The High Sierras

From Giant Forest to Lone Pine

Explorer Scouting Adventure

Story and photographs by Michael Gordon. Nonprofit electronic reproduction and copying permitted provided proper attribution is made. This version published electronically in the month of May, 1998.

Summer, 1971. The Explorer Scouts, led by the adventurer (and, I think, music professor at the College of Southern Utah) Jim D., did perform many lesser hikes to build stamina for this big one. First came the two mile uphill footrace, with two-minute timed starts so that we were not actually racing alongside someone. This was a hike up to the "C" above Cedar City, Utah. Then came a day hike downhill from Cedar Breaks, and by now, not many of the scouts were participating since it was becoming too much like WORK. That downhill hike was fun, but grueling. At this place shown in the photograph, we came to a small waterfall and associated cliff, and could not get down -- known as "ledged up" so we went up high to the right to walk along a talus slope between a cliff below and a cliff above. Jim slipped, and almost fell over the cliff. He said, "I almost lost my water!" and I think he did not mean the water inside his canteen. This photograph was made later, when Paul (left), Mark (right) and I returned, this time with a length of rope to get down the cliff.
The downhill hike caused me great pain for more than a week, muscles ached that had probably not EVER been used extensively! The next hike required developing not merely stamina, but some common (or uncommon) sense. So, we were given to know that this was an overnight camp, with mostly uphill hiking. I was very much overpacked and overweight for this hike, and it was indeed very strenuous; the first afternoon was easy, but the following day -- sunny and hot, not like you see here -- was also about 12 miles of uphill hiking. Needless to say, the other scouts were not interested in this hike and they did not participate. Curiously, the three of us constituted the intellectual group of Cedar City High School and did not involve ourselves in sports -- but we loved hiking and camping once Jim D. had "turned us on" to this particular sport.
August, 1971: The Big One. Left to right: Michael G., Mark J., Jody W., Jim D., standing in a meadow at Giant Forest, part of Sequoia National Park. This is the hike that Jim D. had proposed one year earlier to a group of 17 young men, all of whom approved of the idea except me, and I knew that the High Sierras were dangerous, requiring more knowledge and stamina than I possessed at the time. By the time the event arrived, all but Mark and I had dropped out for one reason or another; most dropped out because this is not basketball, Paul became fed up with Jim's practical jokes. I don't know why Jody (his neice) came along, but an interesting coincidence happened at the end of the hike which I might remember to mention.
92 miles of hiking awaited us on the High Sierra Trail. By now, I was not too concerned about it, trusting in the experience I had gained already, the skill of our scoutmaster (which was excellent, this was his third time over this route), and my faith in God to fix up any remaining oversights and make the journey safe or memorable or both hopefully. As is often the case, the parts that were less safe were also more memorable!
We started a bit late in the afternoon, so did not plan on getting very far. I think we managed perhaps 7 miles, maybe not that far; but anyway, about 3 miles short of Bearpaw Meadow cabin. Nature was calling, so I speeded up my pace to get ahead of the others sufficient to answer the call privately, and discovered that I had a natural hiking pace that ate up the miles with less fatigue than a slower pace. This was an amazing discovery. Eventually I found a wonderful camping spot, and while waiting for the others, was trying to befriend a young deer, and almost succeeded when Mark showed up and frightened the deer. The deer left rapidly, of course. Mark, upon seeing the camp, announced that Jim and Jody had made camp alongside the trail under a tree in rather cramped quarters. Mark gave me his little flashlight, and I went back along the trail a mile or so to find them, and invite them to come to the much nicer place. They declined, so I returned to my camp, but along the way the flashlight battery died and so I almost had to grope my way through the forest. This was perhaps the first unexpected adventure.
The beautiful view southeast from Bearpaw Meadow cabin. Our plans called for eating lunch here, unfortunately, the cost of a peanut butter sandwich was very high as one might expect, and neither Mark nor myself had brought much, or any, money; supposing our scout leader would provide. He had not intended to, and so we found ourselves a bit short; but divvied up one sandwich between Mark and myself. Mark stood up and dropped his camera, and it did not function for the rest of the day until nightfall at Kaweah Gap where we camped, and fixed his camera using a piece of wire for a spanner wrench and a toothpick to reset a cam lever back to where it was supposed to go.
The trail east of Bearpaw Meadow becomes quite exciting. The trail starts out at Giant Forest, way above the canyon floor. Then eastward, the canyon floor rises more rapidly than the trail, such that eventually the trail meets the canyon floor, at the points marked in yellow arrows on the photograph (a faint line denotes the trail). Up to that point, the trail hugs the side of the canyon. At this place, Mark and I stopped to make some lunch, and Jim and Jody kept on. Alas, I developed a salt shortage (heat exhaustion) and only Jim had the salt tablets. It became very serious; we had no choice but to catch up with Jim, but I was becoming dizzy and uncertain that I would stay on the trail. We did catch up with Jim, but it was past the point marked in yellow. He disputed with me what I needed, but I was insistent, and he gave me two, as I lay near the river at the outlet of Hamilton Lake. Altogether 7 tablets. Maybe 5 but I'm pretty sure 7. Anyway, I felt great after that, highly energized which was a good thing since the trail now became steeply uphill and even more dangerous in places.
