Thru-hiking the High Sierra Trail

In late June and early July of this year I completed a thru-hike of the High Sierra Trail, a 75 mile West-to-East traverse across the highest part of California’s Sierra Nevada range. It starts in Crescent Meadow at the Western end of Sequoia National Park and crosses incredibly diverse terrain to finish at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. My plan was to do it in 8 days. My parents would join me for the first 3 days, then hike out while I continued. That way they would get to join in on the adventure, but I would still have some solo time and, more importantly, someone to pick me up on the other side. The planned 8 day itinerary included two backcountry side trips to summit Mt. Kaweah and Mt. Hitchcock, and was arranged so that no hiking day was too big or too small. Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan…


The French tourist who took the photo for me insisted that I act serious

Brace yourselves. This is a long read!

Day 1: Crescent Meadow Trailhead to Bearpaw Meadow

12.7 miles

Beep! Beep! Beep! The alarm in the Three Rivers motel went off at 6:30 AM, much my sleepy dismay, but I perked up as soon as I remembered its purpose- in a few hours, I’d be starting my thru-hike of the High Sierra Trail! I grabbed one last shower, changed out of my street clothes and into my hiking garb, and, at the last minute, stuffed my mosquito headnet into the lid of my pack. After a short drive to the visitor center to pick up our permits, I boarded the park shuttle to the Crescent Meadow trailhead. During the slow, winding shuttle ride past Moro Rock and the famous Tunnel Log, I had a lot of time to ask myself questions about my gear, my abilities, and whether or not I had brought enough food. At 10:30, with none of my questions resolved, my shoes hit the trail and I was off hiking. My worries faded away with each further step into the wilderness. I was committed, more or less, and whatever I had would have to work. I would make it work. So why worry? I settled into a comfortable rhythm, the herds of day hikers thinning and my own pace increasing the farther I got from the trailhead.


Pine forest near the trailhead

The hike to Bearpaw Meadow was uneventful up until the very end when, just before arriving at camp, we saw a black bear practically in the trail smashing up a log, looking for grubs. I don’t know what else we were expecting from a place called Bearpaw Meadow, but it was an awesome sight! We yelled to get the bear’s attention, then waited at a respectful distance until it was done snacking on the log and wandered off into the undergrowth.

After that, it was a nice but buggy night at Bearpaw Meadow. Another group of campers started a campfire, and the smoke gave a nice reprieve from the bugs. Their late night talking, on the other hand… I didn’t get much sleep. But the first day was over. The hike had begun!

Day 2: Bearpaw Meadow to Big Arroyo Backcountry

14.3 miles

After a buggy and restless night at Bearpaw Meadow and a slow start in the morning, it was onwards over the Kaweah Gap to the Big Arroyo. The climb up to Hamilton and then Precipice Lakes was pretty brutal, but man, was it worth it. The Valhalla valley, with its massive granite domes, fins, and spires, stretched out beneath the trail. The sunlight filtered through the thick clouds to give the rock a dappled appearance, making the incredible scene even more magical. And the trail, poised high on the cliffside, was perfectly located for the maximum view. At some points, the trail is carved directly into the granite, and at one point it even tunnels directly through the rock! A grand engineering feat, and an even grander vista.
highsierra0715-04176Hiking through Valhalla

At Precipice Lake a short stop to catch our breath turned into an hour-long stop to get water, eat lunch, and enjoy the lake. That’s not to say that a rest was unwelcome! I dunked my feet and aching legs; my dad went for a swim.

The hike from the Kaweah Gap, just beyond Precipice Lake, down to the Big Arroyo was pretty uneventful and took place on good trails. But it was slow. I mean real slow. It was my fault- I was leading, and I hadn’t eaten anything since Hamilton Lake early in the day. I was bonking hard, and our pace dropped below a mile per hour on the last few miles through Big Arroyo. Keeping yourself fueled is so critical, and surprisingly easy to forget when you’re busy hiking and taking in the scenery- luckily, it was a mistake that I wouldn’t repeat for the rest of the trip.

The camp spot we were aiming for was a small lake we saw on the map, right at the base of Mt. Kaweah, perfect for our summit attempt the next day. Unfortunately, upon arrival at where the lake should have been, we found only a large muddy depression. We decided to camp there anyway, and just get water from an unsavory slow-moving muddy stream nearby. Oh well. After a warm, energy-restoring dinner of instant mashed potatoes & bacon jerky, I fell asleep for a restful night, and dreamed all night of winding trails and high windswept peaks.

highsierra0715-04236Sunset over Big Arroyo and the southern Sierra

Day 3: Mt. Kaweah

~5.5 miles

We got a super late start thinking that summiting Mt. Kaweah (13,802′) would be easy. It wasn’t that difficult, but in retrospect, easy definitely wouldn’t be the operative word! As we hiked up in the morning, we could see a small forest fire burning across the Big Arroyo from us. We had heard from a guy on the trail that it was a controlled burn, but it’s still a little scary to be 2 days of hiking into the backcountry and sleep less than a mile from a forest fire!


