The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools
But the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure
With a liberal allowance of time
Henry David Thoreau
I thought this a suitable quote to start the first true section of the High Sierra. Well rested after our zero day in Bishop, we checked out early in an attempt to maximize our chances of a lift back to the trail. Full of breakfast and with high hopes, we walked through town to find a suitable hitching spot. With Jo now joining us, we decided to split into pairs to increase our chances. Unfortunately, after waiting for almost two hours Sole Catcher and Jo got picked up first. Half an hour later, we were fortuitous enough to pick up a ride from a women who was driving out to collect some other thru-hikers from the trail. Unable to believe our luck, we were whisked up to the start, only ten minutes behind the other two. With our packs full, we began the return climb back up to the top of Kearsarge Pass. Upon reaching the top, we were pleasantly surprised to find our fitness easily up to scratch. After a short descent to lunch, we enjoyed the knowledge that we were back on trail. With the PCT continuing along the same route as the JMT, we knew we had some more climbing ahead of us. The first few miles involved climbing around and then into a steep sided valley. With impressive formations of weather columnar granite blocks and crystalline lakes, it was a spectacular, if challenging, climb. Upon reaching the top, the four of us nestled down behind the rocks to escape the wind. With the clouds rolling in, we began the steep descent of the other side of the pass. As it was north facing, there was a substantial amount of snow to cross, with Sole Catcher and myself postholing through the soft snow. This led to a cut on Sole Catchers leg and me snapping my right hiking pole tip on a rock. This is the day after I replaced the left tip as it had broken on the last section. Continuing our hike, we finished the steeper section, and walked into another valley, this one filled with the Rae Lakes, all colored a deep blue. Camp was just above the shore of one of them, and minus the mosquitos and wind, made for a nice evening.
Miles hiked – 14
After the long days of this section, we had earned an extra day, and decided to take a zero when we got to the town of Bishop. With this in mind, we roused ourselves early to get to the trail head and try and catch a ride. After a chilly night, we were glad to get moving and warm up numb fingers. Quickly continuing our descent off Forester Pass, we enter a very engaging section of the trail containing groves of trees and small stream crossing. Following a river for a while, it began to remind us somewhat of the trails from home, and one could easily spend some pleasant days camped in this valley. But with showers and warm food beckoning, we marched on and began the climb out of the valley towards Kearsarge pass. Looking at the steep mountain sides, we wondered how we would get out. A short, sharp climb led us to the Bullfrog Lake junction. Here we turned off the PCT, and wandered past a couple of beautiful lakes. With the trail a pleasant gradient, we were happily surprised. This happiness was soon cut short as we started another climb, this time to Kearsarge Pass. While beautiful, the lack of calories and proximity to town made the trail more arduous then it should have been. Upon reaching the top after some frustrated actions, we decided to move quickly over the last five miles. A long winding downhill section plunged us towards the desert valley far below. Even with the reasonably gentle gradient, we lost altitude quickly, climbing down to a dead end road at the Onion Valley trail head. Because of the nature of the situation, we situated ourselves at the end of the trail in hopes that some of the day hikers we had seen coming down, would return and offer us a lift. Sole Catcher managed to pick up one spot in short notice, while Rattles and I found ourselves in the back of a pickup truck a little while later. An older couple had come to pick up their daughter who was hiking the JMT, and they kindly took us all the way to Bishop. From here we found the nearest decent hotel, although they all seemed to be expensive or booked out by people in the State Championship Rodeo Tournament being held. The next day and a half was spent eating, cleaning and sorting. Bishop being a reasonably compact town meant we could shop with ease, and admire the photos in a local gallery focused on where we would hike in the next week. Another highlight for me was finding a huge punnet of strawberries for five dollars. Fresh fruit is high on my cravings list. Rested and well fed, we awaited tomorrow, which would see us hike back over 12,000 feet.
