Spiderwoman thru-hiked the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in 2017 with her partner, The Brawn. These are her “tips” about the route, a term that does not do justice to their comprehensiveness and detail. The information has been split into eight posts to improve readability:
- Section 1: Tablelands
- Section 2: Great Western Divide
- Section 3: South Fork Basins
- Section 4: Cartridge Basins
- Section 5: Ionian Basin
- Section 6: Monarch Divide
- Reflections, campsites, conditions, and comparisons
She has shared all of her photos from her trip, available here.
Boy did we read Skurka’s cautionary advice at a sensitive time. We were in the middle of rationing our way to running out of food, an impassable cornice had blocked King Col, we had a physically challenging time descending Should-Go Canyon…and had high anxiety not knowing if it would even go near the bottom. The large snow plug choking all but a sliver of the north side of Gardiner Pass was a surprise, fording Woods Creek would have been frightening if the guys hadn’t found the tree to cross on, and since before even leaving home I was preparing for our upcoming descent of Goddard Creek and crossing of Middle Fork Kings River with a very, very risk-averse mentality…to the point of even promising my events-aware family that we’d absolutely turn around and retrace our steps back up to the JMT if high water made either too risky.
The backpackers’ deaths just a couple months prior while attempting Sierra fords weighed heavily on all our minds. Since sketchy fords are my #1 fear out there, the news of their deaths really hit home and made me sad when I thought about how they must have felt in those awful, out-of-control, final moments.
So when, safely nested in my tent that evening, protected from the bzzzzing mosquitoes and innocently studying the data for the next day, I was suddenly confronted with Skurka’s warnings: “most dangerous”, “most isolated”, “uncontrollable factors e.g. high water and extensive lingering snow that can make it completely impassable”, “unless earlier portions of the Primary Route have gone flawlessly”…I reacted with an unequivocal, WHAT THE, nope, not this year, we’re out.
I got out my Tom Harrison overview maps, quickly figured out plan B, and ran the new plan by The Brawn. He agreed it was prudent to come back another year, a low snow year!, to experience what we were about to miss. So this year, after resupplying and walking back in over Bishop Pass, instead of turning north on the JMT at LeConte Ranger Station, we’d instead turn south, retrace a quick couple miles, then turn west onto the Middle Fork Trail.
We’d rejoin the route at Simpson Meadows (this is the 3rd option in Skurka’s list of 4). The Brawn couldn’t have cared less – he, as always, was doing a described route to humor me. If left to his own devices, he’d be scrambling all over tarnation, an overview map stuffed in his pocket, following whatever line seemed most intriguing and challenging at the time.
I was disappointed though. That disappointment didn’t even come close to the level of caution I was nursing, though. So it was all good. But still, for a goal-oriented person that had a burning curiosity to move through the ominous looking terrain that I’d seen from a distance on my previous SHR hikes (gazing northwest while standing on Windy Ridge), it was a loss, and I felt it.
Besides that big decision, we were at an even more immediate decision point. Would we bail out the JMT near Bench Lake or South Fork Kings River tomorrow morning, or would we continue on the route and mos def go hungry?
Our textbook perfect day over White Fork Creek Pass had us hoping for the best with upcoming Cartridge, Dumbbell, and Amphitheater Passes. Plus, it would have been too much of a blow to give up even more of the route, so Cartridge Pass, here we come.
Cartridge Pass/ Lake Basin
Crossing South Fork Kings River was just fine. We reached its bank before the morning sun did and the smooth, cold water flowed tranquilly by.
Finding “PR-40 old Cartridge Pass Tr” was and wasn’t tricky. You walk through nondescript forest here. Fortunately there are subtle cairns that lead the way (look close, you can see them in a few pictures I included). We walked slowly, spread out, methodically kept track of whatever cairns we could spot, and would feel very relieved whenever we’d spot the next breadcrumb.
Skurka says “also look for two small meadows”. Head’s up to this good guidance because old trail tread was visible here and shot up the hill out of a meadow (I included a picture of this spot). Cairns showing you to turn north were here as well.
