Distance: 63 Miles
Elevation Gain: 13,000 Feet
Location: Sequoia National Park, CA
by Aaron Pinner
Mission: Get to Precipice Lake
I’d never led a multi-day backpacking trip, and my partner had never camped before. But there we were facing a 13,000’ elevation gain over 63 miles in 5 days. I’d been eyeing the High Sierra Trail for two years, but fire after fire after flood, conditions never permitted. This year - right around my birthday, everything lined up perfectly.
The first step was getting my partner interested because I knew that if I could catch her interest, she would turn it into an obsession. And so, countless pictures turned into thorough research and planning - neither of us wanted to be in the middle of nowhere just “winging it,” which I have a habit of doing.
We chose to follow the Mineral King Loop starting at Cold Water Campground, which already sits at about 7,500’. We’d spent some time camping the day before in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks to acclimate to the elevation. Cold Water Campground proved quiet and serene - very different from the camps we set during my time in the military. I learned to train like you fight. So, we set up our tent, layed out our gear, and tested our water purifiers. We sought out a ranger to review our 5-day plan and scouted out the trail we would start in the morning.
As the sun started to set, we picked out our meals. My partner chose chicken curry. I went with biscuits and gravy (freeze-dried). With our utensils laid out and hunger growing like the imminent darkness, we realized our Jetboil didn’t work. My partner had tested it the night before, but there we were with a useless stove, our 10 meals for the trip, and maybe 30 minutes of sunlight. Fortunately, we were in one of the few campgrounds that allowed campfires at this elevation, so I began to split wood with my KA-BAR. Over the next two hours, we cooked all our meals for the next 4 days.
Day 1: Sawtooth to Redwood Meadow - 14.11 Miles
The next morning, we gathered our belongings, had breakfast, and tarped up our cart to protect it from the marmots. Note that marmots not only enjoy munching on car parts, but they also love the salt in your sweat. So, keep your backpack and clothes close.
The next checkpoint was Timber Gap. And there was no easy way up to Timber Gap. The trail starts with endless switchbacks, so even after an hour, we could still see our little car tarped in blue. By this point it was 10:30 in the morning, and the temperature was rising quickly to 100 degrees. Fortunately, before long, the trail sheltered us under a thick forest.
We were surprised to find Timber Gap breathtaking - not because we were tired but because it overwhelms the senses. We stopped, regrouped, rested, and then descended 3 miles in a scene that could have been taken from The Sound of Music. We felt as though our hard work and preparation had allowed us to access something beautiful and rare - something previously only known to us through film and photography. But, as we made our von Trapp family descent to a lower altitude than we started, I knew the pain that was coming.
At Cliff Creek, we had our first river crossing. We took an hour and a half to rest, eat lunch, dip our feet, and fill up on water immersed in the joy of the water's sounds and energy. But we still had 4 miles to go before we’d reach our campsite at Redwood Meadow.
My partner mapped out the route to cater to her sense of luxury: proximity to a ranger station, water, a bear locker, a pit toilet. Talk about spoiled. However, the ranger station was deserted, and there was neither water nor a bear locker. The two highlights of our evening were: 1) the pit toilet and 2) pitching our tent under a giant sequoia. I had no trouble sleeping peacefully under one of the largest trees in the world. My partner, however, slept restlessly, tormented by the noises of the forest.
Day 2: Redwood Meadow to Hamilton Lake - 14.46 Miles
The goal of the day was to make it to Precipice Lake, so we started early, around 6:30 am. We knew it would be a challenge due to the distance and our aching muscles. We decided early that if time were limited, we could camp at Hamilton Lake instead and spend the following day at Precipice. After breakfast, we started up one of the most strenuous treks of our trip: Bearpaw Meadow. As if summoned by the location’s name, we soon stumbled upon a bear about 6 feet from us. And she wasn’t alone. She had cubs with her. Surprisingly, they didn’t seem worried about us at all, but it still seemed like a good idea to back down the hill we just climbed and watch from a distance. Once I couldn’t see them with my binoculars, we returned to our journey on the High Sierra Trail.
The views were the kind that filled you with an abundant energetic feeling that leaves your aches and pains behind. I had never seen a mountain range like this before. White granite peaks seemed to shimmer everywhere we looked. The more we walked, the more detail we could see. What first seemed to be odd discolorations were small waterfalls. We felt like we’d reached Valhalla - a destination our GPS failed to mention. When we reached Hamilton Lake at 4:00 pm, we knew that’s where we should stay for the night. We hadn’t anticipated the lake being so beautiful, and my partner and I didn’t waste any time before cooling off in the soothing water. Hamilton Lake was also where we first saw other people on the trail. Knowing we were not alone helped my partner fall asleep more easily, but she asked me to wake her up when the stars came out. I don’t know how she knew they were going to be so spectacular.
Day 3: Hamilton Lake to Little 5 Lakes - 14.5 Miles
This was my birthday - the day we were to make it to Precipice Lake. The rapid 2,000’ elevation gain was supposed to be the most exhausting part of the trip, but somehow the views continued to fill us with excess energy. We moved fast and steady stopping only to look back at the mountains and lakes we’d passed. When we finally made it to Precipice Lake, I knew the journey was worth it. Photos and videos will never be able to do it justice. We sat and just stared at the reflection for 20 minutes and had lunch. My partner stuck three matches in a smushed up brownie and sang happy birthday to me.
After spending a couple hours there meditating on our experience, it was time to continue. This was only the halfway point. I don't know why I thought it would be all downhill from here. We headed out and crossed a mountain down into Kaweah Gap, a huge patch of land between two mountains. I felt like we were on another planet. There was a cool downgrade where we were able to bask in the view and talk about how we were feeling. There was a lot to be happy about.
That feeling was short-lived. Soon, we crossed the Big Arroyo. Mosquitoes swarmed us for hours, which made us pick up our pace, but that only wore us out. Then we had to climb up to get to Little 5 Lakes where we were going to camp for the night. My partner was so annoyed by the mosquitos that she didn't want to get out of the tent after we set it up. But I assured her that there were none next to the lake. To our surprise there was a park ranger who let us use his Jetboil. I made some lasagna and he gave me a bottle of champagne for my birthday. It was the most unforgettable birthday I had ever had.
But we knew that if the next day was going to be our last day, we would have to cover 5 miles more than we had been averaging everyday.
Day 4: Little 5 Lakes Back to Cold Springs - 19 Miles
We woke up at 5:00 am because we both decided that we had to go home that day. Something about reaching Precipice filled us with a restlessness to be home; we’d done what we set out to do. From the moment we left our campsite, we began to scale a steep incline to Black Rock Pass, the highest point in the whole trip. It was nothing but rocks and big views. When we got to the top, I celebrated by going to the highest peak and yelling at the top of my lungs. After that, we maneuvered downhill for 4 miles over the same rugged rocks. This was more strenuous than going uphill. My partner's knees ached, and my feet were on fire. Finally, we reached Cliff Creek before 1:00 pm, close to where we started. We were going to get to the car before sundown.
We stopped for lunch because we were going to need the energy to hike back up Timber Gap, which somehow proved to be the most tiring trek of all - just climbing up a mountain for 4 hours straight. My partner was struggling, so I suggested a trick I’d picked up. Pick your favorite number and count your steps to that number over and over again.
Luck brought us a little rain to cool us off, but soon we were surrounded by thunder and lightning in a place famous for forest fires. We picked up our pace. Before we knew it, we were at the top of Timber Gap, and my partner started to cry tears of joy.
We kept talking about what we were going to do when we finally finished. We were in the Bakersfield Chick-fil-A drive-through by 9:00 pm.