The High Sierra Trail
Trip Report and Gear List
This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.
— Edward Abbey
The main thing that I realize when I head to the mountains is that I need to head to the mountains more often.
The calm, the beauty, the perfect sound of a river as you fall asleep. Those memories fade, and the long drive to and from the trailhead bookend what seems like a trail dream full of mountain summits, hundred mile views from peaks that leave barely enough oxygen to gasp and thank whatever it was that made this view, this quiet and vivid painting that can only be seen by taking that step onto the trail. You can’t get this at the Sequoia visitor center, or the crowded campgrounds with full trash bins and loud music and people too weighed down by their own fear to take those first steps.
Maybe it’s a good thing. It keeps the trail quiet, shared by those who are willing to put in the work, to climb, to sleep in the cold, and to look across a mountain range, point in the distance and think, with a mix of excitement and just a little bit of fear, that is where I am going.
It’s difficult to plan a trip in the backcountry, to get all the gear, figure out the permit lottery, arrange the time off of work and the time away from family. I get it, but it has to be done. At least every couple of years. There are moments and memories that remain. Soaking tired muscles in a cold river at Crabtree Meadow, knowing that the closest car is tens of thousands of hard-won steps away. That piece of the wild stays with you, that place, that most beautiful place on Earth.
Because out there, the destination is always secondary. The quiet morning along a river, the post-dinner talk in a quiet meadow as the day faded, the waking up in the middle of the night to be lulled back to sleep by a thick blanket of stars, the visible belt of your own galaxy, the suffering and sweat on the trail, the blood, and the work that it takes to climb up and over a mountain, those are the things that stick with you when you’re back in front of a computer screen trying to shrink your email inbox from 800 to the 50 that absolutely must be answered today. In the back of your mind is that wild, that freedom and you take a deep breath and know that you’ll be back out there again, that you must get back out there again.
Day 1/2–5.8 Miles to Mehrten Creek Crossing
As we made the windy, hot and crowded drive up to Sequoia National Park, spirits were low. We could tell it was going to be tough to find a campsite. With no reservations, booked campsites, and no first-come-first-served sites available, we asked the Ranger if we could start our hike a day early. He had no problem with that as long as we were able to get two miles from the trailhead at Crescent Meadow. We decided to order some food at the Sequoia Visitor’s Center which included the most disgusting guacamole I’ve ever seen. The lines of tourists waiting for their pizza stretched out the door, and as I looked up from the guacamole (which is an insult to guacamole, because this was nothing like guacamole…it was a cylindrical pale-greenish tube of semi-soft foodlike product, pinched off at both ends, and something that I would expect to come from my dog’s ass, but even my dog would look away in shame at having produced this atrocity) I saw a man’s ass cascading over a bench, pants halfway down said ass, and what can only be described as the dark and hairy entrance of Hell. It was time to get on the trail.
We ended up splitting the first day’s mileage into two days. This got us away from the crowds, and it also allowed us to acclimate the first couple of days before we put some big mileage in. It worked out well, as our first night we camped at Mehrten Creek, and it was nice to get away from the crowds.
Day 1 — 9.8 Miles to Hamilton Lake
Hamilton Lake is surrounded by mountains and is perfect.
We were warned about the deer at the Ranger Station. “They’ll steal your clothes,” he said, “they have a taste for salt.” The deer were brave, getting within a couple feet of me. They were cute at first, but became a nuisance when you realized you only have one pair of running shorts, and the long underwear probably wouldn’t be too comfortable on the ascent up Mt. Whitney. I stuck around the campsite, shooing the deer away until it became dark, then I tucked in for the night.
As soon as I closed my eyes, I heard what I imagined to be a 500-lb. man sprinting down the trail toward me at about a 3:50/mile pace, shaking the ground with every step. I bolted upright and by the time I could focus, I saw the 8-point buck, who had been in our campsite all day, bound across the river and disappear in the dusk and trees. Shining a flashlight to where the buck had come from, Toby saw a bear lumbering up the hill. I didn’t get too much sleep that night, and in the morning we saw the buck once again, but this time it had a gash along its side, four claws wide running across its right haunch. He arguably had a worse night’s sleep.
