This is not being written for you the reader, this is being written for me. It is a chronicle of a journey that my son Scott and I recently completed. It is written while I still have most of my faculties and am able to loosely structure words into some kind of cohesive order resembling a story of that journey. You are not entitled to any sort of literary license with this piece, only that of a voyeur and as such you may accompany me through this incredible adventure Scott and I shared in Yosemite California. So if you must, let us begin.
Nearly one year has elapsed since I had the first of many conversations with my sons, Jeff and Scott, concerning my wish for the three of us to complete an extended backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park. The thought of completing this endeavor just sort of came out of a breakfast we had on a Saturday morning, that the boys and I share when time allows in their busy schedule. How the three of us can go to a local pancake house where the most expensive breakfast on the menu is less than eight dollars and I can pick up the check totaling over thirty-five dollars amazes me to this day. I guess we are still growing boys, but that and the price of the breakfast is a story for another time.
If my recollection is correct, (I know it is as this is my story) we were reminiscing about a previous trip the three of us had participated as a small group at Yellowwood State Forest and how much fun it would be to kick that week-end trip a few or several notches. I told them I had been in the hopes of completing the a long hike myself of the John Muir Trail with a length of 210 miles in the High Sierra mountain range, but the pack weight and needed time realistically would make that trip unobtainable. A long that same line though I had spent three days in Yosemite Valley California where the John Muir Trail begins, some fifteen years prior. further it was my opinion that Yosemite National Park is the most outstanding park in our national park system. So I cut to the chase and suggested a two-week backpack expedition to Yosemite, both boys were on board with that idea and hooked from the start.
Unfortunately during ensuing months that followed, Jeff determined he would not be able to take that much leave from work as his job does not offer the benefit of a paid vacation. So totaling it all up, the unpaid leave along with the cost of the actual trip would put this outing out of Jeff’s reach and he would have to bow out. Scott on the other hand with five weeks of paid vacation and some additional resources was in for the long haul. The trip was still a go and green-lighted for some time in 2012.
When to go was the next step, we knew it would be in 2012 as 2011 was mostly booked for Scott and myself, Soccer commitments and remaining unqualified vacation days for Scott and other trips for myself, also time to spend with my wife Sue. So then, what time of year? Even though Yosemite is located in sunny California, it is in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, and more specifically at an altitude in excess of 7,000 feet in elevation and extending up to 11,510 at Mt. Voglesang, one of the passes we would be hiking thru. Now for myself who resides about half my life six inches above sea level, that is pretty high. Snow is possible and not uncommon during any of the 12 months of the year, and rarely is there a sufficient melt to hike on the trails before July the first of any given year. The snows were extremely heavy in the winter of 2010 and even as late as August of 2011 the snow pack and snow cups at Voglesang Pass remained more than 12 feet deep. We really did not want to add snow crampons and climbing axes to our anticipated heavy backpacks, let alone the danger and technical expertise required to hike in those conditions. I was beginning to wonder if we could employ Sherpas and use oxygen canisters like they do for a summit of Mt. Everest. I have read that breathing through a straw while hiking is equivalent to being at 9,000 feet of elevation, but I digress. There was also the problem of logistics: several of the roads within Yosemite are closed until late Spring or early Summer as they are impassable until the snow pack melts. Once most of the snow pack melts, the insects come out, having to deal with mosquitos and assorted species of house fly at the very least is an unpleasant experience. After considering the pros and cons, flipping coins and consulting a crystal ball, I selected the date of July 26th to be the first day we would be in the park.
Considerable thought and preparation is required for the planning and execution for a trip of this magnitude. Transportation logistics, and permits for the wilderness backpacking reservations are the most important and critical. Transportation was the most complicated part, but, the easiest to accomplish. Airline reservations to San Francisco, which was our first leg on this trip, simple. Just bring up the internet browser and select your flight from any number of airline carriers, based on price and flights times, all at just the press of a keystroke through the magic of the internet (thank you Al Gore) and you have a reserved seat. Printing the E-tickets: again a simple stroke on the keyboard and you have tickets. The second leg threw me for a minute, I had planned on renting an automobile at the airport and driving across the state to Yosemite. Of the 74 options to rent a car, least expensive was $1,043.00 for the two weeks and I did not feel that was an option. My wife Sue found me a suitable solution, Am Track. Am Track provides a solution of first a bus from San Fransisco to Stockton California, followed by rail service from Stockton to Merced and another bus to Yosemite, for $32.00 which I considered reasonable. Thanks to my wife I now had an affordable transportation plan.
