Trans-Sierra trip, August 2004

Garr Updegraff, Lisle Pottorff, George Lauder

Comments on web site to: George Lauder (glauder@oeb.harvard.edu)

After our double Grand Canyon crossing in October of 2003, Garr began thinking that 2004 would be the year to do the crossing of the Sierra Mountains from Whitney Portal on the East, to Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park on the West. This is a traverse of the southern Sierra using parts of the High Sierra Trail and the Muir Trail, as well as some cross-country travel to shorten the distance, bypassing the long loop of the High Sierra Trail that extends south into the Kern. In total the trip amounts to about 55 miles, and the plan was to do the trip in two days, bivying for one night at the base of Pants Pass which is the “shortcut” from the upper basin of origin for the Kern-Kaweah River into Nine Lakes Basin and the High Sierra trail to the West.

The map below shows the general route, which begins at Whitney Portal (elev. About 8,046’) in the East, and travels up to Trail Crest (13,602’) on the shoulder of Mt. Whitney, before dropping down to the West passing by Guitar Lake, and Crabtree Meadow (10,800’), and on to Junction Meadow (8,086’). Then you start back up heading to Gallats Lake (mostly a large swamp, 10,033’), turning West offtrail toward the headwaters of the Kern-Kaweah river in the Kaweah basin (about 11,000’). Crossing the basin you come to Pants Pass (12,047’), marked with a yellow dot on the map below.

UTM coordinates for this critical pass from Secor (1999; The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails) proved to be very accurate: UTM 634484). After locating and then scrambling up and down Pants Pass, you enter Nine Basin (10,700’) and pick up the High Sierra Trail again at the Kaweah Gap. From there you pass Precipice Lake Hamilton Lake and eventually come down to Bearpaw Meadow (7,730’). Then, it’s a long 11 mile hike/trot in to the parking lot at Crescent Meadow of Sequoia National Park (about 6,703’).

Many thanks to Kerry for dropping us all off at Whitney Portal and then driving the six hours around to meet us the next evening. This one-way trip would not have been possible without her willingness to help with the logistics and meet us at the end with vast quantities of rejuvenating supplies.

If anyone else is thinking of doing this route (which we highly recommend), we provide two useful maps below from Lisle’s GPS as images 18 and 19 to aid in finding Pants Pass, along with tips and useful pictures (28 - 34) for crossing it from East to West.

Here’s a table of our GPS-based trip times and elevations:

Day 1: Total mileage = 29.9

Whitney Portal – 3:40 am  8,046’

Trail Crest  -  8:41 am  13,602’

Crabtree Meadow  -  11:00am  10,800’

Junction Meadow  -  3:02 pm  8,086’

Gallats Lake  -  6:15 pm  10,033’

Camp   -  7:40 pm   10,755’

                8:10 am   10,755’

 Day 2: Total mileage = 25.0

Pants Pass  -  11:04 am  12,047’

Hamilton Lake -   2:30 pm   8,320’

Bearpaw meadow  -  4:33 pm  7,730’

Crescent Meadow: the end - 9:15 pm  6,703’

 Total: 54.9 miles

Some notes on gear: we wanted to make pretty good time, covering the 55 miles across in less than two days. We took relatively lightweight packs (about 15 lbs total) and we managed to stuff our sleeping and bivy bags and pads into the main compartment along with all our other gear. We thus had nothing hanging off our packs and could trot downhill on good trails to pick up time. The new Lithium batteries are awesome – very light and they last forever. Lisle’s GPS was a lifesaver, although we had paper 7.5 minute maps too. We all loved our Salomon Raid Race 300 packs which weigh one pound six oz, but hold 1892 cubic inches. Also, no cooking – lots of cold food (burgers served as a “real meal”) and snacks.

1. August 18, 2004: the day before, meeting in Bishop; Lisle, Garr, and George hoping that the cross to the right is not an omen of things to come.

2. 3:15 am on the morning of August 19. Lisle checking his GPS to make sure we know where we’re going. This turned out to be vital!

3.Organizing: George is tying his shoes, while Garr adjusts his pack.

4. The posed start picture; we started up at 3:40 am.

5. George on the Whitney trail, some time around 7 am, near Trail Camp. Perfect morning weather (at this point).

6. Lisle and George starting up the switchbacks. Trail Camp in the background.

7. George with minarets.

8. Trail crest, shoulder of Mt. Whitney, around 8:40 am – Lisle, George and Garr still looking good.View to East down toward Lone Pine, across northern Death Valley and into Nevada.

9. Looking West from Trail Crest. We’re heading to the Kaweah Peaks ridge in the distant center horizon.

10. Trotting down the west face of Whitney heading toward Guitar Lake

11. On the move westward near Guitar Lake (visible in the background).

12. George not looking too happy about losing another 2000’ of elevation on the way to Junction Meadow.

13. Lisle and George on the descent toward Junction Meadow.

14. Getting ready for rain.

15. Garr enjoying a pre-rain burger snack. Nothing like a hamburger in the middle of nowhere to perk you up.

16. George and Lisle at Gallats Lake/swamp, after hiking during a thunderstorm up from Junction Meadow. It’s about 6 pm, we’re tired, and still trying to figure out what direction to head in to get to the base of Pants Pass where we hope to bivy for the night.

