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Thursday, July 30, 2009

4 Days in the "Wilderness"

It has fallen to me for a second time, to record in writing our yearly adventure into the wilderness.

I do not take this responsibility lightly and will do my best to accurately portray our group of 7 in the most genial light:

Dave, Tony, Dale, Tim, Zach (Age 7), Pastor (Brent), and Myself.

Since practically the final hours of last year's journey, we have been planning this year's adventure into the high Sierras of Yosemite National Park. The possible routes through the vastness are numerous and endless. With much deliberation we finally settled on 2 at the dawn of 2009 but failed to timely record them with the National Park Service. The all wise NPS decided that our second option was the one they would issue permits for, since at the time of application, the other route was already "overpopulated." Their decision would set the tone for the entire trip.

When the map says "High Sierra Camp" it actually means "Densely Populated City Right Out in the Middle of Where You Thought Was Nowhere." There were to be 2 of these surprises on our route.

Ok, so we knew that we were going to be in the proximity of these HSC's, and knew that they tended toward civilization. However, we had no clue that we would be required to settle within ear shot of their conch blowing calls to dinner, or that their peculiar sprawl would so dominate our wilderness experience. Upon checking in at the Tuolumne Meadows ranger station, we were, in no uncertain terms informed that we must camp at the backpackers camp area associated with each HSC we came to, along with the customary admonitions against creating new fire rings, varying from marked trails, eating the wildlife, or setting up trading posts. We candidly agreed, though later Dale would regret his inability to vend a portion of his immense collection of personal belongings to passing travelers.

Our group was understandably dismayed at this new reality, since our wilderness adventures have always been notably care free and solitary. This new reality however, was not to keep us forlorn long, as we tightened our packs and set off for our first night’s stay in the small metropolis of Glen Aulin.

Within minutes of embarkation the group was split over which direction may indeed hold the trail to this “valley of Beauty” and 2 parties diverged only to rejoin later with both parties being “right.” (The reader must understand that our group was rife with chiefs and short on Indians.)

There is much education in the first few miles of a backpacking trip.

Lesson 1 is typically realizing that the pads at the shoulder and hip are more closely related to the Steel Cable species (Genus – attachmentus, Family – Backpackumus) as opposed to the often assumed, Pillow species. The search for equilibrium between the various restraints begins.

Lesson 2 is often realized in the form of a series of questions. “What did I bring that was so heavy?” “Did I really need that (Fill in the Blank)?” “I wonder if the other guys’ packs are this heavy?”

And the subsequent lessons for each hiker vary, as some realize the error in a pair of boots, while another is regretting his breakfast burrito. In all, the lessons eventually amount to a considerable amount of stopping, adjusting, swapping, and not so silent contemplation.

We arrived at Glen Aulin - on average - Exhausted. Those prepared for the hike having picked up the slack for the less prepared, or maybe better described as over-prepared (by an average of about 20 pounds). Throughout the adventure, many would carry packs with which they had not embarked.

Seven of us crossed the Tuolumne River on a series of footbridges. We were all accounted for and suffering from acute mosquito paranoia.

It was only now that we began to realize our blunder. We were most certainly in the wilderness. We were most certainly NOT alone. A veritable city of large white tents – permanent encampments – were scattered about under the ever darkening canopy of pines and firs. Distinct and immense were the altogether too large fire pits where official expectations placed our anticipated conflagration. All hopes of a soothing blaze before bedtime were consumed by a mere glance at the throngs already dazzled by dancing flames.

We sought out a corner as far distant from other campers as possible, and set up camp.

Dinner was brief, cooked over a small backpacker’s stove, and observed by a chatty stranger sharing our small retreat. We treated our wounds, both physical and psychological, and we headed for bed.

Day 2

As was to be typical of our entire journey, the day started, sustained, and ended with clear skies: Beauty at its alpine best. Strategically located west of a large, thick stand of pines, my tent and I rested till nearly 8:30 that morning – much to the dismay of my less comfortably accommodated companions. The stove was aroused, and breakfast and coffee served.

By late morning we were planning our escape and eyeing a remote lake on the map near Polydome. Several sources warned us that this lake was hard to find and easy to miss, as it is situated a quarter to half a mile off the main trail along a dim path virtually unmarked. Sounded perfect to us.

At this point a decision was made to split the group. Dave, Tim, and myself would scout ahead and search out the mysterious trail, while the others would come along at their suitable pace.

West toward May Lake, South toward Tenya Lake, then within a quarter mile, find the path to Polydome lake heading away to the left. With these simple instructions, the company was divided, and the 4 mile trek began.

The trail gained elevation. Sometime later than anticipated, our scouting party turned left on the Tenya Lake trail and started the search for Poly Dome Lake. We had been told several times that this lake was hard to find, making it all that much more important to me to find it. A marker (affectionately known as a "rock duck" or, more aptly, a “Cairn”) was alleged to mark our final turn.

We met 2 resting hikers having come up from Tenya lake looking for the same trail.

Bad sign.

This provided 2 options - either one of us had missed it, or we were at that very moment standing beside the elusive trail. A cursory investigation gave evidence that it was not the second, and I strongly suspected that it was not these newcomers that had missed the trail. We turned on our heels and left them to finish their lunch. I had noted a potential trail a few hundred yards back and we returned to that spot and began a futile search of the trail’s south flank hoping for any hint of a trail. We found none, but did find a small stream, which after settling our company along the main trail, I returned to and filtered water for the 3 of us.