Wednesday July 25th we left Indianapolis, flying Frontier Airlines with a plane change in Denver, Colorado we arrived on time 11:59 PM in San Fransisco (SFO) and hailed a taxi for the next leg. The taxi would drop us off in the Ebbarcadero District of San Fransisco at the Ferry Building. From there at 4:50 AM we would catch an Amtrak bus to Stockton, California. The station was closed at that time of morning and we were forced to become “Urban Campers”. You may have noticed the type and are familiar with this sect of our population. They have all their worldly possessions with them, bundle up in the clothing they have, then sleep in a bag or under blankets on a park bench. That was us, no longer world travelers, but reduced to Urban Campers. Scott and I had left Indianapolis the day before dressed in shorts and T-shirts as the temperature was 104 degrees in Indy. The temperature in SF was a balmy 47 degrees that morning. Donning all the warm clothes I could find in my bag I resorted to my 20 degree sleeping bag and selected a park bench, until our chariot would arrive. After warming some in my bag I drifted off to sleep, before being startled awake by a security guard on a bicycle, screaming that I couldn’t sleep there. He was dead wrong, I was sleeping very well until he started all the drama and commotion. Apparently what he meant was, I could sleep, however, I was required to do so either standing or sitting, not lying in a prone position on the bench. It appeared this was a rule applied to those new in town as the local resident two benches away went unnoticed and unseen. See him, hell, I could smell him from where I was. Shortly after our bus arrived and we were shuttled out-of-town across the Oakland Bay Bridge. A magnificent double-deck structure, I may add.
Stockton, California did not leave much of a lasting impression as the train station was one of the newer and architecturally pleasing buildings in the city. The Amtrak train for the San Joaquin line was clean, on-time and modern. Comprised of the drive locomotive and five double-deck passenger cars, complete with dinning in the center car upper level. With only a few stops for passengers to board and debark our ride to Merced, California would be swift and enjoyable.
The last leg to Yosemite would be by bus from Merced, operated by Yosemite Area Rapid Transportation System – YARTS. These are modern buses providing service to the Yosemite area. Most passengers were local residents traveling from town to town with a scattering of those like myself, to or within the park. We would arrive as scheduled at our final destination, Yosemite Valley, Curry Village, Yosemite NP.
July 26th was to be our first day in the park and now all we needed was our backcountry wilderness permits issued b y the National Park Service. Well it seems as if our good old NPS is in to this out-sourcing thing, the same as most companies with perhaps one minor exception: they do not out-source out of the country, they utilize the services of Delaware North Corporation. That in its self is not a problem or at least “the problem”, in order to minimize the impact on the wilderness backcountry they have implemented permits to be issued by a lottery system. The lottery system goes something like this: the season opens around January 11th at 2:13 AM and you can request up to three selections of dates for reservations. This is all done on-line without the benefit of live personnel to assist you, and therefore, you do not have any idea if any of your requests were acceptable depending on where you fell in the que. You are advised somewhere in six to eight weeks if any of your selections were acceptable. Variations considered are the number in your party, dates selected, entry point and other factors to numerous to list. Bottom line, more than likely are your requests will be denied and you will need to start over and the timeline now is somewhere in the middle or end of March. Then the whole process starts over again. Or you can elect to go with “plan B”, which much to the horror of my wife I did. That is travel nearly 3,000 miles and throw yourself on the mercy of the actual living and breathing park ranger at the wilderness center and beg. They do hold a certain percentage of permits for walk-in people like Scott and myself. Those again are issued in the same manner as those on-line: first come, first served at 11:30 AM, again depending on availability for the number in your party, days requested and entry point. Scott and I were flexible with the exception for the number in our party and thought we would take our chance. We threw off our packs in front of the wilderness building after arriving late in the afternoon and pleaded our case to an attractive young female park ranger (not that, this is important, but it did make the conversation more pleasant) who listened to our plight as I explained in my best and most sincere voice I could come up with. She listened to my request for an eight-day pass, a pass to summit Half Dome, and two nights stay in the camp there on the valley floor before heading out. To my amazement and relief she said it was no problem and we could be on our way first thing in the morning.
We had our permits in hand and headed for the back packer campground which serves only those on a one night basis while they are either leaving for an extended hike into the back country or coming out and will be leaving the valley. This is all fairly amazing if you consider that Yosemite in the second most popular of our National Parks, behind Yellowstone, for annual visitors. Attendance in Yosemite is over 3,000,000 visitors annually, fortunately for Scott and me, only about 10,000 requests are made for the back country permits. The rest of the visitors rarely venture more than one-half mile from their vehicles and the valley floor.
It was about a mile from the Wilderness Center to the backpacker camp that is located within Yosemite Valley, all in the general vicinity of Curry Village. We had two options in getting to camp, our boots hitting the asphalt while carrying our fully loaded packs, plus an additional piece of luggage or the park shuttle. The park service maintains a large fleet of buses to shuttle visitors throughout Curry Village and Yosemite Valley, providing over twenty boarding locations along the linear expanse. We opted for the shuttle. Most of the shuttle buses are crowded with people, most of whom are wielding backpacks, daypacks, shopping bags and baby strollers along with other miscellaneous items. The buses are convenient with numerous boarding locations and run on a schedule of approximately twelve minutes separation. Most visitors elect to park in the several large parking lots scattered throughout the village and then utilize the shuttle service within the valley. This cuts down appreciably on the gas emissions and the traffic congestion that 3,000,000 visitors a year can bring to the park. During the time Scott and I were in the valley we took advantage of the shuttle service most of the time and traveled like tourists.
