Day 3: First Whitney Glimpse

Unnamed Lake at 10,900 feet to Guitar Lake
(21 miles, +4,000/-3,500 feet).

We awoke about 5:40am this morning.  The predawn light on the eastern horizon reflected on our lake as we packed up, ate breakfast, and got ready to go.

UltraShuffle gets some water from the lake.
OK, I’m ready to go
Me too!

We started making our way down towards the Colby Pass Trail.  Vegetation became more common, and the boulders and slabs got bigger.

Slabs on the way to the Colby Pass Trail
UltraShuffle follows a stream

About halfway down, the boulders got large enough that they occasionally required some creative route finding.  It wasn’t technical, but we did need to lower our packs down a couple of spots.

A nontechnical but challenging descent
Routefinding through the boulders

Eventually we passed below the tree line where the terrain flattened out towards the Kern-Kaweah River.

Back in the forest
First view of the Kern-Kaweah

It took us a while to find the trail.  On our way, we stumbled onto a bearbox and campsite in the middle of nowhere!  We could not find any use trails connecting it to the Colby Pass Trail, so we were really puzzled by its existence.  Later in the day we would meet a ranger who explained that it was a hidden trail builders camp (he said he had a map with the locations of many of these secret camps!).

We kept heading northeast and eventually found the trail near Gallats Lake (which should really be called Gallats Meadow, since there does not appear to be any lake).  After spending so much time route finding, it was nice to go back into autopilot on trail.

Meadow near Gallats Lake
Another meadow

The trail took us down, down, down the river valley through forests and past a series of meadows.

UltraShuffle on the Colby Pass Trail
View across the Kern-Kaweah Valley towards the Picket Creek drainage

As we got lower, the vegetation transitioned to chaparral in some places.


Around 10:30am we stopped for lunch right before a short climb that would take us over a saddle and down to the Kern River.


While we were eating, two hikers passed.  They said they had a bet on how many people they would see today on the Colby Pass Trail.  We were the first two they had seen, but the over/under was three, so there was still a chance for the hiker who bet over to win!

The High Sierra Trail, heading faintly up and to the right in the middle of the hill

Shortly before making it to the Kern River, we met the ranger who told us about the secret campsites.  We told him about our trip, and he asked “What did you think of Pants Pass?”  I said, “I liked it.”  He retorted “NOBODY likes Pants Pass.  You must be crazy!”

We laughed as he explained that the Kaweah rocks tend to break up into fine dust, which is why the scree in the Kaweahs tends to shift when you walk on it.  He said he much preferred other “classic Sierra” backcountry passes, like Triple Divide Peak Pass (we’ll have to try that one next time).

Crossing the Kaweah

The Kaweah River where we met back up with the High Sierra Trail was our low point for the day at 8,080 feet above sea level.  Unfortunately, that meant the rest of the day would be up, up, up, and in the afternoon heat.  I put up my umbrella, and listened to some tunes as I sweated out the climb.

View back towards the Kern-Kaweah and the Colby Pass Trail

We stopped at Wright Creek at about 10,000 feet for a much needed break.

UltraShuffle shoots some flowers
UltraShuffle’s shot

Soon we made it up to Wallace Creek, where the High Sierra Trail meets the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.  This was my first trip on miles 767 to 770.3 of the PCT.

One thing that made today especially difficult for me is that I did not understand the terrain.  I imagined we would be climbing the whole day, but in fact there is a saddle that goes up to 11,000 feet that you have to climb and then descend between Wallace Creek and Crabtree Meadow before making the final climb to Guitar Lake.

Nobody told me about this &^@%$ saddle!

But we kept plugging away, and we finally made it to Crabtree Meadow, where we departed from the PCT.  The ranger leaves a box of wag bags for anyone heading out at Whitney Portal.  I was relieved (no pun intended) to learn that we would not need them.

Free wag bags!

The trail climbs from Crabtree Meadow and shortly before Timberline Lake we started to catch glimpses of Mount Whitney.

First glimpse of Mount Whitney
Mount Whitney above Timberline Lake

UltraShuffle and I were both really tired from doing nearly 20 miles already, but the view of the mountain and the cooling effect of the higher altitude and the lowering sun helped get us up the last bit of the climb.

Mount Whitney and the final hill to climb before Guitar Lake
UltraShuffle races the shadow on Whitney

At last, we made it to Guitar Lake, where we set up camp and collapsed, but not before setting our alarms for 2am so we could make it to the summit of Whitney by sunrise the following day.

Guitar Lake

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