“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)
The day at Lower Cathedral was most enjoyable. While my brother determined that there were no brook or rainbow trout in this part of the lake, we enjoyed watching the sky as clouds would form and morph into a variety of shapes. One could spend hours lying on their back watching the afternoon cumulus formations come and go.
Alas, we had a goal in mind. Another 20 or so miles to go between today and tomorrow. At 9,400 feet and heading into Yosemite Valley it is mostly downhill for us. A climb out of Cathedral and up to Long Meadow and then our toes would be in for a beating.
As we neared Upper Cathedral, a sign detoured us away from the meadow near the lake. Years of overuse and erosion had taken its’ toll on this area. Am pretty sure you can camp here, but the JMT was rerouted a quarter-half mile to the east.
A neat thing about hiking is that depending on the direction you are going, the views can be drastically different. Occasionally, we would look over our shoulders to catch a glimpse of where we have been. Cathedral Peak and the upper lake were prominent as we climbed Cathedral Pass. Farther to the north, we caught glimpses of Pettit Peak and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
We entered Long Meadow and were rewarded with a nice respite of flatness and views of the surrounding peaks. Man, the vistas just never stop here. If you only have 2-3 days, I would recommend the area between Cathedral and Sunrise Camp. If you have 4-5 days, a loop including Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camp looks awesome.
A last climb and we would see the rest of the Cathedral Range including Vogelsang and Amelia Earhart Peaks. We saw our first of what would be many mule trains around the Columbia Finger. As they passed, we quietly watched and snapped some pics. Most of the mules today were en route to one of the three local High Sierra camps including Sunrise, Merced and Vogelsang. These beasts of burden carried between 150-200 lbs of cargo. Sure footed, they followed their leader at a steady pace. It’s cool that this is still the primary means of resupply for the remote camps.
As we made our way south, the view of the Cathedral Range opened up.
We stopped for lunch near Sunrise Camp and filtered some water. During this backcountry trip, we typically carried two liters since there was plenty of water. As we passed through the meadow near Sunrise, we began a gradual descent through a burned area and saw Half Dome for the first time. Entering a thickly wooded area, the downhill was steeper and the views diminished. Several southbound hikers asked about available water. It’s important to have maps that show the various creeks and streams. While water was generally abundant, there were many areas where the vernal streams were dry.
Using an excerpt from the JMT guide that showed potential campsites, I started scanning for a suitable location. I saw movement to my right and initially thought that it was another deer. It was big and moving slowly. Hey, a bear! It was about 75-100 ft. away and rooting around a log. Glancing over its’ shoulder at us, the bruin ignored us and continued to dig. It appeared to be an old brown bear around 300 lbs. We snapped a few photos and moved on.
Within 10 minutes, we located a site to camp with a view of Half Dome. This was a busy area, mainly used by campers as a staging area for climbing the rock. Most of the other campers were out of sight, but you could hear them as well as see the smoke from various campfires.
This had been a long day and we had one last dinner on the trail. We started a small fire and enjoyed the peacefulness.
Sadly, tomorrow would be the end of our seven-day trek. I was getting used to this camping stuff, but looked forward to a real shower. Well, that and maybe a cheeseburger.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
This is Part II of a story that I started a few weeks ago….
The temperature dropped quickly after the sun settled behind the ridge. Before it got totally dark I had gathered up some rocks and made a tiny fire pit on the ledge. There was enough kindling and scraps to make a small fire. I couldn’t imagine trying to keep it going all night and it wasn’t needed for a signal fire – yet. I was also a bit paranoid about setting the San Gorgonio Wilderness on fire and ruining the forest for everyone else. In 2003, the San Diego County Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres, destroyed 2,820 buildings and killed 15 people. It was caused by a lost hunter who lit a signal fire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_Fire Eventually, I let the fire go out.
I finally settled into an uneasy sleep, not really asleep but one like you’re in a strange hotel room and you wake up confused.
The sound was strange, in my dream it was a rustling sound. Except it wasn’t a dream. I woke up under the space blanket and peeked out from under to see what the sound was. My eyes strained to see the shape that was nearby. The shape snorted and began to move away. Omigosh, it couldn’t be! A bear came upon me and was dragging something. I shouted at him, “Hey that’s my backpack!”, but Yogi kept taking my bag away. Knowing better than to wrestle a bear for my belongings, I tried throwing rocks at him. Probably not a good idea, but I was mad and not thinking properly.
The rocks only made him trot away with my bag and he disappeared. I went back to my bed of pine branches and sat down. As the adrenaline faded, I started trembling from the encounter of a black bear only a couple of feet away from me. Thankful that they aren’t normally carnivores with human appetites, I was demoralized from losing my belongings to a stinkin bear. It was impossible to sleep from that point on as the thought of another ursine visit plagued me.
I was down to a cell phone, my wallet, keys and the clothes on my back. My pack had the water, emergency supplies and food. I began to wonder what else could go wrong when something cold landed on my nose. I went to flick it away and nothing was there. Another piece of coldness landed on my eyelash and then another. Wonderful, the 30% chance of snow flurries just turned to 100%. Clouds must have rolled in over the last couple of hours because I could no longer see the moon or stars. For a moment, I felt like Job and asked God if he hated me. However, Job knew that God loved him and so did I. He would see me through this.
The flurries turned to a light snow and I noticed the landscape became somewhat brighter. I huddled under the pine tree with my space blanket and thought about my wife and warm bed 100 miles from here. I knew that I would get out of this situation and continued to pray for safety and that the temperature wouldn’t drop much more.
The night seemed to last forever and the sound of pine cones and branches falling unnerved me for several more hours. The snow would continue and provided a cold blanket over the barren landscape. Eventually, the sky started to gain some color. I made up my mind that once there was enough light to make out east from west and some landmarks, I was getting the heck out of here.
It was overcast, and the snow had stopped. I couldn’t see the sun, but was able to make out the general direction of where it was. Knowing that I needed to head west-southwest, I began a slow traverse toward what I hoped was the trail. The snow had accumulated a couple of inches, so it wasn’t difficult to walk. Eventually, I broke out into a meadow with a lot of downed trees. It looked vaguely familiar, but the dusting of snow covered any trail that might exist. Continuing in a westerly direction, I heard what sounded like water flowing. That was a good sound and immediately boosted my morale.
The stream was a vernal one, but ended up cutting through a trail. Hallelujah!, I found the trail. I almost ran to Alger Creek, but saved my energy and focused staying on the path. Crossing Alger, I knew that cell phone reception was within 30-40 minutes. The path had less snow and estimated that the altitude was around 7,000 ft. Seeing Mill Creek Canyon through the trees ahead, I tried the cell phone and got two bars.
The phone was working and I was able to get through to my wife. I explained some of what happened, leaving out the parts about falling down a steep hill, the bear and snow. No need to worry her you know.
The snow disappeared around 6,000 ft. and I emerged into the Mill Creek Wash where I ran into a day hiker heading up. It must have been around 8 a.m. I didn’t tell him about my ordeal, but he did give me the strangest look. After I got to the car, I could see why. My face was covered in dust and I had abrasions on my cheeks. On my drive home, I had plenty of time to think about the past 24 hours. In my rear view mirror, Ol’ Greyback (Mt. San Gorgonio) faded in the distance.
While this was my attempt at fiction, the fact is solo hikers get hurt (and lost) a lot. It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you are going. It will give the Search & Rescue team a good starting point. Also, check the weather forecast and do not throw rocks at bears. Don’t forget the 10 essentials in your backpack:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
Credit for the 10 essentials – Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, by Mountaineer Books.