Expect to lose the trail as you zigzag your way north up the steep grade. It’s no problem, you’ll just all of a sudden wonder is this the trail? It won’t be (it wasn’t for us several times). So just backtrack 20 or so feet and try a different way. No problem whatsoever.
“It contours sharply at 3140 meters” – definitely watch for this contour to the west. You abruptly change from walking steeply northward to turning west and walking flat ground.
From the first (largest) lake you reach up to “PR-41” Cartridge Pass, old trail tread was mostly obvious and the alpine setting was exquisite. It was really neat to visit part of where the original JMT traveled.
When planning your walk up to “PR-43 Dumbbell Pass” from Lake Basin, definitely set your course so as to use the “Sandy gravel ramp, tundra”. We made the mistake of approaching “PR-43” on a westward contour that had us doing slow and sketchy moves across a steep slope made of nothing but large blocks of unstable broken down mountainside. We’re smarter than that. I’m not sure what happened there, other than to say we didn’t know the slope was going to be so unstable. Just stay low enough through Lake Basin to line up with the obvious “Sandy gravel ramp, tundra” and enjoy what looked to be a sweet little walk up to “PR-43”.
But! Our mistake turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The extra time and exertion we gave to that steep talus slope tired us out, the weather was deteriorating, and the constant uncertainty of finding campable spots when they’re needed made us stop for an early camp at the lake just below Dumbbell Pass. Thank goodness we did, because there wasn’t much campable terrain for quite a ways, perhaps north of Amphitheater Pass? Do know that I’m picky about campspots though, and we did have a lot of snow that might have been obscuring good spots.
Just FYI. Our camp spot at the lake just south of Dumbbell Pass was outstanding, and our next camp, “Good campsite” near “A-AMP-02” was excellent, too.
It was a quick ascent to Dumbbell Pass the next morning. And surprise surprise, it was covered in snow. The snow was absolutely, full-on, I-kid-you-not, frozen solid ice. Our microspikes helped on the broad, flat pass, but were useless once we had to make our way down the rapidly steepening decline. My ice axe would almost certainly not have arrested a fall. It just would have been a near-frictionless hell sail to the talus heap down below.
We would have loved to descend on the west/left side but couldn’t make it over due to the imminent fall risk. So we found a barely hospitable place in the large talus on the east/right to tuck ourselves in and take off the microspikes. OMG. The talus on the east/right was full-on, I-kid-you-not, no exaggeration, in a word: lethal. It was the most unstable talus I’ve been on, ever. Descending the talus on the east/right is not safe; it is not an option. It was so dangerous we had to bail very soon after trying it out. We had just gotten past the steepest snow section though, so when we got back on the icy snow we were less fearful of the consequences of a fall.
You travel west from “PR-44” to get around “Lake 11,108”. We had more icy snow obstacles to get through as we part “talus-hopped”, part used microspikes and shared my ice axe, to reach the “lake’s west shore”. Nice warm sun rays were finally thawing us out and getting around the lake had turned out to be a fun little obstacle course. Plus, I got to watch The Brawn use an ice axe for the first time! (His first swing: he drove the pick down through a thin layer of snow and clanked off solid rock. Oops.)
Alternate: Amphitheater Pass
It was a nice walk up toward “A-AMP-01 Amphitheater Pass”. We were relaxed and happy, feeling like we were on schedule to make it a ways up the JMT that afternoon, aka make it closer to food, aka make it to food by tomorrow! That would only put us one day behind our original schedule, and would mean we were accomplishing what I’d planned back at the camp just before Bench Lake (the point of our last bail out option). We were on-track and things were looking great!
Until they weren’t. Again.
Our expressions turned slack-jawed and wide-eyed as we walked to the north edge of the pass and ran smack into a broad carpet of snow. WHAT THE! Another one? A large cornice blocked Amphitheater Pass. Deflated. Flashbacks of King Col. Can we get around and down? Backtracking was a disgusting thought.
