I normally don’t celebrate birthdays much. I do enjoy a day of little effort, lots of family, and time with my kids. This year, however, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself by walking 50 miles through the High Sierra and asked some close friends if they wanted to join me. They may not have known what they were getting into as five of my good friends showed up. We met mostly in Los Angeles and Fresno and used our cabin as base camp as we planned and packed the night before the trip. We hit the trailhead at 7 AM and started with motivation and heavy packs.
With our sense of humors (senses of humor?) we started climbing up over the first hill. We struggled and the struggle was just beginning. We powered through the first four miles pretty well and we had planned on doing 14.5 the first day in order to stay on track for the fifty mile loop we had planned. We collapsed at each water stop, enjoying a beautiful river where I discovered a giant blister had already developed on my big toe as I dipped my tired feet into the icy cold water. The trail went through fir forest interspersed with beautiful alpine meadows and then opens up to the exposed canyon with the trail carved out of the granite walls.
When we got to Bearpaw Meadow at 10.5 miles, none of us would be able to continue on to Hamilton Lake, four miles and 1200 cumulative feet above us. We camped there for the night and learned about our new gear purchased for this trip. Licking our wounds, we agreed that we modify the trip to be an out and back. There was no way we would be able to finish 12.5 miles per day through more technical terrain at higher altitude.
Day 2 – Hamilton Lake
I kept promising my friends that Hamilton Lake was just around the corner (really four miles away, 400 feet down, cross a river, 800 feet up). I bet Kory that the view was better at Hamilton Lake and that we should get there quickly to enjoy it. He didn’t believe it as the view along the way was pretty spectacular. The High Sierra Trail is one of the nicest backpacking trails I have ever hiked. Huge granite walls, waterfalls, forests, and meadows make the view amazing. The hike down to Mehrten creek was easy, the hike up was harder…
After you pass Mehrten creek bridge, you start climbing to Hamilton Lake. About a mile below the lake, you come across a waterfall cascading into the valley several hundred feet. You have to navigate carefully out onto the ledge, avoiding slipping into the stream and falling to your death spectacularly. Once there, you can put your feet in the icy cold water and filter water as it rushes over the edge. This spot is beautiful and I remember telling the guys about it as I remembered it from when my brother, Tim, and I had done this backpacking trip in the early 2000s. I forgot to mention to them how hard this part of the hike was!
We arrived at Hamilton Lake early in the afternoon and there were already several campers taking prime spots. We ended up with some pretty epic spots overlooking the lake. We were still sore from the previous day and took the opportunity to jump in the lake as soon as we got our tents pitched.
Day 3 – Back to the forest
We mostly slept well at the lake and wanted to get some mileage in early to get the best campsite past Bearpaw Meadow so that we didn’t have a 10.5 mile trip on day four. Jon and Kory stuck around for a couple hours to fish and pack up. Emmett and Jayson took off early and Matt and I took off half an hour after. We agreed to meet at Bearpaw Meadow so we didn’t get too separated. Going downhill was fun and fast. The technical terrain and my trekking poles blended together as I tick-tacked down the mountain quickly to get down to Mehrten creek. The beauty of this trail was more noticeable coming down as I wasn’t exhausted on the uphill. After Mehrten creek, you ascend about four hundred feet before the trail flattens and follows the curve of the granite walls for a couple miles. Beautiful and treachorous, there are points where the plants conspire to push you towards the edge and waterfalls make the ground slippery. I found my hip hurting during this section because I had been leaning towards the wall just in case I tripped, I would fall uphill, not off the ledge! This part of the trail definitely keeps you awake and aware even when you are exhausted and takes a mental toll.
Our campsite had a beautiful swimming hole and also a fire pit which we thoroughly enjoyed. It lacked sunshine so we were pretty cold coming out of that swimming hole and the fire was great. We ate really well that night and went to bed around nine PM in one of the most beautiful campsites I have ever seen.
Day 4 – Back to Snivelization
Unfortunately, everything comes to an end and we walked the eight miles out to the truck not saying much to each other and split up across the trail. I realized that I hadn’t really spent enough time enjoying the forest and meadows and became blissful walking through those last few miles knowing that I would soon go back to work. I was excited to see my family who I hadn’t seen for a couple weeks and also trying to enjoy these last few miles. As we were on the last mile or two, we starting seeing a lot of incoming hikers. The most amazing thing was the smells. Passing them on the trail, you could smell their washing machine detergent, underarm deodorant, and the food they had for breakfast. It was kind of amazing and immediately snapped us back to civilization. We joked about the “noobs” entering the trail because of how much we had grown and learned during the trip. Every day was a challenge with several rewards. I learned that I can backpack in a lightweight way and still be comfortable on the trail and at camp. Bringing the chair was a great idea. It added a pound and a half but made things much more enjoyable. Some other gear that was amazing includes the Jetboil Flash, Osprey 55L pack (which I didn’t adjust until day 2 unfortunately), and my Big Agnes 1 Person tent. Amazing stuff.
I used to enjoy doing epic trips like this myself… Over the years, I have learned how much more enjoyable they are with good friends. We shared a lot of laughs, some pain, and some amazing experiences that we will always have together. I am infinitely grateful to my family and my friends for supporting this trip and especially to Emmett, Matt, Jayson, Jon, and Kory for taking on the adventure. We piled out of the truck at the cabin and were met with love from Kerri, Boden and Ayden and several other guests. It was really amazing and my bucket is full. As I have gone back to work, I am thinking about how soon I can get back to the woods.