Kaweah Basin via Shepherd Pass and the Kern Canyon 8/19-8/26/2011
Over the course of 7 visits since 1987, Kaweah Basin has captivated my soul in a way that is difficult to put into words. One of the remotest places in the Sierra, it is difficult to access, seldom visited, and sublimely beautiful. In geological terms it is a hanging basin situated above and between The Kern-Kaweah River and Big Arroyo Creek, which in turn flow thru beautiful hanging valleys of their own before cascading down the steep walls of Kern Canyon to empty into The Kern River.
This trip was actually a continuation of a trip back in 2008 that had to be cut short due to medical problems. My good friend and backpacking companion, Leo, had suffered a grievous head injury from rockfall while scrambling up a gully in Glacier National Park about 5 years previously. After 12 hours of emergency surgery, during which his life hung by a thread, the docs managed to save him. However, the after effects required medication that turned out to have unpleasant side effects at altitude and we were forced to retreat a few days into the trip. The experience left us both bitterly disappointed, Leo out of frustration with the medicine and I because I feared I would no longer have the physical stamina for this trip in a year or two. But time heals all wounds, as the saying goes, and the feelings eventually dissipated. By spring of 2011, I finally managed to put a string of injuries behind me and was able to train to a level that would enable me to commit to this physically demanding trip. During that same period Leo had gotten his medication sorted out. Thus encouraged, we got together and began to make our plans. I was in charge of route planning and decided to go in over Shepherd Pass, which offers the most direct route into The Upper Kern Basin, and from there to Kaweah Basin via Kern Canyon and the Kern-Kaweah River. I confess here that I had ulterior motives: Physical challenge and aesthetic beauty have always been critical factors in my route selections; Shepherd Pass and The Upper Kern Basin offer both in abundance. In this regard, Leo and I are of one mind, so the decision was both easy and unanimous.
Day 1 Shepherd Pass Trail to high camp above The Pothole.
The first day on the Shepherd Pass Trail is always demanding. Starting at ~6250' the trail crosses Symmes Creek 4 times in the first mile or so before swithchbacking steadily up thru beautiful high desert terrain to a saddle at 9150' on the Symmes/Shepherd Creeks divide. From this vantage point the vistas are spectacular. Mt Williamson, at 14,389' looms above, while ahead the steep walls of Shepherd Creek drainage lead the eye ever upward to the ramparts guarding Shepherd Pass , or downward into a 3000' abyss with the thin silvery ribbon of Shepherd Creek occasionally visible in spots where the sun penetrates the narrow defile. It is one my most beloved viewpoints in the Sierra. On this particular day, Leo and I were feeling stong and made good progress in the cool morning air, still protected from the sun by the ridge above until we reached the divide. We rested for a few minutes there before setting off on what I consider to be the toughest section of the trail. There is an initial descent of about 550' then a rough section of trail, perhaps 3/4 mile in length, leading to the first available water. From there it is a long, hot, dusty slog up ~1700' to Anvil Camp, where most folks call it a day. The challenge is that this section is totally exposed to the sun at a time when the effects of high altitude are starting to have an effect. This combination is a major factor in the route's intimidating reputation. For those experiencing problems, there are a set of bivy sites just off and below the trail by the water source at ~8650'. In the event, we sailed thru this section in good form and arrived in Anvil Camp, ~10,350', around 12:30 PM. We had been prepared to stop here for the day if either one of us was feeling "off" but, since we both still felt strong, we decided to rest for a few minutes, rehydrate, "re-Perpetuem", and continue on to a bivy site above the Pothole at ~11,300'. The site has 4 good spots for tents, probably double that if using a bivy bag setup, generally has less mosquitos than Anvil Camp, and offers superb views down to the Owens Valley, particularly at sunrise. By the time we got there, I was starting to tire. I think Leo would have been able to continue on over the pass, as we had done in 2008, but he is only 61. At 71 I just didn't have it in me anymore, so we called it a day after 10 miles and ~5500' of elevation gain.
