Yosemite: Day Five

Yosemite: Day Five

Day Five

Our fourth day on the trail (and fifth day in Yosemite) was a long one. We would end up hiking nine miles over two passes, the second of which was 12,350 feet. But it was a popular trail so how bad could it be? Right? – Or so we thought as we sat there drinking our bear drool Starbucks and discussing the day ahead.

We had not passed a soul all morning; a fact we attributed to the late season. Although everything was cast in golds and burnt orange now, it wouldn’t be long before everything was covered in white. Especially at these elevations.

At midday, we stopped for lunch at a small cobalt blue lake near the base of Koip Pass. The pass looked formidable, and as hard as we looked, we couldn’t see any sign of a trail headed up and over. “It must be there,” we thought, “maybe we just aren’t looking in the right spot?”

We finish lunch, filtered some water and continued up the trail. At the base of the climb was a sign, with an arrow pointing straight ahead, on which someone has carved an additional arrow pointing right.

Right there was no visible trail at all, just a handful of random rock cairns. Straight, there was a faint trail. The topo on the GPS said right. Maybe they had moved the path?

I voted for straight, after all, why would the National Park Service missign a popular trail? Straight led us alongside a chain of pocket lakes before unceremoniously dying in a rock-strewn meadow. I chose wrong.

Carl used the GPS to get us back to the sign, where we followed the roughly carved arrow and the rock cairns to the right. This led us to a series of faint and hellish switchbacks up a large talus field. This is where I learned an important lesson, switchbacks at 12,000 feet are incredibly arduous.

We would walk one length of the switchback, stop, breathe, and then repeat. It felt like we had done this a hundred times before we reached the summit. I was so excited to see a sign on a level surface I could have kissed it… Until that is, I saw what was waiting for us on the other side…

Walking down the back side of Koip Pass is the scariest thing I had ever done. I wanted a diaper, no scrap that, I needed a diaper. I am not a huge fan of heights when they are shear, my head spins, and my feet turn to jelly. On normal people trails, this has never been an issue. I am not, however, on a “normal” trail. If this trail is “popular,” it is popular with mountain goats. It is, at most 14 inches wide and meanders across a cliff and down a talus pile that is somewhere in the steepness range of, oh, I dunno 80 degrees? There is a part of the trail that has washed out where the trail is just wide enough that if you place one foot in front of the other, you won’t fall to your death. I am scared, and I shuffle down the mountain only because my wonderful husband has my hand and is coaxing and encouraging me with every step.
When we get to the bottom and look up, he says, “I cannot believe we just came down that.” From the bottom looking up, we can see the underside of the washed out area, a stretch of glacier clinging to a shaded crag and then a sheer cliff all the way to the valley floor. We both wanted to pass out, barf, or maybe both simultaneously.
We camp as close to the Pass as we can, not because I want to look at it but because it took me so long to get down it, it’s almost dark.
The following day, when we return our bear bins to the Wilderness Office, Carl asks, “Out of curiosity, how “popular” would you say the Koip Pass Trail is? Would you say 1,000 people a year?”
The ranger laughs, “No.”
“50? 100?”
“Maybe 20.”
When I’m done writing Backpacking 101, I think I should read Chapter 1.

Yosemite: Day Four

Yosemite: Day Four

Day Four

During his morning stroll to our bear can, Carl discovered a ripped open bag of half-eaten tea satchels, something that was sweet and pink but was so gnawed up it was impossible to tell what it had once been, and ten packs of Starbucks Via coffee less than a hundred feet from our tent.

We set off to find the owners. Mostly because I was mad and I wanted to know which idiot hadn’t stored their food properly. I know that sounds mean, but by not following the rules they put everyone in camp, and the poor bear, in danger. Yosemite has a stringent bear policy. If this bear became accustomed to people food, he wasn’t going to be relocated; he was going to be killed.

We don’t find anyone missing food. Instead, we meet a couple who’s foodstuffs had been in a Kevlar Bear Sack tied to a little Charlie Brown Christmas Special tree about fifty feet from their tent. The bag was more or less intact if you overlook the giant teeth holes, but everything inside was a crushed mess. They hadn’t even heard him.

This, they believed, was partly due to the sleeping drugs they had taken the night before, and partly due to the hairs between a bears foot pads that make them stealthy little buggers.

