Resting Up On Clouds Rest

2 June 2014 in Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Tioga Road, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

Well I may have exaggerated the comforts of camping last night. We purchased a new light weight tent, but made the mistake of thinking we could comfortably snuggle into a one person tent. With the dimensions given online it seemed doable and the difference in weight between the one person model and the the two person model was substantial. Unfortunately it was cramped to say the least. We had to overlap our camping pads in the middle and this left us both rolling towards the outer wall of the tent.

We have plans to try a different method next time, but this time around we got little to no sleep and awoke with heavy bags under our eyes. On the upside this got us up early. It was still difficult to pull ourselves out of the warm confines of our sleeping bags and into the frozen air of the morning—our tent actually had thin sheets of frozen condensation on it. But not wishing to waste the efforts and challenges of camping that we had exchanged for a closer base camp I got up and started to get things ready.

Cold spaghetti for breakfast was difficult to choke down as I sat shivering uncontrollably at the picnic table, but the promise of hot tea once the pan was emptied kept me eating. Once I was done I washed out the pan in the creek and gathered more water, setting it to boil on the camp stove. To my dismay, well before achieving any sort of boil—and therefore well before purification—the fuel ran out in our stove. My hands were frozen from submersion in the icy creek and I had no hot tea and no fuel. I wasn’t ready to take the time to rebuild the campfire and so I woke up Lindsay and we started packing up.

It didn’t take us long. We were both motivated by the thought of a warm drive to the trailhead with the heat blasting. When we started the car it struggled a little and the thermometer read 28 degrees. What were we back in Wisconsin?

The drive was nice and warming, but the prospect of putting on my shoes was not so pleasant. I had trudged through a creek the previous day and they had never properly dried. So this morning they were frozen and the short drive did little to thaw them and nothing when it came to drying them. But I sucked it up and slid them on. Nothing would have gotten me out of the warm truck and down the trail any faster than frosty shoes.

We were layered in warm clothes and watched our breath escape like puffs of smoke as we set our feet to marching down the trail. Almost immediately we arrived at the bank of a shallow, wide creek. There were rocks and logs strung across it, but some of the logs still had morning frost coating them and presented the threat of refreezing my feet and Lindsay’s should we slip. Often, in warmer weather we’d just plunge right in, but not this morning. We carefully crossed the logs and rocks with light and precisely placed steps.

As we continued on, the gradual hills hit a wall of sorts and our hike transitioned into a climb up drastically steep switchbacks that seemed to have no end. Most passages were lined with stone, the kind we have found punishes your feet, especially in the minimalist shoes we favor. These sections of trail also tend to leave us gasping for air as our lungs struggle to keep up with the increased demand for oxygen from our burning muscles. But the immediate views of the surrounding area as we ascended kept us climbing and the promise of the even better views awaiting us aided in the lift and repeat of each leg.

I always keep a careful eye on the tree line above me when hiking these sections. As that line begins to thin and sky starts to fill in the background it is usually is a sign that we’re about to crest a section of steep trail. And after several cycles of exhaustion and recovery we finally overtook this oppressive portion of trail and were back to more moderate hills and valleys. Upon descending down one such valley we happened to spot a grouse and her chicks darting to and fro amongst the bushes. It was really cute watching the tiny hatchlings scurry about trying to follow their mother to safe hiding places. We watched for a moment, but didn’t want to disturb them and so we proceeded on.

Most trails in the park don’t post signs unless there are junctures with other trails and so often times you’re left to guess how far you’ve traveled and how far you have to go, but this trail connects with a few other trails and so we were given updates periodically as to our progress. We had already passed the sign acknowledging we had carried ourselves 2.5 miles and the next sign informed us we had covered the second third of the total 7.5 mile trail. Here we had a snack and a small break. We were setting a pace beyond our initial expectations and so this was a small celebration.