We scouted up to the west/left to check things out. To our great relief, the west/left side was open for business. It wasn’t easy scrambling. It was slow, loose, and steep. There were a couple spots near the top where we spotted each other on down climbs of short sections of smooth granite. As soon as the snow looked safer we got off the rock and enjoyed a fast cruise to the bottom.
Our timeline wasn’t looking quite so rosy, but we didn’t have to backtrack!!!!!!!!!!!!! Moving forward was glorious.
Skurka’s notes did a great job leading us around Amphitheater Lake. The “flat area with grass and willows” was very obvious. From there, we just contoured on large stable talus until we could see a route down the “ledges north of the lake outlet”.
An interesting (that’s being diplomatic) thing we noticed along this walk so far was that mosquito presence varied widely. There were some places that were basically mosquito-free, and others that were hit hard. I couldn’t see an obvious pattern or explanation in terms of elevation or water content, it just seemed to be a random variation.
Well, the descent from the “flat area with grass and willows” on down was teeming with mosquitoes. They were horrendous. Usually you can walk your way to sanity, just suck it up and deal with them on little pit stops, but this time it was ugly. No matter how fast we moved, swarms of at least 20 mosquitoes buzzed around our heads like halos. They were diving for our mouths. We couldn’t stop for a snack, you couldn’t have paid me to pee, and I exhausted myself trying to out-walk them.
So after picking “up the old trail” and reaching the “great camping on the bench”, I made a compelling case for us to stop: the mosquitoes were driving me crazy and I needed the sanctuary of my tent. We’d had a physically vigorous day. Who knew how long it would take to reach the JMT. And last point, this campsite was amazing…and much better than a potentially crowded and bear-harassed campsite along the JMT.
The Brawn was reluctant (the case our hungry stomachs had been making was pretty compelling, too) but was on-board by the time we finished filtering water. The poor guy didn’t have a head net. Skeeters swarmed his face and neck while we filtered to the point that we both had to swat them away. Buying a head net moved to the top of the to-do list. Our resupply box was at Parchers, so an unplanned trip into Bishop, a place chock-full of restaurants and fresh fruit, was going to be necessary. Shucks.
The next day saw us walking with a purpose: food was our only mission. We’d eaten our last dinner and breakfast. I had no snacks, but I did have an emergency slice of dried mango in case I started to suffer any ill effects of hypoglycemia. I knew what it was like to walk with no calorie input, and since I did it that time (albeit with tears, it unfortunately coincided with the HDT’s crux move in Coyote Gulch), I knew I could cruise on these very familiar trails. It might get uncomfortable, but uncomfortable is part of thru-hiking by definition, right!
The trail does indeed peter out. Further on, a narrow but chaotic band of downed “fire-killed timber” needs to be negotiated just before reaching “Palisades Creek”. I made it into a little game and tried to see how close I could get to the creek without touching the ground.
We easily found a couple old logs to use for our Palisade Creek crossing. Part way across, I got my left pole stuck in the tangled mass of dead limbs (I included pictures). Creatively balancing on things like trees and rocks in order to safely cross rushing water is one of my favorite challenges out there. I get all calm and peace-filled because of the concentration that’s required to stay safe. But not being able to extract my pole threw me for a loop, and the subsequent loss of balance I felt when I shifted my gaze away from a fixed point out in front to the flowing water beneath me, exploded a detestable adrenaline surge all over me. The picture of my relieved smile as I step off the logs says it all.
The JMT was crowded. Nearly every passing group stopped us to ask how the Golden Staircase was, and to tell us how nervous they were about it. I said I thought it was pretty. That’s truthful.
Speaking of pretty, it was so exciting knowing The Brawn was going to experience that stunner of a tree along the Bishop Pass Trail. I felt like I was in on a secret, like he was on his way to walking into a surprise party. Once there, he was like whoa, check this out! He was smitten.
