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Yosemite – A National Treasure That Will Capture Your Soul

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Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.   John MuirThe Yosemite (1912)

Thank you Abraham Lincoln for signing the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864.  This laid the foundation for others to preserve the beauty and sanctity of Yosemite National Park, which was established in 1872.

I think Yosemite is the crown jewel of the Sierras.  It is a land of majesty, iconic mountains, with ancient forests, waterfalls and endless vistas.  In Yosemite Valley one can experience the four seasons. In spring, the melting snow makes the water burst from the mountains with a roaring thunder that resonates in your bones.   In summer, the ground floor of the valley is bustling with flowers and tourists seeking views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Mist Trail.   Fall in the valley provides a glorious display of the deciduous flora in its fullness. Winter is a quieter time where you can take leisurely strolls while catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the distance.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

John Muir captured the essence of this land through his writings.   After visiting the park  a couple of times,  I read My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite.  Walking through Tuolumne Meadows, dipping my feet in the Merced River and experiencing the enveloping mist of Nevada Falls – this is where he walked.  Awakening to the sun cresting behind Cathedral, drifting through the moraine fields near Lembert Dome and listening to the gurgling Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River are but a few memories that I will take with me.  It is a respite that you will cherish long after you go home.  While at work, my mind drifts to thepanorama of the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir and how it must have looked 100 years ago before they built the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

I see the Almighty’s  handiwork in the granite sentinels surrounding the valley.  They beckon me to venture higher and explore further the miles of trails.  Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind.  – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)

I am blessed to live within a day’s drive of Yosemite.  If you ever make it to California, this should be the first stop on your list of destinations.  Venture into the valley, wade in the Merced River and drive the Tioga Road where the views at Olmsted Point will make you want to linger.   Stroll down to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and notice the Steller’s Jays as they follow you along the path, flitting from tree to tree.   Savor the waving blue lupines hanging on the edge of a precipice near Yosemite Falls.  Is it strange to fall in love with a place?  Spend some time here and you may come away with a desire to write poetry. 🙂

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.  John MuirOur National Parks, (1901)

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On the John Muir Trail, Yosemite

 

I’m thankful for John Muir and the love he held for The Yosemite.  He was a true visionary who inspired others to cherish and become good stewards of this national treasure.  Come see for yourself and experience this gem.

I Always Get Blisters When I Hike – What Can I Do?

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No, really I always get blisters on multi-day hikes.  I’ve tried different shoes, socks, band-aids, tape, lubricants, on and on… I have managed to reduce the number of blisters, just can’t get away from the heel.  It must be a result of my days as a tap dancer.   Here are some suggestions to help you reduce the occurrence of your blisters using a common sense approach.

Let’s talk about what a blister is.  In the hiking realm, it is your skin reacting to heat and abrasion.  If the rubbing and heat continues along with some moisture, the damaged skin forms a small pocket of fluid under the first few layers of skin.  This fluid is your body reacting and trying to protect the skin underneath it.  Rarely do blisters form quickly.  Usually, you will start to get a hot spot.  Detected early enough, you may be able to prevent the mega-blister.

Thru-hikers have gotten blisters every where you can imagine, but most are on the heel, toes and balls of the feet.  As a hiker, if you put enough miles in and have prolonged periods of flat terrain or downhill – you will get a hot spot or blister.  Calluses are usually the result of a hotspot or blister in the same location.

Here are some tips to reduce the number of blisters:

– Pick your shoes wisely.  The heel should be snug, not loose.  Your feet will swell so you need a little extra room in the toe-box.  Don’t wear the new pair of boots on your week-long backcountry trip.  Break them in on some day hikes first.  If you have bunions, talk to a healthcare professional to see additional considerations when choosing shoes.

– Socks.  I wear a synthetic liner with good quality wool socks.  The liners wick away sweat and the wool socks provide some cushioning.  I’ve also used the synthetic socks with toes to cut down on the toe blisters with some success.

– Take a break after a few hours of hiking, remove your shoes, socks and air those feet out.  Bonus:  Stop near water and dip those puppies in there.  Awesome!    Use this opportunity to check for hot spots.  Keep some moleskin in your first aid kit and apply it to those spots.  It may prevent a full-fledged blister.

– When crossing streams, recommend you change out your non-waterproof boots for river shoes or sandals.  Hiking in wet socks and shoes is asking for trouble.

First aid for blisters:

– There are different types of blisters.  If you see blood, keep an eye and use some Neosporin to ward off infection.

– Don’t pop blisters unless they are too painful.   The fluid is protecting the skin underneath and may keep it from bleeding.  If you have to pop it, use a sterilized needle or safety-pin.  Hold the needle under a flame to sterilize.   You can actually run thread through the blister so the fluid drains out.  I have done this as a last resort and don’t recommend it unless you have the blister from Hades.  Again, use an antibiotic ointment.

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No blog about blisters would be complete without real pics. I ran thread through this Godzilla size blister to help it drain. Yuck.

– In your first aid kit, keep moleskin, scissors, waterproof medical tape (duct tape will work) and even a needle and thread.  Use moleskin for smaller blisters.

– For your heels, you can apply duct tape to keep a hot spot from developing into a blister.  I wrap duct tape around my hiking poles; you can peel off what you need.    You can use a lubricant like Mueller Lube-Stickª for Runners Skin Barrier – 0.6 oz Stick – Each # 420206N . It helps to cut down on abrasion.

Oh, I really wasn’t a tap dancer, but I can hike like a billy-goat.  Do you have some tips for keeping the blisters away?  Please share them.DSC_0089

Yosemite – Frozen Lower Cathedral Lake

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Sometimes there are not enough words to describe Yosemite.  It is a land of enchantment, meaning one will fall in love with it. Today, we had another opportunity to venture out near the Tioga Road and explore.   We actually stayed in a hotel in Bishop and drove in to the park through the east gate.    I am jealous of fellow blogger http://califraven.wordpress.com/ who lives nearby.  Her blog is refreshing and provides a neat perspective on this beautiful area.

It was a chilly 19 degrees F when we pulled into Tuolumne Meadows.  Our plan was to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake and poke around.  No one else was silly enough to hike this early but we were prepared.  Bundled up with a couple of layers, we hit the trail crunching through the old snow.  The snow was from a storm last November.   Unfortunately, it has been a light snow year in the Sierras.  It was New Years Day 2012 and a great way to start the year.

