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High Sierra Trail Backpack to Mount Whitney

An 8 day trip from Lodgepole to Whitney Portal across the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, summiting Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48.

I always enjoy writing every night on backpacking trips, usually just my thoughts and accounts of the day.  Have a read of my journal from this trip below!  Also, I had my GPS tracking our progress along the journey. So, the route shown below is exactly the one we took.

You can also check out my friend Katie's blog entry about our trip here.

Route Map


High Sierra Trail Backpack to Mount Whitney Trip Journal

July 8-15th, 2010
Written by James Harper

Trip Participants:

James Harper
Katherine Heineman
Amelia Kotte
Andreas Eleftheriou


Lodgepole Campground
Bear Paw Meadow
Big Arroyo Junction

Morain Lake

Junction Meadow
Guitar Lake
(Summitted Mt. Whitney)
Trail Camp

Day 1: Lodgepole Campground from San Diego

12 hours on the road, 2 shuttles, windy roads, a winded hike to our camp site, rewarded with a dip in the river 50 feet from our site.  A long LONG day, but we are here!  Ready to start hiking tomorrow.

No sleep since yesterday morning (shuttle naps barely count!).  Downed wood gathering extravaganza.  Exploring up river, discovering huge waterfall/slide.  Sketchy boulder jumping along river.  Success!

Raging fire, pictures with long exposures playing with headlamps, fantastic pesto pasta with sundried tomatoes with Katie.  Thinking a lot about job and where to live.  Missing Anna, wishing she were here, but enjoying time apart.  Feel like I can act as individual, think for myself.  Find that I try to attach to someone, ask them what they want to do and let that influence me a lot.  Need to stop that or tone it down a bit, as it is an admirable trait, in moderation though.

Looking forward to tomorrow’s start of hiking.  Need to sleep.  Headache from altitude (only ~7500 ft!).

Day 2: Crescent Meadow to Bear Paw Meadow

Decent sleep.  Headache persists.  Elevation only 6900 ft!  WTF.  Took acetazolamide and Advil.  Praying gets better.

Early rise.  Easy morning to get to shuttle.

HEAVY PACK!  Advil cured sickness.  On trail by 1030.

Feet hurting after 7.7 miles.  Ok, in my book.

Delicious lunch of summer sausage, Ritz, cheddar, amazing tomato and cucumber.  I think I’m/we’re (Katie and I) are going to eat very well on this trip!

Sunscreen-less except nose.  Not burned at all!  Pole gloves (my warm weather bike gloves), long sleeve REI Sahara shirt in blue, long tan REI pants, Fripp Island ball cap, bandanna under hat to protect ears and neck.

Salt stains abound on my shirt!

Making fun of Andreas for misplacing our permit.  In his first aide kit, buried in his pack.  Turning into a nice long packs-on break.

BEAUTIFUL VIEWS across treed valley and huge granite edifices.  Many easy stream crossings.  Butterflies, flowers everywhere!  HOT in the Sun, shade nice.  3.5 miles to go!

11.6 miles, 2.4 mph moving average, 5 hours moving, 3 hours stopped, 1952 ft ascent, 7848 ft max elevation

Heating beans FOREVER on my Dragon Fly.  Nap on a log under the trees.  Sore sore feet, but better now.

Group poo talks.  Typical.  Katie hilarious.

Amazing Mexican food!  Stir fry veggies with fajita seasoning, rice with same, beans (not all the way hydrated) and blue corn tortillas!  So so good.  And worth the wait!

Tried to calm my mind today about jobs and moving and missing Anna.  Somewhat successful.

Had a deer come right through our camp tonight.  And bats overhead.  No bears though.

A long day tomorrow awaits, yet not tired.

Beautiful weather tonight.  ~60F at 2215.

To sleep I go.

Just saw what I think was the ISS flying over.  2253 hrs.  Cool!

Day 3: Bear Paw Meadow to Big Arroyo Junction

Mexican food leftovers for breakfast.  Beautiful morning!  Deer.

Easy-ish first couple of miles with panoramic views of glacial cut granite peaks >10,000 feet high!  Overlooking valley.  LONG!

Chose to take only 1 liter of water.  Good decision!  Lots of streams along the way.

Long constant up-hill to Hamilton Lakes after long waterfall with panoramic views back across valley.

Beautiful clear lakes and waterfalls.  Lunch of bagels, peperoni and PB and J by Lake Hamilton.

Rugged, very tough ascent to Kaweah Gap.  SO MANY WATERFALLS!  And ice lakes!  Beautiful view from top with huge mountains.  A sense of victory, of accomplishment.