Hiking up to the Symmes/Shepherd Creeks divide in the cool morning air.
Mt Williamson from the divide.
Looking up toward Anvil Camp, located in the stand of timber beneath the farthest ridge.
Looking back down the route from the high bivy site. The Pothole is directly below
with The White Mountains and Owens Valley off in the distance
Day 2 High Camp to Kern Canyon Trail
We woke up well rested and, after a steaming hot cup of coffee and breakfast, were ready to go. The trail from the high bivy to Shepherd Pass is a pretty rough section of trail. It ascends thru glacial moraines and then steeply up a 600' headwall of very loose scree with increasingly short, steep, poorly maintained switch backs that can be problematic for those not used to traveling over rough terrain, particularly when descending. Leo and I are both used to this kind of travel, and were up and over Shepherd Pass(12,050') about 45 minutes after leaving camp. From here over to the Upper Kern Basin, it is easy going over wide open, rolling country with the Great Western Divide dominating the horizon to the west. After a leisurely stroll down Tyndall Creek, up across the broad ridge that separates the Tyndall Creek drainage from the Upper Kern Basin, and then down to the Kern Canyon Trail just north of Milestone Basin, we crossed the Kern River on a log jam and arrived at our intended campsite by a small lake at ~10,700'. It is a beautiful setting at the entrances of the Upper Kern and Milestone Basins, where I have spent many a blissful day over the past 38 seasons. I experienced a feeling of profound gratitude mixed with satisfaction at being to return once again. At a time when it is increasingly clear that my days up here are numbered, each trip is a gift from the mountain gods, to be humbly savored and tucked away in my memory for the time when I shall no longer be able to make the trip. We passed the afternoon wandering around lazily, each immersing himself in the beauty of the surroundings in his own private way, then spent a couple of hours after dinner gazing at the sky while the stars twinkled into view one by one as the alpinglow faded, first into deepening blue, then inky darkness.
Sunrise over The White Mountains
Looking north toward Junction Pass(hidden behind the near ridge). The route winds up thru the trees and scrub in the foreground.
The following 2 pictures of the headwall were taken on a 2009 trip. I included them to give those who have not been up here a better idea of what the route is like.
Approaching Shepherd Pass Headwall.
Part way up the headwall.
The Great Western Divide from the Tyndall Creek drainage just west of Shepherd Pass.
Day 3 Kern Canyon to Junction Meadow
In years past I have always slightly dreaded hiking in the Kern Canyon. It tends to be hot, dusty, and claustrophobic for one accustomed to wandering wide open terrain above treeline. The main reason I chose to come down the canyon this year was because I wasn't sure I had the legs to get to Junction Meadow from trailhead in two days via the JMT and HST, which would have put us up in Kaweah Basin by mid afternoon of the third day. It would have been no problem for Leo who is 10 years younger than I and extremely fit, but you have to cater to the lowest common denominator and I found myself in that unaccustomed position this time around. I figured a leisurely 6 mile stroll down to Junction Meadow would serve as a recovery day for me, leaving me rested for the strenuous off trail climb into Kaweah Basin the following day. As it turned out I probably could have done it, but I just didn't want to take the chance and compromise the trip. Fortunately the weather was not overly hot, and the remains of the snow pack from the previous winter had the Kern River flowing high and fast. The result was some spectacular waterfall viewing along the way. We also had an interesting encounter with an ageing denizen of legendary Yosemite Camp 4 back in the glory days. He was a great story teller and source of information about off trail routes in Sequoia. We swapped lies and information for nearly an hour before going our separate ways. It would have been great to spend a night around a campfire with him, because he had a lot more to say than could be crammed into a brief trailside encounter. We continued on and soon came to Tyndall Creek. It is crossed via a huge log that presents an awkward beginning due its massive root system, which forces you out hang out over the creek rushing by just below you while trying to maintain a foothold on a water slicked root. A fall into Tyndall is always a potentially serious matter, but this year it was running much higher than usual and a fall would have been disastrous. In the event, we negotiated it without incident and within an hour arrived in Junction Meadow. It is not a particularly appealing place under the best of circumstances due to heavy horse packer use, but we got off to a bad start this time when Leo found a used sanitary napkin carelessly tossed behind a tree and went ballistic. Can't say I blame him. In the course of the afternoon we found a fair amount of litter, which we duly added to our trash bags. We made an exception for the sanitary napkin, which was deposited in a fire ring already well stocked with litter. I had never seen it this bad down there, and it put me in a bit of a funk for the rest of the day. Things are definitely not getting better as time goes by. All I can say is that it's good thing most folks take the HST up to the JMT and not to the secluded Kern-Kaweah Valley to the west. We turned in early, as we had a long day ahead of us and there wasn't much to do anyway.