After 20 minutes of hiking through snow, we had to peel off a layer of clothing.  Funny, because the temps were still in the low 20’s.  As long as we were walking, it was warm.  Stop for too long and the cold sets in.  We hit the main junction going up to Cathedral and the elevation change was around 600-700 ft. per mile.  In the spring/summer, this is a very popular trail.

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As we ascended, the silence of the forest enveloped us.  Sometimes the only sounds were my labored breathing and crunch of the snow under my feet.  As the sun broke through the clouds, it began to warm up some.  A Steller’s Jay followed us, watching us from a distance.  They are curious birds and like to observe humans.

The trail comes to a junction where the JMT keeps straight and the path to Lower Cathedral Lake breaks right.   There were multiple frozen streams to cross and it was difficult to follow the trail.  While it was a low snow year up here, the temperatures are still below freezing each night.  The creeks appeared to be frozen instantly in time.  It was an amazing sight to see.

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A creek that appears to have frozen instantly

I so wanted to slide down the frozen creek, but wisdom prevailed.  We picked our way around the icy streams and managed to follow the trail where it emerged in a meadow.  By following the frozen streams, we made it to the lake.  A strange sound emanated from the shore.  It sounded like humpback whales clicking and groaning.   It was an awesome experience.  By now, the temps were around 40 and the sun was out.  The granite slabs that surrounded the shore were flat and warm.

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The sound of the ice shifting was amazing.

We observed a few brave (if not foolish) souls venturing out on the lake about a half mile away.  We had lunch and took plenty of pics and listened to the sounds of the ice as it shifted and bumped against the granite shore.   I imagined how the glaciers of long ago formed this area.  This wonderful landscape has a way of capturing your soul.  For me, it reminded me that places like this were created for our enjoyment.  I wanted to linger, but knew that the days were short and the trip down could be slippery.  Some spots were steep with ice that melted and refroze.

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Cathedral Peak from the frozen shore of Lower Cathedral Lake.

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It looks like we are right on the water, but actually 8-10 ft. above on a granite slab.

The wooded area near the lake looked the same from the shoreline.  Fortunately, I set a waypoint  on the GPS and used it to follow our course in reverse.  We came across a few more people and pointed them in the direction of the lake.  The descent was a little challenging as we tried to keep our balance.  After this trip, I would get us some microspikes that slip over the boots.  Found some good ones here:  Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System

This hike was quite the adventure.  If you have the opportunity to make it to Yosemite in the winter, see if the Tioga Road is open.  The trek to Lower Cathedral Lake is one that you shouldn’t pass up.  It’s not far from the Tuolumne Visitor Center which is closed during the winter.  You can park along the road.  Bonus:  If you enter through the east gate on (Tioga Road)  in the winter, you don’t pay the $20 park fee because no one staffs the entrance gate.  Round trip on Lower Cathedral Lake trail is approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead.

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How to Win the War on Mosquitoes When Hiking

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Camping near a stream is great. Notice the head-net and long sleeves?

Hike in the backcountry long enough and you will understand the saying “I’m being eaten alive”.  Eaten by mosquitoes that is.  Some of the most beautiful vistas in the U.S. are also the most infested by those pests.  Actually, you may find mosquitoes anywhere there is an abundance of water and mild-hot temperatures.  From sea level to over 10,000 ft. they will find you.  While the risk of West Nile and chikungunya viruses is there, those illnesses will not kill you.  Chiki-what?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chikungunya  To my knowledge, yellow fever and malaria aren’t that common in America.

I remember the time we met a family near Devil’s Postpile, on the John Muir Trail.  They had passed through Lyle Canyon and bore the bites of many, many mosquitoes.  It was a bit scary to see their skin covered in itchy, red bumps.  They all had shorts, short sleeve shirts and no headnets. Ok, I could end this blog on bugs right here.   One could probably eliminate 75% of bug bites by wearing a headnet, long sleeves and long pants.

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Thousand Island Lake on the JMT. Beautiful, yet heavily infested with mosquitoes in the spring, summer.

Do some research on why mosquitoes in particular are attracted to humans and you will see that it has to do with our movement, carbon dioxide that we exhale, body odor and body chemistry.  According to one researcher  “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes,” reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida.  That might explain why some are eaten alive and others barely get bitten.  When hiking, it’s hard to avoid the attractants mentioned above.

However, any good mosquito abatement plan has multiple layers.   This will even work for other bugs like gnats and flies.  Let’s start with your clothing.  When on an extended trip in the backcountry, less is better.  The less weight you carry, the better off you will be.  Make your clothes count.  Bring convertible pants that zip off at the knees and long sleeve shirts that can be rolled up and fastened.  Layer your top with a t-shirt that wicks sweat.  I’ve been bitten by mosquitos through a t-shirt, so layering may help.

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So many mosquitoes that we had to eat in our tents. 😦

Prior to your trip, consider treating your clothing with a bug repellant like Permethrin.  It works amazingly well and may last for 5 or 6 washings.  It dries within a few hours and is not known to irritate the skin.  It is highly toxic to cats, so be aware and apply outside or in a well ventilated area.  In my opinion, Permethrin is more effective than spray on repellents and less of an irritant. It is effective on most other bugs including ticks and flies.   This is a good brand that I use: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce

Do spray on repellents work?  I believe they do, but will only last for so long.  If you sweat, it tends to wash away the repellant.  It also can get into your eyes and on your food.  We carry it, but use it sparingly.  DEET is still a common chemical and very effective, but in higher concentrations it can melt plastic like sunglasses and synthetic clothing.   Scary, huh?  Here is a lotion that works very well, but be careful around the eyes: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion, 2-Ounce

When camping, mosquitoes are the worst, especially if you are near water.  Set up your tent quickly and zip the screen closed.   Wind is your friend when it comes to these insects.   It’s harder for them to fly and find their prey.  Set up your tent where there is a breeze if possible.   Many a camper has pitched their tent near a beautiful lake or stream and are forced to eat dinner inside their tent because of the swarms.  At night, minimize the use of bright lights or use the red lens if your lamp is equipped with one.

This might seem a bit extreme, but when nature calls and you are in an infested area, it may be a good idea to put some bug repellant on your backside.  You are an easy target during this time and it might prevent you from toppling over because you were swatting them.

The $5 I spent on our head nets was probably the best money spent.  You can even run your hydration tube underneath the net.   The nets are not fashionable, but it’s only a matter of time before someone invents some that are.  When not in buggy areas, I usually roll mine up and over my trail hat.  I can pull it down when they start to bite.  This inexpensive one has served us well: Coleman Insect Head Net

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I never said rolling the head net over the hat was stylish. Nevada Falls, Yosemite.

