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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Yosemite 2010

This is a very long posting and probably should be broken into at least 3 separate posts.
However, it is best read as a unit. So, brew some coffee, grab a comfortable chair, and I hope you enjoy.

In short this was the best backpacking adventure I've ever experienced. Each year the men from my church take 4 days and trek around the wilderness trails of Yosemite National Park. Some years are better than others but all are worth the time and energy invested.

Coming into this trip, somehow, I knew a change for the better was in the air. This year was going to be different. For me the change started immediately following the 2009 adventure, when my business partner and fellow adventurer read the account of our trip here in this blog. He immediately referred me to an ultralight backpacking web site - and the game was on. I began to learn and understand concepts in backpacking which I had never considered before. I was an immediate convert, and with my limited budget began turning the conversion into reality.

A second aspect of the change was the determination to get away from people. Last year the campsites and trails were practically crowded. No compromises this time. If there were going to be people there - we weren't going. In that, we succeeded with near perfection.

Those who know me well - know I love a challenge. The ultralight transformation had presented a challenge I could benefit from in so many ways and likewise couldn't resist. I committed to the game in earnest in the spring of 2010 by purchasing a lightweight backpack - significantly smaller than the old one - then sold the old one. The only way I was going to get everything in a sub 3lb pack was by changing nearly everything. A lighter pack now meant easier travel, but more than that it meant the opportunity to explore the depths of my creativity.

The transformation was under way.

First to go was the stove - replaced by a soda can alcohol stove and a small bottle of denatured alcohol. This actually was never utilized in the wilderness, since our campfires roared, but many home tests proved the ability of the stove to boil 2 cups of water with 1 oz. of alcohol in under 10 minutes.

Second was the tent - replaced by a homemade bivy, garden hose tested in the backyard by my daughter, and tested positive to keep out the rain.

Third was the water filter - replaced by an emergency supply of purification tablets and an empty large can of Bush's baked beans for boiling water in. The tablets were also never used, though I've experimented with them in the past. One can at a time was boiled, and then stored in gallon ziplock bags to cool until emptied into the Camelbak bladder - or immediately sanctified into coffee.

Fourth was the pad and sleeping bag - replaced by overpriced models by Therm-a-rest and North Face and purchased with as many gift cards and discounts as I could legitimately assemble.

Finally the last reduction was food - where careful planning assured that I would have sufficient nutrients and calories to enjoy the trip, but not bring anything out with me. My belt was notably loose at the end of the trip, so a lightweight fishing pole, or some extra energy bars may be a good addition next year.

The tally ended up at 25 total pounds including all the food and a full 3 liter Camelbak bladder.
By 10 pounds (and in some cases 15 - 20) I had the lightest adult pack on the trip.
It made all the difference.

We embarked from the Bridalveil Creek trail head on Wednesday early afternoon with 6 men, 1 teenager, and 2 boys. The first day's hike was a remarkably easy 2 miles with practically no elevation gain or loss. This would prove a huge benefit, as over the course of the next 2 days I would hike the length of that trail 4 more times. The first campsite was easy to find, situated along Bridalveil creek.

Dale, a big man and strong hiker on all of our training hikes, fell victim to a variety of serious foot ailments in the first 2 miles. By dinner time he was reduced to hobbling around and bedded down soon after dinner.

We broached the topic of what to do next over our reconstituted Mountain House meals. It was obvious Dale was going nowhere on Thursday, and thus we established that 2 nights along Bridalveil Creek would be wise. This worked well into our consideration of a day trip to Ostrander Lake, and so the following day's activities were decided.

Rather unexpectedly the temperature over night dropped to 30 degrees. I was prepared for 40 and 30 made for a rude awakening around midnight. Actually midnight was closer to 35, but I was keenly aware of the dropping temps over the next few hours. Even intermittant sleep would have been enviable, till finally around 3:45 am I'd had enough and emerged from my rapidly cooling cocoon. I crept over to my water supply to see if it was freezing (it wasn't) and then shivered my way to the fire pit to stoke up some relief. Awake and warm, or awake and shivering wishing I was warm - the decision was easy for me. I wasn't alone, and within minutes after the first flames astounded the blackness Pastor was by my side with palms outstretched to the warmth. By 5:00 am 2 separate thermometers read 30 degrees.

