Tent Cabins

On our trip to Yosemite several years ago, we spent one night in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows.  This was long before the recent scare related to the Hantavirus infection in Curry Village.  Plus, Tuolumne Meadows is a long way from Curry Village.

There are many differences between Curry Village and Tuolumne Meadows.  Curry Village is located in Yosemite Valley, where the temperature is far warmer.  It’s also the most popular part of the park, so Curry Village is larger and has more people in it.  This results in a lot more noise and a lot more bears.

It’s really hard to get that many people to comply with rules about keeping anything scented in a bear locker.  Even well-intentioned people overlook things like lost M&Ms in their cars or in pockets.  Cars parked at Curry Village are often in danger of bear raids.

By comparison, Tuolumne Meadows is cold.  It’s at a much higher altitude in a remote location above the valley, resulting in much cooler temperatures.

We were there in July–and it was even a warm July.  We slept in sleeping bags rated to -10 degrees.  We wore fleece, warm hats, and zipped our mummy-style bags securely around our heads to stay warm.  Thankfully, the bags were warm enough even after the fire in our tiny, inefficient wood-burning stove went out.  There is nothing about a tent cabin that is energy efficient, unlike our 2-person tent that can often get quite warm with our bodies in it.

But the advantage of the cold temperatures and more remote location is that it’s a smaller village with fewer, quieter people who tend to be more serious about hiking and more conscientious about storing their stuff properly.  There are far fewer bear encounters in Tuolumne Meadows as a result.

Another advantage was that, because of the remote location and smaller number of people, they served a really awesome hot breakfast right in the village.

The biggest challenge we faced was identifying our bear locker in the long row of lockers.  People used unique rock arrangements on the lockers to mark theirs.  We made the mistake of remembering the rock arrangement on the locker next to ours, which had changed by morning.

Anything with a scent must go in a bear locker.  This includes toothpaste, hair gel (if you happen to have brought hair gel), deodorant.  If it could possibly smell like food to a bear, into the locker it goes.

The black canisters are a portable equivalent of a bear locker–all things with scent go in one on the trail.  The Yosemite bears are so familiar with bear canisters they don’t even try to break into them if they see one that’s been properly closed.  We left extra stuff that didn’t go on the trail with us in a bear locker at the trailhead.

There was often evidence a bear had checked out our campsites, but they’d always left quietly without disturbing anything.

The Trail Less Traveled

The last installment (for now) from our backpacking trip to Yosemite . . .

Waking up that morning, we were the kind of tired you get from hiking a 1500 foot rise in elevation twice carrying close to 40 pounds on your back combined with not sleeping well.  One of my bad decisions to reduce the weight of my pack was to use an ultra-thin thermal sleeping pad that was 3/4 long.  That was a decision I would regret every night of our trip.  If there’s one thing a body needs when you’re pushing it hard is good rest and an ultralight, 3/4 length sleeping pad is not the way to get it.

So, there we were, still with no appetite although the nausea had subsided some, super tired, and in the middle of a mosquito festival.  We moved extraordinarily quickly getting out of camp that morning.  That’s one thing about through hiking–if you hate where you camp the first night, it’s only one night.

We were headed up the final ascent to El Capitan.  Although our tired bodies could feel the climb, it was a relatively gradual ascent.  Given we were already suffering from some altitude sickness, going up was not the best direction, but it wasn’t like we were climbing Everest and potentially going to die from altitude sickness.  We did not, however, move very quickly as we made our way up those last couple of miles to the top of El Capitan.

Fortunately for us, we weren’t far from the top.  We made it before lunch even at our snail’s pace.  Even more fortunately, our appetites started to return and we managed to snack and feel a little more energized before we got there.

As we walked out onto the top of El Capitan, any aches or pains were forgotten.  It was the first time we stood together looking at the panoramic view of Yosemite valley.  It was Pat’s first time in Yosemite, and I was relieved that he felt the same amazement I felt when I saw a similar view from the top of Half Dome a couple years earlier.

After the nausea, fatigue, poor night’s sleep, and mosquitos, I felt giddy with relief that Pat thought it was worth it to stand there with me.

We spent an hour there.  We had our lunch on top of El Capitan, enjoying the view and the sense of achievement.  While we didn’t climb up the face like the rock climbers who come every year, we had pushed ourselves enough to still feel that rush of “I really did something.”

Although we were there during peak tourist season, we didn’t see anyone until after we got past El Capitan.  Up until that point, we’d had the trail completely to ourselves.  Of the tens of thousands of people in the park at the same time we were there, not one of them crossed paths with us for that day and a half. We truly felt like wilderness explorers.

