Section 1: 5 days from Onion Valley to Roads End
Theme: Warm up/the classroom/trial by fire
Soundtrack: Go it Alone- Beck, You'll Be Bright- Cloud Cult
The Sierra High Route officially begins at Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park, but for logistics reasons, I needed to start on the east side. This was going to add another day and a half to an already long first leg. I am not an ultra-lighter, so this didn't seem like the best way to start such a demanding trip. It made much more sense to resupply in Roads End and make this a stand alone section. After a little research, I found a perfect route. I would go in over Kearsarge Pass, cross Bubbs Creek, and head up through Vidette Basin, Lake Reflection, Brewer Basin, and Sphinx Basin. The cross-country days would be short distances, and my pack would be light (well, lighter than on any other section) so that I could ease into the mindset that off trail travel requires. Also, Deerhorn Saddle would give me experience on steep, loose talus/scree and the route to Longley Pass would give me a chance to negotiate a more complex landscape. If I could handle these, I was confident that I'd be ok on the rest of the terrain.
I left Missoula Saturday morning. The Aspen fire had just blown up and I was a bit worried about its impact. I had some alternate routes planned in case of other fires, but once I parked the car, I knew it wasn't moving for awhile. After crashing at a rest stop for a few hours, I rolled into a smoky Lee Vining around 8:00 Sunday morning. I had some time to kill, so I grabbed a breakfast burrito at the Whoa Nellie Deli and put together my resupply boxes. I headed over to the Ranger Station at around 10:30 and was the 2nd person in line for a permit. At first, I kind of felt bad when I realized that the ranger had to enter all of my campsites into the computer. He tried for a minute, then eventually gave up, marking whatever he felt like (I'm pretty sure he had me staying in Dusy Basin for over a week). To be honest, I was kind of disappointed in his lack of knowledge of the backcountry. I'm used to chatting with backcountry rangers before trips, getting suggestions and discussing prior experiences. This guy had none of that. I know that if someone came to me with a 30+ day itinerary, I'd want to hear all about it. Anyway, I took my permit and headed south. Mammoth was completely socked in by smoke. I was going to have to wait to get my first look at the Ritter Range. Fortunately, it grew clearer as I continued on. After acquiring some last minute supplies in Bishop, I dropped my resupply boxes at Parchers and Cardinal Resorts and headed for Independence, where I got a room at a hotel that offered a 10% discount at the Subway across the street. Sadly, that was the last meal I ate before heading into the backcountry (though I did wash it down with a decent double IPA).
Day 1. July 29, 2013
Onion Valley TH to Vidette Basin
I woke up earlyish and made for the trailhead. I was amazed at the number of vehicles parked there. As I was cleaning out the car and getting my supplies together, I realized that I was missing my maps. I knew I brought them because I was just looking at them the day before at the ranger station. Now, I'm not often mistaken for being organized, so I knew not to panic. The hotel room was clean when I left, so they had to be in the car somewhere. A half hour later, no luck. All I could think was that I accidentally sealed them in a resupply box. I did have a Tom Harrison map of Kings Canyon in my back pocket and the Roper book (though that wouldn't do me much good on this first leg). I figured that if I ran into real trouble, I could always backtrack to trail and head to Roads End that way. Still, not the kind of start I was hoping for!
I finally got on the trail around 8 and slowly headed up. I hadn't done much hiking this summer so far and knew I wasn't in shape yet. The trail was incredibly well graded, though, and I arrived at the pass by 11:00. I couldn't believe how many people were up there, packed into that little notch! I scrambled up the ridge to the north and ate some lunch. I sat there for about an hour, looking into the park, letting it sink in that this would be my home for the next 3 weeks. This morning, I was just out for a stroll. Now, the trip was becoming real. Overhearing the conversations of the 50 or so people that paraded to the pass in that time, I learned that the majority were headed for Charlotte Lakes that night, and eventually headed for Whitney. It was incredibly easy to discern the thru hikers from the section hikers. I found it hilarious that they were all headed to the same place. Way to get away from it all! I was already looking forward to leaving the trail.