Here we are climbing up to Kaweah Gap, the place we shall spend our second night. The views are spectacular, needless to say! But it was a lot of work, and very hot. When we reached the top, I lay down on a snowdrift to cool off. Later, Mark and I fixed his camera, using a burning Hexamine tablet for light. It was plenty cold by the next morning.
Third Day. We have hiked down from Kaweah Gap and are now in a valley called "Big Arroyo." Mark is trying to set up a fishing pole, but it was a wimpy little pole that did not function well. View is to the north and a bit east perhaps. You can see the snow which feeds into this little lake.
Another view of Big Arroyo, looking south and a bit east. It eventually joins Kern Canyon. The water in the stream flowing through this U-shaped glacial valley is very cold and perfectly clear. Here we took our first bath. The water was very extremely cold, and required one to jump in a deep spot and be completely dunked because it was not likely one could do it more than twice. We had special bio-degradable soap, wasn't really soap at all (we used Shaklee Basic-H which is perfectly clear) and the second dunking was worse than the first since we knew what was coming. But, standing naked on a granite rock, letting the sun warm my body, that was most excellent! Jody had gone farther downstream to take a bath.
This was a big-miles day, 17 miles hiked. We got rained on, and the rain had just stopped when Mark and I, walking ahead of Jim and Jody, arrived at Moraine Lake. Here is Mark, already wading in the lake. He gathered up many frogs, a dozen or two, and when Jim arrived and rested himself by sitting on the ground leaning against this fallen tree, with Jody beside him, on the side facing the sun, Mark came up from behind and dumped all the frogs on him. Jim did not like that and was very angry. Evidently he was afraid of frogs.
Day 4. We stayed a whole day at Moraine Lake. As you can see, it is a jewel in the morning sunlight, here seen with a few to the south and a bit west. Jim and Jody hiked around to the far side, I built up a fire -- Jim was sometimes ridiculing me for my fires, but when the rain came pouring down in a deluge later that day, when Mark and I were on log rafts out in the middle (where, curiously, the lake is shallow -- less than knee deep, but surrounded by a deep water moat), but the fire kept us warm during the storm, so Jim did not criticize my fire after that. We used big slabs of fireproof sequioa bark to keep the rain off the fire. Rain got into my electronic flash and ended nighttime photography for me.
Day 5. Payback! Jim has a long memory for offense, so by now we were not hiking together very much, and also Mark and I were very much faster. So, Jim and Jody left off about an hour before Mark and I did, it seems that Mark and I were obliged to prepare our breakfast that morning alone, which would not be a problem except that we had not divvied up the load to make it possible to split the group. Mark had most of the pots and pans, Jim had most of the food. Anyway, in this meadow, the trail fizzled out, and we lost the trail. So we followed the little stream that went through the meadow, and found animal trails and hoped they would lead us down into Kern Canyon.
Following the animal trails led us into the most beautiful forest we had encountered on the entire hike. Trees, birds, and vast panoramic scenes; and plus it turned out to be a pretty good shortcut full of adventure. We found Quaking Aspen trees, in fact, one such sapling allowed us to spring our way across the creek at one particularly difficult spot down in a crevasse with hardly any place to stand, and a tiny but roaring creek sharing it, and the sapling allowed us to swing over to the other side right in front of a small cataract. Jim disputed our story, saying there were no aspens, but later a park ranger confirmed that there were such trees.
This is, without a doubt, the most gorgeous view I found on the hike -- and the astonishing fact is, that we would never have found it had we not gotten lost. The trail is down in those trees to the north and near to the edge of Kern Canyon. The trail is less steep, we had come this near to Kern Canyon and, as you can see, were very high in altitude. Far distant, to the right of the clouds but left of the near peak on the far right, is Mount Whitney, our destination. We go down into Kern Canyon, hike northward and make camp.
A view to the south halfway down into Kern Canyon. It was at this place that we rejoined the trail, and we were very lucky; many or most creeks simply pour over the cliff in a high waterfall. As it turned out, the shortcut chopped about 45 minutes of catch-up time to rejoin Jim and Jody. I was the firestarter that night, as usual, and I was pleased to be extra careful; I had noticed a thick bed of pine needles overlayed by dirt, so I dug down through the pine needles to make the fire ring, and ensure that the fire would not run slowly underground through the bed of needles. And, as usual, it took only one match to light the fire.