The last leg of trail was another climb. Starting out moderate across a wide swath of forest it gradually narrowed and grew steeper. The edges closed in on us and before we knew it the drop offs were just steps away and offered breathtaking views outward across the valley and vertigo inducing views downward thousands of feet. It was tolerable and ignorable at first, but soon the safe buffer disappeared and the edges were within reach should we spread our arms for balance.

The last section of trail—or foot path as it was called on the sign—was a literal staircase of rocks with no handrail on either side. What keeps you in the middle is the perilous drops awaiting you should you stray or lose your balance. At first this stairway seemed to end a short distance ahead, but when we had summited it we found the trail continued along a more flat route with the sheer drops approaching closer to where we stepped and then widening back out. Without previous exposure and assimilation to such heights I don’t think either of us would have made it across this section, but we had built up our tolerances to trails like this over the course of the last couple years and so we were able to overcome our fears and trust ourselves.

The view from the point was unlike anything we’d seen so far. We had thought we had seen the iconic Half Dome from every angle, but we now stood above the otherwise towering giant. This was the highest point from which we’d ever seen Yosemite Valley. As the name of the point had hinted at we were literally in the space where clouds reside. But today was another crystal clear day. We could see for miles and not a single cloud dotted the blue sky. The Valley receded below us in the shadows of Half Dome. To our right lay the start of the valley cut deep by the mighty Merced River. Rotating around from there the High Sierra unfolded before us, an inconceivable clustered of snow capped peaks leading back to and past the massive Tenaya Lake.

Once again we sat and took it all in. Giving the scenery that has formed over the last hundred million years the proper respect and attention it deserved. Not much was said, but our mouths remained open, agape, in awe. Our eyes wandered the landscape, while our feet remained static. And our minds were fully engaged, but absent, free from the past and the future, completely submersed in the moment. To lay eyes on these views is to rewrite what is possible. Your are forced to recalibrate and concede that the pictures and film you saw these places through were not doctored or manipulated to sensationalize the scenery. They are actually beautiful failures. They are sufficiently insufficient at capturing the true grandeur of these places. Their mediums simply cannot piece together the scope, the scale, or the size. Not to mention the exhilaration of cresting the last stretch of trail on tired feet, with gasping lungs. The bright sun warming your body while burning your skin and blinding your sight. The wind gusting and dying, reminding you of the height of your perch. And of course the all incapsulating view. Sure there are panoramas, but they are limited to 360 degrees spun upon a single plane. When you’re standing there in person it is beyond all re-creation, beyond the possibilities of reproduction or representation. And I am just another failure as I type here.



A Couple of Lakes and a Tiny Tent

1 June 2014 in Hiking, Memories, Tioga Road, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

The original plan—before we abandoned our planning for having a drink or two and sleeping late—was to hike Cloud’s Rest today. But I would not allow a day off to go by without accomplishing something and so I threw together an alternate plan – we would do a couple of small day hikes, test out our new tent at one of the campgrounds along Tioga Road, and get a bright and early start closer to the trailhead for Cloud’s Rest tomorrow.

This allowed us a little bit of time to spend leisurely preparing and cooking up our traditional weekend breakfast—basically anything large and unhealthy, today it was hash browns and soyrizo. After emptying the skillet and hastily planning our dinner, breakfast and lunch for the following days we pulled out and made our way up to Porcupine Flat. It was the closest base camp and at $10 a night it was a steal.

We found a campsite strategically located along the creek and situated in area of the campground where we were likely to have few, if any neighbors. It also had a pile of fresh cut logs and some recently cleared brush piled nearby. And so we quickly set up our tent and threw our meager rations in the bear box and we were off. On our way out we spotted a cute little marmot that wasn’t the least bit shy of us. We stopped just a few feet away from it and there it sat munching on a small leaf, sat atop it’s hind legs.

We decided May Lake was a good hike to start with. I had re-hiked this trail after encountering dense fog the first time Lindsay and I hiked it together and I was eager to share the beautiful views with her. With the road that was previously closed now open the hike to the lake is just a little over a mile. Barely enough to warm us up nowadays, but still a pleasant jaunt.

