By the third day, I would ask God ” Lord what have I gotten myself into?” My epic adventure into the 100 Mile Wilderness may have been the greatest physical and mental challenge to date. What follows is a description of the first day I spent hiking the most remote and arguably the toughest 100 mile section of the Appalachian Trail.
The “A.T.” as it is commonly known to hikers, is a 2,184 mile marked hiking trail. It extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Every year, approximately 2,000 people attempt to hike the entire trail and are known as thru-hikers About 20-25% actually complete the 5-6 month journey. Most people hike northbound and try to make it before October. About 10% start in Maine and work their way down to Georgia. My friend Joe and I did a section hike of the A.T. We would start in the last trail town – Monson, Maine.
My preparation for this hike was pretty basic. Strengthen my legs and cardio endurance. Do day hikes on the weekend for 8-10 miles and run after work in the hills of Camp Pendleton. I knew that I should hike with a 40-45 lb pack to simulate the load, but it was such a pain to do it. This decision not to practice with a loaded pack would significantly impact my journey into the wilderness.
Joe and I have hiked Yosemite and discussed section hiking the A.T. We tossed around the idea of doing a section in North Carolina or Virginia, since he transferred to the east coast this year. The idea of the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine came up and we were quickly sold on it. The logistics made the decision easier. His family lived about 2 hours from the A.T. trailhead in Monson. We did some calculations and decided at 14+ miles per day, we could complete the section in 7 days. Little did we know that this timeframe is a stretch and only the best of the hikers make it through that quickly.
We discussed supplies, calculated the weight of each item and determined that we would need approximately 12-14 lbs of food to safely traverse the wilderness. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) advises 10 days of food for the hike. With 3.5 liters of water, my pack weighed in at 46-47 lbs. Each day, I would hope to shed some of the weight by eating my food. With my pack, the load on my small frame was around 215 lbs. On this trip, I would use my SPOT GPS messenger to notify our families where we were and that we were ok at least once a day. It’s a one way messenger that is used to communicate your position or as an emergency beacon.
Joe’s family drove us to the trailhead and walked the first 100 yards or so to the sign indicating the seriousness of what we were going to attempt. Their enthusiasm and encouragement made us excited to get started. We could hardly believe that the time had come. We started around 11:30 a.m. A pond near the beginning was an omen of things to come. Making our way deeper into the forest, the sounds of Highway 15 gradually faded with distance. The canopy of the deciduous trees enveloped us and we realized that we were entering the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail.
The terrain was rocky, full of roots and hilly. Up and down, this would be the norm for the week. The forest was still damp even though there had not been significant rain for a couple of weeks. Bogs with planks and rocks would slow our pace even more. We would not see too many vistas on the first day and it was tough getting a GPS signal through the trees. Stopping at the Little Wilson Stream late in the day, we would have lunch/dinner near a nice cascade. We would cross here only having to double back because the trail actually follows the stream for a bit.
Following the “white blazes” that defined the A.T., we would see them on trees and rocks every 50-100 feet. Without these, it would be difficult – especially at night to stay on course.
Daylight seemed to fade quickly under the thick canopy. We checked out the map and determined that we could make it to the Big Wilson Stream by nightfall. Joe would continue to hike with his built-in night vision eyes, while I would put on my headlamp to tackle my first serious attempt at night hiking.
We found an established campsite next to the stream and each began our chores. Mine – to collect and filter the water, send out our “OK” GPS message, and start a fire. Joe’s – to set up the tent. Starting the fire was very hard. All the wood and kindling was wet. The fire never amounted to much, but was ok, because within 30 minutes of setting up the tent, we were hitting the sack. A 9 hr. hiking day and only covered approximately 9.5 miles. Tomorrow, we would ford across the Big Wilson. Zzzzzzzzzzz……….
Waterfalls have a special allure to us. Not sure why, maybe it’s just the sheer display of power. During this time of year in Yosemite, the volume of water is fairly low. Still, recent rains provided life to Yosemite Falls, so there was hope that Vernal and Nevada would put on a show for us.
This hike started on the valley floor as we parked in the Day Use area and walked the relatively flat couple of miles to the Mist Trail. We would pass the campgrounds where people were just waking up and cooking their breakfast. The smell of bacon wafted on the air as we passed by. I imagined a tall stack of pancakes with maple syrup and, oh I’m sorry this is a blog about hiking not food. Hiking just makes me hungry.
Early morning is the best time to start a hike, it is a different experience. The first part of the trail was asphalt and you got the feeling that you were in a municipal park somewhere. It gradually became a steady incline. You could hear the Merced River and occasionally get a peek at it as you make your way up. We crossed a footbridge with our first good view of the river as it made its way down the canyon. The sound of the water rushing over boulders was getting louder the closer we came to the falls. The path became less structured and the effects of erosion were evident. The sound intensity of the falls gradually increased as did the incline on the trail.
Soon, we could see slabs of rock carved out that was to be our path to the top. It was like the stair-stepper from hell. Often, you were almost crawling to get to the next slab. The closer you got, the wetter the rocks were. It was exciting and a bit disconcerting if you thought about what would happen if you would trip. We paused to take some pics, now noticing the mist from the falls. I imagine that at full flow, you would be drenched as you made your way through here. The last set of steps would be a narrow path cut out of the cliff with a railing to hold on to.
