Friday, January 20, 2017

Day 4: The Day I Broke Karolina

We didn't have to wake up at an ungodly hour this morning. It was our first morning that we didn't have to wake up before dawn, but we didn't sleep in especially late either because today, Karolina and I would be carrying our full packs into the wilderness. We'd finally be cutting ourselves off from all civilization, and the earlier we got started, the more miles we'd get in.

Amanda packed up camp quickly and efficiently. Karolina and I took a bit longer because we not only had to pack up camp, but also pack up our backpacks. While we were working on that, Amanda started chatting with a Serbian guy on a motorcycle looking for a place to camp. He had been traveling all over the United States and Amanda saw him at the entrance confused about how to get a campsite. She explained that it was a first-come, first-serve thing, so he could grab the first campsite that opened up. Or, at it turned out, he could just wait around until we left and grab our spot. We wouldn't be using it again once we left.

So he waited around in our camp while we packed up, chatting and telling us stories of his travels.

With everything packed up and ready to go, the three of us (not the Serbian!) got in the car and drove the short way to Tuolumne Lodge where Karolina and I would pick up the trail. On the drive over, I realized that my wallet was still in my duffel bag! The one Amanda would be taking home with her. I quickly looked through it and pulled my wallet out. I'd be needing that further down the trail! Money, credit cards, REI card.... Can't believe I almost had Amanda drive off with it! That would have been a disaster!

Amanda took a photo of Karolina and I with our full packs. It wasn't the start of the trail, but it had that sort of feel to it since it was the first time we'd be carrying our full packs. We were loaded down with four days of food and planned our next resupply stop at Mammoth Lakes. I also carried my laptop. I didn't expect to use the laptop while on the trail, but I wasn't sure if it would make it to the post office in Mammoth Lakes in time for us, or that the post office would still be open by the time we arrived. I really needed to use it in town and the best way to make sure it would be readily available was to carry it with me. With only four days of food, I figured I could carry the extra weight of the laptop without much trouble. Before I left Mammoth Lakes, I'd send it ahead to the next trail town.

Amanda drove off, and Karolina and I hiked on.

Most of the day's hike followed alongside Lyell Creek up Lyell Canyon--an almost entirely flat section of trail. Not the most dramatic scenery on the trail, but pleasant.

A couple of hours into it, we took a break by the creek where Karolina took off her shoes and socks and waded into the water declaring it so cold, that it actually hurt her feet.

We continued onward and near the end of the day, at the end of Lyell Canyon, the trail finally started climbing upwards towards Upper Lyell Base Camp, which was our minimum goal for the day. For planning purposes, we set minimum goals to ensure that we wouldn't run out of food along the route. We could go beyond our minimum goals if we wanted to, but we had to keep to our minimums to make sure we didn't run out of food before our next resupply point.

And the campsite at Upper Lyell Base Camp looked beautiful! It would have been a tempting place to stop except that half a dozen other people had already set up camp with more arriving by the minute. It seemed a bit crowded, and Karolina seemed to be doing well and was up for pushing on a bit further to another campsite shown on our maps.

So we continued on, climbing steadily towards Donahue Pass. We wouldn't go to the top of the pass, though. The campsite we now had set our sights on was about midway between the pass and the base camp we had just passed.

At this point, Karolina started deteriorating rapidly. She slowed down considerably and needed to stop several times for a quick rest.

It was definitely time to find a place to camp, although the steep hillside we were climbing wasn't a good place to stop. Near the top of the steep hillside, Karolina stopped to rest again. At this point, there was space to set up camp, but it was somewhat claustrophobic and lacked the views we'd been hoping for, so I wanted to take a look further up the trail to see if anything better was around.

At about which point, Karolina started throwing up, spewing her stomach contents over the side of a large boulder. She got some great coverage over that rock, and was trying to hold her long hair back so it wouldn't dip into the vomit.

I felt bad her for. I was sure she was suffering from altitude sickness. We had started the trail at around 9,000 feet above sea level and had only gone up from there. I assumed at this point, we were close to 10,000 feet. (Later, I'd learn we were closer to 10,500 feet above sea level.) Jet lag probably didn't help matters either.

But, as bad as I felt for her, I kind of wanted to take photos of her vomiting as a record of her diminished condition. She probably wouldn't like it at the moment, but later, she might find it amusing after the fact. I held off, though. Live for the present! And she might want to beat me up if I tried to take photos of her vomiting. So I sat nearby patiently, offering my sympathies and not sure what else I could do.

Eventually, she stopped vomiting and it was clearly time for us to stop and set up camp. While Karolina sat and rested, I ran ahead on the trail to see if there were any nearby campsites. Around the turn, the trail dipped slightly to a small creek where barren ground showed the impact of previous campers. It was a gorgeous location, although perhaps a little closer to the water than Leave No Trace ethics allowed. I liked it better than other locations, though, because it was already impacted. We could have camped further away from the water, but then we'd be impacting otherwise thriving vegetation. I also liked the fact that the trail dipped a bit. It was slightly lower than our current location, and since Karolina was suffering from altitude sickness, lower was better. It probably wasn't enough to make much of a difference, but I'd take it anyhow!