I suddenly had a new chapter for my book.

“Chapter 3: If a Bear Rips into Your Food Stuffs, Does it Make a Sound?”

I am neither a scientist nor a genius, but looking at the teeth marks in their food bag, I questioned the “bear-proof-ness” of the Kevlar Bear Sack. It appeared to be the equivalent of sticking a sandwich in a Ziploc baggy and tying it to a twig and then insisting it was raccoon proof. I mean technically, I guess, the food was still in the bag, mostly, but it was most definitely no longer edible, which in my mind kind of defeated the purpose. Meh, what did I know? Maybe they had been using it wrong; they seemed groggy and a little drunk.

We asked if they needed food, but oddly enough, they insisted they had all they needed. They also told us the food we had found, had likely belonged to an Asian man they had met the night before. He was out of water, lying “overturned turtle” on his backpack, calling for help. I had a sneaking suspicion I knew who this was. They filtered him water as he told them the story of how he had gotten separated from his friends. Unfortunately, the way they had divided the gear, one was carrying all of the water filtration equipment, one had the tent, one had most of the food, etc. The man had told them he had been “leaving” things on the trail to help lighten the load. They had already found his cologne. Carl and I laughed and told them we had his food and sandals. As funny as it was, all of us hoped the four of them made it out alive.

Back at our tent, we rummaged through the garbage we had collected from around the tent. Most of it ended up in our trash, but the Starbucks Via coffees were completely unharmed! I guess bears don’t like Starbucks coffee, which worked out brilliantly for us because we did but we were too cheap to buy any! After rinsing the slobber off of them, they were as good as new!

We ate breakfast next to the sparkling blue waters of the lake. Near the edge of the lake, a “Pacific Crest Trail” sign was just visible.

“One day, I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.” Carl mused as we ate our oats and happily sipped our Starbucks.

Sounded like a pretty good adventure to me, though I highly doubted it would ever happen.

We hadn’t been on the trail for more than an hour when the couple with the Kevlar Bear Sack came passed.

Carl was happy to see they were packing out because earlier the man had not been very coherent and Carl was afraid he was suffering from altitude sickness. I had thought it was the sleeping pills.

“Weren’t you going to stay two nights?” Carl asked. “Or did you decide to head back a day early because the bear mauled your food?”

The man thought about this.

“No. We were going to spend two nights, but the bear ate our food. So we’re going to head back today.”

‘Wait, isn’t that what I just said?’ Carl looked at me quizzically.

“Book Chapter 4: Are You Drunk or Just Too High: Knowing the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness.”

Gem Lake was perfectly tranquil, and we had the entire thing to ourselves. And at Gem Lake, I found two of my absolute favorite things – silence and stillness. Finding ourselves a premium campsite on a large piece of exposed rock that hung out a hundred feet above the lake, we sat down and drank it all in.

It’s amazing how well you can sleep when there’s no one yelling at bears…

Yosemite: Day Three

Yosemite: Day Three

Day Three

The morning was chilly, and once we’d shaken the frost off of the tent, we were eager to get back on the trail just to stay warm.

On the hike up to the top of the pass we passed three men on their way down, but other than that the trail was all ours. And what a beautiful trail it was – wide, with flat rock stairs, and perfect grades. I cannot get over how spectacular America’s National Parks are.

We were approaching the top of the pass when we encountered a fourth man. Standing majestically on a rock outcropping, one hand on his hip, the other holding a GPS, he reminded me of a bald eagle preparing for flight.

“You haven’t seen three other Asian guys, have you? I lost them last night when I was lost for three hours trying to find Thousand Islands Lake,” he asked, grinning from ear to ear.

We responded that we had passed three men earlier. He was happy to hear they were only an hour or so ahead of him. It turned out this was their first backpack ever. They were hiking sixty-nine miles in five days. This was day three.

“I am learning a lot!” he said enthusiastically. “Weight is important. My pack is too heavy, so I have just been leaving stuff on the trail. Hopefully, someone else will pick it up!”

Carl and I were curious as to what exactly he had been “leaving” on the trail.

“Oh, you know, like my colognes and stuff.”

