Trip Report: Circle of Solitude Loop in the Sierras high country. Nick Bobroff and I attempted a remote partial cross-country hike where we were challenged, humbled and awe-struck during our 4-day adventure. Typically and 8-day journey, we attempted it in half, and ended up needing a bit more.
The Circle of Solitude Loop (also known as the Great Western and Kings-Kern Divides Loop) is a hike with a good bit of cross-country off-trail sections and known for its remote and stunning scenery, such as Lake Reflection and the Whaleback (title photo, Bobroff). Encompassing both the eastern and western Sierras. On the route you traverse many different topographies from high mountain lakes, low valley rivers to 13,000 foot passes.
When: Thursday, June 27 - Sunday, June 30 2013
With: Nick "Nico" Bobroff, photographer extraordinare
Weather: High 80s - low 90s. Hot, dry
It wasn't until the night before that we knew this would be our route, and our planning was rushed. Unbeknown to us, we were trying to stuff a 5-day route (at our maximum output at the time) in a 4-day time period. On paper it looked doable, especially since we had just man-handled the Rae Lakes Loop in like 47-hours or something pretty darn quick.
Noon to half-past seven at night, that's how long we cursed up Avalanche Pass (10,013 ft) on Day 1 fresh out of the car and with very little sleep. A 5,000+ foot vertical climb that threw us off schedule first thing.
On Day 2 at 8pm halfway up Colby Pass (12,008 ft), feeling impossibly exhausted and realizing we would have to hike until midnight to finish the route in time, we turned tail; we were just too far behind. All told, we completed approx. 60 miles.
3.8 Bubbs Creek Tr Junction 6.2 Sphinx Creek 8.5 Avalanche Pass 14.2 Roaring River Ranger Station 18.5 Cement Table Meadow 20.5 Upper ford of Roaring River 22.0 Colby Lake (NB: We turned around halfway up Colby Pass...) 32.1 Junction Meadow and High Sierra Trail Junction 40.7 Lake South America Junction (ALT: Go off trail here for Harrison Pass -> East Lake) 48.5 Forester Pass 56.0 Bubbs Creek Trail Junction 58.5 Junction Meadow
A look at the unique challenges with gear, food and mindset that arise when you are consistently pushing your personal limits and endurance.
With temperatures high, an early snow melt and sparse water, the bugs were down low, up high on the passes and everywhere in between. Of course, in the wet meadows they were en force. What was especially difficult about this trip, was that they did not let up.
Technique: Nick used DEET most of the time, and alternately wind gear and a headnet (Patagonia Houdini jacket, MontBell Dynamo pants). I wore wind gear and a headnet exclusively (Patagonia Houdini jacket, MontBell wind pants, old version, Peter Vacco bridal-veil headnet).
Result: With bugs nearly the entire time, Nick was having to put on quite a bit of DEET (which is a bit scary and can be damaging to gear), and so fell back to wind gear at times. Wind gear works really well with a headnet, however, hiking in it for 12 hours a day in high temperatures is demoralizing and exhausting, so it is not ideal, even though our particular wind gear models are best in class for breathability.
Takeaway: When actively on the attack 24/7, bugs suck while hiking no matter how you approach it.
When statements such as, "the only thing holding me up right now are my trekking poles..." are uttered, or just the thought of food (usually the very items you have in your food bag) initiate a gag reflex you are probably at or beyond personal maximum endurance. You need nutrition/fuel badly, yet most items are impossible to consume.
Technique: Use the same endurance fuels and nutrition techniques that ultra-runners and tri-athletes use. If you've read my trip report on fastpacking with ultra-runners you'll remember that the further along you are in a bonk the simpler the fuel must be to hold it down.
Result: Nick and I had a good supply of Nuun tablets for hydration and electrolyte replacement and really liked the usability over powdered products, plus you can nibble on them without mixing in water. The Honey Stinger "Gold" gels and waffles also worked well during bonk time. During one of my toughest bonks, it took me 45 minutes to consume a single gel with water, taking tiny nips was all I could hold down; regular food would not have even made it past my lips.
Takeaway: Be sure to bring enough bonk foods for sustained maximum endurance. Know which ones you can reliably consume when your stomach is doing flips. I ran out of gels and waffles on Day 3, mainly because I did not expect the difficulty to be so high.
Setting up your pack in such a way for easy access to oft used items and low mental overhead is key when you are pushing limits. If you have to dig for your windshirt, or worse, avoid using something because it is "too hard" to access then your are risking your trip's success. Things like chapstick, cutting tool, compass/map, current segment's nutrition/fuel, water and flashlight should all be accessible without stopping your forward travel.
Technique: Continually vet and analyze your gearlist before and after each trip. Learn which items you used during hiking time, but had to take off your pack or stop to access. Move these items into easy reach. Both Nick and I keep our wind gear, gloves and extra water in our packs main mesh outside panel. Simply swing your pack over one shoulder to access those items. I use two shoulder pouches to store chapstick, flashlight, compass, etc. for easy access. Enough snacks for the current hiking segment (post-breakfast -> pre-lunch or post-lunch -> pre-dinner) are kept in our pack's side pocket, accessible while hiking. Finally, Nick keeps 1 liter of water in the other side pocket, while I secure a runner's water bottle on my shoulder strap.
Takeaway: Low fiddle factor, low mental drain hiking must be earned through critical gearlist analysis and experience. You'll earn dividends from it during big mile days and when you are exhausted but need to keep going.
A Good Trip
As I mention on this site's About page, these trips may not be everyone's idea of a "fun" weekend out on the trail. In my book, this goes down as a good trip; we certainly had fun moments, painful moments and demoralizing "impossible to go on anymore..." moments.
Perhaps best of all were the many refreshing swims in the crystal clear waters of the Kings and Roaring Rivers, near empty trails for 4 days and spectacular views of the Sierra's remote treasures that few people see in person.
I'll leave you with a bit of advice: If you do attempt this route, be sure to avoid at all costs going down the backside of Avalanche Pass into the Bubb's Creek drainage. The stair step pure granite switchbacks make the descent from Mt. Whitney to the Portal look childish. Your knees will thank you!