After some much needed rest after day 1, we woke up in beautiful Bearpaw Meadow with the sun breaking through the pine trees canopy.
Day 2 of our High Sierra Trail to Mt Whitney trip was when things started to get a bit challenging. Our goal was to wake up in Bearpaw Meadow and hike roughly 11 miles to Arroyo Junction. Looking at the map below, you can see our proposed hike for the day, and see where we actually stopped. We made it maybe a little over half way before it got late and we ended up making camp 2 on cliffs in Kaweah Gap above Precipice Lake.
After waking up in the pine forests, day 2 started out similar to day 1. We hiked out of the forests and started hiking along the ridge line. Today the the Snow capped mountains were closer and calling my name, I was getting more excited the closer we came.
Hiking along the trail, which is a little steeper then the first day, we came to a man made bridge over an awesome ravine. Because of the snow melt the water below in the ravine was raging. Needless to say, I was very happy that there was a man made bridge at this point, this would not have been fun to climb down, across and back up.
We moved higher and higher, slowly getting it closer to a large waterfall we could here in the distance. As we approached the waterfall we could tell we were getting close to Hamilton Lake, and the snow capped Kaweah Gap. When we got to the water fall, we had to stop and think of our route across. The point at which the trail came to the waters edge was not an ideal place to cross. The water was deep due to the melting snow, it was moving quick, had a large waterfall drop to the right and another waterfall up stream to the left. Deciding not to cross close to the big drop on the right, we moved left up stream and climbed some large logs across, while simultaneously getting cooled off from the mist of the waterfall on our left.
After successfully crossing the water feature and staying mostly dry, we came up to the little brother of Hamilton Lake. One view that I just could not get over that kept repeating itself the entire trip, were the little mountain run offs in the background. As a result of the snow quick snow melt there were mountain streams running off in just about every direction of every mountain top.
Hamilton Lake’s little brother was beautiful but it Hamilton Lake was absolutely stunning. The crystal clear water in a bowl in the sky, surrounded beautiful pine trees, snow and mountain streams, Hamilton Lake was stunning. As we neared the lake, we hiked right up to the edge, kicked off our shoes and took off our packs. It was a beautiful day, and I soaked my sore feet in the icy cold water. We stopped here for a long lunch and topped off our water sources by filtering the mountain lake water. The long break was awesome and I honestly didn’t want to leave, this may have contributed us not making it through the snow fields high above the lake.
After the amazing break, we got our packs back on and went back to the trail. Again the trail went right up to the waters edge at the tip of the lake. Due to the waters height from the snow melt there was no obvious way across in order to stay dry. At this point of the trip I was beginning to wish I brought some sort of light water shoe for all the crossings we would encounter. We followed the small stream from the mouth of the lake down a little bit and found some logs to climb across…we got lucky again. Once you cross the mouth of the lake the trail begins to wind up the sides of the mountain bowl very very quickly. As we climbed up the side of the bowl, things became a bit more technical as we began to hit ice and snow. The climb did treat us to some even more amazing views of Hamilton Lake down below.
Following the trail brought us to the infamous tunnel. There used to be a steel bridge at this point over a raving, until it fell down years ago. The trail was fixed by blasting a small tunnel in the side of the mountain.
Doing research for this trip, I knew this would be one of the points that could have turned us around. On the trail conditions page for the National Park Service it had this blurb for the trail above Hamilton lake:
5/20 – Trail passable to Hamilton Lake with patchy, slushy snow the last two miles up to the lake. From Hamilton Lake to Precipice Lake extremely dangerous. One group armed with ice axes, crampons, ropes, etc. and alpine winter experience, turned around after attempting an ascent to Precipice Lake from Hamilton. Extreme caution advised. –Source
The tunnel became my first piece of dangerous trail on this trip and the first of this day. I guess I should clarify, the tunnel park was easy we just walked right through. Its right after the tunnel there is a snow chute.
The picture above does not do it justice, and it may not look that dangerous to you, but the snow which is more like hard ice completely blocks the trail. Below the ice is pretty much a vertical rocky cliff. At this point, we contemplated turning around and calling the trip. We dropped our packs in the tunnel and I went to investigate it with my ice axe in hand.
Being an optimistic person, I thought to myself maybe I can just chip the snow away with the axe and clear the path enough to walk by….
That was not an option, I took one swing at the bottom to try and ship a piece off and nothing really budged. Maybe it was an option if I had a few hours, but that was not going to fly.
Instead I took a length of 550 cord out of my pack and tied it to my ice axe. I free climbed the rocks below the ice chute to the other side. Despite the drop below, I am sure this is a nothing climb for serious climbers but I am not a huge fan of heights. I made it to the opposite side, tied the 550 cord into the ice axe and anchored it in between some rocks. I threw the line over the snow chute and we used the rope to ferry our gear across the chute. Once all our gear was across, my buddy tied the rope around his waist and then climbed below the chute and across as I did earlier.
This slowed us down quite a bit on our climb up toward Kaweah Gap, and after the free climb and shuttling our gear, my adrenaline was pumping a bit. Once we crossed it felt great, and I was ready to continue our push toward Mt Whitney. There was no turning back now, I didn’t want to make that crossing a second time.
As mentioned earlier this was the first of the days challenges. The higher we climbed the snow/ice became more abundant. It looked liked every slippery slope would drop you right into the mouth of Hamilton Lake.
In the snow fields high above Hamilton Lake, I attached my crampons for the first time and used my ice axe for a secure hold on the side of the steep ice cliffs.
As we passed through multiple steep ice fields the day wore on, the trail was buried in snow and we just kept climbing toward the gap. This was our first day above 10,000ft and I was becoming exhausted.
On this climb there came a point where I began counting 6 steps, then stopping for a count of ten. I continued this 6 step, ten second rest routine to keep myself going and to push on. The higher we climbed the lower the sun came. Without a trail to follow, we took the path of least resistance and made it tot he cliffs above Precipice Lake. At this point the sun was low, and we looked for the flattest piece of ground we could to set up camp high on the mountain side.
We prepared for a freezing night this high into Kaweah Gap, but the weather was calm with a light 4 mph wind. It was peaceful, on the side of the mountain and the views were absolutely stunning. This was one of the most beautiful most remote camp sites I have ever experienced in my life.