Monday, April 7, 2008

Hiking Up To Kearsarge Pass, California

Kearsarge Pass isn't a mountain; instead, it's the easiest way to cross from the eastern face of the Sierras into Kings Canyon National Park. And while it's not a mountain climb, it lies at 11,811 feet-----taller than any point in Oregon, for example, or east of the Mississippi-----and makes a terrific Alpine experience. It's just like a mountain climb but without sharp vertical drops!

Kearsarge Pass is reached via the Onion Valley trailhead west from Independence, CA. The road to Onion Valley is paved and provides spectacular views of the Sierras along the way, like the one below:

The trail begins at an elevation of 9192 feet and takes about 6.5 miles to reach Kearsarge Pass. At its start, the trail is lightly forested but the trees really thin out as elevation is gained. At least they offer shade at the start and you pass some beautiful mountain lakes as you ascend. Here's a view down toward Heart Lake from the trail. If you look carefully, you can see the shape that gives it its name:

Pothole Lake is at about 10,500 feet and is at timberline, the point where it's too high to sustain tree growth. The photo below looks back at Pothole Lake from the trail, and you can clearly see where the trees fade out and give way to jumbled chunks of granite. Yes, that's real snow even though I did this trail in the last week of July:

As you can guess from the photo above, the remainder of the trail involves carefully stepping over and around large rocks as you ascend a sloping plateau toward the pass. Along the way you are treated to spectacular views of mountains such as University Peak and Mount Brewer along with glacial moraines (bowl-shaped excavations created by glacier movement) on their sides. A little more huffing and puffing, and you top at out at 11,811 feet; here I am next to the marking sign. The mountain behind me is University Peak (13,632 feet):

That sign also marks the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park, and those few feet I walked past the other side of the sign mark my only visit to that particular national park (it has been deliberately kept relatively inaccessible except to foot or horse traffic). The trails continues over the pass and down into the park, where it joins the John Muir Trail at about 10,350 feet and descends to the canyon floor. At least Kings Canyon looks pretty from Kearsarge Pass:

From Kearsarge Pass you get a good view of the Kearsarge Pinnacles, a series of rocky spires along the ridge line from the pass to University Peak. As the photo below shows, the pinnacles are actually very unstable rock piles instead of the solid rock they seem from a distance. Needless to say, climbing any of these is a task only for experienced rock climbers with the right equipment:

Blogging about my mountain climbs has been difficult for me because I realize I will never climb again; I really loved roaming the Sierras and Cascades in summer and I hate to think I have lost that part of my life forever. But at least I charged up into those hills when I was able to and have a load of memories (and photos) to console me. Thinking about that, I have some advice to offer anyone reading this: tomorrow is not promised to you; if there is something you really want to do, do it today!