July 19, 2016
Distance: 9 miles
Traveled: Merhten Creek to Upper Hamilton Lake
“…with its sublime domes and cañons, dark upsweeping forests, and glorious array of white peaks deep in the sky, every feature glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire. Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty. The most extravagant description I might give of this view to any one who has not seen similar landscapes with his own eyes would not so much as hint its grandeur and the spiritual glow that covered it.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
One of us woke still under the spell of vertigo, and the other with a blister that was quite a beast. We were quite the team kicking off this second day.
It definitely wasn’t the quickest I’ve ever left camp. We didn’t get out until the nearly embarrassing hour of 10:00am. I have no idea what took us so long to get moving, as we were both up at sunrise. Neither of us was hungry, so there wasn’t much cooking or eating that took place. Caitlin packaged up her nasty heel blister, and both of us took some decent time re-thinking the organization of our super-full packs.
As much as I love the convenience of bear canisters and the peace of mind they bring, they’re just a pain-in-the-ass to pack around. Also, a bear canister loaded with 6 days of food is a damn awkward lump of plastic to squeeze into a pack. Rarely during the past few years have I found myself backpacking without a bear canister, but typically it’s with my smaller BV450 which is much more manageable than the larger BV500. The last time I had to carry my large canister was on the John Muir Trail, and I had to squeeze 8 days of food into it, which proved not to be an easy task. Yet, for some reason, I was now only carrying 6 days of food and could still barely fit it into the canister (well, as of today I was only carrying 5 days). I hoped my appetite would pick up soon, because I had some ounces (and pounds) of food that I was eager to get rid of.
The sun was high and quite comfortable in its spot in the sky by the time we made our way out of camp. The midday heat was already making itself known, and I could tell that “mild” would not be a word we would use to describe the temperature today.
Our first destination of the day was Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, about 5.5 miles ahead, where we would stop for lunch. We decided since we were ahead of schedule, after having had an extra day of hiking the day before, that we would play it by ear and see how far we wanted to hike today. We would walk at least as far as Upper Hamilton Lake and decide from there if we wanted to continue on to Precipice Lake for the night.
In the back of my mind, I was still super-worried that my vertigo would not get better (or get worse), and I would have to turn around. Hamilton Lake would put us at a spot where if I needed to evacuate out that I could still walk out in a day, whereas Precipice Lake would be a pretty far days walk. I hoped to all hell it wouldn’t come to that, but I felt good at least having a plan. If I didn’t feel better by tomorrow, it might be stupid to continue, and I might have to bail.
Heading out from camp at Merhten Creek, the trail continued on much as it had the day before, traversing east along the canyon walls above the Middle Fork Kaweah River. The Great Western Divide appeared promisingly closer with every bend we turned.
Sugarbowl Dome and Little Blue Dome made their appearance, and we would soon pass them by.
The walk was beautiful that morning, but it was baking. It was the type of heat that sucked the energy right out of you, but nevertheless, we kept pushing forward.
We had prepared for an onslaught of mosquitos on the HST. We brought headnets, different types of bug spray, and long sleeve knit button-up shirts and pants that the flying devils wouldn’t be able to bite through. We were ready for them. We hadn’t run into any since Crescent Meadow the day before (where they were pretty ruthless), and I was feeling pretty good about the bug situation right up until we reached Buck Creek.
The Buck Creek crossing was pretty, so I stopped to take this photo:
And then I yelped.
Biting flies. I was being ambushed by biting flies and they fucking hurt. I ran across the bridge and hustled up the hill beyond and yelled to Caitlin behind me to warn her not to stop because we were being ambushed. She fell victim as well.
From there the trail entered a shady, and surprisingly cool, forest that brought so much appreciated relief from the heat that it made me forget my biting-fly-woes. And then the trail turned upward, and my woes quickly returned in the form of the long, dusty, switchbacks leading up toward Bearpaw Meadow. It was hot as hell, and all of the energy had been sucked out of me. I was so ready for a break and lunch.
I hustled ahead as quickly as I could, rationalizing that the sooner I got to Bearpaw, the sooner I could take off my shoes, and the longer I could rest.
Near 1:00pm I finally made it to the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, and plopped down exhausted on the ground and waited for Caitlin. After coming-to, I took advantage of the convenience of the water spigot nearby and filled up my water bottles, and rinsed off my nasty, dirty, dusty, feet. I then took the deceivingly long walk to the pit toilet, which was so disgusting that I nearly decided to pass it up.