River crossing to reach camp!  Knee deep, moderate flow rate.  Soaked boots.  Across Big Arroyo.

12.8 miles (1.7 miles longer than trail signs and map said!), 1.9 mph moving average, 6 hours 48 minutes moving, 5 hours 14 minutes stopped, 25.10 total miles covered on trip thus far, 3637 feet elevation gain today.  No/very minimal altitude sickness symptoms.  Not even breathing hard!  Advil not present.  Diamox must be working!

Great dinner of INDIAN FOOD!  Madras lentils and Jaipur veggies.  Amazing!  Also left over beans and rice.  Delicious!

Super clear, perfect stars.  Milky Way brilliant.  Roar of river about 40 feet away.  This is what backpacking is about!

Good night!  Easy day tomorrow.

Day 4: Big Arroyo Junction to Morain Lake

Ok morning.  Getting a little tired of the outdoors, due to the rain all last night.  Hiking clothes and boots soaked.  Oh well!

Easy hike through very wet forest near river.  Andreas took us down the wrong trail, and decided we should hike straight uphill “only 400 feet”.  REALLY bad idea.  It took us about 2 hours to get up an extremely steep hillside for what could have been ~1 mile detour if we had just backtracked.  Lesson learned: stay on the trail unless you are certain!

Trail much better.  Small unnamed lake, very pretty.  Bear cub crossed our path: I didn’t see it though.  Fawn only I saw.  Lake Morain!

7.74 miles, 2.3 mph moving average, 33.1 miles total, 3 hours 30 minutes moving, 2 hours 15 minutes stopped, 1301 feet ascent, 10,645 feet max elevation.

GPS batteries at one bar now.  Switching to second set in solar charger and putting nearly dead set into solar charger.  Let’s see how this puppy works!

Camera battery (larger one) still ok.  But, took few pics today so far.  Now 3:53pm.

~15 mosquito bites, mainly on lower legs and forearms.  Not too bad at all!

Left foot: Achilles blister, minor though big, probably duct tape tomorrow
Right foot: Ingrown toe nail, big toe, minor; outside pinkie toe blister, minor, duct tape or moleskin tomorrow; Achilles blister, minor

Not bad for soaking wet boots all day with no liner socks!

Beautiful Lake Morain!  Very alpine lake.  Remote.  Trees surround.

Persistently unpredictable thunderstorms.  LOTS of thunder.  Little lightening though.

Just finish swimming in the lake!  Well, more like wading and submerging myself, then shivering, trying to wash myself (AWESOME feeling, but didn’t help the smell), then shivering some more.  An amazing experience!  Beautiful mountains, clear water.  Lots of bug bites as payment though.

A great dinner of fallafel, hummus and peperoni.  Try it!  Seriously good.  By our amazingly large fire and camp kitchen round.

Amelia burned her boots by setting them too close to the fire.  We warned her!

GORGEOUS SUNSET!  Like desert, but with mountains as horizon.

Group back massages around the fire before bed.  Not too painful.  Felt very good afterwards.

A nearly 14 mile day tomorrow.  Our largest.  Gotta get to bed.  Such a good relaxing day!

Good night.

Day 5: Morain Lake to Junction Meadow


15.5 miles, 2.5 mph moving average, 6 hours moving, 3.5 hours stopped, 48.53 miles total, 1765 feet ascent, 9303 feet max elevation

Easy though long switchbacked descent, ending with epic view of Kern River Valley below.  Beautiful, like a painting.

Met 2 U.S. Forestry trail builders.  Nice guys!  Apparently, the same two Katie got a watermelon from years ago at Mineral King.  Random!

On valley floor, Kern River huge!  HOT hike upstream to bridge.  Crossed over, got lost looking for hot springs, found disoriented boy scouts, got oriented ourselves (we thought), then GPS started working, told boy scouts where to go, crossed stream, GPS changed, found hot springs in 30 seconds.  Net effect?  We told a large group of boy scouts and their leaders the completely wrong way to go to the hot springs, certainly getting them lost.  At least they get to practice their survival skills.

Hot springs disappointing.  Only a trickle!  Found out later that we had to plug it to fill up the basin.  Relaxed on/in river with lunch of PB and J on a bagel.  Delightful!

Long hike to Junction Meadow Camp.  Many stream crossings, one very hairy with bush whacking.  Long fire-side conversation with a dad and son from N.C./L.A. at camp.  Nice guys.  We were very chatty, they were not.  Good good times.  Amelia almost burned her shoes again.

A steady ascent day looms tomorrow.

