Donna and I went on a backpacking trip in early August 2015. Out of convenience, we prefer one car loops… that’s where you drive one car, go backpacking, then return to the car where you parked it. Sounds simple and obvious right? But it’s challenging in the High Sierra. Most trips require either two cars, or some transportation from the end point back to where your car is parked… or some nice friend to give you a ride. But this trip was planned as a loop. Wasn’t easy to come up with though. That’s why this loop took us on a grand tour of Kings Canyon and Sequoia.
Overview of the route:
We parked the van at Road’s End in Kings Canyon (about 5,000 feet) and spent our first day climbing about 3600 feet up the Sphinx Creek Trail that parallels (duh) Sphinx Creek. That’s 3,600 feet within about four and a half miles! At the time it felt nearly vertical… And actually it was kinda vertical in places… The next day we finished the climb to Avalanche Pass, another 1,500 feet… (which felt like a lot more for some reason), then descended to Cloud Canyon, something like 2,600 feet down… so we were back to 7,400 feet. For these first couple days we kinda had to hit the ground runnin’ with our packs heavy with food. After that, things kinda settled down a bit… not much, but a little… the third day was all moderate climbing but had some flattish places, and the fourth day, after topping Colby Pass (12,000 feet) was all descending (about 4,000 feet of descent, our record for one day… ouch!…) Then the climb up to Whitney started. The approach from Junction Meadows (8000 feet) took us to the shoulder of Mt. Whitney (Timberline Lake ~11,400′). The next day we climbed the rest of the mountain (14,505′). That felt like a long day. From then on we were hiking the John Muir Trail and were surrounded with JMTers… after the almost complete solitude of our first four days, the trail came alive with people. Busy year for the JMT, no doubt due to the success of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the subsequent movie. I’ve read the book but haven’t seen the movie. She’s a wonderful author. But it’s ironic that in the course of doing something like half the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), she didn’t do the John Muir Trail part. It was a big snow year so the High Sierra was blocked up with snow when she got there. But the fact that she didn’t do this part yet the JMT was packed wasn’t lost on the JMT hikers. We heard it mentioned a number of times. Seems harsh but I think everyone was surprised by how many hikers were out there. Hmmmm… I seem to be digressing… From Whitney, there were four or five days on the JMT before we took the Woods Creek exit… and then two days later we were back at the van… for a total of 11 days and 113 miles by my GPS.
This was Donna’s and my longest backpacking trip ever (maybe by a factor of two). We carried all our food for the entire trip with no resupply. Sounds amazing right? But it wasn’t that tough to do. We were provisioned for 10 days from the start. But we could have carried more if our backpacks were bigger. We try to keep our packs smallish cuz we’re older now and heavy packs are kinda hard on us. When we left home, my pack was about 45 lbs and Donna’s was about 35 as weighed on our garage scale. Neither pack had water when we weighed it. Water is about three pounds per full bottle. I carried one bottle and Donna would carry two. So that jumped our pack weight up a notch. Then when we finished the trip, my pack was 31 lbs 7 oz. with the water I had when I finished (about a quarter bottle) and Donna’s was 26 lbs 1 oz with no water.
I know we can get Donna’s pack weight down further so that’s an upcoming project. I already see a new poncho in her future. Not sure that I’m ever gonna be able to talk her into a new and lighter sleeping bag though.
Gear breakage… The only significant breakage was one of my trekking poles. The bale broke off in a fall. No way to repair it so I’m gonna get a replacement pole during the off season. After fighting it for years, I’ve now added trekking poles to the ‘must have’ column when preparing for a trip. The breakage occurred on the way down from Forester Pass so I was only using a pole without the carbide tip for the last three days… but it amazed us how much the pole wore down in that time.
Our travel speed seemed to be around two miles per hour on average. There was an hour coming down Avalanche Pass when conditions were just right and we managed a mile every 20 minutes, for an hour, or three miles an hour. That was cool. We felt like we had super powers and the Sierra was ours for the taking. But after that we didn’t manage that speed for an entire hour ever again. Although there were a few times when we went a mile in 20 minutes, but couldn’t hold it. On the climbs it seemed like our speed was more like one and a half mile per hour… and of course slower when we stopped to chat with other hikers. And the descents weren’t as fast as you would expect them to be… if it was an easy descent, then maybe two and a half mph… but most of the time it was slower… We stopped to take photos a lot though… drink water… and chat with people on the trail… or just rest and try to choke down a little food. All these little interruptions of course had the effect of keeping our hourly speed down. I really don’t know how the 20 mile per day crowd does it. We were almost always hammered at the end of the day and we were only doing about ten miles per day on average. We did 15 on the Whitney day so we definitely can do it… But when we were done for the day, I felt like I needed to be put on life support… and we definitely felt it the next day. Of course the 3,500 feet of climbing might have had something to do with it. One thing though… after feeling nearly totaled at the end of most days, it always amazed me how a night’s sleep would restore us. Then we’d be off and running again. I think one key to racking up 20 mile days is getting an early start. And because I was usually such a poky puppy getting started, that hardly ever happened… sigh… Another thing I don’t understand about the 20 mpd crowd… my feet just got sore. Maybe they toughen up after a while. I don’t know but my feet seemed to accumulate soreness. And of course blisters are a big problem too.
11 days of hiking (10 nights), total of 113 miles hiked, 25,770 feet total ascent, crossed over four passes (Avalanche – 10,013′, Colby – 12,000′, Forester – 13,200′, and Glen – 12,000′), and climbed Mt. Whitney (14,505′), and between Donna and me, took 1,620 pictures.
We saw lotsa deer, saw/heard three trees fall (all on our second day), met lotsa fun people, saw a momma bear and her cub on our last day, crossed countless streams, and ate about 25 lbs of food… but never once encountered a ranger or had our wilderness permit checked. I’m not really saying anything with this last statement. We know there were rangers out there. For instance one south bound woman JMTer we met had been checked three times. But until the last day we hadn’t seen a bear or a ranger for the whole trip so I just had to say something.