I am by no means an expert backpacker. In fact, (assuming we survived and didn’t have to throw any pinecones or rocks at hungry bears) this forty miles would be the longest backpack I had ever taken. I was a weekend warrior. Ten miles to a lake, overnight, ten miles back. I stood there, looking at this entirely too enthusiastic man, completely bewildered by him.

I don’t know what was more perplexing to me, the fact that for their first backpack ever, they were eagerly attempting sixty-nine miles in five days. The fact that he was hiking with cologne (hot date? bear attractant?) Or the fact that he was lightening his load by leaving his shit stuff in piles on the forest floor. Or maybe it was just a combination of all of those things, combined with the fact that he had been lost overnight, seemed less than worried about it, and that his buddies had just left him up there.

As we left, I got the idea to one day write a cheeky book called “Backpacking 101.” As we hiked up the trail, I formulate the first two sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek chapter titles:

“Chapter 1: Ambition vs. Stupidity, How to Choose a Trail that’s Right for You” and, “Chapter 2: You are Not a Donkey, Notes on Packing Light.”

Four miles further up the trail, we stumbled across a pair of sandals, and a gallon Ziploc bag full of half-eaten foodstuffs stacked neatly together on a rock. Carl picked up the shoes; I grabbed the food bag and, thanks to our overzealous friend, our packs instantly became that much heavier.

Thousand Islands Lake was stunning. We rolled into camp just in time to get the tent up before it rained. Much to our dismay, the campground was surprisingly full. We snagged the last available campsite, which provided a jaw-dropping view of the sepia sunset that ripped through the clouds, casting the mountains and the perfect alpine lake dotted haphazardly with hundreds of tiny little rock islands, in a haunting orange hue.

“Honey, wake up! Someone is yelling at a bear!” Carl whispered in my ear.

Groggily, I opened my eyes. It was pitch black. Listening intently, I heard voices in the distance.

“Get out! Go On! Get out of here!”

“Either that or he and his girlfriend got in a fight,” I replied, but Carl didn’t find my joke to be that funny.

I unzipped the tent door and watched entertained as two headlamps bobbed after a black shadow in the night. He wasn’t a big bear, but he was hungry, and they obviously had something he desperately wanted because he just kept on going back for more.

My survival instincts are strong, and they distinctly told me not to get out of the tent and throw rocks at the hungry bear. Instead, we did what any sane person would do, zipped up the tent door, and went back to sleep.

Yosemite: Day One & Two

Yosemite: Day One & Two

Day One

We were in Yosemite; this was exciting for two reasons. One, I had never been to Yosemite. Two, we had read that Yosemite had seven hundred and fifty miles of trails, and we had every intention of using at least forty of them.

Our goal had been to arrive in Yosemite month’s earlier to backpack with our good friend and backpacking Guru Captain Analogy. But in our bliss of finally traveling with no set-in-stone plans, we had become sidetracked and waylaid in route. It was now mid-September, Captain Analogy was long gone, and we had finally just arrived.

We set up camp in the Porcupine Flats Campground and had been there for all of five minutes when our camp neighbor Wayne wandered in to say “hello.” Wayne was a philosopher, a poet, and an ultralight, long-distance hiker who I felt was lying when he insisted he was seventy years old. If Wayne was seventy, I weighed a hundred and ten pounds (psst…I don’t weight a hundred and ten pounds.)

Within minutes of introducing himself, he had a plethora of National Geographic hiking maps sprawled across our picnic table, showing us his favorite hikes, and planning Carl and my next backpack. It was simple, twenty-one miles up the John Muir portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, over Donohue Pass and into the Ansel Adams Wilderness to Thousand Islands Lake. From there we could either turn around or we could make a loop by hiking over to Gem Lake, up and over Koip Pass and back into the Yosemite Valley. If we decided to make the circuit, he recommended checking trail conditions with a ranger as he had never done that section of trail. Well, that settled that; we hadn’t even been in the park for an hour, and we already had a plan. Wayne insisted we keep his map, “just in case we needed it.”

At ten o’clock the following morning, we were at the Permit Office.

“How is the Koip Pass Trail? Is it easy? Hard?” Carl asked.

“I don’t know your fitness level. For liability reasons, I can’t really say. I can, however, tell you it is a popular trail.”

“Well,” we reasoned, “if it was a popular trail that meant it was well traveled; if it was well traveled, that had to mean it was well maintained.” What could possibly be wrong with that logic?

