Conquering and capturing the Sierra Nevada - Part I

a photographer's trip report

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May, 2017: Jokingly, I ask my dad (who lives 5500 miles away) if he wants to "go for a little hike in July." A week later, my mom asks me if I realize he's about to book his flight. This is the story of what followed: two photographers on a 75-mile, 8-day trip crossing the Great Western Divide and Sierra Nevada on foot. A story about lightning, stars, and crushed red blood cells. A story about wet shoes and a nightly summit of the highest mountain in the contiguous US, fueled by wilderness-baked dark chocolate cheesecake and bison meat. This is my dad and me conquering the famed High Sierra Trail.

Amazing foothills view on our way to Bearpaw

The High Sierra Trail

The High Sierra Trail, or HST, is a trail across California's Sierra Nevada that was constructed in the late 1920's. It was a massive project, especially considering the terrain, conditions, and remote location of most of the trail. Forming the only direct connection from west to east across this part of the mountain range, this trail was a conscious decision by officials to be the alternative to building a road, preserving much of the wilderness and offering remote recreation possibilities. As a result, the construction took several years, and now spans over 72 miles (115 km), and passes the summit of Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet (4420 m) the tallest peak in the contiguous United Sates. Needless to say, trekking across the HST is a multi-day adventure requiring strong legs and an adventurous spirit, and quite honestly, is one of the most epic undertakings I have ever done. Read on for insider's info and of course pictures from our experiences on the trail, where my dad Marcel and I became known to other hikers as "the father & son photographer team".

Day 0

Just two days after Marcel's arrival in the US (straight from his vacation in Ireland - rough life!), we were on our way to Sequoia National Park, where the HST starts. We decided that it was a good idea to get a night's sleep at elevation to get used to the thinner air, and to get an early start the next day. We would be starting our week-long hike at the Crescent Meadow trailhead, at 6500 ft (1980 m). So, what do you do the evening before you go on a long backpacking trip? You camp! With all campsites in Sequoia already taken, we drove back out of the park and secured a spot at Big Meadow campground, a small National Forest campground just outside of the park. On our way, we drove through a short thunderstorm and got some hail, and hoped this was not a precursor for what was to come. Fortunately, the weather cleared up by the time we got to the campground, and we climbed the little hill next to it for a sunset view of the Sierra foothills, and tried to imagine what the next couple of days were going to be like. Especially to Marcel, who had never done an overnight hike, let alone an 8-day hiking adventure!

Marcel pondering the adventure that lies ahead / second thoughts before starting our hike?

Day 1 - Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw (11.4 miles / 18.2 km)

Even though we started fresh, this was to Marcel the hardest day of the entire trip. We started by packing up our tent for the first time, a routine we would perfect over the next 7 mornings. We made it to the wilderness office before they opened to ensure an early start, but alas, the ranger had had a 'busy' Friday night, and failed to show up on time.

The younger rangers manning the visitor center store were very helpful; one of them ran to the wilderness ranger's residence and was able to wake him up. Not long after, he showed up - still half asleep - and got us and a few other our wilderness permits. Then, it was off to Crescent Meadow to start our hike! After repacking our backpacks, a final visit to a normal (pit) toilet and storing the remainder of our items in the bear proof storage bins, we were off. Of course we had to pose by the High Sierra Trail sign: Mount Whitney - 60 miles.

The first trail miles were fairly mellow, steadily rising out of the redwood forest, passing some amazingly large trees, and quickly leaving the meadows and mosquitoes behind. Soon, the face of the hill that the trail was traversing got steeper, and we could see how much work the construction of the trail must have been. This gave us some amazing views of the green Sierra foothills (and the smoggy Central Valley out west).

Mandatory trailhead picture

Amazing foothills view on our way to Bearpaw

The trail kept climbing, and at Eagle View we got our first look at the challenge that lay ahead: the Great Western Divide, the core of the Sierra Nevada. The epic sight across the canyon was something we did not get used to for the rest of the day. After passing several small creeks - there really wasn't very much water - and refilling our water bottles, we finally got to nine mile creek. The only thing left for the day was the final climb up to Bearpaw Meadow, our campsite for the night. My friend Doug had warned me about this ascent, but it caught Marcel off-guard and to this day (I'm writing this 7 months later) he insists that was the hardest part of the hike. Perhaps it had something to do with it being his first experience carrying a nearly 60 pound pack, or him getting used to having to slow it down hiking at elevation. Either way, we made it, and were able to quickly set up camp and wait out a short thunderstorm before walking over to the Bearpaw High Sierra camp, from where we had an epic view of the sunset.

Thanks to the rapidly changing weather, we got an amazing sky over the peaks of the Great Western Divide, and a glimpse of the climb we had planned for the next day. The clouds and short showers kept coming and going, providing a great light show through sunset. Once it started to get dark, we went back to the tent, and after a quick freeze-dried dinner we tucked in for our first night of the self-supported trek.

The view from Bearpaw Meadow: The Great Western Divide and Kaweah range

The slideshow below shows, in chronological order, a few impressions of our first day on the trail.

