swim as we had anticipated, but we still took a nice bath. Now, I don’t mean to be a dick or anything, but...
Chagoopa Plateau_although we had some delusions, albeit
youthful fantasies, about enacting some mild retaliation (justice?) on our wonderful neighbors at the lake, we decided instead to be smart and get the heck out of that creepy campsite! As always, we were making incredibly time due to our military pace. Now the mountains around us seemed to fade into the distance, becoming somewhat softer and more earth-like. In place of the typical canyon environment, we found ourselves with some space to breath, amidst enormous, thick forests that would sporadically unravel to expose boundless, pristine meadows too perfect to be real.
Sky Parlor Meadow_the name says it all. One
of those characteristically pristine meadows revealed this rich backdrop of mountain ranges and cloud formations. It was the perfect place to stop, rest, and stay for a while...
Descent into the Kern Trench_day three had threatened to be
the most strenuous yet, but fortunately our pace kept us in harmony with the sunâ€™s position, and we stayed in shade for the majority of the trek. The long and arduous descent into the Kern Trench was hard on our knees, but probably not as hard as it was for the unlucky trio making their way up in the opposite direction! Having spent several days at higher elevations, climbing always upwards, it was in some ways a relief to drop back down for a while. The Kern Trench is essentially a vast canyon carved out by the Kern River that runs the length of the Sierra Nevadas. The hike up the trench wasnâ€™t going to be the most interesting part of the trip, but even the boring parts have their perks...
Kern Hot Springs_speaking of perks, how about the best hot springs in the world?
Kern River Trail_the trail continued to follow the river after the much-needed soaking in the hot
springs. It was difficult to take such a pleasurable break so early in the day, and have to continue hiking for several more hours. It would have been so nice to spend a day at the hot springs, alternating between the scorching heat of the natural hot spring pool, the pleasant warmth of the man-made hot tub, the lukewarm experience of the side pool where hot spring and river met, and of course the frigid shock of the river itself. As we hiked farther north, the canyon began to pinch inward on us, and just when we thought we would run into a dead-end, the trail climbed up the side of the river and continued forever onward. It should be mentioned that this stretch of the High Sierra Trail is also shared by the famous Pacific Crest Trail, so if we ever decide to take on that challenge, we can consider ourselves less than one percent done!
Beyond Junction Meadow_day four was a breakthrough for us in more
than one way: first of all, our bodies were finally recovering from the initial shock and fatigue, and beginning to function like well-oiled machines instead of middle-aged couch potatoes. Secondly, we began to realize that we were more than halfway there, and started to become increasingly excited for the prospect of reaching the summit of Mount Whitney the next morning. The campground at Junction Meadow was as peaceful and conflict free as we could have ever hoped for. We only saw one other group during that day, an older couple who decided to have a team of horses pack in what looked to be the equivalent luxury of a deluxe camper rv, including a portable toilet! In the early morning, we were confronted with the challenge of climbing back out of the Kern Trench onto the other side, and feared that we would suffer like those unfortunate hikers we had passed with unrestrained glee just a day before. However, it resulted that we were up for the task and before the sun even began to rise we were already far beyond the lengthy ascent...
John Muir Trail_as day four wore on, the excitement grew for the first visions of Mount Whitney. Our
trail eventually merged with the John Muir Trail coming down from Yosemite. Soon after, there were several false alarms for Whitney sightings, and then suddenly the weather began to look rather sinister. We had been fortunate to avoid any serious storms during the trip thus far, and when lightning, thunder, and torrents of rain suddenly came crashing down on us, we were caught completely off guard and had nowhere to run for shelter. Fortunately, the storm was over as quickly as it had begun, and although the rest of the afternoon was threatening, the evening brought about clear blue skies and the potential for a full moon ascent of Whitney the next morning.
Guitar Lake_our final campsite was
spectacular, if a little chilly at such a high elevation. It was both a relief and an anxiety to be at the base of our goal. We were still more worried at that point about marmots or a bear destroying our tent during the night...
Backside of Mount Whitney_the backside of the mountain
wasnâ€™t as intimidating as one would expect, and in many ways, by that point we had already done the majority of the hard work needed to summit. Still, the sense of scale can truly be misleading-for example, look down to the bottom of the image and find two of us and the tent, then compare that to just the enormous boulder pile in the near background.