We headed off trail just before the lake and I showed Lindsay the hidden campsite I had discovered previously. It’s tucked up and away from the trail, it’s perfectly flat and resides against a nice wind breaking wall with the rest of the surrounding area open to majestic views of the high sierra and Tenaya Lake.

After taking it all in and having our chickpea salad sandwiches we trekked through the woods and followed the stream that trickles out of the May Lake up to its shores. It was a clear blue day—this seems to be the norm here—and not a cloud or hint there of obstructed our view this time. We wandered the shoreline and marveled at the purity and crystal clear nature of the water. These snow melt fed lakes are really beyond comprehension until you see one. They’re picturesque to the point of absurdity.

Abandoning the tranquil waters of May Lake we climbed up on top of a large embankment of rock just a hundred yards from the shore. The wind had died down just enough to allow us a moment peace as we reclined in the shallow niches of wavy rock. The sun was warming, but the air was cold and when the wind pushed it along a little it could cut right through you. Eventually these intermittent gusts saturated us thoroughly and set us back upon the trail and back to the truck.

With not even three miles in today we were in need of another trail. We didn’t want to wear ourselves out—we wanted to have plenty of leg left for tomorrow—but we also had no intention of spending the rest of the day sitting around on our duffs. So we settled on Elizabeth Lake. From what Lindsay could remember it was supposed to be a fairly flat and easy trail.

Lindsay misremembered. It was almost all uphill. Was I not such a stubborn bastard we might have just turned around, but when it comes to hiking I want to see what’s around the corner, what’s ahead. I can’t turn back once I’ve started and Lindsay is always right there huffing and puffing behind me. So up we went. Up sandy paths, up boulder ridden routes, and up through tangles of trees and roots. It wasn’t that it was the steepest trail we’d hiked or the longest, it wasn’t even close to either. It was tough and trying because it was unexpected and because we knew there was fourteen miles of tough trail waiting for us tomorrow.

A payoff for our effort and tenacity revealed itself in the form of yet another immaculate meadow leading to an exquisite lake. These hidden paradises are incredibly abundant here and yet each time I stubble upon one I’m as captivated as I was the first time. They surprise me and something in their simple lush beauty catches me off guard and hits my senses in all the right places. Show me a picture of this and I would likely be unimpressed, but let me walk into one and the experience is awe-inspiring.

We hiked a portion of the lakeshore before our hunger drew us back towards the truck and our campsite. It was past dinner time and outside of our large breakfast we had hardly ate much today and had hiked eight miles. When we arrived back at the campsite Lindsay went to cooking dinner and I got a fire started.

This might seem a tad silly, camping out just 30 miles from home on a cold night, sharing a tiny tent, cooking spaghetti and eating it out of the pan while huddling around a fire to keep warm, but we wouldn’t trade it for a five star hotel with a cozy bed and a fancy meal in a nice restaurant. There is something to be found in the minor struggles and inconveniences of camping. The meal tastes so much better when there’s some challenges to preparing it – collecting water from the stream, boiling it to purify it, cooking on a tiny camp stove or over the open fire and using the two person, two fork method for straining it. When all is said and done, and everything has been cooked, eaten and cleaned the tiny tent and thin camp pads feel just as good as any fancy pillow top bed. Well at least sometimes.

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Mono Rail, Mono Rail… I Mean Mono Pass

1 June 2014 in Hiking, Memories, Tioga Road, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

With my knee still giving me grief from the previous 13 miles I tacked on the day before we decided to take it easy today and just hike 7 miles. Again it was up to the high country and so a long, but beautiful drive was in order. This time, for the first time, I made Lindsay drive and I was able to leisurely gaze out the window at the gorgeous scenery.

I cannot believe that three years ago we came here to visit and camped right next to the entrance of this road and never even considered driving up here. But I guess we were like 90% of Yosemite’s visitors, we were only interested in the Valley and the big trees. While I enjoy the peaceful nature that would be ruined by more visitors in the high country it is sad that so many people miss out on this wonderful place.