Looking up into the south arm of Milestone Basin as we descend into Kern Canyon.
Waterfalls along the Kern River
Day 4 Junction Meadow to Kaweah Basin
We awoke early filled with anticipation for the day ahead. There are several ways to access Kaweah Basin, all of them off trail, strenuous, and requiring good route finding skills. Our route of choice would follow Pickett Creek, which presents a rare combination of intricate tactical route finding, hard work, and gorgeous scenery. It is, by far, my favorite way to get into Kaweah Basin. We started up the Colby Pass Trail and were soon confronted with the first challenge of the day, crossing the Kern River which was running much higher than usual. The first braid was easy as the water was only calf deep. The second, however, was a different story. For Leo, who is about 6'3", it was just over the knees; for me it was far enough up my thighs for my gonads to reflexively seek higher ground, and definitely at the edge of my comfort zone in cold, fast moving water. But it was over quickly and we were soon ascending the trail up out of Kern Canyon into the Kern-Kaweah River Valley, one of the most scenic in the Sierra. After about 2 miles, we left the trail, forded the river, and bushwhacked our way up along a vertical granite wall thru talus interspersed with thickets of currant bushes and blow down. We were seeking a break in the wall that provides access to a low grade ramp leading over to Pickett Creek. From there, the route leads up over granite slabs of varying steepness, up to exposed class 3 in spots, thru thickets of currant and willows, around an impassable defile that channels the creek, and finally up an intricate, occasionally exposed, ledge system to the Basin. You are seldom more than a few feet from the creek, which this year, due to the exeptionally high water levels, was running high and fast. The result was a combination of primal roar that literally vibrated the granite underfoot at times and refreshing mist that left us, as we admitted to each other that evening, in a slightly altered state as we worked our way up thru an elemental wonderland of light, water, and granite that would have done John Muir proud. As we neared the top of the ledge system and the route began to lay back a bit, I motioned Leo to take the lead so his first view of the magnificent Kaweah Peaks Ridge as we entered The Basin would not be cluttered by my silhouette. I could hear an audible gasp and some low mumbling as he fumbled for his camera and thought to myself, "welcome to Kaweah Basin, my friend". We moved upstream a couple hundred yards and headed right into a grove of pine trees about 100 yards from the stream. I knew from previous trips that it concealed an excellent camp site overlooking an exquisite lake with a vista of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge in the background. Soon we were settled in and spent the rest of the day wandering around enjoying the scenery. That evening we sat on a granite slab overlooking the nearby lake and watched the sun set over the Kaweah Peaks Ridge, marvelling at our good fortune in finally having arrived, three long years after our original, ill fated attempt. How sweet it was!