“Does the shuttle still run between trailheads, or is it too late in the season? Can we leave our motorcycle at one end?” Carl asked, working out the logistics.

“No shuttles, you can leave your bike or just hitchhike.”

“Where do we leave the bear canisters at night?” I asked. We had never hiked anywhere with a “bear can” rule before.

“About a hundred feet from your tent should do. You want it to be close enough that you can hear the bear if it starts messing with it, that way you can provide negative reinforcement by throwing rocks and pinecones at him.”

Wait, what? Had she just said she wanted us to throw rocks…at a bear…in the middle of the night? Does anyone else find it odd that the Rangers couldn’t, for liability reasons, suggest or describe a hiking trail, but yet they could recommend hitchhiking and throwing rocks and pinecones at an animal that could take your head off with one bite? As a society, we had dug ourselves into a very bizarre hole.

Hefting the rented bear canister off the counter, we made our way out of the office.

“Did she just tell us to throw rocks and pinecones at a friggin’ bear?” Carl asked when we were in the parking lot and out of earshot.

Well, at least I hadn’t been the only one thinking, “W.T.A.F!?”

Day Two

We had the best intentions of getting to the trail at the ass-crack of dawn, but by the time we said goodbye to our chatty new friend Wayne and dropped our “shuttle vehicle” (Carl’s little motorbike) off at the end of the trail, it was well past noon.

Starting at the Lyell Canyon Trailhead behind the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center, our trail led through forest and meadow, over sparkling white granite and across a short wooden bridge. Soon we found ourselves hugging the side of a long meadow, tucked in the valley between two towering peaks. The Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River meandered slowly through the gilded grass.

It was fall, and although the morning air was crisp, the ambient midday temperature was perfect for hiking. The contrast of the bare white granite enveloped in golden aspen leaves contrasted brilliantly against the crisp blue sky. This was the stunning backdrop as we worked our way deep into the Yosemite backcountry. We were in heaven.

In no rush, we spent our first night at the edge of an alpine meadow, just before the trail started to climb up Donohue Pass.

Zion “Narrows” – Into the Abyss

Zion “Narrows” – Into the Abyss

“You’re going to Zion? Okay, you guys have to experience Zion the way I first did. Don’t even go into the park, hike in through the “Narrows,” spend at least three days and call me when you get out.”

I was eavesdropping as Carl talked to his brother Stan. I whipped out my phone and Googled, “The Narrows Zion.” My gaze fell upon the words “Number Five on National Geographic’s Top 100 American Adventures,” and I was sold! This hike was our new priority.

The Narrows, I continued reading, was a spectacular sixteen mile stretch of canyon carved by the Virgin River. According to the National Park Service, it was a hike that was “not to be underestimated.” There was no maintained trail, the trail was the river, and it ran swift and cold. Up to sixty percent of the hike was in the actual river — walking, wading, or swimming. Flash floods, were common and could be deadly.

“Double bag your electronics, dry bags recommended,” read another warning.

This sounded deliciously entertaining.

What ensued was the typical flurry of spontaneous, unorganized planning that was typical of all our best adventures. The water was running at 44 CFS, and the weather was forecasted to be clear and warm for the foreseeable future. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time to do this hike.

Reservations, made weeks in advance, were highly recommended. But, we were literally at the park entrance before we had ever even heard of the Narrows, and so we entered the backcountry permit office with nothing but high hopes and sheepish smiles to ask what the odds were of getting a permit for the following day. The ranger laughed, then check the system. Bewildered, he informed us there had been a slew of cancellations, and nearly every site was empty!

Five minutes and ten dollars later, we were back in the parking lot with a permit, the phone numbers for the three shuttle companies that made drop-offs at the trailhead, and two shiny silver bags for carrying our “waste” out of the canyon with us!

“Shudder!” I thought as I made a mental note to turn off my digestion for the next two days.

The shuttles left at 6:30 and 9:30 am and cost thirty-five dollars per person for the one and a half hour ride from Springdale to the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch. We booked the 6:30 and then promptly realized that meant getting out of bed entirely too early to hike in the cold, so we called back and switched to the 9:30.

We had roughly sixteen hours to figure out footwear, dry bags, backpacks and food! We made a mad dash to the nearest grocery store, rented some dry bags, and found a campsite were we could sprawl our gear out on the picnic table to pack.