I left my pack on the trail near our campsite. I normally don't like leaving my pack unattended, and I didn't like it now but I considered it a necessity at the moment. Although it seemed unlikely that bears would be located at this elevation, and my pack would only be unattended for a very short while--who knows what sort of chipmunks or squirrels might try getting into it. The reason I left it behind was so I could carry Karolina's pack the rest of the way. She was having a hard time of it and could probably use the extra help. But I certainly couldn't carry both of our packs at the same time, so mine would have to be left unattended for at least a few minutes.

I returned to Karolina and told her to hang in there--that there was a great campsite maybe five minutes up the trail. Before we left, she had an urgent need for a poop and scrambled a short way off trail to do her thing. I was itching to get going, uncomfortable with my pack being unattended down the trail. When Karolina returned, she made some uncomfortable comments about her stool being a bit loose. Vomiting and diarrhea. Great....

Once Karolina was settled, I picked up her pack and we walked down the trail to our campsite. My pack, I was happy to see, was still sitting there undisturbed.

Next to the creek was a small patch of snow which perked Karolina up. Snow! In August! She still had enough energy to cross the creek and touch the snow, make a couple of snowballs, and it was tinged pink which puzzled her. Pink snow? What was that? Yellow snow she understood, but pink?

Welcome to America! Land of the pink snow!

We wound up cowboy camping for the night. We were the first people to set up camp at this location, and a few other people showed up later in the afternoon and set up camp nearby. Karolina seemed to feel better once we had stopped. I don't think she ever felt at 100%, but she didn't suffer from anymore bouts of vomiting or diarrhea and was able to keep her dinner down. I might have broken Karolina, but things were looking up! =)

Most of the day's hike was on largely flat terrain up Lyell Canyon.

Karolina said that the water was so cold, it was actually painful to stand in. It wasn't going to stop her from wading into the water, though!
Karolina's freshly painted toenails wouldn't look quite as pretty by the end of the this hike!
Donahue Pass is up ahead, but we didn't expect to reach it until tomorrow.
Karolina frolics among the flowers. (Don't worry, she's actually ON the trail and not really tromping around crushing flowers.)
Lyell Creek, heading up Lyell Canyon.
Karolina takes time to do some stretches during one of our snack breaks.
Near the end of the day, the trail started its steady climb upwards as it approaches Donahue Pass.

A lot of people were already setting up camp near this location when we arrived. It was a beautiful location, but we kept going anyhow, much to Karolina's later regret....

Karolina crosses a creek! But will she fall?

Looking back down into Lyell Canyon.

A tragic scene of vomiting took place here. I didn't take photos of Karolina while she was vomiting, but I did take pictures of the vomit when she wasn't looking. =)
Karolina checks out a patch of snow. In August! And some of it is pink!
Karolina and I start setting up camp for the night.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Day 3: More day-hiking on the JMT

Once again, Amanda and I found ourselves waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 in the morning. For a vacation, we sure weren't getting much time for sleeping in!

I noticed that Karolina's tent was empty. She was gone! What happened to her? Did a clever bear drag her away during the night? No, she arrived several minutes later after having gone to the bathroom. In the dark, however, she had gotten lost in the campground and wandered around a bit before finding our camp.

Sunrise over Yosemite Valley.

The second question I had for Karolina--after asking what happened to her--was how her sleeping bag worked. I didn't have a thermometer to know exactly how cold it got during the night, but I didn't need a thermometer to know it got cold enough to give her new sleeping bag a good test. If it kept her warm during the night, it would keep her warm the rest of the trip. And she gave the bag a glowing two thumbs up saying she stayed warm all night. Excellent! There wouldn't be any emergency trips to an outfitters to find a warmer bag for her.

Karolina's main goal for the day was to see Yosemite Valley, which worked out well for me because I wanted to re-hike the first part of the John Muir Trail anyhow. Two days earlier, I had stayed true to the JMT and never even saw Vernal Falls--much to my surprise! So this time, I wanted to redo those first few miles and take the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls, then reconnect with the JMT at Clark Point. I really wanted Vernal Falls on Walking 4 Fun. At that point, we could just walk back down to the trailhead and do some other day hikes. I'd integrate today's walk from the trailhead to Clark Point via Mist Falls with my photos from Clark Point to Tuolumne Meadows from two days earlier.

Amanda, having already hiked to Vernal Falls two days earlier, chose to stay behind and meet us a few hours later after we finished the loop.

And the falls were absolutely breath-taking! At 317 feet (97 m) tall, it's the 860th tallest waterfall in the world according to Wikipedia. =) There's nothing I can say about the waterfall that photos can't show, although even the photos are a poor substitute for the actual falls.