Climbing up out of Kern Canyon into The Kern-Kaweah River Valley
A glimpse of The Kern-Kaweah River just downstream from where we crossed it
Kaweah Basin with Kaweah Peaks Ridge in the distance
Day 5 A day of exploration
This was the day we had been looking forward to for 3 years and it was picture perfect, with not a cloud in the sky. We set out after breakfast and slowly worked out way up thru the last trees toward Kaweah Peaks Ridge. Soon we broke into the open and entered a zone of exfoliated granite slabs interspersed with clumps of willows along the stream banks. It was an idyllic scene, and I suddenly felt no need to go further. In the course of 6 previous trips I had explored every nook and cranny of The Basin and now experienced an irresistable desire to just sit and become one with my surroundings. This was Leo's first visit, however, and he quite naturally wanted to continue on to do some exploring on his own. So off he went, while I lazed contentedly on a warm slab of granite, lost in reverie. In time a bittersweet feeling crept into my consciousness at the realization that this was probably the last time I would have this opportunity. But I quickly realized that I had no cause for complaint, for I more than most had partaken fully of the etherial beauty of this unique setting. Slowly, the sadness was replaced by a feeling of contentment, and I was at peace. Eventually Leo returned and we made our way slowly back to camp. He is a deeply religious man in the best sense of the word, and I had the distinct feeling that it had been a moving exerience for him to commune with his God in this setting. The day had been everything we could ask for, but it was not over yet. As the sun dropped low on the horizon, we found ourselves searching for just the right spot to enjoy what was shaping up to be a memorable sunset. We were not disappointed.
Kaweah Peaks Ridge at sunrise
A view of Kaweah Basin from camp with Mt Kaweah in the background
Day hiking in upper Kaweah Basin
The outlet of our lake at dusk-a preview of coming attractions
A sunset to remember
Later that evening we sat around discussing our plans for the following day. We had originally planned on moving up the Kern-Kaweah River Valley with the intent of scrambling Triple Divide Peak and then exiting via Milestone Pass. However, when we returned from our day hike we discovered that one of the soles on Leo's almost new Montrail Namches had severely delaminated. All of our efforts at repair, including duct tape, bungee cord material, and 2 mil utility cord, looked dubious after some trial walking around camp. We weighed the pros and cons of pushing on versus retreat at length and, in the end, reluctantly decided to play it safe by heading directly for the car rather than pushing further into some fairly challenging terrain and risking injury. We consoled ourselves with the realization that we had already gotten our money's worth and then some some, but it still was not an easy decision.
Day 6 Exiting Kaweah Basin
Although there are numerous ways to exit Kaweah Basin, our choice was limited to the two that would return us to the Kern-Kaweah River valley. We decided to cross over into the main Pickett Creek drainage and follow a ramp system that neatly threads its way down to the Kern-Kaweah River over steep granite slabs. This route also offers outstanding views of the Kern-Kaweah River drainage as well as the Whitney Crest far off to the east. Our only other feasible alternative was to return the way we had come, and neither of us was comfortable with the prospect of down climbing several sections of the route with Leo's defective shoe. So, we scrambled up onto the ridge separating Kaweah Basin from the main Pickett Creek drainage and then very carefully worked our way down over fairly steep slabs to the delightful chain of lakes strung out along Pickett Creek. From there it was an easy stroll down to the last lake in the chain and up over its granite rim to begin the descent to the Kern-Kaweah River. It can be tricky to locate the beginning of the ramp, as it is necessary to descend below it to get around the nose of a ridge and then figure out which of three likely alternatives is the right one as you climb back up. The lowest two are dead ends but I had forgotten that in the 2 years since I last did this route, and we had to retreat on our first attempt. Talk about a senior moment! I was embarrassed. Once on the ramp the descent was straightforward and we were down to the river, just east of Gallats Lake, within an hour. After an easy feet wet crossing, we hiked downstream and got back to Junction Meadow in slightly under 2 hours. Crossing the Kern River turned out to be much easier this time. We decided to look for a shallower crossing and found one a hundred yards or so upstream which had not been obvious when coming from the opposite direction. We decided to hold our noses and stay again at Junction Meadow rather than hike up the HST in the afternoon sun to campsites along the JMT. The Wallace Creek canyon gets downright oven like in the afternoon, and is a hot dusty slog at best that I avoid if I have the choice. In this case, there was no compelling reason to continue, since we had 3 days of food and the campsites along the JMT were not that much of an improvement. Better to get an early start the next day and beat the heat.