|Home for the next 3 weeks. Looking into Kings Canyon from Kearsarge Pass|
I enjoyed the trail down. I was surrounded by beauty and the people thinned out a bit. As I was circling Bullfrog Lake, I ran into a couple rangers. When I told them my destination, I saw them perk up a bit. This was the excitement I was hoping to see in the permit office! When I mentioned the rest of my route, I was strongly advised against going over Deerhorn. He said that he'd done it once, and never would again, that it would be just as quick and much less miserable to access Lake Reflection by way of East Lake. He even went so far as to tell me about another hiker who'd been pinned by a loose boulder and had to leave his boot behind. Not exactly a confidence builder. I thanked them for the chat and was on my way again.
|East Vidette guards her namesake basin from the John Muir Trail|
Once I hit the Bubbs Cr trail, I headed east, ready to cross the creek as soon as the trail took me close enough. I waved at a couple dudes just as I found a good log crossing. These would be the last people I'd see until coming back to the Bubbs Creek trail 4 days from now. I angled up toward the basin, eventually finding a great use trail that took me most of the way in. East Vidette was really impressive, standing guard at the entrance. It was around 4:30 when I got to the lake directly below East Vidette. Home.
Now, this was real. When I was on the trail, it seemed like people were a major focus. Chatting, waving, passing, being passed. Now, the environment had my full attention. I found a good tent spot and a good kitchen and ran around, getting a feel for the area. I was nicely overwhelmed by my surroundings and my attention span was near zero. Start setting up the tent-oh wait, that looks like a good photo op-now I'm hungry-let's check out where I'm headed tomorrow-dammit, my tent's still not set up-are there fish in this lake? And so on. Wonderful evening, though. Didn't even get any fishing in as the wind was blowing steady. No worries. Plenty to enjoy here. Only issue was the first major gear failure of the trip. My steripen purified one liter of water, then said "no more." I had some iodine as backup, and I figured the water up here was right on the edge of being drinkable straight out of the lake. I iodined the drinking water and boiled the dinner water just to be safe. Watched the alpenglow show on the higher peaks above the upper basin and went to bed.
Day 2. July 30, 2013
Vidette Lakes to Lake Reflection
What a day. I've never been quick to roll out of camp in the mornings, so 9:00 was a pretty decent start. My goal was to get to the base of the pass with enough time to turn around and head back down if it was too much for me. It seemed reasonable as I really didn't have too much distance to cover. But, it was day 2, I wasn't fully acclimated to altitude (or even in shape), and my pack was way too heavy. In my experience, whenever I go on longer trips, day 2 is always a bit of a struggle. I can usually skate by on freshness the first day, but on the second, that's all gone and I'm left with reality. Anyway, this day 2 may have been the most difficult that I've ever experienced. I knew I was in trouble when I was out of breath before even hitting the head of the lake where I'd camped. One thing I like about cross country travel is that it forces you to look up and take in your surroundings. It involves constant decision making, evaluating and re-evaluating the terrain as you go. On trails, it's often easy to plod along for 20 minutes at a time without even noticing what's going on around you. Well, let's just say I took a whole lot of "look around" breaks on the way up to the head of the basin on this day.
I made my way to the second set of lakes via a boulder chute.
|Looking back toward camp from the top of the boulder chute|
Easy going had I been in shape. As it was, I took my time and was rewarded with more beauty. I took a quick break between the lakes to enjoy them while trying to catch my breath.
|Second set of Vidette Lakes|
This was the easy part and I was already getting worked. Then, as I was packing up, I broke a strap and had to cut a piece off of my auxiliary rope to use as a substitute. All part of the fun. Just beyond the head of these lakes, the talus started. When I reached the top tier of the basin, I realized that it would continue all the way to the pass. Deerhorn saddle didn't look too inviting but I continued on anyway, carefully making my way along on oddly roly talus.
I was exhausted when I reached the base of the pass, but there was no way I was turning around now. On the way up, everything I stepped on fell out from under me. At one point, my step brought a boulder down from 15 feet above me (should have known better than to be walking under boulders here). The ascent was frustrating and exhausting, but I kind of knew to expect that. By the time I reached the top of the saddle, it was already 3:00! It was really windy, but there was no way I wasn't going to take some time to enjoy it.
