Mon, May 25, 2009
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The alarm went off quite loudly at midnight. After drunkenly fumbling with the thing to turn it off, I took stock of the situation. It was dark outside and very quiet, unlike what it had been in the late afternoon when I laid down to rest. The Crescent Meadow parking lot had only a few remaining cars from an overflowing condition earlier during the day. I must have slept some even though it didn't feel like nearly enough. I last remembered checking the time around 9p. My legs felt much better than when I had first started to rest, but not as good as I'd have liked. It would have to do - time to head out on the High Sierra Trail once again.
This would be my fourth trip on this very long trail that cuts across the canyon slopes high above the Kaweah River. It is not one of the more picturesque of trails in SEKI NP, at least for the first 11 miles until one reaches the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp. From there one is treated to the first views of Valhalla, one of the most spectacular canyons in the Sierra outside of Yosemite Valley. The trail winds its way through this granite wonderland for another 10 miles to Kaweah Gap on the Great Western Divide. The goal today was Eagle Scout Peak, on the divide just south of Kaweah Gap. The total distance would be some 45 miles with more than 8,000ft of gain - and I would need all the effort my legs could muster.
By 12:30a I was dressed, breakfasted, my food stored in a bear locker, and I was on my way. The cumulus clouds that had developed over the past few days had dissipated, nothing but stars and a few random planets twinkling down from the heavens. It was about 45F, not too cold, but I had a fleece on at the start. This came off in the first twenty minutes as I reached Eagle View and was fully warmed up.
It remained dark for many hours as I passed by a trail junction and camps at Mehrten Creek and Buck Creek. At the latter I saw a single tent through the darkness set up at the highest platform and visible from the trail as it descends towards the creek. I paused at the bridge to cache a bottle of Gatorade in a cold trickle of water, hiding it carefully under a collection of rocks. At a bit over three hours from the trailhead, it would be something to look forward to on the return. Half an hour later I passed through Bearpaw HSC, still in darkness. The canvas was off most of the cabins, but there were signs of the place coming to life with the onset of summer, getting ready for a new influx of visitors.
After leaving Bearpaw, one soon breaks out of the forest and gets the first views of Valhalla. It is gothic-looking in the hour before dawn with towering granite walls, snow-capped in the uppermost reaches. It seems near, but is still miles away. The hugeness of the area plays a trick on the eye and makes one think it is closer than it is. The trail descends to Lone Pine Creek with a few frustrating switchbacks down to the bridge. Frustrating because one immediately begins climbing again on the other side, to an even higher elevation than descended from. The reason for the bridge being so low is not immediately clear at first glance. If one peers down over the bridge on the south side, a twisted and broken steel bridge can be seen in the canyon below. This bridge once stood several hundred feet higher up the gorge but was washed away some years ago. The old bridge's location made more sense for the trail, but apparently it was an unsafe location. So the new one was constructed at the next practical location below the old one.
More frustration ensues as one climbs up out of the gorge, only to descend again to Hamilton Creek before resuming the climb into Valhalla. This was done to avoid a huge cliff area between the Lone Pine Creek and Hamilton Creek crossings, and I'd much prefer the extra elevation gain to the blasting that would have been required to straighten the trail out.
By the time I reached Hamilton Lakes, it was 6a and the sun was just starting to rise. The first sunlight I could see fell on the summit of Eagle Scout Peak, still thousands of feet above me to the southeast. A lone camper was awake and silently standing by the shoreline at upper Hamilton Lake. I crossed the lake's outlet and then cached a second bottle of gatorade downstream a short ways. By now I had finished one bottle of chocolate milk, leaving me with one more milk and one more gatorade. They should suffice until my return.
As the new day came on I began to enjoy the outing more and more. There were sights and sounds (lots of birds singing in the early morning hour) all around. Looking back I could see the first light hitting Moro Rock more than 15 miles away. Below me was Hamilton Lake as I climbed the switchbacks leading to Kaweah Gap, the still waters reflecting the sun on the higher peaks and ridges. Snow still covered much of the north-facing slopes in the canyon, a sign that summer was not yet here in the High Sierra.