The trailhead to Mono Pass is almost all the way across Tioga Pass, about 40 miles, but eventually we parked and set out upon the trail. Meandering through the forest we made our way across streams and low laying stretches of spongy marsh. Then we proceeded up through rocky terrain and switchbacks, over a hump and down along a long meadow set within the basin of the surrounding mountains. On the east side of the park the mountains looked weathered and older. They were covered in loose stone and resembled gigantic gravel piles. For the most part they were lifeless. There were no trees, no vegetation of any sort, and seemingly few places for marmots, pikas or ground squirrels to make homes. They reminded us of the barren, volcanically produced mountains near Flagstaff.

As we made our way along side the meadow the dissipating forest gave way and the wind picked up. We were approaching the pass and gusts of wind blasted through at increasing speeds. There was a bare hillside to our left and a few shallow lakes to our right, but nothing to impede the strength of the wind. We had planned to lunch at the pass, but when we stepped up to the sign that acknowledged we had arrived there was little to see. Technically we were at an elevation 10599 feet, but there was no stunning view to be had here just the punishing, and increasingly brisk wind. It was kind of a let down and had we returned to the truck I might have been very disappointed, but we wanted our lunch and a nice place to eat it and so we continued on.

Immediately after the pass you enter the Inyo National Forest and exit Yosemite. I had an inkling that there might be a breathtaking view just around the corner and out of sight so we hiked an additional half mile or so. Each corner was a let down, but the next bend off in the distance gave hope. Finally I rounded a corner and came up over a hill and there was our view. I quickly gestured to Lindsay with a thumbs up and a hurried curling of my arm and hand to come here quick. There, far below us was Mono Lake. We had seen the lake before, it is a barren, uninviting lake, surrounded by lifeless, empty stretches of land. It looks like something you’d see in Death Valley or some other arid desert, but it’s just beyond the boundaries of the eastern Sierra rich with green meadows and bubbling streams, wild flowers and crystal clear alpine lakes.

The contrast was stunning and while the lake far below didn’t draw me in and beckon exploration it was quite the scene from above. And so we found a wall of rock behind which to hide from the wind and we had our sandwiches.

After returning to the trailhead we still had plenty of time left in the day and had used a lot of gas to cross the pass and so we decided to go check out the famous Mobile Station in Lee Vining. Since we arrived in April almost every park employee we encountered had mentioned this place. They had music, there was good food, and it was so much more than just a gas station. I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. I had dreamt up an image in my mind of an old and weathered building ramshackle and full of character. What stood before me was essentially a travel center. It was a brand new building filed with touristy crap, your standard gas station fair, and a deli. The deli was beyond the standard hot dog rollers and red light pizzas, but this was really the only factor that made this place standout.

We decided when in Rome… or I guess when in Lee Vining at THE Mobile Station we’d try to sample a little of the magic. So we pooled together the little cash we had and bought tap of beer and some fries from the deli. Being the nomadic scavengers that we are we raided the condiment section and took the otherwise ordinary fries and made them extraordinary. We had four different combinations of dipping sauce – two hot ketchups, one thousand island, and one spicy mustard all mixed using the basic ingredients provided and then we dusted our the fries with parmesan cheese. I have heard they have music here and maybe it turns into quite the happening place, but I can’t see making the hour and a half drive out this way just for the food or the atmosphere.

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Out Of Thin Air

1 January 2014 in Hiking, Memories, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park


Camping at Vogelsang Backpackers CampWhen you are down before the sun it’s pretty easy to be back up before it rises. Last night was maybe the first time since I was a child that I was sleeping before the sun even went down and Lindsay was snoring right there with me. So this morning it was inevitable that I would be up before sunrise — Lindsay slept a little longer.