Easy off-trail travel to the base of Mt. Kaweah

Hiking to the base of Mt. Kaweah was easy, but a mile of boulder hopping takes a lot out of you. Then it was another 2 miles of class 1/2 ridge scrambling to the summit… or should have been if we hadn’t have gotten off route. It didn’t cost us too much time to negotiate the class 3 that I’d led us towards, but every minute counts when you’re racing the weather, a race I quickly realized we were in when I regained the ridge and began to notice that the layer of ominous grey clouds was a lot closer than it seemed from camp!


Close to the off-route class 3 section. Big Arroyo and the small fire visible in the background

I made the summit with my parents 15 minutes behind. The last section of scrambling across the ridge from false summit to the true summit, with no more than 10 feet of elevation gain, was incredibly fun. Fantastic views and easy climbing. 15 minutes of pure flow, to the summit of my first SPS Emblem peak, and the highest point in the southwest Sierra. This is why I love the mountains!


High up on Mt. Kaweah

Almost as soon as my parents arrived on the summit, however, I was reminded of why sometimes I don’t love the mountains quite as much, as I was hit squarely on the hand by a fat raindrop while signing the summit register. Time to hustle down! The descent was uneventful, but a bit of a downhill slog through the ever worsening rain. We got back to camp with enough of a break in the rain to make dinner, and settled into bed under a light drizzle. An appetizer of the bad weather to come…

highsierra0715-04386Sunset at our Big Arroyo camp

Day 4: Big Arroyo Backcountry to Kern Hot Springs

11.5 miles

An easy day today was very welcome! I left camp early after saying goodbye to my parents, and hiked for about an hour to Moraine Lake, where I stopped for a long brunch of mashed potatoes with jalapeno and bacon jerky. I washed some of my clothes in the lake, but the waterline was so low from the drought that there wasn’t an appealing place to dive in.

I did meet a young couple who were also hiking the HST, Aaron and Karly, at Moraine Lake. We ate, lounged, and chatted for almost an hour and a half. Time flies when you’re having fun! I left as they were packing up their camp, but not before giving them some of my spare chlorine tablets (they were out of batteries for their UV treatment device) and promising that we would meet up again at Kern Hot Springs.


Cooking breakfast at Moraine Lake

The hike down to Kern Hot Springs was all downhill, and I went faster than normal for most of it, trying to avoid the afternoon rain. Unfortunately it was already raining by the time I made it to camp, and I set up my tarp somewhat dejected that I would miss my chance to wash off in comfort. I had been there less than 30 minutes when, miraculously, the skies cleared, and I quickly headed down to the river to wait for my turn in the hot spring. Looking up, it appeared that it was raining everywhere except right where I was. Awesome! And good for my sanity, too: I arrived in camp around 1 pm, and I wasn’t too excited to spend 7 hours tarp-bound before bed.


Hiking down the Chagoopa Plateau towards Kern Canyon

The rest of the afternoon there were short light showers, but no major precip. Kern Hot Springs was crowded, and I made lots of new friends. Surprisingly, it seemed that I had the lightest load of anybody there, and I thought my pack was heavy! I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.


Kern River; the hot spring is the small wooden structure on the right of the photo

Day 5: Kern Hot Springs to Guitar Lake

19.1 miles

I woke up to rain. I packed up in rain. I hiked in rain. For hours, rain was simply a fact of life, and wet was the nature of my existence. This also meant that I didn’t take my camera out, for fear of drenching its delicate electronics.

My plan for day 5 was to hike to the junction between the HST and the John Muir Trail, about 12 miles from Kern Hot Spring. When I arrived there around noon, after some pretty strenuous climbing from the canyon (in the pouring rain, of course), it felt weird to be stopping so early. I still had plenty left in the tank, so I made myself a deal: I would set up my tarp and try to dry off & warm up (my fingers were aching claw-hands from holding my poles in the rain), and when I was recovered, if I felt up to it, I would hike the next 7 miles to Guitar Lake. I decided to scrap my original plan to hike to a backcountry camp in the Crabtree Lakes area, summit Mt. Hitchcock, and summit Whitney via Discovery Pass, because the weather was getting worse and worse every day. I wanted to take the fast-track to Whitney to give myself the best chance of a summit. So I set up my tarp just as it started to hail, and huddled underneath. I shivered for almost an hour, slowly warming up, wearing all of my layers and wrapped in my ground cloth to protect from the soggy ground.