Where the trail passes around an impressively sculpted gorge there is a tunnel blasted in the rock at one point. I'd read in a trip report that it is the only tunnel blasted for a trail in the Sierra. It sounds good, but isn't true, as I know there is a smaller tunnel on the Mist Trail out of Yosemite Valley. But the trail is an engineering feat. I noticed there was a roll of heavy steel cable just before the tunnel, and nearby there were old concrete pads and a steel eye hook driven into the rock. There were similar concrete pads across the chasm. Later I read that there used to be a suspension bridge across this gap, but it was replaced by the tunnel and the carving of the trail into the cliff. In the deepest recess of the gorge a pile of old, hard snow covered the trail. A set of boot prints traveled over the snow and I stopped for a moment to consider this difficultly. The boot prints were not well defined, only the passage of one or two persons before me. The snow was hard but not slick, and after a careful test I decided to cross over the old steps. A slip could have had very serious consequences indeed, but I went over without mishap.
Once around the gorge, there was easy going for another mile as I traversed along the trail around the SW side of Mt. Stewart. Around 9,600ft the snow began to cover more of the trail and my forward progress was slowed, but hardly stopped. Precipice Lake and its lower cousin were still frozen as I passed by, hardly noticing them at first. The last mile to Kaweah Gap was over snow, still firm in the early hours. It was 8:15a when I finally hauled up onto Kaweah Gap. I had estimated it would take 8hrs to cover the 21 miles from Crescent Meadow, and managed it with 15 minutes to spare.
East of the gap, Nine Lakes Basin and most of the environ were covered in snow. My route lay around the backside of Eagle Scout Peak as I knew the ridgeline from Kaweah Gap was a long, torturous affair that was likely 5th class in places. A dayhike of this duration was not the time to spend two or three extra hours in technical scrambling, as I would be pushing myself just to make due with the easiest route. I put on my crampons and began a traverse across the slopes to reach the southeast side of the peak. It was nearly a mile to get around to the open bowl on that side, and after first trying to sidehill without losing elevation, the futility of the exercise made itself apparent and I finally dropped a few hundred feet to make things easier for the traverse.
The whole southeast side was a huge snow bowl with two levels, not apparent from the contours on the map. The sun had been shining on these slopes for hours by the time I reached them and they were starting to soften. The waterproofing on my boots that held up nicely the day before was not doing so well the second day. This would not bode well for my feet. I was tired as I headed up the snow slopes of the first bowl into the second one above. When I paused to catch my breath I would turn and take in the views of the Kaweahs looming to the east. Once I reached the upper bowl I had a good look at the SE Slopes of Eagle Scout. It looked like I could climb boulder and talus slopes mostly free of snow or choose to climb more snow by heading for the saddle on the South Ridge. I chose the latter, but in hindsight it was not the better choice. The snow was steep as I neared the saddle between Eagle Scout and an unnamed lower peak to the the south, the going was rather slow. When I reached the end of the snow with a mass of granite boulders for the last couple hundred feet, the terrain got easier.
It was just before 10a when I hauled my tired self onto the summit block of Eagle Scout, 9.5hrs after setting out. By way of comparison, I was half an hour faster getting to the summit of Mt. Goddard some four years earlier. This had been one tough peak. I took my pack off and sat down for a well-deserved rest. I ate snacks and took in the views. I took pictures of frozen Precipice Lake to the north, Sunny Valhalla to the northwest, and partial frozen Lake 9,839ft in an adjacent canyon west of the summit. So much granite and snow and ice all around. Peaks filled the horizon in three directions. The summit register did not date back very far and showed the summit to be extremely popular. The reason was revealed after seeing many, many entries from various Boy Scout troops and their proud Eagle Scouts. This prompted me to add an extra line to my own entry - "Eagle Scout - 1978". Yes, I'm that old...