Miles hiked – 13
After yesterday’s long and exhausting day, we slept in until the late hour of eight. As we packed up, we saw Sole Catcher as he finished his descent of Whitney in the morning. With weight back in our packs, we wandered down the valley, splitting off the trail we climbed yesterday and onto the merger of the PCT and the John Muir Trail. We now follow the JMT for over a hundred miles through the mountains. Beginning with gentle climbing through forest, we continued to appreciate the cool temperatures in the mountains. A short descent led to another river crossing. Here we tried to have lunch, but were driven up the hill by the mosquitos. Cooking our dehydrated meals for lunch, we tried to claw back some of the calories we had burned up the day before. With food rumbling around in us, we now began the long slow climb to the base of Forrester Pass. Slowly but surely we covered the miles, leapfrogging all the other thru-hikers who were moving at the same mileages. Briefly climbing above the tree line, we were entertained by the numerous marmots around the trail. Present at Guitar Lake the day before, once again they seemed to populate the open alpine environment. Entertaining in their actions, we hiked past six thru-hikers sitting in a line watching a marmot go about his business. Dropping into the trees again, we meandered along a pleasant path, soured only by the thought that we would have to climb up to 13,200 feet over the pass, the highest point on the PCT/JMT. Passing a bunch of hikers at the bottom, we struck out for the top. A long climb led us past some gorgeous alpine lakes, fed by the nearby melting snow. Struck by the beauty and contrast, we could gaze out to the south and just see Mount Whitney. Upon reaching the base of the pass, we turned our gaze up the side of the mountain, where switchbacks had been cut through the rock. It was here that we ran into Jo, a New Zealander we know from Queenstown. She plans to hike south to Whitney, and then join us in Bishop to continue north with us. Resting briefly at the bottom, we decided to go up and over at the end of the day. In a high snow year this wouldn’t have been a good idea, but this year it was no problem. Just before the top a small chute in the rock had to be crossed. This was filled with snow, and one had to follow the existing steps sunk in along a very steep drop off. Not a good place for people with a fear of heights. Once past this, we were at the top and could see both valleys on either side. The descent was pretty straight forward, with only some small patches of snow to negotiate. I thought this valley was reminiscent of the high alpine environment found in the Remarkables, a mountain range just outside Queentown. Similar enough to believe I was back in New Zealand. This was also the point where Sole Catcher took the opportunity to take a quick swim in a snow fed lake. He also modeled himself in likeness of a model seen on the Sports Illustrated cover, seen long ago in the desert. Some what fitting, as that photo shot was in Antarctica. With Sole Catcher out of the lake, we continued down into the tree line. Here we found several perfect campsites, which we duly occupied.
Miles hiked – 20
This was the day we set out to approach Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 United States. With that in mind, we didn’t dawdle, and were on trail before seven. A short burst up the ridge led us out of the valley. Here we met Michael, an elementary school teacher who had not seen anyone for a week as he wandered around the mountains. After a long chat about New Zealand, we continued along, gradually descending into thicker strands of trees. Here we found more flowing water, and with it the mosquitos. Some gorgeous looking campsites were tempting, but the mountain awaited. The first proper river crossing saw Sole Catcher plunge through, getting his shoes soaked. Rattles and I took the more sensible route, and boulder hopped across. After a short, intense, climb up, reminiscent of trails around Queenstown, we found a nice sheltered lunch spot adjacent to Lotus and Hermes. After restocking, we decided to head for Guitar Lake were we planned to camp. More rolling terrain finally led down into a beautiful valley. At the bottom was Crabtree Meadow, possibly the most beautiful area yet, which unfortunately was too far from Whitney for us to camp. Following on reluctantly, we began the gorgeous climb up into the rocky valley that housed several lakes. Some boulders made the trail a little more draining, but we reached the lake around half past four. It was at this point that we decided on a crazy plan. Already having hiked twenty miles, we decided to go for the summit of the highest mountain. While I set up camp, Rattles purified water. Not stopping to rest, we began the ascent. With only a light pack on, it made the climbing easier, but it was still tough. Feeling the effects of altitude I began gasping behind Rattles, who probably thought I was about to pass out. Soon switchbacks took us quickly up, with amazing views of the valley floor. Reaching a rocky outcrop, the trail got a little narrow for a small section, making sure one kept ones attention on the trail. Past this point, we wrapped around the side, and then up the final spur to the top. Both of us were shattered at 14,500 feet, but exhilarated to see everything below us. We managed to make it in time to see a gorgeous sun set, which set the mountain aglow. Photos with the three of us at the top were all Rattles and I hung around for, leaving Sole Catcher to Cowboy Camp by the hut. We descended quickly to make the most of the remaining light. Soon the head torches camp out, and we hiked the last hour and a half in the dark. Upon reaching our tent, we were too exhausted to do much but sleep. I then realized I had climbed the mountain on only a packet of skittles and a snickers bar. It was also the first day where we hiked 30 miles; we just happened to pick the hardest one.
