Kings Canyon High Basin Route (KCHBR): Day 1
Bishop Pass Trail — Above Le Conte Ranger Station
Quitting the PCT:
It is August 21st, 2017 in Cascade Locks, Oregon. I am thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and have just completed the entire state of Washington, 500+ miles. I have been in town for nearly a week because of PCT Days, a celebration for hikers and the trail, which has just ended. I should be hiking, but I cannot. I am stuck behind forest fires that have closed hundreds of miles of trail. Mystery Man, Emperor Thomas, and I discuss possible plans involving hitchhiking around the closures or just flipping south to hike north all the while hoping the fires subside.
Then, my phone dings. It’s a message on Instagram from Carrot Quinn – we met a few weeks prior hiking south in Washington – inviting me to hike a route in the High Sierra. She called it the Kings Canyon High Basin Route (KCHBR). I’m intrigued and ask for more information. She sends a link to Andrew Skurka’s blog (Andrew Skurka.com) and to Wired’s (http://walkingwithwired.com/kchbr-2016) detailing the route.
I learn that the KCHBR is a 124 mile cross-country route through California’s High Sierra. Andrew Skurka, the creator of the route, lists these facts on his blog (Link above):
It averages 725 vertical feet of change (up and/or down) per mile, compared to 375 for the John Muir Trail and 310 for the Pacific Crest.
It typically hovers between 9,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level, where there is 65-73 percent as much oxygen as there is at sea level.
Two-thirds of its distance (84 miles out of 124 total) is off-trail, which ranges from joyous cruising through alpine tundra or open woodlands to slow scrambling on granite slabs or refrigerator-sized talus.
Starting food weights will be considerable because resupply points are inconveniently off-route (at least 10 trail miles plus additional road miles).
There are multiple Class 2 passes and many sections of extensive talus, ranging in size from basketballs to refrigerators.
In short, the KCHBR is a very physically ambitious route. Expect to get worked, especially if you are under-trained.
The route begins in Lodgepole and terminates at Roads End where the road literally ends. Except for us because Carrot has a longer loop planned beginning and ending at Bishop Pass. We will connect Roads End and Lodgepole via trails and dirt roads that she is not entirely sure exist. This loop extends the route to 180 miles. She anticipates the route taking 10-14 days. We will have one resupply in Lodgepole seven days into the route.
“Hey! So, I’m totally in.” I reply. “I have a ride to Portland tonight. Head south in your van tomorrow morning?”
“Awesome!!! Let me tell my friend who has the van.”
Carrot left her van parked in Portland. In it is gear that would be useful and having her van would be super convenient. It also good for me so I don’t have to hitch or deal with transit. I pick up the van from her friend’s house and I drive 800 miles south with Mystery Man and Thomas who are flipping because of the fires.
We arrive in Bishop after a day-and-a-half of driving. I’m exhausted, but there is work to be done. Tomorrow afternoon, the hike begins. Carrot brings me up to speed on the route and I walk to the library to print the maps and guide. I download the map files to my phone and enter the waypoints into Gaia (GPS application for Android and IOS). There is no trail to follow, not even a line on the map. All we have are waypoints and contour lines along with a few paragraphs to guide the way. The rest is all on us and our ability. Chores complete, I crawl into bed and sleep like the dead.
It’s breakfast and I’m sitting with Carrot at a long table in the hostel sipping coffee. Two guys come in and ask if we are headed to Bishop Pass. They want to know if we’ll porter gear up and over the mountain for them. They will kayak one of the forks of the Kings River and cannot carry their supplies. They will be out for five days and cannot carry it and their boats. They will pay.
“Our packs are overloaded with eight days of food already,” We say. “Let’s see what you got and if it’ll even fit.”
We follow them outside and they spread the gear on the ground. There is a lot of stuff and about 30#’s they say. Carrot’s bag is already bulging. There is no room inside. She straps a dry-bag of bulky gear to the top of her pack. Mine expands from 40L to 60L. I open the straps and stuff it full as possible handing back a few pieces that just don’t fit. “This is the best we can do.” He happily hands over two crisp $100 bills.
I weigh my pack before setting out for the store. It reads 51.59 lbs. This doesn’t count my camera gear, nearly six pounds, or the two weeks of stove fuel we have yet to buy. This is going to hurt.
The Hike Begins:
Carrot drives us into the mountains to the South Lake trailhead. The parking lot is full so we leave our packs and park in the overflow lot 1.5 miles down. We walk back up, huffing and puffing. It’s already hard and I don’t have 60+lbs on my back. I am winded and I can barely breathe. I realize we are high in the mountains and I’m not acclimated. Most of Washington is under 6,000 ft and I’ve been at 170’ in Cascade Locks (the lowest point of the PCT) for days.
We make it to our packs. To the most ridiculous looking things. Mine is huge, but at least everything fits inside. Carrot has a conical yellow dry bag flapping around the top. I think it’s funny. She is embarrassed and scoffs when I take photos; her thru-hiker pride being tarnished. I set my pack on the bear box and slip my arms through the straps donning it like Cheryl Strayed in Wild.
The hike up Bishop Pass is grueling. Neither one of us is acclimatized and both our packs are HEAVY. Still, the beauty of the Sierra’s boggles my mind. I am giddy with excitement at this off-trail adventure and at the majesty of the mountains around me. This is my first time in the Sierra. I’m dumbstruck. We laugh and joke between labored breaths, through spouts of rain and hail, all the way to the top of the pass where the kayakers are taking a break.
We hike through snow. There is still a lot of it left. This was (or maybe is) a record snow-year that claimed the lives of at least five NOBO hikers near here. And now with the fires in the north blocking the way for NOBO’s and SOBO’s alike, this year is being called “The Year of Fire and Ice.”
Our late start to the hike coupled with the weight of our packs, means that it is getting dark as we descend the pass. We watch the last rays of sun passing between black clouds and mountain. It reflects off the rain-soaked trail, a light show like only mountains can perform.
It is after dark and we are still looking for a campsite marked on the map. We give up and turn around walking back uphill to a campsite overlooking the valley. I open my pack and rip the kayakers shit out of my pack. I am SOO happy to be rid of the extra burden (in the morning, I’ll realize my work is not complete. I have further to haul his gear). We setup and begin cooking dinner when one of the kayakers arrive. His friend never does. He must have camped higher up the mountain.
After everyone is asleep and their headlights dimmed, I setup my camera on a rock. I set the focus to infinity and the shutter speed to 30 seconds. The camera is pointed up to capture the Milky Way Galaxy that is shiny bright above our camp. I am beyond tired. But, I know if I do not take the photo I’ll regret it.
My pack weight before camera gear and stove fuel:
South Lake trailhead where we leave the van:
Ascending a staircase above South Lake:
Nearing Bishop Pass:
Crossing a snowfield on the Bishop Pass Trail:
Bishop Pass and the kayakers who paid us to portage gear up and over the pass:
View looking south from Bishop Pass:
The setting sun between rain clouds and mountains descending Bishop Pass:
Descending switchbacks at sunset heading to the John Muir Trail:
The view into Le Conte Canyon and the JMT:
Mountain peaks at sunset:
The Milky Way Galaxy over our camp above the Le Conte Ranger Station:
I am currently residing in a van somewhere in Oregon near Ashland. Tomorrow morning, I set out for a week-long hike on the PCT from Ashland, Or to Etna, Ca. I’ll post the rest when I return. Sorry for the delay!!!
Take care and happy trails!!!