Day 9: Kaweah Gap to Upper Hamilton Lake

We backpacked on the High Sierra Trail from Kaweah Gap via Precipice Lake to Upper Hamilton Lake, where we camped for the night.  It was a day full of amazing views and fun experiences.

After arriving at Kaweah Gap from Big Arroyo Camp, Vicki took a long nap in order to recharge her batteries.  She didn’t sleep all that long, and soon we were getting our packs back on and preparing to descend almost five miles and 2500 feet to Upper Hamilton Lake, where we intended to make camp on this, our ninth day of a very long and fun-filled Sierra Trek.

We tightened our shoelaces, put on our knee braces, said goodbye to Big Arroyo, and headed west over the gap.  We were more than ready for a long downhill hike.  The trail descended steeply over the alpine terrain, following a watercourse that fed several tarns of clear, cold, shallow water.  Eagle Scout Peak dominated the southern sky, and Mount Stewart the northern.  We continued onward, and it didn’t take long before we arrived at that true Sierra Gem, Precipice Lake.

And I have to admit that I took way too many photos and videos of Precipice Lake.  It was such a perfect lake, set in the midst of granite cliffs and towering peaks.  Residual snow was still clinging to the north face of Eagle Scout Peak, and we could see (and hear) small rivulets of icy meltwater pouring into the lake.  The granite was stained in vertical stripes of black from this eons-long melting, and most of it bore signs of glacial action from the days of the Ice Age.

GoPro panorama video of Precipice Lake and Eagle Scout Peak

 

Another GoPro panorama video of Precipice Lake

 

Even though we’d just had a long break up at Kaweah Gap, we stopped again for Precipice Lake.  We put down our packs and wandered around.  Soon enough, Vicki decided (like a crazy person!) to go for a dip in the lake.  She put on her water shoes and waded out into the lake, at which point she ducked down into the water as far as her neck.  She didn’t make any whooping noises, so it couldn’t have been ice cold, but she didn’t stay in very long, either.

We went back to the packs and got out some lunch.  It was only 11am, but we had woken up early.  Our granite perch above the lake also happened to be a great spot to just sit and gaze, either at the lake itself or out over the big valley down below us.  We noticed lots of cumulus clouds drifting northward high above us, and it was a reminder that we’d be well advised to get our tent set up sooner rather than later.  So we begrudgingly put on our backpacks and continued down the trail, first passing by a nameless lake (or tarn) just below Precipice Lake.  Technically, this lake was in a long chain of lakes along Hamilton Creek, so it could well be called Uppermost Hamilton Lake, or maybe lower Precipice Lake, but, sadly, I don’t have that kind of naming authority.

The High Sierra Trail curved around the northern and eastern side of the mighty bowl that was centered on Upper Hamilton Lake, and we could see the trail quite easily.  It looked like it had been chopped and hacked into the glacier-smoothed granite walls of the basin, thanks to countless hours of manpower, using picks, shovels, rock drills, and cases of dynamite.

The views just kept getting better the longer we walked.  Up until now, we had been marveling at the great views we were getting every day as we climbed up over a pass, but we finally came to realize that all of those views had only been practice runs when compared to the jaw-droppingly awesome views we were getting from this amazing trail, from this incredible High Sierra Vantage Point.

GoPro panorama video from high above Upper Hamilton Lake

 

Hiking along the side of this bowl was like walking along an endless viewpoint.  I kept stopping to take photos and videos, only the tiniest sampling of which are shown here.  Between the clouds and the mountains and the lakes, it was hard not to take a good photo.  Meanwhile, the trail continued downward all the time, and Upper Hamilton Lake began to get noticeably closer, yet still it seemed far away.  There were occasional switchbacks in the trail, when we faced back to see Eagle Scout Peak and Mount Stewart towering above us, but mostly it continued forward, focusing our eyes on the lake below.

And then we came upon one of the items I had been looking forward to seeing:  The Stone Tunnel on the High Sierra Trail.  It shows up on photos when you search the Internet, and during the entire way down I kept trying to find it, to no avail.  It was tucked away in a deep notch along the side of the bowl, and you could tell right away that this was a prime spot for avalanches in the Winter and early Spring.  In fact, we discovered the concrete footings and torn steel cables of a suspension bridge that had once spanned the gully.  It had been destroyed by an avalanche back in 1937, five years after its construction.  By that point, too much time and energy had been invested in building the rest of the trail, and so the builders threw even more effort into blasting out the existing trail and tunnel.  This was truly an example of Man versus Nature, and thus far, Man was the victor.  Thus far.