Couple other things to start out with….
First… This post is WAY too long. There I said it. I’m sorry… blog posts are supposed to be shortish no longer than say 500 words. But I just didn’t know any other way to do this. I’m sure there’s something I coulda done but I just didn’t think of it and ended up doing this. I could certainly leave out material/photos/maps/etc. … but this blog probably serves more as a family history or photo album for us California Fogelquists than anything else. And this is about as brief as I could make it and still have it be meaningful to us. I guess that applies to everything else in the blog too. But I tried to structure this post so you really don’t have to read the text to get the meaning. The pictures are arranged in the order (mostly) that they were taken… and captioned… So you probably can skip the text if you want.
Next… What’s the story behind the above (Just Out Havin’ Fun) post title? Well I had this friend, Tom Lowmen… He’s dead now… sigh… but we used to go out on backpacking trips in the High Sierra together. These trips usually turned into ordeals for me cuz he was tough, in awesome condition and most of the time would pack a solid two days of hiking into each day we were out. Often I’d marvel at what we were doing, or attempting to do. But the trips were a flat out ordeal for me. I could tell you stories… Sometimes when I’d be taggin’ along behind him, …my sniveling fading off into the distance as he strode on ahead… I’d hear him say, “Hey, we’re just out here havin’ fun.”. Of course I was having anything BUT fun. So it was funny to me when he said it. After he died, Donna and I started saying that whenever whatever we were doing was a bit of an ordeal… It got to be kind of a family joke… But I’m not gonna lie… there were times when this trip was a total ordeal…. mind over matter torture… On this trip I reached some of my highest highs… and some pretty challenging lows… However, now that we’re home, we both wanna go back out there more than we wanna take our next breaths… So we decided to name this post accordingly.
Okay… now we can get on with it.
For lack of any other way to organize this post I decided to do it chronologically… day by day… First I’ll display the terrain and elevation profile for our day of hiking. Then some text… then the pictures… If you want an expanded view of the photos, just click on the photo gallery and the display will change.
Day 1 – 8/3/15 – Climb up the Sphinx Creek Trail from Road’s End in Kings Canyon
This was a tough climb… Something like 3600 feet of elevation gain. And as if that wasn’t enough, after crossing Bubbs Creek and getting started on the ascent, we ran into bugs! Not mosquitos, but flies. They were everywhere. It was difficult to breathe without inhaling them as we huffed and puffed our way up the trail. Donna lost it and fled. No way I could keep up with her. When she wants to go, she can totally boogie. So we lost contact for a while. Then when the bugs finally subsided, and I caught up with Donna, the climbing just kept going… and going… and going… switchbacks… stairs… regular trail… then more stairs… seemed endless… and our packs were heavy with ten days of food. The only thing that wasn’t an issue was the altitude. We were low… but getting higher of course. Finally the ground leveled out. We found a place to cross Sphinx Creek and decided to make camp there. We coulda kept on for at least another hour, maybe even more I think but we just didn’t know about the water situation up higher… and whether there was anyplace flat to lay down our sleeping bags. So we called it a day at about 4:30. Very pleasant, leisurely evening though. This stopping early stuff was nice. I hope we get to do it more often.
Day 2 – 8/4/15 – Over Avalanche Pass and down into Clouds Canyon
Early… but not early enough, we broke camp and resumed our climb. Still had about 1500 feet before getting to the top of Avalanche Pass. I really thought this was gonna be easier after the yesterday’s climbing… but I guess 1500 feet is 1500 feet and that’s hardly ever easy. Started right into switchbacks almost from our campsite… Oy! We eventually made it to Avalanche though. Once we got there, we were expecting a sign or something to mark our achievement. But there was nothing. I think other hikers were disappointed about this too because there was kind of a hiker built monument. And of course we added to it before leaving. Actually we added quite a lot because the longer we were adding stuff to the monument, the longer we could rest before getting started again. But Donna, being the family VOR (Voice Of Reason) finally put a stop to our crazy… time to put our packs back on and get movin’ on down the trail. Now the descent into Cloud Canyon was beginning… We had to drop 2600 feet in the next 5.7 miles to get to the Scaffold Meadow Ranger Station… Oy! These first two days definitely kinda sucked.
Once we got down to the Roaring River, we did another couple miles just so our next day would be shorter. Those couple miles were totally mind over matter. But later, we were grateful we did them. The next day had some serious climbing toward the end and we wanted to have some gas in the tank for it. We finally stopped after about two miles where Brewer Creek crossed the trail.
That night we washed up in the creek. That was our first time to do this. We also washed some of the dirt and sweat out of our hiking clothes. And except for the cold water it was a great thing to do. We hadn’t seen anyone all day (or yesterday either) so we stripped down buck nek-ed and used our buffs as wash cloths. Was great to knock down the dust and stickiness. My pits had clearly become almost toxic Was also a good time for me to start my hand sanitizer experiment. You see I have this theory that because pit smell is a byproduct of bacteria, that if you kill the bacteria once a day with hand sanitizer, that I could eliminate pit smell from my hiking experience… and everyone around me too. sigh… spoiler alert: … the experiment didn’t yield the result I was hoping for… sigh… however it did seem to provid Donna with some amusement.
Another thing amazing about today… Not gonna lie… In my life, I have spent a lot of time in the forest… backpacking, biking, hiking, working in the forest service, fighting forest fires… etc. And in all that time, I have never seen or even heard a snag just fall over (a snag is a dead tree). They’re dead trees after all. They gotta fall down sometime. I’ve just never seen it. But this morning, not long before Donna and I were going to hit the trail, we heard this CRACK and as we looked over toward the sound, saw this snag fall into some other snags and knock the whole bunch over. Whoa! Lotsa noise, dust… and a little spooky. Then in the evening we saw the same thing again near our campsite at Brewer Creek. Then after we had gone to bed, and silence had descended upon us… across the creek and up the cliff, we heard the same distinctive CRACK and listened as a tree fell down the cliff kicking loose rocks and creating all kinds of havoc. OY! 8/4/15 – Bad day for trees… or I should say, bad day for snags. After that we didn’t see or hear another tree fall for the rest of the trip. But we started looking around us before making camp to see if there were any snags that might go in the night.