At that moment it seemed hopeless, like I would have to spend the night here and possibly abandon my Whitney summit bid entirely. But just as I finally warmed up, the hail stopped, and the sky cleared. A JMT thru hiker wandered around the corner, looking bedraggled, and started unloading his pack to dry everything. I yelled from under my low to the ground tarp pitch, surprising him, to ask about the weather. He said that it looked to him like everything was clearing up. That was all I needed to hear- I wasn’t to excited about spending the night in my hastily pitched mud puddle campsite! I packed my tarp hurriedly, and hiked out to Guitar Lake.

The hike to Guitar Lake was easy, but I could feel myself slowing down significantly near the end. After stopping at Crabtree Meadows to visit the pit toilet and catch up with some hikers I’d met earlier, the last 2 miles to Guitar Lake seemed to go forever. It was the longest distance I’d ever hiked under load in a day, and combined with the beating from the storm, I was feeling it. Luckily, I found a beautiful spot next to Guitar Lake, made dinner, and settled down for the night. The sky looked mostly clear, so I set my alarm for 3:30 AM the next morning. I was excited. Only 5 miles from the summit! It seemed guaranteed! Oh, how wrong I was…


Camped at Guitar Lake, pre-storm

At around 8pm the storm started to roll in. It wasn’t too bad at first, but by 8:45 or so, I knew that it was serious. I scurried around my tarp to make sure everything was taut and the stakes weren’t going anywhere while the rain shower turned into a downpour. The winds picked up to the point that it felt precarious to stand up all the way. Just after I got zipped back into my sleeping bag, the rain turned into a full on deluge, which then became hail. The most hail I’ve ever seen in my life. Pea-sized and bouncy, within a few minutes it was covering everything. It bounced in under my tarp, soaking me as it melted, and into my backpack and sleeping bag. It looked like a snow day outside, every one of the frequent 5-minute bursts of hail producing what must have been an inch of precip. Lightning clanged on the ridges and peaks surrounding me, moving terrifyingly close during the surges of the storm. After a few hours, I became confident that my tarp could handle the wind-driven rain and hail. But the lightning? That’s what scared me.

Around 10:45 the storm, although still ferocious, died down enough for me to appreciate the beauty of the situation. I was truly terrified for a little bit, especially with the lightning, but it seemed that the worse was over. I even had the nerve to film a little video!

Soon after I put my camera down, it started back up again. In waves, it went from bad to terrible to the worst ever and back to bad again, for hours and hours and hours. 3:30am came and went, and I still hadn’t slept a wink. During some extra-bad bursts, the lighting was so close and frequent that I was blinded and deafened for minutes at a time. I got in a habit of counting the time from the strike to the boom, and crouching atop my sleeping pad if it was less than a second or two away. This happened surprisingly frequently, and some of the lightning struck close enough that I could see the ground steaming only a hundred yards away. It was, by far, the worst storm I have ever weathered in the mountains. It was also my very first storm under a tarp!

Day 6: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal

12.1 miles

The rain finally stopped at 7am or so, about an hour after the last of the close lightning strikes. Nobody camped at Guitar Lake had gone for the summit, and it looked like one guy had his tent collapse in the wind. I smugly looked around at my tarp, which had retained a good pitch even through the worst of it. Most of the tents, especially the ultralight models, appeared permanently bent to one side.

Although the rain had stopped, the weather still looked quite ominous. I decided that I would just go for Trail Crest, and not even try for the summit. My goal now was just to get out safe. The hike up and over Trail Crest, although a bit windy (that might be an understatement) was easy and uneventful, and I got down to the East side of Whitney to slog past the dayhikers heading up. There were surprisingly few, as most had (wisely) turned around when they saw the weather. At Trail Camp I sat down to have a snack and rest. I began to doubt my decision not to go to the summit and, as if on cue, just as I got up to ask another hiker about the weather, a big bolt of lightning struck what must have been Keeler Needle, or even the summit proper. Needless to say, I no longer regretted my decision!


Grinding through the last few miles

The hike slog back down to Whitney Portal wasn’t the best, but the thought of a juicy burger kept me going. A mile or so from the portal, I pulled out my phone and, surprisingly, had reception. I texted my mom to see if I was going to have to spend another night or two by myself at the Portal or in Lone Pine- luckily, my parents were already in Lone Pine, and I caught them just before they were about to head into the backcountry for two days, since they weren’t expecting me out for another two! They drove up and got me, and we drove down to Lone Pine. I collapsed into my motel room bed. What a hike!

Some maps & trip planning resources, as well as my full gear list and splits for the hike can be found here.

I wrote a more general article about hiking the HST for The Outbound. Check it out here!

I’d like to extend a special thanks to my parents, Jurgen & Zana, Joseph, Robert, and everybody at Rockreation and elsewhere who supported me with gear, advice, and inspiration, and didn’t try to convince me that this trip was a bad idea. I sincerely thank you.

Aaron, Karly, Lance, Gail, Jeff, Gabe (sorry if I got any of your names wrong) and everybody else I met along the trail: It was a pleasure to hike with you. Hopefully you got up (and back down) Whitney safely!


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