Some last thoughts.  According to the same researcher mentioned above, female mosquitoes do the biting.  They need your blood to fertilize their eggs.  Supposedly there are new inventions coming to aid in the battle including pills and wearable patches.  I’ll try anything once – as long as it’s safe.   So friends, don’t let those Culicidae  keep you from venturing into the backcountry – hike on!  Any ideas for repelling mosquitoes?  Please mention them in your comments.

Trapped! Wildfire in Yosemite Part II

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

This is the second half of a two-part story.  Part I is here: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/10/03/wildfire-in-yosemite-part-i/

No time to panic here, first find out where we are at and then determine our options.  Getting the GPS and our map, we determined that we were about three or four miles east of Little Yosemite Valley and the Merced River.  It was hard to tell how far we were from the actual fire at this point, but knew that it was generally to our east around Babcock or Merced Lake.   Our options were limited because the other paths out were both uphill which would slow us down.  We just descended 800 ft. and there sure was a lot of timber fuel back there.  Our only real choice was to head west.

We picked up the pace  when the first chopper flew in front of us – about 1/2 mile or so.   It had a bucket hanging underneath.  Well, at least the calvary was arriving.   As we came across a saddle, we saw a horrifying sight.  The fire was crossing a canyon to our left and climbing the mountain.  Was it moving east or south?  It was hard to tell.   At this point, we kept going but discussed what we would do if we were boxed in by fire.   One option was to find rocky terrain  or a meadow with little or no fuel.   Another was to find a creek or body of water, but the nearest was the Merced River.

A few minutes later, another helicopter was circling less than a mile away.  We heard a loudspeaker but were unable to make out what they were saying.   Two more mule deer ran across the trail about fifty feet behind us.  They were heading in a northerly direction.  The helicopter was making concentric circles and came within 500 feet of us.  This time we clearly heard the loudspeaker as it blared: “There is a wildfire burning to the east and heading this direction.  Make your way to Little Yosemite Valley immediately!”

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Helicopter rescue on Half Dome, Sep 2014. Photo credit AP.

We were around 30-40 minutest from the rally point.  Would they evacuate us from there?   We kept pushing and noticed that smoke was starting to appear in front of us.    Up ahead there was a clearing with a person.  As we got closer it became apparent that it was two people.  One was laying down and the other was frantically waving at us.  It was a woman waving and a guy was laying down.  I asked what happened and she said they were running when he collapsed.  I checked for a pulse and breathing and found both.  He seemed to have passed out, but it was hard to tell if he had suffered a heart attack.  He started to come around and we propped his head up on the pack.  He was delirious and then I noticed that he wasn’t sweating.  I asked the woman if she had any water to give him and she told me they ran out about an hour ago.  At this point I guessed that he was suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.  I gave him a small amount of water and moved him into the shade of a big lodgepole pine.

I told my wife and brother to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley and that I would stay behind with these two.  I gave them our GPS coordinates to pass to the rescue personnel.    I also activated my SPOT GPS locator.  I told the woman to gradually give her friend some water and I would attempt to signal the helicopter.   It was still making circles making announcements but did not see us.  Getting my signal mirror out, I started aiming at the chopper.  One, two-three times.  Wait…..one, two-three.  After 10-15 minutes the pilot turned in our direction and descended.   I immediately laid down on my back with my hands extending out – the international signal for distress-“need medical attention”    The clearing was large enough for them to land.  A rescue crewman jumped out and checked out the downed hiker.   We helped carry him to the helicopter in a stretcher and there was enough room for all of us.

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Half Dome from the “other side”.

Lifting off, I had a brief flashback from my time as a naval aircrewman going through survival training.   Only this time, I was the one being rescued.  Flying by Half Dome,  you could see a crowd of people waiting to be rescued.  We landed in a staging area near the Ahwahnee Hotel where the hiker was taken by ambulance to the medical center.  We would later find out that he suffered from heat stroke but would recover.  Now, concerned for my family, I tried to find out what they were doing to evacuate the people in Little Yosemite Valley.   Within minutes, another helicopter landed and four people emerged.  I asked one of them where they came from.  They said that they were picked up in Little Yosemite Valley and that there were over 50 people left.  I prayed again for my family’s safety and another chopper landed with four more people.  You could see the smoke plumes from behind Half Dome as they went straight up to about 9-10,000 ft. and then blew in a westerly direction.

The landing zone for the helicopters was cordoned off by the park rangers, so I dropped my pack and waited as close as possible to the boundary.  Several more landed and finally by wife and brother emerged.   Hugging them both,  the first thing out of my brothers’ mouth was “Where can we get a hamburger?”  Yep, that’s how it ends.

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While this story was fiction, a wildfire caused by lightning did occur in Yosemite National Park east of Half Dome in September 2014.   The “Meadow Fire” consumed almost 5,000 acres and took several weeks to contain.  Over 100 hikers were evacuated from Half Dome and the area around Little Yosemite Valley.   The National Park Service led an orderly evacuation.  Fire is one of many hazards that one can encounter in the backcountry.  Always let someone know where you will be hiking and discuss events like flash floods, lightning and fire.

 

Wildfire in Yosemite – Part I

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Wildfire in Yosemite – Photo Credit – Jeffrey Trust via Reuters

We were finishing up a section hike of the John Muir Trail in early September.  The trip from Mammoth into Yosemite was filled with the most amazing views.  In Devil’s Postpile Campground, it was nice to gather around the fire to talk about our upcoming adventure.  During our hike, we observed that most of the terrain around the JMT was pristine.  There was an area near Devil’s Postpile that had recently burned.  It was apparently caused by lightning.  The weather was perfect as we skirted thunderstorms for the past couple of days.  Late August or Early September is a good time to do backcountry in the Sierras.  Much later and the chance of snow really increases.   The mosquitoes are not as bad and stream crossings are usually a bit easier.   We met some southbound hikers before Donohue Pass that mentioned how they were pummeled by a storm, hail and all.   Noticed the first bit of snow at Donohue and made the transition from Ansel Adams Wilderness to Yosemite NP. The trek through Lyle Canyon was at a fast pace as the storm seemed to be on our heels.    For most of the week, we went without a campfire since the USFS had a ban in place.

We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed some non-dehydrated food.  Next was a glorious day spent near Lower Cathedral Lake where we made camp near the shore.  What a magical place.  The thunder continued to rumble around us through late afternoon,  but it never rained.  The next day we pressed on for 11-12 miles.   We were fortunate enough to nab a site with decent views of Half Dome which appeared a couple of miles away.  In Yosemite, below 9,000 ft. campfires were still allowed.   We gathered up loose firewood and proceeded to make a nice fire.  The site we picked already had a fire pit and we reinforced the edge with some additional rocks.

