Chris Barrett, Paul Bennett, and I met on one of Andrew’s guided trips in 2015. Out of a group of eight, the three of us seemed to really hit it off. By the trip’s last day I was already lobbying for us to meet up again on one of Andrew’s trips the following year.
Unfortunately, Andrew retired from guiding trips, which left us contemplating alternative options. In hindsight, it was probably the shove we needed. One of the main objectives of a trip with Andrew was to acquire the skills necessary to plan for and execute an off-trail trip. There was no reason we could not do this independently. In correspondence with Andrew, he was very encouraging of us doing a high route in the High Sierra, and offered great technical support.
We agreed to do Loop 1 of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in August 2016, and budgeted 7 days for its 61 miles. We quickly started preparations and planning. A permit was acquired, flights were booked to Los Angeles, and a first night at Wuksachi Lodge was secured.
Adventures such as this one pay dividends not only during the trip, but also in advance during the planning and afterwards in terms of memories. We spent many nights beforehand preparing our gear lists, reading Andrew’s guidebook, and poring over the maps. Admittedly the maps only started to make sense spatially and environmentally once we were on the trail, but it was a fun exercise to envision the landscape by reading the map beforehand.
After driving from LAX on arrival day, we spent the first night at Wuksachi Lodge in Lodgepole. Its 7,000-foot elevation helped us acclimate some before we went even higher. Paul and I were coming from sea level (Cleveland and Toronto, respectively). Chris lives in Colorado, the advantage of which became clear on high mountain passes later in the trip, when Chris seemed to cruise up them while Paul and I had a more laborious pace.
The next morning we made our way up the Twin Lakes Trail. What a haul with a pack full of food! We also had bear canisters that we rented at Lodgepole. We had hoped to get away with Ursacks, but the ranger giving us our permits that morning felt that this didn’t meet policy and we didn’t argue.
In hindsight, I would have definitely prefered not to have the bear canister, since it is very awkward and hard in the pack. I had a frameless Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus, which I normally love, but it met its match with seven days of food and a bear canister. I had kept my base weight just below 10 pounds, but the food and canister pushed me above 25 pounds total and I developed a nasty pressure sore on my left clavicle pretty quickly. After we reached our camp at Ranger Lake at 4:40 PM we took a swim, and then warmed up around a fire in an incredible fire pit.
We pulled into camp late on Day 2, stopping at 6:20 PM a bit beyond the Roaring River Ranger Station. The all-trail miles through lodgepole and ponderosa pine had been very fast, albeit hot and dusty. The air smelled very fragrant and spicy to me, perhaps from the trees themselves? It was very restorative and I’m sure there must be health benefits to just being with the trees and inhaling their scents and chemicals. One of the great benefits of this type of trip is just being immersed in nature and the High Sierra is a very special environment.
Our gear was completely dialed, after a few trips each with Andrew. We had all the usual ultralight gear — bivy sacks, tarps, caldera cones, quilts, plus a very basic set of clothes. We could have left our rain jackets in the car — the weather was perfect, between 50 and 65 degrees for the entire trip and not a single cloud in the sky. Nor a single mosquito. The Sierra Nevadas in August can’t be beat!
The last critical piece, kindly lent by Andrew, was a Delorme inReach. Given that we were quite remote and off-trail, this was considered a necessary piece of gear for safety reasons. Every morning and evening we sent an “all’s well” message to Andrew, who served as our emergency support person, and our wives and families, who were reassured we were alive. Though we never needed it, I could see this being very helpful in an emergency.
Great Western Divide 1
The next morning (Day 3) we were moving off trail, which was a big step for us. Andrew had prepared us very well with our navigation skills, and his guidebook was excellent. His notes were just barely sufficient — enough hand-holding to keep us safe when combined with proficient route-finding and map-reading skills.
We made our way up through broad open forests and brushy riverbeds until we reached more open and alpine terrain around Big Brewer Lake. This is what we had come for and it started to live up to our expectations. We made our way up Cinder Col and then down to South Guard Lake. This was a spectacular location and we had our first feeling of remoteness.