Miles hiked – 30
After yesterday’s long day, our legs were a little fatigued. A five mile climb out of the valley was not encouraging. Saddling up and putting our iPods in, we headed to the top, slow and steady. Hitting elevations above 10,000 feet, the altitude might have been getting to us slightly, but no major complaints yet. With bouldery outcrops littering the landscape, we had great sitting rocks to take breaks. From the top we had an impressive view to the east of a large dried up lake bed surrounded by mountains. Not hanging around too long, we headed back down all the elevation we had just climbed. Lunch was just above a creek, lying in the shade and talking to the multitude of hikers walking by. But we couldn’t sit there for ever, so we decided to aim for a camp spot in a saddle several miles up the hill. This proved to be a pleasant walk, strolling into a nice cleared area by a trail junction. This is where one can hike up from Lone Pine and onto the PCT, explaining the number of non-thru hikers around. Sitting on a log, we decided that if we ate our dinner now, we could carry on up the next five miles to a spot above a lake. With this done, we hoisted our lightening packs, and whisked up the trail. As we got to the lake the sun was beginning to set, making for a dramatic view. Several other hikers were camped between the rocks, and we found a nice place up above. Sole Catcher braved a swim, and we washed all the accumulated grime of our feet.
Miles hiked – 20
A day of mountains and meadows. After the first night with our bear canisters, it took us a little longer to get packed up in the morning. Cold fingers and frustrating lids made for a challenge, especially when breakfast was locked away. Climbing out of our wonderful campsite, we hoped this day would mark the change out of the real desert. The first few miles were not encouraging. Hiking up through a gully, we were surrounded by burnt out trees. Disparing, we crested the ridge and were presented with a gorgeous meadow, with a backdrop of Sierra mountains. Filling us with enthusiasm, we climbed over the hills nearby to once again meet the Kern River. Two fisherman coming the other way espoused the success of their catch, although one should always be wary of a fisherman boasting. Having a break by the river, we watched the swallows nesting under the bridge, flying in and out of their small nests. The next miles were a long climb back into the hills, starting with scrubby meadow, and then into the shade of trees. Reaching the small trickle of Cow Creek half way up, we decided that lunch was in order. Summoning the energy to continue the climb, we hiked to the top, wandering by various hikers lying in the shade. Reaching a small ridge, pleasant views of more meadows could be seen to the west. With six more miles downhill to camp, we moved with surety down through the trees. A long walk down led to another small stream, this one red in color. Finding a nice campsite sheltered in some willows, we set up our tent after a very long day with heavy packs.