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Along the JMT

Before dusk, we went down to the creek to filter some water.  The water flow here was poor and the mosquitoes were swarming.  I pumped my water filter faster than ever before while swatting those pesky critters.  All week, we evaded them and wore long sleeves and our head-nets.  Tonight, I was bitten more while filtering than the previous six nights combined.  Oh well, we needed the water for dinner and some extra to put out the campfire.

After dinner, we noticed the skies had clouded up a bit.  We were spared from the rain one more night.   I thought about a previous camping trip where the rain serenaded me to sleep.  Next to a rushing stream, a light rain is the perfect sleep machine.  Sometime during the night, we did hear thunder as well as see the lightning as it lit up our tents.  It sounded like it was 10-15 miles away.  Our site was in a good spot and not in a flash flood prone area.

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Approaching Half Dome from the east

By dawn, the far away storm had subsided.  We noticed the campers above us had packed up early.  They were going to Half Dome.  We ate a light breakfast, packed up and were on our way to finish our trip.  Today would be approximately 7 miles as we would pass the dome, Little Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls.

As we got back on the trail, we passed a small group heading back from a 3 day stay at one of the High Sierra Camps.  They were chatting how “glamping” was the way to go.  Glamping or glamour-camping is luxury camping.  You stay in a yurt, or cabin and receive room service or have your meals prepared for you.  Hmm, sounds nice after all.  At this point, we started talking about real food again.  While it had only been a few days since the cheeseburger in Tuolumne Meadows, the idea of fast-food still sounded good.

Eventually, we emerged from the canopy with Half Dome to our west and Vogelsang Peak to our east.  Suddenly, there was a thrashing sound to our left and a group of 4-5 deer bolted out of the forest in front of us.  What the heck?  Then we saw why they were running.  A white billowing cloud covered half of the horizon to the east.  Was it a cumulus cloud – or smoke?   The three of us stopped to get a better look.  Within a few minutes, it started snowing.  Except this was not regular snow, it was ash.  Now it hit us – forest fire!

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Wildfire near Half Dome, Yosemite NP. Photo Credit – Michael Frye/AP

Next: Trapped!  Wildfire in Yosemite – Part II

Kearsarge Pass – A Thru Hiker Highway

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Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route.  We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before.  Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.

After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass.  A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going.  The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly.  The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go.  We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike.  The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.

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Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy.  There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista.  The views to the west were beautiful.   In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery.  There were several lakes below;  one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake.  We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply.  Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food.  We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.

We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way.  Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way.  We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes.  The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain.  A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily.  We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes.  We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.

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Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area.  The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake.  It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet.  The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake.   We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water.  After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching.  Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like.  It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet.  The trout were jumping every few seconds.  The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named.  We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area.  I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.

 

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After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail.  The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack.  We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle.  It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it.    As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind.  I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity.  She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail.   She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who  (as always) is ahead of me.  They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass.  Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb.  Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.

The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail.  PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies.  Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana.  Her trail-name was Pillsbury,  and she was quite the character.  Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon.  He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit.  Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.

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Pillsbury  wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera.  She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands.  The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished.  She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go.  While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground.  We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.

We had time to enjoy our camp this time.  It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner.  The Black Bart Chili tasted great.  It’s one of our favorites.    As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night.  Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent.   Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.

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No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated.  Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning.  Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake.  We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling.  Not sure that it was a wise choice.  A fall here would have hurt.

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Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice.  The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing.   The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different.  Still lots of jumping trout though.  We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.

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This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year.   The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass.  Mt. Whitney, here we come.

Some lessons learned on this trip:

– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night.  Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest.  While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft.  Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft.  Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate.  Recommendation:  When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.

– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude.  In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.

– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers.  You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life.  Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail.  You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.

– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water.  Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂

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Hiking With Children

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As young grandparents, 🙂 we look forward to the time when we can take our grandchildren on the trail to experience the beauty that we’ve seen.  Perhaps you are parents and are wondering if it is safe to take your little ones out on the trail.  Should you strap on the child-carrier and head to the backcountry?  It depends.  Here are some things to consider.

What is the earliest you should take a child hiking?

Well, you can pack an infant into a child carrier if you are comfortable with that.  Toddlers may not do so well in carriers. We’ve heard a few toddlers crying their way up the trail in those things.  It didn’t look like much fun either.  Toddlers also can’t walk very far so the 5 mile hike may be a bit extreme.

In my opinion, the ideal age to introduce a child to hiking is around 6-8.  One idea is to start out car camping and combine it with day hikes near the campground.   The earlier the better, you’ll get less whining that way!  We have seen children as young as 7-8 on long backcountry trips.  Just remember, those little legs have to take twice as many steps as we do.  On a 10 mile hike, an adult takes approximately 20,000 steps.

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Kids will never forget views like this.

Safety:  

– Many trails have wild animals that can present a real hazard to children.  While mountain lions are rare, coyotes are not.  A child who startles a female bear with cubs is in real trouble.  Heck, if an adult surprises a bear, it means trouble. Rattlesnakes are common out west and often do not provide much warning.  Back east you have rattlesnakes, moccasins and more.  The venom may be more potent on a small body, so  consider the risks.  If you take the little ones into the backcountry, keep them close at hand.

– Terrain can present significant challenges to children.  It may be too risky to take them where a fall can cause serious injury.  Start out with easy treks to build up their trail legs and confidence.  Stream crossings can be dangerous – use common sense here.

– Hydration is critical.  Water is heavy, so plan your hike accordingly.  The hydration bladders that fit in packs work best because kids can sip as they walk.  Monitor their water intake to avoid dehydration or heat stress.  Avoid sodas or drinks with a lot of sugar.

– Nutrition is important too.  A good breakfast and plenty of snacks for the trail.  Trail mix, energy bars and food with protein like beef sticks. Sturdy fruits like apples and oranges are great on the trail.

– Sunscreen is important as is a good first aid kit.  If your child is allergic to bee stings, the epi-pen is the first thing you pack.  If not allergic, a credit card is a good way to get the stinger out.  Just scrape with the edge of the card-it works better then tweezers.  It’s good to keep a topical cream for bee stings in the first aid kit.  Just ask my wife, it works within minutes.  Ticks can be a real problem.   Be careful if you use bug repellants like permethrin on small children.  Otherwise, light clothing is best.  Always check the kids at the end of the day for those pests.  Ticks will gravitate to the head, armpits, groin.  Have some tweezers in the first aid kit and ensure you get the critter’s head if you pull them out.  Use an alcohol pad to clean the bite area and watch for any symptoms like fever, spotted rash and lethargic behavior.  If you remove the tick before it gets too embedded, it should be ok.  By the way, ticks freak me out, I hate them.

