Saturday, September 10, 2016

Beauty and Berserkers in the High Sierra

Greetings screen dwellers and random denizens of the internets. Another year is quickly passing us by and the best time for Californians to explore the incredible Sierras is here. Growing up in the northeast, I used to love the fall for the cool sunny days and crisp nights. The anticipation of a quiet winter and a time to reflect on all that was accomplished during the summer was one of my favorite pastimes. But since moving to California, I love fall for a different reason. It is certainly not for the ridiculous heat in the Sacramento Valley or the dry, water starved landscape but for the mountains that beckon with their cool breezes and the crowds thinning out just as the insects do, leaving the Sierras as a peaceful oasis. Work starts to slow down and I find myself able to take the time to explore this wonderful state. It was during this last, busy Labor Day weekend that Jacob "The Berserker" Dinardi (check out his blog) and I took to the mountains in search of beauty, adventure and new places.

The Friendly Berserker

Thankfully, Jacob had the entire itinerary planned, complete with maps, route beta and enthusiasm. I find myself lacking the motivation to put a lot of planning into trips and so I very much appreciated the efforts Jacob made to plan and execute this adventure. We discussed the trip for about two weeks before embarking and I have to admit some nervousness as I had let myself get a bit out of shape. I hadn't been at altitude since my last High Sierra trip with Jacob and Dylan the previous year, and I wasn't sure how my body was going to respond to the challenge. But with the opportunity to extend the holiday weekend and a chance to walk those wonderful mountains again, nervousness turned to excited anticipation.

The route

As we did not have permits for the hike out of Kings Canyon National Park, we had to plan on getting walk up permits on one of the busiest hiking weekends of the year. So Friday night, we met up and made the five hour drive (for me, nine for him with traffic) to the Road's End trailhead. We had a nice 12:30 am arrival time and slept a few hours before lining up at the rangers booth early in the morning. We got there at 6:00 am, as it opens at 7:00 and were the first in line. So we made coffee and chatted with the other poor souls who also wanted walk in permits.

Day 1: Roads End to Golden Bear Lake ~ 17 miles (6500 feet elevation gain)

After securing our permits and giving the ranger the details of our itinerary, we finished our preparations and began the long climb to our first nights campsite. Aside from the first two miles out of the trailhead, the entire day was spent climbing up into the mountains. It is a beautiful walk along Bubbs Creek with some spectacular views of peaks and intercepting valleys. We stumbled upon a bear within the first couple of hours and I don't know who was more surprised, me or the bear. I didn't get a very good photo but it was a cool experience to watch the bear munch his way through berry bushes. I don't know what kind of berry the bear was eating, it looked like a large huckleberry but tasted different and had a large seed in the center.


The day was relatively uneventful after this except for some gastrointestinal distress on my part. I will spare you the details but this sometimes happens to me when I get above 9000 feet. This distress came and went over the entire trip and its hard for me to figure out what combination of food and elevation causes it. So it was slightly annoying but all in all not a big deal. We passed by quite a few hikers going downhill, completing the Rae Lakes Loop (read my trip report here).

Ascent along Bubbs Creek

We pushed pretty hard and aside from lunch didn't take any breaks. It's hard to go very fast with that kind of elevation gain so we kept going in order to make it to our campsite before dark. At Lower Vidette meadow the Bubbs Creek trail links up with the John Muir/Pacific Crest trail and we continued southbound towards Forester Pass. A few miles past Vidette we started to look for an old use trail to take us up to Golden Bear Lake. This was a remnant of the old JMT that was rerouted to its current location many years ago. There ended up being no real sign of the old trail so we just headed off-trail and made our way in the direction of the lake. At the end of a long day of climbing, this off trail portion was pretty steep and difficult and definitely wore me out. It was about a mile of navigating up the steep hillside to make it to the lake. When we finally got there, you can imagine how happy we were.

Off trail

Golden Bear Lake

Looking West

Just as it was getting dark, Jacob clued me in that it was going to be a wet night, the condensation was already starting to cover everything with a layer of dampness. So I set up my tarp to keep my sleeping bag and bivy dry and slept fairly well. It ended up getting pretty cold, I was toasty in my sleeping bag (and I ate a lot of cashews and chocolate before bed to keep my metabolism going) but I made the rookie mistake of leaving out my water filter. It froze. Unfortunately, Sawyer filters don't work after freezing and I had to use Jacobs for the rest of the trip. I normally carry a backup of Aqua Mira drops but I was so concerned about pack weight that I dropped many of my "extras", I wont be doing that again.