Solar charger seems to be working well!  Took some minor scratches from branches today.  Seems fine.

I smell of fire and weird feet.  Awesome.

No bears yet.  Still looking

Caught a weird second wind today about halfway through hike.  >3 mph for ~40 minutes.  Hummed/breathed Bridge Over the River Kway song.  Haha!  I love that song.

Many bug bites!  >50 now.  Typical me.

Ok.  To bed.

Day 6: Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake

As Josh Jackson would say, “welcome to the hills!”  This was a high altitude day!  >10,000 feet after leaving camp, sleeping at 11,400 feet.  Only effect on me has been an increased respiration rate.  Amelia and Katie have been getting stomach aches.

Great views of the Kern River Valley while ascending.  PCT through-hikers with Mountain Hardware kilts and huge beards.  Envious.

The biggest happening of today was me, and only me, getting lost.  I was the last to put on my pack after a break at a junction and couldn’t see where people went.  So, I followed the sign “To Mt. Whitney”.  Guess where I ended up?  Not at Mt. Whitney/Guitar Lake.  I had to ask two people where to go and eventually found my worried group.  Their search party skills were rather scary: two went off by themselves to look for me, one stayed at junction where I should turn up (and did).  Could have been really bad!

12.7 miles, 2.3 mph moving average, 5.75 hours moving, 4.7 hours stopped, 61.71 miles total, 4157 feet ascent, 11,555 feet max elevation

Guitar Lake and Mt. Whitney are simply gorgeous from our camp!  Beautiful sunset light on the crags of the mountain, dark blue of the alpine lake.  Beautiful, best-I’ve-ever-seen stars.  Six satellites spotted overhead.

Well, I am spent.  The last 2 miles were up hill at >10,500 feet elevation.  I was out of gas.  Curry couscous with fried garlic tofu tonight with tea helped a bit.  But, it’s time for bed.

Summit day tomorrow!  Woohoo!

Day 7: Guitar Lake to Trail Camp with Mt. Whitney summit in between

Early morning wake-up for summit day!  Very steep, but mainly rocky (no snow) trail up to summt trail.  Lots of marmots and chipmunks!

Met Henry the Marmot where we dropped our packs.  Katie named him.  Short of breath (13,300 feet elevation), but otherwise fine.

2 mile summit trail took forever, due to slowed pace and “dazed” feeling.  Altitude and dehydration compounded probably.  Water not easily available up here.  Views of Guitar Lake.

Andreas and I lead out in front ~ 0.25 miles and sprinted to the summit the last 100 yards.  He let me win (but, I could have had him!).  Gorgeous 360 degree view, crystal clear day.  ~70 degrees F.  New camera’s panorama feature worked overtime and performed great!  Tried to post status on Facebook with no success.  Amazing to think that I/we was/were the highest people on land in the lower 48 right then!  Very VERY cool.

Joined the Highest Poo in the Lower 48 Club.  An effect of the altitude probably.  Used wag bag.  NOT a fun experience.  But, I got a fantastic picture of a marmot with snow-capped mountains in the background.  So, it was all worth it.  Silver lining.

Hike down to packs was good.  So enjoyed not having heavy packs on the summit trail.  So did not enjoy putting them on for the trail down to Trail Camp.  Spent some time with Henry again.  Very cute, but ugly creature.  Very tame.

99 switchbacks down to Trail Camp sucked!  I was spent.  But, lots of cool flowers and pretty views of Whitney.

Saw Jeff Blackman, a friend of the Sierra Club Wilderness Basics course I took earlier this year, randomly at Trail Camp.  Crazy small world!  Had amazing last dinner with Katie of garlic mashed potatoes and stuffing with cranberries.  AMAZING.

This has been a GREAT trip.  I think Katie and I hike well together and are good friends.  It was good getting to know Andreas and Amelia better, and it was fun learn from and teaching each other new skills of backpacking.  Andreas and I have gotten to be good friends.  I’m looking forward to other hikes with him in the future.

Backpacking knowledge learned en route: 8-10 miles per day max is plenty strenuous.  Also, plan out food amounts more precisely.  Exiting with ~3 extra breakfasts (~1 poundtotal) and 2 extra lunches (~2 pounds total).

8.81 miles, 71.2 miles total (based on signage), ~3500 feet elevation gain, ~6 hours moving, ~4 hours stopped


It was a BLAST!

Day 8: Trail Camp to Whitney Portal

6.47 miles, 2.5 mph moving average, 2.75 hours moving, 35 minutes stopped, 4500 feet descent, no ascent, 77.67 miles total