Day 3 – 8/5/15 – Climb to Colby Lake
Today we’re going up to Colby Lake. And I’m not gonna lie… it was a little harder than I thought it would be. However compared to later in the trip, not very hard at all. We just paralleled the river. Didn’t expect to see anyone… however right before we left camp, ‘the two chicks’ walked down the trail. I say “Two Chicks” because that’s what we called them… sorta became their secret trail name. it kinda startled us when we saw them walking by our camp as we were getting ready to leave cuz we hadn’t talked to anyone ‘cept each other since the ranger station…. and we could also see just how close we had camped to the trail. Gonna have to be more careful about that in the future. We exchanged some polite conversation and they were on their way. As it turns out we would be passing each other throughout the rest of the day and got to know each other a bit. This was before we dreamed up our picture idea though, so no pictures.
One thing that had been growing on my mind was adding the Rae Lakes Loop to the end of our trip. That would be about three days of food that we hadn’t budgeted for. To make up for this I had secretly not been eating as much to see if, over the trip as planned, I could save enough food for us to do the loop at the end. I was starting to feel it though. As a side note, oddly you don’t eat all that much on these trips. We seldom ate more than 2000 calories a day each and most often it was more like 1500… and on the Whitney day, neither of us had more than 700 calories… and that was forced. You’re just not hungry. Many times you really have to force yourself to eat. Our theory is that it’s the altitude. But we never did figure it out. All this explanation is necessary to tee up what happened next. After we had been on the trail for a while today, and we were stopped for short ‘packs off’ break. As we stood there in that little flat place (me peeing), up came these two guys. It was a father-son pair. We got to chatting about what most hikers chat about… that is where we’re going… where we started from and where we’d been… and I mentioned that we were thinking about adding the Rae Lakes Loop to our trip but we might be a little short of food for that. They totally pounced on this last though, saying that they had WAY too much food and would we like some? This of course would take weight off their backs …and put it on mine, but I was totally up for it if it meant being able to extend our trip. They dropped their packs and started digging, and ended up giving us a loaf of sunflower seed bread (heavy), a salami (even heavier… shoulda said we were vegetarians) and a bag of soba noodles (not as heavy)… WOW! The promised land!… They asked us if we had any extra sunscreen and we quickly produced an extra tube that I had been carrying as backup to Donna’s supply. Everyone closed their packs and we all went on our way. But Donna and I stopped at the nearest big flat rock where dove into our new stash. We wolfed down half the bread and half the salami in that one sitting… the rest of the bread and salami were gone by breakfast. The noodles lasted another three meals (just a note… they’re great for breakfasts)… But for a while, it was carb city! Just what we needed! Note to self: Soba noodles are the perfect hiking food. And … note to Eric Bradfield: Crazy as it sounds, the practice of getting food from other hikers is called “Yogi-ing” .. It’s a verb, as in – ‘to yogi’. So I can now really say that I’m smarter than the av-er-age bear. Note to everyone else… In college my nickname (that Eric gave me) was ‘Yogi’. He still calls me Yogi to this day… I don’t think he even knows my real name. But I digress (get used to it)… After this food recharge, we now had barely enough food to do the Rae Lakes Loop. Nice!
The rest of the day was ambling alongside the Roaring River until we got to Big Wet Meadow and the Whaleback. There we took a left turn to do our climb up to Colby Lake… more switchbacks and steps. Colby Lake was gorgeous, AND we had it all to ourselves. This part of the High Sierra isn’t well-traveled so it woulda been surprising if there had been others at the lake.
We camped on a ledge about 20 feet above the lake… Yes it was awesome… thank you for asking… but I didn’t realize how precarious it was until we were bedding down and trying to figure out where to put the bear canisters so that an inquisitive bear wouldn’t knock em into the water below. Yikes… maybe we should rope up so we don’t go into the lake ourselves. All settled in for the night, we watched the alpine glow on a nearby peak as it faded into the twilight.
Day 4 – 8/6/15 – Over Colby Pass and down to Junction Meadow
Tough day… First we climbed up Colby Pass… easy at first but then it got seriously steep and became the pass we measured all the other passes against for the rest of the trip.
The pass itself was awesome though… We sat up there for at least a half hour… maybe longer… enjoying the view. Usually passes are pretty inhospitable places… windy, cold… forbidding… you get there, catch your breath, quickly look around, take the requisite photos, then drop down outta the wind. But this time it was just wonderful. We could see what we thought was where Whitney was… (turns out that it wasn’t even close). We snacked, drank, rested… it was a nice, flat place to procrastinate from hiking. But too soon, it was time to get moving again… the descent to Junction Meadow awaited us… 4,000 feet of going down… Oy! I usually don’t like giving up all that hard won altitude, but this time I just hated it. Even with the amazing countryside that we were going through, it was no fun. We crossed through all kinds of terrain though… subalpine, meadows, pine forests, fern glens, level ground, steep sections… we had it all… until at last we came out to what turned out to be a difficult creek crossing at Junction Meadows… and the flat forest floor beyond. We were there. Almost time to rest our battered legs.
We made camp in a palatial camp site and even made a fire. Now that the trip was extended, I thought I was about two days short of alcohol for the stove so every time we were below 10,000 feet for the night (which wasn’t going to be often) I wanted to cook over a wood fire until I made up the shortage. It’s forbidden to make a campfire above 10,000 feet in Kings Canyon (the line in Yosemite is 9600′). I don’t think I’ve ever actually cooked over a fire so this was weird… and dirty. As a practice, we don’t make fires when we backpack… it’s just not a good thing to do. So I was a very inexperienced fire cooker. Did it for both dinner and breakfast and with that, theoretically, we were good on alcohol for the rest of the trip. Which worked out cuz after this morning we’d be over 10K’ each night for almost the rest of the way.