I love Bishop Pass Trail. I knew it was a big commitment to use it to resupply, but I chose to anyway because of wanting to share its beauty with The Brawn. It had taken him 54 years to step foot into the Sierra in the first place. I didn’t want to take any chances if it was going to take another long stretch of years for him to return.
Upon reaching Dusy Basin, he was smitten all over again. It was early evening so shadows highlighting the craggy peaks were sliding into place and puffy clouds were starting to hint at the upcoming lightshow. Smiling, he asked me to sit down for a second. He gave me hug, told me to close my eyes, and started to put morsels of food into my mouth. Fireworks went off in my brain. This was so totally unexpected, so totally sweet. I couldn’t believe the things he was feeding me – things I’d plowed through in my own food bag while we were probably still with Kelby. This also meant he’d been rationing even more strictly than me. He’s so Brawnly. Looks like 2 can play at the surprise party game!
At Bishop Pass, I got into a long conversation with a beautiful soul (and math teacher) from SoCal. She was super inspired to start backpacking more and hopefully have that lead into thru-hiking the PCT. I stood there mesmerized by her passion, trying to send silent vibes her way, vibes with the sneaky aim of targeting whatever switches in her would be turned ON for making firm plans for an upcoming PCT adventure. I was in her shoes not 10 years ago. Well, not the math teacher part. Thank goodness for those brains.
I caught up to The Brawn who was waiting a few hundred feet away. Neither of us thought we’d be up there so long and we hadn’t thought to put on warm layers. Strange. I’m usually diligent about layering up on breaks in order to prevent the chill. And now we were going downhill. Brrr.
At the same time, a search and rescue was happening on adjacent Mt Agassiz. Helicopter overhead, brightly-coated people zipping up the flanks on foot. It was going to be a cold night. Was someone out there, unprepared, perhaps injured, alone? It made me sad.
In the fading light we set up camp below Bishop Pass. It was a long set-up, all the stakes had to be secured with rock piles. That’s fine normally, but this time I was struggling. I was cold – absolutely chilled to the bone. Once in my tent and nestled in my sleeping bag I started subtly, involuntarily writhing and moaning. It blindsided me, came out of nowhere, and took me to a place I’ve never been. I was aware I was feeling ashamed of my behavior, that a search and rescue was going on for goodness sake, but all my thoughts were coming from a detached place outside myself. It was like despite my warm layers, despite my sleeping bag, I could tell my core wasn’t going to warm up. It was like putting a cold rock in a sleeping bag and hoping the rock would warm up.
The Brawn came over and I brought him inside, get this, with his boots on! Just know that that says it all. He spooned me while I writhed and soaked in his body heat. I was trying to describe to him how I felt. The best I could do was that everything ached inside, like every bone, every joint, every muscle, and to top it off, my brain felt highly involved, like any chemical or process that is normally involved in day to day pain control had left me high and dry. I had the peculiar thought is this what people feel like when they detox off hardcore drugs?
He left and came back a few times. The first time he brought dried fruit, a big baggie worth. It might as well have been a burlap sack’s worth for how the volume of food struck me at the time. He told me to eat, and he’d be right back. I tried to eat, but was having a hard time just moving my body parts due to the pain. He came back with his pad and sleeping bag. He set up the spoon therapy again and held me tight. Then he left yet again and came back with a mostly eaten bag of chips. I did have the presence of mind to comment that he’d not only eaten less than me this past week, but he’d carried more weight in uneaten food. And now, when he took it upon himself to save for a so-called rainy day, he was just giving it to me. He just held me in his typical quiet, understated manner. He was such a kind, kind hero to me in that moment.
He was cold so went back to his tent so he could seal himself into his bag. I was still chilled and suffering from body aches. I don’t know where it came from…I suspect it was from a combination of feeling ashamed at my good fortune (and being a writhing moaning wuss despite it) of being warm, intact, and safe compared to what the victim(s) of the search and rescue must be enduring…and the pain that didn’t seem to be improving…but I started to sob. It came out of nowhere. Deep sobs. Scrunched up babyface sobs. Sobs from deep in my chest. And just as abruptly, within the same minute, a warmth flickered in my chest, rose to become a bona fide radiant heat, and I dropped into a deep sleep.