From shuttle stop number 18 it was only about one-fourth mile to hike to the backpacker camp. Shouldering our packs and carrying our additional piece of luggage we made the trip in less than an hour and began to set up our first Camp. The date was July 26th, a Thursday, we were on schedule.
We selected a suitable numbered campsite towards the rear of the camp and began filling out the required paperwork necessary to camp as the total occupancy was controlled. While registration is on the honor system, the park rangers checked frequently. No more than two tents per site and no more than four persons to a tent. We deposited our paperwork after detaching the top portion, placing the top portion on our tent fly and the remainder along with $5.00 per person in the metal box. The campground was nice and did provide us with some creature comforts of flush toilets and potable water. It would be several days before we would see flush toilets again.
The site selected was very nice and set along a running stream that would flow into the Merced River a short distance downstream. Within minutes of starting to sort gear and set up camp, Scott announced, “hey look Pop, there is a bear”. I looked up and sure enough not more than 20 feet from us on the other side of the stream stood a mature Black Bear. This Black Bear just stood on his hind legs sniffed the air and looked curiously looked us over. After a few seconds it dropped to all fours and wandered off through the woods. The was the first encounter with several bears during our stay in Yosemite.
I do not know why they call the bears in Yosemite, black, as their color ranges from blonde to dark brown. I do know however, they do not provide much of a risk to campers or nearly as much as their cousins, the grizzly bear. Grizzly’s are much larger and more aggressive, fortunately these bears are not found in this area of California. Do not get me wrong a black bear is still a formidable predator when provoked. An encounter with a black bear can usually be avoided by giving them plenty of space, or if they get to curious and close you should throw your arms above your head and start shouting at the bear. This usually will suffice as a deterrent and you would not have to resort to throwing sticks and small rocks at the bear. The idea is to only scare the bear and not injure it. If all this action on your part does not deter the bear and he would continue to attack, fight with all you have like your life depends on it, it does. A mature Black Bear stands about five feet tall when standing on their hind legs and weighs in a range of 300 to 500 pounds. They can run at speeds up to thirty miles per hour and climb trees better than humans. The old story, “you do not have to out run the bear, just someone else who is in your group”.
Once camp had been set up and we stowed our equipment and food within the steel bear boxes, of which several were located throughout the camp, we headed for town. Town as it is, actually consisted of several buildings that comprised Curry Village. Along with the WIlderness Center where we were issued our permits, there is a Visitor Center, an Ansel Adams studio selling his photographs and books along with other art works and a large camp store just a short distance away. The camp store was impressive with a large selection of grocery items, clothing, camping equipment and supplies along with the customary tourists gifts and Nicnaks. We headed for the camp store. We needed to purchase a canister of propane fuel to power our stove. We were not allowed to bring fuel with us on our flight even though it would have been stored within our packs in the body of the airplane. It seems the TSA still forbids bringing compressed fuel canisters (bombs) on commercial aircraft. Narrow minded on their part I’d say. I needed to buy some additional clothing for warmth as I had failed to pack sufficiently for the cool evenings and mornings. A Tee Shirt just does not cut it when the temperature is in the mid thirties. I thought the temperatures would be warmer as the ten-day forecast indicated mid 90’s during the day and mid 50’s at night. Well coming from the heat of Indiana at 104 degrees when we left felt fairly cool at 55 degrees and we were not yet at altitude where the temperatures would be even lower. This was California and it was the end of July, but I had forgotten to adjust for the humidity, wind and altitude, which actually determines the “feels like” temperature. We easily located the propane canister and made the purchase. Back on a clearance rack I located a very nice fleece jacket in my size which was marked down 50%, I made that purchase as well. The fleece would serve me well for the duration of our trip in the back country.
We had caught the shuttle to Curry Village and after our shopping spree returned to camp via the shuttle. We would have plenty of miles to walk over the next several days.
By the time we returned to our campsite the camp had filled considerably with a broad mix of backpackers. We ate dinner at camp and turned in early – it had been a long day.
We awoke before sunrise the next morning which was friday, July 27th, we had a bus to catch which would take us to our entry point for the High Sierra Loop, May Lake.
The bus would take us from the valley floor at an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet to over 8,000 feet in a distance of sixteen miles, via the Tioga Road. The shuttles would not begin service until 7:00 AM, so it would be necessary to hike the mile or so to Curry Village where we would catch the park shuttle to May Lake. Just outside our camp and on the walk to Curry Village we would stop at the parking lot for the Nevada Falls Trailhead and store our additional piece of luggage in the bear boxes provided. We would retrieve them at the end of our hike, hopeful they would be there as it is an honor system and the bear box can not be pad locked. the boxes have a complicated locking/closure system to confuse the bears and keep them from gaining access. However, a human with even a short numbered IQ can manage easily. I only struggled a little bit at first, apparently at least I am smarted than a bear. Maybe?
We had left the parking lot and barely resumed our walk when a lady driving a 12 passenger van stopped and offered us a lift. The lady worked for the park concessions, Delaware National Corporation, and she would offer us more than a ride. She asked us where we were headed that early in the morning and I explained we going to the Wilderness Center to catch the park shuttle for May Lake. I came to find out that in all my research I had made an error, well probably more than one, but this one was a problem. I thought the shuttle service offered by the park in Yosemite Valley extended the service to the Tioga Pass Entrance, although it was limited service and only ran twice a day.
