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 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.