P.S.  In case you’re wondering, the photo with the “Outdoor Source” bandanna is because they offered a discount if you brought them a picture with their logo on the trail.

The Long Hike

Continuing from my last post, I’ll skip the other backpacking practice trips we went on between Wildcat Hollow and Yosemite–let’s just say that I experimented with “ultra-light backpacking” methods and decided having rain covers for the backpacks, a dry change of clothes, and a waterproof tarp was really worth the extra weight.

That said, we arrived in Yosemite fully prepared.  However, having spent the day flying across the country and driving to the park, we weren’t up for hitting the trail as soon as we got there.  Instead, we stayed in the Tent Cabins where we got to watch a video of a black bear peeling open a car door to get to a forgotten cookie.

We were very careful about using approved bear containers.

Our first day on the trail was a bit more complicated than we thought.  First of all, by the time we ate breakfast, got our gear packed, got our backcountry permit and bear canisters, and figured out where to safely store stuff we weren’t taking with us, it was nearly noon.

We also had a complication to deal with.  The trail we were going to take was closed.  We were going to have to take a different, longer route with more elevation ups and downs.  We hitchhiked for the first time (this is really not like hitchhiking on the freeway–even the park rangers suggested hitching to the trailhead).

It seemed quite a coincidence that a German picked us up given that my husband is German.  They chatted in their native tongue until our driver almost ran into oncoming traffic.  Then my husband decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to talk while the guy was driving.

We made it safely to our trailhead.  We started the long climb from the valley floor toward or goal, the top of El Capitan.  There are only two ways to get to the top of El Capitan:  hike the slow climb up the back or climb the steep face with ropes.  We picked the long, slow route.

The start of the trail was through what seemed like miles through a burned out area of the forest.  With no shade, we felt like we were being cooked like ants under a magnifying glass.  We were both relieved when we made it into the woods.

From then on, the scenery improved, water sources were plentiful, and Pat stopped complaining.  However, we both started suffering from mild altitude sickness.  Not something we expected at those elevation.

We ended up stopping short of our distance goal for the night.  We had trouble forcing ourselves to eat, feeling slightly nauseous.  We happened to pick a mosquito resort area, so we quickly retreated to our tent and went to bed early.  I realized as I fell asleep that the one thing I’d forgotten was gatorade–it’s awesome when altitude sickness is an issue and you need calories that don’t make you nauseous.

Oh, and the non-toxic mosquito repellant didn’t work.

Fearless and Foolish

When I returned to Yosemite with my husband in 2004, after spending a night up on Clouds Rest, we hiked over to Sunrise Lakes and spent a night there.

Sunrise Lakes consists of three lakes that are at different elevations on the mountain.  We hiked our way up to the top lake, eventually coming to an area that was a popular place to camp.  As we passed a group’s campsite, a young woman stepped out of a tent.  She told us her friends went on a day hike and she decided to stay behind and read.  After chatting for a bit, we continued on, hiking over a ridge and finding a spot to set up our own, much smaller camp.

After getting our site setup, we were about to take a dip in the lake when the girl from next door appeared.

“Uh. . . can I hang out with you guys for a little bit?” she asked.

As it turned out, there was a black bear in her campsite.  I insisted we go back and chase it away or it would never leave them alone.

So, we returned to her site to discover a relatively small black bear (who was actually brown) had found a bag of trash that had been left in an open bear canister.

I have to take a moment to get on a soap box here.  We had never backpacked in a park where you had to use bear canisters before.  But, when we got our permit, the ranger explained to us why we needed them and how to use them.  We followed the instructions carefully.  They were simple:

  1. Anything that has a scent must go into the bear canister.
  2. Your kitchen area must be at least 50 feet from your tent
  3. Any and all leftover food, pot scrapings, wrappers, trash, etc have scent; refer to rule 1.
  4. The bear canister must be properly closed.
  5. A properly closed bear canister can be set on the ground in the kitchen area.

Although we found evidence the next morning that a bear had come through our campsite, as the rangers promised, when it discovered all the goodies were unobtainable in our canisters, it quietly moved along without even knocking over a canister.

But, back at our neighbors’ campsite, I should have been afraid of a roughly 400 pound bear with scary claws, but, he just seemed like a bigger version of our dog.  I experienced no fear.  I led the three of us as we shouted, clapped, and threw rocks.  Between throwing and clapping, I took as many photos as I could.  I can’t say I spent a lot of time on composition.

We chased the bear away, but, unfortunately, our neighbors didn’t learn their lesson.  A13 year old in the group left a container of Gatorade in her backpack and the bear harassed them all night long.