I got out my GoPro video camera and started the long walk through the cleft and tunnel, taking photos with my big camera in my right hand.  What an experience!  Now this is a trail!  And no handrails for the wimpy public to use.  If you have what it takes to get out here, you don’t need any handrails, merely your confidence and ability.

GoPro video of walking through the tunnel

 

After that, we continued hiking downward, constantly in awe, our cranial buffers overflowing with sensations of beauty and magnificence.  This was truly the life to lead.  If only all of our days could be like this one.

The lake was getting closer, but it was still far away, or at least it was far away if you believed my GPS.  We saw the camping area down below at the lake, and there were already people there.  We groaned at the thought that all of the best sites would be taken by the time we got there.  So we hurried on.

Then we turned around and looked back up at Eagle Scout Peak, and saw the obvious signs of virga and rain beneath the dark and ominous cloud layer.  We heard the sound of distant thunder, and hoped that the storm would stay up there, and wished the other people we’d passed that we knew were hiking in those conditions.  And so we hurried on even faster.

GoPro panorama video of the Hamilton Lakes basin

 

There were several extra-long switchbacks on the final descent to the lake.  Every time we thought that we might be on the last one, another switchback would appear.  The lake was maddeningly close, and yet we never seemed to get there.  And then we felt the first drops of rain, and a tentative gust of water-laden wind from the southeast.  The jig was up, and we knew it.  We were never going to get the tent set up in time;  the torrential thunderstorm rains were bound going to drench us to the skin.  So we stopped under two little pine trees, attempting to find a tiny bit of shelter while we put on our raingear, me in my cheap plastic poncho and Vicki in her permeable gore-tex, and both with our nylon backpack covers.  We put on our packs and soldiered onward.  Onward, into the storm!  And it came down with a vengeance, believe me, with plenty of gusty wind that made my poncho utterly useless.  We were doomed, and we knew it, but we had to keep on hiking.  It was the only way to stay warm when soaking wet.

GoPro video in the rain as a thunderstorm loomed high above us, from just above Upper Hamilton Lake

 

We were soaked, and our boots were soaked, by the time we arrived at the campground.  The wind was gusting and the smell of mist was in the air.  Rain and hail was bopping on my head.  We cast around for the main trail to the campground, and decided that it must be across the way, on the other side of Hamilton Creek, which we knew was only going to get bigger with all this rain, so we’d better cross it now.  I carefully hopped on the well-placed rocks, just below the lake’s outlet, but it was more out of habit than utility.  I probably could have waded across and my feet wouldn’t have known the difference.  Wet!

Meanwhile, by this time, the air had cooled significantly, and more hailstones were falling than raindrops.  Continuous rumbles of rolling thunder echoed off the granite walls of the giant bowl, and the lightning flashed again and again.  We took shelter under a small stand of pine trees and took off our packs.  We were here!  We couldn’t set up the tent or anything, but we were here!  There was really only one thing to do, and that was to wait for the rain to stop.  Setting up a tent in the rain was bound to be tragic, especially if your goal was to get dry fairly soon.  Getting into a wet tent wasn’t going to help.  We had a nice dry tent in my backpack.  All we needed was a break in the storm, and a good spot to put it.

Video of newly-formed waterfalls pouring down from Cherubim Dome during the thunderstorm

 

I pulled the crappy plastic poncho tight around me to keep out the wind, and hunkered down in the lee of a tree.  We watched as a nice flat spot right next to us began to fill up with water.  Soon it was four inches deep!  We looked out through the trees and saw other campers outside their tents, dragging them to new locations.  It seems that all of the good flat spots near the shore were getting flooded.  I looked at Vicki, my eyes opened wide.  Maybe it was a good thing that we hadn’t gotten here earlier!  She nodded in agreement, as she shivered a bit from the cold.  Such an incredibly glorious day had turned so utterly, utterly miserable!

Another bedraggled hiker arrived in our little copse of trees.  He was just as lost and wet as we were.  We advised him to hunker down and wait for a lull in the action, just like us.  But he got bored and wandered off into the rain.