Day 2 — 22.5 Miles to Kern River Hot Springs
This was a long day that included a beautiful climb past Precipice Lake and a majestic view at Kaweah Gap of the Great Western Divide, a rattlesnake encounter, and a long, hot descent to the Kern River.
Day 3 — 16.3 Miles to Crabtree Meadow
This morning was beautiful. I slowed down to get some time by myself as the we walked along the Kern. The mountain walls on both sides kept it cool in the morning as the trail followed the river. We did a key swap with Kyle, who was running the other direction. This is the best way to do this trail if you can swing it. We switched cars with Kyle before the trip and ran in opposite directions. This saved us about 10 hours of driving time around the Sierras. Kyle did the whole trail in an impressive two days. Crabtree Meadow was a great spot to camp, and it has possibly the best camp toilet in the history of camp toilets.
Day 4 — 18.3 Miles to Whitney Portal
Does anyone read these recaps? Just get out there and do it. Words can’t really describe the hike from Guitar Lake, the struggle of going up above 14,000 feet, and words definitely don’t do the view from the summit of Mt. Whitney justice, so I’m not even going to try. I will say the descent from the top of Whitney to Whitney Portal is too crowded, and it’s hard to adjust to going from the backcountry to the Whitney trail, but if you haven’t done the climb to Whitney, don’t let that deter you. It’s just a different experience than the rest of the trail. The cheeseburgers, fries and beer at Whitney Portal are as delicious as I remember them.
Speed is a function of weight, and that is why I care so much about what goes into my pack. I take pride in a light pack (11 pounds, 19 with food), because I know that I need all the help I can get. I wasn’t in the best shape when I left for the HST and I knew that I would need to shave all the ounces I could to not hold the others back. Not only that, but I like the idea of ultralight as a general approach to life, a way to limit stuff to the essentials and nothing more. To live light, to carry food, shelter, clothing, and everything you need to survive a long walk in the wilderness in a small pack is the ultimate freedom.
I kept my basic set-up from the John Muir Trail, a GoLite poncho tarp and a water resistant bivy for shelter, but I switched out the one pound Western Mountaineering bag for a slightly heavier quilt bag from Enlightened Equipment. I absolutely loved my quilt. It kept me warm and gave me more freedom to move around than the mummy bag did. I also added a couple ounces of weight with a new, more comfortable sleeping pad, the Therm-A-Rest XLite. We planned our itinerary so that every night we slept at a campground with a bear box, so I didn’t need to bring a bear canister. That saved a lot of weight and pack-space, and was a luxury that I didn’t have on the JMT.
A few of my favorite things:
The Enlightened Equipment 800-fill quilt. This thing was magical. When I returned home, I ordered two more sleeping bags from them because I want to take the kids backpacking this summer.
The Delorme inReach. I went back and forth with this. For one thing, it’s heavy. It also goes against what I love about being in the mountains; being disconnected and untethered for a short time. On the other hand, I was leaving my wife for a week, and I at least owed it to her to let her know that I was safe. I miss my family so much when I leave, and getting a couple of messages from them (the inReach provides for two-way messaging) on the trail made me smile, especially the one that read “Beckett wants me to tell you he hurt his nuts twice today.”
The stuff on my feet. This is arguably the most important gear choice, and I went with Injinji 2.0 trail socks and Hoka Challenger ATR running shoes. It turned out to be a great choice. I didn’t suffer from any foot discomfort, no blisters, and the Hokas did great on the trail, although they were pretty worn by the end.
Runderwear. Because this picture made up for the 37 grams (237 grams when filled).
Something I wish I had brought:
Camp sandals. I didn’t have the time to make these, but the other guys all had these sandals that were made from string and shoe inserts (here’s how to make them).
I kept the food simple, Pop Tarts (the Trader Joe’s “healthy” kind) and coffee for breakfast, bars, jerky and trail mix for lunch (Epic Bars, USANA’s Nuts N Berries bars, and Picky bars were staples), an 800-calorie backpacker meal for dinner. I threw in some gels, chews, Rocketfuel Coffee shots, Snickers bars and Honey Stinger Waffles to snack on throughout the day. I was able to get in about 3,000 calories per day, and I never felt lacking.
Here is my entire gear list (including weights).
Thanks for reading. For a detailed description of the High Sierra Trail, we all found this site useful.