It makes me sad to think that bear may have eventually paid the ultimate price because people couldn’t follow simple instructions.

Climbing Up the Walls

Having made space in my photo library, I, of course, had to fill it.  I did this by importing an old archive of photos into my favorite photo management tool, Aperture.

An interesting thing happens when you import an old archive:  you watch your life flash before your eyes in the most literal of ways.

As I sat there going through time, I was reminded of many amazing things I’ve experienced in my life.  Of course, I find a starling with white tail feathers (which still eludes my camera) amazing, so I guess I’m easy to amaze.  I consider that a virtue.

Among these memories are a few moments when I was scared and not sure I could do something, but I did it anyway.  I’m sharing one of those today.

I had traveled to Yosemite with some friends I’d been training with for my first triathlon.  We went to San Francisco first where some of them (not me) did Escape from Alcatraz.  That was above my pain tolerance level.

In Yosemite, at the base of Half Dome, I stood looking up at the climb to the top of the dome and nearly didn’t attempt it.  If I am completely honest, it was only pride that motivated me to do the climb.

It’s hard to describe the climb.  I guess if you imagined people walking across a rope bridge and then imagine the bridge is vertical, hanging down the side of a mountain, and only has a floor-board every 10 feet, that would be close.

The boards are flat against the rock so you can perch and rest for as long as the people behind you will tolerate.  It’s probably not quite as vertical as it seems, but I felt like we were walking up a wall.

You are not tied to anything and you do not use any special gear.  Gloves are highly recommended, however.  If you arrive without a pair, there is a pile of gloves at the start of the climb left by those who completed it.  These are simple work gloves–nothing special.

I don’t know how long it took to complete this climb.  I just remember feeling grateful that someone slower than me was ahead of me–that gave me the time I needed to recover between resting perches.

When I made it to the top, what breath I had left was completely taken away.  There is an interesting phenomena that the harder I have to work for a view, the more amazing it is.  Part of the amazement is the sense of incredibly great fortune that I, a mere mortal of lower-than-average athleticism, am among the few to see it.

When Pat and I went to Yosemite together a couple years later, I tried to talk him into doing the climb.  That was a non-starter.  We hiked to several other views that were probably just as mind blowing, but they didn’t come with quite the same sense of elation.

*Photograph Credits:  these are not mine (in fact, I’m in 2 of them).  I’m not sure which friends took them, but I’m happy to have them.  Especially since I haven’t found my own photos from this trip–they may be in print only.

Among the Clouds

In 2004, I talked my now-husband into going backpacking in Yosemite.  I carefully planned a 67-mile trek around the top of Yosemite Valley that I figured we’d be able to complete in 7 days.  Pat said no.  I re-planned, reducing our plan to 42 miles in 7 days  Pat was dubious, so I added “escape routes” so that if we decided to retreat to the valley and stay in a hotel, we could.

Pat had never backpacked before, but having been to Hawaii with me for 2 weeks a couple years earlier, he had learned what happened if he allowed me to set an itinerary without supervision.  At the end of our trip, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do that we didn’t get to.  His answer was, “Well, it might have been nice to have one day to just hang out at the beach.”

There are so many stories to tell from this trip to Yosemite, but I will stick to the ones associated with these few photos (taken with my old Powershot G3).  The red flowers are called snow plants.  Because they only grow in California and Nevada at very specific altitudes in conifer forests between May and July, I suppose it’s not a surprise I’d never seen one before.  But it was such a surprise, bursting out of the forest floor in the shadows as we made our way up to the top of El Capitan.

The rest of the photos were taken from Clouds Rest.  We had hiked all day to get to the top of Clouds Rest, the highest point visible from the valley.  Along the way, we saw many yellow-bellied marmots, a wide variety of squirrels and chipmunks, and one very curious mule deer buck who had walked up to us as if he wasn’t sure what we were.

We were also treated to increasingly amazing views of the Sierra Nevada mountains stretching endlessly beyond the horizon.  But, when at long last we made it to the top, we sat mute in a state of awe for a half an hour before we decided to hurry up and get camp setup and get ourselves ready for bed in time to sit and watch the sunset.

We found a spot to pitch the tent below the ridge, made our dinner following strict guidelines to avoid bear invasions, got our accommodations all arranged, and put on some extra warm clothes.  Then, we sat on the ridge and watched the light changing across the valley as the sun sank below the mountains and the mist rose in the valley.  We sat there for over an hour feeling like there was nothing more we needed to be satisfied in life than sitting on that ridge together watching the wonder of mountains.

While we had many inspiring moments on that trip, I think if that would have been the only place we hiked to, we still would have gone home satisfied.