I hung out in the wind for about a half hour before starting down. The basin was pretty barren, but Mt Ericcson and the Ericcson Crags offered plenty in the way of scenery. Still, the going was slow as I made my way down, periodically finding and losing use trails along the way.
When I got to Lake 3260+, I received a serious welcome from the resident mosquitos. This would be one of two times over the course of the entire trip that I had to break out the deet. Tired as I was, I thought very seriously about camping here. The lake was beautiful and I would be set up for some nice morning alpenglow on the peaks to the west. Tomorrow was going to be another long one though, with more elevation and complex terrain. I decided to press on. It wasn't long before I reached Lake Reflection. Home. Finally. It was 8:00. I watched the fish feed on the surface while I fed myself on the shore. Then, it was straight to bed. I was really looking forward to fishing here, but I just didn't have it in me. Next time, I guess.
Day 3. July 31, 2013
Lake Reflection to Brewer Basin
What a day! I was a bit worried about my physical abilities after yesterday. Once again, I figured I'd get a decent start and head toward the pass. If I ran into too much route finding trouble, I could always backtrack toward East Lake and hit the Bubbs Creek trail. In the end, the route finding was a blast. I love this kind of terrain! I made a few mistakes here and there, but nothing catastrophic. I understood and accepted the kind of shape I was in and just took it slow on the uphills, taking a lot of little rest stops. In the end, I was handsomely rewarded with what was easily among my favorite areas of the entire trip.
Given the events of yesterday, I tried really hard to get out earlier today. I did a quick Pop Tart breakfast and was on my way at 8:00 (maybe the earliest I've ever broken camp). Lake Reflection was stunning, but I couldn't get any pictures to do it justice. I really enjoyed the terrain and the views as I traversed the north side of the lake, though once again, I was out of breath very soon after leaving camp.
I also noticed that I had pretty bad sunburns on my arms. How on earth did I forget to bring sunscreen? I had to figure something out as it would be 3 more days before I reached Cedar Grove. I ended up using the zip-off legs from my other pair of pants as makeshift sleeves, tucking them under my pack straps to hold them in place. It turned out to be a surprisingly functional system. Turning the lake involved a lot of quick ups and downs and I just took my time, accepting my physical abilities. Eventually, I arrived at the head of the lake and decided to head up along the inlet stream. I was really wishing I had my maps here as the route finding was about to get a lot more interesting. At least the Tom Harrison map had the major streams on it. All I could do was keep the right streams to each side of me and read the terrain along the way. My route eventually brought me to a nice, pretty little bowl that was nowhere to be found on my small scale map.
I decided to ascend the path of least resistance, a steepish ramp to my far right. I knew it was probably the right choice when I found a faint path about a quarter of the way up.
|Looking back at Lake Reflection from the top of the ramp|
I knew it was definitely the right choice when I got to the top and was greeted by Longley Lake (Lake 3046). Beautiful. I was elated. I let out a little yell and dropped my pack. Great spot for a lunch break.
From here, I also got my first look at Longley Pass, another 1000 feet above me. It didn't look super nice, but it was miles better than Deerhorn the day before, and no cornice to worry about.
By the time I'd fully enjoyed the lake and my lunch, it was around 1:00. I'd scouted the route and found what I hoped would be a nice ramp to the top of the cliffs along the north shore. After yesterday, I was realistic and assumed it would be 2 hours before I hit the top of the pass. Feeling the energy from lunch, I enjoyed the route up and around the lake, found my way around the next lake, and made it to the top of the windswept pass at 2:30. Better than expected! I was rewarded with a nice view back down into the basin from which I came.
|Looking back from Longley Pass|
It started out well enough, ascending along the inlet on a fun ledge system, though I was kind of surprised that it was dry already. As I gained elevation, I worked my way up, down, and around the ledges, heading toward the pass area. I kept expecting to top out, but higher and higher I went. Eventually, I hit a high point a few hundred feet above the pass lakes, the correct route displayed almost in its entirety below me. Turns out, I started up too soon, following the wrong inlet. The right one had plenty of water in it and looked like a stroll. Oops. At least getting down was easy enough.