Miles hiked – 22
After a night nestled in the valley next to running water, we awoke refreshed. In no hurry, we hung out in the tent, enjoying the cool air. As the sun came up, two minutes of warmth quickly changed to broiling hot. Unable to stand it any longer, we took off for Kennedy Meadows. Following the river briefly, we soon climbed into pasture, stretching out to the bottom of the mountains. With the heat picking up, we were in no mood to dawdle. Crossing the 700 mile mark we took rapid photos, and kept going. Upon hitting a road, a sharp right led us up into the small community of Kennedy Meadows. The town is situated on the edge between the proper desert to the south and the High Sierra to the north. Getting here basically means the PCT hiker is done with 700 miles of Southern Californian desert and had a propensity to lift peoples moods. Our first priority was to hit the store and acquire cold drinks and snacks. Once the edge was taken off we collected a sum total of nine packages. The store also allowed us to keep a tab, which was a dangerous move among hungry hikers. With all our gear and food, we found a nice campsite just on the other side of a small hill. The next 24 hours was spent eating and talking to hikers as they walked in. We met up again with Lotus and Hermes. We found out that Lotus also saw the bear cub and ran screaming back down the trail past Hermes. Noah showed up after successfully pulling of fifty miles in a day and a half to see a cello concert. He also collected a huge number of packages. Fun Size, Cuddles, Frosty and Ashley, all of whom we had sat with just before KOA, 300 miles ago, also arrived. I thought the burgers from the store were the best ones I have eaten on the trail. Catching up on some reading in amongst the trees we had a relaxing stay. Deciding to make the most of the cool weather, we cooked our dinner on the second night, before heading down the trail. Walking back down the road, what should we see but another rattlesnake. Sole Catcher nor I were looking down, and it required Rattles to tell us not to step on it. This brings our total rattlesnake count to ten. Back on the trail, it meandered through, not surprisingly, a meadow to the official campground. From here we followed the course of the Kern River a ways, before heading up into a valley. Seven miles in we spotted a perfect campsite situated in some trees. As we are now solidly in bear country, we are all carrying bear canisters for the next 300 miles. This requires one to screw down a heavy duty lid with all the food inside, before placing it far downwind from your tent. Should any bear stumble across it, they are supposed to have a hard time breaking in. With this extra gear we weighed our packs before we left town. Rattles had the lightest at 33 pounds, Sole Catcher next at 35, and mine came in at 37. Content to get back on the trail, we set up our tents and went to sleep.
Miles hiked – 4 + 7
After a pleasant night nestled in the mountains, and with no nocturnal visitors, we woke to the sun streaming into our tent. Lazy, after the last two days, we were in no hurry to hop out of our tents. Leaving camp at the late hour of 9 o’clock, we wandered off the mountain. With a gentle descent through trees and rocky scrub, it made for an ideal morning walk, especially as our packs only had one and half days of food left. Hiking into a valley, we came across a road that led to a campsite. Unfortunately the water was turned off at this particular one, and the only remains of trail magic were a bunch of empty soda cans. With the sun beginning to heat up, we shoved ourselves up the start of the last big climb. Two miles up we came to our next water source, while fortunately near the trial, had a rather particular taste due to the mineral content it was sourced from. But in the desert water is water, and we happily drank it down. Lying in this shady spot for lunch, we continued our relaxing day, intending to hike only around 18 miles. After our break, we finished the climb, hiking out of the pleasant trees and into more burnt out hills. This put a damper on our moods, as we had hoped for less of this after the hundreds of miles we had already been through. Still, this is what we knew we had to cross, so we put our heads down, music in, and the pace on. With eleven miles to the next water source, we flew up and then down the hills, crossing a lot of small, annoying scree sections. Somewhat deflated as we came down into a large valley, this was further exaggerated when our water source was dry. Resolved to hike the next four miles to water, we had dinner in the first clump of trees we came to. Calories flooding in, we started the last flat section, which was surprisingly hot. Possibly because of this we quickly came up to a gopher snake on the trail, followed ten meters later by another rattle snake. Having spotted one only ten minutes from camp this morning, that made two rattlesnakes on the same day. Combined with the bear cub yesterday, Rattles and Sole Catcher were of the opinion that the two should be mutually exclusive. I helpfully pointed out we had seen them on different days; they were not impressed. Continuing on, with myself now the snake bait in front, we crossed in and out of trees before descending down to the south fork of the Kern River. This actually had enough water to bathe in, and with only four miles to Kennedy Meadows, we decided to make the most of being clean. Pitching our tents next to the river, we washed of the accumulated grime of a week in the desert. I feel sorry for the fish.