The area at the top of Vernal Falls has railings that will allow you to get within a few feet of the falls. The precipitous drop looked radical. Within a year, several more people would die here – being swept over the falls as they foolishly climbed over the railing. The water actually wasn’t that deep near the falls, but boy was it swift. We would have our lunch here as the ground squirrels bravely made their way to your feet for the crumbs. Ever the mischievous one, I threw a few breadcrumbs at Mary’s feet to see how close they would get.
After lunch, we started making our way to Nevada Falls. Most people would turn around here and head down. We ran into a couple and the man asked us if we had something to fix his shoe. I looked at his shoe, the bottom was flopping around like a beaver’s tail. After laughing at his predicament, I gave him some rope and he secured the sole. They took some souvenir pics with us and we continued up. On the way up, we were passed by a group of young German guys. The hike through the forest was peaceful with the leaves changing, the leaves bright green,yellow and orange.
We came to an opening and the falls popped into view. Thinking that we were close, we noticed that the top of the falls were actually a couple of hundred feet higher. The path there was another crawl over even steeper steps that required a break every 3-4 minutes. Well, at least there were steps.
The top of Nevada Falls really opens up like one huge slab of granite with a river running through it. There was a stiff breeze that would take your hat off. The sound of the falls was intense, like mega white noise. You had to yell to hear each other.
We spent some time checking out the area which we had to ourselves. So the trick is get on the trail late in the day, by early noon most of the people were gone. Of course in the summer with thunderstorms around the afternoon, this wouldn’t be a good plan. We would cross the Merced River over a footbridge. It took a little while to see where the trail picked up, but soon the John Muir Trail came into view. It was a nice descent down to the valley floor. A good 8 miles from where we parked and 1,900 ft. of elevation gain. This combo is a good cardio workout with some excellent scenery. But hey, where in Yosemite is the scenery not excellent?
This hike would be the last on this trip to Yosemite. Our goal is to be up here at least once during each of the four seasons. The Sierras take on a different character during each. Can you imagine snowshoeing to Sentinel Rock at night during a full moon? I can! Enjoy life friends, God has blessed you more than you could imagine. Get out and see what He has created.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley has been called a miniature version of Yosemite Valley. That is until the Tuolumne River was blocked by the O’Shaughnessy Dam starting in 1915. The battle between the city of San Francisco and the preservationists of the day – including John Muir would eventually be decided in part due to the great San Francisco earthquake. The rest was political. The dam was actually completed in 1923 at a cost of 68 lives and would forever change the pristine landscape of this area. Today, we would trek to the northern boundaries of the park to see if we could imagine what this area looked like before the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir was created. After you’ve hiked in the backcountry for any length of time, you find yourselves seeking the path less traveled. To us, it’s worth driving the extra 30 or 40 miles to get away from the tourists.
To get to Hetch Hetchy, you must pass through an area named Mather that draws eccentric (hippies) people who camp and who knows what else. The road is a maze with no clear directions and you get the sense that Janice Joplin is in one of the tents around here. A little farther up, it became apparent that the reservoir is now under the protection of Homeland Security with controlled access. We would obtain our day pass at the ranger station and wind our way down to the dam over a narrow mountain road to the dam. Nearby is a sign to the Poopenaut Valley Trail which descends to the Tuolumne River. Who comes up with these names? Indians? I would have died laughing if it was named Poopenutter.
The hike starts on the dam where you have nice views of the reservoir and spillway below. There are plaques that explain the history of the dam and all that blah blah tourist stuff. The road on the dam continues into an old train tunnel which is lit by dim light bulbs every 100 ft. or so. Due to the recent rains, or maybe it just leaks a lot, there was standing water and we puddle jumped our way through it. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel, no longer was it a cliche’. 🙂
The path out of the tunnel is fairly level and wide with a steep drop into the reservoir. We came upon some illegal crops growing off the path and took some pics. Well, to us they looked like some type of cannabis, but were probably some variety of hemp. It made for a good photo op to a couple of goobers like us. Other flora included manzanita, the odd red-barked bush, monkey flower and lupine. As the trail wound its way around we noticed that there were many streams that flowed over and under the trail into the reservoir.
Parts of the trail passed over large slabs of granite and descended into areas of tall grasses and woods. We stumbled upon our first mule deer of the day who watched us from a distance before darting into the cover. We would take our lunch break on a rocky outcropping overlooking the water. Compared to the Tioga Road, it was noticeably warmer in the Hetch-Hetchy. The relatively lower altitudes and mostly sunny day reflecting off the granite made it almost hot. We crossed an area that would normally be a steady, wide creek but the late season made it a series of small streams. The water was cold and gurgled as it passed underground.
As we neared the 1400 ft. Wapama Falls, we could hear it before we saw it. Alas, we rounded a corner and saw it from about 1/4 mile away. Up ahead we saw a guy taking a lunch break and the trail was blocked with yellow police ribbon. A sign indicated that the footbridge had been swept away due to the recent heavy rains and snow melt. We hesitated bypassing the sign but prudence dictated otherwise. Usually park rangers close trails when an incident has occurred or the hazard is extreme. The bridge was repaired and eight months later in June 2011, two hikers were swept to their deaths when they tried to cross the Wapama Falls bridges after a storm. Water, even when shallow has the ability to sweep you off your feet. Today, we would just have to admire the falls from a distance.