First Impressions_although the sunset at Guitar Lake will go down as one of the most impressive and moving nature scenes ever, the first glimpses of light on the horizon from on top of the ridge certainly can hold their own. The horizon seems to extend infinitely...
Stegosaurus Peaks_the ascent to the summit that morning was as epic of a hike
as any. As we had hoped, the moon was out in full force, casting an unbelievable amount of light upon our path, so much in fact that we didnâ€™t even need our head lamps past the first few hundred sleepy feet! We were determined to be the first group to summit and to also catch the sun rising over the horizon, and as a result hiked fast and hard. At the trail junction, we were soaking wet with sweat, and grossly under prepared. We had to exchange dry gear to replace some of our wet apparel, and also finally drop off our packs. The final ascent wasnâ€™t so difficult physically as it was challenging to stay warm. While the air temperature was probably somewhere around freezing, the wind whipping over the top of the peaks and down the backside was unbearably cold. The final few hundred yards to the summit were purely a mental and physical struggle against the elements-a strange dream that blurred all logic while encouraging emotion polarity. The joy of completing the feat and the incomparable views struggled to win attention against the basic instinct to survive.
On Top of the World_despite the misery of a body in survival mode, the views from
the top were worth it all. The incredible wind force coming over the top added to the drama and appeal of the scenes before our eyes, and the sunrise was as magical of an experience as we could ever dream of-and unlike most things in life, an experience only shared and fully appreciated that day by a select few including the three of us.
The Endless Horizon_the view eastward towards the rising sun
extended infinitely not only outward over the neighboring mountain ranges and into the desert beyond, but from north to south along the valley between. The sunrise was slow and tantalizing, a pleasurable experience-as if time itself was slowing down for our own cinematic enjoyment. The mood on top was jovial and frantic, as we all tried to capture the moment while dealing with the fierce weather conditions.
At the Summit_frozen but ecstatic, the three
of us proudly pose on top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States!
Mount Whitney Hut_the three of us all
have very fond memories of this emergency shelter hut because it saved us from having to turn immediately back down the mountain before the sunrise. We had been so efficient in our hiking that we arrived a good hour before the sunrise actually occurred, and then because of our general lack of preparedness we were unable to withstand the cold, windy weather. From the moment we saw the hut in the distance, all any of us could think about was getting away from the constant wind chill. We barged through the weathered door into the tiny dark room only to find, much to our dismay, that another group had already arrived! In the end, however, they shared with us the emergency blankets that kept us alive when our clothes were clearly not enough, and provided solidarity and distraction during the longest hour wait ever.
Looking Back_from this high up, straddling the sky along the ridge that leads
from the east / west trail junction to the summit, we can recall our journey as far back as day two (Kaweah Gap). Below us, incredible masses of granite intermingle with the infinite silence of virgin lakes. The enormous physical and mental efforts weâ€™ve put out to be at this point seem so trivial when confronted with such a vast expanse of natureâ€™s monumental creation.
Almost Done_the feat is accomplished and we
make our way down the mountain towards those famous “best hamburgers west of the Mississippi”. Unfortunately, though we don’t realize it yet, the burgers definitely won’t measure up to the rest of the experience. But still, our once heavy packs are now comparably weightless, we literally fly down the mountain, spirits high and bodies numb, and for the moment could care less about the worries that tomorrow will bring.
Mount Whitney_after descending the seemingly infinite number of switchbacks we can
now pause and reflect back on how high we were just hours before. Nothing but the clearest blue sky and sun-soaked granite. The majority of hikers we pass don’t seem pleased with our enthusiasm, but given their task for the day I guess we can’t blame them. It is memorial day weekend and half of them won’t make it anyway!
Whitney Portal Road_waiting for a ride down the mountain. Mesmerized by the distance we travelled and the looming presence of the mountain behind us.
Eastern Sierras from Tuttle Creek Campground_looking back at the majestic
range we just conquered from a dingy campground just outside of Lone Pine. Here the journey comes to an end after just under one hundred hours on the trail at a grueling pace of fifteen miles per day. We are all both relieved and distressed to be finished; that beautiful tension between man and nature, comfort and anxiety, will now be put to rest for the time being. Meanwhile, we have plenty of new stories to tell: the middle-aged burger flipper at the portal restaurant who gave us a ride down the mountain; a Lone Pine High School “dude party” at our campground until late that night; passing the time people watching at McDonald’s and Jame’s calorie binge; stories that will endure a lifetime. “May the fond memories of this trip inspire us to continue the annual tradition”...