Day 5 – 8/7/15 – Junction Meadow to the base of Mt. Whitney
Today we would climb back up to altitude and start getting close and personal with Mt. Whitney. We started at about 8,000′ and we had to climb up to well over 11,000. Basically we had to regain almost everything we had lost yesterday. The Sierra is like that… up and down… and then up again.
Junction Meadows was also where we would end our solitary existence and join the High Sierra Trail… and then after climbing 2,500 feet we’d join the John Muir Trail where it crosses Wallace Creek. So we were expecting to start encountering people and started brushing up on our social skills. After four days of hardly interacting with anyone, we had pretty much gone feral so this was going to be a challenge. The JMT would be our life for the next six days until we peeled off at Woods Creek to go back to Road’s End.
No idea why, but the climb up to the JMT seemed almost easy, which was odd since it was 2,500 feet of pretty continuous ‘up’. At first we just climbed and looked over at the Kaweah Canyon that we had descended the day prior…. weird that we were just over there the previous afternoon. It looked so nice and inviting from here. Then we took a right to climb out of Kern Canyon to the JMT. Then once we joined the JMT, we took another right to head toward Whitney. Complicated huh? Well trailwise, It was a pretty complicated day. Other than that, we just had one mission… climb.
Everything went according to plan except at the end of the day when we were trying to get as close as we could to Mt Whitney. Our original plan was to get to Guitar Lake… but we were tired and content to camp above Timberline Lake (no camping at Timberline so we had to keep going) near the stream.
It was sizing up to be a gorgeous night so we didn’t even consider setting up the shelter. Turned out to be kind of a mistake though cuz during the night, it got very cold. We both had a lot of moisture build up on our bivies and the next morning everything was frozen. As I sat up to greet the new day, a bunch of ice fell off me. Oy! No wonder I was cold!
Day 6 – 8/8/15 – Mt. Whitney
Today was Whitney day!
Lotsa delays getting started though… All our sleeping gear was wet from the previous night so the first task of the day was to hang everything so it would dry out while we were climbing the mountain. Then we laid out the stuff for our day packs. To speed things up, we just had a Clif Bar each for breakfast, and then we were on our way… but still it seemed like it took forever for us to get going. I’m always the slow one and I don’t remember specifically what the hold up was but it was probably my fault… We were on the trail again by 9.
The climb started out to be fairly flat cuz we were skirting Guitar Lake and some other smaller alpine lakes… but then we got to the famous switchbacks. They start about 12,000 feet and go up to aroud 13,500.. We filled up all our water containers at the last creek crossing. After that, no water for the rest of the day.
The switchbacks were well graded. So the climbing while never easy, wasn’t all that tough either. There weren’t many of those nasty steps and the view was more astounding at each zig (or zag). I took a picture of the Hitchcock Lakes at the most southerly side of each switchback and included them here so you can see us going up up up. But even though it was relentless, the climb just didn’t seem all that bad. The altitude wasn’t even very noticeable. Clearly Donna and I were acclimatized. We felt like we had super powers. It was just long… but only half as long for us as the Shasta climb (see earlier post on this blog) so I didn’t feel justified in sniveling.
Crazy as it sounds, as we drew closer to the top, we still saw birds (in particular there was a raven at the Trail Crest junction) and also there were, of all things, wildflowers… here we were in a landscape that was reminiscent of what I’d imagine the moon to look like… and there were these lovely little flowers. Especially, there were some cool bluish-purple ones that we later learned were Sky Pilots. And some yellow ones that we thought were Alpine Gold. Donna also photographed some pink ones that I didn’t see. The splashes of color were startling because the back drop was a tossed sea of weathered granite.
After the junction with the trail from the Whitney Portal (Trail Crest), it was 1.9 miles and about a thousand feet more of climbing to the summit. The trail was deteriorating though. This next two miles was across jumbled rocks and wasn’t as easy traveling as were the switchbacks up to the junction. Of course this makes sense… we were climbing a damn mountain for Christ sake. It was easy to forget this because there was a well engineered trail. Most mountains don’t have trails to the top. The views just got better and better as we got higher of course. Also the trail would go by these ‘windows’ to the east side of the mountain that many times would expose sheer drop offs of many thousands of feet and an astounding view of the east valley and Lone Pine. Often it was sphincter puckering to look down, but the view was incredible. We started to be able to see the summit hut at the top now… Wow! This was really happening! One thing that neither of us had anticipated was the large number of people making their way up this trail. We didn’t have much company on the way up the west side through the switchbacks… there were a couple other south bound JMTers, a High Sierra Trail person and a solo dude… and us… but once we joined up with the Whitney Portal side at Trail Crest with all the day hikers and north bound JMTers comin’ up, … well it got pretty busy… And we were all jockeying for position on that one ridge trail. Holy social skills batman! Exercising social skills at 14,000 feet can be a bit of a challenge.
We made it to the top around 1PM. And almost immediately saw Victor. He had been up there and was about to head down so we just had time to say our hellos, take a few pictures of each other, and then he was gone.
The view from the top of course was dazzling. Donna and I aren’t used to having a view at the top of the mountains we climb. There’s usually a fire somewhere nearby with smoke that blankets everything. So at those times we usually try to put on our most cheerful face and keep going. But this trip up Whitney almost made up for all those other times. It was absolutely perfect. Astounding view of the surrounding High Sierra. I just wish that I knew what I was looking at. There were unfamiliar mountains everywhere.
Then… while we were on the top, the most surreal thing happened… a glider buzzed us… It was amazing. I heard a hissing sound and looked over in that direction just in time to see a glider streak across the face of the mountain. Unbelievable! It floated above us for a few minutes before streaking off into the distance.
