I Can Do This
It was around 1130 when we arrived at the Ten Lakes trailhead. I psyched myself up for the trail, thinking about the miles spent on many day hikes. After all, this was just another day hike with 40+ pounds on my back. To the Marines who were my hiking partners for the week, their exuberance for the adventure that lay ahead was evident. I admire and respect the men and women of our military who put their lives on the line in the name of freedom. In my civilian job at Camp Pendleton, I have the honor of serving with them. Their vigor is both encouraging and infectious. Their attitude on the trail is no less confident.
The bullets below provide some background. These factors individually are no big deal. Together, they shaped my experience on the first day of this backcountry trip.
- 50 yrs old, I carry about 25 lbs of extra weight (fat) on my small frame
- My pack weighs 40+ pounds
- The air is thin at high altitudes
- I slept about 2 or 3 hrs the night before
- My legs are short…
Ok, so the last one isn’t a big factor it just meant that I have to take more steps than the average person. Together, these things turned what was to be a good workout into a marathon for me. The next 6 or 7 hours would present itself to be one of my greatest physical challenges ever. As the track distance on my GPS increased, the incline seemed constant. At the end of the day, the elevation increase was only 1,400 ft but it sure seemed like more. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath as my lungs seemed to have the capacity of an infant. I couldn’t suck in enough air to keep a constant pace. Always bringing up the rear, my hiking partners would wait up for me to catch up and often start walking again before I stopped panting. Like the wagon trains of old, hiking in groups is only as fast as the slowest member. I remembered thinking that my hydration pack was a great investment. With the constant huffing and puffing in this arid climate, I was sure that I was losing a lot of moisture. Well, between that and the sweat. I wasn’t about to let two youngsters half my age show me up.
We passed a group of young men who were wearing Air Force t-shirts. It increased my morale to think that we were moving up faster than them. After a few miles, we leveled out in the forest with the tall lodgepole and Jeffrey pines all around. That’s when we realized that Yosemite contains about 50% of the worlds mosquito population. Ok, obviously that’s exaggerating, but they were relentless. Because of the amount of snow and subsequent melt in 2011 there was plenty of water which provided the perfect incubation for their offspring. The military grade bug repellent helped quite a bit. However, I learned that those pests can penetrate clothing like its not even there. My UnderArmour shirt was no match for those bloodsuckers. Our only defense was to pick up the pace to pass through the gauntlet of blood sucking marauders. To take a break was to invite a swarm.
At some point, we broke out of the infestation and began a series of switchbacks that tested my endurance. Switchbacks are those zig-zags that make a trail go higher in a shorter distance. They are an indicator that you are gaining altitude a bit faster. My stride became shorter and my calves and glutes were burning. I remember thinking, “what if I get a cramp?” There was no where to make camp and turning around was out of the question. Have you ever prayed when you were in a bind? I certainly did, and remember that while the pain didn’t go away, I was able to think about other things. We passed a few day hikers and remember thinking how light their load was.
After 5 or so hours, we broke out of the forest and leveled out on what appeared to be a plateau. I found myself saying the first of many “Wows” of the week.
Leveling out at 9,600 ft.
We followed the relatively flat trail a bit and were rewarded with a view of the Grand Canyon of Yosemite. The Tuolumne River curves its way around into the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, one of the primary sources of water for San Francisco. The granite peaks surrounding the valley were timeless and beautiful. We rounded a bend and when I went to take another sip from my hydration pack, I got air. Crud! I drank almost a gallon of water on the ascent. The lakes below seemed inviting, with the promise of fresh, cool water but were still almost an hour away. I asked Aaron to reach in my side pocket of my pack to give me my “emergency water”, 16 ounces in an old Camelbak bottle. The switchbacks down to the lakes were steep and hard on the knees. I broke out my hiking poles to lessen the impact. The sun was going down quicker now, so we picked up the pace. We needed to find a campsite before it got dark.
Down, down into the Ten Lakes area
Hiking downhill, while easier on the lungs actually seemed to be harder on the body. The full weight of body and pack were concentrated on the joints in your knees and ankles, as well as the hundreds of small bones that make up your feet. We descended into the valley that would become our home for the evening. As we approached the first lake, the coolness of the air seemed to wick the heat from us. We passed a couple of occupied campsites and looked for a site that was suitable.
Next: Nature’s Sleep Machine