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Water crossings can be a challenge

When nature calls:

– Keep a baggie with some single ply toilet paper, hand sanitizer or handi-wipes.  Carry a cat-hole shovel if appropriate.  Teach kids early about leave-no-trace (LNT) practices and how to properly bury waste.  Don’t bury the handi-wipes, they don’t degrade easily.    Believe it or not, they will adapt quicker to going outdoors than most adults.  Keep them in sight for safety reasons.

Equipment:

– A pair of trail shoes, small backpack, hydration bottle and a hat are a good start.  As you progress, a set of trekking poles and maybe some gaiters on those dusty trails.

Skills:

Hiking presents amazing opportunities to teach young ones valuable lessons on wildlife and being good stewards with our beautiful land.  You can talk about survival, navigation, meteorology, geology and so many other life lessons.  Give it to them in small doses or you will bore them quickly.

Hiking is a great way to spend time with your children or grandchildren.  It can lead to an appreciation of nature and our national parks.   It can teach young people how important it is to be good stewards of our environment.  So, take a hike! – with your kids.

Hot Wheels 9-Car Gift Pack (Styles May Vary)

Either way, these are tough miles.

Either way, these are tough miles.

Fuller Ridge Trail – San Jacinto Peak

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If you are up for a bit of four-wheelin on a fire road followed by some sweet views, then this is the trail for you.  Don’t forget to pick up your hiking and camping permits at the Visitor’s Center in Idyllwild.

In the past two years, we have hiked almost every trail in the San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area.   This area has some of the most beautiful alpine hikes ever.

The Fuller Ridge Trail is located approximately 8 miles up Black Mountain Fire Road (4S01)from SR243 north of Idlyllwild.   We did this one in early Nov during a mild and dry fall weekend.  It follows the western ridge up to San Jacinto and is a tough 14.2 mile out and back hike to the peak with approx. 4,000 ft. of elevation gain.  I’d give the full hike a good 7-8 hrs.  We didn’t have enough time for that and just hiked a few miles in.   If hiked in its’ entirety, it is a good practice hike for Mt. Whitney.

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Driving up this single lane fire road is a bit of a bone jarring experience, but believe it or not, a vehicle with good clearance can make it through.  It does require some maneuvering but the Jeep had no problem tackling this one straight on.   The road takes you up the north side of the San Jacinto range with views of Banning and Palm Springs along the way.  Ol’ Grayback  (Mt San Gorgonio) is a close neighbor.  Amazingly, we didn’t run across any vehicles coming down as it would have required some jockeying to make room for two.  You might want to hit the restroom before this drive because it will test the strongest of bladders.   There are a few pull offs along the way for pics.  Around 6,800-7,000 ft., the road comes to an end with the entrance to a campground and Fuller Ridge trailhead.  Only one other vehicle here this fall afternoon.  We began our ascent through a heavy cover of conifers.  It was cool and crisp with the wind whispering through the gentle giants.

 

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The trail meanders through the forest with occasional views into the desert below.  It is one of the most peaceful  and secluded trails that you can hike around San Jacinto.   Most people will not drive 30 minutes up a fire road to hike.  It’s also a nice back way in to San Jacinto Peak.  We would not be doing the 7 miles to the top,  but it is a fairly mild if not long journey there.

The only sounds were the woodpeckers seemingly fussing at each other and the occasional chatter of the chipmunks.  This appears to be a nice trail for runners as the slopes are generally mild and the trail is mostly single-track.  We noticed a fair amount of ups/downs the first few miles.  No water sources were available on this trip, so bring what you need.  If hiked in the spring, you may run across some PCT through hikers on their long trek north.

It is a mostly shaded, well maintained trail with occasional steep slopes on either side.  Almost all trails in San Jacinto are worth the trip.  This one is no exception.

Today’s tip:  Always let someone know where you will be hiking.  We usually send a text to a family member with the trail name, location and when we expect to return.

San Jacinto Wilderness – Devil’s Slide to Tahquitz Loop

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It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County.  As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely.  The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property.  Fortunately, no lives were lost.  Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area.  We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.

Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction  From there, we would see which trails were open.  On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon).  Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park.   Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass.  For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.

I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains.   One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather.   The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.

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Well now, looks like the cumulus clouds got together.

The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree.   It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile.  It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers.  You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.

Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry.  If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees.  They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath.  They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down.  I love nature.

After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS.  The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense.   Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick.  It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.

We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert.  After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit.  The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service.  They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings.  Often, they assist with search and rescue.  We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again.  We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.

IMG_3117We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns.  Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us.  We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak.  The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites.  These would be nice if there was water around.  Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.

One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m.  We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break.  Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy.  Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam.   For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key.  For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.

We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder.  I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us.  We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain.  Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly.  I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east.  Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm?  We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take.  Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms?  Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP.  Don’t touch the ground though.

Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning.   Be prepared and have a plan.  Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer.  Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.

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In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek.  The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar.   You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout.  Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……

Glacier National Park – Up in the Clouds

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Here’s the BLUF **on Glacier National Park: Add it to your bucket list of hiking.  On our RV trip to Ontario, Canada we had the opportunity to enter the states through Montana and sample this amazing area.  We stayed in a nice RV park just outside the main entrance to the park in St. Mary’s.  It was a mostly overcast day and we walked in to the Visitor Center.   By the way, cloudy days make for great landscape photography.   Since we didn’t have our vehicle that we tow behind the RV, we would have to rely on the GNP shuttle system.  The main thoroughfare – the “Going to the Sun Road”  has a limit of 21 ft.  All but the smallest of RVs are longer than that.  Sadly, we would have only one day in this magnificent park.

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Anyhow,  not knowing which trails were the best, I asked the ranger which one would be a good day hike.  He asked me great questions like “Is this your first time in the park, how far/how much elevation change do you want?” He pointed us to the Piegan Pass – Siyeh Pass trail, a 10+ mile with approx. 2,800 ft. of elevation gain.  He mentioned that it provided the most bang for the buck for a single day in the park.  Looking over my shoulder, my wife motioned that there was a shuttle loading, so we hustled over.