This would be a short day hike for us, but it left us longing to come back here another time. Perhaps, next time we will make it to Rancheria Falls, a 13 mile trip.
What do you think of when “diversity” comes to mind? Well, for me California and it’s not because of the people. This blog isn’t a social commentary you know. The real diversity here presents itself in the contrast of the landscape. From the great Pacific Ocean to the Sierras, to the Mojave Desert. The Golden State is truly a treasure. Day two in Yosemite would take us a few miles north of the valley to an area less traveled during the fall. After the previous days’ hike, my knee reminded me how important it was. While hiking uphill is physically difficult – (cardio wise), going down can be brutal on the knees. Today, we would head up to the Tioga Road and stroll around. Not a “zero” day of hiking, but close.
The Tuolumne Grove of Sequoias is a collection of approximately two dozen of the gentle giants on the western end of the Tioga Road near Crane Flat. There are actually three sequoia groves in Yosemite, this one is the easiest to see. These specimens usually grow at specific altitudes between 6,000-7,000 ft. They are the largest living things on earth. The coastal redwoods in California are taller, but the sequoias are more massive. We just had to see the Dead Giant which was over 29 feet wide at the base with a tunnel that was cut through it in 1878.
I didn’t realize until we started our walk to the grove that we would descend about 500 ft. It was slow going, my knee testing my pain tolerance. Man, would I be able to make it through the week with this knee? I was determined to finish this one and hit the drugstore in Oakhurst for a remedy tonight. Once we leveled out, the grove was peaceful and quiet. The only sounds were the occasional woodpeckers. Mary found one of the largest cones I ever saw. Imagine this thing falling on your head from over 150 ft.
The walk uphill was uneventful, the pain less – nothing a few motrin couldn’t deal with. We had a picnic in the parking area and watched people come and go. Most of the tourists were foreigners. Funny how they were drawn to this awesome place too. I’ve since discovered that the adventurous Europeans love the American back country. Where else can you “freely” roam?
We decided to head east on SR120, the Tioga Road. The Park Service would be closing this road next week in preparation for winter. We expected to find crowds along the way, but were pleasantly surprised to run across no more than a few cars the rest of the day. Olmstead Point with its wide open views was simply amazing. Clouds Rest, was appropriately named as passing clouds brushed its’ summit. Continuing to head east, we came up on a nearly vacant Tenaya Lake. We parked at the east end to see if we could navigate around the lake and find a trail. After a half mile or so, we discovered the recent rains had swamped most of the shore.
The only sounds were the wind blowing through the conifers and the waves lapping the shore. Driving to the west end of Tenaya, we made our way along the shore, hopping from slab to slab of granite, over boulders and through the bogs. Hoping that we could reach the south shore, we were disappointed to find an area that would normally be accessible, under 2 feet of water. The trail was in sight, but just out of reach. It was in the 40’s and not wanting to get wet, we settled on exploring the shoreline.
All in all, a trip to Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Grove in the fall are quiet getaways and decent places to picnic. No crowds and a good place to explore.
Yosemite is one of those places that should be on your bucket list. Might as well add Yellowstone too. This would be our first trip to the Sierras with a week full of day hikes. The previous year we went to Sequoia National Park for a few days. This area was unlike any other and we were in awe of the mammoth trees.
The trip up from San Diego through the Central Valley revealed one of the breadbaskets of this state. The rich, flat land on the western side of the Sierras is not quite as scenic as the eastern side, but still a welcome change from the drive through LA. Not yet campers, we chose to stay outside the south entrance of the park in Oakhurst, a small mountain town. The hotel was a quaint Best Western, complete with an in room mural of the most recognized views in the park. Tacky, but cool because someone took the time to paint it. We mapped out a few day hikes ahead of time ranging from 5-10 miles per day. Each day, we planned to head deeper into the park over the curvy, meandering state road 41 that passed through Yosemite.
Four Mile Trail
Our first hike would take us to the Four Mile Trail, a moderate hike from the Yosemite Valley floor to Glacier Point, with some of the best views in the park. Starting out near the visitor center, we would park and catch the shuttle to within a half mile of the trailhead. It was a brisk morning, in the low 40s. The Merced River was lazily winding its way through the valley, the current fairly slow this time of the year. We crossed over Swinging Bridge and began a casual stroll to the trailhead.
Timber is abundant throughout this trail and it takes awhile for the scenery to open up. The first view of upper Yosemite Falls was excellent. Normally fairly dormant in the fall, a recent rainstorm produced decent flows. It didn’t take long to encounter our first critters of the day, a couple of deer munching on the flora. They almost ignored us as we made our way up the switchback. In the summer, I’ve read that this is a crowded trail. With the kids in school, we didn’t see many people today. There seemed to be quite a few “blowdowns” on the way up, each a photo op as we scrambled over them.