|Looking back at South Guard Lake from my high point. Rather than follow the inlet on the right, I came up ramps and ledges like the one in the foreground. Interesting and fun, but definitely more work than necessary.|
When I did make it to South Guard Pass I only lingered for a couple minutes. Brewer Basin was just too inviting. I got my bearings, locating Sphinx Col and my route up to Mt Brewer for tomorrow, and started down the slabs into the basin.
|South Guard Pass|
Once again, I was exhausted, but that didn't matter right now. I was home, descending into Paradise. Even as I was heading down, I was spinning in circles, overwhelmed by my surroundings.
When I got down into the upper basin, I found myself wandering about a lush green carpet cut by a labyrinth of crystal clear rivulets. Seriously, every 5 steps or so, I'd be hopping from bank to bank or turning another little pool. I slowly danced my way through this wonderland, headed for Big Brewer Lake.
|Descending Brewer Basin|
When I found a legal campsite lower down, near a couple little ponds, I couldn't pass it up. It was 6:00 and I was tired after another long day.
|Mt Brewer and Brewer Basin Camp|
I'll never forget the feeling I had as I was cooking my dinner that night. I hadn't seen anyone since leaving the trail. I had spent the day working hard, making constant decisions, problem solving the entire time, and I was rewarded with stunning beauty. I was physically and mentally exhausted. As I sat there, still wearing my super sleeves, I couldn't help but laugh at the situation I was in, the fact that I had this place all to myself. I'd pay attention to my dinner for a minute, then look up and start laughing uncontrollably again. This went on for a good half hour or so. An outside observer would likely have thought I had lost my mind, and this was only day 3! I regained my composure as I watched one of the best alpenglow shows I've ever seen. For the first time this trip, I was happy to have brought my tripod, though I was still planning to give it away in Cedar Grove. When the show was over, I headed for the tent and slept wonderfully.
|Alpenglow after dinner|
Day 4. August 1, 2013
Brewer Basin to Sphinx Lakes
I was sleeping so well that I waited for the sun to heat up the tent to the point that it was unbearable before I left it. I didn't have far to go today, but I did have plans to climb Mt Brewer. I got up and looked over to see him still watching over his namesake basin. He has that perfect mountain shape and dominance. He forces you to give him your full attention, leaving no doubt that he owns this place. I couldn't wait to go stand on top of him. I ate a leisurely breakfast and slowly packed up. It was after 10:00 before I was finally on my way. I headed north toward Sphinx Col and looked for a good spot to drop my pack, eventually finding some giant boulders on a shoulder that would serve as very recognizable landmarks.
I loaded up the flash pack with some essentials and headed up the drainage between Brewer and North Guard. Really nice going on low angled slabs for awhile.
|Looking back down to Brewer basin from the ascent route|
Then, it was up the northwest talus slope. The talus was reasonable at first, but grew steeper and looser the further I ascended. When I reached the summit block, I found it to be just a little bit too exposed for my liking. I climbed up a class 4 spire to a point about 15 feet below what I think was the true summit. I took a seat, swinging my legs to each side of the ridge, and ate a Snickers. I wasn't going to chance the climb to the true summit by myself and the view from here was pretty spectacular already. Climbing mountains has never been about conquering nature for me. In fact, it's the opposite: I just want to hang out with them, see what they see. I'm not in it for gold stars. Today, Mt Brewer didn't want me on his summit, but allowed me to get close enough to get the views I was looking for. I was completely satisfied with that.
|The view from my seat near the summit|
I hung out for about a 45 minutes, enjoying the view. It really did feel like I was on top of the biggest thing around. To the north, I could see that the smoke from the Aspen fire was still only reaching as far south as the Palisades and the Black Divide. This with a northerly wind. Definitely good news for the next leg of the trip. I shimmied down off of my ridge perch and carefully made my way down the talus. Soon, I was back on the ideal slabs and grasses leading back into the basin. I found my pack, loaded it back up, and headed for Sphinx Col. I was feeling great as I made my way to the lake below it.