Even as early in the day as we arrived, the top of the falls were already crowded with tons of people and some very aggressive squirrels. These squirrels knew what a backpack was, and if you set one day and turned your back for even a second, half a dozen of them would immediately pounce. Even if you didn't turn your back, a few would brazenly walk up and check out the pack.

Karolina and I chose not to set our packs down at all, but the squirrels were watching us. They never stopped watching for us to let our guard down.

Karolina was very excited to take her first steps on the John Muir Trail! Although she wouldn't be doing the section between Clark Point and Tuolumne Meadows since that was a little too much for her first day on the trail as a day-hike and our permits didn't cover that section. But she was happy to at least see the start of the trail!

Once we passed the summit of the falls, the crowds of people thinned out considerably. We continued on the trail towards Nevada Falls, but then cut off on a side trail to Clark Point from which we had a fantastic aerial view of Vernal Falls. Far in the distance, we could see Nevada Falls. It would have been nice if we had time to continue on to Nevada Falls and made a full loop of that waterfall as well for Karolina's enjoyment, but the hike was already taking us longer than we estimated and we were running behind schedule. Amanda would probably be waiting for us at the trailhead wondering if we got lost at the pace we were going.

Anyhow, there were a lot of other places in the park for Karolina to see. It's not like this was the only hike we had planned for day!

So we reconnected with the John Muir Trail and returned to the trailhead where, as expected, Amanda was already waiting.

Amanda spent the time checking out the Happy Isles Nature Center while waiting for us, and she suggested we should take a look as well so we did that. Karolina seemed most excited about a sign on the door saying that firearms were not allowed. "Is that a problem here?!"

Well.... actually, it probably wasn't a problem, but it's probably been known to happen. Karolina was fascinated with America's love of guns. Maybe if there was time after our hike was done, we could take her to a shooting range or something.

After admiring the exhibits, we returned to the car and started the drive back to Tuolumne Meadows. We stopped briefly at Valley View--one of the iconic views of Yosemite Valley--for Karolina's benefit, then stopped for the 2-mile hike around Tuolumne Grove.

Giant sequoias are the largest living things on earth, and although the John Muir Trail passes through Sequoia National Park, it doesn't actually come near any of the big trees so far as I could remember. This was probably our best bet for Karolina to see some big trees. Amanda did this hike as well since it was a new one for her. It was a new hike for me as well--I'd never been to Tuolumne Grove either!

Karolina love the giant trees and wanted to climb on them and through them. Amanda didn't feel the need to do that and took off ahead of us saying we'd catch up on the steep uphill back to the trailhead, which is exactly what happened.

That wasn't it for us, however. Nope, then we decided to do a few miles of hiking along the JMT in Tuolumne Meadows. Amanda dropped me off at the Cathedral Peak trailhead on my own. Karolina was tired and jet-lagged, and I had told her the next mile or so of the trail to the Tuolumne Visitor Center was a boring section largely in the trees. It is--I knew this for a fact because I had hiked it three days before when I walked from the visitor center to Tenaya Lake. It's not ugly, but there's nothing particularly special about it either. No scenic waterfalls or views or wildflower displays or anything. Just a relatively unremarkable section of trail.

But I had to hike it anyhow to get photos for Walking 4 Fun.

About a half hour later, though, I caught up with Amanda and Karolina at the visitors center. Amanda had already walked around Tuolumne Meadows earlier, but Karolina joined me for the rest of the day's walk through the meadow.

At this point, the trail opens up into the meadow where views open up and the scenery is breath-taking. This was not a section to be missed!

Vernal Falls is magnificent!

Karolina's favorite part was Soda Springs where carbonated water bubbles up out of the ground from the middle of nowhere. In Karolina's normal life, she's a water scientist. I'm pretty sure that's not her official title--I'm not sure what her official title is--but she studies all sorts of stuff that relates to water. Methods to treat it, turn waste water into electricity and--coincidentally enough--has recently been studying water from carbonated springs just like this one. She couldn't help but take a close look at the water, feel it, smell it, taste it, and rub the reddish dirt in the spring between her fingers. Her co-workers, she told me, would be very jealous of her right now.

I bet. *nodding* =)

The John Muir Trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail at this point, and we soon saw our first PCT sign which thrilled Karolina to no end. She's been a big fan of the PCT and has even dreamed of thru-hiking it someday--maybe--and was excited to finally be standing on this until now mythical trail.

It was a homecoming for me as well. I remembered quite clearly the day I hiked this section of trail during my thru-hike. It was a day not unlike today, in fact. Mostly clear and sunny with beautiful, wide-open views. I'd walked to this very location all the way from Mexico, and continued on all the way to Canada. Both places seemed impossibly far away, but I'd walked it--that entire distance. One day at a time, day after day, for five solid months.