To the west, we could see Cathedral Rocks and the other side of El Capitan. As the switchbacks headed east, we would receive a stiff, cool breeze. On the westbound trek, it would get hot from the exertion. We would peel layers off and put them back on all morning.
Passing Sentinel Rock, I thought about how great the view must be from up there. Approaching 5,000 ft, the number of switchbacks increased as the altitude increased more rapidly. The trees started to thin out and became larger. What is really impressive about this trail is each turn reveals a new angle on the amazing scenery. It is difficult not to stop and take pictures every 5 minutes.
Half Dome came into view and the trail became narrow as we would wind around the trees. I can see why they close this in the winter, some spots if covered with snow or ice would be fairly treacherous. Nearing 7,000 ft. walking around the Ponderosa Pines, we felt pretty small. Breaking out of the woods, we came out at Glacier Point, a popular destination with an awesome panorama.
At this point, we were just like any other tourist and took lots of pictures. The views to the west of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and the valley below were enjoyable. We refilled our water and started the 4.7 miles back down. Weird, the constant downhill made my boots feel small. As a novice hiker, I didn’t realize that your feet swell the longer you are on the trail. My toes starting banging against the front of the toebox. What should have been an easy trip down, became a painful experience. On top of that, an old knee injury reminded me that it was still there.
Before we leveled out in the valley, I was sidestepping my way down, looking like a landlocked crab. Within a week, both of my big toenails were a shade of dark blue and would hang on for another six months before falling off. By the time we reached the car, we had hiked over 10 miles and 6,400 ft. of elevation change. All in all, a good way to start our Yosemite adventure.
Lessons Learned: 1. Get hiking shoes at least one size larger. 2. Use two hiking poles, it makes it easier on the knees going downhill. 3. Fall is a great time to escape the crowds in Yosemite.
Hoofing up the Tioga Road.
Waking up the next morning it was good to see that the gophers did not have their way with our backpacks. Surprisingly, we didn’t have any problems with vermin getting into our stuff all week. normally, you hear about bears or some other critter ripping through or stealing your stuff. One ranger told us to wedge our bearcans between rocks so that the bears wouldn’t roll them down the hill and off a cliff to crack open the contents. Here again, my imagination took off and I could see Yogi and BooBoo walking upright, carrying our food away during the night. We were to learn later that some people put reflective tape on their bearcans to find them in the dark after the bears moved them.
After the standard breakfast of oatmeal, energy bar, coffee I searched out today’s spot for the loo. Usually, I would look for a large tree or collection of rocks to hide behind. I can only imagine how embarrassing it would be if you picked a spot that just happened to be in plain view of a trail. Well, maybe not. Since everyone else this far out experiences the same challenges, you probably wouldn’t give it much thought. I found a fallen tree with soft ground – perfect. What would I do if a rattler came up on me? Naaah! By the end of this trip, we all became proficient at digging catholes. Cathole- google that one…..
Gopher hole campsite
Today would be our last day of hiking and it would be mostly downhill. Our 5 day route took us in a roughly inverted U shape route where we would come out near Tenaya Lake, about 10 miles east from where the car was. We had a schedule for the hiker’s shuttle which made only one daily run the Tioga Road and into the Yosemite Valley. We only had about 7-8 miles to go, so we could easily make the shuttle. The descent was steady with a few switchbacks and passed through mostly forested areas. At times, the trail would be lined with ferns and wild lilies. Nearing Tenaya Lake, the day hikers were heading to their destinations like they were on a Sunday stroll. I felt like a pro with my 35 lb pack and 5 days of trail dust on me. of course, the previous week I was one of those daytrippers. We crossed vast slabs of granite which were outlined with cairns (piles of rocks). To think that someone took the time to mark the trail this way – how nice.
We came out on Tioga Road and made our way to the nearest shuttle stop. There is a series of shuttle stops during the summer between Tuolumne Visitor Center and Olmstead Point. We asked the driver if she could take us where the hiker shuttle would stop and away we went. The riders on the shuttle seemed squeaky clean in their sneakers and shorts. We probably looked and smelled like homeless people. We got off the shuttle at Olmstead and waited for the bus. We went out on the point and got a great view of Clouds Rest, one of the higher summits in the park. We had lunch and went back to the road where the hiker bus later zoomed past without slowing down. The shuttle driver had given us bum gouge, the bus does not stop here. With the only bus of the day gone, we began a 10 mile walk toward the car along the Tioga Road. Oh well, this was the only mishap of the trip. It was a warm day, like 75-80 degrees and the walk along the road with its steep inclines was tough. After a few miles, we found a pond, refilled our water and rested. Hiking another 7 miles, while possible was not going to be easy on top of the mileage we had walked today. The road had narrow shoulders, curves and was really not safe for pedestrians. Hitching back to the car was tough since there were three of us and no place for cars to pull over. Then Joe came up with the best idea ever.
“I’ll run get the car” he says. I’m like ok, you crazy Marine, you do that. Sure enough, he grabs his Nalgene and starts running west on the Tioga Road. He was my hero. I went back to the area near the pond, pulled out my sleeping pad and proceeded to take a nap on a bolder. This was fine until something woke me up, a weird tickle. I sat up and brushed off a strange millipede-praying mantis-ant looking thing. It was hard to take a nap with critters like that crawling around, so I packed my stuff and headed up to the parking lot to await our ride. After a couple of hours, we were starting to wonder where Joe was. After all, a 7 mile run on the Tioga Road should only take a Marine like – what – one hour? He did show up about an hour later and admitted that the hills did him in.