After a quick water break, I made my way up along ramps and alleyways. Enjoyable terrain. I arrived at the col and made sure to take a few minutes to say goodbye to Mt Brewer and his basin.
|Looking back at Brewer Basin|
I wasn't too excited about the long talus descent that appeared in front of me, but it turned out to be stable and relatively easy going.
|The descent into Sphinx Basin|
This was the first day that I wasn't out of breath and hurting with every step I took. I was finally in reasonable shape and used to the altitude. When I reached Lake 10,962, I was thinking about jumping in. Then, I saw some nice looking fish in the water and got all excited to get to camp and finally get my rod out. I took a quick water break and headed down very pleasant terrain to the next lakes.
It was 4:30 when I reached Lake 10,546. I was blown away again. I immediately started looking for a campsite. I found an established one between this lake and the one below it. I decided that it would make a good spot for the tent, but I was taken by the area back near the inlet, and ended up spending most of my time there. I enjoyed the rest of the day fishing, eating, and taking pictures. North Guard was phenomenal from this vantage. Just as Mt Brewer dominated his basin, North Guard commanded all of my attention here. Fishing was a blast. It was nice to finally break out the fly rod. I caught my first Sierra trout, a healthy 11 inch rainbow after only a few casts. It was still early and I wasn't in the mood to kill him and clean him, so back into the lake he went. Turns out, he would be my biggest fish of the whole trip.
|North Guard over Sphinx Lake|
After dinner, I was treated to another spectacular alpenglow show. Tripod came in handy again. It was earning its way back into the pack for the next leg. As overloaded as I was, what difference was 5 lbs gonna make? The past couple days had been fantastic. I really wasn't ready to leave the backcountry tomorrow.
Day 5. August 2, 2013
Sphinx Lakes to Cedar Grove
|Camp between the Sphinx Lakes|
I woke up to some howling in the middle of the night. I would hear a nice standard coyote howl. Then the high pitched cries of a pup trying to do the same. Back and forth they went. It was like howling school. I'm pretty sure they were up on the ridge just west of my camp. I listened to this lesson for about 10 minutes, but when I stirred in the tent, it all stopped. I guess they didn't realize that I was there.
I wanted to get to Cedar Grove in time to grab my resupply box from the ranger station. It was a long way down and I wasn't sure about the bushwhack along Sphinx Creek, so I tried to get an earlyish start. I was on my way a little before 9:00.
|Morning on Sphinx Lake|
I made my way around the next lake before descending along the creek. The vegetation gradually grew thicker as I made my way down occasionally finding and losing use trails as I went. I suppose it really wasn't too bad, as far as bushwhacks go, but that's not to say I enjoyed it. The mosquitos were god awful. I had a pretty good deet forcefield, but they were persistent in finding its weak spots. I have to commend the few that made it through. They earned their meal.
|Looking down on Sphinx Creek (let the bushwhack begin) and across to the Monarch Divide|
|Avalanche Pass Trail|
Shortly after I reached the Bubbs Creek Trail, I started running into people again. I got a few interesting looks before realizing that I was still wearing my super sleeves and probably looked a bit rough in general. Near the bottom of the switchbacks, I ran into a black bear that really didn't seem to care too much about me. I made some noise and waited him out. Soon, he was on his way and I continued.
I made it to Roads End around 2:00 and quickly found a ride to Cedar Grove. Bought myself a 6 pack and some sunscreen at the store and walked across the new bridge to the ranger station. They retrieved my resupply package for me, so I had a couple beers as I sorted its contents and repacked my bag. Then, back to the store for a burger and some phone calls. I was disappointed to find that the showers and laundry were shut down due to drought conditions. I headed back to the campground and searched for an outlet to charge my phone (my only working clock as my little portable one had proven useless on the very first day) and camera batteries. I eventually found one in a bathroom, so I hung out outside for awhile. When it got dark and the beer was gone, I found a patch of dirt and passed out for the night.