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The High Sierra Trail (8/1/1998-8/15/1998): 1 | 2 | 3

-- Text and pictures are ©Tom Reynolds. All Rights Reserved.

End-Kern Hot Springs to Whitney Portal


Today is anticlimactic. The ford of Whitney Creek is exciting but not difficult. It is fast running water thigh deep but our dual hiking poles work very well. Everyone crosses easily. . Later, another hiker crosses Whitney Creek without poles. He goes in up to his neck and needs to be fished out. He has a nasty gash from his fall. You get my point?



Wallace Creek is even more exciting than Whitney Creek. The water is so strong that we have a bow wave from our knees to our belt. This gets our shorts wet but little more. Again four feet make all the difference. Most people, and some of our party, cross on a log.

We are at Junction Meadow. There is a lone lady here. She came over Pants Pass. She talked about the loose scree. One time TV sized boulders gave way underneath her Very dangerous she said. Every step she took caused a landslide.


We rise early to climb out of the Kern. Past Junction Meadow the trail claims about 900'. The Kern is one massive rapids here. Originally we were scheduled to continue up the Kern Headwaters and out over Forrester or Shephard Pass but snow considerations nixed this idea. As we climb the Colby Pass area comes into view. Fantastic. Another year. We turn away from the Kern and continue climbing up Wallace Creek. The views get better. The once dinky Kaweah Range now rises 5000' from the Kern and is very impressive. Behind it Mineral King and the Great Western Divide form a backdrop.  We ford Wright Creek, the last difficult crossing. No Problem. By 10AM we have reached the John Muir Trail. We rock-hop Wallace Creek and climb some more.

The Whitney area is very high. From Wallace Creek we climb and traverse some ridges that can only be glacial moraine -- as unbelievable as that is at 11,000'. The entire Bighorn Plateau --the area between Wallace Creek and Forrester Pass comes into view. It looks lots like Chagoopa Plateau and I am not so sorry I am heading for Whitney. Traversing these moraine ridges, however is not fun. We camp just north of Crabtree Meadow at the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the trail from Cottonwood Pass. Guitar Lake is less than 3 miles away.


We are on the trail to Guitar Lake. It is a 900' climb. Timberline Lake is wonderful. There are awesome views in all directions. Guitar Lake is not as ugly as we'd heard but we head for a meadow above it. We set up camp next to a flowing stream on the flank of Mt Whitney. Looking up one sees precariously balanced rocks that would devastate our campsite if they ever tried to fall. Down the cliff is Guitar Lake and beyond is the Kaweah range and beyond that Mineral King and the Western Divide



We are ready to go well before it is light enough. As expected, at 5:40 we start up the trail. We climb to the upper plateau and are soon on long, well graded switchbacks. Most Sierra Passes have rocky switchbacks with 1-2' steps. Not these. It is easy walking. At 13,100 my altimeter poops out. I continue, not knowing how far I need to go. Dawn brings a magnificent view back across the 70 miles we have hiked.

The switchbacks are anticlimactic. By 7:30 we are at the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the Mt. Whitney Trail. We say goodbye to those wanting to climb the peak  and head to trail crest. After a short scramble over a rock slide we arrive at the Crest 13,700'. The views either west or east are unbelievable. It is clear and sunny.

From Trail Crest 13,700 to Trail Camp are 96 or so unbelievably well graded switchbacks. Until last week they were covered with snow and people climbing the peak took the snow field.  There is still lots of snow on the switchbacks requiring many detours. Our poles are a godsend. About halfway down we start meeting dayhikers. They are a different bunch seeking to pit their strength against the mountain. After two weeks we are more or less in harmony with the mountain. We say hi and pass quickly.

Conventional wisdom says you must be off the summit by 2PM to make it back to your car. It is 10AM and we are most of the way down the switchbacks. It is at least a four climb to the summit yet the dayhikers still come. At Trail Camp we take a break and try out the solar toilet. Nice.

The weather is turning. I don't want to be at 12,000' in a lightning storm. We start down to Outpost Camp. The well groomed trail has been replaced by the usual rocky staircase. It is beginning to rain. We meet the Ranger coming up the trail. He is telling everyone to "Get the hell off the mountain".

It is raining hard and I am wet. The trail is hard. I am slipping on the wet stone. Finally we reach Outpost Camp. We pick one campsite then change our mind and take another. Mistake! Before we can get our tent up the hail storm starts. Two inches of hail falls in 1 minute. We struggle into our tent while high winds threaten to blow the tent down the mountain. I am cold, wet and have a headache from the altitude. I change clothes and wait out the storm, huddled with my family. For three hours the storm doesn't let up! Lat that afternoon we break camp and head down to Whitney Portal. The end.

We have crossed the Sierra 80 miles. For Jonathan Breen, the PCT thruhiker who traversed the Sierra this year, the distance was a pittance. Still, I am reminded of the guy from Nepal. We didn't go far. We didn't go long but we went.

Tom Reynolds | << Part 2 <<

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