Our new-found chauffeur explained there was in fact transportation to that area but it was provided by a private bus company, not the park shuttle. While this lady offered to give us a ride to the stop for this service and enlightened me as to my errors, I was still somewhat leery. We accepted the lift as it was going our way, but I was still thinking I was correct and she was merely guiding us to her employer where we would have to pay to ride the shuttle bus.
As it worked out and fortune would have it, I was in error and alternative arrangements would have to be made. Our new tour director in her shiny white Chevrolet van dropped us off at the Yosemite Lodge, which was her base of operations and pointed us to the kiosk for tours and tour buses. The kiosk would not open for another 45 minutes and I was afraid on the off-chance I was right we would miss our free shuttle. I had not fully bought into her program and told Scott I was headed to the restroom and also to find a cup of coffee.
By the time the concession booth opened we had spoken with several of the other travelers and determined I was in error and we would need to utilize the YARTS paid bus service to May Lake, our starting point. Next problem. We were told that the bus was sold out and we should have made reservations at least three days prior. This sweet bit of news left both Scott and myself perplexed and we went outside the lodge and started kicking stones and exhibiting all the characteristics of pissed off tourists. Out of nowhere a man approached us and inquired where we were going, trying to determine which bus he needed to seat us on. We told him where we wanted to go but unfortunately we had not made reservations and that the bus was fully booked and no seats were available. He let us know pretty quick he was the agent for the YARTS bus system, not the concessions, and the bus was not full until he said it was full and he hadn’t said so yet. He followed with “go buy a ticket and tell them I said so”. This gentleman was a true American Capitalist and sold his standing room only seats – now that is how you fill a bus. Worked for us, we were off to May Lake.
After a quick scheduled stop at Crane Flat to drop off the US Postoffice mail and exchange passengers we arrived at an unmarked point but apparently known by the route drivers and the bus stopped. This was our station, so to speak. The driver said, “the two of you getting off at May Lake this is your stop”. The driver opened up the baggage compartment allowing Scott and me to retrieve our packs. Before we shouldered our packs the driver pointed to a small paved lane and said we should take the road to the trailhead and not use the hiking trail. I told him we would rather use the dirt trail as opposed to a road, to which he shrugged and advised we could suit ourselves. Ok, I bit and asked what would be the difference. He pointed to a large rock out cropping and said the trail goes over it and the road goes around it. It front of us loomed a large saddle for Mount Hoffman with steep sides going nearly straight up. We opted for the paved road.
The paving meandered for a couple of miles with a modest upward grade and came to the trail head for May Lake. We took a short break at this point and left the pavement on a dirt trail that would increase in grade and become fairly steep. We had gained nearly 4,000 feet in elevation gain since leaving the valley floor a few hours ago and I was not yet acclimated and prepared to climb a mountain. We would gain another 1,300 feet in the next mile and a half. This was our first steps and it was obvious that the air was thinner as we labored under our heavy packs. Our speed would drop from nearly three miles per hour at the elevation we were accustomed to in Indiana to under one mph at this altitude. I huffed and puffed for the next couple of hours when we came over a little rise and May Lake opened up before us, and we were at 9,300 feet.
May Lake was all I had envisioned for a picture post card. Deep, cold, crystal clear azure blue water with the Douglas Fir trees and Mount Hoffman reflecting with a blue sky on the waters shimmering surface. It would have taken my breath away – if I had any.
We selected a fine campsite, level, well-drained and no large widow makers hanging over our heads. The site had a wonderful view of Mount Hoffman peak extending another 2,000 feet upwards as our background and May Lake for a view through our imaginary picture window. We began our daily chores of setting up camp. We gathered some dead fall tree limbs that were in the area, in the hopes that a campfire that evening would provide some warmth and comfort. Our other duties would include setting up the tent, finding a water supply and storing our equipment and packs in the bear locker.
I should explain that each camp would be different during our stay in the High Sierras. Some would be more populated and in close proximity to facilities for restrooms, water and bear lockers to protect our food and packs. On some occasions we would set up a camp in the wilderness where our water supply would be a river or lake; our restroom would be an eight inch cathole dug with a trowel and our bear locker, a length of rope over a tree limb about 100 feet from our tent. This night we would be in high cotton with a flush toilet and a water spigot.
The camp area we were staying was officially named, May Lake High Sierra Camp. Although as a backpacker we were relegated to an area away from the platform tents and other amenities at the back and out of sight. The High Sierra camps, which May Lake is one of, are situated approximately ten miles apart and there are six of them which comprise the High Sierra Loop in Yosemite Park. These camps have five to six platform tents with four beds and a wood stove. Other amenities include a dinning hall, showers and restrooms. The cost to stay in these tents is $170 per person nightly and includes breakfast and dinner. All supplies for the camp have to be packed in on the backs of mules and then all rubbish hauled back out. These camps do allow for people to hike in the wilderness with the benefit of not carry a heavy pack for tents, equipment and food. For those more affluent and do not wish to hike you can ride a mule from camp to camp at an additional cost of $250 per day, that does include a guide. Albeit more work and effort I prefer the freedom to set my own schedule and be self-sufficient.