We finished our tour of Tuolumne Meadows at the Tuolumne "Lodge." They call it a lodge, but it's really more like a glorified tent. Amanda was already there waiting for us, although we didn't spot her car in the parking lot at first and it took us a couple of minutes before we realized that she was there.

At this point, dusk was quickly approaching and that was it for our hiking. Karolina got her first few miles of the John Muir Trail done. Tomorrow, we'd return to the trail at Tuolumne Lodge with our full packs and head into the wilderness!

In the meantime, we headed back to our campsite where we built a campfire. For dinner, we brought hot dogs and Polish dogs to cook over the fire, along with smores since Karolina had never done any of that before. We got the Polish dogs mostly as a joke since she's Polish. I'd joke that they were "made with real Poles! (And you're a cannibal!)" but Karolina never seemed to laugh at that joke. Hmm.... She insisted that they were nothing like the sausages in Poland and wanted to know why they were called Polish dogs and... well, I didn't actually know. I still don't know what makes a Polish dog a Polish dog. (Readers: feel free to answer in the comments if you know the answer!)

Welcome to America! Land of the smores and Polish dogs! =)

Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls was blasted out of a cliff of solid granite!
My favorite view of Vernal Falls was on the side trail to Clark Point which gave us what looked like a view from a helicopter. But no! We were standing on solid ground when I took this photo!
Just look at all the people near the top! And it's still fairly early in the morning. It'll probably be a heck of a lot more crowded even later in the day.
This iconic view of Yosemite Valley was taken from Valley View.

Amanda checks out one of the big trees at Tuolumne Grove.
Karolina checks out the view after climbing to the top of one of the giant sequoias that had fallen over.

Karolina climbs one of the fallen giant sequoias.

Karolina, the tree hugger.

Karolina was inspired by Superman doing handstands on every mountaintop along the Appalachian Trail, so she channeled her inner Superman to do this photo with Half Dome in the background.
Carbonated water bubbles up out of the ground at Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows.
Karolina, who works with such water at work, had to take a closer look that most people!

The bubbling spring--which you can't really see in photos.

Lembert Dome
Karolina was very excited to step foot on the famed Pacific Crest Trail!
Karolina makes her first smores over a campfire. "Just like in the movies!" she'd exclaim.
And Karolina burns her first smores. =)

Karolina eats a marshmallow she cooked.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Day 2: Already taking a zero day!

Although I'd only been on the trail for one day, it was time for a zero day. Not because I needed the rest, but rather it was time for Karolina to join our ranks. Unfortunately for us, she was arriving in San Francisco--a four hour drive away. So Amanda and I woke up yet again at an ungodly hour (5:30), and hit the road. We left everything in our campsite since we planned to returned that evening.

Today we would pick up Karolina. I let Karolina ride in the passenger seat so she could enjoy her first views of America. This was taken in the parking garage at the San Francisco airport, mere minutes after taking her first free steps in America.

The drive was uneventful and we arrived at the airport about an hour before Karolina's plane was due to land which I used to charge my devices (we didn't have electricity at the campsite) and get on the wi-fi while I could.

In San Francisco, they have monitors showing the passengers who are about to exit from customs and immigration into America. Presumably, it helps reduce the large numbers of people crowded around the exit point. So Amanda and I watched the monitors, looking for Karolina. It seemed to take an unusually long period of time, but we had no idea what the lines were like, nor where she was within it.

Eventually we spotted a girl coming out, and Amanda asked if that was her. And.... I wanted to say yes. She fit Karolina's description to a T. A girl with long, blonde hair, traveling alone and carrying nothing more than her backpack. If I had been given a written description of Karolina, it was a perfect match. But... she didn't quite seem right. I couldn't pinpoint any particular feature that made me think it wasn't her, but I hadn't seen Karolina for a year. Maybe she changed her hair style or something and that's why this particular person didn't look quite right.

We wandered over to where the passengers were exiting to get a better look. The woman stepped out into America and paused briefly, looking around. Her eyes skipped right over me, though. No hesitation. She wasn't looking for me. Then she walked off, seemingly confident of her direction. She wasn't looking for anyone, I realized, but rather was getting her bearings. She stopped just long enough to figure out where in the airport she was and which direction she needed to go. I doubted that she was even meeting anyone.

"That's not her," I told Amanda, and we went back to the monitors to continue watching.

Another half hour passed, and I joked with Amanda. "Maybe they're deporting her," I said. By now, Karolina's plane had landed over an hour ago. Eventually another woman turned the corner in the monitor. Long, blonde hair. Traveling alone. Carrying nothing but the pack on her back. And it totally looked like Karolina. No doubts or hesitations on my part. "That's her!"

Seconds later, she came out of the exit where she stopped to look around and caught sight of us waving towards her.

"Welcome to America!" I said. It was, after all, her first visit to the United States.