Day 6. Jim decided upon a shortcut, an avalanche chute right up the canyon side. True that it chopped off nearly a day's hike, but gee whiz, this was a tough climb! Nice view to the north, however, as can be seen in this photo. Anyway, part of the time we had to climb right on top of thick mesquite bushes. Water was scarce or nonexistent.
About three-fourths of the way up, Jim and Jody make a blunder; deciding to make a short cut from the short cut, and left the chute, and went on the outside of the cliff; and got ledged up really bad. Mark and I didn't know it, we proceeded to the top. Sat on a log to rest, saw a huge big rock that was perfectly clear, amorphous quartz or something like that. It was beautiful, and way too big to carry out. So I took a tiny piece, clear as glass, not following normal crystal cleavage planes but was wavy surfaced, but of course I have no idea where it is now. Naturally, I am curious what it is because it was an extremely odd place to have such a large (probably 25 pounds or bigger) somewhat spherical chunk of perfectly clear glass.
Well, we got tired of waiting, we called; and finally heard an answer distantly. So we proceeded, Mark and I anyway, and eventually made camp in Crabtree Meadow. Actually, looking at the milage chart, I think it was Junction Meadow. In fact, it was several hours later, almost night, when Jim and Jody showed up. This photo is from the next morning, Day 7, showing how clear the water is. If you look closely you can see ripples of water where Jody is dipping, but otherwise, you cannot see the water itself.
Day 7 was a rest day, left the camp in an established state and went fishing south and east from Crabtree Meadow. I caught a medium sized fish; a huge one got away when my fishline was tangled up. As you can see, the elevation is very high, above the timberline. We met a hiker that had just came over the top of the mountain you see in the background. Then, part of the mountain collapsed on the right, but my camera was trapped inside my windbreaker and the zipper chose that exact moment to get stuck and I was unable to photograph the landslide. Rockslide. Avalanche. Then, coming down, we mistook the meadow, and came to a different meadow that looked just like the one our camp was in, but our camp was missing, and I supposed that Jim was doing another practical joke. But we eventually found our camp.
Day 8 ended at Guitar Lake, visible as a pond in the background. It is way above the timberline, and I hiked down a mile or two back the way we came to find some deadwood. What I found was rather large, part of a fallen tree, and it was very heavy but I had taken the pack off the frame, and tied the wood piece to the frame, and hauled it up the trail. It was big enough to share with a number of other hikers, and so we did. We met one fellow that had been on the trail for 30 days, having come from the north, and having cached food at several places. IT was very cold here, and the rocks deflect, somewhat, the wind. It was not very soft, and not very pleasant that night.
Mark decided to try sleeping on the grass, but it was wet, and had millions of little black beetles in it, so he abandoned the idea.
Day 8, final day, SUCCESS! We have reached Mount Whitney, the highest spot on the continental United States. Here am I standing near the edge, some brave (or foolish) folks are dangling their legs over the edge, and it is about 3,000 feet straight down before the slope begins! This is a view eastward. Since Jim had been here before, he did not accompany Mark and I up to the summit. Along the way, we saw people sitting or laying on the trail, gasping for breath, that had ascended all the way from Lone Pine, down in the valley (3,000 feet elevation) perhaps that same day. I felt fine.
Mark, with a view northward from Mount Whitney. His camera malfunctioned again, this time the film did not catch on the sprocket, so none of his photographs were actually photographed. When we came down from the summit, he complained of something poking him in the back. You see, Jim said, leave the packs at the trail junction and then come back for them. So we did. Well, Mark was insistent, so we took the pack off and looked in, and found a big granite boulder, probably five pounds and pointy. He looked elsewhere, and found more rocks stashed in his pack, doubtless Jim's doing. In fact, we missed one, and kept it for a souvenir when we finally found it. Anyway, we decided to keep our knowledge secret from Jim, and do something in return.
Going down, eastward, from Mount Whitney is astonishing. I counted more than 90 switchbacks, I think the exact number is recorded in my journal. Anyway, it would be extremely difficult to ascend this in one day, but that is what some people do, or try to do. It is not wise to ascend from Whitney Portal all the way to Mount Whitney in one day.
Looking almost vertically down on Mark's head. We passed by Jim, and they were eating lunch, and had nothing for us, but we had nothing for ourselves, since we were packing the pots and pans (that's where many rocks were hidden), and we were becoming angry with Jim for his selfishness, or lack of distribution, or both. So, we reached his car, waiting at Whitney Portal, removed the keys from the air cleaner filter, and put a rock in its place. Several scout troops were nearby and curious; so when Jim showed up, he noticed all these boys watching him, and knew something was up. He was very angry when he found the rock, but Jody thought it was funny.
The End of the Story
Jim took us to a little general store with enough money to buy candy bars, one for each, and while therein, called out to us, "We are going into town for dinner" and zoomed off. This REALLY made me angry; because he had our packs in the car, and we had nothing even which to keep us warm or water to drink.