Marcel checking out a big sequoia

Day 2 - Bearpaw to Nine Lakes Basin (9 miles / 14.5 km)

An early start meant that we were first on the trail; we got to clear the spider webs... with our faces. We also spooked some deer and a marmot, but were unable to find the mountain lion that was spotted on this stretch of the trail just a few days prior. The trail this day was a trail builder's extravaganza; the original construction of this section lasted more than two summers! We also got in one of our biggest ascents, longest hike days and the first bit of High (elevation) Sierra.

The twisted remains of the old bridge across Lone Pine Creek

From Bearpaw, a gradual descent led us on a trail carved out in the near vertical cliffs. Here, we got some great views looking across the canyon to the wall we were about to scale. Crossing Lone Pine Creek, we saw the remains of an old bridge that had collapsed under the weight of snow and avalanches, and the contorted steel was testament to the power of these forces. From this point on, it was all uphill for the rest of the day (over 7 miles). Steady progress led us to Hamilton Creek, where the water flows right across the trail and drops off a wide ledge as an impressive waterfall with an even more impressive view of the peaks in all directions. A gorgeous spot for a quick timelapse and an extended snack break, and this is where several other hikers caught up with us. We continued, along more waterfalls, up to Hamilton Lake and the pit toilet nearby (Marcel's stomach wasn't adjusting too well to the 9 hour time difference, intense hiking and elevation).

Precipice Lake

Hamilton Lake was a beautiful spot, and one where we had hoped to camp. However, it was only midday, and at Bearpaw, two day hikers had warned (read: challenged) us about the grueling climb up ahead: the hike to Nine Lakes Basin, crossing the Great Western Divide. After a relaxing lunch break, and, for Joost, a bath, we left the campsites for the other hikers, and were the only team to continue. We crossed the knee deep creek as clouds started gathering into what started to look like a typical Sierra afternoon thunderstorm. As promised, the trail kept climbing, and as Hamilton Lake slowly shrunk below us, we got gradually better views of some of the great peaks of the range: Eagle Scout Peak, Mount Stewart and the Kaweahs. Along the way, we passed Hamilton Gorge, where a steel-cable suspension bridge once stood. All the material was brought in by a train of mules in 1932, but the bridge only lasted 5 years.

Some of the remnants of cable and support structure can still be seen in the depths below the trail, that now actually tunnels through the steepest section and loops along Hamilton Gorge. A few more switchbacks later, we passed the treeline but got through some unexpectedly lush and green meadows, where the melt water must hydrate the rocks.

The sky got darker as we got to the first patches of snow (yes, in August!), and we decided to wait out some of the weather at Precipice Lake. This was a seriously impressive sight; mountain peaks appeared and disappeared in the clouds, lightning illuminated the distant peaks occasionally, while we could barely take our eyes of the lake itself.

Big Arroyo valley and the Great Western Divide

The almost black water reflected the contrasting cliffs on the other side, while small pools in the ice covering part of the lake broke through the monochrome spectacle with their bright turquoise hue. Pictures simply don't do it justice.As soon as the weather had stabilized a bit, we trudged on, hoping to set up camp before dark. Crossing the Kaweah Gap (10700 ft) to get to the basin on the other side of the Great Western Divide was a special experience; several small ponds and green grass surprised us in the otherwise talus and scree-dominated landscape. The sun broke through the cloud just as we made it over the saddle, and the Nine Lakes Basin and Big Arroyo Valley lay before us. From this vantage point we picked  a small hill to pitch our tent on, and hiked on to the spot, stopping often to take pictures of the beautiful light on the mountains. Although we were tired, we stayed up until the Milky Way became visible. Being in the core of the Sierra Nevada, this may just be the furthest form civilization I have ever been, and the cold, clear sky contributed to one of the best night sky views I have witnessed. Eventually, we went to sleep to the soothing sound of my camera snapping away timelapse frames a few yards from our tent.

The slideshow below shows a couple more images from this exciting day.

The Milky Way over Eagle Scout Peak

Early morning view across the valley

Day 3 - Nine Lakes Basin to Moraine Lake (10 miles / 16 km)

This was probably my roughest day, and it was actually downhill overall! We started out with an epic twilight scene. With a 360 degree view from our camp, we got the choice of directions to look: south of us, the tallest mountains caught some alpenglow well before the sun rose above the horizon. Once the sun rose we explored some of the lakes and a nearby creek, catching some beautiful reflections of the surrounding peaks. We had been warned the day before by other hikers that the mosquitoes come out in the morning. Sure enough: the fun ended promptly at 9 AM, and we hurriedly packed everything up trying to outrun the bugs. The trail down through Big Arroyo valley was nothing short of gorgeous; wide views of the Great Western Divide to the west and the Kaweah range to the east, and short trees dotting the landscape.

Expansive views down Big Arroyo valley

As we gradually descended, the trees grew taller and taller. Two miles in, we came through several avalanche zones, where trees had been pushed down the slopes and dragged across the trail. Many of the trees we encountered must have come from the opposing hillside, across the creek, with the remainder of their trunks nowhere to be seen. I wouldn't want to traverse this area after some snowfall!