After about an hour on top snapping pictures, gazing at the view and talking to people, it was time to head back down. While I was a ball of fire on the way up… now that we were going down, I just felt sapped… drained. Suddenly the altitude mattered. Was barely putting one foot in front of the other as I stumbled down the trail. Had to stop to eat something. Got a little better but not much… At one point I told Donna that, ‘I got us up here girl, but now you gotta get us down.’. So she took the lead and pulled me back down to the thicker air. The food of course helped some as well. I just don’t seem to care much for descending I guess.
Took us about four hours to get to the top… an hour and a half on top… then about three hours to get back down. When we got back to our campsite, we still had a lot to do… We had to pull our drying stuff off our makeshift clothes line and then repack everything from our day packs into our big packs… Then we had to hike the three miles or so back down to the Crabtree Ranger Station, where we were planning to spend the night. Once again Donna saved the day. My eyes were REALLY a problem. I have a dry eye issue that has to be managed. Clearly I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to manage it properly, because I could barely see. The sun was going down so time was of the essence. We felt some urgency to get down to Crabtree before the sun set. So I didn’t have time to fiddle with em to make things better… So I just mostly closed my eyes and tagged along dutifully behind Donna as we headed down the trail. After way too long, we arrived. Fixed my eyes, set up the tent, ate some crackers and went to bed. For that whole Whitney climb, Donna and I had only eaten two Clif Bars, a couple of GUs and those crackers, each… the altitude just sucks out your hunger.
Day 7 – 8/9/15 – End of day… Tyndall Creek Area
Today was all about heading north on the JMT again.
We got a late start cuz we slept in a bit, reorganized our gear, dilly dallied with the marmots, dried our stuff and finally headed off onto the trail say about eleven. Oy! That was a record even for us. But it was quite pleasant just hanging out at the Crabtree meadow.
Crabtree is one of the places backpackers converge for the night just before the Whitney climb. They go to bed early then around 2AM, get up, break camp and begin their climb. I know cuz I got up to take a leak around 2:30 and the woods were alive with little headlamp lights of campers packing up… I think these folks harbor some fantasy about watching the sunrise or something. But almost everyone was gone the next morning so we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
Nuthin’ all that special about the day… When we finally got on the trail, we just hiked north on the JMT. We ran into some fun people, took their pictures, had a last look at Whitney, made a face on rock by the trail (see photo below), etc. etc. It was just a pleasant day hiking in the High Sierra.
Only real objective was to get as close as we could to Forester Pass. That would make the climb tomorrow easier. But we got kind of a late start so that wasn’t gonna happen as well as we’d hoped. We made it a little past Tyndall Creek though. We stayed at an unnamed lake off the JMT… It reminded me of Stonehenge and Donna humored me, so that’s what we started calling it. Surreal place to spend the night. Soooooo quiet… only sound was the pikas chirping. The moon was getting to be a crescent and coming up in the early morning… I woke up in the middle of the night and got to watch as the lunar glow barely illuminated the surrounding rocks and reflected off the bear cannisters… It was a blessing to get to see that.
Day 8 – 8/10/15 – Forester Pass and down to Vidette Meadow
Today… Forester Pass…
This seems like a big deal since it’s a 13,200 foot pass… Except when climbing Shasta… and Whitney, this is the highest we’ve ever gone under our own power. We were taking it seriously. However, as you can see by the elevation profile, from the south it’s a well-managed grade climbing only a couple thousand feet. It gets steep at the end though and then it’s not really that steep… not Colby Pass steep that is. From the north it’s a different story… it’s a much longer and a sustained steeper climb. But we were coming from the south so life was good. The climb really didn’t bother us that much. Was kinda funny cuz we’d encounter south bounders coming down and they’d almost always give us a cheery, “you’re almost there” or “it’s not that far now”. We’d always thank them cuz we knew they meant well. But the climb was fairly easy (as climbs go). Later when we were descending, we understood why they were so encouraging. The climb up Forester as a south bounder is endless. It starts at about 9,500 feet and marches relentlessly up to 13,200… that’s almost 4,000 feet… Oy!
Forester was actually kinda fun… well as fun as a climb up a pass can ever be. We didn’t even notice the altitude. Near the top you start to see the amazing engineering it took to put this trail in. Just WHO were the people who built this? And how did they do it? How did they lift and move these heavy rocks? As you’re hiking, you often get wrapped up in your own suffering… your feet hurt, you’re outta breath, your muscles sometimes scream at you, you’re tired, you’re dirty, your pack is heavy and you’re hot… Then you look down at some amazing spectacle of trail building and you forget all that for a few seconds and just marvel… and… you feel like a total wimp… you can’t imagine what it must have taken to do that… You may quickly take a picture… but the awe passes and you quickly go back to the suffering again. But let me say this out loud… The people who built and maintain these trails are awesome… even the ones who break up all the big rocks to make those annoying, little fist sized rocks that cover the trail from time to time. Even though us hikers hate that surface, we know it’s necessary for some reason and are still grateful to you trail crews for the work you do.
When we got to the top of the pass, there nestled in the rocks out of the wind were Dave and Steve, enjoying the sunshine. They are a father/son pair hiking the JMT. It wasn’t too windy on the pass so we stopped for a little while to chat. Still had a long way to go though so too soon we took their picture and then dropped on down the trail. I included them in the previous post if you’re interested.
The rest of the day was descending. It was a fairly gentle day of going down… and down… and down… but after the excitement of going over Forester, it seemed like we would never get to Vidette Meadows… We could see the entire canyon laid out in front of us… and could see where we’d be at the end of the day. And it seemed to be taking forever to get there. As usual it was troubling to lose all that altitude. I had a little mishap on the way though… I slipped on what Donna calls a “Skitter Rock” and went down. As always I leaned on my trekking pole to stabilize me… but my left one got stuck between two rocks and I couldn’t get it free before falling on it. Felt the pole snap and looked down in dismay. There was my nice, light, expensive trekking pole in two pieces…. sigh… The break was near the bale so I was able to use the pole for the rest of the trip. But it got shorter every day… and now of course I gotta replace it.