We looked for one last campground on the map and found one about a mile off the road. Yes, we hiked another mile so that we could camp and have a fire. I was halfway joking when I offered to buy a hotel room for the night. The thought of a hot shower and real bed was heavenly. We found a relatively flat area a hundred yards or so from a creek and settled in. The pork-n-beans cooked in the can were the best ever. I remember turning in early and hearing the guys get spooked by a deer that decided to walk through the middle of our camp while they were sitting around the fire.
The last day, we drove down into Yosemite Valley and turned our bearcans in at the ranger station. It was strange to be around so many people. After only 5 days of being away from civilization, you start to change. I think that it’s because you adapt to the environment. No cars or modern conveniences, and lots of peace and quiet. No, I’m not a tree hugger, but do have an appreciation for the amazing beauty. I honestly believe that the Lord created places like this for us to enjoy. We must be good stewards and protect these parks. I believe the Sierras are like no other place on earth. John Muir said it best: ” The mountains are calling and I must go.” This is an amazing place that forever has a place in my heart.
Next: Raising the Bar
The constant attack of the mosquitoes convinced us to move on quickly. We found the trail and began our walkabout through a lush forest with tall pines and strange foliage that I’ve never seen before. The deer watched us from a distance, leery of our presence. Often, we would only see the white bushy tail of one in retreat. We would emerge from the forest and begin the real descent to the Tuolumne River below. The steep switchbacks consisted of boulders and scree that moved beneath your feet and the hiking poles came in very handy. In places, a slip would result in a fatal drop. Of course I didn’t tell Mary this. By the end of the day, we would experience over 4,000 ft of elevation change.
As we made our way down, I looked at the path that the trail followed on the map and noticed the steep ascent on the other side of the river. The terrain flattened out in the valley, at this point we had done over 7 miles and I was feeling it. The bouldering to get down to the last lake drained my energy like an old rechargeable battery. We stopped by the river for lunch. Hmm, what to eat today? Tuna? It was good to eat something, but an IV drip of 5% glucose probably would have been better.
The next couple of hours consisted of steep switchbacks up to the Tuolumne Pass. The views at the top were probably the best yet. That’s the neat thing about Yosemite, the next view always seems to be more scenic. The guys were patient with me as I trudged up the trail. At times, the trail consisted of large rocks or small boulders that you picked your way over or around. Hoping for level ground, we seemed to hit it around 10,000 ft. This is where we would also see the only other person today. This guy had already hiked 12 miles and had another 7-8 to go. Something else happened up here that was cool-cell phone reception. Not sure how, I just know we had it because my phone started beeping. Thinking that it was powered off, it must have gotten turned on by the jostling in my pack. I was able to send/receive a few messages to Mary before losing reception. God is good, he allowed the three of us to call or text our loved ones. After 3-4 days, it was a luxury of sorts. We came upon a fat furry creature, half beaver, half rodent and it seemed to ignore us. Wanting to get a closer look, I was reminded of the scene in the movie “Elf” where the raccoon hissed at Buddy and jumped on his face. I think it was a marmot and am not sure what they eat, but it was plump.
Although tired, the terrain was too high for us to establish a campsite. We had to get down below 9,600 ft. We would also be running low on water, so we needed to find some before it got dark. As we entered the pass, we saw a large pond with a snow pack on the other end. I got out the water filter and raced over. It was disappointing; the water was kind of stagnant and had lots of algae. I kept moving closer to the snow until I was almost on top of it. Hopefully, the water filter could take care of any microbes in this pond. It was getting noticeably colder up here and we were losing daylight fast. We needed to descend and find a campsite before dark. It’s no fun trying to find a campsite in the dark.
Next: Where’s the hiker shuttle?
When the sun goes down in the backcountry of the high Sierras, the surroundings take on a different aura. I’ve heard that the best colors often occur before sunrise and after sunset. It is contrast, which seems to affect the detail in what we see. The dark land in comparison to the various hues in the sky gives you this wow factor. This sunset left an imprint on my mind.
This second campsite was more exposed and open. We were located above the lake on a granite slab. There were few trees at this level, but enough wood to make a decent fire. Dinner tonight was MRE’s, those meals-ready-to-eat that the Marines love so. My beef stew was palatable, but the truth be told I could have eaten pine needles. Something about being outside and walking all day just made me hungry.
As the darkness enveloped us, the waxing moon lit up the sky as it rose from behind the granite monolith across the lake. Occasionally, the clouds and moon played hide and seek. I’m not ashamed to tell you that three manly men sat in awe of this amazing vista as it unfolded. Even after just a few days, the remoteness began to have an affect on me. The farther we ventured into the wilderness, the more I appreciated this creation of our heavenly father.