Eventually we had to cross the creek: balancing on some rocks we made it through the fast-moving water. From this point it was suddenly uphill for several miles, while on the map it looks like the trail barely ascends. This surprise came with several rewards, as our views got better and better, temperatures got higher on the sunny slope, and we encountered several beautiful little waterfalls. On top of that, at the highest point, we came through a forest of crazy-shaped foxtail pine trees, and more epic mountain views. Taking our lunch break here, we also met two girls hiking the opposite direction, that had apparently hiked 5 days already but with packs less than half the size of ours! Envious, we ate a double lunch, trying to shed some of our pack weight.

So far, so good, but after lunch came the downhill. And it just didn't seem to end. We had set our sights on Moraine Lake, which seemed like a short stretch from the main trail. But even though we took our time, the sloping terrain was taking a toll on my knees, and my spirit hit a low point. After every turn it seemed like the lake had to be right in front of us, but it took almost two hours more than I had expected. Finally we made it to the lake; we didn't even bother trying to find the best campsite, we just took the first one we came upon. The sun was still fairly high in the sky, so I decided this was a good time for some laundry and a quick swim. The alpine water was 'refreshing', but we had been sweating so much on this warm day that even Marcel hopped in the water - briefly. The rest of the day was spent taking pictures of the sunset and the rising milky way. The water on the lake was so still that I even managed to capture its reflection in the lake!

Sunset at Moraine Lake

Day 4 - Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow (13.7 miles /21.7 km)

For this day, our plan was probably the most ambitious: we had a lot of distance to cover if we wanted to make it all the way through Kern Canyon to Junction Meadow: almost 14 miles away. We studied the map for at least half an hour trying to find a good location closer by where we could expect good sunrise and sunset views based on topography, but decided Junction Meadow was probably our best bet. We decided to give it a shot, hoping that there would be other good campsites along the way in case we didn't quite make it there.

Crossing Sky Parlor Meadow with the Kaweah range in the background

We had been hiking southeast since the Nine Lakes Basin, only to head north for 10 miles after reaching the Kern Canyon. The Kaweah peaks ridge, consisting of Black Kaweah, Kaweah Queen, Mount Kaweah and Red Kaweah, all well over 13000 ft (4 km) tall, was the reason for this significant detour.

From our campsite at Moraine Lake, the trail was mellow for a while, leading us past some great Kaweah views and gorgeous meadows on the Chagoopa Plateau, where we saw a couple of deer. The trail then started descending, steeper and steeper. As the 4-mile descent switchbacked down across creeks and waterfalls, we got to see what we were descending into: the Kern Trench, a major geological feature that splits the Sierra Nevada in half, separating west and east.

Looking south into Kern Canyon

We reached the bottom of the canyon, happy that our knees had survived the test. Little did we know our ankles were next! Expecting grassy trails in the green valley, we were not prepared for the very rough scree dotted with mule poop, and occasional muddy stretches between tall ferns. They should have called it Fern Canyon! Fortunately, this terrain didn't last long. Apparently, the Kern canyon is a major stock trail, providing access from the south to outfitters that resupply through-hikers on the John Muir Trail (210 miles / 340 km!) and Pacific Crest Trail (2650 miles / 4260 km!!).

Following the Kern River to the north, we had a clear goal for our lunch break: Kern Hot Springs. As the name implies, this is where a hot bath awaits. Needless to say, this is a popular spot for hikers, and we had to wait out our turn, as the two other hiking teams we had see a few times earlier arrived just before us. In the sunny meadow adjacent to the tub this was not a bad thing, and we took this opportunity to let our feet cool off in the chilly river water.

The hot spring itself was a cement bathtub, with a tube that flows hot water into the pool, and a drain to the river. There is even a privacy screen (nobody carries a swimsuit all this way)!

After the hot springs, we decided to keep going as far as we could today, to reduce the distance to cover on our next days, where we would be ascending again, all the way to Whitney.

Kern River

We picked up the pace on the relatively easy terrain, that followed the river, between steep walls on either side. The trail got drier and drier, almost desert-like, until we got to several creeks again. These creeks all came from high up on our right, where the tallest of the Sierra Nevada peaks dump their snow melt down into the canyon. Because of the high canyon walls, we lost direct sunlight pretty early, and we rushed across and through some of the deepest creeks we had yet encountered, finally crossing Whitney Creek. As the name suggests, we would be following it again later, on our epic ascent.

With temperatures dropping, mosquitoes suddenly came out of nowhere, encouraging us to hike even faster, despite the feeling of blisters growing on our feet, and chafing of my pack on my hips becoming severe enough to start oozing. Finally we made it to Junction Meadow, which was much less of a meadow than we had expected. In fact, the site wasn't any different from the terrain we had been crossing, and the only significance of this spot stems from the trail junction, with one trail going west, and the other climbing out of the Kern canyon to the east.

Today we had a special treat after dinner: Dark chocolate cake! This turned out surprisingly well, despite our impatience to wait the recommended time before eating. At elevation, most cooking takes longer, but we were tired... We were even somewhat relieved that there were no good photography views here, so we could go straight to bed.

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