We eventually got to Vidette Meadow… set up camp (and the shelter this time) at the first stream crossing we came to. We were a little late so we immediately set about our domestic chores… putting up the shelter, preparing dinner, washing up, washing clothes (and hanging to dry), inflating sleeping pads, etc. etc. Before we knew it, it was getting dark (and cold) so was time to call it a day and crawl into our nice warm sleeping bags.
Day 9 – 8/11/15 – Glen Pass and down to Rae Lakes
Today was Glen Pass and Rae Lakes day…
This was also where if we were in a hurry to get back to the van, say had run out of food, or were hurt… or were just over it, then we could boogie on down the Bubbs Creek trail and be back at the van by evening. But none of that was the case… we had enough food and other consumables, neither of us was hurt (‘cept my right foot was getting more and more troublesome every day), and we were far from sick of each other, or the trip. So we were off to do the Rae Lakes Loop.
When we started, the terrain was flat and pleasant as we made our way over the forest floor. But then we got to the sign indicating the way to Glen Pass… we looked in the direction of our trail and it went essentially straight up… Ugh!… So we started literally up that trail hoping it would level off… but it was relentless… up up up… double ugh! We were a bit over 9500 feet and had to climb up to 12,000 today so there was no way we were gonna get out of this without doing some climbing… but after yesterday’s descent-fest, it was a bit of a shock. And this time it wasn’t a well graded climb like Forester. It was pretty steep.
Eventually… after way too long… it flattened out and we arrived at the junctions with the trails to the Kearsarge Pass. Yes, there are two of them. Lotsa people waiting for the resupply pack trains to come in over Kearsarge… Pussies! Oh was that my outside voice? Sorry… Just sayin’… I simply don’t understand why that resupply is necessary. Donna and I carried enough food for 13 days… easily… and we could have carried more if our packs were bigger. The weight wasn’t the problem… Well weight is always a problem but it wasn’t the limiting factor. Pack volume was our Achilles Heel. And while we didn’t have an abundance of food… we had enough each day. We were never hungry. So what that means for south bound JMTers is that they can resupply once at Muir Trail Ranch for the whole trip south through Kings Canyon/Sequoia and not mess with the other arrangements. Resupplies take time, are expensive and often mean trail time going out of your way, or waiting for the pack train. Except for Vermillion Resort, if there’s a way to avoid them, I’m gonna do it. About Vermillion, Donna and I are going to make a special trip there. Everyone who has been there raves about it. But that’s another story… and maybe another blog post after we’ve been there.
HOWEVER… I digress… no one is really very interested in my little opinions about the resupply points on the JMT… sorry… but if you’re contemplating doing the JMT, you just have to know that unless you’re a big eater, you really don’t need all these resupply points.
Let’s see… where was I?… Oh yeah, we had just hiked by the Kearsarge Pass trail junctions… It’s nice and flat there… nice walking… but after this little oasis of flatness at 10,700 feet, the climbing starts again… We gotta get over Glen at 12,000 feet so time to get back to work. Neither of us was having a very easy time with this climb though. Not because of the climb… We were pretty accustomed to that. It was because of the very rocky, irregular and unpleasant trail surface. Also the grade was inconsistent. And the scenery wasn’t that awesome. This was definitely NOT Forester, which was a higher pass but oddly pleasant. However… we did our best and eventually got through it.
The pass itself was unusual… awesome view of course… we could now see the Upper Rae Lake … and the Painted Lady… but the trail topped out, then straddled this ridge at the top. Kinda fun walking for a hundred feet or so with a drop off on each side. The rocks were a different, darker color. But until we got to the pass, Glen Pass wasn’t the prettiest pass we had ever done. It was kinda like climbing a big rock quarry. There wasn’t any wind on the pass though… it was very pleasant… no summit sign which is always oddly a disappointment… but we didn’t dilly dally there just pausing long enough to take a few pictures. After leaving the pass, the trail dropped down to the switchbacks on the north side. Again the trail surface was no fun. Our feet were sore. But we descended the 1,500 feet to the lake where we were intent on finding a campsite as quickly as possible. We didn’t go that far today but for some reason it sucked quite a bit of the life out of us.
Shane, this cool southbound JMTer who we met soon after leaving Vidette Meadows (see previous post of awesome people we met on the JMT), had told us about a place on the isthmus between Upper and Middle Rae Lakes where he had this awesome view of the Upper Lake with the Painted Lady in the background. ‘Let’s go see if we can find it and camp there!’… And fortunately, it was just as easy to find as Shane said it was. And that’s where we set up.
Most of the time, any wind there is during the day disappears at night. The nights are usually a cosmic calm that makes you feel, as you look up at the stars, like you are a lucky witness to the grandeur of the overlooking universe… like you’re cruising on Ocean Liner Earth, looking out through a porthole to see the passing lights of the cosmos as you sail by. However not this night. Rather than die down, the wind started to build until it seemed like a howling gale buffeting our shelter. The racket was annoying and made it hard to sleep. I was hoping for a repeat of what Shane had told us occurred the previous night… that is the Milky Way behind the Painted Lady reflected on the lakes mirror like surface. He photographed it (http://shanegracephotography.com/p1038158624#h53db2b6c). The stars at night were of course incredible. And the Milky Way was bright as always… but there would be no reflection on the surface of the lake that night..
Day 10 – 8/12/15 – Descent to Upper Paradise Valley
Sorry for the two sets of terrain and elevation profile maps… my GPS battery gave up when we got to the Woods Creek crossing. So I had two tracks for the day.