The one thing that made this trip painful and took away from the awesomeness was that I had one of the nastiest colds ever. The week before this trip, I went to the VmWorld Convention in Vegas with over 25,000 people. On that trip, my coworker had a severe cold and I felt bad for him. Now, I blamed him for my misery. On the first day, the beginnings of the cold were barely noticeable. By bedtime on this third day, my throat was so sore and closed like a gauntlet to the point where I could hardly swallow. Already 15-20 miles from the nearest road, I would just have to endure. Another thing that became apparent was that when one drinks over a gallon of water in a day, one must get rid of an amount somewhat equal to that gallon. I probably could have extinguished several campfires that night. There is no quiet way to exit a tent, the zippers are really loud. My poor tentmates. Morning would come quickly after a tough nights sleep.
After breakfast and warmth of a morning fire, we broke camp and restored it to its’ pristine setting, leaving just the rocks around the fire. We looked at the map and chose our path to the next lake and beyond. We headed off and started picking our way around the cliffs and canyons. The elevation changes were frequent and challenged me to keep pushing. The air was thin and my breathing was shallow and fast as I worked to bring in enough oxygen. On the edge of feeling altitude sickness, I would lose sight of the guys and would rush to catch up. Beginning to think that this off trail hiking sucked, we made it to a granite slab which made the previous two hours of trekking worthwhile.
Yosemite and the Sierras in general offer vistas that are often indescribable. Well, maybe John Muir described it best: “God never made an ugly landscape. All that sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” The awesomeness extended for miles and miles. The Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir to the north is a part of Yosemite that relatively few people see. The lake below us made for another photo op.
After some excellent photos, we discovered that there was no path down to the lake below. We would have to work our way down the rocky outcroppings, around the bear scat and through crevasses to drop down five hundred feet. At first, this task did not appear possible. We couldn’t turn back because the trail we needed picked up on the other side of the lake. After what seemed like an eternity of scampering down the rocks, the terrain flattened out and we were near the lake. The mosquitos returned, often drilling through our clothing in several spots at the same time. These skeeters must have come from Jurassic Park. If I could only invent mosquito proof clothing…. We broke out the bug repellent and ate our lunch, which ended up tasting a bit like the 3M insecticide.
The lake was beautiful, like liquid glass. We soon spotted the trail and began our descent through a forest and numerous switchbacks to the Tuolumne River valley. Across the valley where the river flowed was the Tuolumne Peak, which would tower over us. The scene from LOTR where Frodo, Sam and Golum were climbing the cliff face in Mordor came to mind.
Next: Above 10,000 ft
Day 2 of our trip began early. It was early for us at least. Many thru-hikers start before the sun comes up, but there was no need for that kind of nonsense. A few ibuprofen at bedtime helped to lessen the pain that was expected this morning. In no rush to break camp, we explored the area around the lake on our own. I’m not sure if the lake we were at had a name, but according to the maps it was one of the Ten Lakes. Because of the altitude, the mosquitos weren’t as bad up here and I was thankful. I felt like a kid again, scrambling over rocks and exploring the stream for critters. The lake was like a huge mirror, reflecting the granite walls and trees. We had it all to ourselves. Aaron started fishing and within an hour had a nice trout that we would eat for breakfast. At this altitude and higher, fish would be hard to come by. Next to water and shelter, food is a priority. Since we would only be hiking 8-10 miles per day, we had plenty of food for the estimated 3,000 calories that we would be burning each day.
We packed up and started following the stream that fed this lake because we figured it would lead to another lake. It was slow going as we scrambled over rocks and around fallen trees. It was at this point that I realized how top heavy my pack was. Since it was an ultralight pack, it was fairly narrow but expandable a the top. It was inevitable you know…
The stream crossing looked easy. Easy until I leaned past the tipping point. In slow motion I fell backward into the water catching myself before going all the way in. I laughed at myself and hoped that there weren’t too many more streams to cross. A bit more bouldering and bushwhacking brought us to the next lake. It was a warm sunny day, perfect for drying out my wet socks on the rocks. I felt like a lizard sunning itself as I dipped my feet into the cold water. It wasn’t icy cold, but my feet started to go numb after a few minutes. I was content to just dip them like tea bags into the crystal clear lake. Other than wanting my beautiful wife to witness this awesomeness with me, I was far removed from the cares of the rat race.
As Joe made his way around and up the walls of the cliffs surrounding the lake for a better view, Aaron tried his hand at fishing again. He seemed to be full of patience as he would cast and reel, cast and reel. No more fishies today Aaron. We had what would be our standard lunch – tuna, pita bread and an apple. In the afternoon we started our way around this lake to check out the mini-glacier on the other side of the lake. It was over 100 ft. tall, 40 ft thick and begging to be climbed. Parts of the Sierras got over 50 ft. of snow the previous winter. Not having an ice axe, I slowly made my way up most of the way and slid down using my boots as skis. Most guys never really grow up. God just made us this way, goofy and sometimes reckless. However, as I’ve gotten older I do take less risks. Today, I didn’t go all the way to the top of the snow pack.