While going the water spigot and re-fill our water bottles I met a young man named Jeff who was part of the staff at the camp. He told me that him and another staffer would be playing guitar and singing songs during the hot drink period at the mess hall at 6:30 and we would be invited to come and listen if we desired. Scott and I went, although the two guys singing was not ready for “American Idol”, they were entertaining and provided a nice diversion. After the entertainment and a cup of coffee Scott and I ate our dinner at camp. After dinner we did enjoy a small campfire while we re-counted the events of the day. It was a good day and I turned in early and slept well through out the night.
The temperature drops rapidly as soon as the sun starts to set overhead, being blocked by the higher mountains, even though it would not be dark for several hours. During the course of the night the temperature would fall into the high thirties now that we were at a higher altitude.
We awoke early just after first light on our second day – Saturday, July 28th, to a clear crisp morning. This day we would hike to Glen Aulin a distance of roughly ten miles. It would be our first full day of hiking the High Sierra Loop and we would lose about 1,000 feet in elevation to 7,300 feet above the sea level. The trail was well maintained and although not level it provided a good hiking surface. The scenery was typical in that we alternated from forested segments to open areas which afforded a view of several miles when we were on a saddle of the surrounding mountains. We were still well below the tree line, so the vistas would have to wait another few days. There was one segment of maybe one-half mile where the mosquitoes were quit annoying, and this was the only area we encountered with any insects. We took our time and after hiking about five hours we came to the junction trail that would take us to Glen Aulin in another 1.8 miles. Most of this section was downhill and fairly steep. We noted that our first portion of the trail the next day would be a leg burner right from the start.
We crossed over a steel bridge at the end of a steep rocky descent and made camp after approximately one-quarter of a mile at the Glen Aulin campground. The bridge crossed oven the Glen Aulin River and was situated between the White Cascade and California water falls. While these falls did not dramatically drop hundreds of feet as the more noted falls within Yosemite, they were still impressive. The White Cascade Falls stretched out over a great distance as far as the eye could see. The entire Cascade is made up of hundreds of small water falls crashing through gorge in the mountains from their headwaters many miles to the east of our vantage point. The next day would bear that out as we hiked beside and up these magnificent falls to the high level meadow known as Tuolumne Meadows.
Our camp that night was uneventful. Prior to cooking dinner Scott took a nap and got off his feet for a while. His boots were starting to bother him and he was developing blistered feet, not good ever, but definitely not good this being our second full day out.
I hiked back out to the river and then downstream a short distance to the top of California Falls. The sun was still fairly high in the sky and the temperatures in the low 90 degree range. Sitting on the smooth granite river edge I removed my boots and socks and gave my feet a good soak, in the cold clear water. For some time I watched several young people in the basin at the bottom of the falls floating on rafts, I for one thought it a little cool in the water for swimming, but I am somewhat of a wussy when it comes to cold water. It was a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the rest of the day while reflecting our days journey.
We awoke early again which was to become our routine at first light, on Sunday our fourth full day. Following our typical breakfast of oatmeal, Scott attended to his feet. Some first aid for his feet was necessary as some of the blisters had ruptured, we covered them with moleskin and duct tape. A hikers cure for any kind of foot aliment, put duct tape on it.
Before breaking camp and packing our packs Scott decided he would do a little surgery on his boots. Although the boots were mostly leather there were nylon portions to allow the boots to breath. Scott thought they did not provide enough ventilation and removed the nylon – “Air Ithicas” were invented, at least the prototype. Scott would not only be a happy hiker he was sure he would make a fortune from his new boot design.
The first part of this day was back across the bridge and a very steep climb up and over large boulders for the first couple of miles. No gentle start to let the muscles warm up and let the stiffness subside, just up and up, a hikin’ we will go.
All of that morning and into the early afternoon the trail paralleling the Glen Aulin River which continued to Cascade in minor water falls. Scott and I stopped on several occasions to marvel at the beauty of it, now stretching in front of us and behind us as far as the eye could see. We would encounter another similar river during our journey, but this was our first.
Later that afternoon we reached the high waterfalls that was barely in our vision from the bridge that had taken us to and from our camp. We had climbed to a height that the bridge was no longer visible to our eye, we knew only that miles down below we had crossed the Glen Aulin, now only a small ribbon. The water falls that had only been a speck way far away this morning were now immediately in front of us. I would estimate the height of the falls at 100 feet, however now that we were at the foot of it was not one high water fall as it appeared. As opposed to a crashing wall of water over of the edge as one large fall, it was a number of closely spaced smaller falls that appeared as one from a distance. Not withstanding – still spectacular.
At the bottom of the falls another bridge had been erected, this one of heavy wooden beams, over the Glen Aluin for a final time. The trail now led away from the river around the base of an unnamed summit up and into the Tuolumne Meadows. It would be a few more miles before we reached the campground where we would spend the night.
Tuolumne Meadows is a vast high sierra meadow measuring several square miles. So even though we had arrived – we hadn’t.