In looking across the lake at where our route would go, we also had our first feelings of trepidation. Could we really make it across that band of rock coming straight out from the lake? From this vantage point it seemed impossible. The next day would tell.
Great Western Divide 2
On Day 4 we made our way around South Guard Lake and, sure enough, as we got closer to the features on the other side of the lake, it became apparent it would go.
It’s interesting how the eye interprets distance and scale in this environment. On a few occasions, passes looked awfully steep and impossible, but as we made our way up them, they inexorably fell behind us. Yet on flatter sections like the bench between Copper Mine and Horn Col, distances that we thought we would bound over turned out to be very lengthy.
Later in the day we had our first navigational challenge, and ended up getting separated from Paul on a different forested ridge. We eventually reconvened, but it was a good reminder to stay together. This was a big day for us, as we ascended Thunder Ridge Pass and Talus Pass. Pretty exciting stuff for the low-landers, and I think we were pretty pleased with our capabilities. We made our way down to a fantastic campsite at Colby Lake, where we ended the day with a swim.
Kings Kaweah Divide
The next day (Day 5) we made our way down and around Whaleback Mountain and then up Cloud Canyon. This was our hardest day by far. We made our way up through steep forested slopes that gave way to more alpine conditions. Slowly but surely we were making our way up to Copper Mine Pass.
It seemed unbelievable that an old mining trail would take us over the ridge. At one point Chris got off route and had to traverse across a very steep scree slope, which started to move on him. Although he made it across safely, I had a moment of fear that Chris would slide down and over a cliff to his death.
Cresting Copper Mine Pass was a definite high, as a few of us had moments of low spirits as we made our way up. The views were fantastic but it was about 4:00pm and we felt like we were up high, so we didn’t linger. We moved down off the pass on an airy track to a lower bench that was chock full of talus and turned out be tedious and slow going.
Finally we arrived at the next pass, Horn Col. We had hoped to get over it tonight, but realized we were not going to make it with enough light. So we settled in just below the pass.
This is where having a flexible shelter set up is important, as we had to find suitable flat rocky benches — two of us in bivy sacks and one in a small tent. You also want to be aware of water supplies and consumption — we were pretty much out after dinner with nary a water source for miles around.
The next morning (Day 6) we got up early, crested Horn Col and dropped to Lonely Lake where we had breakfast. We carried on to Pterodactyl Pass through what seemed like endless talus, which was truly starting to get on our nerves. The Sierras are beautiful and definitely the “Range of Light” in August, but that talus starts to really sap the spirit.
At this point, we had to make a decision. One option was to continue off-trail through Tablelands and to Mount Silliman, which would take another two days. But we were starting to curse the talus, our feet were starting to ache, and we were having visions of steaks and beers and hanging by the beach in Santa Monica.
So we decided to hightail it out, and took a shortcut down Pear Creek and onto a trail to see if we could get out that evening. We still had what seemed like interminable talus and navigational challenges before we could drop into Table Meadows. But then we hit the trail and we really started to fly.
It seemed like we could do it in six days instead of seven. Eventually we hit Heather Lake, where all of a sudden it seemed like civilization again with lots of people camping at the lake. It was a very surreal experience to come down from the mountains and see all these people — like seeing aliens for the first time.
By now we were in striking distance of Wolverton and we almost ran down the trail to make the last shuttle from Wolverton back to Lodgepole and our car. The small adventure we had been dreaming about and planning for eight months was over.
Although this was not an epic trip by any means, it was certainly the hardest thing I had ever done. We averaged only 10 miles a day, but it sure felt like we had set a solid pace off-trail and through the mountains. We were lucky to have been blessed with perfect weather and a tight team dynamic. Although Copper Mine Pass was challenging and probably put us over the edge in terms of nerves, I can say that I am now looking forward to our next trip and already starting to plan a Wind River High Route.
Key trip details
- August 28th through September 2nd, 2016
- Kings Canyon High Basin Route, High Sierra, California
- Loop 1: Tablelands & Great Western Divide
- 61 miles
- Perfect weather: Temperatures in the 50’s through 70’s, without a single cloud or bug