The trip was winding down… Glen Pass, at 12,000 feet, was the last high point and for the most part it was gonna be all descent from here. Our packs were light now and getting small because we’d finished most of our food and we were now stuffing our belongings into the bear canisters. Because of all this, in our planning, this was supposed to be the time when we were doing big miles and laughing all the way… kind of a victory lap. At one point I even fantasized that we could go from Rae Lakes to Road’s End in one long day…. But… that’s not the way it actually was turning out. My foot was bothering me, the scenery wasn’t what I thought it would be, we were tired… and the end of the trip just seemed to be looming over us. Yes, we wanted to be be done with the daily suffer session of hiking… and enjoying our fantasy burger was less than two days away… but… we were also saying goodbye to the High Sierra for… I don’t know how long, ..and to be honest about it, I wasn’t very happy about leaving. I don’t often get to feel the joy I felt sometimes when we were high in the Sierra and I wasn’t anxious to put that behind me. And where the beginning of the trip was a touch nerve wracking and a little stressful, it was also full of new horizons and the prospect of seeing things that we’d never seen before… the Sierra High Trail, Colby Pass, the Mount Whitney Zone, the famous Forester Pass, the Big Horn Plateau, etc. etc. But now we had pretty much done it all, and after Dollar Lake today, there wasn’t much left to look at ‘cept for a seemingly unending forest floor. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth. There was still the suspension bridge at the Woods Creek crossing, Castle Domes, Mist Falls… and just being there… but… I just wasn’t that interested. What was wrong with me? I was becoming more preoccupied with some challenges that I was having with my life back home of course this wasn’t brightening my mood either. Donna kept telling me to snap out of it… all that would take care of itself. We’re in the Sierra now… take it in. ‘Good grief dude!’ But relaxing and focusing on all the scenic grandeur surrounding us wasn’t as easy as it should have been, especially as we sunk to lower and lower altitudes.
Anyway, we packed up, left our little isthmus haven at Rae Lakes and got back onto the trail. We walked by the famous Fin Dome… and the lakes were gorgeous of course. Someone told us about Arrowhead Lake and it indeed looked like the best to us too. But we didn’t go down to check it out. We had ground to cover.
The hiking today was less than memorable… I’m sorry but that’s the way it felt… We were descending, not to climb back up again. So this was it… and I was in a bit of a mood. Looking back at the pictures, it was gorgeous though… So obviously I was more in the frame of mind of going home. What a waste. It’s a gorgeous place to be. I regret not being more in the moment now that I’m back home.
That night we made it to Upper Paradise Valley. This is where Woods Creek joins the Upper South Fork of the Kings River. It’s a flat spot with quite a few campsites. When we got there it looked like we had the place to ourselves… we started struttin’ around like we owned the place… but then BAM! Within minutes, the place filled up. There were people everywhere. Well it just seemed like a lot of people to us I guess. And these people were a completely different type… a type that we weren’t accustomed to. They were out on a four or five day excursion to do the Rae Lakes Loop. This is a VERY popular loop in Kings Canyon. We started calling them ‘Loopers’.
For days now we had been accompanied by the JMTers. These are the folks doing the John Muir Trail. As a class, they are well equipped, able hikers who knew what they were doing. They’re usually out for anywhere from two to three weeks hiking in the most rugged part of the PCT (yes I said “PCT”… The JMT is the most difficult part of the PCT especially in Kings Canyon). They were well equipped and had seen it all. But these ‘Loopers’ were something else. They were mostly nice people but really didn’t seem like they had a clue. They smelled of laundry soap and fragrance, while Donna and I, fighting it as best we could, were just plain nasty (well I was the nasty one… Donna as always smelled like “spring flowers”). I’m sure that there are super cleanup sites that didn’t smell as bad as my armpits… and, except for one four day stretch, I cleaned them every day. That’s just the way it was… Your armpits got stinky on the JMT. The JMTers were all that way. The PCTers were even worse. We all did our best but you could only do so much. We had all pretty much gone feral. But these loopers were a different story… So clean, so fresh, so energetic… it made me miss my people… the JMTers… this was another new and unexpected reason to be depressed. It was weird. I wanted to be done, to get back to my life and make some progress on the stuff I was worrying about… but I also wanted to run back to the JMT. And now I was kinda taking my confusion out on these poor loopers… To top it off, I know that I’m no better than they are. In normal times, Donna and I routinely took four and five day trips. We’d come back feeling like mountain people. But we were only gone for a few days. So I was nothing special. We stay away from the high use areas though, preferring the solitude of Emigrant or the lake basins near the Piute area… or the High Sierra… but still. I’m no better… and maybe a little worse cuz I’m kind of a dick. Sigh… I hope that I’m not spoiled forever from doing the four and five day trips. That’s our bread and butter. There is a lot of awesome country to see.
Anyway… Donna and I made camp, cleaned up, made dinner laid our sleeping bags out inside our bivies (we didn’t use the shelter cuz we were low enough to be warm without it)… all the usual stuff… and went to bed.
Day 11 – 8/13/15 – Hikin’ out Paradise Valley back to Road’s End
Sorry about all these plots… my GPS kept losing satellite reception as we descended. I think it was because the granite walls above us were blocking out the satellite signals. These maps aren’t that interesting anyway… it was pretty flat and descending through here as we were on our way back to the valley floor. But I had to include what I had anyway.
Last day of the trip… All we did was hike out. It was a ten mile hike but still that’s pretty much all we did. Again it was lovely but my foot finally blew up so those ten lovely miles was a bit of a forced march for me. The last two, which were flat was a total ordeal. We went from about 7000 feet to 5000 feet in those ten miles.
As we descended we ran into another type of hiker… the day hikers from Roads End. No packs… no dirt… carrying water bottles… made me miss the loopers… I’m sure they were revolted by my stench as we passed by. But now the stench was a point of pride. Kinda wished I hadn’t bathed the night before.
We got a feel for how high up we had been for the last ten days though… The cliff walls that surrounded us were topping out between 8 and 9 thousand feet. But high as that seemed right now when we were standing in the trail looking up at them, it really was chump change compared to how high we had climbed and had been living for the last eleven days… And when we were on top of Mt Whitney we were almost at 15,000 feet… roughly three times as high as the valley floor. The Sphinx, which we had to crane our necks now to see was only 9146 feet high… or about 1500 feet lower than the altitude that we has spent most of our time above for the last 10 days. I really didn’t have a feel for the elevation until we had descended back into the valley and looked up. Those peaks above us seemed almost unreachable.