We continued on using the map to find the next lake where we would make camp. It took us through meadows crisscrossed with streams and creeks. We saw a chicken like bird with its young hatchlings. Following the water, we reasoned that it would lead to the next lake. It is interesting how they were all connected somehow. We made our way around a pond which was fed by another stream. So much water up here. Climbing up, we saw the next body of water and the largest lake yet. It was surrounded by sheer cliffs and steep banks. We found a relatively flat area with a nice view of the lake. The trees thinned out a bit up here at 9,600 ft. This was the highest altitude permissible for campfires in Yosemite. Fires are prohibited above 9,600 ft because of the impact on the relatively small amount of trees. We all went exploring again around the lake. Returning to the campsite, I unrolled my sleeping pad laid on my back, looked up into the bluest skies ever and took a catnap. What a surreal place this was. Surreal? Nah, this enchanting place is an awesome example of the Lord’s majesty.
Next: Day 3, off the trail – into the wilderness
What’s your definition of backcountry hiking? To some, it might mean hiking far enough to where you don’t hear the traffic on the roads. To others, it may mean carrying your tent with you and camping out for days on end. Mary and I have spent many hours day hiking in and around the mountains of southern California. While we may be miles from the nearest road or civilization, I don’t think of it as backcountry. I was never a Boy Scout, having only made it to Cub Scouts or maybe a Webelo and only camped out once or twice. So much for being a scout in the suburbs of D.C. Even as a naval aircrewman I learned about land survival and spent a few nights in the woods. So, I’m still a rookie with this backcountry stuff.
Being a newbie, I ensured that I had plenty of clean clothes, a poncho for rain, etc. After all, I might need this stuff. Looking back, I could have knocked off about 25% of the weight in my pack. Ten pounds my feet told me. By the fifth day, I would lose ten pounds of body mass.
By the end of the first day, our final descent into the Ten Lakes area was fast as we looked forward to resting and eating a hot meal. Looking for a campsite near the water became our mission. Finding an area with enough flat space for our tent was important. We located a spot that had previously been used and started our chores. Since I had the water filter, I made my way down the hill to the lake. The stream that fed it was gurgling over slabs of rock with cool, fresh water. Tempted to just drink straight from the stream, I began the task of filtering our drinking and cooking water. This amazing piece of technology protected us from the harmful bacteria, including giardia and cryptosporidium, protozoans that once ingested cause intestinal infections that can only be treated with antibiotics. Without filtered or treated water, our journey could be cut short.
Hiking/camping in a small group is great for teamwork. Joe putting up our shelter, Aaron building the fire, and me collecting water – we all had our tasks. It took several trips down to refill our water supply and the climb up the steep hillside took the wind out of my sails. I was ready for dinner and the sleep that eluded me the night before. Dinner that first night was Ramien noodles and dessert was probably an energy bar.
Our campsite, was at least the minimum 100 ft. from the water source but since we were on a hill the lake seemed much closer. The sound of the water rushing over the rocks was amplified as we settled in for the night. As the light faded and the darkness enveloped us, we heard limbs cracking and shuffling on the other side of the tent. We were wondering if we would see our first bear. Shining our headlamps toward the sound, we spotted the first of many deer. I would later learn that the deer are drawn to the salt that was prevalent in our urine. Not wanting to get lost, one doesn’t stray far from the campsite for #1. I know, gross but that’s nature for you. Since this was a national park, man was not a threat to the creatures here. Their curious nature would bring them right into our camp.
After dinner, we sat around the fire, reflected on our day and discussed our plans for the next day. Joe played around with his camera, set his exposure for about 5 seconds and took this pic of me drawing my name with a headlamp:
We hit the sack and the sound of the babbling brook reminded me of the gallon of water that I drank during the day. Thankfully, I was sleeping next to one of the doors. Sometime during the night, the walls of the tent lit up with an eerie glow. Who was coming into our campsite with a torch? As my tentmates were sound asleep, I unzipped the tent and ventured out to see who was there. I discovered the fire had come back to life. I smothered it with water and dirt, spreading the ashes around. Back to tent and into my cozy sleeping bag. The sound of the stream became nature’s sleep machine.
Next: Water, water everywhere.
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
WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF THINGS
The evening ended late and the morning came early. It was hard to sleep thinking about the week ahead. At 2:30 a.m., I found myself driving up the I-15. Traffic was light which was a good thing because after I saw the sign for Fallbrook, the fog was immediately on me and akin to sticking your head into a bag of cotton balls. The WalMart 18 wheeler that suddenly came out of the fog was too close for comfort. I slowed down, turned on the fog lights and prayed for a safe drive. We met at Joe’s house near Winchester and filled the back of his VW wagon with our gear. Now I have an idea what it is like to stuff a sausage. It seemed like we had a lot of food, but you can never have too much, right? The previous night, a fairly large fire had broken out about 50 miles north of Temecula near Riverside, very close to the 15 freeway. We were concerned that we would have to make a huge detour, which would add even more time to a planned 18 hour day. Fortunately, the fire had already burned near the freeway and the northbound lanes were open. We planned on entering Yosemite through the Tioga Pass Rd. with our goal to hike 7-10 miles past the Cathedral Lakes before nightfall. Making our way up the 395 , the sun arose in the Mojave with an amazing spectrum of colors, followed by the gateway to the eastern Sierras. Whoever came up with the word majestic to describe mountains was spot on. They rise on either side of the highway like sentinels guarding the valleys below.
