Ah, the big day. I woke up both excited and anxious about the hike in front of me today since it was both one of the most scenic and hardest days on the itinerary. The second day is typically my most difficult on the trail, and having Day 2 be one of the hardest is a bit unnerving. On Day 1, I have the excitement and anticipation of being out on the trail that had been building for months to energize me, but on Day 2 reality sets in. I’m tired and sore from overdoing it the previous day, carrying a pack with a week’s worth of heavy food, and not yet acclimated.
Today’s hike went from our campsite at 9-Mile to Precipice Lake, an over 4000 ft climb in about 10 miles. Precipice is a beautiful place – probably my single favorite place on the High Sierra Trail, but it is not friendly to camping. Most people stop at Hamilton Lake or go over Kaweah Gap into Big Arroyo to camp (both are also stunning places). Space at Precipice is very sparse and you’ll be sleeping out on a slanted granite slab somewhere without a tent. No campfires are allowed and it is windy and exposed. If the weather is nice and you’re comfortable with the exposure, ‘camping’ is possible at Precipice. But please ask my permission first since I want first dibs on my favorite rock.
This year’s climb seemed much easier than last year. Come to think of it, the previous day’s hike was much easier than last year’s as well. I’ve been focusing a lot more on my running since last summer, and this was the first time that I noticed a significant endurance improvement to my hiking. I think this running thing is working. Or maybe it was because I knew the trail this time. Or maybe I was still acclimated from the previous week’s trip from Yosemite to Mammoth. Whatever it was, I liked it. Last year I was ready to collapse when I reached Precipice. This year I still had some energy reserves.
Of course, there are also several nice rest stops along this stretch of trail to help recharge the batteries. Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp has some great views and friendly folks. If you’re lucky they may give you a brownie that’s a big enough calorie bomb to fuel you all the way to Precipice.
After leaving Bearpaw the trail drops into a canyon (oh the pain of going downhill, knowing you’re just going to have to climb back out) and then climbs back towards the Hamilton Lake outlet. Here, the trail crosses a delightful waterfall with perfect rock slabs for lounging, enjoying the view, and soaking feet.
It’s less than a mile from the fall to Hamilton Lake, and this lake is a can’t-miss spot for a swim. It’s clear and cool, a deep turquoise color with the Great Western Divide looming over it. We stopped for about an hour, swam, ate lunch, and stared at the remaining 2.5 miles and 2300 feet we had left to climb. Fortunately, this stretch is one of the most amazing trails in the Sierra. On the steep hillside, blasted out of solid rock (it even has a tunnel), the experience of hiking this stretch of trail is something every backpacker should experience. It’s just one of those stretches where everything is a solid 10.
Just when you think it can’t get any better, you pop off a switchback and Precipice Lake is right there, the solid granite wall straight in front of you, and your jaw drops to the ground. If possible I recommend hitting Precipice mid-day. That’s when the color in the lake is the best, but if you spend a few hours there you’ll see that the color is constantly changing. Green, turquoise, dark blue, black – it changes from moment to moment.
The only thing to detract from the feeling of remoteness are the military planes flying overhead. We’d hear them every 30 minutes or so, and it didn’t take long to find the flight pattern and be able to pick them out as they flew over. We would continue to see this for the rest of the week. The oddest thing was the sounds we’d occasionally hear after they passed overhead – a muffled “boom…boom…BOOM…boom”.
I’m looking back at my notes from my journal, and here is what I wrote right before I went to bed: “Sitting here at 8:15 pm next to my open air camp, listening to the trickle of water falling from the glacier into Precipice. Writing sans headlamp to the fading pink sunset light. Watching bats chase bugs. Doesn’t get any better than this.”