I spent a challenging and wonderful time in the woods last week. To an old spot, Hamilton Lakes, where I was going to do a 5 day loop through Precipice Lake, Little Five Lakes, Redwood Meadow and Bearpaw Meadow. The going got tough on the first day. I was making great time from High Sierra trailhead through the Giant Forest at about 2-3 miles/hour up to Bearpaw Meadow. Walking about a mile through the giant Sequoia and red fir groves, you feel the immensity and ancient nature of this forest. Met a cool couple coming down from the mountains where I was headed, must have been in their 70s and they shared a bunch of great beta on Precipice Lakes andFive Lakes. They bivvied the whole time and showed a ledge they had cut out in the snow to sleep on. They showed me some great pictures and told me about the 6-8' of snow. That was when I started thinking about how audacious this journey was. Solo trip for about 60 miles.
The trail opens up to amazing Kings Canyon vistas over the next four miles and hugs the cliffside with a few ups and downs but mostly flat to Bearpaw Meadow. Bearpaw Meadow is situated in this beautiful granite outcropping overlooking the valley. There used to be cabins and a little lodge there but they have all been stripped bare and need to be rebuilt. There was no water, which was a bummer as there was a stream there when I was in the same spot in 2019 and I was counting on it.Snowpack is 30% of what it should have been this year, which explains it. This is one of my favorite spots in the Sierra and it felt good to be there. The pressure to get in the miles quickly over rode my desire to rest and I moved on...
When you come out of Bearpaw Meadow, the High Sierra trail really opens up and shows you its beauty. For the first time, you can see the falls coming out of lower Hamilton Lakes and the immense valley you are climbing through. It is four miles from Bearpaw to Hamilton Lakes but it feels more like five. I scarfed down some food at Bearpaw as I really wasn't maintaining my calories fast enough and was bonking. I had enough energy to go and I knew I could make it by 4 PM or so, plenty of time to set up a tent and have dinner. About a two and a half miles from BearPaw you hit the river and then have a massive wall to climb it. This is where I really bonked but knew I could make it (and had to make it).
Once you get over the wall, you can see the waterfall again, the trail levels out for a while, and you feel like you are cruising in the most epic place. The trail is amazing at this point, the views spectacular. This is also where it got cold. No longer climbing uphill, I was feeling the chill and was sweaty from the climb up. Not a great combo. So glad I brought my sweatshirt, which I wasn't going to bring but I really needed it the whole trip.
Before hitting Hamilton Lakes, you get to the most beautiful waterfall, you are finally there! The crossing of the river is technical and I decided to just get in the water in order to cross safely. This means my shoes, socks and pants were wet for the last mile of the trip as the sun was getting lower in the sky. Right choice at the time to be safe but made me cold on the way to Hamilton Lakes
Finally landed at Hamilton Lakes and the best tent spot of them all. Only four other people here this night (May 29th, 2022). The lake got socked in with fog and it got cold real quick on my cold, wet feet from the waterfall. Aaah, the joy of sitting and having a hot coffee/whiskey eased the pain a bit.
It was a cold night... Soon after dinner, the lake really socked in, the tiredness set in, and the coffee and whiskey wore off. I started getting really cold and quickly packed up my kitchen and put away my food in the bear locker, and crawled into my sleeping bag around 7 PM. 17 miles was hard and I could feel it now that I was laying flat. My legs were twitching, I didn't do a good job of maintaining fuel and electrolytes. Lack of electrolytes and the altitude made me feel icky. I started second-guessing my motivation for this trip. I originally set out to complete this loop to finish the job from three years ago when me and five of my buddies set out to do it for my 50th birthday. We all bonked at Bearpaw and called it quits for the full loop but still had an amazing out and back with good friendship and conversation the whole way. I had a goal and was second-guessing my motivation to do it solo. I spent a cold night of fitful sleep, woke up to frost on my backpack and a beautiful clear day.
I woke at 5 AM and laid for a while in the tent, not ready to brave the cold. Around 6 I started making breakfast and watching the sun slowly creep down the mountain towards me. I sat in the chair and looked up at the snowfield and the pass that I was planning on crossing that day. I laid out my socks to dry in the sun as it hit my campsite and I started feeling better. However, in my mind, I had already given up and was ready to go home. I battled with myself for about an hour, procrastinating over wet socks, coffee, and loneliness. I made a compromise and convinced myself to make it to Precipice Lake to check out the snow. I quickly packed up and started up the beautiful trail to Precipice Lake.
Once I packed up, I had a mission, my legs felt pretty good despite the hard mileage the day before, and I was fueled. The hike up to Precipice Lake is gorgeous and hard. Big switchbacks with heavy altitude gain for four miles. You can see where you are going most of the time, which is nice but also misleading. There is a really cool tunnel you walk through around a canyon which is amazing to experience. Then, very quickly after that, I lost the trail due to snow. I could see some faint footprints and thought that Precipice Lake was pretty close as I could swear I could see the walls of Precipice Lake which I have seen in pictures before. After slogging through the snow and route-finding, I finally found it. I walked as close to the lake as possible, didn't think I could climb the wall out of the lake if I went to the edge so dropped my pack on a 10 foot ledge and sat on it on 6 feet of snow and had a Snickers. It was here that I made the decision to turn around and immediately realized joy. I didn't realize this until later but I lacked the passion and motivation to move long distances through the mountains solo. I have completed a lot of solo trips and would thrive. I wasn't thriving. I was cold, wet, lonely, and missed my family. As soon as I decided to go home, I felt relieved, a weight off my chest, and a strong motivation to get home safely. I stayed for maybe 20 minutes enjoying the view and headed back downhill.
Going back down felt great. I started breathing better, I had more energy, I was smiling and singing through the mountains. Kerri's directions of "be safe, don't feel like you need to do the full loop" was repeating in my ears. If I slipped, or tripped, I would repeat "pay attention, be careful" which really helped me get down safely with tired legs. I cruised back through Hamilton Lakes and achieved flow for several hours back to Bearpaw Meadow, where I camped for the night.
I was beat when I got to Bearpaw. Thankfully, I filled up my water in advance, remembering that Bearpaw had none. However, I didn't fill up enough and only had one liter for dinner and one liter for breakfast, which left me little for the night in the tent. It was cold here too. No one else was around. In fact, I saw no one that day, which was surprising. A couple deer kept me company, walking right up to me and my campfire. One pawed and sniffed the ground where I peed within 5 minutes of peeing. I was content and had a nice fire since I was below 9,000 feet.
On the way out to Crescent Meadow, I was reading Steven Kotler's Art of Impossible and realized why I didn't feel flow on the way up the mountain - I was missing passion and purpose, two triggers for flow. Once I turned around and headed down, back to my truck, to the cabin, to my family, I had purpose and passion and every step was important. The challenge/skills ratio was perfect. This was not the hardest hike I had done in my life, but it certainly was the hardest physical thing I had done in a decade. This combination put me into flow for large chunks of time. I was floating down the trail, super efficient. My awareness expanded, I experienced joy and no-self. It was beautiful. Lesson learned - if your activity lacks purpose and passion, you will struggle. My family is my passion and purpose and outweighs my desire for high mountain travel.
Eric is a traveller, hacker, and experimenter who is currently researching how to become a happier, calmer, and more compassionate human being.