Miles hiked – 22
A long and varied day, and red was its color. With a restful sleep nestled in the campground, we awoke to the sounds of breakfast. After packing up, a quick recon led to pancakes for Rattles and Sole Catcher. These were apparently the best ones yet. Full on breakfast, we began the first of two long climbs for the day. It began with a rising blood red sun, colored by the dust over the desert. Heading towards a saddle eight and a half miles up, we worked our way up out of the valley and into some trees. Rocky scree on the trail made footing challenging at times, but was rewarded with views out to the desert and surrounding mountains. Up and up we slowly climbed, passing Jenkins Peak and noting a new variety of snake we hadn’t yet seen. This one was bright orange underneath. Upon reaching the saddle, we quickly descended into the next catchment valley, switchbacking down towards our lunch spot. Within the last mile we ran out of trees on the trail, which lowered our expectations of future shade. A short, sharp drop led down to a sheltered lunch area next to cool water flowing out of a small pipe. With these luxuries we lounged around under the trees. Finally, with the heat beginning to fade a little, we crawled back up to the trail, and set off towards our next water six miles away. The first three miles were long, hot desert scrub, with the trail proceeding to climb aggressively. Moving along the exposed trail, we realized our trail fitness had grown immeasurably as we barely slowed, even under less then ideal conditions. Cresting another saddle, we were presented with views of forested mountains rising up to the north. Invigorated by this sight, we plunged down, and covered the next few miles quickly. Upon reaching the first muddy creek, we were greeted by a cluster of hikers. Wondering what was happening, we quickly spotted a black bear cub wandering just below the trail. He seemed rather unperturbed by our presence, even going so far as to push us further up the trail. After some pictures, we decided not to wait around and see if there was a mother nearby, and went to the next water source just up the hill. After stocking up on food and water, we began the second big climb for the day. Two large switchbacks cut across the face of the mountain led to the top of another saddle. As we crested the edge, the setting sun enhanced the nearby rocks with a red glow. Deciding to carry on a little further to find a campsite, we walked amongst the trees illuminated in orange by a stunning sunset. One potential spot was voided due to strong winds, requiring another two miles to finally reach a reasonably sheltered site situated behind a knoll. With two long days in a row, we calculated that Rattles and I had walked 51 miles in two days over several thousand feet.
Miles hiked – 25
A day of mountains and desert. As we awoke this morning, the wind, which had whipped the tent around all night, decided to die. Somewhat frustrated by its tendency to do the opposite of what we would prefer, we were mollified by the fact that we only had six miles of open exposed desert left. Beginning with a climb up onto the ridge top, we soon followed this along its edge. With the desert floor to our right, and mountains to our left, it made for a beautiful morning landscape. With only some short climbs, we soon cruised into the water cache next to a dirt road. Here, thirsty after the desert, Sole Catcher and I drank three liters of water each. We also met Wild Child, Miner and Moonshine, who seemed upbeat. The later two are from Tennessee, and are currently trying to find ten people from the state on the trail. Stocked up to maximum capacity with water, Rattles and I began the long climb into Sequoia National Park. As we climbed above the desert floor, we were presented with dramatic views out to the Mojave, while the mountain toward above us. Soon, trees began to appear, taking some of the brunt out of the midday sun. Upon reaching the top, we sat in the shade and admired our progress so far. Deciding to do another couple of miles, we strolled through a moderately forested landscape, replete with picturesque boulders. Lunch under a shady tree was leaving us spoiled on the trail, and we knew it couldn’t last. Three more miles and we hit a jeep road, which we followed up out of the trees. Feeling the heat, we hit the 20 mile mark for the day where we intended to camp. Cooking dinner there, both Sole Catcher and I were considering our water supply. With all the heat and climbing, we thought it more comfortable to walk to the next water source in the cool of the evening. Hoisting our packs, we set off on the next six miles, thankfully mostly downhill. One small rattlesnake and pleasant views over the valley characterized this section. Strolling into the campground we were met with amazing trail magic. Under a marquee we supped on Gatorade and sausages cooked on the BBQ. A bunch of other hikers, including Hermes and Lotus, Fun Size and Robin Hood were all making the most of this stupendous place. With a plethora of potential tent sites, we set up high on the hill, with the possibility of pancakes in the morning.
Miles hiked – 26