We waited until about 7 p.m. in the parking lot, and then we decided to walk down to Lone Pine and hitch-hike home. On the way, at the other end of the parking lot, we met a fellow cooking a big pot of something, and he had been on the trail for a very long time, 30 days or so (I do not remember if it was the same man that we had met the night before at Guitar Lake but I don't think so). He was cooking up the surplus of his food, and offered some to Mark and myself. We were very grateful for it, and accepted. As it was getting cold and dark, he offered me an old raggedy and somewhat self-standing flannel shirt, and I was grateful for that, too. The contrast, his generosity and compassion, stood greatly against Jim's negligence. So the three of us started hiking down to Lone Pine.

On the way hiking to Lone Pine, Jim and Jody came up the road about 9 p.m. or so, and were surprised to see Mark and I walking to town. What did they expect? Anyway, the big surprise was that the man we were with knew Jody, and vice versa, had apparently met in college at one time not too far back. So we went to town, and Mark and I sat on the sidewalk outside the café while the adults went to the bar. Shortly after, the man came out and sat with Mark and I, he did not enjoy the tavern atmosphere, especially after 30 days in the wilderness. He went out into a farmer's field nearby to camp, and invited us to join. We said we'd first test Jim's latest instructions.

Jim had told us to go to a room, 104 I think, at a nearby motel and knock on the door at 11 p.m. and he would let us in. We seriously expected that he would be across the motel watching through the window as we knocked on the door of a stranger. But, he finally told us straight and true, except of course the reason for the cloak and dagger stuff; at the time it seemed apparent that he was not informing the motel management of the true number of guests, but now that I am married, my wife suggests that perhaps he wanted some private time with Jody. Or, perhaps, Jody just wanted to get cleaned up without teenagers in the same room.

When I came home, this was one of the rare few times my father was proud of me, and we went down to the market, and bought some big steaks, and grilled them, just my father and me, and it was altogether a very fine adventure.

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