Apparently she did have trouble getting through the immigration line. When she applied for a visa, I had her use my mom's address as where she'll be staying for lack of a better address. We did plan to stay there, although not until after our hike was over. And writing a non-address like "camping on the JMT" seemed like a bad idea. But she figured they already had all that information in their records and was surprised and not prepared when they asked for the information again. She didn't know it! She told the guy that I was picking her up, but that she hadn't written down the address or remembered it, although she could remember that it was in San Luis Obispo.

Apparently, they gave her a hard time about not knowing where she'd be spending the night tonight, but eventually let her through.

We headed back to the rental car and loaded up for the long, four-drive back to Yosemite. We did make a few stops along the way, however.

We didn't really need anything at Bass Pro Shops, but we figured it would be quite an event for Karolina! Even before we entered the store, she was amazed at all the antlers on the front. "It's just like the movies!"

First, we stopped at a giant Bass Pro shop we noticed on our drive in. Neither Amanda nor I had ever been to it, but from the exterior, it looked like one of those giant stores with an aquarium and shooting range or whatever else you could imagine. I was pretty sure Karolina had never been to one, though, and she might find it interesting. "If you need any gear for the JMT," I told her, "you can probably find it here!"

She was amazed at the store, eyes falling out of her sockets. "It's so American!" she exclaimed. We spent maybe 15 minutes there poking around and taking photos.

Later, we stopped for lunch. It didn't have to be elaborate--we were on a mission to get back to Yosemite, after all, and we headed to Jack In the Box. What's more American than fast food anyhow? Part of the reason I pushed for this particular fast food was that I knew a lot of them now had those fancy Coke machines with a hundred-plus flavors. I didn't know for certain that this particular store did, but I hoped so. I was pretty certain Karolina had never seen anything like that before.

It did have one of those machines, and it nearly made her head explode. Even more surprising for her, she could refill her cup as often as she wanted while we were there. The bottomless cup. "It's so American!" she exclaimed some more. "Just like the movies! Everything is bigger in America!"

Ha. And she wasn't even in Texas.

Inside Bass Pro was a waterfall feeding an aquarium, giant (fake) trees, and Karolina seemed dizzy at the scale of things.

She filled her cup three different times, each time picking a different flavor from the machine. And she wanted photos of her doing it. She wanted a permanent record of the event. =)

As we left, Amanda reminded me about the "gifts" we had in the car for Karolina. The giant pine cones. Oh, yes! I had forgotten about those! I went to the back and pulled them out. Karolina's eyes about popped out of her sockets. She'd never seen anything like it before. "Now you know why I was so un-impressed with those 'giant' pine cones in Corsica last year," I told her. "These are my idea of what counts as a giant pine cone!" =)

She wanted a few photos with the pine cones, and we told her that she may not take them home with her like she did with Wilson last year. "Customs tend to frown on stuff like this," we told her. "They'd probably confiscate it and incinerate it if you tried to take pine cones home with you."

I also gave Karolina a book to look at: Opowieść o dwoch szlakach. Our book. It's the Polish translation of my best selling book, A Tale of Two Trails. (So far as I know, no book called A Tale of Two Trails has ever sold this well in the history of mankind! That makes it a best seller.) Karolina translated it for me. It started a few years ago when Karolina had mentioned that she was thinking about taking some classes to become a translator--at least as a possible part-time job, and I joked that if she wanted something to translate, she could translate my book. And she liked that idea. She emailed me a rough draft of the translation fairly quickly, but it mostly collected dust because she wanted some of her Polish friends to read her translation and find spelling or grammatical errors that needed fixing. The final draft she didn't send me until earlier this year, and a month before, I had finally gotten it published. There was exactly one copy of the book in the entire world, this was it. A proof copy that we could look at before I committed to buying more copies. (You'll also be able to purchase autographed copies on Atlas Quest soon, if it's not there already. Only autographed by myself, though--not Karolina. Sorry!)

I also wanted to find out how many copies of the book Karolina wanted to keep for herself. We'd have them shipped to my mom's house where she could pick them up before she traveled back home to Europe.

We made one last stop to supply our food for the first four days I expected we'd be on the trail. I had planned out a rough itinerary to Mammoth Lakes, a leisurely four days of hiking to get there where we could resupply again. Karolina couldn't bring much of her own food from Europe because of those custom and immigration problems, and inside Yosemite was a terrible place to resupply (limited selections and very expensive), so we'd supply ourselves outside of the park before our arrival.

Karolina was astounded at the number of drink selections from the Jack In the Box.
We probably could have done the necessary distance in three days, but I wasn't sure about how Karolina would do. Last year, on the GR 20, her painful knees slowed her down. And this time, we'd be traveling at elevations that Karolina had never experienced. There was some question as to how well she could handle it--especially coming from below sea level. And she was already severely lacking in sleep, nine time zones off, and probably jet lagged. It wouldn't be a bad idea to take things slow the first few days. Better safe than sorry!