I happened to notice a potential tent spot not too far away, that appeared un-puddled.  True, there was a small flowing streamlet right next to it, and the spot had a decent slope to it, but it was fundamentally sound otherwise.  Any port in a storm, I thought.  After another five minutes the rain began to let up momentarily, and I pulled the tent out of my backpack.  I re-covered the pack and stuffed the tent under my poncho, and we waited a bit longer.  I didn’t trust these storms any longer.  They were tricky.  And relentless.

I was really starting to shiver when it finally let up enough that it was only a light drizzle.  I had reached the point where a tent was necessary, even if it was a little bit damp inside.  We headed over to the chosen spot and whipped up the tent as fast as we could.  Teamwork!  I pounded in the stakes against the wind and soon we had a covered shelter.

Now to get dry and warm!  This was the hardest part, although I’d done this once before when Vicki was wet and hypothermic, so I repeated the procedure.  Basically, we also carried a cheap, thin, plastic tablecloth that fit the inside of the tent with a bit left over on the sides; we called this sheet the “bathtub” and we used it to protect our stuff from soggy ground.  This time, however, I spread it out only on the back half of the tent, with the excess rolled/bunched up in the center.  The rule we had was that only certified “Dry” items could land on top of the bathtub sheet.  We took the clothing and sleeping pads out of our packs and tossed them into the dry zone.  Then we crawled into the tent, stripped off our our shirts and yanked down our pants, then promptly sat our dry butts on the sleeping pads in the dry zone.  The shoes and socks came off next, and we were totally naked.  All of the wet stuff remained in the wet zone.  We piled the soggy items together, far up in the wet end, and then extended the bathtub into the wet zone, covering the wet things from view.  Everywhere was now the Dry Zone (except under the plastic).  So now we were technically dry, but were we warm?  Not at all!  We were freezing our naked butts off!  We got out our dry “night clothing” and put it on as fast as we could.  We even added our jackets and extra layers, as well as waterproof SealSkinz neoprene socks.  We would be able to put those back into our wet shoes when it was time to go out.  Pretty soon we were dry and warm, and life was good again.

We kept peeking out the door to check on the weather, and soon it was obvious that the rain was over.  We could still see a few stormy clouds up near Eagle Scout Peak, but they didn’t worry us.  So we went outside and filtered some water, and cooked up some dinner.  There was a very strong and continuous breeze blowing toward us from across the lake.  In fact, it was so strong that there were whitecaps and chop developing on the surface!  Vicki had to cook in the shelter of a big boulder.  We ate it there, too, hunkering down against the wind.

Soon we realized that this wind was so strong that it was drying out everything it touched.  This was exactly what we needed!  I got out the clothesline rope and we hung up all of our wet clothes.  We even hung up our packs, and opened the doors of the tent.  This wind was strong!  And it was extremely effective.  Within a half hour or so everything we owned was dry as a bone.  Amazing!

I looked across the lake, and there it was:  A beautiful rainbow high in the sky above Mount Stewart.  Fantastic!  I yelled out to some nearby campers, and soon everybody was out by the lake shore, taking selfies and photos like crazy.  After a storm like that, we all needed a good rainbow to remind us of the beauty in the world.

Video of strong post-storm winds blowing toward us over the lake, with a rainbow over Mount Stewart

 

Soon, the storm clouds began to break up, but the wind continued unabated.  I helped some other campers secure their tents, and then realized that Vicki was all alone, keeping our own tent from collapsing by main force.  She couldn’t let go in order to find me, and so was stuck there, unable to do anything but hold on tight.  I apologized profusely and got out some guy lines and extra stakes, and finally the tent was secure.  And now I’m a lot more convinced that this light little tent (a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2) was worth the money.

Video of the strong winds on Upper Hamilton Lake

 

After that, we stayed outside and socialized (at the approved Covid-19 distance of six feet, of course) with some of our neighbors.  Most of them had a tale to tell, and there was more than one sleeping bag hanging out to dry in the wind.  These folks were all heading east, toward the Kaweah Gap and eventually Mount Whitney.  We seemed to be one of the only groups heading west, taking the trail backwards, so to speak.  We typically keep to ourselves on these hiking treks, but after a storm like that it was fun to share our experiences about how we overcame the difficulties.  The cameradery of the trail.

As the sun set in the west, it lit the clouds above the lake and caused the surrounding peaks to glow with reflected light.  It was truly the best possible end of one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had in the wilderness.

 

 

For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page

For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page

 

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