The jacket I had worn Wednesday morning on the drive in was sitting on the front seat of Matt's truck, and chiding me from 2 miles away. I rehydrated breakfast around 6:30am and then announced to the shivering crowd now amassed at the fire ring that I was returning to the truck to get my jacket. Spontaneously other items were added to the list, and I was soon jogging down the trail with my empty backpack to carry it all back. The 4 mile run was completed in 54 minutes (they timed me) and finally brought my body temperature up to normal.

Dale guarded the campsite from the bears and read one of my Louis L'Amour books while the remaining 8 climbed the 1500' up to Ostrander Lake which sits at 8500'. This is where we got our first great vistas of the trip, as we looked out toward the Clark range and the back of majestic Half Dome.

No backpacking trip is complete without a swim, so we were happily obliged to dive into the frigid water of Ostrander Lake. A pronounced cramp in my calf sent me to shore earlier than I had hoped, but I managed to wedge myself into a small hollow on the granite slope and was soon drying, sunburning, and soundly sleeping. I was adding to the three hours of sleep from the night before.

What to do for Dale dominated the conversation on the return trip. We had settled on 2 options and I presented them to Dale for his thoughts over dinner. Dale could stay put in camp after we left the next morning and spend the 3rd night on his own, while the balance of the group completed the 14 mile loop. I offered to remain behind if he chose this option, since his outdoor experience is limited. We would then work our way back out on Saturday morning and meet the balance of the group as they finished the trip.
The second option seemed to put him more at ease, and after a moment's deliberation was chosen as most reasonable. 2 of us would carry his gear and hobble him out the following morning - back to the vehicles - where he would be near potable water, and a campground full of people. It would be a lonely day and a half, but at least he would be settled where he could rest in reasonable comfort.
Tony Jr. and I were chosen for the task of moving his gear, and shortly after day break, the 3 of us were on our way back along the now familiar 2 miles of trail. This round trip took close to 2 hours, and upon return the group was just mobilizing for the day's hike.

The next 2 days of hiking were more like what should be expected of a Yosemite adventure. We climbed ridges, sucking wind and prodding junior aged hikers, then descended to valleys spread with meadows and running with cool streams. We were earning the privilege to tread the hallowed expanse.

By Friday afternoon the miles, altitude, and weight of the packs had set us all in anticipation of our next bivouac. Our growing understanding of the Yosemite wilderness led us to anticipate where we were likely to find the next camp site. 4 of us found where a specified creek crossed our trail several minutes ahead of the 2 fathers and the youngest members of our group. No campsite or fire ring was in sight, though one much overgrown ledge led upstream and showed an element of promise. I sent Tony Jr. up into the overgrowth to investigate, while I jogged down the trail a little further. The creek pulled further down and away from the trail the further I went, and I soon realized that I wasn't likely to find an acceptable site in this direction.

Meanwhile Tony had found a fire ring well back along the ledge, and what had long ago been a small clearing. Upon inspection, I deemed it the best prospective camp site we had ever come across in the park. It took some work for me to convince the late arriving fathers that this is what wilderness camping is all about, and that clearing your own camp site should be the norm. (Hopefully no Park Rangers are reading this, as their ideal is for hikers to stay in well established sites with soot covering the ring of stones from the fires of ten thousand previous campers.) I also recognized that this ledge must have been at one time a short spur of logging road, along which could still be found lengths of various sized steel cable and an assortment of half buried logging gear. It felt as if we had stepped into a piece of forgotten Yosemite history.

With few other options and diminishing daylight we cleared a path and began surveying the area to clear tent sites. In far less time than expected we had a respectable clearing, fire ring, and a tidy configuration of tarps and tents.
The bivy never got set up that night, but rather, I laid it out and set the pad and sleeping bag on top of it. I wanted nothing between me and the stars - and with the lower altitude and warmer weather during the day, it seemed the added warmth of the bivy wouldn't be necessary. That was one of the defining decisions of the journey for me.

I lay snugly beneath the vast array of stars and watched satellites dart in and out of view as they passed through the branches of overhanging trees. I slept the last night for nearly 4 hours straight, and awakened to the celestial spectacle on and off for the next few hours. Having managed to rest till dawn the night before, I was little concerned that I sleep this last night. When I noticed a light moving nearby, I checked the time and found it just after 4:00am. I asked Tony Jr. if he wanted to start the fire, and before long we were waiting together for the eastern sky to begin its mockery of our flickering blaze. It was still black when Tony Sr. and Pastor joined us at the fire. I think it was understood among us that we were all enjoying our last few minutes of inky darkness before we would begin the inevitable journey back toward street lights and the urban glow.