When Caitlin finally arrived, we made our way over to the canyon edge near the dining room, and collapsed onto the ground. Neither of us had much of an appetite (still), we both ate a little, but ended up mostly just leaning back onto our packs and enjoying the shade and closing our eyes enjoying the brief escape from the high heat of the day.
I forget until I’m out on the trail that backpacking is never as romantic as we convince ourselves it is when we’re done. These walks are never easy – they’re exhausting. But the journey wouldn’t be nearly as epic without the struggle, right?
Other hikers passed through and we talked to them about about their routes, the perils and wonders they had encountered on their walks, and the damn biting flies at Buck Creek. We procrastinated for as long as we could. It was just fucking hot. So fucking hot. Neither of us were eager to leave the shade or get back on our feet, and we decided then that there was no way we were going to have the energy to make it all the way to Precipice Lake for the night and that Hamilton Lakes would be our destination.
It was near 3:00 when the motivation roused to return to the trail. We ‘only’ had 4 miles left to go, so we talked ourselves into thinking it really wouldn’t be all that bad.
As soon as we set out and stepped back into the sun, we realized it would be ‘that bad’.
We were finally entering the Sierra that I love though. Glacially sculpted granite, dotted with lush green and wildflowers.
At last, we were surrounded with the drama of the Sierra that I had been craving.
The trail was super exposed to the sun at this point, and I stopped to put up my umbrella to enjoy some travelling shade. I’ve boasted about my umbrella before, and its ounces have definitely earned their keep within the contents my pack. On this trip, my trusty umbrella would prove to be so valuable – and this stretch of trail might have been one of its finer moments. When the sun hits that Sierra granite, it becomes a mirror to the heat and the light. A reflective umbrella can often be the only reprieve.
We crossed the bridge over Lone Pine Creek and from there the climb was relentless.
I stopped frequently to take in the views and catch my breath, but really, I just wanted to keep going and get to camp. Eventually the heat just became unbearable, the dizziness returned, and my vertigo got the best of me. I came to a couple of trees providing just enough shade over the trail for me to sit under. I dropped my pack and sat down right in the middle of the trail (there was no where else to sit). I hoped no one would come by, because I really didn’t want to move.
The heat had totally wiped me out, and I was super dizzy. I popped one of my pills, and leaned back against my pack and closed my eyes. Caitlin arrived without word or comment, and just dropped down next to me and closed her eyes. We were both spent. After a bit of silent rest I told her that part of me debated just sitting there until sunset.
Knowing that waiting out the rest of the hot daylight was not at all practical, we eventually motivated to keep going. My mission from that point until the end of the day was to pick a pace at which I wouldn’t have to stop, and just keep going until I reached the lakes in about 2 miles. I would find a good campsite, and Caitlin would catch me again there.
The views just kept getting better and better. The paths of the glaciers in this range of the Sierra are so prominent and obvious, similar to parts of Yosemite, but even more obvious in a way. You could see the exact winding path of many glaciers down the sides of the mountains all around, and the towers and spires that had escaped their scour.
Soon I could hear the roar of Hamilton Creek Falls ahead echoing down the canyon.
Before I knew it, I reached the top of the falls.
All I wanted to do was stop for a bit and take in the incredible views. Unfortunately, there was already a group of 5 guys there taking a break. One made some stupid sexist remark to me when I walked up that was so dumb I’ve blocked out of my head as to exactly what he said. His comment alone was enough to deter me from wanting to stop up there, but then as I was taking a photo, I heard them saying that they should get moving to get a camping spot at the lake. As soon as I heard that, I pushed into high gear and headed back to the trail. We had already seen a few other people on the trail that day that were heading up to Hamilton Lake for the night, and I absolutely didn’t want to lose out on a campsite to these guys. I needed to get there before they did to get a good site (or even just get a site).
The walk from the top of Hamilton Creek Falls to the lake was stunning. I’m a little bummed I felt the pressure to keep walking so fast, as it was one of the most beautiful parts of the Sierra I had been in. To the north stood the mighty granite sentinels of Valhalla, with Angel Wings being the most impressive sight – a 2000-foot monolith, and the largest wall of granite in Sequoia National Park.
The trail briefly skirted above Lower Hamilton Lake and then climbed a bit further to the Upper Hamilton Lake.