So we went to a Safeway where we helped Karolina navigate the dizzying aisles of goods. I wanted a small, travel-sized container of Gold Bond which I couldn't find at Safeway, so afterwards, walked into the nearby WalMart to see if they had it. Karolina, never having been to a WalMart before but having heard of it, joined me, while Amanda went to the car and refilled the tank with gas.

"It's just like the movies!" Karolina exclaimed again looking around the WalMart with eyes wide open like a child at Christmas.

The refrain "It's just like the movies!" I quickly realized, would be common on this trip. Pretty much everything she's seen about America has come from movies and TV shows.

If you've never shown someone around America for their first time, I highly recommend it. It's a heck of a lot of fun. They aren't used to packaging, or the layout of stores, and simple things we wouldn't think twice about can confuse them. I couldn't help but laugh a little when Karolina picked out some yogurt from the shelf at Safeway--one of those containers that tapers so it's narrower at the top than the bottom--and she put it upside down in the cart.

Holy, giant pine cones! She was amazed to see pine cones bigger than her head!

"Why did you put that upside-down?" I asked her, pointing to the yogurt. Not that there was anything wrong with it. It didn't hurt anything, but it seemed odd to me.

And she had absolutely no idea that was upside-down. It was just a shape of container that she just wasn't familiar with and to her, it made sense that the bigger end would be at the top where one could get a spoon into it to scoop out the yogurt easier. "America is so confusing...."

Karolina also gave me a wad of euros for my upcoming trip to Portugal, in payment for the sleeping bag and bear canister I had purchased on her behalf.  (I also gave her a few US dollars to spend, which was also a part of our agreed on transaction.)

The last of our stops done, we continued back to Yosemite. It was near sunset when we entered the park so there wasn't much we could do in the park at that point. We did catch a beautiful view of the sunset from a roadside pullout, but it was mostly dark by the time we arrived at camp and that was that.

Karolina set up her tent in our campsite and tried out her new sleeping bag for the night. This was the test to see if it kept her warm during the night. Camped at over 9,000 feet above sea level--an elevation higher than she'd ever been before (outside of an airplane, of course)--it was going to get cold during the night. She also tried opening her bear canister but struggled to get it open. "Don't worry," I told her. "They're Amanda-proof too. If there's a present I have for Amanda, I hide them in the bear canister and I know Amanda can't get to it either." =)

Karolina went to sleep relatively early. She'd now been awake for about 48 hours and was exhausted. Amanda and I stayed up a bit later but eventually retired to our own tent for the night as well.

Karolina was very excited to be going into Yosemite National Park!
We didn't have time to see much of Yosemite, but were able to witness this sunset from a roadside pullout before getting to the campsite.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Day 1: The Day One Slackpack

Amanda and I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, so we could get on the road by 6:00 with the expectation of reaching the Happy Isles trailhead by 7:00 where I would begin my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.

This display at the parking lot suggests why you shouldn't leave food, trash and ice chests in your car while hiking. Put them in bear boxes by the trailhead!

I didn't actually get started with the hiking until closer to 8:00, though, delayed by a stop to get gas for the car, finding a parking spot in the already crowded lot, and a quick trip to the bathrooms to, er, lighten my load, as it were.

You might have a couple of questions about my first day on the trail. For instance.... didn't I say that my permit was only good from Tuolumne Meadows? Why am I starting at the Happy Isles trailhead? And what happened to Karolina?! Wasn't she supposed to be doing this trail as well? Well, yes.... and yes....

The distance from the Happy Isles trailhead to Tuolumne Meadows was 21.3 miles. It climbs from about 4,000 feet above sea level to a peak about 10,000 feet above sea level before dropping back down to 8,600 feet above sea level. But here's the thing: I can do it. I was certain I could do it. It would be a long haul, but I could hike the distance in a single day. Especially with a small day pack rather than my usual heavy pack. A week earlier I had pulled off 30-miles of hiking in a single day on the Great Allegheny Passage at an admittedly much lower altitude, but I was in good shape.

And although I didn't have any permits to camp along this stretch of the trail, no permits are needed to day-hike this section of trail. Almost nobody ever does it because it's such a lengthy section, but I could and was going to give it a go.

Karolina, however, would probably struggle to do such a distance in a single day, and this hike would involve altitudes higher than she'd ever been in her entire life. I asked her in an email what was the highest elevation she'd ever hiked at, and it was on the Tour Mont Blanc a couple of years earlier which I knew topped out somewhere just above 8,000 feet above sea level. This, keep in mind, for a girl living in the Netherlands at a location below sea level.

This bridge basically marks the beginning of the John Muir Trail at the Happy Isles trailhead.

It wasn't realistic or safe to throw her out for a 20+ mile hike at elevations she'd never experienced and with no time to acclimatize to the altitude. No, I'd be doing this stretch of trail on my own before she arrived.

Amanda would pick me up at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows later in the evening. Neither of our cell phones worked much outside of Yosemite Valley, so we both worked on the assumption that we wouldn't be able to rely on them to keep in touch. We'd have to wing it like in the old days before I had a cell phone.

