A few months ago my long time friend and famed thru-hiker Jack recruited me and another friend Danni to do a backpacking trip on a loop mysteriously known as the “Circle of Solitude”. The trail would take us deep into the back country to explore the High Sierras within Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. As we neared the date of departure I began frantically tracking down the last few necessary pieces of camping gear and wildly dehydrating all types of fruit. As always our goal when backpacking is minimalism, comfort is achieved with less not more, and knowledge provides freedom from the material world, these are the core beliefs of the ultralight backpacker.
Danni and I planned to set out from San Francisco around 6:30 pm, we would meet up with Jack in Manteca, he would to be driving down from Sacramento and from there we would carpool to a campsite near the trail head so that we could wake up at the crack of dawn and be first in line to acquire non-reservable permits for the back country. As luck had it the horrendous traffic from the BART strike had subsided and we made good time to Manteca and later on to Cedar Grove near Roads End in Kings Canyon.
As planned we arose early, broke camp, and we quickly drove the last few miles to the ranger station. Before we even arrived at the station we had our first animal encounter, a large black bear stood in the middle of the road only moving along into the forest as our car approached, we slowed, watched, and then continued. With perfect luck we were able to purchase the final three permits, anxiety relieved, we went back to the car and made the final adjustments to our gear and food supplies. After a few short hours and with packs ranging from 25-35lbs, myself with nothing more for shoes than a pair of vibrams, we set out on the trail. Our initial elevation was about 5,000 feet and after two short miles we began an accent toward avalanche pass that would take us to an altitude of 10,000 feet. Suffice to say, day one of our trek included some uphill. We conquered a little more than 15 miles this day, and after we came through the pass we dropped back down to 7,000 feet and set up camp at a site called the roaring river. We had seen no other hikers since noon and we would see no more until we rejoined with the Pacific Crest Trail a few days later. With sore feet and cooked food in our bellies, we looked up towards clear skies and we took to sleep.
The next day would be our toughest of the trip. After a simple breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, and a large bottle of cold infused maté tea which I had prepared the night before, we set out on a gentle uphill slope. The trail was taking us east towards the Great Divide, for the first few miles the trail was relatively sloped. The gentle slope would not last and soon after the first buck filled meadow the trail became much steeper and the altitude and physical challenge began to take its toll. By lunch we were well above 10,000 feet, we sat and enjoyed crackers and peanut butter while overlooking the lake at the base of the final ascent. After lunch the three of us struggled up the nearly vertical final 1,000 feet to Colby pass. Hollers and hoots echoed from the mountain tops, we were elated, between the incline and the lack of acclimatization it was the hardest climb of the trip. After enjoying the accomplishment we hiked a few more miles and dropped a few thousand feet before setting up at our most picturesque camp site of the trip.
On the morning of the third day we awoke to the sun rising over the valley. With the meadow, meandering river, and dramatic mountains lit up by the morning sun we had breakfast with an exceptional view. Once finished eating, and after breaking camp, we set out again on the trail. The day’s hire would startIt out with several miles of downhill before we reached the valley floor some thousands of feet below. It seemed the downhill portion of the day was over before it began and now the trail took a turn to the northwest and we began following one of the tributaries to the Kern river up a gradual slope, the slope would not stay gradual for long. As we followed the stream to its source the trail lead alongside one waterfall and then another, our gentle uphill slope had become a steep upward scramble. In the late afternoon we reached the top of a climb and found a shallow lake supplying the stream below. Warmed from the exertion, and baking in the dry heat of high altitude Sun, we immediately recognized this as an opportune moment to bathe at 11,000 feet. I swam to the middle of the small alpine lake and instead of trading water I simply stood up. The lake being thoroughly shallow had warmed in the heat of the sun, instead of jumping into the icy chill of fresh snowmelt we were greeted with cool 60° water. Refreshed from our swim we composed ourselves and hiked a few more miles through what felt like a rocky crater populated with strange high altitude trees, small crystal clear lakes, and slowly melting patches of leftover snow. When we reached lake South America we had achieved 12,000 feet once again, and a feeling of euphoria mixed with exhaustion overcame me. I sat down and after a few hearty sips of bourbon I became noticeably intoxicated. The altitude, exertion, and dietary reduction had combined to make me a drinker of much lower tolerance. I stumbled around, pitched a tent, cooked dinner, and passed out after stealing my buddy’s secondary water bottle.
The next morning would be our longest day yet, I awoke to the sound of my buddy Jack taking down my tent and nagging me to get out of bed. Not without a hang over I broke camp and packed up. Our intention for the day was to hike cross country from our camp to an unmarked pass a little over a mile away. With my head ringing and my stomach bubbling I lead the charge. From the east the pass would be a relatively gentle climb to 13,000 feet. On the other side of the pass the map promised a harrowing descent. When we reached the top and we found the chute known as Harrison Pass we were taken aback. For the first 40 feet the chute seemed a near vertical drop with only a few small questionable grips and footholds. Descending the pass untethered would have put us at risk of serious injury. Jack, organizer of the trip, and by far the most experienced backpacker of our group and much of the U.S. was immediately out. This would mean a return to the trail, another 13,000 foot pass, and 10 additional miles of hiking. We had prepared for this possibility by arising especially early that morning. A little more cross country and we were soon hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. This trail was a veritable freeway compared to the trails we had been hiking previously. The trail was wide, gently sloped, and bustling with the first hikers we had seen in days. Within a few short hours of cruising the trail we were making our ascent of Forrester Pass. Forrester was breeze in comparison with Colby, I was at the top in no time at all and from there I knew the rest of our hiking for the trip would be downhill. We still had 10 miles more to hike that day and we covered it comfortably at a smooth pace. When we finally decided to stop hiking and set up camp, we had descended 5,000 feet from the 13,300 foot pass and hiked a total of 19 miles. We went down to the river, soaked our feet, and had a weird encounter with our camp site neighbor who made a point of coming over to deceive us regarding the route down to the water simply to keep us from passing near to his area. Silly little man.
We awoke early on the final morning of our trip. We were antsy to get back on the trail and get home to the creature comforts many of us take for granted. One again we were on the trail before 8am. By 9am we had finished our loop and we were then retracing the stretch on which we had begun. My feet were rubbing raw, sand and small gravel was flowing freely into the holes in my shoes. For some reason I thought it might feel better to simply run down the final switchbacks, it did. At the bottom of the hill I waited for my friends to catch up and when they did I went running again. Finally I was back at the ranger station next to the parking lot where the journey had begun. Jack and Danni caught up shortly and with feelings of relief, accomplishment, and elation we went down to river only a short distance from the parking lot and bathed. With a fresh change of clothes we headed over to the Kings Canyon lodge for a hot lunch to celebrate our trip.