I went ahead and put the tea on — meaning I assembled our camp stove, filled the pan with a little water, tried to light the burner, knocked it over spilling the water, swore, refilled the pan, and got it properly fired up. Then I took in my cloudy surroundings. The dark mass that was looming over the sawtooth peak directly behind us had not moved an inch. It had released a small drizzle the previous evening, but it was certainly capable of more. There were wispier clouds floating by below it giving the illusion that it was moving, but it was not. Every inch of sky seemed to be covered in various forms of cloud with varying threat levels. Some where a dull haze barely interrupting the rays of the sun, others were a heavy fog that crowned the distant peaks, but nothing shouted “get out quick, there’s a storm a brewin!” And so we stuck with our original plan and exited upon the longer route via Lyell Canyon.

Cathedral Mountain RangeLyell Canyon — and the subsequent Mount Lyell which it leads to — were named after Sir Charles Lyell a famous geologist and contain one of the park’s few remaining glaciers. We would not be heading to another summit though, but rather descending deep down into the canyon. Initially, before entering the canyon, we passed a few additional lakes, their cold, clear waters numbing our hands as we filled our water bottles. Then we crossed a stretch of rocky trail that wound through a sparse forest of gnarled and dwarfed cedars that refused to submit to the harsh conditions this location readily provided. At the end of this portion the view exposed another amazing scene of mountains and valleys, clouds and sky. These new worlds you visit while crossing the High Sierra make all the leg straining, body breaking effort worth it. Even when I’m on weary feet there’s a jump in my step when I realize I’m approaching another amazing view.

Descending into Lyell CanyonAfter absorbing the beauty of the pass we made our descent, down into Lyell Canyon. The path was choked with pine, both standing and fallen. If you had to bushwhack through this area it would require a chainsaw. It looked like a trail crew had done just that a short while ago. I’m not sure if the winter felled these trees or a giant ogre, but large stands of mature trees were scattered about like toothpicks and where they crossed the trail openings were cut. I would not have felt comfortable sleeping in this threatening forest. Every creak of a tree in the wind would have had me trembling.

As we made our way through this dense forest the trail seemed to be leading us down into a ravine of impossible depth. It certainly hadn’t felt like we had conquered this much elevation on the previous day’s climb, but down, down, down we went. And just when I thought we had hit bottom we plunged deeper. I was certainly glad we hadn’t hiked this loop in reverse, trekking up this trail would have been unpleasant to say the least.

In time though—a much shorter time than it seemed—we were released from the confines of pine and the trail flattened out and followed a winding creek. Here we once again could clearly see the sky and it was finally blue. Mountains of bright white clouds grew above the mountains of ancient rock, but in the middle was the pure, blue sky of a sunny day. The creek glistened and the green grass danced in the breeze.

Marmot Village in Lyell CanyonOne of the first things we encountered upon entering this new ecosystem was a marmot motel. A large and flat slab of rock stretched out across the meadow and under it were a wealth of holes and caves. Out of these holes and on top of the rock itself were several young marmots. They’re just as cute as can be. Chubby little fur balls who often stand at attention on their hind legs—when they’re not sprawled out on their bellies sunning themselves on a rock. If we weren’t eager for the end of our hike we might have stayed here all day watching the little twerps, but we were ready to be off the trail and so we continued on.

We could almost tell how close we were to civilization by the amount of day hikers we crossed. The concentration steadily grew and grew as we approached the end. A stream of freshly showered folks in clean clothes greeted us with energetic smiles. We, on the other hand were covered in dust, in sweaty, two day old clothes and weary, but still smiling.

We had passed a wonderful set of swimming holes when we started yesterday and I knew they were within reach now so my pace quickened. When we got there I had my shoes, socks and shirt off in an instant and I dove into the icy, cold waters. I didn’t stay long, but the effect was rejuvenating and lasting. Laid out upon a rock in the sun we ate our PB and Js and couldn’t have be more happy with ourselves or the day. It was the perfect ending to another perfect weekend in Yosemite.