We met rather pleasant family, including a teen-aged son and daughter from San Fransisco late in the afternoon. They had come to Yosemite for a vacation and exploring Tuolumne Meadows. There was a natural soda spring where Scott and I stopped and tasted the soda water. I guess this is a naturally occurring, although I had never heard of it. The family there at the same time was interested in Scott’s and my backpacking, how much our packs weighed and if the packs were comfortable. We let them throw our packs on their shoulders so they could see how it felt to carry your home and all you need for an exploration into the wilderness. Nice people.
My body thought seeing as how we had reached the meadows we should be done hiking for this day and started to shut down. Wed hiked another one-half mile and found the NPS Ranger Station and Information Center. The Ranger told us the High Serra Camp area was a mile further down the road and we could either hike or take the shuttle. My body was really shutting down at this time and I was in a “pissy” mood, Scott taking the brunt of my displeasure. I explained, not nicely I admit, that I was done hauling that pack up hill and dale and that I was done for the day. Right there on the spot – period. i did not care if I was shot or arrested or whatever else they wanted to do with me – I was done for the day. There was a general store a few hundred yards out by the road and I seen the sign advertising that they sold cold beer. I threw down my pack and told Scott that I would be there for a while until my attitude improved.
Scott took it more or less in stride, he had seen the old man blow off before and knew I would get over it. Scott told me his plan was to hike to camp and get settled in and would then come back for me and I assume my pack. I sure as hell was not going to pick it up.
An hour or so and three beers later Scott returned and found me feeling better and somewhat giddy. alcohol apparently goes a lot further in high altitude where the air is thinner. We had hiked beyond our previous elevation at May Lake and were at our highest elevation yet, just under 9,500 feet above the sea at that level. Our total distance that day was about seven miles – all uphill.
A short while later Scott arrived back in camp for the second time and with me in tow. Apparently when Scott first arrived at camp it was fairly crowed and filling fast. A couple of guys invited Scott to set up our tent and throw in with them, all of us in a small circle around the fire pit. We became part of a small group that night much resembling the United Nations. Several countries were represented with the United States in the minority. The common language spoken was French, that was between the Canadian, the Italian, and a gentleman that spoke both French and Spanish. The gentleman from Japan spoke his native tongue as well as a small amount of English and Spanish. I do not recollect all the different ways the conversations went in the several different languages but somehow we were all able to communicate on some level without anyone being entirely left out. I also remember there being some alcohol involved, just what I needed – more booze. It was an interesting and enjoyable evening around the campfire, all of us with the common bond for the love of the out-of-doors, and more specifically Yosemite.
Monday, July 30th and our fifth day, was to be a lay over day of rest and to further acclimate before our next big push up and through Tuolumne Pass to Voglesang. I had built some extra time into the trip during the initial planning stages to use when needed as we saw fit. We needed a rest and recovery day, me for my over fitness and Scott for his feet. By this time Scott was starting to have serious issues with his blistered feet and the new boot prototype was still not perfected. Scott thinking he had nothing to lose in the boots examined them more closely. Definitely his new breathable boots were not breathing, life support may be the only hope. It appears that the entire inter portion of his boot was a vulcanized rubber sack, will not let water in or water out. Again with the big knife he started the procedure and when finished he had a breathable boot, “Air Ithaca II” was born. Actually it worked and Scott’s feet were on the road to recovery…or where ever our road was leading us, but his feet were better. Wet feet are a hikers nightmare. A wet foot increases the likelihood for blisters. Blisters although uncomfortable, left untreated will rupture breaking the skin, followed by an infection – it is all down hill from there.
We spent most of the day leisurely hanging around. It was time to do a little laundry mostly skivies and socks. We had a limited amount of changes of clothes due to the weight so the only extra of anything was socks and underwear. We ate both breakfast and that night’s dinner in the small carry out restaurant up on the Tioga Road. Breakfast consisted of a triple order or sausage, eggs and fried potatoes and a couple of cartons of chocolate milk. Dinner as well was a triple order of something. When most days you eat instant oatmeal and a cup of tea for breakfast, some nuts and a protein bar for lunch and then Romain Noodles for dinner, any chance at something more substantial is irresistible. Sent a post card home to Sue as there was a post office there. This sounds like a lot of enterprise but it really is only a couple of buildings scattered along Tioga Road.
We followed up all the rest with trying to go to sleep early as tomorrow would be a long day. I know I felt a lot more energized after the lay over day, I am sure Scott did as well. His feet were starting to look better as he had worn his camp shoes most of the day and stayed out of his hiking boots, although they were now modified.
We awoke again to a bright crisp morning but the pervious day had made us lazy and we got a late start. We had already determined that this would be our most difficult day as it was all uphill to Voglesang with an elevation gain of another 2,000 feet putting us at 10,500 feet above the sea level by the end of the day. Scott and I had worked it out that after we made a few short connecting trails out of the Meadows and start-up through Tuolumne Pass that he would sprint out ahead and get to camp before me, as he was a faster hiker. The idea being once he had a camp site and able to drop his backpack he would backtrack to me and carry my pack in for me in case I was laboring excessively. As it worked out by the time Scott backtracked to me I was less that one-half mile from camp. I could have continued in carrying my pack, but as a good Dad and he had come back for me I let him carry the load. I have to admit it did feel nice to be hiking without a forty pound pack on your back.