That was our last camp site for the 2010 backpacking trip. But it was a gem. We managed to see no one on the trail nor frankly even the sign of another human having been in the area for weeks, for the better part of 24 hours. That alone made it worth the effort.

We found Dale in good health and spirits sitting at the back of Matt's truck reading Louis L'Amour. I regret that he couldn't share the balance of the adventure with us. Not to rub it in, but I feel he missed the best part of the trip. But, it did bring to bear the reality of the wilderness. It is unpredictable, and you make decisions on a moment by moment basis. As I will mention later, the wilderness brings out a simplicity to life, that is often missed when urban life presents us with a myriad of options. That is definitely a part of why I dearly love my time in the wilderness.

Some closing thoughts - waxing philosophical...

This adventure was a showcase of dichotomy. The insignificant juxtaposed against the immense. The simple and the complex. The sublime and the humbling.
I recognized the latter of these first as we began to drive into the foothills of the Sierras. With mild horror I realized, and then casually mentioned to Pastor, that I had forgotten the wilderness permit acquired many months in advance at no small financial or logistical expense. His tangential and uncharacteristically placid reply made the blood ice in my veins. "Weren't we supposed to call to reserve our spot on the trail?" A moment of profound silence followed.
Wilderness trail permits in the middle of the summer are gold. If you don't check in by 10:00 am, they give your trail away to the next group looking for an open wilderness permit. A phone call will hold the permit, but we were already well into the afternoon.
He calmly placed a call to the wilderness center and with bated breath the occupants of our truck attempted to discern the other half of the conversation by Pastor's answers and tone of voice. If he was attempting to extend our anxiety then he succeeded magnificently. When he hung up, I was still breathing shallow. Yes, they had canceled our permit. Yes, they had reserved it for us again, and we would not need the precious paper permit. The dichotomy: my shame and foolishness was now set hard against an overwhelming relief at not needing to telling my friends in the other vehicle that our previous 2.5 hour drive and weeks of preparation were in vain.

The most dynamically dichotomous element of the trip was the scenery itself. The drive down to the valley floor is stunning. The profile of Half Dome, the mountain ranges layered off into the distance, the imposing cliffs of El Capitan, and the plummeting water falls which seemed to be in full show even this late in the summer. We drove amidst throngs of spectators as we ascended the far side of the valley toward the Bridalveil Creek Campground and our point of embarkation. We were not alone in our awe.

The majority of the throngs however, would not perceive the microcosm that lay hidden within the vastness they were beholding. Beyond sight and sound of the spectators we began to participate in the wilderness. Leaving the campground behind, we wandered into the petals of the flower we call Yosemite. With awe we began to appreciate this blossoming paradise. The wildflowers were in full bloom - a spectacle atypical this late in the year, and heretofore unrealized by this group of adventurers. We were spellbound by the carpeted meadows and overgrown trails splashing vibrant color into our path. The dichotomy of the incomprehensible vistas set as a backdrop to the delicate petals of a million nameless blooms was breathtaking.

A final dichotomy I recognized was that of the simplicity of life amidst its complexity. Each member of our party (with the possible exception of those under 18) has planned and scheduled for the past year to make this adventure a reality. Our gear was organized, packed, reorganized and repacked repeatedly until the moment we embarked. Our gear itself is a complex assortment of carbon fiber, plastic, nylon, and aluminum. What many of us left behind were jobs and businesses that would go forward in spite of our absence, and with certainty seek us out with compounded complexity upon our return. But as we walked away from the 2 trucks that had deposited us along the waters of Bridalveil Creek, we shed our various and divergent concerns and united into a homogeneous group with a homogeneous mission - don't get eaten by bears or otherwise meet an untimely demise in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. Survival is seemingly so simple - don't die - and the wilderness gives place for a focus on such simplistic concepts.

A look forward to next year started before the trip had concluded. There is something addictive about wild air, crackling campfires, and waking to black nights pierced by a billion stars. We filter the water, though it seemingly runs pure and clear, in order to remove contaminants that might afflict our bodies. I'm certain however, that what is not filtered out is a liquor that intoxicates our spirits and drives us to return for more.