Hiking the High Sierra Trail, California, USA

By October 20, 2018Adventures, Hikes

115 kilometres, 4054 feet elevation gain, 8 days, one set of clothes, zero toilet paper…..

August 2018

In the interest of transparency, there’s something I want to admit to right off the bat.

Maybe you’ve heard of the JMT (John Muir Trail)? Many people have – well, the HST (High Sierra Trail) is its quieter, smaller, self-effacing cousin. Starting West, in Sequoia National Park and traversing east, over the Sierra’s, the HST terminates upon the highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mt Whitney.

Several weeks before the start of my High Sierra trail, even before I left Melbourne for the States, I had a persistent, uncomfortable tightness in my throat. It was like someone was ever so gently pressing on my windpipe. “Great. I’m getting a cold”, I thought. “It’s going around”, my husband consoled.

However, my head remained clear, my nose dry and my lungs phlegm-free and two days before departure, as I packed and re-packed my bear canister, struggling to swallow away the tight, persistent lump in my throat, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t suffering a cold, I was suffering anxiety!

tetrus! 8 days of food in a protective box to keep the bears away

This was my longest through-hike, my heaviest pack, my maiden voyage into complete wilderness. I found myself most amusing.

Heavy packs, light hearts

Day 1 saw the 4 of us steeping out of Crescent Meadow, in Sequoia National Park and on to the High Sierra trail. It was time to leave the butterflies behind and get some dirt under our feet.

Beautiful Sequoia National Park

Water was plentiful which meant swimming every night and never having to carry more than 2 litres….eat your heart out Australia!

First night at Buck Creek. Sitting here, as evening drew close, I totally knew why I’d signed up for this; warm sun on my back, crisp, clear water, views for miles and complete silence.

The views on the first few days were vast and searingly beautiful. It was tough going but the landscape seemed to take all of the pain away (ah-hem).

perched above a waterfall
filtering water was something we had to do several times a day – that Sawyer mini got a total workout

Just before the taxing climb up to Hamilton Lake we stopped to filter water. I don’t think we realized what a nice little reprieve it was – the ascent from there was rocky, hot and drawn out. This was the first real elevation gain with our full packs – there was gasping, sweating, mild cursing and high relief on reaching the lake.

jaw-dropping peaks

But yeah, I guess it was worth it…..

camping beside the lake was like a postcard come to life
what a luxury to wash the dust and sweat off – no soap, no sunscreen, Leave No trace!

Looking beyond the lake we could see Kaweah Gap ahead of us. This was one of the big passes of our trip. We lay back on the warm rock and watched the sunset – it was both moving and formidable, watching the alpine glow, knowing we’d be tackling the gap with the sunrise.

Better than Netflix
amazing textures of the rock, the path hewn into stone by crazy, government trail workers in the 1920’s

The trail up to Precipice Lake was a feat of engineering – the path cut into solid granite. We had constant views back over our campsite, at the lake’s edge and further down the valley from which we had come over. It was a total discipline to drag your eyes away and concentrate on the narrow path ahead. I always felt, no matter how long I looked and attempted to cement the view, it alluded me and I would have to look and look again in the hope of somehow, locking it inside me.

climbing away from our campsite

We reached Precipice Lake after about 3.5 hours of climbing, at the shelf just below Kaweah Gap. The cliffs were black, in shadow and the water iridescent. It was otherworldly; beautiful and slightly un-nerving.

Passing through the Gap itself was a strange experience. We went from harsh, alpine rock into a grassy meadow with small tarns. It was like being on another planet. Quiet, sheltered, intimate and unexpected.

what a relief to pass through the first gapour first big challenge

Finally, we punched through the Gap and found ourselves at the Great Divide with the Kern Valley opening up beneath us.

hanging at the Great Divide

It took us 2 days to walk through the Valley. What a contrast – meadows, streams, flowers and deer – and while it didn’t have the epic views of the alpine passages, it created a great juxstaposition for the senses……and then there was the hot spring….and a hot soak on Day 4 was luxury!

rustic health spa with a view – and a pot! Some kind soul left a pot to douse yourself with…..who carries a pot 4 days into the wilderness??

Day 6 took us out of the valley and onto the granite again. It was a long one with a heap of ascent but we knew the last few days were going to be gruesome and the push was on for our final pass – Mt Whitney. The pinnacle of the trip, figuratively and literally, Mt Whitney grew on the horizon, instilling equal parts excitement and trepidation, in all of us.

finding a sheltered nook

Setting up camp in a rock field, in the shadow of Mt Whitney, we couldn’t exactly ignore the next days’ challenge.

the lesser seen backside of Mt Whitney behind us
a challenging ascent – the altitude was starting to bite and the switchbacks seem to go on forever

Day 7 was all about getting over Whitney and down to trail camp for the night. We set off at 4am. As we climbed higher, the sun rose and we could see Guitar Lake below with the Kern valley winding away behind us. The trail out was both brutal and beautiful in spades.

finally on the long approach to Whitney – so close yet so far
elation at elevation – an amazing feeling of accomplishment and gratitude

Mt Whitney was a total bitch. This is the intersection of the JMT, the HST and the PCT, so she’s a regular party peak. Not to be outdone, you’ll also find the day hikers here – those lucky enough to score a permit in the lottery and crazy enough to hike for 15+ hours, climb 1859 metres, and summit at an altitude of 4421, all in one day……

I’m glad I made it up there but I’m in no hurry to visit again. I mean, it’s a feat, it’s a challenge and I’m proud to say I stood atop the summit but it’s tough, dusty, mind-bending, lung-squeezing work.

And hiking down is no joke either. The ‘99 switchbacks’ have a well- deserved, cult status in California!

But what can I say, when you’re heading out on your last day and you look back at that golden crown and wonder ‘what the hell, I was up there?!’…..all pain is forgotten (almost). So, it’s time to start planning the next long haul and the choices are endless, natures’ bounty vast and the fire inside is real.

dang but you’re beautiful
back to Reality
the food at Whitney Portal is legendary – not necessarily good, just legendary!

The reward. A pancake bigger than your plate.

The punishment. Carrying your own poop off Whitney.

(“How I survived 8 Days on Trail with Zero Toilet Paper” To be continued……)

pooing once in a bag, fine. Pooing twice, into the SAME bag? Priceless……


Lisa is an experienced Melbourne Girls Outside leader who finds the outdoors are the yin to her yang, after living in the fast lane in bustling Los Angeles. @lisabsanderson

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