When we got to our selected site I made camp for the two of us while Scott went exploring and bouldered up through the scree field and played in some of the remaining snow on Fletcher Peak, we were only about 300 feet below the summit. Our camp that night was above tree line on a large flat plateau at Fletcher Peak’s base. I securely anchored our tent this night as the breeze was beginning to pick up and we had seen our first wispy clouds of the trip.
Voglesang is another one of the High Sierra Camps with the mess hall and the platform tents. I talked to the staff and asked if they had sufficient supplies in that Scott and I could have breakfast there is the morning. For $18.00 per person he said he had supplies and we were in for a sit down breakfast the next morning. No oatmeal for these boys.
Scott returned from his trip to the snow field and we ventured over to the mess hall at 6:30PM when they serve tea and hot chocolate before dinner. We hung out there and headed back to our camp for the evening meal.
Higher elevation and nothing to block the wind it was the coldest night we spent in Yosemite, but we had the gear for it and spent a reasonably comfortable night.
Yet another clear crisp morning when we awoke. We washed and cleaned up the best we could and headed for breakfast when they wrung the bell. The first thing going in was a long table and the lady was serving military style. Hand you a bowl with a great big spoonful of you guessed it – oatmeal. I started to laugh and politely said not thank you, (and under my breath finished by saying I’d had enough gruel already) moving on to the table where they soon brought out, eggs, bacon, ham, fried potatoes and pancakes. It was a good breakfast.
After breakfast we broke camp and headed out the trail that would take us over Voglesang Pass. It was a fairly decent ascent climbing nearly 1,000 feet in less than two miles, this would bring us to the highest elevation of the entire trip 11,410 feet above the sea level. The views from our camp at Voglesang and up over the pass were breath-taking, both to the eye and lungs. To our back as we continued to ascend we could see where we had been the previous four days and some thirty miles before, all spread out behind us. In front of us as we continued up we could see little as we were above most of Yosemite. Kind of like being on a rollercoaster just before you break over the top of the big hill, only for us it was in slow motion.
When I guess we were about 20 paces from going over the pass and another 15 feet in elevation we stopped for a break and just gazed at all that was behind us. We pointed out several mountains we had hiked around and ridges we had hiked. We could see Mount Hoffman in the far distance where the first night we had made camp just under its summit at May Lake, it seemed like forever ago in time and miles. Then we got up and started over the pass.
At the crest of the pass, that point just when the roller coaster starts down the first big hill we stopped dead in out tracks. What lay before us was the gorge we would travel down for the next three days. We could follow our anticipated path all the way down to Yosemite Valley some 7,500 feet and 20 miles below us. Such a magnificent view I had never before experienced or do I expect to again.
It literally held you breathless for several minutes until you felt it was safe to allow your self to breath. Only then did Scott and I dare to break the spiritual silence and speak. I felt like we were in the House of God. It never got any more glorious as we hiked on all that day down and down into this valley. The granite walls gaining in height with each step we took forward and down. There also was an intersecting gorge ahead and to the left that would intersect, this carried the water of the Merced River that flows thru Yosemite Valley. We would follow it all the way down, with its water falls and crystal clear pools and same as the Glen Aulin River we walked beside a few days back. The river would be our guide and companion for the next three days.
In about seven more miles we would come to a high mountain lake, Merced Lake where the river pools briefly in a large crater dug out by the glacier many years before us. The bottom remains solid granite with the shorelines the silt and scree from the mountains high above them.
The main camp was full and Scott and I passed on by making camp a short distance away on the other side of a small creek that was dry this time of year. We ventured out to the lake after setting up camp for a bath. The water could have been a touch bit warmer as it was yesterdays snowmelt and had not yet warmed any. It still got the job done for us and I felt as clean as I had been in the last week. We had our typical trail dinner and bedded down fairly early.
The next day, Friday, started like the rest but we would have a short hike this day. Our destination was Little Yosemite Village about five miles away. Little Yosemite Village is an over used very large camp area for those wishing to climb Half Dome. It was the largest camp area we were in during the trip and still very crowded, we found a suitable site on the far side toward the edge and made the best of it. Now if it were in Indiana you would think if quite adequate, however for Yosemite standards it was an over run dump. Our objective though was to make camp and afford Scott an early start as he was to summit Half Dome the following day. By the time we reached our stopping point at Little Yosemite Valley we had lost nearly a mile in elevation from Voglesang Pass and we were now at 6,150 feet above the sea level. By the time Scott would reach the summit of Half Dome he would gain back almost half of that loss in altitude and be at 8,800 feet above the sea level.
Half Dome is one of the main attractions in Yosemite. All climbers must have a permit and very few are released each day, by the park service. The opposing side that you climb is a sheer granite face with a drop of nearly one mile to the valley floor. The views are 360 degree panoramic, breath-taking to say the least. After dinner Scott turned in early as it was his intent to be out of camp around 1:30AM and hike the five miles to the sub-domes and watch the sun rise.