We had left recognizable gear alongside the trail during our explorations, and it was unmoved, leading us to believe that the balance of our group had not come that way during our absence.

It was while we sipped on fresh cool snow melt, and ate a small lunch that our saving grace walked down the trail. A middle aged couple recounted to us their unsuccessful search for the same lake and their night spent on an unfamiliar piece of ground north of their objective. They also confirmed a group of 4 backpackers, including a child of about 7 who had just located what they believed was the Polydome Lake trailhead about a quarter mile back toward the trail split. We downed lunch and headed back up the trail with purpose.

Polydome lake was certainly worth finding. No less than 5 minutes elapsed between the time that the packs were doffed and when most of us were immersed in the cool waters of the alpine lake. No white tents. No crowds. Just a steady breeze rippling the surface of a knee deep lake.

Day 3

It was with an element of disappointment that we abandoned our solitude. No other travelers had discovered our retreat, excepting one gentleman hunting the balance of his party – who we now suspect we had met some hours early having lunch beside the trail. Where they each bedded down that night or if they sat around the same fire can’t be known. The thought of a night spent divided, however, kept our party together for the third day’s hike.

May Lake, situated at the base of Mt. Hoffman, was the destination for our final night in the wilderness. We now knew what to expect from this popular High Sierra Camp. We would find the same large white tents, running water, and worst of all - toilets. The disappointment, however, was slowly coming around to resignation, and a resolution to overcome even this unexpected wilderness hardship with our usual aplomb. The spectacular views of the peaks and valleys provided by our steady gain in altitude was anything but disappointing.

To reduce the risk of sounding unnecessarily negative, I will skip a full accounting of the May Lake accommodations. A few positive memorable moments are worth recounting however.

After a short scare created by some very unpopular “NO SWIMMING” signs, we located the “approved” swimming area and bathed our sore feet. Some stayed away from the rather angular rocky bottom altogether, content to enjoy the water vicariously - from a distance. Others merely stood shivering knee deep. Tony and I took the dive. Wow. Refreshing doesn’t even begin to describe it. Later I took pictures of the snow melting into the lake, and understood more clearly.

After hearing odd and obnoxious horn sounds from the general direction of the HSC tents, I figured I’d take an afternoon stroll in that direction. I grabbed my Camelback and camera, invited Tim for company, and came upon a migration of hungry humans gathering for a pre-dinner coffee. Fresh coffee. For 2 days now, I had been reduced to instant, and beg, borrow, or steal I was getting a cup of something fresh. I dug around my Camelback and found the $2 I had stashed away for just such emergencies, and convinced a Ranger to let me purchase rights to 2 cups and a moment at the pot. I sat down on a large stump and had polite conversation with an older couple who live not far from myself. They do some cycling, and we spent a few moments discussing topics ranging from the Death Ride, to the dangers of commuting on city streets. Tim finished his cup and being bored by the conversation presumably drifted back toward our relegation. I was left to chat alone.

With little warning, the “horns” began again. It was now that I realized they were actually conch shells somehow contrived to form sounds far more beastly than any casual beach comber might ever suspect. The migration was being summoned into a large white tent to eat their dinner, seated at tables. I was quickly losing interest and continued away from camp toward the valley.

The view of the valley, from the south ridge of the shelf on which May Lake rests, is quite spectacular. Far off to the south west, Half Dome can be seen standing sentinel over Yosemite Valley. Nearly due south a ridge of mountains obscured the valleys we had traveled on our first day, and a rain storm was filling the creeks we had crossed. I had momentary sips of phone reception from the ridge, and accomplished a segmented call to my wife and daughter.

All things now having been set in order, I returned to the bevy of tents where Dave and I began the immensely difficult task of finding firewood in an area ravaged by countless foraging primates since the beginning of the NPS and its formation of HSC’s. We made fire, ate, got sleepy, and eventually were lulled to sleep by the grunts of a hundred campers simultaneously wishing the others would go away.

Day 4

Before bed on day 3, we had agreed to rising early and leaving early for our ascent of Mt. Hoffman. We managed to rise early enough. Sometime later than acceptable to my unnecessarily anxious psyche, we finally set off up the trail. Even in the wilderness it can be difficult to shed the rush.

The climb was not as difficult or long as the summiting of a 10,850’ mountain might lead one to believe. May Lake sits at around 9,000’, and small day packs were all we carried. The trail was well worn, and though not flat, afforded swift travel until requiring a reasonably technical section of bouldering to attain the summit. The views are spectacular and, frankly, defy one to capture them in print. I won’t do those stunning alpine peaks the injustice of description, but will rather retreat to the amazement of an awesome Creator capable of such grandeur. We enacted a series of snowball fights with ammunition supplied by numerous icy patches, most of which will likely still be around to be covered by autumn’s first flurries.

The day was rounded out by a final shuffling of gear and, eventually, feet. The descent from May Lake to the parking area was less than uneventful. The 1st of 2 vehicles was loaded with gear and the most weary of the group, while Dave, Tim, and Myself headed down Old Tioga Pass Road, to meet the group after they retrieved the 2nd vehicle back in Tuolumne Meadows.

And it all went by so fast. Within hours we were showered, shaved, and deposited back into the ordinariness of Bay Area life.

And we start planning for next year.


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  2. Scott, I cannot help but to smile at your account of the CBC men's recent adventures. You are a master of words. Loved it!