Big Hamilton Lake to Unnamed Lake at 10,900 feet
(11 miles, +4,000/-1,200 feet).
Today was a really big day for me. It was not only some of the most beautiful mileage on the High Sierra Trail, but it was also my first experience with cross country traveling in the Sierra. Now I am hooked!
UltraShuffle is an early riser like me, and by 6:30am we were packed, fed, and ready to go.
The trail passes right by Big Hamilton Lake. We were happy to see it, since we couldn’t last night due to our late arrival.
The trail switchbacks above the lake, and as the sun rose it turned a glowing deep blue.
About 1,000 feet above the lake we came to Hamilton Gorge, where the Park Service built an ill-fated suspension bridge in 1932. Just 5 years later the bridge was destroyed by a massive avalanche, but you can still see the moorings and some cable sitting on the side of the trail. Instead of replacing the bridge, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a tunnel that is still in use today.
Beyond the gorge, seasonal streams cross the trail in many places, creating beautiful natural gardens.
The trail continued upward, past tarns and the last remnants of snowfields from winter.
We were mostly shaded for the climb, which I always like.
Behind us, we got spectacular views of Valhalla.
By 9am we made it to Precipice Lake, famous for its location adjacent to a tall vertical rock face. We took a break to rest, eat, and wash our feet.
Around 9:30am we hit the trail again. It was starting to get a little hot in the sun, so I pulled out my umbrella. One of the ribs had broken, but it was easily fixed with a little duct tape.
The hike from Precipice Lake up to Kaweah Gap is spectacular, passing through alpine meadows and winding around tarns that feed the lake below.
Soon we reached Kaweah Gap, our on-trail high point for the day at 10,700 feet. We could see Pants Pass in the distance, and the valley we needed to cross to get there.
I recognized the pass in part because there is a picture of both sides of it in R. J. Secor’s book The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. One especially helpful tidbit is that this pass is easier than the lower pass to the north of it, which is rated class 3 (a climb with hands and feet with some exposure to falls that could cause serious injury). That pass is called “Piss in Your Pants Pass!” Another tidbit is the advice to climb the north notch rather than the south notch of Pants Pass, again because the south requires a lot of class 3 climbing as well.
I foolishly thought the best thing to do from Kaweah Gap would be to keep our elevation and follow the 10,700 foot contour until we made it to Lake 10725 in the Nine Lake Basin. But as we attempted this, we ended up on steep granite cliff faces that were tricky to cross.
Even when we could cross them, we kept getting cliffed out and we had to backtrack many times.
What we really should have done is head down towards the west shore of the lake at 10,500 feet and then back up towards the east shore of Lake 10725.
Our poor route choice probably cost us an extra hour and we were pretty exhausted by the time we got to Lake 10725.
We swam, ate lunch, and then napped to prepare for the ascent to Pants Pass.
Around 1pm we packed up and headed around the lake before starting our traverse across the scree.
We carefully made our way over rocks that tended to slide when you stepped on them. It felt especially treacherous when the angle approached 45 degrees. There wasn’t much in the way of exposure, but it was exhausting coping with the constant threat of starting a large rock slide with each step. If I were to do this over again, I would stay closer to Lake 10725 before ascending directly to the pass.
It took about two hours total to get up to the pass.
The last few hundred feet were very steep and slippery. In some places, it seemed a bit safer to do a class 3 move than to keep to the slippery class 2 terrain.
I was not very enthusiastic about starting our descent.
UltraShuffle courageously volunteered to go first. He found it easiest to keep handholds and walk backwards down the initial slippery and steep part.
I, on the other hand, slid down on my pants (hence the name of the pass!). It wasn’t too dangerous, but I did start some pretty big rock slides on the way down. It felt a little like surfing on bowling balls.
After a couple of hundred feet the scree was pretty safe again, if somewhat tedious and hard on the knees. We made our way down into the lake basin above the head of the Kern-Kaweah River.
We had to climb up a couple of hundred feet past the first big lake to get over a saddle that separated it from the other lakes. We then dropped down to the penultimate lake at about 11,100 feet.
We passed by some nice tarns on the way to the final lake in the basin at 10,900 feet where we would camp for the night.
We only went about 11 miles or so total today, but off trail travel is always slower, especially with so much climbing and scree.
We bedded down for the night by our very own lake with no one else around for miles. I am definitely going to do more off trail travel in the High Sierra for the beauty, the challenge, and the solitude.