Kaweah Basin, September 14-20, 2017. 84 miles, 16,000. ft ascent.
The Kaweah Basin is revered by the very few people who have visited it. Located deep in the center of Sequoia, to reach it requires a lengthy hike from either the East or West, and even then can only be accessed via a few off-trail passes, as no trails run through it. I initially plan a 9-day loop excursion that includes bagging at least two peaks, but the night before departure I see one ominous weather report that leads me to improvise a revised trip of 7 days, making sure that I am back on a trail by Day 5, as I do not want to get caught in a remote off-trail location during the first-of-season Sierra snowstorm. I take the High Sierra Trail to Kaweah Gap, cross over into the Basin via Pants Pass to spend three days and nights exploring the greater Basin area, and then drop down the other side and rejoin the High Sierra Trail to walk around the Kaweahs and return home.
Day 1: There is no power at the ranger station and everything is in disarray, so I do not leave Crescent Meadow until 8:30 am. At the trailhead I encounter a gaggle of German bird enthusiasts. How wonderful, these people traveled so far to oggle some birds.
The trail is rich in vegetation and wildlife, which is refreshing to me as I have spent several weeks of the summer above the treeline in stark areas.
As I walk I am impressed by how scenic the trail is, with amazing views.
I reach the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp midday and enjoy lunch on the porch. I also spend some time talking with the ranger who confirms the questionable weather situation and who recommends not returning on the Pyra-Queen pass as planned, as I did not bring crampons and ice axe on this trip, only Microspikes.
Lots of drama on the trail. This bridge was taken out by an avalanche in 1937.
The trail was made about 100 years ago, incised into the rock by dynamite.
I reach Hamilton Lakes before nightfall, and enjoy a relatively warm lake swim.
Day 2 is a nice brisk 2,400' ascent up to Kaweah Gap.
At the Kaweah Gap, the Basin and surrounding Lawson and Kaweah peaks come into view. This is where I leave the trail.
I head down through the Nine-Lake Basin on the way to Pants Pass.
This map drawing shows remoteness of the Basin, in the area of the red oval, surrounded by the Kaweah Peaks Ridge.
The purple line shows my three days of off-trail exploring in the general Kaweah Basin area. The black dots are where I camped. My abbreviated schedule did not allow me to summit Picket Guard Peak, which I regret.
The pass on the left looks lower and easier, but is in fact more difficult than the pass I head for in the center of the picture.
RJ Secor describes this pass as "difficult", and it is indeed strenuous. Not dangerous, but very vertical and physically challenging with lots of loose talus.
The view back from Pants Pass (12,000. ft+) towards the Nine Lakes Basin.
The view south. From here I had considered taking the first pass visible in the distance on the left, but it has more vertical snow than what I want to attack armed with only Microspikes.
I spend the rest of this day and the next morning walking along this valley before crossing over to the next one.
Pants Pass gains its name from the dirt chute used to slide down to descend. Sliding is not my style however and so I climb/cling to the rocks along the side instead.
Day 3. There are a few nice mirror-like lakes and variegated colored rocks in this valley, but I am eager to move on. I have had my fill of tree-less moonscapes this summer.
Picket Guard Pass looks imposing but offers many paths to ascend.
Atop the pass, looking west along the ridgeline.
I must descend the talus to the Picket Creek valley, and go around the black ridge ahead to wander up the Kaweah Basin proper.
To the East, Mt. Whitney and its neighboring aiguilles are in view to the far left of the range.
When I cross over the small pass into the Kaweah Basin, everything becomes more colorful.
I begin to appreciate the reputation of this place; the combination of green and brown colors, trees and water features is exceptional.
A large cleft of rocks and water runs up the Basin for some distance.
I reach one of the very few traces of other visitors: an obvious flat tent-site with a stunning view of the Kaweahs.
Day 4. I am treated with a dramatic sunrise light-show that challenges the photographic capabilities of my iPhone. It is also bloody cold.
I venture some distance up the Basin to get a better look at the Pyra-Queen Pass the ranger warned me to not take. I probably could have made it over safely, but I am actually looking forward to the return long hike around the Basin.
The smooth rocks remind me of polished Egyptian stone sculpture.
Many rocks display these cut-slash lines which I assume are caused by freeze-thaw cycles, which in architecture we call "spalling". EDIT: I was sent a few comments about this image with this nice summary: "The glacial marks on the rocks (the somewhat concentric ones) are caused by a rock at the base of the glacier being gouged into the underlying granite under high pressures. They are known as chatter marks. The convex side of the half circular ones can point to the direction from whence the glacier came."
I descend the Basin valley and climb around a hill to reach a scenic lake at the base of Picket Creek.
Once I reach the lake I can see many routes over the hill, but the descent was not so obvious and I made many wrong guesses to find my way over and down the hill.
The lake is indeed very scenic.
Day 5. I take a chance and descend off-trail with no intel on how best to reach the Colby Pass trail.
The climb down proves to be straightforward, but these kinds of rocks can be tricky as there are huge vertical sections of smooth rock that are impassible.
The Junction Meadow Kern River crossing is a total mess, matted down by an avalanche.
I reach Junction Pass and the High Sierra Trail
The Kern Hot Spring is just large enough to accommodate one person.
Day 6. I leave camp at the base of Kern Canyon and ascend several thousand feet to this rich meadow of new growth.
I met Cam Thayer the previous day and he turned me on to picking berries and some other foraging. These berries taste fine; the larger ones that have a similar appearance leave a terrible bitter taste in the mouth.
There is a lot of log-in-the-trail-hopping today.
I stop short of climbing Kaweah Gap and camp in the trees to avoid the winds.
Day 7. Everything is going to plan; I have 23 miles of a mostly easy downhill trail to make it to the trailhead tonight, and the weather is fine. This plaque is prominently displayed at the top of Kaweah Gap.
I jump in the water several times on my last day.
Brown and grey dead trees are an alarming but increasingly common sight in the Sierra.
I really do think that this section of the High Sierra Trail is exceptionally scenic.
As I approach the trailhead I see lights in the distance and I am able to call ahead to reserve a room. It has been a long day but I accomplish my goal of getting off the trail by the end of the seventh day. Despite the clear sky, the next day did indeed become very cold with snow-showers as the original forecast predicted, so I am glad that I planned for the worst.
A note about safety: Events can turn seriously bad in the off-trail wilderness very fast. The majority of people die because of uninformed decisions. The many hazards include river crossings, bad falls and hypothermia. At a minimum, you should carry printed maps and know how to use them; have extensive knowledge of backcountry safety, first aid and best practices; and leave a trip plan with others in case you go missing. I also think that a personal locator beacon is important. Read, take classes, gain experience with small practice trips first. BE SAFE !!!