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Into Thin Air Again

17 September 2013 in Hiking, Memories, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

Yesterday was a bust, a waste, another day of useless rest that has a tendency to send me into an overreactive panic, but a cold one—or four—tends to alleviate the symptoms temporarily. The problem is I count my blessings daily, like rosary beads and when I feel too sedentary, static, or complacent I can spiral into a black hole consisting of the statistical fragility of our mortality. It is a curse and a blessing that has got me this far, but wears on my very being whenever I try settle down or take a little rest.

There’s a fine line to be walked and most tread on the side of ignorance when it comes to recognizing their impermanence. While the alternative side of the spectrum can be an overly reckless lifestyle that invites death, a life of safe and ignorant comfort is often merely a waste. We can’t live life as if we only have one day to live—because we may have more—but we also can’t live life promising ourselves many tomorrows in which to tend to the things of our dreams and our passions. There’s a middle ground, but it’s hard to find and takes tenacity and effort to pursue.

FootbridgeSo with eager hearts we struck out on our requisite adventure today. Another backpacking trip up into the clouds. It is a therapy capable of curing just about all that ails you. Within an hour of departing the organized chaos of society my fears and anxieties about life and my troubles and concerns about work faded away into the thin air of the High Sierra.

The morning was crisp and refreshing and the sun was warm and bright. The climb was gradual and the scenery stunning. There was nothing more to ask for. Nothing more was required beyond the simplistic beauty surrounding us. We had all we would need upon our backs and there would be nothing to find or pursue outside of a nice spot to pitch our tent. The only anxiety that rattled through my nerves now was that of anticipating what small slice of heaven awaited us over each horizon and around every curve.

Off to VogelsangThe initial path led through forests of pine and across picturesque rivers, clear as crystal and lined with granite and sand. Then we slowly gained elevation while hiking through a long and open meadow, passing small pools that collected along the creek we were following. As we came to the end of this meadow the trail leveled and jagged and barren peaks grew up from the skyline.

Vogelsang High Sierra CampBefore we knew it—well before we wished to set up camp—we were at our destination – Vogelsang. Here there was the minor atrocity of a High Sierra Camp. Run by our concessionaire, these “camps” are semipermanent facilities consisting of tent cabins, restrooms and a small stable to pen the herds of mules they use to carry supplies up to this lodging offered for the well to do hiker. At $145/night they are anything but reasonably priced and while I can somewhat see the use for those too old or incapable of hauling a full pack up to these areas they are an eyesore and a burden on the resources. Most we have passed are situated close to a lake and use the water from said lake for their facilities. This often prohibits the rest of us from swimming in these lakes. They also regularly require teams of mules to haul firewood, food and beverages up—supplies that the rest of us are carrying upon our own backs or seek out on our own. And finally they simply occupy beautiful places that would otherwise be ideal for normal backpackers or sightseeing.

Vogelsang High Sierra CampWe didn’t spend much time here and quickly continued up towards Vogelsang Pass. Along the way we partially circled an icy alpine lake and as we climbed we were afforded magnificent views of the mountains to the north. As we crested the pass a whole new array of scenery was revealed. From left to right was – a frigid blue lake surrounded by peaks naked outside of a few patches of snow, then another lake partly surrounded by trees and partly bordered by more bare pinnacles, a small waterfall cut through down to a river running the length of the valley and off in the distance was a range of spires so arresting that we would spend the next two hours just staring at them.

When the sun was overtaken by clouds and the wind was too cold to stand we wandered back down, off of the pass, in search of a campsite. We settled on a spot not far from the pass, nestled amongst a cluster of trees, with a view of the mountains to our north. After setting up the tent we went and explored the nearby lake and a small set of waterfalls that cascaded into the lake. We watched small trout attempting to ladder the waterfall, but it was far too tall for their jumps. Then we headed back to our camp and cooked dinner – rice and soy curls along with a ramen. Life was good. Life was simple. And after a good hike and the good life we were tired and in our tent before the sun even set.

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