17. Morning of August 20. We managed to make a decent camp (although in a bit of a wet spot) when we faded at darkness last night after reaching this area around 7:40 pm. Fortunately, no bears during the night. Originally we had been worried about bears and contemplated bringing bear spray and/or sinking our food in waterproof bags into nearby lakes. But by the time we camped we were above tree-line and too tired to worry or even to filter water. Fortunately no bears and no giardia: from hyper-vigilance to bear-obliviousness! At this point, we’re still not sure exactly where we are. Lisle believed that we have another 3 miles or so of scrambling to the west to get to the base of Pants Pass. Garr and I did not think it was that far, but Lisle turned out to be correct and was outstanding in navigating us to the pass. The maps below show the route and would be useful for anyone contemplating the same trip.

18. Zoomed-out view from Lisle’s GPS. We entered the picture from the right side (East), approaching along the Kern-Kaweah River toward Gallats Lake which is the swampy area in the upper right of the map below our track. We circled around to the North of Gallats, and then turned West where the “Leave Trail” note is on the map. After scrambling through light forest we finally camped above tree line as darkness fell at about 10,755’: note Camp label.

19. Close-in view of our camp site and the route to Pants Pass(labeled PP in yellow on the map in the lower left corner). Although when we camped we were not at all sure that we’d taken the right route, it turned out to have been just about the best possible track to take. We’d recommend this route to others wishing to cross Pants Pass from East to West. It’s a bit shorter than following the Kern-Kaweah river all the way up and allows a much clearer and gentler approach to Pants Pass. If you try to get here from Whitney Portal in one day, you might want to start around midnight to make it all the way to the base of Pants Pass with some daylight left (in mid-August). We might have done better if we had not encountered a significant thunderstorm along the trail from Junction Meadow to Gallats Lake, and had run more of the downhills. Pictures below will show the approach to Pants Pass.

20. Looking back down at Gallats Lake from our camp site on the morning of August 20.

21. George “enjoying” cold oatmeal before we set off to find Pants Pass.

22. Lisle getting ready to pack up.

23. Near 10730 in the upper Kern-Kaweah basin, continuing the debate on the location of PantsPass. This lake was not far above our campsite and would have made a better place to camp if we had the energy, daylight, and knowledge to keep going.

24. Looking back above Lake 10730 to the East over the Kern-Kaweah basin as we gain altitude climbing toward Pants Pass. The smaller lake to the middle right was about ¼ mile above our camp site.

25. More scenery in the Kern-Kaweah basin as we hike toward Pants Pass. We traveled to the left of the reddish rock in the middle right of the picture (better view in the next picture). Moving through this small notch leads to a ridge that is traversed around a lake at the headwaters of the Kern-Kaweah. From there Pants Pass is clearly visible.

26. Closer view of mountainous scenery as we try to find our bearings. At this point we were still debating the direction of Pants Pass. Lisle and his GPS turned out to be correct. Note the two confused adventurers in the lower right. We wound up doing the right thing and climbing up the v-shaped notch in the left-middle of the picture. A small section of the ridgeline with Pants Pass we soon discovered) is visible just above the ridge.

27. Ascending a short scree section still trying to figure out where we are.

28. Pants Pass located! It’s just behind Lisle and George at the two low notches between the two peaks on the upper left and right (see next picture for more details).

29. View of Pants Pass looking West from the upper Kern-Kaweah basin. There are two notches, and we climbed up the talus slope to the lower notch to the South. This worked very well and was much easier and safer than climbing up the base of the northern notch. The descent on the other side of the southern notch looked nasty and so we traversed the ridge to the higher northern notch, and then descended Pants Pass (sometimes on our pants) into Nine Lake Basin. Picture 33 below shows the traverse between the notches.

30. Looking down the talus slope on the way up to Pants Pass. Lisle and George are just visible among the talus in the lower right.

31. Kern-Kaweah headwater basin and drainage from the top of Pants Pass.

32. Lisle and George making the traverse from the lower south notch to the higher north notch along the Pants Pass ridge. Garr took this photo while standing at the south notch. Nine Lake basin is just ahead of us below the small peak.

33. Descending Pants Pass from the northern notch into Nine Lake basin. Garr took this picture from the northern notch looking down at George. Lisle has moved down so quickly that he is out of sight here, probably resting already by one of the nine lakes visible here.

34. George nearing the bottom of the descent from Pants Pass. The perspective here is a bit odd, but this is a steep descent skidding down loose scree on your feet (and pants). Water from the lake visible in the previous picture is at the top. This lake had some nice big trout in it, probably from a hatchery, unfortunately.

35. Garr, just before the Kaweah Gap, looking back over Nine Lakes basin to the east toward Pants Pass, which is the wider notch in the center of the picture at the level of Garr’s head.

36. We’re in the western area of Nine Lake basin. This photo looks west toward the Kaweah Gap behind us. The trail out starts just past the small lake.

37. On the High Sierra Trail looking up at the Kaweah Gap, having left Nine Lake Basin behind. Lisle and George are just barely visible in the middle of the grassy area heading along the trail having just past through the gap heading down toward Precipice Lake.

38. Passing Precipice Lake on the way to Hamilton Lake.

39. Hamilton Lake. The descent to Hamilton Lake seemed endless on day 2. It looks like a quick jog down on a good trail and the lake appears to be close, but the trail traverses far to the right (just visible in the picture above) before turning back and taking its time getting to the lake. George took a quick, refreshing, swim near the far outlet.

40. Crossing a rocky gorge on the way out. Garr took this picture as he zoomed ahead to connect with Kerry at Crescent Meadow. Lisle and George were too tired to take pictures.

41. The End. Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park: the tired adventurers at 9:15 pm, Day 2.