The shuttles vary from small 16-20 passenger ones to city-like busses. The first few miles of road were paved and then changed to gravel.  Construction crews were making the most of the brief summers, so there are usually delays.  Thirty minutes later, we were hopping off and noticed how low the clouds were.  Oh well, we were prepared for most weather conditions.  We usually pack our layers, warm jackets and rain gear.

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The Piegan Pass trail started out following a rushing creek, elevation was around 5,400 ft.  Going-To-The-Sun Mountain was shrouded by clouds which were hugging the peaks.   Oh, did I mention that Glacier has grizzly bears?  I’ve hiked for several years in different parts of the U.S., but grizzlies scare me.  Most bears are dangerous, including blacks and browns, but the grizzly is just a massive creature that you don’t want to startle.  We would be prepared though.  I had the bear spray in a holster, my wife had a bell on her backpack and we made plenty of noise with our hiking poles.  It helps to talk loudly too.

We were probably over-cautious, but in my mind – one of the worst things that you can do is surprise a grizzly feeding, or one with cubs.  The trails in Glacier have plenty of bushes – and huckleberries.   The trail was as awesome as the Park Ranger said it would be.  He mentioned that we would pass through several eco-systems.  It was very green here in a Riparian like zone.  The lilies had already bloomed but there were many other wildflowers around.  Saw our first bear grass, it really sticks out like the yucca plants in the desert.  We entered a forest area with a significant canopy.  I’m sure Glacier National Park is a botanist’s dream in the summer.  There were so many varieties of plants with pines, firs and those quaking aspen trees.  The mushrooms do well here with the moist climate around 6,000 ft.  A light rain started, and the temps dipped into the 40’s so we put on our rain gear.

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Passing through the ecosystems. A meadow full of wildflowers.

We took a lunch break under a stand of small pines near the Siyeh-Piegan junction and were joined by a few others.  We met a nice German couple who were appreciating the American wilderness.  They and another group decided that the cold, wind-driven rain was too much and turned back.  We sized up the weather and pushed on, determined to follow the U.S. Postal Service’s old motto ” Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” ; well you get the gist.

Imagine if you had all the time you needed to just wander and appreciate the beauty of this area.  You would learn many of the plant species and see so much wildlife.  Wishing that I had more time, I was in awe of the land around me.  It’s easy to let your mind wander as you walk along the trails in Glacier.  The trail opened up into a valley that was crisscrossed with streams.  The far off glacier was feeding the alpine lakes and tarns.  The overflow from these would create little tributaries that would make their way down to St Mary Lake, the second largest in the park.

I could barely make out Siyeh Pass as it was partially obscured by clouds, but a couple of hikers 10 minutes ahead assured us that the switchbacks would take us over the top.  The wind picked up as we passed 7,000 ft., and it began to sleet.  Nothing too bad, but enough to second guess my decision.  Actually, no hike is worth putting yourself in jeopardy.  Weather conditions can change rapidly up here, so you have to be prepared to deal with it.  We were almost to the summit, so we kept going.  What came next?  Snow, of course!  Nothing too bad, flurries.

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At the summit. Downhill from here.

We hit the summit and the views were phenomenal.  One can run out of adjectives trying to describe what the eyes behold.  At Siyeh Pass, we saw several glaciers and a long, deep valley.  Pushing on, time to go downslope.  Oh, man the view looking south was sweet.  The clouds parted, with an excellent view of St Mary Lake and a glacier to our right.  The vegetation ceased awhile ago, probably because the winds up here can be fairly harsh.  The rocks were colorful with red and purple hues.

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A break in the weather.

There were more switchbacks on the Siyeh Pass side and the trail was full of scree and slow going.  The clouds enveloped us again and visibility was reduced to around 100 ft.  I saw something move ahead, off the trail and froze.  Hoping that it wasn’t a bear, I raised my hand signaling my wife to stop.  The mountain goat was passing from right to left and was curious.  She maneuvered in an arc around us and climbed a rock and came to within 20 ft.  My camera always at the ready, I snapped away and noticed a family of goats about 75 ft away.  A small juvenile hung in the back and peered over a ledge at us.  We watched them for the next 10 minutes and continued back down.

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A mountain goat keeping an eye on us.

The clouds seemed to absorb some of the sound as we entered the brush and bear grass.   We started making noise again, sometimes breaking out into a song or two.   Ahead, there was fresh scat on the trail.   Hmm, huckleberries.  Bears love them.  This bear was on the move because there were 4-5 splats on the trail in a few different areas.  Maybe he heard us singing.

 

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Lots of bear grass.

We sped up a bit, trying to make the next shuttle.  I think the eastbound shuttles run every 30 minutes.  The last couple of miles were long as we passed through brush along side a fast flowing creek.

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We came out on the Follow-The-Sun Road about 100 yards from the shuttle stop.  We logged about 10.7 miles with about 2,800 ft. of elevation gain and 3,500 ft. of loss.  All in all, this trail ranks in our top 5 ever.   Gotta come back to this place-so much to see.   I think July and August are the best for hiking here.

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** BLUF=Bottom Line Up Front

Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

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Big Pothole Lake, Kearsarge Pass

 

Ask any hiker that ventures into the backcountry what the hardest part of the experience is and many will say “the mental part.”   Up until we logged hundreds of miles on the trail, I’m not sure if this would have made any sense.   Our recent journey off the path reiterated the mental part.  The fun began after we arrived at the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, fifteen miles or so from the tiny town of Independence.

The drive up from the town is an experience.  The road starts with a gradual climb out of the valley and the 180 degree switchbacks made it an exciting ride in our old BMW.   We saw mule deer along the way.  Be careful of the occasional rock in the road, especially at night.  The campground isn’t much in itself.  It’s pretty much a tent-only camp tucked away in the small valley where summertime temps creep into the 80’s.  At over 9,100 ft.   Independence Creek flows nearby.  We would park in the hiker’s lot and noticed a few hikers finishing their trek.  It was mid-late afternoon and some were looking for rides into Independence or Bishop.

The parking lot has a double vault toilet and cool creek water through a spigot.  In the summer, there is always someone coming or going here.  We started up the path sans hiking poles and my wife found a nice wooden hiking stick that another kind soul left near the trail-head.

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Little Pothole Lake

 

The Kearsarge Pass trail is a steady climb, averaging approximately 600-700 ft. per mile.  Well maintained, it gets a lot of traffic during the summer.  About half are day-hikers and those fishing.  The mild winter was kind to the trail and it was in good shape.  Since this was a 3 day hike, we packed extra food and enough clothing to change out.  Our packs were light compared to our previous JMT hike, but I might as well have been carrying a couch on my back-that’s how it felt after a couple of miles.