One last glimpse of Kaweah Basin
Before stepping over the rim on the opposite side of the lake
And beginning our descent in Kern_Kaweah River Valley
Kern-Kaweah Valley looking west toward Colby Pass with Gallats Lake in mid distance
To the east is The Whitney Crest-Mt Barnard far left, Mts Hale and Russell, Mt Whitney just right of center
Day 7 Junction Meadow to Anvil Camp
Up until we got back down to the Kern-Kaweah River yesterday, we had held out some hope of returning via Wright Lakes Basin as a sort of consolation prize for giving up on Triple Divide Peak. In the event, our last attempt at a temporary fix on Leo's shoe had completely broken down. He decided to remove the sole entirely and continue with only the midsole and insole between him and the ground. That pretty much eliminated any chance of going off trail thru Wright Lakes Basin, so we decided to head directly back to the car. I was more than a little concerned, but the midsole on the Namche is pretty solid and had a tread like pattern of grooves into which the outsole had been glued. This actually provided some traction when hiking. We rose early and were on the trail well before the sun peeked over the canyon rim. We arrived at the junction of the HST and the JMT by mid morning and headed north for the Tyndall Creek trail which would take us up to Shepherd Pass. I am no big fan of the JMT, but I will admit that the stretch where it crosses Bighorn Plateau offers what I consider to be the finest views of the Great Western Divide and Whitney Crest, bar none. We arrived at Tyndall Creek in the early afternoon, and stopped for about an hour to relax and mix up some Perpetuem before continuing. While we rested, we noticed that the clound patterns were shaping up for a potentially spectacular sunset and decided to bivy at Shepherd Pass so we could enjoy the show. However, about halfway from Tyndall Creek to Shepherd Pass, the clouds off to the east began to develop in an ominous fashion typical of afternoon thunderstorms. We kept a wary eye on them as they began to gather in upper Wright Lakes Basin and when they finally threatened to spill over into the Shepherd Pass area, we abandoned any thought of bivvying there and hightailed it up and over the pass as fast as we could in hopes of reaching Anvil Camp down below treeline before the storm broke. The descent off Shepherd Pass is pretty rough, as is the trail from there down to the Pothole, but we were properly motivated and got down off the headwall in about 14 minutes without falling, then on to Anvil Camp in another half an hour. En route we passed a group of guys in their early 20's on the steep switchbacks just above the Pothole like they were standing still. The looks on their faces as these two scruffy old goats boogied on by was a little added bonus, one that I seldom get to enjoy at this stage of my life. Once below treeline, we relaxed and settled in to watch another thunderstorm put on a show as it moved up the Owens Valley some 6,000' below before turning in early. It had been a long day, about 14 miles with 4,000' of elevation gain and a steep, rough 2,000' descent down to Anvil camp. We were both ready to call it quits.
Kaweah Peaks Ridge from JMT
Mt Whitney from Bighorn Plateau
Kaweah Peaks Ridge from Bighorn Plateau
Mt Tyndall with Tawny Point in foreground
Developing thunderstorm over Owens Valley as we start down Shepherd Pass
A more relaxing view from our day 1 bivy site
Day 8 Anvil Camp to the car
We rose early, enjoyed our morning coffee while breaking camp, then slugged down some Perpetuem and were on our way. The hike down from Anvil Camp is MUCH more enjoyable than the hike up and we paused frequently to enjoy the spectacular views along the way. We made one brief stop at the sole water source between Anvil Camp and Symmes Creek, and arrived back at the car around 10:30 AM, dusty, thirsty, tired, and elated. The emotions and post mortems would come later, but for now the order of the day was a stop at the mini mart in Independence for cold drinks and some salty, greasy chips, followed after about an hour's drive by long, hot showers at a motel in Bishop. Then the serious eating would begin.
Sunrise at Anvil Camp