So…. we were done… Long drive home… Passed what was now being called the “Rough Fire” on our way back. This was a tiny fire we saw on our way into Kings Canyon. I thought it would be long out by now but it had turned into an inferno gobbling up thousands of acres. There were fire crews everywhere positioning themselves to fight it. Later we learned that it burned down the Kings Canyon Lodge, an iconic little place we saw as we had driven in. We almost stopped there for ice cream on the way out but didn’t want to subject them to our aromas.
We had our fantasy burgers at a Carl’s Jr. in Fresno… Mine was a Western Bacon Cheeseburger… and I’m not gonna lie… it totally sucked… Big mistake… There wasn’t one thing that I liked about it. I looked enviously over at Donna’s burger. I think I would have preferred a different flavored Clif Bar to the burger I had…. but I put on my most cheerful face and toughed it out. After all I had been fantasizing about it for much of the last two weeks. We made it home just after the sunset. And the place was still standing….
After one of these trips, you’re kinda depleted. During the trip, Donna and I had been fantasizing about our fantasy burger… as we hiked we would describe it… it had to be fast food… it had to be a burger… but everything else was fair game… We also looked forward to not being ashamed of ourselves for watching a few baseball games and drinking a few Hopstupids while doing so. And that we did. Since then, our life at home has restarted… we eventually developed the initiative to download our pictures… and put together this blog post. We put away our backpacking stuff in the garage…It’s been a couple weeks and my foot is even starting to show signs that it’s gonna heal… although it’s still swollen and I can’t wear certain shoes that I used to wear all the time. But things are more or less getting back to what passes for normal. But DAMN! We sure are missing the Sierra. I’ve already started the planning process for our next trip. Donna usually just humors me when I carry on about this or that possible loop… but now she seems to be paying attention.
Oh… one more thing… you should see Donna… She’s absolutely svelt! This backpacking is great for your waistline… I lost nearly ten pounds from when I left and eight seems to be staying off… So it’s been a nice reset. I wanna get out on the trail again so I can lose some more…
Just can’t wait to get out there again…
Jets: I just gotta say something about all the jets flying over the Sierra… What’s all that about anyway? These were mostly military aircraft, not commercial. My theory is that they were either from Edwards AFB or Travis… or both. And they can’t fly over the more populated parts of the state because of the noise. So they fly over the Sierra. Just to be clear, this is not a complaint. I found them to be oddly comforting. Mostly we heard the sound but occasionally we’d actually see one or two of them flying together. They’re just awesome. Can’t believe us lame ass humans can build and fly stuff like that.
Stink: Just in case I’m not being clear here, I’m not a big fan of my armpit stink. But I just couldn’t find a practical way to do anything about it. Donna and I would wash up as often as we could. We didn’t use soap though… it’s bad for the water animals and living in the High Sierra, they have it rough enough already. But soap really does helps knock the smell back. But we could only do that when we were camped near a stream and had enough time after we stopped hiking for the day to do so. The scrubbing was limited though cuz the water was cold and I’m a big baby. I tried to compensate with the lavish use of hand sanitizer… but I already admitted failure in this experiment. It might have helped though but I just don’t know.
Just to be clear… despite all Donna’s carrying on about how bad she smelled, I never smelled anything bad from her… She always smells like spring flowers. I think what she thought was her was actually me. Just a theory…
I tried to study and analyze this stink phenomena… What I observed was that the stink was about at it’s worst the second day. I mean the pits get to smelling just toxic… The first day is troubling but the second day was just nasty…like you’re burning your nose hairs… Then it seemed like the next day wasn’t as bad… and the fourth day was less bad than the first three… but that’s as far as my data goes. My theory is that the bacteria begin to balance and maybe cancel each other out. Just a theory but those are my observations.
Things we’d do next time:
- Soba noodles… We yogi-ed some from some other hikers and they were just awesome… almost like they’re the perfect hiker food. Easy to make… tasty all by themselves… and great nutrition for what you need.
- Bring olive oil for energy… yes it’s heavy but it’s also calorie dense. They’re fat calories so useless on a climb but good for the evening meal. Soba noodles and olive oil seem like a great combo.
- Bring earplugs for those windy nights. And for Donna, she can use them to get away from my nonstop babbling.
- Ensolite pads to sit on.
- I’m gonna try using Crocs for camp shoes… they’re light, easy to put on. Bought some red ones so they’d be easy to find when packing up.
Things we wouldn’t do again:
- Skip the ensolite pads for camp shoes… Fun camp idea but didn’t work out so well. Crocs for camp shoes maybe?
- Not sure if it’s necessary to bring a cozy… I bring one every time and I never use it. Maybe if I run into a recipe requiring a cozy but otherwise… might work with the Soba Noodles though… gotta experiment
- Don’t bring Propel again… there’s no sugar in it. I have no use for artificial sweetener when backpacking. My search continues for a powdered drink mix (that I like) that has real sugar in it.
- Not sure if two pairs of extra socks are necessary. One pair… for sleeping? I only used one pair for this whole trip… actually it was two pairs… a thin liner sock with a running sock over the top…
Food we ate and quantities:
A rough idea of food we ate… One Mountain House meal per night that we shared, one egg dish or granola with blueberries dish each in the mornings. Averaged two Clif Bars per day each… Averaged two GUs per day each… Sometimes a little more… Also… a couple times during the trip we had crackers (Triscuits) with tuna as a treat… Granola and homemade trail mix. Put lots of M&Ms in the mix. No coffee but hot chocolate at night and apple cider in the morning each. Actually Donna didn’t drink the hot chocolate. She drank tea instead. …double pack of Metamucil morning and night for me… Donna did singles.
Best GUs were the double espresso and the double latte with 2X caffeine.
Raman noodles and soup packs… powdered milk… fast food condiments for flavor.
1/2 bottle of alcohol per day rule of thumb for the stove.