For me, hiking is one of those activities that demands everything you’ve got.  Unless you are a thru hiker or able to do this every week, it pushes you.  That’s part of the reason we do this – it is a mental and physical challenge.  Do this, and you can handle anything life throws at you.  My takeaway is “mind over matter”.

This hike starts out with typical scrub and manzanita.  Expect a warm one in the summer unless you start early.  Around 1.5 miles, you’ll pass next to a nice cascade fed from the lakes above.  Within another mile, we passed a couple of lakes, teeming with trout.  Experienced our first mosquitoes around 10,000 ft., but not too bad.

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The terrain gradually changes into a sub-alpine with a mix of pine and deciduous trees.   There is ample shade as you pass the 2-3 mile mark and the climb gets a bit harder with stepping-stones that test your endurance.  The wind picked up and it started to feel cool.  As long as we kept moving, it was ok.  Stop too long and it got cold.

We pushed through and around 6:30, began looking for a campsite.  The trail map showed a couple of more lakes within two hundred yards of the trail.  Nice, or so I thought.  The first one – Heart Lake was a disappointing 5-600 ft. descent so we passed it up.   My goal is to almost always camp near a water source.   Only one more lake on the map before the “summit” so this was it.  I took a GPS reading and compared it to my Tom Harrison map.  I confirmed there was a lake below when I asked a passing hiker.  He was young and had his earphones in so, I asked a couple of times – “Hey is there a lake down there?”  He nodded yes, so we began to look for a way in.

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Looking down on Big Pothole Lake.

It was after 7 p.m, and getting colder so we began our way down crossing through a talus field of assorted boulders.  About two hundred feet in, I spotted a primo campsite.  Flat, sandy and large enough for our little Eureka tent.  We settled in quickly and had dinner going within 20 minutes.  At 11,400 ft.,  the air chilled as the sun settled behind Kearsarge Pass.  I scrambled 200-300 ft. down the slopes of Big Pothole Lake to filter some much-needed water.  Six liters later, I slowly climbed back to camp.  Much of this water was for our base camp. We try to “tank-up” before hitting the trail because water is so heavy.

There was a strange phenomenon up here.  Moths, thousands of them inhabited the little pines.  At dusk, there were bats.  They would swoop in, emitting their sonar like squeaks.  It was quite the feast for them.  Never knew there were bats this high.

It was a chilly night, windy with temps in the 40’s.   Not bad, but the wind chill made it seem cooler.  This close to the pass, a stiff breeze was inevitable.  We snuggled into our sleeping bags, each of us with persistent headaches.  The thought of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was at the front of my mind.  We were camping at the highest we’ve camped yet.  A couple of motrin helped to knock the edge off.  If the headaches persisted or other symptoms like nausea and dizziness occurred, we would have to descend.  Neither of us slept well.

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Sunset. Our talus backyard in the foreground of the eastern sky.

 

Next:  Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.

 

Kearsarge Pass – Trip Planning

Matlock Lake, Kearsarge Pass Trail

 

When I asked my wife of 32 years what she wanted to do for our anniversary, she said “a backcountry trip.”  Men,  I know many wives will want to be pampered on this special day, and rightfully so.  Rare is the woman who will endure a trip into the wilderness to endure calf burning,  boulder scrambling, fending off mosquitoes and chilly nights to celebrate a wedding anniversary with her husband.

Even with a 3 day trip, there is a lot of preparation.  I pulled out the gear and checked  everything out.   The cats love it when I set up the tent in the living room.  Five tough miles from your car is not the time to find out your water filter pump doesn’t work.  Checklists are always great, but as you will see – not foolproof.

The eastern Sierras offer miles and miles of trails, most with ample supplies of water – even in the terrible drought that California is going through.  I’ve heard of Onion Valley, one of the more popular entry/exit routes by PCT thru-hikers.  Many will go through Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley Campground and hitch a ride into the little town of Independence to pick up a resupply, or catch a ride into Bishop.

The drive from San Diego County is around 4-5 hours through the pain-in-the-butt Riverside/San Bernardino area.  Mostly a pain because of the weird road patterns and traffic congestion.  Going up, we missed the Hwy 395 turnoff and kept going to take Hwy 58-E to Bakersfield.  It was actually better; while longer in mileage, we missed the 395 construction and endless traffic lights in/around Victorville.

Eastern Sierra Visitor Center

Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center

Oh, before I forget I’ve learned some tips on getting permits for your trail of choice.  Many trails in the California wilderness require backcountry permits issued by the state or feds who manage the areas.  After researching the general area you want to hike, you can go to www.recreation.gov and register for an account.  Most decent trails have a quota system for overnight stays to minimize the environmental impact.  Typically, the recreation.gov website will issue 60% of the permits online, the other 40% for walk-ins at one of many locations-depending on where you want to enter.  Here’s the rub:  If you reserve online, there is a $5 per person and $6 processing fee.  If you do a walk-in it is free.  Reserve early, the popular trails fill up quickly.  I actually wanted to reserve Kearsarge Pass, but all the permits were issued so I applied for a nearby trail – Golden Trout.  Once I paid the $16 fee, I confirmed the day prior and locked in the reservation.  On the day of our arrival, I checked in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and asked if I could obtain a walk-in for Kearsarge Pass.  Sure enough, there were permits available and the Forest Service ranger changed our permit-free of charge.

Looking down at Independence, Ca. through a talus field.

So, if you want to lock in a trail permit, do it online for a fee.  Otherwise, if your plans are flexible, pick out a few trails ahead of time and do a walk-in.  The visitor center in Lone Pine handles most of the permits for the Hwy 395 corridor.  It is the busiest on Fridays during the summer.    Arrive early to get your trail of choice.  It’s a nice facility with tons of information and a nice touristy shop.  They have decent trail maps, so stock up!

A little more on trip planning.  Be prepared for a variety of weather when camping.  In our 5th year of hiking, we’ve experienced snow in June.  The puffy jacket, knit cap and gloves are worth the extra pack weight.  Rain gear is good and will ward off hypothermia while hiking in the wilderness.  Bear canisters are often mandatory in much of the Sierras.  Sure, you can still hit the trail without one, but I’ve talked to many who have had their campsite visited by the wandering Yogi.   You can try hanging your food bag from a tree, but it’s known that mother ursines teach their young how to knock down the yummy treats at an early age.  Besides, the trees above 10,000 feet are pretty short.