Frozen Pot

Morning Mist

Day 2: Golden Bear Lake to Tyndall Creek ~ 10 miles (3500 feel elevation gain)

The morning was crisp and beautiful. We had a mostly trailless day ahead of us with two passes to climb. The initial approach to Junction Pass was a nice climb up and out of Center Basin. We had views of Forester Pass to the west and the JMT/PCT as it winds its way north. The old JMT we were following was faintly visible for some of the climb up the talus fields to Junction Pass but basically ended as it drops down the other side. It soon became obvious why the JMT was rerouted to its current location as our route took us down into some very difficult scree slopes and talus fields. Both sides of the canyon we descended into are eroding and crumbling and it must have been a real challenge to maintain a trail through this section. While not particularly dangerous, we did have to be careful to avoid sliding too quickly or dislodging boulders on ourselves as we descended. The loose scree turned into loose talus that was tiresome to navigate. I was happy to finally get through it after a couple of miles.

Climbing up to Junction Pass

View of Forester Pass

Descending Junction Pass

We slowly descended down into another valley where we intercepted the Shepherd Pass trail. I was feeling pretty beat at that point and we took a short lunch break at a stream just before getting back on trail. I had been on this trail a number of years before and remembered it not being very well traveled. However, we ended up meeting quite a few hikers and climbers coming down from the pass. The climb up to Shepherd Pass was slow but not difficult, just a matter of switching the legs into granny gear and grinding upwards. The last half mile just under the pass is quite steep but had lovely views down into the Owens Valley and hwy 395. Once over Shepherd Pass it was easy flat hiking to our campsite on Tyndall Creek.

Shepherd Pass

Heading to Tyndall Creek

Day 3: Tyndall Creek to East Lake ~ 10 miles (2500 feet up and 4000 feet down)

After another chilly night we made our way west and hooked up with the trail that leads to Lake South America. This was another area I had not previously visited and it did not disappoint. To the west of Lake South America is the Kern Valley ( or basin?) that looks spectacular and I will be visiting there sometime. We made our way over a small pass and the trail ended at the lake. The way up to Harrison Pass looked pretty staightforward and we got up to the pass with some effort. Its funny how everything is harder at higher elevations, I found myself breathing hard doing routine tasks like getting water and even standing up.

Heading towards the first pass of the day

Looking West into some rugged peaks

We had been feeling pretty good all the way up the pass but were in for a bit of a shock when we looked down the other side. It is very steep, very loose and looked very dangerous. Back at Junction Pass I had mentioned to Jacob that I have a slight fear of heights, it hadn't bothered me for the entire trip but looking down Harrison Pass it came on pretty strong. At this point we had to make the choice if we should continue or turn around. Turning around would add many miles to our trip and felt like a retreat but going over the pass looked potentially life threatening if a misstep was made.

Jacob asessing the situation

View down Harrison Pass

After assessing the situation and our instincts, we made the decision to go for it. It looked like if we could make it down the first very steep part then the rest of the descent would be manageable. I decided to go first before my nerve gave out and very slowly made my way down the right side. The rock was super crumbly and I had to focus completely on getting down safely. Its not hard to imagine one of the loose rocks that I was holding onto giving away and plunging me down the rock chute but I managed and got down with only some minor cuts and abrasions.

Jacob sliding down the pass

At the bottom of the pass we celebrated with a jump into the very cold lake and ate lunch, enjoying the views and happy to be done with the sketchiest part of the trip. I have no desire to go over that pass again but I am happy to have faced my fears and overcome the challenge.

The rest of the day was spent descending off trail towards East Lake. It is a beautiful and rarely traveled area, quite rugged and my feet were very sore at the end of the day. A faint use trail became visible as we neared East Lake and cairns marked the way so that we could avoid getting tangled in the thick willow bushes that line East Creek. We found a really nice campsite on the far side of East Lake where we could relax and enjoy the evening. The elevation was relatively low at 9100 feet and I was very warm that night, no need for high fat foods before bed.

Random Flower

East Lake

Day 4: ~ 13 miles (- 5000 feet elevation)

We got an early start on our last day as we had some miles to cover and some hours to drive. The trail from East Lake to Junction Meadow on Bubbs Creek was rocky but easy to follow. We made pretty good time and continued to cruise downhill all the way to Road's End. The trail was pretty quiet until we were close to the trailhead, then we started to see some day hikers and backpackers heading up into the mountains. By the time we made it back to the car, I was very sore, dirty and happy, all signs of a successful trip. Once again, California has amazed me with her beauty and I am so thankful to be able to experience it.