Amanda joined me for the first part of the trail since it led to Vernal Falls which is well worth a visit in its own right. It's undoubtedly one of the most popular day-hikes in the park, and for good reason! The John Muir Trail veered off, however, and we soon parted ways. Amanda could spend the whole day exploring Yosemite Valley. She hadn't decided yet what all she would do, but she could do it at her own pace.

I knew the JMT veered off at the junction with the Mist Trail, but was immensely disappointed when I realized that Vernal Falls wouldn't be visible at all from the official JMT. How could it miss such a spectacular view?! I've been here a couple of times before, and I knew exactly what I was missing. Presumably, the official JMT veered off because horses can't navigate the Mist Trail and the JMT is largely a horse trail. That's the only reason I can think of for skipping Vernal Falls completely.

It didn't sit well with me, and I already started thinking about "tweaking" the route for Walking 4 Fun. I could have it go up the Mist Trail in front of Vernal Falls, then take a side path to Clark Point where I'd rejoin the JMT and continue along the trail towards Nevada Falls. That makes a much more scenic and interesting hike.

The wildlife is watching. The wildlife is always watching....

But I still had over 20 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. I didn't really have time to backtrack to do the Mist Trail right now. That's okay, though. When Karolina arrived, she wanted to see Yosemite Valley, and we could do a day hike to Vernal Falls and I could get the photos I needed along that section then. Perfect!

Despite the early start, I saw plenty of people on the trail already heading in both directions. I met a small group of people who were just finishing their JMT thru-hike having started at Mount Whitney and would finish today. I didn't bother to mention that I was just starting my own JMT thru-hike. With my small day pack, they probably wouldn't have taken me seriously. I congratulated them on their success, though, and we continued on our separate ways.

The trail climbed above Nevada Falls, which could be seen from quite a distance. Even from a distance, it looked spectacular with its 594-foot (181 m) drop, making it the 576th tallest waterfall in the world.

Nevada Falls is where most day hikers without any permits generally stop to turn around, but it wasn't quite the end of day hikers. No, because some day hikers climb up the world-famous Half Dome, and this is the same route to Half Dome. I've been up Half Dome twice in years past, and it would have made a nice side-trip for Walking 4 Fun, but I already had over 20 miles of hiking to knock out today. Not to mention that the first two times I hiked up Half Dome, permits weren't required. Now they are, and I didn't have one. Based on my previous experiences on Half Dome, I'm glad there is a permit system in place. That trail was severely overcrowded the times I did it before! Even if it meant I could no longer climb it myself....

The JMT comes within 2 miles of Half Dome's summit--close enough that I could see a line of people marching up the infamous cables like a line of ants.

Nearing the junction to Half Dome, a park ranger was sitting alongside the trail and said to me, "So you must be going up Half Dome!"

I knew why she would have guessed that. I was clearly a day hiker with my small pack, and what other reason would a day hiker be going beyond Nevada Falls except to summit Half Dome? And surely they would have rangers on this busy trail to check permits and help hikers that bit off more than they could chew.

"Actually, no," I told her. "I'm hiking to Tuolumne Meadows."

"Ooohh... that's a long way!"

"Yeah, I know!"

We chatted for a few minutes. She asked about the route I was taking, and I told her I was planning to stick to the JMT. I didn't mention that I was actually planning to thru-hike the JMT. If she assumed that Tuolumne Meadows was my final destination, I didn't see any reason to correct her. The JMT, she told me, had suffered from fire damage recently and I might consider an alternate path by Clouds Rest. I'd heard a lot of good things about Clouds Rest--a place I'd never visited before--but I didn't mind burn areas so much. They can be dark and ugly, but there's a lot of beauty that can be found in them. It opens up views, and wildflowers grow like weeds. Fire is an important and necessary element in these forests, not an accident that should be avoided. Of course, after years of suppression, many wildfires now burn much hotter and cause much more damage than wildfires of the past. The drought conditions California is suffering from didn't help matters.

So I continued on my original path towards the fire-burned areas.

The hump on the left is the backside of Half Dome. The middle hump is Mt. Broderick while the right hump is Liberty Cap.

As I expected, the views were wide open and wildflowers abounded in the area. I might be missing a great view at Clouds Rest, but I'd be missing the great views here if I had taken the alternate path. Someday, I'd have to return and hike up to Clouds Rest. Not today, though. Not this trip, in fact.

Once I passed the junction for Half Dome, I was in backpacker country. I'd see no more day hikers again until Cathedral Lakes, shortly before the Cathedral Lakes trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows. A few of the backpackers I met walking in the opposite direction were so certain that they were in "backpacker only country," they assumed I must have been a backpacker and were astonished at my tiny little day pack. "How did you get a tent and a sleeping bag in that?!" they'd exclaim.