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Kearsarge Pass

So, preparation and some common sense backcountry lessons learned are key to an enjoyable trip.  Oh, even using a checklist the hiking poles were hanging in the garage where I left them.  My knees hate me.

Next: Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

 

 

 

One Foot in Front of the Other

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We were thirty miles away from civilization.  The lightning was getting closer and it started to rain.   We were climbing out of Thousand Island Lakes, in the middle of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  Our 65 mile section hike of the John Muir Trail had been uneventful and amazing thus far.   Looking for a level spot to put our rain gear on I could hear the water rushing close by.  Leveling out, I noticed a good place to drop our packs on the other side of a cascading creek.  The only way across the watery chasm was on a 6 inch wide log.

There must have been a downpour upstream because the creek was running fast with a lot of sediment mixed in.    This wasn’t our first water crossing on a log, but the logs seemed to be shrinking in width.  It brought back memories as a kid crossing logs in the woods.  The first one to fall off would be eaten by “gators”.  Only now, we had 40lb. packs and the gator was a rushing current of frothy liquid.

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The backcountry is where ones’ phobias can emerge.  Acrophobia, aquaphobia, most of the phobias seem to start with “A”.  The wilderness is where you go to deal with those fears.   So, combining two of those fears – height and water is met by crossing streams on a log.  The loud rushing water underneath you, the distance to the water and the dead weight on your back can be a recipe for disaster.

Enough of the melodrama, if you are really afraid of your shadow, then car camping may be a starting point.  If all else fails, you can just lock yourself in the car.

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In reality, the challenge really becomes mind over matter.  The amazing scenery coupled with the experience of accomplishing something you’ve never done before makes it worthwhile.  Sure, at the end of the day you will ache in places you didn’t know existed.  You may even get wetter than Saturday’s laundry from a cloud burst, but chances are you will emerge unscathed.  What I lacked in experience from my early wilderness trips was remedied by common sense.  Barring any traumatic experiences of being swept away in a rushing torrent of ice water, you may come away with a love of the outdoors and a desire to share it with someone else.

Thinking back several years ago on my first backcountry trip, I estimated the nearly 25,000 steps I took one day.  Picking my way over, under and around obstacles, I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.

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Kidnapped on the Trail – Part II

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Warning:  This blog contains a brief section of violence.  If this bothers you, skip this episode and read one of my more lighthearted stories.  This is the second piece of a two-part story. 

…. They shoved us through the brush, making sure that we were out of sight from the trail.  Near a creek bed, they pushed us down and took our packs.  These guys were probably “coyotes” who deal in human trafficking.

They took everything of value from us – cell phones, wallets.  One of them, a short dumpy slug – found the 550 para-cord in my backpack and used it to bind our hands behind our backs and to the trunk of a large manzanita bush.  We were beyond scared and prayed for deliverance knowing that when “el jefe” returned, we would be on our way south of the border to be held for ransom, or worse.  Dusk was coming quickly as I made eye contact with my wife and gave her a wink.

I was able to make out some of the conversation.  My knowledge of spanish is limited, even more limited when it is Mexican slang.  I did hear one of them say “cinco horas”.  We had “five hours” for something.  Three of them departed and left one to guard us.  He had some type of semi-auto pistol, couldn’t make out if it was a 9mm but he tucked it into his trousers and sat on a mound of grass about 20 ft. away.  It was decision time.

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I whispered to my wife that we’ll ok and the thug immediately shined his flashlight and yelled “cayete!” meaning shut up!   He lit a small campfire to his left, enough to keep him warm as the coolness of this December night set in.  Darkness came and I started feeling around behind my back.  I didn’t have much mobility, but enough to feel the chunks of granite at the base of the manzanita.  I found a sharp sliver of rock and slowly started to rub the rope across the surface.  My eyes adjusted  a bit to the darkness and a waning half-moon rose to our north-east.  I estimated it was around 9-9:30. Within 30 minutes or so, I had cut through a strand and gradually worked my way out of the rope.    It must have been another hour or so and I could hear our kidnapper snoring.  I leaned over and whispered to my wife that I was free and that it would soon be time to act.  I untied her and told her to stay put.

Three months earlier I had applied for and received my concealed carry permit.  In California and particularly in San Diego County, you previously needed a “reason” to carry concealed.  The 9th District Federal Court of Appeals ruled that law-abiding residents need only to show a desire for self-defense rather than proving they were confronted with a “clear and present danger.”  As a result, in a state of over 38 million, the number of law-abiding citizens with permits doubled to 120,000 within a short time.

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Crawling, I felt for any twigs that would snap and awaken him.  It seemed like it took forever, inching my way over, now several feet away.  I got into a prone position, chambered a round into my 32 cal semi-auto and released the slide.     The campfire had him illuminated perfectly.  I yelled at him twice “Ponga sus manos o usted es muerto!”  My spanish was pretty bad and I probably told him to clap his hands or die.  I meant to say put your hands up or you’re dead.

Instead, he reached for his weapon, and I placed 3 shots, center mass.  A groan and he slumped over, almost landing in the fire.  I retrieved his gun, held mine to his head while I checked for a pulse and remember a ringing in my ear.  No pulse, I dragged him behind a bush and put out the fire.

You see, our kidnappers did a poor job of frisking me.  I had dust gaiters on over my hiking pants.  Under those,  an ankle holster with a small pistol.

We retrieved our packs and made our way to the trail.  The moon provided just enough light to make out the path, so we quietly made our way back to the gate at the trailhead.  My jeep was gone,  probably on the way to Mexico.

We walked along the road towards town planning to flag someone down.  When a single vehicle approached, we hid, not knowing if it was our kidnappers.  Within 15-20 minutes, we observed a couple of vehicles pulling trailers coming from the OHV area.  We took a chance and flagged them down.  Fortunately, they were some guys from Santee out for some fun with their dirt bikes.  We told them that we needed to contact the police and they had us jump in their crew cab and high tailed it out of there.

As soon as they got a phone signal, they called 911 and were instructed to head to the Border Patrol checkpoint on I-8 about 10 minutes away.  We gave the 911 dispatcher my vehicle description and my cell phone number, hoping that they could start tracking it down by the cellular signal.

Reaching the checkpoint, we went over our ordeal with the agents.  We had survived our encounter with the coyotes.

Note to my readers:  The previous blog Kidnapped on the Trail was partially fiction.  We actually did hike this trail.  Our encounter with “coyotes” was fiction.  While I believe in the right of citizens to protect themselves in accordance with the 2nd Amendment,  this is not a blog or statement condoning the use of guns or violence.  Sadly, human trafficking/slavery is a serious problem in America and throughout the world.