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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.