Instead of returning down the South Ridge, I headed more directly down the SE Slope, taking advantage of the snow-free boulders and sandy paths. There was much evidence of previous travel up this way, undoubtedly the most popular route to the summit. I followed over dry ground as far as I could, then put on my crampons once again and started down. I dropped nearly to the bottom of Nine Lakes Basin before working my way back up towards Kaweah Gap. The snow was terribly sloppy by now and I started to posthole in places. Ugh! Ugh! I was temporarily saved by the rocky terrain going back over the gap. It was just after 11a when I paused at Kaweah Gap. I got a bit of a break here, finding the snow west of Kaweah Gap to be a firmer due to the extra shading it had gotten in the early morning as the sun was making its way over the divide. I raced back down towards Precipice Lake in order to take advantage of the good snow conditions before I started to posthole on this side of the divide as well. It worked.
I was staring down at Hamilton Lakes by noon, and was done with almost all of the snow. The steep section around the gorge near the tunnel was easier with softer (but not dangerously so) snow. At this point I started to relax more, preparing myself for the long haul back out to the trailhead. Now that I was out of the more desolate higher elevations, I took more notice of the many varieties of wildflowers that lined the trail. Many were small, tiny flowers that could be found in great patches along the way. There were varieties of almost all imaginable colors.
I paused at Hamilton Lake to retrieve the cached Gatorade. I had been down to just the water I could get from the numerous streams and the extra sugar did a world of good. I had a pocket full of beef jerky that I munched on as I continued down the trail, this too helping to keep up my strength. At the Hamilton Creek crossing below the lower lake I spied a couple of hikers trying to find their way across the creek. It was not easy with the roaring levels of the spring melt, but I had used a downed log partially hidden in the brush to get over it early in the morning. These two had not found it, and by the time I saw them they were standing in the water, letting the current flow over the tops of the boots, concentrating on the several jumps required to get over the smooth slabs where they chose to cross. I managed to get quite close and take their picture from atop the log without them noticing me. Only after they had cross the stream did one of them look up and see me. I imagined his smile had something to do with the embarassment of not finding the easy way over.
I hiked back down to Lone Pine Creek, then climbed back up to Bearpaw. An older couple were working on restoring the various structures to working condition before the opening of the High Sierra Camp. It was 3p before I reached Buck Creek and retrieved the second cache of Gatorade. My feet were wet, tired, and nearing the blister point, so I stopped under the bridge to soak my feet in the cold stream. I felt like a troll waiting for billy goats to make their move across the bridge above my head. But the water was divine on my toes.
My feet much relieved, I continued the return along the HST. A periodic breeze helped keep the trail from heating up too much, and I paused for more flower pictures and to watch the thunderstorms building up over the GW Divide, behind me. As Moro Rock once more came into view I knew I was getting closer to the end. In truthfulness I knew almost exactly how much longer I had just by glancing at my watch, so well I knew my pace and the remaining distance. One gets a feel for these things after a few thousand trail miles.
I passed by a few more hikers, backpackers this time. In all I saw a total of seven persons along the trail that day - not very many for such a popular route on a holiday weekend. I had expected to come across the returning backpackers from Hamilton Lakes and Buck Creek, but it seems they both beat me back to Crescent Meadow. It was almost 6:30p when I finished off the last short bit of paved trail and rolled into the parking lot. There was only a fraction of the cars that had crowded the area the previous day. After retrieving my cooler and food from the bear box, I returned to the same place in the woods to take my shower - I had been looking forward to that for the last few hours of the hike.
The drive back to San Jose was unremarkable other than I managed to get back without driving off the road. I thought I might have to pull over to get some rest, but the caffeine finally kicked in and I got myself back before midnight. Time to rest and recharge the batteries. Only 20 more SPS peaks to go after this one!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Eagle Scout Peak
This page last updated: Thu Jun 4 08:58:33 2009
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