"Well.... I didn't." They'd look at me with confusion, trying to figure out what I was using to sleep in during the night, still not realizing that I was merely day-hiking this section.

Once I passed into the 'backpacker zone,' the crowds had swiftly evaporated. The trail wasn't empty of people by any stretch, and I'd usually see someone every 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day.

There's not much to report about most of the day's hike, though. I passed through beautiful meadows and jaw-dropping views. The air was thin and dry, and the dryness was causing chapped lips and a constant state of thirstiness no amount of water seemed to help.

Liberty Cap with Nevada Falls

In the last hour of hiking, day hikers picked up again having hiked in from Tuolumne Meadows. When I pulled out my camera to film a spring bubbling out of the ground, I accidentally dropped my camera in the shallow water.

I grabbed the camera and pulled it out, cursing. The camera was still brand freaking new! Amanda had bought it for me while I was on the Great Allegheny Passage a week or two before. It had less than a hundred miles under its belt, and I just dropped it in a pool of water. Argh!

The water was so shallow, the camera had only submerged about half way--less than an inch. And even then, it was only in the water for a half second before I was able to grab it and fish it out. That half-inch, half-second dunk was all that was required to damage the camera, though.

The camera lens was fogged up, and I was scared to turn on the camera in fear of shorting out some circuits or something. I popped out the batteries and the SD card and reinstalled them on my backup camera. Good thing I always carried a backup camera--even on a day hike!

I continued down the trail, and about 15 minutes later saw a guy on the trail ahead of me who quickly motioned for me to stop and hush. "There's a bear!" he whispered urgently, pointing into the woods on my left. Really? Cool!

I looked in the trees to the left, and heard a heavy scratching sound but didn't see anything. I stepped ahead, slowly, and there it was. A bear! Sweet! It was pawing at a log, then lifted the entire log up like it was a play toy and threw it to the side. Crash! Sweet!

Nevada Falls

I tried taking a few photos with my camera, but the camera was severely inadequate for the task. It was already near dusk and the lighting was low. The bear was maybe 30 or 40 steps away--not far by any stretch, but it still looked like a small dot in my camera. I zoomed in as far as my camera could go which helped increase the size of the bear, but it also made the bear appear blurrier. There was no way I'd get a good photo of the bear without getting closer to it.

And there was no way in hell I planned to get off the trail and approach closer to the bear.

The other guy on the trail whispered if I could see the bear, and I nodded yes. He wasn't able to see it from his location, and quietly walked over to my viewpoint and snapped a few photos with this DSLR camera. Every time he clicked the shutter button, it sounded like a gun going off. It seemed so loud, but the bear paid it no mind. I didn't see how his photos turned out, but I had a hunch they'd be better than mine.

He whispered to me that there was a cub nearby too, although neither of us were able to see any cubs at the moment. I really wanted to see the cub! He'd seen the cub a few minutes before I arrived when they were closer to the trail. We kept watching the bear, who I had to imagine knew we were there. We weren't exactly loud, but we weren't exactly far away either and we figured the bear had to have heard our whisperings. He seemed content just to ignore us, though, which was an agreeable situation for both the bear and myself. He leaves me alone, and I'll leave him alone. =)

The bear must have decided that there was no other interesting grub under the log and soon headed deeper into the woods and out of view, and the other hiker and I headed off in opposite directions on our way.

I arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead about right on time. Being such a long distance, I didn't give Amanda an exact time of arrival, but rather a one-hour window when I thought I'd arrive and I arrived within that window. I arrived absolutely exhausted. No pain to speak of, but just immensely tired. I was so ready to be done for the day!

Amanda showed up about 10 minutes later and whisked me back to the campsite. My first day on the trail was officially done. Amanda told me about her adventures in Yosemite Valley and I had to laugh when she said how much she hated it. The crowds, and the traffic, and... "Now I know why you never wanted to take me here!" she said before, breathless. "But I'm still glad I finally got to see it. We never have to come back again, though. Been there, done that!"

Well, except that we would be going back in a couple of days because Karolina wanted that experience too. Women. *rolling eyes* Anyhow, I still wanted to go back to the Happy Isles trailhead myself to hike to Vernal Falls and tweak the route for Walking 4 Fun. We wouldn't be done with Yosemite Valley just yet.... We would return!

This would be the closest I'd get to Half Dome.
You can even see the line of "ants" marching up the infamous cables to the top of Half Dome.
Entering the fire-burned area
The charred trees might look ugly, but it opens up the ground to lots of wildflowers!
And it opens up views that would otherwise be completely obscured by trees!

Cathedral Peak is gorgeous!

This was the spring I was trying to film when I accidentally dropped my camera in the water.

It's a bear! It's a bear! This is the best my camera could do. *sigh*
I digitally zoomed into the photo so the bear is bigger, but it's also a lot blurrier!
The Cathedral Lakes trailhead marked the end of today's hike. And boy am I tired!