During the time Scott was on his own adventure of hiking Half Dome I ate my normal breakfast of “Gruel”, and starting breaking down camp and getting things packed up. A few days prior I had been able to get a few bars for my cell phone and had called home to Sue. I asked her to go ahead and reserve seats for us on the Amtrak train and buses to take us back to San Fransisco on Monday. She called me back and said due to short notice they would mail the tickets overnight express but that someone would have to sign for them. I told her to send them to me C/O general delivery, Yosemite Village, and that I would pick them up at the post office on Saturday.
All went according to plan and in fact Scott was sitting on sub-dome by 4:30AM and watched the sun breaking over the mountains in the first light. Just after sunrise he was one of the first on the chains making his climb to the summit of Half Dome. There are 64 lengths of chain that you use for support and an assist in climbing the face as it is very steep. It would be nearly impossible to make the climb without the chains, unless you were a technical mountain climber with all the necessary equipment. After completing his summit of Half Dome he returned to camp and we hiked out that afternoon back towards the valley. We had about a five-mile hike back to the Valley and our back country campsite for the night.
We did not encounter a lot of people for the first mile or so, but definitely more than we typically seen, which was very few or no people at all during the day. Most of this portion of the hike was across the bald faces of the mountain bases where the glaciers had worn the rock smooth and polished. The granite actually shined and reflected only occasionally marred by long scratches where a rock with a harder surface had been scarred across the face.
About half way through the distance we would hike this day back to the valley floor we came to another major visitor attraction: Nevada Fall. Nevada Fall is a sheer drop of several hundred feet of the Merced River. The trail up to the falls from Curry Village is paved asphalt approximately eight feet in width, making it a very accessible climb for any visitor in reasonable health and fitness. This is the point we hit the crowds head-on. This is where the other 3,290,000 visitors come that do not go into the back country. It had been days since Scott and I had been around any large number of people spending most of our time just to two of us in the quiet solitude of nature. The people we encountered were more like a mob as they hiked in groups, both large and small, side-by-side stretching all the way across the trail and paying no attention to anyone trying to pass the other way. At our first encounter with these rude, inconsiderate people we tried to apologize for being in their way and side-stepping to the side and allowing them to pass unmolested. At last I am ashamed to admit Scott and I just took a direct route staying on the right-hand-side of the trail and walked ahead with disregard for the on coming masses. We had been in the back country for over a week and had developed a somewhat caveman appearance, carrying heavy packs and armed with our hiking sticks with sharp points on the end. Those that did notice us moved slightly to their right and gave us some room.
We arrived back on the valley floor the lowest elevation we had been for some time. After hiking up and down mountain sides and at high elevation for the past week and one half, now being on flat level ground and over a mile lower where the oxygen level is much more saturated I felt like a kid. My energy level and fitness more like when I was in my twenties, actually this feeling of being fit was to last for several weeks. There is a lot to be said of a mountain trek for the revival of mind and body.
After setting up camp we headed to the village for some hardy, non-trail backpacking food and to retrieve our train tickets from the Post Office. We arrived at the Post Office around 2:30 in the afternoon and found they had ben closed for about 2 1/2 hours – it was Saturday. No problem it would re-open at 8:00AM on Monday, we would be there early, get our tickets and be on our way.
We arranged to stay for two nights in the back country camp and headed to the Curry Village Lodge where for $3.00 we could get a hot shower. A hot shower and a shave will make even an old man look better and you scrape off the cave man facade of the wilderness. We ate a huge dinner at the all you can eat buffet at the lodge and looked forward to doing the same thing for breakfast in the morning.
Sunday we hung out in the village and checked out the shops and did some of the sightseeing riding the shuttle out to El Capitan. We considered hiking the eight mile round trip to the top of Yosemite Falls, but thought the better of it. We had hike nearly 70 miles in the last ten days and thought that was enough for this trip.
Monday morning came early and we headed for th Post Office after breakfast. At the clerk window I identified myself and told the gentleman I was expecting a general delivery in my name. He searched for some time and told me there was none to be found. Seeing the look on my face he said he would do some further checking and see what he could come up with. He returned a few minutes later and said the package had been delivered to the concessionary at the park and their offices were outside around the corner. I thanked him and left for the concessionary.
The lady in human resources at the concessions was nice and she located a person who had seen my package. The lady explained that because I was not an employee or guest within the park and therefore there was no record of me being there; the package was returned. So I sorta said “frig”.
After a lengthy discussion with Amtrak they advise we could go the Yosemite Lodge where the YARTS bus boarded from and pay in cash for a ticket to Merced where at the train station we could purchase the balance of our tickets for rail back to San Fransisco. We could put in a claim for reimbursement after we got back home. It was a plan that Scott and I put into action.
Within just a few minutes we were boarding and retracing our step that brought us to Yosemite and the greatest wilderness adventure I had ever encountered.
If you have stayed with me reading this far I thank you. Mostly I want to thank my son Scott, this adventure would not have been what it was if not for him.