The drive up was uneventful. We entered the Tioga gate to the park, pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station and discovered that we arrived on one of the busiest weekends of the year. I’ll put my lesson learned in early for this blog: Don’t go to Yosemite around Labor Day. The line to get the required backcountry permit grew quickly. We found out that we couldn’t get our preferred or alternate trail because the rangers limit the number of hikers on each trail to minimize the damage and allow time for nature to recover.
We did receive a permit to hike the Ten Lakes trail, and it was explained that not many people venture up that way and that fishing was good with awesome views. When the ranger asked who was signing for the permit, I told the guys ” Papa John has this one fellas.” We rented our mandatory bear cans, (bear cans, not beer cans) and received the exciting brief from the ranger on pooping in the woods as well as being good stewards of the pristine wilderness. The ranger reminded me of the dude with glasses from Ghost Busters. As we carried our bear cans back to the car, we saw a sight that scared us. A guy was changing his clothes in the parking lot behind his car, naked as a jaybird. That wasn’t the worst of it; I think this guy missed the lesson on pooping in the woods, because he had the streak of Montezuma’s Revenge down the backside of his legs. That sight stuck with me more than the worst scene from any horror movie that I’ve ever seen. It reminded me that my 1st Aid kit had about 10 Immodium tablets. The ranger’s lesson on pooping in the woods was invaluable.
We found the parking area for the trailhead and began packing our food into the bear cans. They sure seemed big until you had to stuff 5 days of food into them. The Marines showed me how to “field strip” the meals ready to eat (MRE) to shrink their size and I chuckled when I saw the mini toilet paper and Chic-lets gum. I kept them both. The bear can was cumbersome and I crammed it in my pack along with the rest of what would become my life for the week into my German-made ultralight pack. The old saying about cramming 10 lbs of “stuff” into a 5 lb sack was very real now. My pack was so tall that I wouldn’t be able to wear my wide brimmed Aussie hat. Instead, I wore my “Old Guys Rule” cap which would symbolize the trek that lay ahead. We put the excess food into the bear lockers and ensured that there was no trace of food or smell-good stuff in the car, as bears do not respect private property.
Black bear cans in our first camp
We crossed the Tioga Road and made it to the trailhead. I reset my GPS, excited to finally be here. The altitude was 8,300 ft and we had 7-8 miles with about 1,300 ft. of elevation gain. I told my friends – “Let’s do this”
Next blog: I can do this….
Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, Oct 2010
We humans are funny creatures. Circumstances being what they are, I believe that we are all given the choice to live the way we choose from a sovereign God who loves and wants the best for us. Many of us have opportunities to do things that we think are out of reach or beyond our abilities. With this in mind, I will try to articulate how I pushed my physical limits at the end of August 2011.
As a novice day hiker, I had been thinking about what it would be like to hike and camp off the beaten path. Car camping, while enjoyable to some people, just can’t be the same as roughing it miles away from civilization. One of my privileges is to work with our nation’s finest warriors at Camp Pendleton. So, when a couple of Marines asked me if I wanted to go on a 5 day backpacking trip into Yosemite, I thought – yeah, right. With the extra 20 lbs of midsection that I’ve been carrying, I could never do that – let alone carry a 30-40 lb. pack. So, I gave them a lame excuse and said no thanks. After hearing them talk about it a bit more, it started to eat at me.
Mary and I visited Yosemite in Oct 2010, did day hikes for 5 days, and logged 30 miles. On the hike down into the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, my knee hurt so bad from an old injury that afterwards we had to go to a drug store in town and buy a brace. One of the only things that kept me going on that hike was that we were being passed by children and older people. A litte stubbornness goes a long way. I also discovered that Ibuprofen is a wondrous drug for swollen joints and achy muscles. The descent down the Four Mile Trail was undoubtedly the second most painful walk ever. At the end of the day, the toenails on both my big toes were black and blue from hiking shoes that were too small. I learned how to walk like a crab downhill. However painful the long day hikes were, that week spent with Mary was an experience that will never be forgotten. When your eyes see views that are beautiful beyond description, they get written permanently on the brain. When you do this with your soulmate, it amplifies the event and makes it much more memorable. I fell in love with Yosemite, as this place was truly a testament of the creator. How awesome is His majesty.
After that trip, I started daydreaming about the place that John Muir helped make famous years ago. The pristine granite peaks and endless blue skies tantalized me to the point where one day when I heard the two Marines talking about the trip, I just blurted out to them – “Ok, I’ll go.” What was I thinking? I didn’t have much gear for a backcountry trip. Day hiking is pretty easy as far as equipment goes. A decent pair of trail shoes or boots, daypack, hydration and you are good to go. I had less than two months to get ready.
The trip to REI turned out to be one of my most expensive shopping trips ever. Getting fitted for a backpack, picking out sleeping bag, sleeping pad, waterproof storage bags…. I just love this store. It’s an outdoor enthusiasts Valhalla, kinda like a techie’s Fry’s. The trip was rapidly approaching and we started to discuss our routes. How many miles could we do per day? Where should we camp? Will there be enough water? Man, lots of planning sure goes into these trips.
Next….. Johnny and the Marines go for broke.