When we woke up the following morning, there was frost on the ground, and we were happy we had made the switch to the later shuttle. Hiking through a river (or swimming) in frosty temperatures would have been unpleasant. The ride to Chamberlain’s found us in a shuttle with two couples and a solitary man. We would be the only group headed into the canyon that day.

John, our driver, played tour guide as we headed out of town. He left us at the trailhead with the following advice, “that is the Virgin River, stick with it, and you can’t get lost.”

Sounded simple enough.

The first two miles of the trail wound along an old dirt road that meandered through meadow and desert scrub; we passed the time chatting with the solitary hiker, Tom.

Almost as soon as we left the road, enormous orange canyon walls appeared before us and before long, we were completely enveloped in their magic.

I wouldn’t call The Narrows a hike, in the typical sense. It was more of a river wade, crossed with an amble, on a trail that was very much a ‘choose-your-own-adventure.” It certainly wasn’t a cardio workout or even that physical. It was however mentally tiring, as we had to be constantly aware of where we were placing our feet. It didn’t take long for me to be grateful for the ten dollar walking sticks we had hastily purchased at the grocery store.

The farther we walked, the more at home I began to feel. The canyon was silent, save for the melody of the water coursing over the rocks, leaping down waterfalls and disappearing around folds in the copper-colored rock.

The walls became tighter and higher with each step. In some places, if I held my walking stick outstretched in one hand and reached out with the other, I could touch both walls.

They rock was smooth and cool beneath my fingers, sculpted and carved by millennia after millennia of flowing water. I was ankle deep in something so ancient I could not begin to fathom it. Where the canyon widened, verdant life clung to the coral sand that had been pushed up against the canyon walls.

Walking by one such oasis of shimmering green, we startled a small bat. As he passed over my head, the soft light of early evening filtered through his nearly translucent wings and for a moment everything stopped. The entire universe melded, and there was nothing but the bat, and me, in a canyon so ancient its history has been forgotten a thousand times over. For a brief moment, we were all one, the bat, myself, the canyon, the water coursing underfoot and the soft light of a sun so far away I could not see it. An eternity in but a moment, and then I blinked, and the bat was gone, and I was left to continue walking in silent wonder.

At the confluence of Deep Creek, we stopped to filter water. It wasn’t long before our new friend Tom was back at our side. We could see campsite number one, so we knew we weren’t far from our own site.
A quarter mile up the canyon, we found our campsite on a ledge of soft sand in a stand of small leafy trees. The site sat about ten feet above the river and was just big enough for us and our tent. It wasn’t much, but it was all we needed and then some.

My warm, dry camp socks felt like two giant hugs on my cold, pruned feet. We ate dinner, read and in the heavy silence we fell asleep almost before the last light had left the canyon floor.

The next morning I was awake early, making Choffee on a boulder the size of a van, and watching the sun slowly creep down the canyon wall. Peace and silence, as if the entire world had stopped.

We waited until mid-morning to start hiking, so the water wasn’t as cold.

It seemed impossible, and yet, as we walked the canyon walls got taller still until we had to crane our necks upwards just to see the rim. We passed towering waterfalls and lush, green living walls of moss, but no people. I felt so small, so insignificant, yet so safe. Like the Earth herself was cradling me in her loving arms.

With the added water from Deep Creek, most of our wading was nearly calf or knee deep, as we continued towards Zion and our exit out of this little slice of heaven. I never wanted this canyon to end; I wanted it to just keep on going, into forever. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. But then again, if it had lasted forever, would I have been able to appreciate it as much?

Just after noon, we rounded a corner and were hit with a cacophony of human voices. Laughing and shouting, reverberated off the canyon walls. The silence was broken. Day hikers jumped off of a large boulder and into the deep emerald waters of the Virgin. They watched, fascinated, as we skirted the boulder, waist-deep in water, trying to keep our packs dry. I don’t think it dawned on them at all that there was more canyon behind them to explore. I was happy to have them behind us until I realized that they were only the first wave of the Disneyland-ish crowds of National Park visitors we would pass through as we made our exit out of the canyon.

One last bend in the now crowded river and we found ourselves back in humanity, on a shuttle bus, the bat in the canyon now nothing more than a sweet memory.