Hamilton Lakes truly was impressively beautiful. A large emerald lake surrounded by granite cliffs, with a stunning ribbon waterfall pouring into the lakes East end.
I scrambled around and around the west side of the lake looking for an open spot, but there were a lot of people camped at the lake and every obvious spot was taken. I finally found one spot just barely big enough for our two tents with easy access to the lake.
At Bearpaw, there was a sign warning about the deer here at Hamilton Lakes, and I had read warnings of them before I left as well. Apparently the deer are notorious trouble makers and will get into your food, and chew your shoes, pack, or trekking poles for salt. The sign made it clear you should not under any circumstances leave your pack or food unattended.
Funny enough, I was tired of carrying my pack, and put it down briefly to pee, and sure enough when I returned to our campsite, I busted a bold young buck taking steps toward my pack. I shooed him off, and was then was very careful not to leave my stuff out of my sight.
I was super pleased that there were no mosquitos to be found! I had horrible visions of us eating through headnets that night, and alas – we were bug free!
Caitlin arrived and she was beat, but very relieved to be at camp for the night. Her poor blister was aching, and she knew she needed to tend to it soon.
We set up camp and then decided to go for a swim (keeping en eye over our shoulders for deer). We rinsed off first away from the lake, and then inched our way into the cold water.
It felt incredible. There is really no swim that compares to one in an alpine lake.
After our brief swim, we filled our bear canisters with water and a few drops of Dr. Bronners and scrubbed ourselves down a bit more and did some makeshift laundry (away from the lake, up at our campsite – Leave No Trace, people!). It felt great to get rid of the dust, dirt, and sweat from the day. Walking on pack trails is never fun – besides the horse poop you’re constantly avoiding, the dust is always horrendous, and it penetrates everything.
Caitlins blister was causing her a lot of pain at this point. And I was starting to get very worried she might want to turn around. It was huge, angry looking, and was in a spot on the side of her heel that she would be able to give it little relief while walking the next 60 miles. She cleaned it up well, and left it without a bandage for the night to let it breathe.
Her morale was getting low as the evening went on. She was concerned about her blister, exhausted from the day, and beating herself up that she couldn’t keep up with me. The trail will always test you, and tonight was our test.
We talked it out for a bit. I tried to reassure her about her moving slower than I was on the trail. First, I live at 8500’ and regularly hike much higher, therefore I was much more acclimated than she was having come from sea level. From my perspective she was doing awesome, and doing much better than I was when I lived at sea level and would head up to the Sierra high-country. Her feelings brought me back to my experience on the John Muir Trail, where I was moving horribly slow compared to my friends I was hiking with, due to my asthma. I knew what it was like to watch someone flying ahead and either kill myself trying to keep up with them, or beat myself up as I fell behind. Yet, the only thing I could assure her of was that she had to remember that I’m struggling ahead of her just as much as she is. Both of our speeds were equal in the effort we were each putting in – it’s just that mine happened to be a bit faster due to being acclimated. I was hitting the same wall of effort she was, and this hike was no easy feat for me either.
It felt good to talk it out and share my past experiences from the trail with her, and though she was still in her head as sunset passed, she seemed to feel less burdened.
Once again, neither of us was much up for eating. I forced myself to eat as much as I could stomach, but the nausea from the vertigo was totally ruining my appetite. A little bit of trail magic ended up coming to our rescue though. There was a group next to us that had bear boxes at their site, and Caitlin asked if we could share their bear boxes that night. She also offered them food in case they needed any, explaining we had a ton extra, and they said they didn’t need any food but they would be heading out in the morning and would be happy to carry out our trash and extra food with them. We went back and forth about feeling guilty about burdening them with our waste – but they insisted…and it felt great to lose some ounces and gain some space in our bear canisters! We were so grateful.
Before turning in, we talked about the prospect of either of us needing to turn around the next day, which was a subject we had avoided. We both felt low and frustrated – me with my vertigo, and Caitlin with her blister. We both contemplated whether we would continue if the other had to leave, and talked about the logistics with cars. I really wanted to see Precipice Lake, and with it being only 3 miles ahead, I could hardly justify turning around without seeing it. We decided that in the morning we would hike up to Precipice Lake and she would use that climb to see how her foot felt and decide if she should continue.
I just hoped I would wake feeling normal again.