We randomly got to South Lake TH on a Sunday (shuttle service was cut to weekends only by this point…uh, we’re still in August. Seriously?), and 15 minutes before the (once, maybe twice per day?) shuttle was scheduled to arrive. In other words, we stumbled into luck. That was when a shiny Toyota Tacoma pulled up. It had a professional decal on the door advertising it as a shuttle service. The driver asked if we were waiting for the shuttle, and we, looking confused, answered slowly yeah.
The rest happened in a flash: he hopped out, opened a very nicely protected rear compartment, loaded our packs for us, and held the rear door open as we loaded up. He slid back into the driver’s seat but before he pulled away I, struck by the oddness of the fancy-pants ride, managed to ask how much is it down to Bishop? I almost saw goose bumps prick the hairs on the back of his neck. He slowly turned around and with a frown asked are you so and so? We were like who?
The actual bus shuttle felt pretty fancy-pants, too, seeing it was delivering us to a long overdue reunion with food.
Big Thanks To
Brown’s Town Campground – lawn for pitching tents, quiet sleep, flush toilets, showers, laundry, gift shop, soda fountain, a local business
Eastern Sierra Transit Authority’s Dial-A-Ride – took us from Brown’s all the way to Vons, we used it a bunch
Eastside Sports – head net, check. Excellent customer service and selection as always
Vons – continues to be one of the best resupply selections ever, organic produce
Bishop Twin – treated us to child’s fare tickets since the only choice was a kid’s movie
Bishop City Park – free potable water, picnic in the shade, could have used Bike Share for errands if we had a smartphone to unlock them, disappointing
Dwayne’s Friendly Pharmacy – still have their Kodak Kiosk for printing/sending photos to family
White Mountain Ranger Station – for being so chill with permit details once they understood we were doing a route
Mountain Light Gallery – I met you in ’09 on my PCT hike, then never missed a visit when I was in the area, even brought my family, you always left me wonderstuck, so sad to see you go
Post Office – for sharing your counters and floor space with hikers
Food – Schat’s, Yamatani, Jack’s, and Vons for feeding us
Local man with college-bound daughter – I barely got my thumb out and you were pulling over, you made a pit stop at Parchers for our box, you weren’t even going to South Lake to begin with, you’re the best. And…my wish for you, young woman, is open doors. May you get everything you work for as you travel the road toward your ambitious career
Remember Bird and Bill? The couple we passed en route to Gardiner Pass? We had an unexpected opportunity to catch back up with them shortly after arriving in Bishop.
Not 20 minutes after parting ways with them that day a week and a half ago, The Brawn was up ahead, slowly weaving through random thickets of manzanita, keeping an eagle-eye out, trying to get back onto the rough trail, when a decidedly nonorganic object briefly passed across his peripheral vision. It was a smartphone.
He showed me his find that evening in camp and I said uh oh, I wonder how long ago someone lost it, I know smartphones are really important to people these days, let’s see what we can do once back in civilization.
In Bishop, I powered on the phone, held my breath, and broke into a relieved grin when I saw it wasn’t going to require a code to access it. I scrolled through a long list of recent calls, picked two of the most frequently made, and dialed. I couldn’t have chosen better (no credit taken, just dumb luck!). I got calls back from both the owner’s next-door neighbor and, get this, husband! And you’ve guessed already, but yep, hubs is Bill.
Turns out, Bird lost the phone while using the loo. Although she was happy her irreplaceable pictures weren’t lost forever, she most enthusiastically, and repeatedly, expressed relief from knowing she wasn’t littering. Isn’t that something! Imagine what the state of the health of our Earth’s living systems would be if Bird was in charge.
I’m so glad you got your phone back and I look forward to some hearty conversations, hearing how your new approach shoes are treating you, and sipping one of your stiff-looking, mountain-inspired drinks when we’re in your neck of the woods and taking you up on your warm offer for a home-stay someday!